Re: Moral relativism.

I'm not a real doofus, but I play one at a national laboratory. (
Mon, 18 Aug 1997 14:40:46 -0500

Here're my 2 cents on this discussion. But first, the obligatory
soul-baring disclaimer: I'm squarely in Dr. Ernie's camp, an
evangelical Christian, of fairly protestant flavor. A Calvinist, in
fact. And aside from being constitutionally silly, I'm quite interested
in philosophy and its religious and ethical concommitants. But, being a
slave to popular opinion, more inclined to challenge spelling than
beliefs. I'll eventually devolve to running for political office.

> 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).

Certainly, but it strikes me as a slippery slope. Acquiescence and
appeasement have the flavor of "sins of omission". But it's one thing
to be a muddleheaded freshman, quite another to be a prime minister.

> 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.

Quite well-founded.

> 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.

Also quite well-founded.

> aye, it does, for as you go on to note, there is no satisfying alternative
> but Deities.

I've started reading John Gray's _Isaiah Berlin_, which is fascinating.
Berlin holds the concept of Incommensurable Values; that is, that one
person's beliefs and other things held dear cannot be ranked against
another's. That would seem to be a mixture of absolute and relative
viewpoints. Each person is fundamentally valuable, but there are
conflicts. In fact, Berlin finds the results inevitably tragic. I'll
have to make it further through the book to decide if "Ich bin ein
Berliner." Or any other kind of pastry.

Or you could go in for the neo-Austrian economics school (Hayek, Mise,
Friedman, et al) -- Free to Choose, be left alone, et cetera. These
still probably spring from a theistic base, though.

> 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.

Or untidily. As you point out later, there are hypocrites.

> (i) Look for a modern absolutist moral code grounded
> in a theological system that somehow 'fits' to our experiences of the
> physical universe

The more likely path, IMHO. You probably already figured that out.

> (ii) Accept relativism, however it may raise our hackles
> that there's something deeply wrong with it, and dangerous about it.

IMHO, it ought to raise fundamental intellectual doubts. Consider the
proposition itself: All truth is relative. It's not even internally
consistent. And it doesn't match the known world. The speed of light
(in the absence of physicists doing certain experiments), absolute zero
temperatures, 2 + 2= 4, and death (and taxes, of course) are all pretty
non-relative ideas with profound effects on everyday existence.

> Am I missing a 3rd choice?

Live in intellectual despair? Some of our best philosophers live there.
Chuck the philosophy and go for hedonism? Buy into de Sade and take
whatever you're strong enough to take? There are choices, even if
they're ugly.

> 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 think that absolutist/relativist thought is inherently difficult, and
most people haven't thought it through. (I've been thinking about it
for a long time and don't think I have it all figured out.) I think
they mostly go with the flow, a mix of both, whatever makes them happy.
-- Adultery is wrong, but you've got to understand the pressure I was
under -- Overall, I'd say that absolutist talk and relativist behavior
win, but not by overwhelming margins.

>acting by his/her moral code, after all, creates a society of vigilantes
>who believe they are above the law. That's the downside.


> Now I can go to war with Hitler not because he's morally wrong,
> but because he bugs me.

I see no difference between these two positions.

> Most wars are fought not on ethical
> grounds, but on grounds of self interest (aggressor) & self preservation
> (defender).

Throughout history this has been so. I believe that "wars to end all
wars" and other ideas regarding the ethics of war are relatively modern
ideas. The vox populi didn't have all that much weight before the rise
of the great democracies.

> >| would regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as
> >| though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. . . .

Lovely irony here.

> >| that all the world was mad in the past;

Demonstrably true of the past. Also of the present. Or, as Bierce
put it:

The part of the world lying west (or east) of the Orient. It is
largely inhabited by Christians, a powerful subtribe of the
Hypocrites, whose principal industries are murder and cheating,
which they are pleased to call "war" and "commerce." These,
also, are the principal industries of the Orient.

> >| men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, ...

Also still true today. There seems to be an instinct in humans to
justify whatever they hold to be true. Sometimes by violent means,
sometimes simply by coercion, preaching or pouting.

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

It certainly gives one a place to start. It doesn't obviate hard work
in resolving the hypocrisies (which you've misspelled, BTW ;-).

> <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.>

On the other hand, a lack of faith obviates the need to deal with the
"problem of pain", in CS Lewis's phrase. It simply exists, and it's a
great deal of trouble to live with, but it poses no moral dilemmas about
God's character.

> 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
> having to judge his moral system as 'weaker' than mine.

And why shouldn't it be considered so? I'm comfortable on a practical
level with saying that repression and murder are counterproductive, to
say the least. And, if you value human life at all, downright evil.

> 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.

I think you've gotten to the crux of your dilemma quite nicely. Sorry
it's not a comfortable place to be!

> 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
> man.

comes down to physics -- All quantum states are equal. The one in which
I tell you what a great guy you are and send you a bottle of wine has no
moral distinction from the one in which I shoot you and steal your
stereo. I don't believe that, of course, but in this system your and my
views and opinions are merely accidental quantum fluctuations,
biological burps.

> Then how do I judge Acts of Nature which claim massive human life
> (earthquakes,
> floods, other disasters, not to mention the big ones yet to come, like the
> inevitable death of our Sun)?

Go ahead, call them Acts of God. ;-) Else, they're just more chaotic
quantum effects.

> 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
> Truth?

Well, again the dilemma comes up. If it's all relative and accidental,
then meaning and purpose, good and evil, are illusions, or at best
social constructs with no cosmic significance, although they may have a
web address. If we theists are right though, and the universe isn't a
big crapshoot game, and people actually matter, well then why in Hell do
we have these painful things? My answer is that the universe is in fact
broken, and in need of redemption. Not everything "bad" in our world
can be traced directly to someone's sinful activity; some is just the
unfortunate transfer of energy (volcanoes, etc), although this is most
assuredly another sign of the world's brokenness. But the situation we
occupy is clearly tragic. And yet not without a great deal of beauty,
pleasure, delight, art, and other things we see as goodness.

> 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'.

This would prove chaotic, IMHO. Some aspects of morality simply work
better than others. Murder, lying and stealing, for example are simply
unworkable values, no matter how strongly held by a whimsical despot.

> 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.

And why shouldn't all of society be imprisoned for violating Manson's
deeply held convictions? Or even my whimsies?

> I know you like that statement Adam, but it's always made me uneasy.

I suspect Adam holds it in an abstract way, and it certainly has much to
commend it in that light. Jesus meant it about Himself, though. He was
such a raving egotist. Thought He could save the world, too, the loony.

> It reminds me of 'Arbeit macht frei' (Work shall set you free) posted
> on the gates to Birkenau....

Or, "we're from the government, and we're here to help you." ;-)

> 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...

Yep, there's certainly that problem. That's why I tend to discount
people of "passion" (sorry, Ernie!). I consider passion to be little
more than a indication of intensity, and a somewhat negative one at
that. I'm more interested in what the object of the passion is. Are
you passionate about your people, or just your own agenda? Some of our
most notorious bad guys were passionate people. Passion in government
officials would be about the least appealing prospect for me.

I hold that the labels we go by are only mild indicators of our actual
contents. Or, as that Egotist put it to Peter, "If you love Me, feed
my sheep." The pen is mightier than the sword, but actions speak
louder than words, even if the actions are words. So you're Jim Bakker
and a great guy. Excuse me if I look for the proof in the pudding.
I'll pass on the KoolAid, thanks.

I'm solidly in the "realist" camp, as opposed to "idealist". That is, I
believe that generally the interests of the whole are advanced only when
the individuals' interests are looked after. There are exceptions, of
course, and ambiguities, but making the individual subservient to the
whole is to destroy the village in order to save it. The consequence of
this is that equality of opportunity leads to inequality of outcome, but
that doesn't bother me in the slightest. All women and men are
created equal, but some are just going to do much better than the
others. It accomplishes nothing useful to send musical dolts to
Julliard to "level the playing field". But I digress. (Not that this
whole thing isn't digressive.)

I think we need some laws and other moral social compacts. It's an
imperfect system but the best we have. I'll vote, write my reps., et
cetera, to push for laws I consider moral, but I recognize I'm not going
to be in the majority, perhaps not most of the time.

But, on the other hand, I think a light touch, even laissez-faire, is
the side to err on. I agree with Buckley and friends, for example,
that the war on drugs has been an utter failure, and we'd be far better
served to decriminalize all of them, and spend some small fraction of
the savings on education, treatment, and so on. I have no interest in
marijuana, but then, I'm not undergoing chemo. So, I guess I'm leaning
to the libertarian side of politics these days.

> 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.

I don't believe that our laws and society are monotonically improving.
We, as individuals, have to make choices and the choices have moral and
practical consequences which no amount of Roe v. Wade, the Pill,
condoms, nonoxyl-9, liver replacements, or air bags can overcome. I do
think it means that our morals have been changing, and not always for
the better. But I'd rather live here, now, than at any other place and
time in history. The future might be more interesting, though. I do
think that there will be a grand reckoning in the end.


Ambrose again:

A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The
conduct of public affairs for private advantage.