Re: Moral relativism.

Ron Resnick (
Mon, 18 Aug 1997 00:09:58 +0300

cc'd to my brother, who's kinda into these issues :-)

At 09:27 AM 8/17/97 -0700, I Find Karma wrote:
>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*.

True. But that's not what duck said. There's a difference between
"not believing that racial genocide is wrong" (paraphrase of duck)
and "being in favour of racial genocide" (paraphrase of adam).

The latter is true of some infamous Nazis, certain Bosnian Serbs,
and certain Turks responsible for the Armenian massacres earlier this
century, as some better known examples of infamous practicioners
of the "in favour" camp.

The former is true of countless of otherwise law abiding and harmless
college students, intellectuals and others with (probably) too much
time on their hands.

Duck, I think, is afraid of thoughtcrime labels - the (well founded) fear
that in modern society, simply taking an unpopular stance, or even
one perceived as unpopular, is already cause for censure. Hence, college
students who may disagree with 'evident truths' prefer to hide their true
beliefs. Aren't we better off knowing what people really think, than
papering it over and pretending all is well?

Adam is concerned that by admitting moral relativism as
a defensible position, we open the floodgates to tolerating the
Third Reich as just another point of view, one with as much right
to be expressed as our own. And that in doing this, we actually
promote *new* Third Reichs to rise.

Note the difference?

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

aye, it does, for as you go on to note, there is no satisfying alternative
but Deities. Presumably some, when faced with the ethical vacuum that
moral relativism poses, turn to theism for precisely this reason. Others
accept religion not because of internal ethical debates, but because they
were born to it, or found it through other channels. Once they have it though,
it tidily resolves the moral questions too. You know murder is wrong
because the Bible says so, or the Koran, or the teachings of Buddha.

But for those of us who intellectually have not been able to reconcile the
physical world we know with the existing codified religions of history, we
faced with 2 choices: (i) Look for a modern absolutist moral code grounded
in a theological system that somehow 'fits' to our experiences of the
physical universe (ii) Accept relativism, however it may raise our hackles
that there's something deeply wrong with it, and dangerous about it.

Am I missing a 3rd choice?

>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.

Really? That counters my intuition and experience. I'd guess that most
people would initially assume & accept absolutist stances. Relativism,
I would think, occurs only to those who have troubled to think about
what 'ethics' are in the first place, and why it is they are uncomfortable
with absolutist stances. I.e. - I'd guess that relativism is a 3% attitude.
Not to suggest that absolutists - people of faith and otherwise - are somehow
'dumb' for being absolutists (which is our usual 3/97 interpretation), but
rather in the more common numerical sense of '3' and '97', that relativists
by far in the minority, simply because it takes genuine effort to decide to
yourself into such an ugly looking camp.

>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..."):

Um. No. I'd distinguish between being a moral relativist because logic
and experience tells you so, versus taking real world actions that are
not in accord with principles like 'self preservation' and 'vested interest'
(which I suggest Chamberlain could have enacted in 1938). Furthermore,
presumably a relativist can have a moral code which says:
- I personally don't believe in murder
- I respect the right of Hitler to have a different point of view
- I am sophisticated enough to modify my code and create a new
one (this is relativist right? I can create any code I like!) that says
that normally I don't believe in murder, but if particular guys really
tick me off, I allow myself the right to blow 'em up.

Now I can go to war with Hitler not because he's morally wrong,
but because he bugs me. I suggest that, in fact, most justifications
for war, and for the maintenance of military forces, really come from
variations of logic like the above. Most wars are fought not on ethical
grounds, but on grounds of self interest (aggressor) & self preservation

>| "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."

? I got lost here. How is the above para. (wars, persecutions, slavery,
in any way a condemnation of relativism? It looks to me like an
argument *for* a relativist stance.

>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.

That it does. That's probably the single most attractive thing about
'finding religion' - it gives you a place to hang all those dangling
hypocricies in your belief systems.

<No offense intented in any of these
comments to those who have Faith, of whatever form. (a) These are
opinions only (b) Fwiw, I am somewhat envious of those who *have*
Faith for precisely these reasons! It's a big, empty, lonely universe without
Faith, for us atheists.>

>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."

Right. And as soon as 'men make them', why are Thomas Jefferson's rules more
moral than Pol Pot's? I can personally believe Pol Pot repulsive without
to judge his moral system as 'weaker' than mine. Any such judgement, imho,
implies an external yardstick by which to make moral comparisons.
Never having found a satisfactory yardstick, I'm left with nothing but

>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
>| 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.

Right. Because I don't think it's possible. Attempts to find 'moral
high grounds' when you don't have any coordinate system to define
things like 'high' and 'low' (i.e. you don't put a Deity into your system
to give you an origin, or a fixed point), ultimately aren't productive
imho. Absolute morals==belief system, relative morals==what's left
when you have no belief system. My opinion, of course.

Look - I don't come to this position lightly. I'd call myself a 'reluctant
relativist'. I don't relish giving Hitler and Pol Pot equal billing with
Teresa. Certainly in my personal, relative, view of 'right' & 'wrong' there's
no question that I judge Hitler repugnant and M.T. a blessed soul. But
can I really say that mass murder is *ethically* wrong? By what ethical
standard? - only an absolute one, not one of men but one of a level beyond
Then how do I judge Acts of Nature which claim massive human life
floods, other disasters, not to mention the big ones yet to come, like the
inevitable death of our Sun)? How can 'the level beyond Man', which gives
us the apparent ethic of 'human life on planet Earth orbiting star Sol shall
be considered sacred and not to be extinguished without cause' then
go and give the nod to the tornadoes and typhoons? Through cancer
and leukemia of 3 year olds? How dare we
claim that our measly bit of rock in the universe with its carbon based
parasites are worthy of 'universal ethical protection' in the form of Absolute

>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.

Sure. Even 'relativists' and 'anarchists' would agree that someone's *moral*
right to act as they please has to be balanced when that someone lives
with others in close confines. The price you pay for choosing to live in
society is abiding by rules. That doesn't necessarily mean you're immoral
for believing otherwise, or even acting otherwise. But it does mean you
will accept consequences for acting on ethics that are apparently out of
step with those around you. The rules of society don't necessarily have to be
founded on absolute ethics, or even relativist ethics - they can be pure
whim of whoever's in charge on a given day, and they can arise
from a majority-rules democracy, so you get an 'average morality'.
Hence, perhaps Charles Manson
isn't morally repugnant for his acts, yet he legitimately sits behind
bars anyway because in the society he found himself, other members
decided they didn't want his kind on the streets. With the same
'right' he had to kill, his society has the 'right' to imprison.

>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.........

I know you like that statement Adam, but it's always made me uneasy.
It reminds me of 'Arbeit macht frei' (Work shall set you free) posted
on the gates to Birkenau....

Anyway, since I've bounced around here too much, here's a more
succinct summary of where I'm at:

I started out as a know-it-all teen with
(a) religion (b) absolute ethics (c) firm unshakable
belief that I was on the side of the good guys and 'they' (Nazis, PLO
terrorists, pimps & rapists, fill in the 'bad guy' label) weren't. I was
younger then.

I'm still not that old, and both I and my opinions & beliefs are subject
to change, and almost certainly will. But what's happened to me is
(a) a science education gave me a view of the universe that
I just can't reconcile with religious dogmas as I know them. Observing the
Sabbath and not mixing my meat with my milk didn't seem to give
me any moral fibre, but just grated against my sense of personal freedom
to do whatever I liked. So I just quit at some point. And _damn_ that felt
(b) With my sense of Deities gone, I have nowhere left to hang
my absolute ethics, so they're untethered out in space somewhere
(c) I don't believe in too many things 'firmly' and 'unshakably' anymore.
Certainly not vain, proudful things like 'good guys' and 'bad guys'.

Amongst other things, I've learned that 'good guys' can do very bad things
too, and that all of us harbour lust, greed and other sinful thoughts in
our hearts, if not in other places. Beware the Sheperds of Faith who
Preach too Earnestly! (No, not you Chaplain Ernie :-). Thinking
more of Rev. Jones, or Jimmy Bakker. Or even quite a number of
less-than-holy Popes and Cardinals over the centuries. Or some
Rabbis in the modern Israeli Knesset who are probably about to
go to jail for corruption...

Now, that doesn't leave me in a very comfortable spot. I instinctively
want to clutch for pointed sticks that let me separate the good from
the evil. And I fear that without such sticks, there is nothing to prevent
those which in my relativist ethics, I consider evil from causing serious
harm to those I would claim to love & wish to protect. But there's no
sense building ethics illusions not grounded in axiomatic logic. If you have
faith, you have ethics. If you don't - you're left with quicksand, it's
as simple as that. You just have to work it out from there. As I said
earlier, the ones with faith are the lucky ones in a sense - at least
their world hangs together.

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


(BTW Adam - I have no good Beans books to recommend. As with you
and the Web, the Beans I love are some abstract, idealized view of
dynamic Java components, not the present sordid reality. Most things
I've read about Beans to date have been about today's miseries, not the
possibilities of tomorrow. There's none I would particularly recommend.
Maybe Mark can. Or Sandor.)

Final PS - I did a quick web search to confirm the correct spelling
of 'Arbeit macht frei', and turned up this really weird url (Our bytes macht frei).

At first I thought it must be a neo-Nazi thing, but no, it seems to be
some kind of communist/anarchist/'free bit' place. Something about hacking
search engines for anonymous searches.

Quotes like:
>"Where the rest of us live. The customer is always left.
>Escape from your Bill Gated community today!. "

Ok -sure. And

>"Enter the Axis Electronika Mundi. Monitor the infosphere from the
>comfort of our Global Surveilance Suite."

Infosphere??? Did they say Infosphere??
Weird place.