That's Just, Like, Your Opinion Man

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Via Yglesias, I see that philosopher David Velleman has a nice, thorough post up about one of my pet peeves: The inapt (and inept) use of the term "moral relativism" to tar decidedly non-relativist moral positions with which one disagrees. As an anthropological addendum, I'll assume that the prevalence of this mistake is partly just the result of some people's desire to broadcast the fact that they took one ethics class (inattentively) back in college, but also in part a response to the colloquial use of phrases like: "Well, whatever's right for that person" to express a tolerant view toward different sexual practices, literary preferences, parenting styles, or what have you. I assume that people who use the phrase don't intend to commit themselves to (as Velleman notes) an extremely unpopular proposition about the agent-relative status of moral statements, but rather a familar liberal proposition—of universal scope—to the effect that behaviors of a certain class are morally unobjectionable provided the persons involved undertake them voluntarily.

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  1. If you take lots of ethics classes in college you find that, in the end, it’s ALL relative.

  2. Far out, man. The Dude abides…

  3. I’m with Nietzsche on this subject.

    Live free, fight or fall.

  4. You’ve got your morals, and I’ve got mine.

  5. I’m not sure that in standard use, most people are comfortable with a distinction between relativism as described by Velleman and situational ethics as described by Velleman (under absolutism). My feeling is that most people use these terms interchangably.

    I also would like to see in one of these anti anti relativism posts a clear treatment of the evolution of an ethical concept. This is really what the religious folks seem to be complaining about. You have a situational ethic that becomes more permissive over time. The argument of many of these folks is that absent authoritarianism in moral thinking, the tendency for ethics to evolve makes them in some sense ‘relative’.

  6. What I think it boils down to is religious leaders stomping their feet, making faces, and yelling, “Damn it, you’re not LISTENING TO ME!”

  7. There is absolute truth, but no human is intelligent or powerful enough to discern it. We are left with models that only approximate truth. Scientific models are about the best we can do, as they can be tested. “Philosophical” (a priori) models are of little use IMO.

  8. TRB,

    Not to be a smart-ass, because I agree with you — OK, I’ll be a smart-ass –, but did you just make an “a priori” observation about “a priori” observation (“IMO”)?

  9. I have to agree with Ayn Rand’s definition of morallity: long-term rational self-interest. If nothing else, it’s simple and practical.

    E.g., I would not hesitate to aid a thug in his determination to take my wallet when he has a gun pointed at my head, even though aiding thugs would be ordinarilly immoral.

    E.g. I would not hesitate to squeeze a kidnapper’s balls until they busted to make him tell me where my child was. I would be fanatically, absolutly, intolerantly, and authoritavely sure that doing so is morally sound.

    Rand’s grounded definition of morality seems to avoid the relativism mess.

  10. Jason-
    Well, look, almost EVERYONE is a “situational ethicist” on SOME description: It’s OK to have sex withsomeone if they’ve consented, not if they haven’t. It’s wrong to punch someone in most circumstances, but if you’re defending yourself against an attempted robbery, it’s OK. What people actually disagree about is what are the relevant situations. Whether or not the distinction is recognized in ordinary conversation, there’s a world of difference saying “it’s wrong for everybody to do X, except under circumstances Y and Z” and saying “X is wrong if a member of culture A does it, and right if a member of culture B does it.” Put another way, I guess you could say we ALL think ethics are “relative” to SOMETHING, but what’s relevant in the philosopher’s sense of “moral relativism” is whether the “something” includes what culture (or other identity group) you’re a member of.

    But that formulation’s probably unnecessarily confusing. Here’s a general distinction. A situational ethicist (which, as I argue, means just about everyone, for SOME situations) will agree there are universally true moral propositions which happen to contain some situation-sensitive conditionals (for all persons, if X obtains, Y is permissible, otherwise it’s wrong). The genuine relativist will deny that there are any such universal propositions, but assert instead that the truth of such statements will vary depending upon who utters them.

  11. SPD,

    Good point.

    I considered that, but I figured that the fact that the universe isn’t just a random mess, but actually is ordered to some extent, makes it pretty obvious that there are some absolute laws of the universe. So, my observation is based upon my observations of the universe, thus, it’s not exactly a priori (but it’s not exactly from a controlled experiment either).

  12. Julian,

    When you refer to a culture or group you are changing the subject from morallity to politics. A group can assert moral conventions by any number of means, include a vote, but only an individual can possess morallity.

    Best regards.

  13. Julian:

    “Put another way, I guess you could say we ALL think ethics are “relative” to SOMETHING, but what’s relevant in the philosopher’s sense of “moral relativism” is whether the “something” includes what culture (or other identity group) you’re a member of.”

    I think the criticism of relativism from religious camps is mostly based on changes in permissivity over time. Ethics are perceived to be relative to ‘the times’. Most people do not use relativism in the philosophers sense, so while I agree with everything being said, I don’t think that once you sit a religious type down and explain it that THEY would feel you had addressed their questions. It smells like semantics from a certain perspective.

    All this is based on my own interactions with significantly religious people. Religion is authoritarianism, and those guys are very comfortable with that. The feeling seems to be that if you abandon authoritarianism as the basis of ethics, you are unanchored. I think it is this sense of being unanchored that the Pope is talking about.

    Come to think of it, this may be fairly similar to the discussion the other day about strict constructionist views of the constitution. It may well be that the tendency to see things that way generates a lot of religious constructionists.

  14. The main absolute laws of the universe is that everything decays eventually.

    I’ve never been able to find any proof that the universe as a whole gives a rat’s ass about human existence.

    Humanism should be our goal, because if we don’t care about ourselves, nothing else is going to.

  15. Jason-
    Well, that’s sort of a weird view. I don’t think liberals generally claim that, say, homosexual relationships WERE wrong in the past, but now that times have changed and people are more tolerant, they’re no longer wrong. They’d say people used to mistakenly regard such relationships as wrong, but in fact they weren’t, and it’s only recently that large numbers of people have come to recognize that fact. That’s not relativism-to-the-times, it’s an argument between two different views about what is (and always was) absolutely right or wrong: The view most people used to hold, or the view liberals now hold.

  16. I’ve never been able to find any proof that the universe as a whole gives a rat’s ass about human existence.

    I think that the universe is trying to destroy us.

    Humanism should be our goal, because if we don’t care about ourselves, nothing else is going to.

    I care about some humans, but couldn’t give a fuck about the rest. IMO, about one in three people are just plain evil. I’d like to see them all die. The deaths of 2+ billion people might sound terrible, but really, if they are all evil*, the rest of us would be much better off.

    *Evil: Willing to harm others for one’s own benefit. E.g., murdering a child for (any amount of) money qualifies one as evil in my book.
    Would you murder a child for $2 million, $2 billion, or even $2 trillion? If so, you are evil.

  17. “That’s not relativism-to-the-times, it’s an agreement between two different views about what is (and always was) absolutely right or wrong: The view most people used to hold, or the view liberals now hold.”

    I can’t repeat enough that I’m not arguing my own beliefs here, especially on this issue, but here goes my best shot – hopefully without mockery:

    Liberals in large numbers used to believe that homosexuality was wrong because liberals in large numbers read that it was wrong in the Good Book. Liberals have abandoned that fixed moral position in favor of one that is based on what ‘feels’ right. You say that liberals now assert that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality and there never has been. I say, liberals have adopted a post hoc method of justification that floats in the wind.

    What liberals are REALLY doing is noting that large numbers of people feel a certain way, then putting a rubber stamp on popular sentiment. The danger is in adopting some sort of hand wavy methodolgy for determining ethical behavior. Such a basis for ethics can’t make a stand against popular will.

    Further, you have the problem of having arbirtrarily chosen which of God’s words to discount, while keeping the ones you like. I have yet to see a consistently applied basis for keeping some and throwing out others. I’m saying that they are all ethically sound because they all came from God. What are you saying?

    Man, I don’t recommend this exercise. I find it depressing …

  18. TRB,

    A typical moralist comeback to your categorization might be, “What if you knew that child would grow up to be Hitler?” Which completely discounts, of course, that one child already has. And that to kill a child that grows up to be a child-killer makes you a child-killer. Which, I guess, means someone should have killed you as a child. I need to sit down.

    Furthermore, as Al-Qaida and other religious extremists have demonstrated over the course of millenia, some people are happily willing to kill children for little or no monetary compensation.

    To sum up Marx in the words of Rick James (and really, who hasn’t tried to yet?), “[Religion] is a hell of a drug.”

  19. It is at this point that I invoke Samuel Clemens:

    Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.

    Divining the will of god is a fools errand when it comes to morality. Mankind is never so happy as when it’s forcing its fellow human to obey gods will.

  20. It seems that the then-Cardinal Ratzinger does not realize that Christian morality is relativist/subjectivist. I will lump the two together because they both deny that there are objective moral facts and they both affirm that some ethical sentences are true (they simply differ with respect to truth conditions).

    If God determines what is right/good, does it make sense to argue that such properties/qualities, etc. are “out there” in the world and whose truth conditions are not affected by some mind like God’s? Sounds like subjectivism or relativism to me with a ring of universality.

    It seems that we can have universal principles and still have subjectivism (though I think relativism/subjectivism suffer major drawbacks). This was Hume’s argument for beauty in “Of the Standard of Taste”, if I’m not mistaken.

  21. I’m particularly annoyed by theists who automatically dismiss any philosophy that precludes (or even simply doesn’t require) an Absolute Supreme Arbiter as “relativist.” Given the way religious folk like to play fast and loose with their Holy Scriptures to satisfy their opinions of the moment, well, it’s all, what’s the word…ah yes: Bullshit.

    Or prehaps you’d prefer the Sartre interpretation: Merde…

  22. SPD,

    True, but I didn’t say that people should kill one-third of the world’s pop. I was simply expressing a wish, which, of course, will never come true. Also, I said “for any amount of money,” which includes none at all.

  23. Would you murder a child for $2 million, $2 billion, or even $2 trillion? If so, you are evil.

    I would, but only if it were a really evil child.

  24. mobile,

    You found a loophole. It would be okay to murder Damian the antichrist (if such a thing actually existed).

  25. Any child with a $2trillion price tag on his head must be evil.

    So I’d kill him for free.

  26. who would be a good example of a genuine moral relativist?

  27. “…who would be a good example of a genuine moral relativist?”

    Jerry Falwell. Everything bad becomes good if committed by a chief executive with an R next to his name.

  28. I don’t mean to sound dense…but in the midst of all the screams of “moral relativism”, I’ve yet to hear an example of just what the “experts” consider to be M.R.

    I hear “abortion” bandied about along with “homosexuality”…

    But if you don’t consider non-coerced abortion to be murder and you don’t consider consensual adult homosexuality to be wrong – under ANY circumstances – wouldn’t that make you an absolutist rather than a relativist?

  29. Along the lines of what Julian said, moral relativism is the view that the truth or falsity of ethical statements depends in some part on someone’s (an individual’s, society’s, more arguably God’s) perspective. Moral objectivism (note the small o, nothing to do with Rand) is the view that the truth or falsity of ethical statements is perspective-independent, just like most non-ethical statements (e.g. the truth or falsity of the statement “The earth revolves around the sun” is independent of anyone’s perspective).

  30. “But if you don’t consider non-coerced abortion to be murder and you don’t consider consensual adult homosexuality to be wrong – under ANY circumstances – wouldn’t that make you an absolutist rather than a relativist?”

    Madpad, most traditionalists/social-conservative types base their morality primarily on the negative; IOW, their moral structure is highly dependent on defining that which is wrong. It is exclusionary, subtractive in nature, and by doing so, it provides people with a way to define themselves and their particular actions/beliefs as the “one right way”. It’s much easier to start off with “my way is the right way”, and thus, cast judgment on anyone who doesn’t live your way, than it is to define (or at the very least, accept) the many ways to live morally (IOW, additive morality).

    From this perspective, it is not hard to see why someone whose morality is more permissive than theirs (or, contrasts with theirs and thus is perceived as more permissive, even if it is not) is cast as a “relativist”. Since their moral structure is grounded in exclusionism, that which permits something that they exclude is thus seen as lacking morality—even though it may not be, and instead, is simply inclusionary/additive.

  31. One of my pet peeves is the expression “pet peeves.” For some reason it brings up images of both Fred Flintstone and Spiro Agnew at the same time whenever I hear it. Which is certainly objectionable, no matter how you look at it.

  32. Render unto The Church that which is The Church’s and unto God that which is God’s.”

  33. Thanks, Evan. Well stated.

    Reminds me of Joseph Campbell (another scion of conservative religious dogma – NOT!) who pointed out the “Us Vs. Them” logic of ancient Hebrews.

    Chapter 1: Though shalt not kill
    Chapter 2: Go into the land of Canaan and kill everyone in site.

    Conservative Christians with a Levitican zeal haven’t gotten much better over the past 4,000 years.

  34. Douglas Fletcher,

    Hmm, sounds like a suitable case for psychoanalysis.

  35. There are only a few ways to deal with morality:

    1) Appropriate behavior is that which an authority tells you is appropriate.

    2) The gut check. There is an innate morality that we can all get in touch with if we try. Immoral action requires that we ignore the little voice in the back of our heads.

    3) What if everybody did it? That which is good action is that which would produce positive results if everyone did it.

    4) Utilitarianism.

    Authoritarianism has the advantage of being the easiest to grapple with at the level most people want to directly engage their morality. The others are not especially helpful.

    I used to think I was a Kantian, until I noticed that the categorical imperative almost never tells you anything useful. I have to define the exact situation and then say that all instances of that precise situation should be morally handled in a specified way. Problem is, the level of specificity makes that kind of analyis almost pointless. I also find that significant moral crises don’t seem addressable by all of the models.

    Aliens will destroy the Earth unless you give them one child who will endure infinite torment of indeterminate duration. Utilitarianism says give them the kid. Kant says give them the kid. Gut check, not so certain.

    Same scenario, cut the casualties. They will only wipe out France. What do the models say? If you change your mind, are you a moral relativist?

    Same scenario, but there are only 5 casualties, all related to you.

    And so on. I am skeptical of the entire enterprise of ethics, but I can definitely see the appeal of simplicity – even if it is illusory.

  36. Quick quibble with Jason’s logic – utilitarianism would tell you to let the aliens destroy the world. How? If the world is not destroyed, a finite but indeterminate number of people will gain on average a finite but indeterminate amount of value. (I’m assuming away any potential Buddhas of Infinite Joy being born, and I’m assuming we can come up with a cardinal measure of utility which can be summed across population.) If the world is destroyed, everyone gets zero.

    The kid gets zero value if the world is destroyed, but negative infinity if it isn’t (‘infinite torment’ – it doesn’t matter how long it is so long as it isn’t infinitesimal – will trump any other possible value the kid gets from living with the aliens in the summation of his life, unless he himself is a Buddha of Infinite Joy.

    The sum of social welfare of letting the world be destroyed is zero(neglecting the alien’s welfare). The sum of social welfare of turning over the kid is finite*finite minus infinity which is negative infinity.

    Thus, the social welfare is higher if the world is destroyed. The calculation changes to indeterminate if you make his suffering finite – it then depends on your estimate of his suffering vs. others’ value in living.

    From my perspective – utilitarianism says don’t give ’em the kid. Kant says give them the kid.

    My gut check says give ’em the kid, already. His torment plus my future suffering conscience is still less than the sum of everyone else – my gut can’t comprehend or evaluate infinite torment, even if my brain can run the math.

    That doesn’t mean Kant is right and utilitarianism is wrong, that just means utilitarianism, like any other “mathematical” system, can do wacky stuff when infinities are invoked. So long as you assume all utilities are finite, you are ok.

    “Authority” in this case could easily mean asking the aliens their preference. Assumably, given the choice they gave, they want the kid, since that stays their hand. (If they prefer, or even want, to destroy the world, they could welch after getting the kid – my gut is betting that there is a non-zero chance that, given they have the kid, the aliens really don’t care about the world either way, or they slightly value it as a possible source of future kids. As I said, it doesn’t process infinites as such.)

    This is just the sacrifice virgins to the sea monster scenario, updated for the sci-fi era. Most societies go ahead and sacrifice the virgins, at least in myth – it takes the Hero who can defeat the sea monster/aliens to end the reign of terror.

  37. Chapter 1: Though shalt not kill

    Chapter 2: Go into the land of Canaan and kill everyone in site.

    The commandment is “Thou shalt not murder”, not “thou shalt not kill”. Killing was allowed in war and as punishment for various crimes.

  38. Dan,

    You’re correct on the specifics but the irony for Campbell was the “Us vs. Them” nature of the commandment.

    I merely used it to comment on Even’s statements about the Right as “exclusionists.” The Right tends to get a little “old testament” in it’s sanctimony.

    For me it seemed amusing.

  39. The premise of the original post is right, but not entirely.

    The liberal homily I assume he refers to is “there’s no accounting for taste.” This by itself is not moral relativism, merely aesthetic relativism. But it’s hard for someone who views issues such as lifestyle choice as inherently moral issues to accept that a person for whom that isn’t true isn’t a moral relativist.

    And when you come right down to it, all moral issues are merely matters of taste. But I’d argue that the liberal homily doesn’t apply to them because your moral stance determines whether, and how far, other people can trust you.

    I feel sorry for anyone who can’t believe in the existence of moral rules without “God” to make them. That’s like being unable to believe that man can make flying machines. Moral choices are choices made by individual human beings, and at some point you have to be grown-up enough to accept responsibility for the ones you make.

  40. [who would be a good example of a genuine moral relativist?]

    Who was it that defied religious law to gather grain on the Sabbath and feed his followers?

    Who was it that defied religious law to heal the sick on the Sabbath?

    Who was it that defied religious law to forgive the woman caught in adultry?

    Who was it that defied religious law…etc.

    Who was it that the religious leaders of the day pestered with all kinds of morally absolute questions, which were unfailingly answered in relativist terms?

    Who was it who was ultimately given over to be crucified by the religious leaders he defied?

    Who was it who staged the greatist “up yours” in history to the religious leaders of the day by defying even the moral absolutism of execution?

    One more hint. He’s Benedict’s boss.

  41. You’re correct on the specifics but the irony for Campbell was the “Us vs. Them” nature of the commandment.

    It wasn’t “us vs. them”. It was about what was allowable for individuals vs. what was allowable for society as a whole. Murder of non-Hebrews was forbidden, too.

    The Right tends to get a little “old testament” in it’s sanctimony.

    Yeah, and so does the Left. Welcome to politics, which has been “us vs. them” since prehistory.

  42. Enough susbtantive debate…

    Mind if I do a J?

    Figured not.

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