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Moral Relativism ?? Good, Bad, or ...... ?

 
 
husker
 
Reply Tue 11 May, 2004 12:25 pm
Moral Relativism - What's It All About?
What is it? What's it all about? Where are we going with it in our culture?
Is it a left\right brain thing? A Demo or Repub thing? A Christian or nonChristian thing?

Quote:
Moral Relativism is the theory that morality, or standards of right and wrong, are culturally based and therefore become a matter of individual choice. You decide what's right for you, and I'll decide what's right for me. Moral relativism says, "It's true for me, if I believe it."
 
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 May, 2004 12:55 pm
It does not follow that if morality is "culturally based" it is a matter of personal choice as "culture" rests heavily on a common language which constrains and converges the thinking of individual members. Group identity, idiolect and morality are closely linked concepts, and since we may have simultaneous allegience to several groups then "moral conflict" is to be expected.
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 May, 2004 01:50 pm
Well stated, Fresco. But it may be observed that there IS an individual-oriented notion of culture, espoused mainly by some psychological anthropologists. It de-emphaizes the SHAREDnes of culture, holding that the true locus of culture is the individual psyche, despite the fact that an individual cannot be enculturated without membership in some kind of group, and a society cannot function without a minimal level of cultural sharedness. The transmission of culture IS intergenerational. Nevertheless, the assumption of sharedness, while useful for many purposes--and the dominant notion of anthropology textbooks--cannot explain culture change without reference to the individual "cultural entrepreneur" (and this includes everyday people, not just philosophers and artists). Moreover, the difference between culture and personality from this perspective is seen in some ways as a "false dichotomy" (see Melford Spiro). I would look at this matter stereoscopically, as it were. Since cultures are always to various extents complex, individuals can pick and choose from different, often contradictory, moral principles in forging ethical/moral judgements and strategies. So the individual is a vital component of the moral process. Nevertheless, he must have an inherited inventory of rules and values to pick from, and he must have language and other culturally constituted cognitive bases even to rebel against hegemonic moral codes.
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fresco
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 May, 2004 03:34 pm
JLN,

Point taken on "entrepreneurship" (but "systems dynamics" waves from the sidelines :wink: )

Perhaps "moral relativism" can best be discussed in contrast to "moral absolutes" or questions of "inalienable human rights" etc. It seems to me that such ideals are based on a concept of an acultural "common humanity". But the problem then becomes one of where or whether any boundary is drawn vis a vis "animal rights" etc. It is easy to see how "religion" is tied into reifying assorted arbitrary lines in the sand.
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 May, 2004 07:31 pm
Yes indeed, religion has served to define HUMAN rights as absolute, and quite distinct from those of animals. A ramification of this is seen in areas of Mexico where non-indians have historically (and continue to do so in the southeastern state of Chiapas) defined "Indians" as "not quite human." I exaggerate only slightly in describing this as a strategy to define "Indians" as subhuman in order to exploit them with moral impunity--much as all humans (with the possible exception of Hindus vis-a-vis cattle) exploit soul-less animals.
I have noticed that anthropologists claim that if it were not for "the anthropological record" people would be more inclined to be moral absolutists. The variation across the planet of moral systems permits us to see the relativity of it all. Some have suggested that if the world were to truly "globalize," that is to say, if we humans were to be reduced to a world of one culture, we would be inclined to moral absolutism. I have argued that so long as we understand the nature of culture, of its role in the creation of ideational systems, we will always have to take culture into account. This would be so to understand the cultural underpinnings of behavior even a world characterized by a global culture which has no living alternatives with which to be compared. We would, however, always have "the historical record" (of dead cultures) to provide the necessary contrasts.
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joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Wed 12 May, 2004 09:23 am
To the extent that moral relativism is moral, it is not relative.

To the extent that moral relativism is relative, it is not moral.
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 May, 2004 09:54 pm
Does that mean, Joe, that if other cultural sytems profess moral values that contradict ours, either their morals OR our morals are not morals? How do we objectively determine which side is right? Science does not address matters of value; can logic? It would seem that since logic starts from premises that are somewhat arbitrary, no "objective" conclusion is available from that quarter.
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rufio
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 May, 2004 10:26 pm
Morality is individual, not cultural, I think. It's not entirely relative just because there are some things that all humans agree on, by virtue of being human beings. Things that people decide are "right" or "wrong", once boiled down to the REASONS for their groupings, wind up being mostly the same and relatively simple.
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joefromchicago
 
  3  
Reply Thu 13 May, 2004 08:59 am
JLN: First of all, let's put aside the notion of cultural relativism for the moment. In Husker's initial post, after all, the quotation suggested that morality is an "individual choice."

Secondly, we need at least a working definition of "morality." Morality is susceptible to a variety of different definitions, and I don't intend to get into the finer points of the debate. For our purposes, then, I'll simply define "morality" as a system of beliefs regarding right and wrong conduct.

1. To the extent that moral relativism is moral, it is not relative.
If morality is, at its core, a system of beliefs regarding right and wrong conduct, then moral relativism posits that each person can operate under different sets of beliefs. More importantly, moral relativism posits that no one set of beliefs is entitled to precedence over another: in other words, there is no "correct" morality, just individual sets of beliefs. Thus if person X believes that lying is wrong, whereas person Y believes that lying is right, the doctrinaire moral relativist would assert that X is moral insofar as he does not lie, and Y is moral insofar as he does lie. Furthermore, there is no standard by which X could condemn Y's actions or his set of beliefs as "immoral," since Y is moral to the extent that Y's actions conform to Y's moral beliefs.

This argument, however, rests on an insoluble paradox (as I have pointed out elsewhere). For if all moralities are equal, what do we do with the personal moral belief that holds that no one else's moral beliefs are to be respected? For instance, X, in the above hypothetical, might say: "not only does my personal set of beliefs hold that lying is immoral, but it also holds that I am not obliged to respect anyone else's beliefs that conflict with my moral code." If X is correct (as the moral relativists would have to agree), then Y's morality is immoral. If, on the other hand, X is not correct, then there must be some objective moral belief that can resolve the dispute.

In fact, moral relativism rests on an objective set of beliefs: most importantly is the belief in some level of respect for others. Under moral relativism, X cannot impose his beliefs on Y because it would be immoral to do so, yet that presupposes that there is at least one moral precept (i.e. respect for others) that is not relative.

Consequently, if moral relativism is, in fact, a type of morality, it rests upon an objective standard. To the extent, therefore, that it is moral, it is not relative.

2. To the extent that moral relativism is relative, it is not moral.
If morality is a set of beliefs regarding right and wrong conduct, then there must be some standard by which we can distinguish this set of beliefs from purely arbitrary choices. If, for instance, X believes that lying is wrong, then we can only call this a moral belief if we can distinguish it from a belief that is either "immoral" or "amoral." Otherwise, there would be no reason to label the belief "moral" as opposed to something else, like "personal preference" or "arbitrary whim."

Yet if X's morality is truly personal, then X is under no objective obligation to maintain a consistent set of moral beliefs. If he were under such an obligation, it would either be because he set up such an obligation for himself -- and then he could always discard that moral precept whenever he saw fit to do so -- or else he was under an objective obligation -- and that possibility is removed under moral relativism. As a result, X is free to maintain both that lying is wrong and that lying is right, since the only thing that would prevent him from taking these inconsistent positions would be another moral precept that prohibited inconsistency, and, as we have seen, X is either under no such obligation or else is under an obligation that he imposed upon himself and which would be no more binding than any other self-imposed moral precept.

What is "moral," therefore, is whatever a person chooses to do, since a person can always declare that any particular act conforms to that person's set of beliefs. If X says "lying is wrong," X is also free to say "but in this case, I am right to make an exception," and there would be no standard by which we could say that he was incorrect in either instance. Thus, moral relativism cannot distinguish between "moral" acts and "immoral" acts. There is no independent standard by which the distinction can be made, which makes a definition impossible. A "moral act," then, is the same as a "capricious act" or an "arbitrary act," and "morality" has no independent meaning. Thus, to the extent that moral relativism is relative, it is not moral.

3. Cultural relativism
Many of the foregoing remarks apply to an examination of cultural relativism. If, for instance, culture X holds that lying is wrong, while culture Y holds that lying is right, are we obliged to say that both cultures are correct? Insofar as we are not required to say that the differing individual moralities of persons X and Y are correct, I think we are likewise under no requirement to say that the differing cultural moralities of cultures X and Y are correct. After all, if we hold that respecting cultural diversity is objectively right, then we maintain that, at least on one level, cultural relativism does not apply. On the other hand, if we hold that every culture is right as to itself, then we are either maintaining that there is a moral obligation to remain consistent within the culture (which again sets up an objective standard), or else we maintain that a culture is right in whatever it does (which makes "morality" the same thing as "wilfullness"). Thus, cultural relativism leads us into the same paradoxes that confront us when we deal with individual relativism.
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rufio
 
  2  
Reply Thu 13 May, 2004 11:42 am
The problem, joe, is that you aren't thinking from the point of veiw of the individual, or even of the culture. You're thinking from the point of veiw of some overarching determiner of morality. If such a thing existed, than none of these problems would arise, would they? For each person and for each culture, there is a clearly defined set of morals, that does not contradict itself. It's translation when given to and interpreted by other conflicts, but that is because it is not easy to explain morality. But X has a reason for being against lying, and Y has a reason for being for it. AND THE REASONS ARE OBJECTIVELY THE SAME. If not for lying specifically, than the reason manifests itself elsewhere. Maybe X's reason for hating lying is the same as Y's reason for hating stealing, and Y's reason for liking lying is the same a X's reason for liking literature. The confusion only arises because a ) Lying means one thing to X and another to Y, and b ) X and Y don't know each other's reasons.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Thu 13 May, 2004 12:21 pm
rufio wrote:
The problem, joe, is that you aren't thinking from the point of veiw of the individual, or even of the culture. You're thinking from the point of veiw of some overarching determiner of morality.

What gave you that idea?

rufio wrote:
If such a thing existed, than none of these problems would arise, would they? For each person and for each culture, there is a clearly defined set of morals, that does not contradict itself.

Is that true empirically or logically? In other words, is every moral code self-consistent because there has been no internally inconsistent moral code in human history, or because there can be no such thing as an internally inconsistent moral code?

rufio wrote:
It's translation when given to and interpreted by other conflicts, but that is because it is not easy to explain morality.

Well, you're certainly proving the truth of that.

rufio wrote:
But X has a reason for being against lying, and Y has a reason for being for it. AND THE REASONS ARE OBJECTIVELY THE SAME.

Given the entirely hypothetical existences of X and Y (as well as their individual moral codes), I must inquire: how do you know that?

rufio wrote:
If not for lying specifically, than the reason manifests itself elsewhere. Maybe X's reason for hating lying is the same as Y's reason for hating stealing, and Y's reason for liking lying is the same a X's reason for liking literature.

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. What's your point?

rufio wrote:
The confusion only arises because a ) Lying means one thing to X and another to Y, and b ) X and Y don't know each other's reasons.

How do you know that?
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rufio
 
  2  
Reply Thu 13 May, 2004 12:37 pm
"Is that true empirically or logically? In other words, is every moral code self-consistent because there has been no internally inconsistent moral code in human history, or because there can be no such thing as an internally inconsistent moral code?"

Logically. It may be possible to say two completely different things, but it is not possible to think two conflicting things simultaneously. If you think you are, than you haven't fully understood what your reasons for thinking those things are.

The reasons are the same because every human agrees on some level. On some basic level, there is a basic priniciple that everyone agrees on. No specifics, no actions, no applications. But everyone applies this basic principle differently based on their experiences and culture. That's why we disagree so much. But that doesn't change the fact that as human beings we all share a universal human morality.

I say maybe, because the specifics differ from person to person and culture to culture. But the reasons always match up somehow.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Thu 13 May, 2004 03:18 pm
rufio wrote:
Logically. It may be possible to say two completely different things, but it is not possible to think two conflicting things simultaneously. If you think you are, than you haven't fully understood what your reasons for thinking those things are.

As I explained above, moral relativism cannot insist upon internal consistency in any moral code. To do so would be to impose an objective standard on morality. And if moral codes must be consistent to be moral (a point upon which I tend to agree), then moral relativism is illusory, since it would permit internally inconsistent moral codes.

rufio wrote:
The reasons are the same because every human agrees on some level. On some basic level, there is a basic priniciple that everyone agrees on. No specifics, no actions, no applications. But everyone applies this basic principle differently based on their experiences and culture. That's why we disagree so much. But that doesn't change the fact that as human beings we all share a universal human morality.

Then you'd agree that there is no such thing as "moral relativism."
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rufio
 
  2  
Reply Thu 13 May, 2004 05:13 pm
Who says I am arguing for moral relativism? You seem to want to say that either everyone should agree to the exact same morals or that morality is relative. Neither is the case.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Fri 14 May, 2004 07:54 am
rufio wrote:
Who says I am arguing for moral relativism? You seem to want to say that either everyone should agree to the exact same morals or that morality is relative. Neither is the case.

What gives you the impression that I am arguing "everyone should agree to the exact same morals?"
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rufio
 
  2  
Reply Fri 14 May, 2004 02:33 pm
"Thus if person X believes that lying is wrong, whereas person Y believes that lying is right, the doctrinaire moral relativist would assert that X is moral insofar as he does not lie, and Y is moral insofar as he does lie. Furthermore, there is no standard by which X could condemn Y's actions or his set of beliefs as "immoral," since Y is moral to the extent that Y's actions conform to Y's moral beliefs."

You seem to think this is not correct, and morally relative. It is not relative. X and Y do not have to agree about lying in order for their morals to be objective. If they did, than you would have to say that morals are definitively NOT objective, since people obviously do not agree about most things.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Sat 15 May, 2004 11:13 am
rufio wrote:
You seem to think this is not correct, and morally relative. It is not relative. X and Y do not have to agree about lying in order for their morals to be objective. If they did, than you would have to say that morals are definitively NOT objective, since people obviously do not agree about most things.

That's complete nonsense.

First of all, my point was not that all disagreements are evidence of moral relativism. It was that a moral relativist cannot rest upon such disagreements as evidence that objective morality is impossible, since moral relativism itself rests upon an objective standard.

Secondly, the mere fact that people disagree is largely irrelevant to a discussion of morality; such disagreements, after all, may simply be the result of some people being wrong. To hold otherwise -- that all people are correct in their moral judgments -- is the very definition of moral relativism.
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fresco
 
  2  
Reply Sat 15 May, 2004 12:21 pm
Joe,

It was argued at length (on Abuzz) that "respect for the beliefs of others was vacuous. Basically this is equivalent to respect for the holder of the beliefs, not for the beliefs themselves. As a matter of interest, would this not resolve your "paradox" in that we have moved the focus of "morality" to actions as opposed to positions?
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fresco
 
  1  
Reply Sat 15 May, 2004 12:36 pm
....and thinking further, "moral relativism" can be applied when different beliefs give rise to non-conflicting actions. I submit that problems only arise when actions are considered "wrong" not beliefs.
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rufio
 
  1  
Reply Sat 15 May, 2004 02:12 pm
But people are necessarily consistent in their morals, and as long as they are consistent, they are right for themselves. There is not overarching right or wrong, just consistency or inconsistency. That's not relativisim though, because it holds everyone to the same standard.
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