Sunday, February 1, 2009

Moral Relativity

Alright all you Philosophy buffs, I need your help! I am currently taking my first philosophy class, my first two philosophy classes: Intro and Logic. I have a paper due on Tuesday asking the question, “Is morality Relative?” My first reaction was, “Of course it is relative!” Though, after some contemplation it came to me that I didn’t believe ‘morals’ existed, rather, no universally binding ones anyway (which is what Dr. was truly asking). So if that is true, then morality wouldn’t be relative because it wouldn’t exist. However, I talked with my professor to examine my own logic and my conclusion is that while this thought would be an acceptable paper, he hounded on my logic pretty hard (though constructively, of course). Honestly, I have no idea what the hell he was talking about…I think he thinks I’m more hip to the lingo than I really am. Consequently, I politely told him, “Thank you for confusing the hell out of me. I shall have to go contemplate. You must be a good professor. Damn you.” Seriously though, Mark, Jonathan, Billy, Lee, Phillip…get my brain going, I have a philosophers block.


Mark_W said...

Gosh. This sounds like something that requires what the late, great, and marvellous Bob Shaw called “wee thinky bits”, and this isn’t something I have any expertise in, to be honest. Let’s not that stop me from flailing about in the dark in a probably unproductive way for a moment, though! :-).

My initial reaction would have been the same as yours, and in a comment at Rune’s blog I said, (whilst admitting an amateur’s willingness to be shot down in flames):

“What we regard as "moral" and how we behave is dependent on all the things you mention, and the consensus of groups and societies, and it changes over time.

I forget who it was that first answered the question, "Where does morality come from?" with, "All of us, thrashing it out together via primitive group hierarchies or complex modern democracies as appropriate," (it was probably no-one in exactly those rather inelegant and doubtless mis-remembered words, let's be honest) and that's always made sense to me...”

And doubtless there will be some evolutionary pressures at work when “all of us” decide on these things…

Though I’d feel confident (as per chapters 6 and 7 of The God Delusion) if I had to argue that we don’t get morality from religion, this particular question is a horse of rather different kidney.

I’m reminded, as usual, of a few quotes. In Breaking the Spell, (Appendix B) Dan Dennett says:

“We don’t have to assume that there are no moral truths in order to study other cultures fairly and objectively; we just have to set aside, for the time being, the assumption that we already know what they are.”

And says that there are “transcendent values of truth and justice” that are “inescapably presupposed by human projects that we all participate in, simply by being alive: the projects of staying alive, and staying secure.”

Regarding the logic of the question, untold eons ago I read a short “introduction to philosophy” book, and, being the sort of person that never loses these things, I still have a couple of quotes I scribbled down from it:

“The proposals which people produce are influenced by a number of factors, and perhaps the most influential of these are psychological rather than logical. It seems reasonably clear that one's predispositions, however acquired, one's self-image, one's heroes, one's self-interests, etc., tend to affect the philosophical proposals to which one commits oneself. Such factors might even determine the proposals to which one commits oneself, but they presumably could not determine the set of proposals to which one should commit oneself."


“…man seems to be constituted that, statistically at least, he seeks the better and avoids the worse, which is not to deny that what is the better and the worse for him depends on his nature, his own nature, man's nature and not that of god nor beast.”

Does this help? I have no idea. Certainly if there are proposals towards which we “should” commit ourselves, that might seem to argue in favour of absolute morality, but if these “shoulds” are the product of evolutionary pressures and group consensus, that would suggest not…(Especially if one accepts that one of the “adequacy conditions” for a philosophical proposal is “time limitation”, set by prevalent fashions of thought, behaviour, and belief….)

Good luck!


Jonathan said...

"Though, after some contemplation it came to me that I didn’t believe ‘morals’ existed, rather, no universally binding ones anyway (which is what Dr. was truly asking). So if that is true, then morality wouldn’t be relative because it wouldn’t exist".

Stating that "universally binding, absolute morals don't exist" is reasonable, but the next step doesn't follow. Morality exists, it's how you define it that is key to making your argument here.

I would open by defining "morality" as something like the set of precepts by which humans define right and wrong. The precepts themselves are a product of biological, cultural and social interactions, and is by and large a product of consensus.

Next attack the idea of universal, objective morality. There are plenty of arguments against this that we have all used at some point in the past. It should be simple enough to point out the problems with this. All of the regular commenters' blogs include excellent posts on this subject.

After that, go the other way: ask the rhetorical question, if no absolutes exist, does that mean that everything is relative, and no basis exists for judging the actions of a person of a different culture, etc etc. The answer, obviously is no.

Then you support that by discussing morality's origins within biology, ie the evolution of altruism as a kin/tribal social cooperation mechanism. Point out that because of this, certain moral precepts are shared across cultures ie don't murder, don't steal etc. It might also be worth highlighting the negative side of this, ie xenophobia.

Following that you could discuss the principles of "reduction of suffering" and "equal rights" as precepts by which judgements of what is and isn't moral can be made.

Billy said...

Got to say it exists, perhaps the question is what is it? Is it a metaphysical law? If so, does it come from a god - the euthyphro dilema provides some problems for that idea. It is also conceivable that absolutes exist without a god, but what evidence is there of absolutes? There is the concept of moral universalism - eg murder is wrong (to most anyway). The problem here is that one man's murderer is an other man's freedom fighter. Would it be right to have killed hitler for example?

As has been suggested, I might be inclined to focus on the biological role of morality.

As for right and wrong, I tend to think we choose that ourselves. I can adhere to a law that says whistling on a tuesday is immoral.It doesn't have to be absolutely moral. It just has to be accepted to be immoral. This is what I think idiots like DR who ask whether Dachau was wrong get wrong. Obviously certain people agreed with it, but no one has shown that an objective law was broken.

I dont envy you. It is a very complicated area, and I feel I've posed more questions than I have answered.

I think some folk do gettheir values from religion - good and bad, but again what evidence that they are absolute? You could introduce the problem of presuppositionalism here - eg those who assume that god is good despite the nastyness of the bible - or the problem of evil. Of course, a presuppositionalist need not be wrong, but they cant argue that they are right.

Lee said...

Alright all you Philosophy buffs,I need your help!

I've only just learnt how to spell philosophy - so you don't need help from the likes of me.

And WOW... you're doing a philosophy course. Excellent - I look forward to some interesting and challenging posts in the future.

Oh help... that's right.

Yes, morality is relative.

A test for this is to try for any given example of a 'moral action' to point to what it is that makes it 'good' or 'bad'.

You cannot put to anything physical/external of yourself... it all comes back your opinion (and the opinion of the group)

The group I walk with think eating meat is good... I agree – others think it is morally sick (but they are small and weak due to not eating meat so will not beat me in a fight)

So relative - unless you say it came down from some law giver (but as Billy pointed out - there are problems with this, and it comes back to relative again)

As for morals themselves... depending how you define morals - yes, they exist.
(I don’t think morals exist for atoms and molecules – but when they get together to form intelligent life – things change)

It is that 'something' inside me that tells me I should not do something because it is bad... how a learnt this is from my genes and from my peers.

I don't think I actually helped much... so what the other guys said

And good luck


Susie Q said...

Ya'll are awesome! I've been super busy with work and school so I apologize for the slow reply. Right now I am in the middle of presenting my case (more opinion). Later in the semester I will have to write another paper will a hell of a lot more reasoning for my logic/critical thinking class. Thank you all!