Sunday, August 04, 2013

Relativism and the Westboro Baptist Church



Moral relativism is often motivated by a desire to be tolerant. Yet, it can end up providing a justification for the most extreme forms of intolerance. 


If morality is in the eye of the beholder, then people who, say, condemn homosexuals and carry "God hates fags" signs to military funerals can't be criticized morally, since they are doing exactly what their culture (Westboro Baptist Church) says that they ought to do. 



18 comments:

Dan Gillson said...

I don't think that moral relativism provides a warrant for immoral actions, nor do they leave us powerless to criticize them. A relativist may suspend the truth or falsity of moral claims, but s/he may also be a species of moral relativist who uses his/her emotivism (or even another type of moral noncognitivism) as a launchpad for criticizing what s/he perceives to be an immoral act. S/he may also us his/her sentiments as a way of prejudging certain moral actions, assigning warrants only to those which s/he sees fit to have them. Thus, truth and falsity don't provide us with the only means for criticizing or judging immorality.

(Just to be clear: I'm not a moral relativist. I'd defend a virtue ethics version of robust moral realism.)

((Sorry for the triple post. I couldn't manage to get it all out in one go.))

Crude said...

Thus, truth and falsity don't provide us with the only means for criticizing or judging immorality.

Right, but doesn't this reduce 'judging' to 'we're just attacking what we personally dislike and defending what we personally like'?

Steve Lovell said...

I think Crude's question is an important one. Of course the relativist can continue to criticise those he disagrees with, the question is whether doing so is rationally consistent with his relativism.

I'm not sure either way on that. A set of moral commitments may be more or less coherent even interpreted through the lens of relativism or emotivism, and that may be enough for debate, discussion, and disagreement to have some rational purchase.

Of course this is still relativism, and multiple possible coherent systems may be available. If relativism is true, none of them is objectively superior to the others.

Are the views of the Westboro Baptist Church like that? It's hard to say, and probably the way to find out is to attempt discussion and dialog with them and even to try to understand their view "from the inside" to see if it makes sense. Plus one can attempt to test the stability of their views via emotional appeals in story form (films, novels, biographical stories).

My view is that while moral disagreement/difference would still be possible and some moral systems may be subject to rational rejection, not all will be, and that some of those that will pass any rational critique are nevertheless unacceptable.

I think the consistent relativist at this point should just say: yes, and those are the people we hope are in the minority and we'll form our legal, educational and other public systems to make their lives difficult and discourage others from taking the same stance.

It's not a view I find appealing, but it's certainly not as crazy as relativism is sometimes made out to be.

Any thoughts?

Crude said...

It's not a view I find appealing, but it's certainly not as crazy as relativism is sometimes made out to be.

Any thoughts?


Part of my problem is that, even given what you said, I'm having trouble seeing how this separates moral relativists from moral nihilists who sometimes have views in common with each other and cooperate.

Dan Gillson said...

Steve:

I agree: moral relativism isn't as crazy as it's made out to be. That's because moral relativism rarely exists without stipulations, provisos, etc. It's not the loosey-goosey, anything-goes sort of philosophy that religiously motivated, moral objectivists make it out to be.

I'd like to say more, but I'm much too tired to think of anything else. You wrote a cogent little commentary on moral relativism.

Ilíon said...

Nuancey-boy: "I agree: moral relativism isn't as crazy as it's made out to be. That's because moral relativism rarely exists without stipulations, provisos, etc. It's not the loosey-goosey, anything-goes sort of philosophy that religiously motivated, moral objectivists make it out to be."

Translation: moral relativism, as practiced, is self-contradictory and incoherent, THEREFORE those "religiously motivated" moral objectivists are wrong (and probably dogmatic! and bigots!) for "mak[ing] it out to be" a "crazy", "loosey-goosey, anything-goes sort of philosophy".

Ilíon said...

What good is "nuance" if it consistently prevents a man from thinking clearly/soundly?

Oh! that's right, the people who taut "nuance" frequently do so precisely because they do not wish to think clearly/soundly about the topic of which they claim more "nuance" is required.

Dan Gillson said...

Pray tell, how does 'real' moral relativism differ from its practical instantiations? Is Ilíon indulging again in his favorite logical fallacy, the fallacy of false equivalence?

Crude said...

That's because moral relativism rarely exists without stipulations, provisos, etc. It's not the loosey-goosey, anything-goes sort of philosophy that religiously motivated, moral objectivists make it out to be.

I'm not so sure of this. It seems like what's being said here is 'moral relativists can arbitrarily decide that certain things are beyond the pale, and in practice a lot of them do', which isn't much of an improvement.

Dan Gillson said...

Just so you know, Crude: I am not ignoring your comments, I am just too tired to give you a real response.

Crude said...

It's fine, Dan. Thank you for the heads up. If you prefer to not get into it altogether, I won't complain - just commenting as I see fit to do so.

Dan Gillson said...

Crude:

When I talk about moral relativism, what I have in mind is a more sophisticated moral epistemology than what we would find from some bloke on the streets. Your everyday, run-of-the-mill moral relativist would probably say that morals are merely preferences, but if you pressed him to think through it a little bit, he'd probably end up saying that certain moral ideas are derived from something else, probably some sort of noncognitive fact, like an 'intuition' or 'emotion'. (I'm not exactly guessing about what one would say when pressed--I have pressed people into admitting that at least some of their morals are derived from something else--but I'm regularly surprised what people actually think.) While he might justify taking home a different nurse every weekend by saying that it is his moral preference to do so (that example is pulled from a real life conversation I had with a coworker), he probably wouldn't give the same reason for why he doesn't kill other people indiscriminately. Not killing someone, he might say, comes from a deeper place in the human mind. It's when the moral epistemology of relativism is knowingly based on that 'deeper place' that it becomes an interesting and worthwhile position to defend from people who use the term 'moral relativism' to monger fear among the ignorant.

Crude said...

Dan,

Your everyday, run-of-the-mill moral relativist would probably say that morals are merely preferences, but if you pressed him to think through it a little bit, he'd probably end up saying that certain moral ideas are derived from something else, probably some sort of noncognitive fact, like an 'intuition' or 'emotion'.

I don't see how the latter contradicts the former. It's still 'I have this preference.' If they cash it out as 'intuition' or 'emotion', either the intuition/emotion is leading to something objective (in which case, there goes the relativism after all) or that is the end of the trail, which is just preference by another name.

Not killing someone, he might say, comes from a deeper place in the human mind.

Sure, but what is this picking out for the moral relativist? Maybe the deeper place in the human mind is 'You know, I sure don't want to get anally raped in a federal prison'. Maybe it's "I'm squeamish". Or maybe it's a contact with an objective moral law, or something else.

It's when the moral epistemology of relativism is knowingly based on that 'deeper place' that it becomes an interesting and worthwhile position to defend from people who use the term 'moral relativism' to monger fear among the ignorant.

I'm not so sure. I mean, maybe it becomes more /heartfelt/ or more dramatic, but it also seems to no longer be a defense of moral relativism. Instead it's a defense of 'I personally feel really strongly that this is wrong'.

As for fearmongering among the ignorant, what's the fear being mongered? A claim that people are able to justify and acclimate themselves to some tremendously nasty and (for the moment, anyway) morally offensive situations, particularly when aided by a loose philosophical approach to such things?

Captcha is 20 baseho. I guess there's a joke there about moral relativist soldiers stationed in Okinawa or such.

Dan Gillson said...

Crude,

1. Preferences aren't cashed out as intuitions, they are derived from them. What's basic is the noncognitive fact, what's derivative is the moral preference.

2. It's funny that you're assuming that our hypothetical moral relativist would kill someone if some other cognitive reason didn't obtain. Why assume that his reasons are so different than yours or mine?

3. I'm defending a finer-grained version of moral relativism because I feel like there is something right about it. Personally, I believe that the truth-conditions of ethical claims are objective, but what I want to salvage from moral relativism is the idea that there is relativity at the level of the justification-conditions of ethical claims.

Crude said...

Dan,

1. Preferences aren't cashed out as intuitions, they are derived from them. What's basic is the noncognitive fact, what's derivative is the moral preference.

I think this is a tricky handling of 'intuition' here. It seems like intuition and preference is being treated as one and the same. But alright, I'll think about that.

2. It's funny that you're assuming that our hypothetical moral relativist would kill someone if some other cognitive reason didn't obtain. Why assume that his reasons are so different than yours or mine?

Because he's hypothetical, and that means he's potentially many different people. Some people really do just like to kill others. And not just John Wayne Gacy style serial killers, but pretty run of the mill 'That person angered me' / 'That person is in my way' style killing.

I mean, you're not going to deny these people are out there, right?

I'm defending a finer-grained version of moral relativism because I feel like there is something right about it. Personally, I believe that the truth-conditions of ethical claims are objective, but what I want to salvage from moral relativism is the idea that there is relativity at the level of the justification-conditions of ethical claims.

Personally, I think what's seems right about moral relativism tends to have to do with limit cases ('It's hard to tell which one is THE right answer in this situation, so perhaps multiple answers are right. And if multiple answers are right in the limit case, maybe the areas that seem obvious aren't after all.') Plus I think there's a certain allure to it in terms of appearance. (I notice there's a number of self-proclaimed moral relativists willing to go to bat for cannibalism or infanticide and who insist that we shouldn't be closed-minded and regard these things as having clear-cut answers, but if the topic is gay marriage or abortion, well some answers are just obvious thank-you-very-much.)

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Crude,

Sorry for the delay. I've been trying to spend less time on the PC at home, and lunch hour at work doesn't always happen.

As to the difference between relativism and nihilism, I guess that it's mostly a difference in the associated spin. A pessimistic or rebellious relativisst will be a nihilist, while one that thinks that at a pragmatic level there's lots of agreement to be found and some sensible things we can do at a policy level will resist that label.

Another way to distinguish the two might be that the relativist is one who tries to preserve our moral practices and gives a relativistic account of them, while a nihilist thinks that if we can only give a relativist account then that isn't enough to preverse our moral practices.

The (a) moral nihilist, (b) moral relativist, (c) moral realist distinction is perhaps analogous to the (a) atheist, (b) extreme liberal theologian, (c) theist distinction.

(a) shares his metaphysics with (b). (b) preserves the appearances of (c) by reinterpreting the claims in question. (a) and (c) agree what the phenomenon in question would be but disagree as to it's reality.

Does that help?

Crude said...

Steve,

Well, the problem I have here is that I still am walking away with the view that - at bottom - the nihilist and the moral relativist are intellectual equivalent, but superficially different.

How do I tell the difference between a nihilist who's willing to work with others to achieve his goals, and the moral relativist? It seems like, again, there is no difference.

I suppose there's a joke there. "What do you call a nihilist who doesn't act like a jerk? A moral relativist."

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Crude,

I think I agree.

For the most part the nihilist and relativist share the same (lack of) metaphysic, it's the way they describe their views that differs, not the core of the view itself ... at least when the nihilist is happy to adopt an element of pragmatism and his personal values are not too extreme (as the non-relativists would describe it).