The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › Ethical Relativism

Ethical Relativism

Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 175
Are moral or ethical standards relative either to oneself or to one's social group or 'culture,' however those terms may be defined? I think that there are problems with moral relativism but I am interested in hearing any and all opinions.
A former member
Post #: 218
I think that there are problems with both positions, that all morality is absolute, and that all morality is relative. I may have mentioned this before, but I figured out (or at least made a workable model for myself) that there is a very small ethical core that is absolute, the MUSTs (or more accurately, the MUST NOTs); and the rest (the SHOULDs) varies by different cultures, religions, etc.
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 29
Hi, Jim, as I know you recall, this discussion began with "Does Objective Morality Exist?" Somehow my inability to adequately explain my position led everyone to the conclusion that "If I didn't think that morality was "objective", then I must think that it is "relative" or "subjective". None of these explanations fit how I view ethics (I prefer the term ethical to moral).

Historically, philosophers have been discussing the various ideas of ethics / morality ad infinitum. I originally entered the discussion with the view that "objective morality does not exist". Then and now I find myself struggling to explain because words seem to be getting in the way. When I looked up the word "objective", I found at least 11 different explanations of this one word with tons of synonyms and antonyms. I was amazed. So, when responding to Kip, I "brilliantly" (sarcasm definitely intended) decided to use the word "table", simplistically thinking that "Everyone knows what a table is. I can point to this object and we'll all agree that it is a "table". Well, that was yesterday.
Today, out of curiosity, I looked up "table". There were (UGH!) u]26 different definitions!!! HA! And I thought that the word "objective" was a problem. I'm now unsure that I will EVER be able to find my way to a "table" again. confused

My point is this, there are so many different ways (theories, branches/schools of philosophy, etymology, etc) of looking at the very same word that I am astounded that we can communicate at all.
Before going to the dictionary my understanding of the word objective was that it is something "independent of personal opinion, and is something upon which when we look at it we can unemotionally agree".
Now some dictionary definitions for objective: 1. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion. 2. intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book. 3. being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject (as opposed to subjective).

Then, Kip referred me to Sandra LaFave's article Thinking Critically About the "Subjective"/"Objective" Distinction which struck me as unneccessarily blurring the distinction between the two words even more. I have other thoughts but that is for another posting.

Kip said, things are constantly changing. I wholeheartedly agree. Life's potential, if anything, seems to me to be about change/growth. I've had people say to me "I'm just the same as I was when I was a kid." My thought, "How sad for them. If they are now 40, and are exactly the same as they were at 20, then they haven't learned a thing. They are most likely just as egocentric today as they were then."

For myself, I may have similar "traits" (curious, outspoken), but I am very much a different person, and I think, hopefully, a far better person. Moreover, I trust I'll be even better tomorrow because of something I learned today.

So, let me try again. Here is my next attempt at an explanation: "For those of us who choose to think in terms of 'ethics', our ability to do so evolves as our ability to question does." So, maybe we can call my reasoned, non-emotional concept of ethics "growth ethics". [Do not try to look this up. As far as I know this is my original (if there is such a thing) concept.] I see my concept as a little similar to Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, in which (I'm paraphrasing) he argued that people are unable to address higher order needs until their lower order needs are met. In this context, there may BE some "objective reality" that we can, somewhere in time, agree exists, but under civilization's current understanding, we are light years away from it.

Regardless of what humans eventually agree ethics to be (epistemically or ontologically), I have great hope for mankind as long as caring, conscientious people keep searching, questionning, and attempting to clarify thinking on this very important topic.
A former member
Post #: 146
Hi, Jim, as I know you recall, this discussion began with "Does Objective Morality Exist?" Somehow my inability to adequately explain my position led everyone to the conclusion that "If I didn't think that morality was "objective", then I must think that it is "relative" or "subjective". None of these explanations fit how I view ethics (I prefer the term ethical to moral).

The reason I thought you were holding to a "relativistic morality", and asked you to clarify, was because in your first post (in that thread) you wrote:

No matter how hard I try I cannot get away from “relativism”. It seems to me that a human’s ability to behave “morally” or even to understand the concept is, in great part, dependent on the individual’s level of growth / understanding. … At present, I can't think of any hard rule that would apply to every situation, every culture.


Then, Kip referred me to Sandra LaFave's article Thinking Critically About the "Subjective"/"Objective" Distinction which struck me as unneccessarily blurring the distinction between the two words even more. I have other thoughts but that is for another posting.

I was hoping that since you were good at non-black-and-white thinking that you'd be able to appreciate the overlapping "grayness". As commonly used, the two words "objective" and "subjective" are not mutually exclusive. For example, consider the science of "pain management". My grandmother has been going to the doctor to relieve the pain in her back. This doctor uses the objective methods of science to help her. However, pain is subjective — it is a mental state. Even though her pain is ontologically subjective, it can be (and is) studied epistemologically objectively.

You can blur the lines even further if you want and say that mental states and brain states (probably) have a one–to–one correspondence, so that all mental states (such as pain) also have a corresponding physical state, which is ontologically objective. This is highly speculative, though, but is something that neuroscience is pursuing with great rigor.
A former member
Post #: 147
Are moral or ethical standards relative either to oneself or to one's social group or 'culture,' …

No. I think they are relative to all desires that exist within the system of morality. Due to our nature, our system of morality seems to require a "universalism"(1) (i.e. having the same rules apply to all members of the system).

Because all humans have the same basic mental functions, and same basic physiologies, our core moral rules are going to be the same across cultures and social groups.

However, there are different cultural "norms" — which are affected by historical and geographical accidents. Why aren't these "norms" considered part of "morality"? Well, I'd argue that we have a need to differentiate "moral rules" from "social norms". If morality were contingent upon the culture, it would imply that there is no such thing as cross–culture morality — in other words, there is no "morality" at all… only "social norms". Those of us (in the overwhelming philosophical majority) that argue for an objective cross–culture morality, use the two terms to differentiate what is "universal" across all possible cultures, and what is culturally dependent.






(1) I put "universalism" in quotes, because the "rules" can be adjusted somewhat based on the nature of groups of people within the system to allow targeting only a subset of the members. For example, we can have a rule that says that consent requires a certain level of intellectual or mental capacity, thus isolating non–mature or mentally–challenged members of society.
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 30
The reason I thought you were holding to a "relativistic morality", and asked you to clarify, was because in your first post (in that thread) you wrote: "No matter how hard I try I cannot get away from “relativism”. It seems to me that a human’s ability to behave “morally” or even to understand the concept is, in great part, dependent on the individual’s level of growth / understanding. … At present, I can't think of any hard rule that would apply to every situation, every culture.


Thanks, Kip, you're correct. I thought my earlier response was unclear. Your reminding me of what I said earlier proves my point. For me this is a refining process in trying to explain. "Relativism" clearly wasn't the idea I was trying to convey.

Also, when I said that LaFave's article Thinking Critically About the "Subjective"/"Objective"­ Distinction "struck me as unneccessarily blurring the distinction between the two words even more", I was trying to convey my level of frustration at how inadequate words can be.
I appreciated your suggesting the article, thinking it might help me to better explain my position. Unfortunately, it didn't. I thought I was dealing with what appeared to be a black/white discussion, then, suddenly dealing with concepts like "ontologically subjective" and "epistemologically objectively", just made it harder for me, hence the word "blurred".

Actually, I thought the article was very interesting and worth further discussion when I said: I have other thoughts but that is for another posting.

I value your opinions, so I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on my main point:

"For those of us who choose to think in terms of 'ethics', our ability to do so evolves as our ability to question does." So, maybe we can call my reasoned, non-emotional concept of ethics "growth ethics". [Do not try to look this up. As far as I know this is my original (if there is such a thing) concept.] I see my concept as a little similar to Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, in which (I'm paraphrasing) he argued that people are unable to address higher order needs until their lower order needs are met. In this context, there may BE some "objective reality" that we can, somewhere in time, agree exists, but under civilization's current understanding, we are light years away from it.

Regardless of what humans eventually agree ethics to be (epistemically or ontologically), I have great hope for mankind as long as caring, conscientious people keep searching, questionning, and attempting to clarify thinking on this very important topic.


Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 31
When I said "objective reality", I meant "objective morality".
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 75
One thing that keeps coming up when we talk about ethics/morality is the limitations of language and even the limitations of knowledge.

We only know things by comparison to other things. In order for things to be "red" there must be things which are "not red" in order for things to be "big" there must be things which are "not big". In order for something to exist in one state, there must be other states that it could have existed in. This is the whole "you must have light in order to know darkness" concept. Hard and fast facts are almost impossible to come by. Even the basic axioms of math such as 1+1=2 can be called into question. To know one thing, we must know several things and how they relate to that one thing. As such, what we know is built up of a huge interconnected web of contingent relationships between things. Reality itself may also be built like this, such that every property exhibited by something is brought about by how that thing relates to other things. Many physicists argue that this is what causes things like gravity, space and time.

What I'm getting at is that while there may be absolute moral truths such as "this is always right" or "this is always wrong" we can't know such absolutes with absolute certainty. Our knowledge is necessarily relational, and everything we come up with is relates to a myriad of other things. I'm not sure it is possible to fully separate theories of ethics from the subjects they relate to.

This isn't to say that we can't know anything about ethics. Rather, it simply seems that we can only know ethics within certain contexts, IE: "While x, y is immoral." We can't possible know all possible values for x, nor can we know all possible values for y when given any one value for x. However, based on the web of knowledge that we do know, we can fill in the blanks to the best of our ability. Because of this, I think that while objective/absolute morality may exist, our ethical systems are necessarily relative.
A former member
Post #: 148
I think that while objective/absolute morality may exist, our ethical systems are necessarily relative.

We should not conflate "objective" with "absolute". If we understand the nature of morality, we see that it is both ontologically subjective, and like other sciences that study our relativistic universe, can be epistemologically objective. It is not absolute, though.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 178
We should not conflate "objective" with "absolute". If we understand the nature of morality, we see that it is both ontologically subjective, and like other sciences that study our relativistic universe, can be epistemologically objective. It is not absolute, though.

I agree that moral absolutism should not be conflated with moral objectivism.

As far as the thrust of this thread, I agree with Kip that morality is not relative either to oneself or to one's cultural group but seems universal to all humans. We may disagree on the exact basis of that universalism, but that's the Desirism thread. I think it would be much more productive here to defend the thesis that morality is universal to humans.

I also agree with Nathaniel that all knowledge is interdependent, that it's all a more or less coherent belief web. This is why I have tended to believe that there is no "neutral given", or at least darned few. Two possible exceptions: 1) the fact that there are no, or very few, neutral givens, and 2) the concept of "truth", although I can see how both of these 'givens' are also contingent on other conditions, so maybe there is no neutral given after all! Never mind : ) Nathaniel's point also suggests why I have always been suspicious of many, if not most, dogmatic/absolutist positions. Dogmatism may be appropraite at times, but I believe that in most contexts it's unwarranted.
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