Relatively absolute, II (was: Atheists and freedom of speech)

Russell Turpin
Wed, 26 Mar 2003 13:49:05 +0000

John Hall:
>I don't think any of those examples are very good.

You explained that "moral relativism is a
straight forward expression of the idea that the
rules should be different for different groups
of people," which to me, seems a characteristic
of most moral theories. Let me make clear, in
the text below, I am NOT arguing over the
substance of morality, over which rules we
should hold or not. I'm simply trying to figure
out why you say some rules are examples of moral
relativism, while others are examples of
moral absolutism.

>The one you picked applies to all men and all women.

And how is that different from a Jim Crow law
that applies to all blacks and all whites? One
rule says, 'to marry a woman you must be a man.'
The other says 'to sit in the front of the bus
you must be white.' In both cases, the rule
distinguishes different groups of people.

>Felons not voting is unambiguously a universal rule: Do X you can no longer 
>do Y.

It also unambiguously divides people into two
groups for moral purposes: those who do X, and
those who don't, and so it fits your definition
of moral relativism.

FoRK has a fairly techy group, so I'm going to
delve a small bit into logic. Groups are defined
by predicates and predicates define groups:

  blacks  ==  {x: black(x)}

  men  ==  {x: male(x) & (age(x)>17)}

  felons  ==  {x: convicted(x, c) & felony(c)}

You defined a moral absolute as a moral rule that
applies to everyone, i.e., where the rule has no
predicate distinguishing who may/must do or not
do something. You restated this by saying that a
relativistic rule distinguishes people by groups.
Knowing a little bit about logic, this made some
sense to me. According to your definition, an
absolute rule looks like this:

  (x)(must(x, action))  // Or may, etc.

A relativistic rule looks like this:

  (x)(pred(x) => must(x, action))  // Or may, etc.

You defined moral absolutism as a restriction on
moral rules. The supposed result is to eliminate
certain expressivity. Since statements can be
rearranged and combined in all sorts of ways by
the standard rules of logic, it's not always the
case that such a restriction has substance. It
might be the case that you get the same
expressivity either way. For example, someone
might think they are  restricting a logic by
allowing it only one boolean connective, but in
fact, the Shaeffer stroke is enough to generate
all of the others, so this restriction would be
mere syntactic sugar, without any expressive

But it seems quite plausible to me that the
restriction you suggested could be fleshed out
in a substantive way, and I certainly wanted to
give you the benefit of the doubt about that. I
thought I had a handle on the distinction you
were trying to make. Until your last post. Now,
I have no idea what you mean by moral absolutism.

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