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Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism III

December 6th, 2008 by Matt

Arguments against Relativism
In my previous post I argued that the common arguments for relativism fail. In this post I want to go one step further and suggest there are good reasons for rejecting relativism. Many reasons could be mustered here; I will limit myself to three.

Counter Examples
Both cultural and individual ethical relativism are subject to several, straight-forward, counter examples.

Take cultural ethical relativism first. Consider a culture where it is accepted that that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would an advocate of cultural relativism contend that in such a society criticism by a Christian minority of this practice and the advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow, religious perspective? Would it be true that in such a society public policy could not be based on the ethical principle that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife?

Consider an Islamic society where the majority believe that conversion to a rival, mono-theistic religion is immoral and should be a capital offence. To not execute converts to Judaism or Christianity in such a society would, according to cultural relativism, be wrong.

In a society where a racial majority believes a racial minority is sub-human and this belief is widely accepted throughout the culture, it would be unjust to grant equal human rights according to cultural relativism.

The same line of argument applies against individual ethical relativism. Suppose an individual believes that it is permissible to rape, torture and kill women. If individual relativism is true it follows that this person is right to do these things and anyone who utters condemnation because they believe rape, torture and murder are wrong are mistaken.

You may think this is a hypothetical example but it’s not. In his discussion of relativism, Pojman recounts an interview with serial killer Ted Bundy,

Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured it out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…. I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a high’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.[1]


Moral Reform and Moral Progress
A second reason for rejecting relativism is that it implies that social reform is mistaken and those who engage in it are always wrong. Consider two historical examples; the first is Martin Luther King Jnr. Dr King campaigned against the racism and racial segregation that was practiced in the southern states of the US.

Now if cultural relativism is correct, Dr King was wrong to do this; segregation was accepted by the society he was in at the time, hence, it was permissible for members of that society. Moreover Dr King’s own practices, which involved civil disobedience, were contrary to the laws of his day. In fact contemporaries of Dr King criticised his actions on this point. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr King answered his critics by stating that above the laws and mores of one’s society was the law of God and that any law which contradicted this was unjust.

Now if we accept relativism, we have to conclude that Dr King was mistaken here. Dr King, in fact, was an intolerant bigot who imposed his private religious beliefs about racism onto others. The society he lived in accepted racism, hence racism is right for members of that society. But surely this analysis is completely lopsided? Dr King was right and his society was wrong; he was the opponent of bigotry and his society was perpetuating it.

Similarly, William Wilberforce’s campaign to end slavery would have to be considered unjust and mistaken if we take seriously the cultural relativist’s position. Slavery was, after all, accepted in the British Empire at the time. Wilberforce’s efforts were defeated by a majority of parliament on many occasions. Hence, if relativism is true, slavery was actually right and Wilberforce was wrong to oppose it.

Similar things can be said for the idea of moral progress. Normally we think that certain reforms such as women’s suffrage, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, ending child labour, etc are marks of progress, historical points where a society improves and gets better. However, if relativism is correct this is not the case.

Reform or progress is impossible; whatever a society believes is right, is right for members of that society. If something is right if a culture thinks its right, then it is impossible for a society’s mores to ever be wrong. Societal mores are in essence infallible.

But then it seems there is nothing to improve upon and hence, progress cannot occur. All that can happen is that societies can change one perfectly valid system for another and those who advocate the change are always mistaken when they do.

Further, a minority would never be justified in proposing its ideas until it was no longer a minority view. However, it cannot cease to be a minority view unless it is proposed in the first place. Consequently, this requires all societies to be frozen in whatever popular prejudices currently exist. The reforming minority that critiques contemporary culture would be effectively silenced.

This problem does not only apply to cultural relativism. An analogous argument can be applied to individual relativism. Reform does not just happen within societies; individuals can reform and make moral progress.

Consider a member of the Ku Klux Klan who thinks that lynching African Americans is justified or a Nazi who fervently believes in the extermination of Jews. If these people came to see the error of their ways and reformed their characters so that they came to view other races as people with equal dignity, made in the image of God, then it is plausible to say they have undergone moral reform and have progressed. However, individual relativism entails this is not the case.

The Klan member and the Nazi were right to engage in bigoted behaviour, because neither believed there was anything wrong with it. Moreover, the basis of this change, seeing ‘the error of their ways,’ is, in fact, hugely mistaken. According to individual relativism, there was no ‘error of ways’ at all and anyone suggesting there was is an intolerant bigot.

Equality of Cultural and Individual Practices
My final argument against relativism is to note that if cultural relativism is true then no practiced widely accepted by a culture is better than a practice accepted by another culture. According to individual relativism, no practice sincerely believed in by one person is better than another’s.

For individual relativism, if Ted Bundy believes it is permissible to rape women and kill them, then that is right for him and there is nothing wrong with him doing it. Similarly, if Mother Teresa believes helping the poor is permissible then she is permitted morally to do this. However, any suggestion that Bundy’s practices are worse than Mother Teresa’s and he should change and be more like her is mistaken. To do so is to suggest that the views of one person (Teresa) can be legitimately applied to another (Bundy) who does not believe in them.

Similarly, with cultural relativism; if a culture institutionalises and accepts the persecution of ethnic minorities then its members are justified in engaging in such persecution. If another culture grants equal dignity to all races on the basis of its beliefs then it too is justified in this. However, it is mistaken to think that one is correct and the other wrong. Both are correct and neither is wrong as there is no trans-cultural standard that one can appeal to, to claim one is better than the other.

Conclusion
I submit then that relativism has little going for it. When one unpacks the contemporary slogans one finds a position supported by bad and often incoherent arguments. A position that if correct, entails horrific and bigoted practices are as justified as any other practice and any attempts to change or reform people from engaging in such practices is wrong. Relativism essentially renders morality and ethics into pointless concepts.

[1] Louis P. Pojman The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature (Oxford University Press: 2003).

RELATED POSTS:
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism II
Video of Matthew Flannagan Speaking on Moral Relativism
With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality
On a Common Equivocation
Sunday Study: The Virtue of Judging – Jesus was not a Relativist

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24 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Matt, my views on morality are the same as this blokes:
    http://hem.passagen.se/nicb/morality.htm?k

    With the examples you use I think you demonstrate a lack of understanding of what Moral Relativism actually is.

    Taking the Martin Luther King example, it’s not a case of King, or those who opposed his ideas, being right or wrong in any objective sense as you seem to think.
    King’s views were morally wrong according to those who opposed the civil rights movement, so the civil rights movement successfully worked to change the moral codes of that society, they were successful because American society had evolved over time – largely but not nessessarily exclusively as a result of changes in attitudes brought about by technological developments. TV as an example, gives us a view of the parts of society and the rest of the world from other peoples perspectives and the power to see into other peoples lives humanises them. So many of Mans wars would never have been fought if the “man in the street” on both sides actually knew the people who they were being sent to fight.

    If you look at the antagonistic leaders in todays world, their most important weapon is the ability to demonise, to their own people, those they wish to attack.

    It even applies to politics.

    The counter argument is that – aha! Those doing the demonising are immoral!
    The reply to which is easily understood by evolutionists. Evolution is about passing on genes, in a finite world with stable populations demonising the competition, if it leads to the ability to expand the “home” population at the expense of the competition, makes such a strategy, in evolutionary terms, desirable.

    The situation that exists today is very unusual in that, because technology has vastly expanded the resourses available to Humans, the Human population has itself expanded, in such a situation cooperation and fusion between distinct populations can, in evolutionary terms, be advantagous.

    Now, if things turned really bad for humanity, forcing a rapid population decline, the global society that has been building over the last few centuries would fragment with the various fragments competing for the now limited resources. It would be easy for the rulers of each of these new states to demonise the “enemy” and in fact, for the continued existence of their own populations, it would be desirable.

    You will be well familiar with the demonising of competing populations that has occurred in history, eg. The Philistine’s.

  • One other point.
    Moral relativism does not mean without Morals, in a different society Bundy’s practices might indeed be considered moral, though I can’t see it being a very stable society as the moral codes that Bundy would be self destructive to that society, the problem for Bundy is that he did what he did in a society in which those actions were immoral, the moral codes each society has maybe subjective, but that doesn’t make them any less real within each society.

  • OK if we reject relativsm, what is the alternative? Either we decide on the basis of our own reason and the evidence what is ethical and what is not, or we let someone else (God) decide for us.

    You have earlier stated that if God exists we are obliged to obey him, presumably you mean we are obliged to obey his commandments. There are many commandments in the Bible, particularly in Deuteronomy that no theist today would ever dream of obeying.

    So even theists today use their reason and the facts to decide what is ethical and what is not. In doing so they appeal to a standard of ethics that is outside the Bible.

    You have made the point that ethical relativism, where one decides what is ethical or not on the basis of beliefs or feelings, has little going for it.

    Yet that is not what is happening today. People are deciding what is ethical or not on the basis of the facts or the evidence and will change their mind in the light of new evidence. OK sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we go from one extreme to the other, but there is an ongoing debate and in the main we get it right. There is for example no debate about whether murder or rape are right or wrong.

    If that did not occur and we did not change our minds in the light of new evidence we would still be stoning to death women who were not virgins when they married as commanded in Deuteronomy.

  • Matt wrote:
    Consider a culture where it is accepted that that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would an advocate of cultural relativism contend that in such a society criticism by a Christian minority of this practice and the advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow, religious perspective? Would it be true that in such a society public policy could not be based on the ethical principle that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife?

    Carl
    You treat this a ‘counter-example’, but it fails to counter anything that moral relativism holds to. Here we have two groups, one saying wife-beating is “wrong”, one saying it is “right”. On this basis, mere preference, the actions are “wrong” (for the minority) and “right” (for the majority). So where is your counter-example? You have failed to make out any counter-argument.

    And there is no reason public policy could not follow the minority viewpoint of morality. Public policy can be set by minorities as well as majorities. (Public policy is in the realm of law, not morality.)

    Your so-called ‘counter example’ is not in fact a counterargument.

    Matt wrote:
    Consider an Islamic society where the majority believe that conversion to a rival, mono-theistic religion is immoral and should be a capital offence. To not execute converts to Judaism or Christianity in such a society would, according to cultural relativism, be wrong.

    Carl
    Where is the counter-argument here? The facts in fact demonstrate ethical relativism: those who execute are “right”; those who fail to execute are “wrong”. Why? Because they whimsically define morality as such.

    Matt wrote:
    In a society where a racial majority believes a racial minority is sub-human and this belief is widely accepted throughout the culture, it would be unjust to grant equal human rights according to cultural relativism.

    Carl
    Where is the counter example? The majority view is “right”; those seeking equal human rights are “wrong”. Why? Because they whimsically define morality as such.

    You have failed to make out any counter-argument here.

    Matt wrote:
    Suppose an individual believes that it is permissible to rape, torture and kill women. If individual relativism is true it follows that this person is right to do these things and anyone who utters condemnation because they believe rape, torture and murder are wrong are mistaken.

    Carl:
    First, you misunderstand ethical relativism here. There can be no “mistake” within one’s moral viewpoint. What one defines as “right” is “right”; and this holds, even if somebody else says it is “wrong”. There is only personal whim. Anybody may criticise this, and use any means of persuasion, including logic or rhetoric, to do so. Nothing here contradicts moral relativism.

    Again, you have failed to make a valid argument against moral relativism.

    Matt wrote
    Pojman recounts an interview with serial killer Ted Bundy…

    Carl:
    What is you argument here, if anything? Is your inclusion of a quote from Ted Bundy merely emotive? an argument from consequence? or what?

    Matt wrote:
    Now if cultural relativism is correct, Dr King was wrong to do this; segregation was accepted by the society he was in at the time, hence, it was permissible for members of that society.

    Carl:
    Again, your logic is faulty, and fails to provide any counter-example. Under a proper understanding of ethical relativism, King was “right” in the Civil Rights Movement, but he was “wrong” according to other parts of society.

    Contrary views about morality regularly result in friction and clashes between different parties. People may use logical arguments or rhetorical means to persuade other people to adopt their notions of “right” and “wrong”, but their notions remain whims, and their arguments are based ultimately on whim.

    But this does not provide any evidence against moral relativism. To the contrary, in reality it is an example of different and relative notions of “right” and “wrong” negotiating with each other by persuasion and/or force.

    Likewise, anybody who stated that the Civil Rights Movement reflected some “natural justice” or “progression towards a higher standard of justice” is also incorrect. Martin Luther King was involved in nothing but a whimsy — one that was whimsically deemed important at the time.

    Matt wrote:
    Now if we accept relativism, we have to conclude that Dr King was mistaken here.

    Carl
    Incorrect, and a misrepresentaton of ethical relativism. King was not “mistaken”, because one cannot be mistaken about whims. One might as well say that one is “mistaken” to prefer vanilla over strawberry flavours — both being whimsical subjective preferences, nothing more.

    Matt wrote:
    Similar things can be said for the idea of moral progress. Normally we think that certain reforms such as women’s suffrage, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, ending child labour, etc are marks of progress, historical points where a society improves and gets better. However, if relativism is correct this is not the case.

    Carl:
    Now, this statement is correct. There is no objective ‘progress’ in morality. Progress is only a notion in people’s minds.

    However, this again does not provide any counterargument against moral relativism.

    Matt wrote:
    a minority would never be justified in proposing its ideas until it was no longer a minority view.

    Carl:
    This does not follow from ethical relativism (but it might if it were objectively unjust for a minority to propose ideas).

    It is “right” for a minority to impose ideas it believes are “right” to impose.

    Matt wrote:
    Consequently, this requires all societies to be frozen in whatever popular prejudices currently exist.

    Carl:
    So your conclusion does not follow. As different groups pursue different ideas about what is “wrong” and “right”, progress (a mere idea or fancy) is inevitable. For some, this “progress” may be viewed as “deterioration”, of course. Is this not the case with the recent election of a ‘black’ President of the U.S., and the reaction of some Christian fundamentalists? What is championed as “progress” by some is decried as a sign of the end-times tribulation by others. Again – ethical relativism.

    Matt wrote:
    My final argument against relativism is to note that if cultural relativism is true then no practiced widely accepted by a culture is better than a practice accepted by another culture.

    Carl:
    If you’re saying that there is no meta-discourse within which the “good” of one system can be compared with the contrary “good” of another system, then of course you are right. This follows from the very definition of ethical relativism. That is, there is no ‘objective’ locale from which one may judge between whimsical notions of “wrong” and “right”.

    Matt wrote:
    …any suggestion that Bundy’s practises are worse than Mother Teresa’s and he should change and be more like her is mistaken.

    Carl:
    There is no “mistake” about one’s judgment that something is “wrong”. I can call an action “wrong”, and you can call thesame action “right”, and there is no “mistake”. There is only subjective, relativistic whim.

    So, yet again, you fail to provide an actual argument against ethical relativism. You point towards a few consequences, but often do so with an incorrect understanding of ethical relativism, and always with incorrect conclusions.

    You have thus failed to raise a single valid argument againt ethical relativism. However, your own view, moral objectivism, has to posit some weird entity, called an ‘objective moral’, of which there is no proof. Pardon me if I don’t give up my robust ethical relativism for your fantasy.

  • Carl

    I see so my position is mistaken because religious persecution in Islamic countries is really permissible (only an irrational whim says otherwise) and wife beating in such countries is also permissible. Similarly when a culture says that other races are subhuman they are right. And the civil rights movement was incorrect to oppose segregation. Please continue with this line of argument, Its reinforcing precisely the points I was making in my post.

    Turning to your other comments the reference to Ted Bundy is to show the implications of moral relativism ( again learn the difference between consquentialism and modus tollens). If individual moral relativism is correct then Bundys actions were right and those who condemned him were wrong to do so

    You go onto claim “King was “right” in the Civil Rights Movement, but he was “wrong” according to other parts of society.” The problem here is that cultural relativism states that an action is right if ones culture or society supports it not that one is right if part of ones culture or society supports it. ( and there are various other problems which arise if you attempt to modify cultural relativism in this direction)

    you then accuse me of misrepresenting relativism

    “ Incorrect, and a misrepresentaton of ethical relativism. King was not “mistaken”, because one cannot be mistaken about whims. One might as well say that one is “mistaken” to prefer vanilla over strawberry flavours — both being whimsical subjective preferences, nothing more.”

    Sorry Carl but you are misrepresenting relativism here not me, the position you sketch in this paragraph is a meta-ethical position known as emotivism ( the claim that moral locutions are simply expressions of preference) cultural ethical relativism is a different position to this. Cultural relativism maintain that there are correct moral norms, those ones culture accepts. My post was not about emotivism it was about relativism.

    Finally you state that objective morality is a fantasy because no proof exists for such a thing. The problem is that your own view has the same problem, you ground morality in other people’s preferences, one cannot prove however that other people have preferences either. I can directly perceive my own preferences but I can only perceive other peoples outward behaviour and listen to them telling me that they I have preferences. And no philosopher has ever proposed a compelling proof that other people have preferences ( the arguments here are probably less conclusive than the arguments for the existence of God). So by your logic your own position is a fantasy.

  • Matt, what is your view on this statement (from my link above):
    “Third, it is important to distinguish subjective morality from moral relativism, which claims that moral views differ between different contexts or cultures, and from moral nihilism, which states that there is no morality or that morality does not matter. One possible implication of moral relativism, which is quite often wrongly inferred as being contained in the general class of subjective meta-ethics, is the view that moral statements can only be considered applicable in the context in which they are uttered.”

    I seem to be confusing “subjective morality” and “moral relativism”.

    The logic of Subjective morality and Objective morality I find clean and easy to understand, I find the logic of “moral relativism” vague.

    It seems to me that Bundy was a moral nihilist.

  • Matt:
    I see so my position is mistaken because religious persecution in Islamic countries is really permissible (only an irrational whim says otherwise) and wife beating in such countries is also permissible. Similarly when a culture says that other races are subhuman they are right. And the civil rights movement was incorrect to oppose segregation. Please continue with this line of argument, Its reinforcing precisely the points I was making in my post.

    Carl:
    More appeal to emotion. It’s revealing that when an objectist’s examples are challenged, they are revealed to be no more than fallacious consequentialist arguments. That is no argument against moral relativism. In fact, it is only restating what moral relativism itself states, which is that morality depends on nothing more than the prevailing opinion of society.

    You want to pretend that the consequences are ‘absurd’ — but they are anything but. They reflect reality — an Islamic worldview and moral code is at times completely contradictory to the modern humanist West. Who’s really surprised at this??? Who out there didn’t know that some Islamic states have laws which we think are repugnant, and vice versa. Ever heard of the clash of civilizations, Matt?

    What’s absurd is your claim that, in addition to ethical relativism’s explanation of ethical principles as deriving from societal opinion / choice / whim, there must be some ‘objective moral principle’ floating around somewhere in reality. Not only is this wishful thinking and delusion, but it serves no explanatory purpose whatsoever.

    But go on, provide another emotive, consequentialist arguments — it will hide the fact that you lack even one logical argument against ethical relativism.

    Matt:
    Turning to your other comments the reference to Ted Bundy is to show the implications of moral relativism ( again learn the difference between consquentialism and modus tollens). If individual moral relativism is correct then Bundys actions were right and those who condemned him were wrong to do so

    Carl:
    Again, you misunderstand ethical relativism. Bundy may well have considered he was right (in fact, I think he was an ethical nihilist, having read the quote you provided earlier, but I’ll pretend he was an individual ethical relativist). If so, Bundy thought he was right. But there is no logical rule than means his opinion must be held by anybody else. So, if everybody else held that he was wrong, they would be right to condemn him.

    Again, you have no argument against ethical relativism.

    Matt:
    You go onto claim “King was “right” in the Civil Rights Movement, but he was “wrong” according to other parts of society.” The problem here is that cultural relativism states that an action is right if ones culture or society supports it not that one is right if part of ones culture or society supports it.

    Carl:
    This is factually incorrect, a straw man. In ethical relativism, “society” or “culture” is whatever group which holds a certain ethical opinion. I doubt very much you can raise any problem with this, given your inability to raise a single argument against ethical relativism so far.

    Matt:
    Sorry Carl but you are misrepresenting relativism here not me, the position you sketch in this paragraph is a meta-ethical position known as emotivism

    Carl:
    I know the difference between ethical relativism and emotivism. My analogy concerned the common element of “choice” between ethics and food-tasting. Unlike emotivists, I do not reduce ethics to something else (eg like/dislike). Ethics is different, but the same in respect of being opinion-based.

    Matt:
    one cannot prove however that other people have preferences either. I can directly perceive my own preferences but I can only perceive other peoples outward behaviour and listen to them telling me that they I have preferences.

    Carl:
    Functionalist nonsense. Personal preferences are known empiracally, and that’s a good deal more than positing some weird entity called ‘objective morality’ which explains nothing more about morality than empirically measured personal preferences already measure.

    As everything observable about morality is already explained by ethical relativism — without any absurd consequences — why should I also accept a theory than posits some weird entity called ‘objective morals’ which offers no further explanations? Now, that would be absurd.

  • Thinking about your argument from absurdity some more, it is clear to me why it cannot possibly succeed:

    Either you:
    1. provide a real-life example of the clash of moral codes (say between Islamic states and modernist humanist states), which cannot be factually absurd — because it is factually the case!
    2. provide a hypothetical example of a really absurd moral code (say, where rape is encouraged, mass murder is really good, and everything is highly odd an unusual), which doesn’t in fact exist (because no society we can envisage existing would ever choose it) — and so it can only be absurd if it is applied to a society we can’t imagine existing; conversely it won’t be absurd to any society we can imagine existing!

    In each of these approaches, the argument from absurdity completely fails.

    This is nothing more than an emotive, consequentialist argument — a fallacious way of proceeding. So Matt, you’ve failed to raise a single valid argument against moral relativism. And as your imaginary ‘objective morals’ don’t explain anything at all, I’m not inclined to accept their existence.

  • Carl

    Calling a modus tollens that appeals to an intuitively obvious principle “fallicous” “emotive” and “consquentialist” does not make it so. I suggest strongly you take some time to learn what each of these technical terms actually mean.

    But to address your last post, actually I could make the argument from absurdity stronger. With an example that could occur in the real world.

    Suppose Ahmed is a member of a strict Muslim society which teaches that it’s never under *any circumstance* for someone to worship a Hindu god. After a trip to India Ahmed converts to Hinduism and joins a Hindu community which teaches that it is permissible to worship Hindu gods.

    Relativism entails that Ahmed has a duty to not worship Hindu Gods, when Ahmed was a member of the Islamic community he had a duty to not worship such Gods under any circumstances, which means he had a duty to not do so even if he converted to Hinduism. On the other hand Ahmed is a member of the Hindu community and hence by cultural relativism is permitted to worship Hindu gods.

    So if cultural relativism is true it follows that Ahmed has a duty to never worship a Hindu god and he also is permitted to worship Hindu Gods. Relativism then in real life situations entails that contradictions can be true, which is absurd.

    There is also the problem that one community might believe that it is permitted to lay down binding rules for members of other communities. If it believes this then you have a problem. Relativism will entail that members of the first community can lay down binding rules for other communities, even if these other communities don’t believe in them and it also entails that members of other communities are not bound by rules which other societies lay down. Another contradiction.

    I can multiply cases, not only does relativism entail self evident absurdities such as that rape is permitted for entertainment if a society believes it is. It also entails that contradictions can be true.

  • Carl

    Turning to your earlier post.

    You write “More appeal to emotion. It’s revealing that when an objectist’s examples are challenged, they are revealed to be no more than fallacious consequentialist arguments.”

    My argument is [1] If cultural relativism is true then if a society permits people to engage in rape, or wife beating, or killing religious and ethnic minorities then people are justified in doing these things [2] its not the case that such people are justified in raping, or wife beating, or killing religious and ethnic minorities, therefore, [3] its not the case that relativism is true.

    This is *not* a fallacious inference, it’s a modus tollens If P then Q not Q therefore not P. Its not a consquentialist argument, it appeals not to the empirical consequences of a position but to the logical implications of it. Nor is it an appeal to emotion, [1] appeals to the logical implications of cultural relativism [2] appeals to intuitively obvious moral claims [3] appeals to the inference rule modus tollens. There is no appeal to mere emotion, hence everything you is incorrect.

    The best I can tell your only real argument against my position is to dispute [2] you suggest that the claim that wife beating and persecution is not absurd because “an Islamic worldview and moral code is at times completely contradictory to the modern humanist West.” This is not a rebuttal. The fact that some people or cultures disagree with a claim does not mean the claim is not absurd. You admit this in the very next paragraph you state that t “ What’s absurd is [my] claim that…, there must be some ‘objective moral principle’ floating around somewhere in reality” But many people and cultures would disagree with your assessment here, including Muslim ones. So by your own admission the mere fact that someone disputes something does not mean it’s not absurd.

    You dispute my Bundy example “Bundy may well have considered he was right ..But there is no logical rule than means his opinion must be held by anybody else. So, if everybody else held that he was wrong, they would be right to condemn him.”
    The problem is that if you read my article I used Bundy as a counter example to individual ethical relativism not to cultural ethical relativism, so the misrepresentation here is yours not mine.

    Interestingly however in the next paragraph you accuse me of misrepresentation stating “. In ethical relativism, “society” or “culture” is whatever group which holds a certain ethical opinion.” But if this so then contrary to what you say, there is a logical rule that everyone else in society must agree with him. A society is a group of people who share moral opinions, if people do not share Bundy’s opinion they are not part of the same society as him, only those who do are. Hence, by your definition, it’s logically impossible in virtue of the definition of society for everyone in Bundy’s society to not agree with him. Again what you affirm in one paragraph is contradicted in the next.

    Finally you turn to the argument that objective moral principles cannot be empirically observed. I noted the same is true of other peoples preferences you stated “Functionalist nonsense. Personal preferences are known empiracally, and that’s a good deal more than positing some weird entity called ‘objective morality’”

    This is not functionalism merely an appeal to the well known epistemological problem of other minds. And contrary to your assertion you do not empirically observe other peoples preferences or desires. You can observe your own and you can observe other peoples behaviour. But I have never in my life felt anyone’s preferences or desires except my own. The point is that your own position assumes the existence of entities which cannot be observed or proven, hence if that’s a problem with objectivism it’s a problem of relativism and simply calling something nonsense is hardly a rebuttal.

    Finally you state “everything observable about morality is already explained by ethical relativism — why should I also accept a theory than posits some weird entity called ‘objective morals’ which offers no further explanations” One problem here is that it seems to me that a similar line of argument is applicable against relativism. After all I think nihilism can explain our moral experience as just as much as relativism can. The idea that we all mistakenly believe in objective moral rules when their in fact are none. Explains our moral experience and it is even more economical than relativism is because it does not need to postulate binding societal conventions. Hence relativism by your argument is absurd and we should adopt Nihilism.

    Of course one can parody this line of argument further, Bertrand Russell the idea that the whole world, including all apparent memories and evidence of age, popped in existence 7 minutes ago explains all our memories and evidence for the age of the earth and I would note that it does so without postulating the existence of billions of years in time and untold entities that existed in that time. So presumably then belief in the past must be absurd as well. The past however is a weird thing in that people can only experience the present.

  • Andrew

    Whether Bundy himself was a Nihilist or not is actually tangential to my argument. The point is he did not believe that what he did was wrong. If an action is wrong only if the individual performing it believes it is (which is what individual relativism affirms) then Bundy’s actions were not wrong. I take this as a reduction absurdum of individual relativism.

    As to what I think of the statement you cite. I think relativism, nihilism and subjectivism( as you define it) are very different positions. They have a different understanding of the function of moral language. As I understand it relativisms and nihilism both accept that when someone says “rape is wrong” they are referring to an act in the world ( rape) and attributing a property (the property of wrongness) to that action. Hence moral language makes claims that describe the world and are either true or false. True if rape has the property in question false if it does not. They disagree however over what this property must be and whether it exists. Relativists believe the property does exist and thing it either is or supervenes upon human conventions. Nihilisms believe the property would have to be a non-natural objective property and for this reason argue that no such properties exist.

    Subjectivists on the other hand deny that moral language functions in a descriptive sense at all. When one says rape is wrong they are not attributing a property to the action of rape at all they are simply expressing their feelings about rape. moral language simply expresses ones desires and does not make any claims at all whether true or false.

    I am inclined to think that one factor behind all these positions is an attempt to make sense out of morality once atheism is granted. Relativists recognise that moral properties cannot exist independently of a persons mind or volition, hence identify it with human cognition and volition. Nihilisms recognise that moral properties are non natural and seeing the supernatural cannot exist claim morality does not exist. Subejctivists recognise that moral language expresses a persons desires and seeing an expression of desire cannot also be an objective property reject it attributes such properties to anything .

    A divine command theory unifies all these ideas by calling into question atheism. On a divine command theory. Moral properties do exist, it is the property of being in conformity with the commands of God. This means that moral properties do express desires (The desires of a fully informed virtuous person) are identified with the rules laid down by a person( a divine person) that exist objectively and are non natural in the nihilist sense.(they are commands of a non natural person who exists independently of human cognition).

  • As Dr. Niclas Berggren puts it: “objective morality is meant a moral view which claims that there exists a morality which is external to human beings.”
    “subjective morality denotes the view that moral views are nothing but human opinions, the origin of which is biological, social, and psychological.”

    I think it’s impossible to prove one over the other, just like it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God.

    But, if we look at the moral codes that have existed across different societies throughout history you’ll find that when a society has struggled, the moral codes are strict, while in bountiful times moral codes become lax.(Muslims see the West as “decadent”, I’m amused at how often I hear those on the conservative right condemn them for this description who then turn around and decry the lax moral codes we now have. I’ll bet anything that if/as the muslim world becomes more wealthy, it’ll become more “decadent” as to date that’s whats been happening.)

    If we look at a “society” under mortal threat, a unit of soldiers, we find the moral codes very strict. Strict moral codes increase conformity within a society, greater conformity leads to a society being better able to deal with external threats, human or otherwise. A bit like the open hand vs a fist thing.

    This behaviour that we see in humans, and which we also see in other social animals, is for me the strongest evidence that moral codes are the product of biology and society and thus morality is subject.

  • This has been a great dialogue Thanks Matt, Carl, and Andrew for the time you have spent!!

    The dialogue is almost worthy of becoming a post (as it is already dropping down the list and less people will see it.)

    For me a it has been great to see some ethical relativists “live” in action against Matt and his reply’s this has been great for me as I have never seen a well reasoned Divine theory/ objective moralist in action against a reasoned Relativists on a blog before.

  • Matt, thanks for your attempts to find further absurdities. As I demonstrated above, your attempt to find ‘really wacky’ situations is bound to fail, logically. So, it’s interesting that you switched to arguing for an inherent contradiction in the logic of ethical relativism. You’re incorrect again, but at least you’re looking for an alternative argument.

    [I’ll first note that there’s no need to pretend to be be the only one aware of philosophical terminology. As I received a scholarship for first place in philosophy when at university, I’m quite aware of the basics. Now, I am prepared to accept that you think that you have a logical argument against ethical relativism (albeit wrongly). But as your arguments all fail for invalidity, they are indeed ‘fallacious’. And the only force remaining is some appeal to emotion, which isn’t any logical argument at all, I’m sure you agree.]

    Now, to more substantial matters. You wrote:

    So if cultural relativism is true it follows that Ahmed has a duty to never worship a Hindu god and he also is permitted to worship Hindu Gods. Relativism then in real life situations entails that contradictions can be true, which is absurd.

    This is a logically invalid argument. In reality, there is no absurdity. All that there is is a difference in subjective opinion. There is no contradiction in reality. The law of non-contradiction applies only to objective reality, not to subjective opinion. While it is false that there cannot be both x and non-x, it is true that there can be an opinion that there is x and another (contradictory) opinion at the same time that there is non-x.

    You have misapplied the law against non-contradiction to a subjective situation, when it applies only to objective reality. If ethics are in fact subjective opinion, as I hold, it is quite possible (and quite common) for people to have different, even opposing opinions. In the case of certain Hindus and certain Muslims, there are different, contradictory moral opinions about polytheism. But this is what we would expect from subjective opinions. While one culture declares a certain action “wrong”, another declares it “right”. This is quite in line with expectations, and thus quite the opposite of an “absurd” situation.

    Perhaps your presumption that ethics are ‘objective’ blinded you on this one.

    Obviously then, if my response is correct, your logical error persists in your second argument concerning ‘contradiction’:

    There is also the problem that one community might believe that it is permitted to lay down binding rules for members of other communities. If it believes this then you have a problem. Relativism will entail that members of the first community can lay down binding rules for other communities, even if these other communities don’t believe in them and it also entails that members of other communities are not bound by rules which other societies lay down. Another contradiction

    Viewed as a clash of subjective opinions, there is again no absurdity. In fact, the situation you describe is the expected norm of colonizing situations – far from being an ‘absurdity’.

    A binding rule laid down as “right” by a colonizer is freqently seen to be ignored on the grounds that it is “wrong” by the colonized. The European colonizers of New Zealand laid down the rule that Maori children should not speak Maori in school. They considered it “right”, because English was thought to be better for them. Many of the Maori children continued speaking Maori because they considered doing so was “good”. What we have here is a contradiction in subjective opinions about “good” and “bad”. This is not “absurd”, and no examples you raise about the real world can be “absurd” – for we are dealing with the frequent contradictions between one subjective opinion and another. This kind of thing is expected.

    You have failed to point to a single objective contradiction entailed in ethical relativism. You have also failed to point to a single absurd consequence of the explanation of moral behaviour by moral relativism.

    In the absence of any logical argument against moral relativism, you can always repeat your appeal to emotion with examples about strange mass raping societies which don’t exist, but this is no more than an appeal to emotion. You have no logical argument against moral relativism.

    And I don’t imagine you will ever be able to come up with one. I know of no way to make an argument that defends objective morality over relative morality, or vice versa. They are basic assumptions. As I said earlier, I would not embrace moral objectivity, merely because I don’t seeing explaining anything in addition to moral relativism. That is, I use an economic basis for not bothering with the weird entity that objective morality posits. But I don’t know of a logical argument which could determine the issue. I suspect you might be a bit existentially close to your topic to see that the arguments you raise are invalid.

  • Ted Bundy killed, raped over 30 young women in the 70’s. Necrophilia was one of his favourite practices as was mutilation (one time he used a crowbar to rip the body apart). Irrespective of his foul and perverted deeds Ted converted to Christianity on Death Row. So if we believe in the Christian ethos, Ted is now at Gods side in heaven along with Mother Teresa, right? Remind us again how it works? Forgiveness for sins absolves even mass-murderers, yet a kindly atheist goes to burn in hell – or did I miss something? Ta. Paul.

  • Paul, Ted Bundy is quite likely to be in Purgatory until the end of time – if he really converted and really avoided Hell. So, you don’t need to worry about him getting the benefits of Heaven just yet.

  • Hmm, sorry I got it wrong again, I had misinterpreted the principals of Christian forgiveness. I believed if you repented your sins you’d would be absolved even using house-hold appliances to violate dead-women (trust me on this one, I read a book on Bundy)

    By the way, purgatory is a man-made invention & has no scriptural basis – so Ted is either in Heaven or Hell?

    Which one is it?

    Do mass-murderers get a 'get out of jail card' or not?

    See ya.

    Paul

  • Perhaps your presumption that ethics are ‘objective’ blinded you on this one.

    Ethics have to be objective or they don’t exist. If they are not objective, there is no ought.

    What we have here is a contradiction in subjective opinions about “good” and “bad”. This is not “absurd”

    The situation is not absurd in and of itself, it is absurd if one wants to claim there is a real morality here. How can the ought to speak Maori and ought to not speak Maori (in the same context at the same time) both be true.

    The law of non-contradiction applies only to objective reality, not to subjective opinion.

    How so? One person can like yellow and another not, but I cannot both like and not like yellow in the same context.

  • Forgiveness for sins absolves even mass-murderers, yet a kindly atheist goes to burn in hell – or did I miss something?

    The argument from outrage?

    How does this exactly relate to this thread other than Bundy being an example for relativism?

  • “Ethics have to be objective or they don’t exist.”

    unsupported assertion, ethics are opinions, opinions exist.

  • Carl

    I did not suggest that I am the only one aware of philosophical terminology. I suggested that you were misusing it. As I pointed out in my last post my argument is not invalid, nor is it an appeal to emotion, nor is it a consquentialist argument, you misunderstand or misuse each of these terms in your post. Your continually repeating these errors and then misrepresenting my position as claiming that “only I know” the meaning of these terms is not an adequate answer.

    But to more substantive matters; You are correct that subjective opinions can contradict each other and there is no absurdity here. What can’t be the case is that both these opinions be true. The problem is that cultural relativism entails that they can be, remember the definition of cultural relativism I put forward. Cultural Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action. Now my point is not that this position entails that Ahmed *actually* has a duty to not worship Hindu gods and also that it is actually permissible for Ahmed to worship hindu Gods, at the same time. Hence there is a contradiction in reality about what Ahmed’s duties actually are.

    Its important to note ( as Andrew does in his post) that Relativism does not deny that people actually in reality have duties. According to relativism it is objectively true that a person has a duty to do whatever their society endorses. What relativism denies is that a person has these duties independently of cultural endorsement. This however still leaves open the possibility that a culture may lay upon their members contradictory mores and if this is the case, relativism will entail that it’s a fact, that in reality, they its permissible for them to do X and not permissible for them to do X. Hence relativism entails that it can be true in reality that a person be permitted to do X and also that a person be not permitted to do X. and as you note contradictions cannot be true in reality.

    Finally on a different point, you suggested that “mass raping societies” do not provide a counter example to relativism because such societies do not exist. Now as a matter of fact I nowhere refered to mass raping societies, but even if I had your rejoinder is mistaken. Relativism entails that its impossible for a society to endorse something that is wrong. Something is wrong for you if and only if your society condemns that action. Hence, all that’s needed to refute relativism is that such cases be possible. If I propose a theory that entails p then all that’s needed to refute it is no p. and the negation of impossibility is possibility.

  • Canterbury Atheists

    I doubt from reading your blog you are actually interested in sincere dialogue. However in case I am mistaken I will say three things here.

    1. Your comments here actually have nothing to do with the reference to Bundy in the post. There I simply noted that according to Bundy’s professed beliefs what he did was not wrong; therefore if Individual ethical relativism is true Bundy did not act wrongly. I take it as intuitively obvious that his actions were wrong.

    2. Your comments are based on the atheist caricature that God sends people to literally burn in torture merely for not believing in him. A position I addressed here

    3. Its not clear what the purported injustice you appeal to is. If the eschatological punishment the unrepentant receive is unjust, how is the repentant not getting it unjust? Should everyone be treated unjustly because some people are? On the other hand if the punishment that non repentant people receive is just, on what basis do they complain that a repentant person receives mercy, it can’t be that the unrepentant are being treated unfairly, its stipulated that the penalty they receive is just? So it can only be that others (the unrepentant) are getting favourable treatment. Apparently then the issue is that if you others are benefited and they want everyone to be as miserable as they are?

    When you have a well thought out objection that is not based on caricatures and specifies exactly what your concerns are I will consider it.

  • Happy New Year, Matt. I hadn’t noticed any reply from you earlier. Sorry for the delay in my response.

    Matt wrote:
    You are correct that subjective opinions can contradict each other and there is no absurdity here. What can’t be the case is that both these opinions be true. The problem is that cultural relativism entails that they can be, remember the definition of cultural relativism I put forward. Cultural Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action.

    Carl:
    Under the conditions of moral relativism, an ethical opinion is judged ‘true’ by whichever society one is in. So, if the New Zealander Bob were to be a member of a paedophile ring, and he says that ‘Kiddy porn is good’, then his statement is true when subjectively judged by the paedophile ring, but false when judged by wider New Zealand society. The statement is both true and false at the same time, but only either true or false in relation to one particular group.

    While it would be absurd to think that the judgment of a single group – in a simple case such as this – would say that their moral judgment is both ‘true’ and ‘not true’, it is not at all absurd that different groups make different judgments. As an evangelical Christian, you would recognise that many of your ethical judgments do not coincide with the ethical judgments of the wider society in New Zealand. As an ethical relativist, this is quite explicable, and rather than ‘absurd’, it is quite to be expected.

    Matt wrote:
    …Hence there is a contradiction in reality about what Ahmed’s duties actually are.

    Carl
    In reality, there is no contradiction. No group is saying that Ahmed’s moral actions both contradict and at the same time agree with their judgment of Ahmed’s moral actions.

    And such a result accords with common sense – with what we would expect.

    Matt wrote:
    …According to relativism it is objectively true that a person has a duty to do whatever their society endorses. What relativism denies is that a person has these duties independently of cultural endorsement.

    Carl
    Right. Or, to put it another way, the only ‘objectivity’ of ethics subsists in some agreement between certain people as to what that ethical standard is. But, the underlying ethical standard does not itself exist, but remains subjective.

    Matt wrote:
    This however still leaves open the possibility that a culture may lay upon their members contradictory mores and if this is the case, relativism will entail that it’s a fact, that in reality, they its permissible for them to do X and not permissible for them to do X. Hence relativism entails that it can be true in reality that a person be permitted to do X and also that a person be not permitted to do X. and as you note contradictions cannot be true in reality.

    Carl
    Here you would benefit from distinguishing, as I have above, between the subjectivity of an ethical standard and the objectivity of the agreement concerning the ethical standard. That is, while it may be objectively agreed between two parties (as an objective event in reality) that a certain duty or ethical standard should pertain, only the agreement is objective; that which is agreed upon is not.

    And here, as a bit of fun, is an ad absurdum argument which employs a close analogy – just because you earlier had some doubts that I could understand the logic involved in such an argument 😉
    What if two parties were to (objectively) agree that Matt should not exist. According to an objectivist wisher (as analogous to an objectivist ethicist), the mere objectively of the agreement would entail that you ceased to exist, Matt! But, if you were to point out to them (assuming you had not ceased to exist, of course) that while their agreement was objective, the content of their agreement was a subjective wish, then they might be logically persuaded that their wishing was not objective, but only subjective.

    I was obviously having some fun there, but hopefully the point is clear: there is no objective contradiction arising from ethical relativism. The only contradictions are subjective (which are, as you agree, quite logically permissable).

    Matt wrote:
    Finally on a different point, you suggested that “mass raping societies” do not provide a counter example to relativism because such societies do not exist… your rejoinder is mistaken. Relativism entails that its impossible for a society to endorse something that is wrong. Something is wrong for you if and only if your society condemns that action. Hence, all that’s needed to refute relativism is that such cases be possible. If I propose a theory that entails p then all that’s needed to refute it is no p. and the negation of impossibility is possibility.

    Carl
    But I do not argue that your ‘rape for entertainment’ society, or what I described as a ‘mass raping society’, is impossible. To the contrary, I have earlier pointed out that many societies breed a certain section of their population for forced prostitution, and so that ‘rape for entertainment’ and ‘mass raping societies’ do exist.

    What I was in fact arguing is that within such societies there would be no absurdity. I’ll attempt to explain this in more detail. I think you might agree that it is difficult to imagine or conceive – on purely pragmatic grounds – of the cultural factors and determinates which would lead to widespread rape throughout a stable society or widespread rape-for-entertainment. The cultural factors which would lead to such a situation are highly difficult to envisage. This being the case, and before any ethical consideration is made, the system of morality which makes rape-for-entertainment morally good can only apply to a situation which is culturally absurd, to that which we have trouble imagining could have culturally developed at all.

    So all that your argument says is that, given an absurd factual/cultural situation, the ethical system might possibly also be absurd from the point-of-view of our present (non-absurd) cicumstances. Well, that’s what we would expect from an ethical relativist understanding. Given an absurd cultural/factual agreement, we would expect concomitant absurd ethical agreements. So while there would be an absurd (or highly unusual) situation (from the mainstream New Zealand point of view today), if cultural circumstances were absurdly different, so would ethics be. And so, there is no absurdity within your possible situation, which is where the absurdity must reside in order for your argument to be a good one, but a completely expected matching of absurd circumstances and absurd ethics (both only being ‘absurd’ from a mainstream New Zealand point of view, not within such an odd society).

    So, you have still failed to raise any objection against ethical relativism. I don’t know of any good objections, so I would have been surprised if you had come up with any.

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