Re: Moral relativism.

Ron Resnick (
Tue, 19 Aug 1997 00:44:37 +0300

My, my. FoRK is enrolled in Ethics 101. Class is in session. Pay attention-
there's a quiz!

At 02:40 PM 8/18/97 -0500, Wayne/doofus wrote:
> And aside from being constitutionally silly,

That's your best trait of course, Wayne :-)

>I'll eventually devolve to running for political office.

Oh god no! A FoRKer deciding public policy? Voting on bills?? Next thing
you know the LaMacchia Exemption will get overturned, and then
where will poor Brian be, without his claim to fame ;-)?

>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.

Amazingly enough, the neo-Austrians could be the thing to bring this
whole discussion full circle back to FoRK's usual technology related
topics. Ie, that the economic model we're groping for in the 'free bit'
webspace seems to have a lot to do with neo-Austs.

>> (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.

Maybe. I haven't really figured out any of it. To tell the truth, I don't
expect to. I just know that existing Faiths, including the one I was
raised into, seem to tightly couple their ethical basis with a lot of
ritual. And
I guess I just can't take the rituals anymore. Even in the very small
doses of it I still endure, such as major holidays assembled with family,
I find it stifling. I'm not sure what an acceptable ritual-free system might
be, for me.

I note the recent Time article about Tim BL, the one which had the Rohit
quote about 'life of the party'.
On Sundays Berners-Lee packs his family into the car and heads for a
Unitarian-Universalist church. As a teenager he rejected the Anglican
teachings of his parents;
he can't bring himself to worship a particular prophet, a particular book.
But "I do in fact believe that people's spiritual side is very important,"
and that it's "more than just

He likes the minimalist Unitarian dogma--theologically vague but believing
in "the inherent dignity of people and in working together to achieve
harmony and
understanding." He can accept the notion of divinity so long as it is
couched abstractly--as the "asymptote" of goodness that we strive
toward--and doesn't involve
"characters with beards." He hopes the Web will move the world closer to
the divine asymptote.

I think I can relate very well to TBL in the above words. The 'characters
with beards' business just says it all, for me. Boy, he has class! Doesn't
it make you just a little weak inside to know there are such classy people
around? I could never fake that much humility, let alone really possess it.

>> 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.

Yup. For the most part that's what most of us do - we just don't think
about it, and get on with other things. Like massive distributed objects!
Only that just reopens the social responsibility concerns, and puts us right
back confronting our unconfrontables!

>And why shouldn't it be considered so? I'm comfortable on a practical
>level with saying that repression and murder are counterproductive, to

Counterproductive to whom? There are plenty of examples of murderers
and repressors getting ahead due to their deeds. And, from the perspective
of the Universe itself, what do words like 'productive' and
mean anyway? But we're going around in circles, I think.

>say the least. And, if you value human life at all, downright evil.

Yes, the last bit is true. *IF* (and that's a big if) you value human life,
then you can readily build an axiomatic system using terms like good and
evil. But not all people apparently satisfy the 'if' clause, and more
the Universe as a whole (my substitute for my missing Deity) hasn't
indicated a disposition to care one way or the other as to whether
that 'if' clause holds. What's the 'else' clause?

>> 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!

Hey, we're all in this boat together! Start bailing.

> 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.

And the most beautiful of all seems intrinsically linked to the notion
of Great Tragedy. The Greeks saw this; the Romans did. Shakespeare
did. Tragedy by far speaks to the human condition more than the other
arts, because we recognize the fatality of life from its outset. 'Birth' is
tragedy, for birth ends in death. 'Love' is tragedy, for it ends in betrayal
or, at best, in faint memories of what was.

>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.

Really? There seem to be a number of solid examples of stable societies
based on murder, lying & stealing. Obvious examples might include
Saddam's Iraq or Zaire. Saddam seems to have made institutional
murder & terror a most workable set of values indeed! Should we bring
in Stalin, or Mao here?

On closer examination, I suggest that just
about *all* societies are based in no small measure on violations of
their supposed ethical codes. Whether you think Whitewater is a scandal
or not, can you really doubt that lying & stealing go on routinely in
or Ottawa, or Jerusalem, or in any corridors of power? Maybe the 'murder'
part is rare, but not these 'lesser' ethical breaches.

>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.

That's a curious mix - a Calvinist who wants to decriminalize pot! Definitely
sounds like a FoRKer to me ;-). We're so bloody non-conformist, the only
things we conform to is nonconformity itself!

>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.

Well put. The ethical dilemmas aren't just for classrooms - they increasingly
get pushed in your face with every aging parent on life support, and every
public/private email/post decision.

> I do
>think that there will be a grand reckoning in the end.

When's the 'end'? Do we finally get off the merry-go-round then?

> Cheers,
> Wayne

(Yes, I noted the subtle '!' on Cheers! on your Bordeaux post, as a
deviation from the usual comma, as above :-)