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The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › Ethical Relativism

Ethical Relativism

Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 111
Jim, Each time I read a post from you I remember why I so enjoy this group. You're right, what you've written is a lot to digest but, I really don't think you and I are as far off in our thinking as you might. Somehow, I can't help but think that how we're defining various concepts has a bearing on the discussion. I thought this early on when Nathaniel was involved in the topic discussion. I hope, somehow, to bring this discussion to a conclusion that we all can agree with.
I'll start tackling various paragraphs tomorrow. I surely think this is an important topic, and well worth one's time to try to sort through.
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 114
Jim, It’s fascinating how we can both hear the same talk yet come away with such different observations. I have to imagine that some of the differences lie in the fact that I’d personally arrived at similar conclusions regarding the topic so I wasn’t listening critically to his talk, but found additional examples supportive of my own thinking. Your points are well taken and would be far easier for me to tackle one to one. Too bad, we couldn’t attend the lecture together. Then we could have had a great time discussing our differing perceptions over an after-lecture coffee.

As it is, I find myself sidetracked, trying to explain my interpretation of “what Dr. Prinz meant/”, rather than pushing forward with our discussion topic, “Moral Relativism”.
Let me begin by stating my position as best I can. There may be an “absolute morality or ethical code” (I’d love to think there is); however, if it exists, who is wise enough to determine what it is?

IMO, the desire to grapple with this question demonstrates a certain moral/ethical maturity not possessed by everyone. With every moral position, (don’t kill, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, etc.) I can readily think of at least one instance where I might find it necessary to break my own moral rule. Does that make me immoral or unethical? I hope not. My problem is simple; I have trouble thinking in terms of “absolutes", especially when it comes to the determination of right/wrong. I often see shades of gray.

Currently, I find strong explanatory power with the philosophy of moral relativism. And, I would not have known that this was my position, had you not identified it as such.

I am curious, though, if you don’t find “moral relativism” a palatable position, what philosophical position have you adopted? Is there some other position which you consider more comprehensive/plausible? Do you think that there exists some immutable moral principle that can be understood and adhered in all circumstances? If so, what would that be?

Like you, I’m open to changing my position when presented with information that makes more sense to me. Or, the possibility exists that I’m calling myself a “moral relativist” while having absolutely no understanding of what that really means….shock
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 341
There may be an “absolute morality or ethical code” (I’d love to think there is); however, if it exists, who is wise enough to determine what it is?


Well put, Rinda! I totally agree with you. I don't think we're that far apart on this.


With every moral position, (don’t kill, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, etc.) I can readily think of at least one instance where I might find it necessary to break my own moral rule. Does that make me immoral or unethical? I hope not. My problem is simple; I have trouble thinking in terms of “absolutes", especially when it comes to the determination of right/wrong. I often see shades of gray.


I agree with all of that too. I also doubt that there are any moral absolutes; there are exceptions to all rules, moral or otherwise (with the possible exception of the rule just statedlaughing). Where we might differ is in my guess that moral absolutism is not the only alternative to moral relativism. I tend to believe that morality arises from something more fundamental and pervasive about the human condition than individual cultures. Like I mentioned, I think that individual cultures are too ambiguous, transitory, and often mutually contradictory to serve as the basis for moral valuing. This position is called moral objectivism. Objectivism does not commit you to the idea that there is any kind of set of moral absolutes. Objectivism allows for the fact that there are no exceptionless moral rules, only that what makes a moral rule right in a given situation is something other than that two or more people happen to agree that it is right. This doesn't make moral reasoning any less complicated and situational; it allows for infinite shades of gray and other colors too!


So I think we agree but that we're approaching it from slightly different angles and, like you said, using slightly different premises and definitions.


But Prinz and other relativists are very sophisticated thinkers who I'm sure would be able to refute all of my points so I definitely need to read more by them!
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 117
I tend to believe that morality arises from something more fundamental and pervasive about the human condition than individual cultures.

Possibly so, but what would that be?
Like I mentioned, I think that individual cultures are too ambiguous, transitory, and often mutually contradictory to serve as the basis for moral valuing. This position is called moral Objectivism. Objectivism does not commit you to the idea that there is any kind of set of moral absolutes. Objectivism allows for the fact that there are no exceptionless moral rules, only that what makes a moral rule right in a given situation is something other than that two or more people happen to agree that it is right. This doesn't make moral reasoning any less complicated and situational; it allows for infinite shades of gray and other colors too!


Jim, Given my observation that you and I generally see things similarly, it has been hard for me to fathom how we’ve been unable to come to a common understanding on this topic. As usual I headed for Wiki to see what it said about Moral Objectivism and it referred to the following:
1. Robust moral realism, the meta-ethical position that ethical sentences express factual propositions about robust or mind-independent features of the world, and that some such propositions are true.
2. Moral universalism (also called minimal or moderate moral realism), the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics or morality is universally valid, without any further semantic or metaphysical claim.
3. The ethical branch of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.
The first two I’m not bright enough to understand (particularly #2) so I can’t adopt them. In fact, the Noam Chomsky quote struck me as extremely naive, “... we adopt the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others -- more stringent ones, in fact -- plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.
In fact, one of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something's right for me, it's right for you; if it's wrong for you, it's wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.”

Gee, isn't this rather simplistic? Is this an example of “When in Rome do as the Romans.”? If I go to Iraq or Iran where they believe that women are property and must wear scarves and long robes when out in public, should I do the same? How does Chomsky explain the sociopath who has no moral compass at all? This is supposedly a respected thinker. I think he needs to rethink his position. On the other hand, I agree with him when he suggests that we should judge ourselves by the same standards we apply to others.
Where does our understanding of morality, right/wrong come from? It comes from our families, heroes, peers, organizations, churches; in short, our culture. And most of us tend to conform until such time as someone decides there may be a greater morality and begins to try to educate us dolts. So, I agree with you, just because a whole bunch of people think an act is right or wrong, doesn’t make it so.
I’ve been taught all my life that I must wear clothes. I can think of no good reason for this unless it’s cold out. Moreover, if I were to venture outside my home nude, I’d soon be arrested and my neighbors would be questioning my mental capacity. So I conform, unless I have the courage (which I don’t) to move to a nudist colony. By Chomsky’s standard (right for you, right for me), if I visited a nudist colony I’d have to remove my clothing. Gee, what a prude I am. I’m too conditioned to wear clothes such that I’m uncomfortable to go naked even when alone.
Then there is Ayn Rand who stated “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
I truly appreciate much that Rand has said, and think she brings a balance to the discussion of selflessness vs. selfishness. However, (maybe I’m too conditioned), but something doesn’t ring true for me when she stated that the moral purpose of one’s life is one’s personal happiness.
So I think we agree but that we're approaching it from slightly different angles and, like you said, using slightly different premises and definitions.

I think so too. Some examples you’ve given previously, seem to me, more arguments in favor of Moral Relativism.
But Prinz and other relativists are very sophisticated thinkers who I'm sure would be able to refute all of my points so I definitely need to read more by them!

Maybe Prinz would be able to refute your points, but I don't think it would necessarily be easy. For myself, I think he did a fine job explaining how different cultures over time have very different standards of what is right and wrong.
And, when I apply Rand’s principle: “moral purpose is one’s own happiness” then I can understand why the Deep South would fight to save their belief that slaves were chattel. Owning slaves made them quite happy, and, as far as I know, was a sign of status.
I thought that Prinz's allusion to Industrialism appealed to slave owner's self-interest. But, I doubt that this was the only cause for the moral change. It simply was much less costly to pay people than to feed, clothe, and house them.
For myself, I think that Moral Relativism has strong explanatory power to show how morality evolves. I don’t find this in the others. There are a many people who have weak or non-existent moral compasses. I wouldn’t want to emulate any one of these people.
Maybe none of these “isms” truly explains my view. Granted, I have only a cursory understanding of the various forms of Moral Objectivity. In short, I think coming to an agreement as to what is moral/immoral begins with people of strong character who are willing to go against the crowd, thus setting an example of something morally superior.
"For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing." Simon Wiesenthal
Source: http://www.brainyquot...­
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 342
Ah, the joys of technology! I just composed an extremely juicy post that I somehow just deleted. Let me try to touch on a few of the points that I can remember. (or not)

I tend to believe that morality arises from something more fundamental and pervasive about the human condition than individual cultures.


Possibly so, but what would that be?

Reason, language, being human...?

The definition of objectivism I'm using is along the lines of moral universalism, that there is some set of universally valid moral norms (although not universally adhered to - that's a different matter), but that none of those norms are absolute or exceptionless. 'Don't lie' is one of those norms, although sometimes one ought to lie, such as to the Gestapo about the Jewish family hiding in your attic. It's not that the wrongness of lying disappears, but the wrongness of lying is greatly outweighed by the wrongness of being an accessory in the murder of innocent people.

There's a quote about the distinction between moral objectivism and moral absolutism:

To suggest that there is a right answer to a moral problem is at once to be accused of or credirted with a belief in moral absolutes. But it is no more necessary to believe in moral absolutes in order to believe in moral objectivity than it is to believe in the existence of absolute space or absolute time in order to believe in the objectivity of temporal and spatial relations and of judgments about them.
Renford Bambrough

BTW, I'm NOT using the Ayn Rand version of Objectivism. You know how I feel about her philosopohy!

Staying on 'Do not lie'; human language would not be possible without some universally accepted agreement about a norm of truthfulness. Language would be a contradiction in terms. So the 'do not lie' is an example of a moral norm that's written into being a human, since language is an essential part of being human. This norm does not depend on what anyone believes, feels, or desires, even if it's the beliefs, feelings and desires of an entire culture.

I basically agree with the Chomsky quote. I didn't understand him to be saying "When in Rome..." but rather that any moral judgment I come to I must be willing to universalize, otherwise it would not be a moral judgment. Of course, I could be wrong - my judgment may not in fact be universalizable, but the fact that I could be mistaken suggests that there are moral truths that are objective, that are true independent of what I or anyone believes or feels about them, even if it's a whole culture. Relativism, as I understand it, is the idea that a culture sets the standard for right and wrong and so could never be mistaken.

For myself, I think that Moral Relativism has strong explanatory power to show how morality evolves.

Morality evolves due to changing historical circumstances, but this tells us nothing about whether it is objective or not. Scientific knowledge likewise evolves due to changing historical circumstances without altering the fact that scientific knowledge is not subjective or culturally relative.

Objectivism, imo, explains much better than either relativism or absolutism do how a culture's morality could possibly be mistaken. It also explains much better the possibility of moral reform and progress, and the possibility of moral criticism both within and across cultures. And it avoids all the problems of defining a culture and of overlapping cultures that I touched on in the last post.

On the other hand, I agree with (Chomsky) when he suggests that we should judge ourselves by the same standards we apply to others.

But according to relativism, we can't judge anyone outside of our 'culture,' however that's defined, since each 'culture' sets its own standards of judgment.

So, I agree with you, just because a whole bunch of people think an act is right or wrong, doesn’t make it so.

But if that 'whole bunch of people' happens to be a culture, then their thinking that an act is right or wrong would make it so.

And most of us tend to conform until such time as someone decides there may be a greater morality and begins to try to educate us dolts.

But if that 'greater morality' is not found already within our culture's morality, where would it come from?

In short, I think coming to an agreement as to what is moral/immoral begins with people of strong character who are willing to go against the crowd, thus setting an example of something morally superior.

If that 'crowd' is your culture, then how could you possibly go against it? You would necessarily be wrong, wouldn't you?

But like I said, I'm sure Prinz could skewer all these points. I don't mean to give the impression that morality is simple - it's anything but! There are many ambiguities and unknowns, and of course I may be wrong about all this. Maybe some hybrid of objectivism and relativism is the answer.





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