Sunday, February 12, 2012

Relativism and moral noncontroversies

When we ask whether morals are relative, we often look at very difficult issues like abortion and say that there is a good deal to be said on both sides of the issue, and that it is hard to say what is really right or wrong. (Unless you are talking to a dyed in the wool pro-lifer. Then abortion is wrong because it's murder, and everyone who thinks otherwise is just wicked).  What is actually problematic for relativists are not the highly controversial issues that we argue about all day long, but rather the issues that look to us as if they are pretty cut and dried. For example, if relativism is true, then it is only relatively wrong to invite someone over for dinner, shove them in the oven, and cook them as dinner. If a society approved of pedophilia, or slavery, or something like that, then it is a mistake to condemn that society as having accepted a bad moral principle, however one may personally dislike that rule oneself. 


Matt said...

But if you believe in moral absolutes does it make sense to test your theories against your intuitions which are a byproduct of society and evolution? That's one thing I'll never understand about discussing ethics. It seems that intuitions always reign supreme no matter what the supposed theory is.

Mark Frank said...

"only relatively wrong"

The use of the word "only" here is subtle but misleading. Subjective does not mean trivial.

Steve Lovell said...

That's a nice piece of writing, Mark. I agree that lots of objectivists treat relativism the way you suggest and that there are much more nuanced relativisms which avoid the sorts of objection that such objectivists offer.

That said, I still doubt that relativism will get us everything we want from our moral theories. I don't have time to put these doubts into a comment now ... but hopefully others will pick this up and we'll get some interesting discussion.

Payton said...

But of course, even these moral controversies are evidence at least in favor of the notion that most people are moral realists. After all, there's no point calling foul on an opposing team's player if there's no agreement as to the rules of football. When one person says chocolate ice cream is delicious, and another that vanilla ice cream is delicious, they are not disagreeing. Moral controversies tend to be actual disagreements though.

The fact that some Inuit cultures allow infanticide in times of scarcity, and that this offends the British, is not evidence of morality being relative to cultures. The Inuits would not do it if they did not think it was justified, and neither would the British object. But as it stands, there is hardly any disagreement anywhere about what good and evil are, but only about what evils are acceptable.

B. Prokop said...

Seems to me that St. Paul dealt with this issue when he discussed the controversy over eating meat sacrificed to idols (First Corinthians, Chapter 8). There he acknowledged that different people's consciences might lead them to different actions, but insisted that the fundamentals underlying those differing actions were one and the same. (At least, that's how I interpret his argument.)

So today (since we're no longer seriously worried about sacrificing meat to idols), two people may, guided by identical, non-relative values, find themselves acting in quite different manners.

So perhaps the solution is that morality is absolute but our interpretation of it is relative? Just speculating aloud here...

(This argument, by the way, does not apply to Ilion, who still openly subscribes to Hell's Governing Constitution, and has yet to repent from the error of his ways.)

Boz said...

This looks like an implied Appeal to Emotion (Wishful thinking) fallacy.

Steve Lovell said...


You're quite right. To say that ethics is "situational" is not to say that it's relative. Apply your non-relative norms in different situations and you may get different imperatives.

That said, I think most Christians would say that ethics is not "entirely situational"; there are some (substantive) things which are right or wrong regardless of the situation.

Boz, what is the "this" to which you refer? It isn't clear whether you are reacting to the OP or one of the comments, or if a comment, which one.

Steve Lovell said...


I've a little more time now, so ...

If I understand your brief article, the reason that moral discussion works as though we are realists may not be that we are trying to get our beliefs to fit the world, but that we are trying to get other peoples actions to fit our beliefs (or preferences). We try to persuade someone that something is right or wrong because we are trying to persuade them to do, or refrain from doing, that thing and we have some sort of stake in the matter.

All that is no doubt true in so far as it goes. But does it go far enough? Sometimes we engage in moral thinking not to persuade but to discover. If I'm not sure what I should do in a particular circumstance, then what am I doing when I consider the arguments on both sides? I'm certainly not trying to persuade anyone else.

I've heard it said that in that case we are trying to make sure that we could rationally defend our actions were we called upon to do so. Again, I'm happy to admit that this is often part of our (im-/a-)moral motivation ... but to suppose that this is what the inner dialog is really all about doesn't seem to capture the experience of moral thinking. Now perhaps the experience is misleading, but to admit that would be to weaken the case for relativism at least a little.

Other questions come from the nature of moral discussion. Extreme pragmatists have sometimes said that "the truth is what your peers will let you get away with saying" ... and I think the account you suggest is uncomfortably close to that assertion. Not all peers are the same. Not everyone puts a high premium on reason or coherence. The strong amongst our peers may get away with asserting different things. And if the social mores change sufficiently, then what our peers let us get away with may change radically. The interesting question, of course, is whether it is coherent to say that this change might be "for the better" or "for the worse". In such a change of the social mores might something have been gained or lost?

To assume so is, I think, to open the door back to objective ethics.

Mark Frank said...


Thanks for your response. First can I confirm that you accept my most important point - that a judgement can be subjective and yet of the greatest importance to all concerned and subject to reasoning and argument. I hope my little example demonstrates that.

You make two points:

1) Sometimes we engage in moral thinking to discover not persuade. This is true and it follows from the fact that our (subjective) assessment is influenced by many factors. One of the film producers in in my example might ponder for some time as to whether a film is really funny. Subjective does not mean obvious either!

2) I find the second point a bit hard to understand. People may well win subjective arguments by force of character rather than reason. They may win objetive argumetns that way as well! If there is a change in what is considered morally right (either for this reason or any other) then the new views will very likely be considered wrong by those with the old views and vice versa. That is what subjectivism entails. And both will probably try to persuade the other they are wrong. And the debate will not be trivial or without reasons. Which brings us in a circle.

Mark Frank said...

Also I noticed a few typos in my small essay and in the process of updating it the link changed. If you should happen to want to look at it again it is probably safest to go to:

And then select it.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Mark,

I think we mostly agreeing with one another.

On reasoning without persuading (my point 1), I'm just not sure what, on your account, the reasoner is trying to do. You write "One of the film producers in in my example might ponder for some time as to whether a film is really funny." But what does this "really funny" mean if you don't cache it out objectively? Are they trying to discover something? About themselves or the way the world is?

On my second point, I agree that the two imagined cultures will both disapprove of one another. The question is whether that's all we want to say, or whether we want to say that one of these cultures might be nearer the truth than the other. I think at this stage the more nuanced relativism ultimately has the same consequence as the less nuanced versions and we can reject both for the same reason.

Steven Carr said...

'For example, if relativism is true, then it is only relatively wrong to invite someone over for dinner, shove them in the oven, and cook them as dinner'

Similarly if one language is not absolutely better than another then xreb flwe bringi youp and nobody can say that that is more fluxious than it should be.

Robert Oerter said...

With laws, we have no problem with relativism. It is legal to buy marijuana in the Netherlands (I think), but illegal in the US. Is there any sense in which buying marijuana is "really legal/illegal"? Of course not.

So why is there a problem with moral relativism?

B. Prokop said...

Laws are man made constructs based on moral absolutes. The application may be different, but the underlying principles are one and the same. In many cases, the application may be (and all too often is) in error.

If that were not so, we (the victorious allies) would have allowed the "I was only following orders" to stand at Nuremberg.

If there were no problem with moral relativism, then there would have been no justification for the removal of Jim Crow laws in the 60's.

Unless you're willing to say that racial discrimination and war crimes are all right with you, then you do indeed have a problem with moral relativism.

Robert Oerter said...


"Unless you're willing to say that racial discrimination and war crimes are all right with you, then you do indeed have a problem with moral relativism."

You seem to be missing the "relativism" part of moral relativism. I DO have a problem with racial discrimination: it is wrong relative to my moral values. Many people in the South did not have a problem with it: it was not wrong relative to their moral values.

B. Prokop said...


What I guess I didn't make clear then was, if your view is "relative", then you would have no business trying to change an unjust law, because the only grounds you would have for so doing would be personal opinion. And why should you try and force your views on someone else (say, someone who believed it was OK to discriminate)?

Read my last posting again. It's precisely because I wasn't missing the "relativism" part that I wrote what I did. If you accept relativism, you can never call anyone's actions wrong (even your own). And you can never have just cause for disagreeing with any law.

Robert Oerter said...

"If you accept relativism, you can never call anyone's actions wrong (even your own)."

The main argument that is always brought against relativism is "You can't say X is wrong." But this is clearly false: I just did say X is wrong (in my previous post).

In fact, it seems much more possible to defend the statement "X is wrong according to standard Y" than to defend a free-floating, absolute, "X is just wrong." The absolute stance has, as far as I can see, no rational basis. All you can do is keep repeating "It's wrong!" in increasingly shrill tones.

B. Prokop said...

No shrillness from me. Methinks I detect a bit of "projection" there.

Robert Oerter said...

Sorry, I meant the generic "you", not you personally. I'm thinking of the shrillness apparent in many contemporary moral controversies: abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.

B. Prokop said...

Agreed. Lots of shrillness there.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic, There's some genetic evidence that all modern day humans had CANNIBALISTIC ANCESTORS. "In the domain of genetics, there is some evidence of natural selection on genetic loci which imply widespread prion diseases in the past. Diseases which are often the outcomes of cannibalism."

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic, Philosophy has to take note of nature and biology. And nature and biology are messy, complicated.

Can philosophy prove anything purely by itself? Can it make the world "safe" from the messiness of nature and biology? Can Christian philosophizing make people more secure in reality?

Christian philoospher: "I have proved that evil is evil! And that murdering someone for no good reason is evil, because that's my definition of what evil is."

Philosophy consists of just that sort of circular reasoning.

But naturalists and biologists ask other types of questions. They ask about human psychology, motivation, genetics, sociological and cultural influences. They don't seek such knowledge in order to pronounce grand circular philosophical judgments. They seek it to understand nature, biology, neurology, humanity, themselves.

Seeking understanding is a step up from seeking a meal of human flesh. The same is true of the first man who threw a foul word at the opposition rather than a stone. Humans have aggressive impulses, and suffer hunger. We still do, but anyone who has studied the development of civilization from the taming of fire to the dawn of the wheel and agriculture and writing, knows what can come about once those impulses are channeled in less physically brutal directions. And the vast majority of us would agree with that assessment of benefits, including having police and court systems, movies and popcorn, and vitamins, etc. Most people like have other human around to talk to, share things with, we're a social species, not hermits, and like being liked and hate being hated. If we were female spiders we're eat our mates, but we're not. If we were hermaphroditic sea slugs we'd have penis duals to see who could impregnate whom with acid-eating sperm that dissolves a third of the other slug's body and forces it to beat the extra cost of being the young. But we're not. We're large brain mammals like dolphins and great apes and elephants, and find the minds of other of our kind most interesting and entertaining, and not just for eating, but for much more than just that. Though if our aggressive impulses become inflamed by propaganda or magnified fears of threats (true or imaginary) we can still show our teeth, our pointy incisors, and kill our fellow human beings. Humans are not perfectly tame animals. Even meek lambs grow up to become rams and butt heads with cars. Even Christians have persecuted and murdered others en masse. Mass movements themselves can be dangerous. That's what studying nature and biology teaches us. What exactly does philosophy teach us? Would the world be better off or about the same with philosophers in government? If they were Christian philosophers and Muslim philosophers in power in rival nations I don't think civilization would necessarily be better off.