Moral relativism.

I Find Karma (
Sun, 17 Aug 1997 09:27:29 -0700 (PDT)

Yay verily, duck quacketh thusly:
> >Of course, I do believe that moral relativism is extremely dangerous.
> >When a classroom of college students refuses to take a stand and say
> >that racial genocide is wrong, then society is seriously in trouble.
> Not nearly as much trouble as when a classroom of college students
> does take a stand and say that racial gencide is wrong, but the ones
> among them who don't believe it are afraid to say so.

I have never known someone in favor of racial genocide, to be a) quiet
about what s/he believes, or b) afraid of *anything*.

> What you call moral relativism, i call diversity of beliefs.

Yes, well, Columbia is a UNIversity, not a DIversity, so I don't
know who's putting these spicy ideas in your head.

Do you really believe that anyone should be able to act according to an
individual moral code? If some nut's moral code is "All journalists
deserve to die" and you are a journalist, does he have the moral right
to kill you? Actions are inherently tied to one's beliefs, after all.

I will admit that moral relativism does have its proponents in philosophy.

For example, Allan Bloom in his book, The Closing of the American Mind,
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), pages 25-26, claims that most
people take moral relativism as a given, never really having considered
why (or even if) a society can live with its ramifications. Everyone
acting by his/her moral code, after all, creates a society of vigilantes
who believe they are above the law. That's the downside. The upside is
that moral relativists tend to be more tolerant of anyone else's views,
thus leading to less wars, etc ("You feel like you have a right to march
into Czechoslavakia and take it over? Oh, all right..."):

| "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost
| every student entering the university believes, or says he believes,
| that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count
| on the students' reaction: They will be uncomprehending. That anyone
| would regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as
| though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. . . .
| Openness--and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance
| in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and
| kinds of human beings--is the great insight of our times. . . .
| The study of history and of culture [according to this view] teaches
| that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were
| right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism,
| and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be
| right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
| "The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something
| with which they have been indoctrinated."

Of course, it's hard to be a moral absolutist without God, because where
do the absolute rules come from otherwise? An omnipotent, omnipresent,
benevolent deity provides a nice big bang for absolute morality.
However, that need not necessarily be, as Max Hocutt put forth in
"Toward an Ethic of Mutual Accommodation," in Humanist Ethics,
ed. Morris B.Storer (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1980), p. 137:

| The fundamental question of ethics is, who makes the rules? God or
| men? The theistic answer is that God makes them. The humanist answer
| is that men make them. This distinction between theism and humanism is
| the fundamental division in moral theory."

The question, then, is should we strive as a society for a common
morality that approximates some "absolute", or whether we should strive
for a society where everyone is allowed to have his or her own moral code.

Well, basically I think what we all want is a way to resolve the complex
moral issues for situations that occur in society (that is, "applied
ethics"). There's a pretty good paper at

that discusses the difficulties of creating a normative ethical theory...

| One might characterize the aim of normative ethical theory as providing
| one or a few a priori principles stating necessary and sufficient
| conditions for evaluating all conduct of a fixed number of coexisting
| normal adult humans of equal moral worth in a national society all of
| whom always comply with the principles. No theory has this precise aim,
| but most theories have major elements of it. The purpose of this
| statement is to make explicit a large number of assumptions that are
| often made by ethical theorists. These assumptions are as follows:
| 1.that (a) one or a few (b) a priori principles (c) can provide
| necessary and sufficient conditions (d) for evaluating all conduct of persons;
| 2.that the number of persons involved does not change;
| 3.that the persons coexist;
| 4.that the persons are humans;
| 5.that the persons are normal;
| 6.that the persons are adults;
| 7.that the persons are of equal moral worth;
| 8.that ethical problems occur within one society; and
| 9.that everyone will always comply with the principles.
| In view of work in applied ethics, probably none of these assumptions
| should be made. The primary reason for any hesitation concerns
| assumption (1), for it is very difficult to prove that no such theory
| can be developed. Problems in applied ethics require dropping each of
| the other assumptions. Assumptions (2) and (3) cannot be made for
| problems of population and the environment. Nor can assumption (4) be
| made for issues of the environment and animal rights. Assumption (5)
| cannot be made for problems concerning mentally abnormal persons, and
| (6) cannot be made for questions of children's rights. Number (7) simply
| assumes an important moral position regarding racism and
| sexism. Assumption (8) is inadequate for problems of world hunger and
| nuclear warfare. Finally, assumption (9) is obviously false and cannot
| be made for problems of punishment and corrective justice.
| The bulk of this paper expands on these points. Every ethical theory
| makes at least one of the assumptions, and most make several. When all
| the assumptions are dropped, normative ethical theory becomes much
| harder than when some of them are made. Perhaps new styles of doing
| ethical theory are needed and will develop, although they will probably
| be variations on some older approaches. About that, I am not at all
| sure, but I am sure that ethical theory at the beginning of the
| twenty-first century cannot make these old assumptions and be at all
| adequate for the problems of applied ethics.

Where does that leave us? Confused.

I still believe that a society needs to approximate its absolute moral
tolerance, codified as laws, or all chaos will break loose as everyone
does what s/he chooses because her/his moral beliefs are structured as such.

With every year, our society refines its understanding of right and wrong,
and modifies the laws as needed. This does not mean to me, though, that
the morals are changing. To me, it means that the approximation of the
absolute gets better and better with every debate, every discussion, and
every argument.

But yes, I believe in an absolute truth. And, of course, that
the truth shall set you free.........


There are a lot of 'Gates' on this bridge.
-- Rush Limbaugh on Bill Clinton's bridge to the 21st century