Monday, September 20, 2004

Just your average Joe: a scenario in moral relativism…

In the comments section of Can Religion Tell Us Anything Important? (part 2), I’ve been attempting to clarify the moral relativist position of one commenter by the name of Paul. After several gyrations, I think I was able to define his particular position (see this comment). In so doing, I began wondering what implications, if any, would result if we were take the moral relativist’s position to its logical end. So, let’s look at a moral relativism scenario as applied to just three Average Joes. Premise: The law of the land is decided by the majority. In this context, morality is defined as whatever the majority decides. The majority of the populace has decided each Joe must behead his respective 2nd born daughter. Regardless of whatever reason may be given for such a decision, the point here is that the decision is the result of a majority opinion. Results: Joe(1): Despite what the majority wants, Joe(1) chooses to disobey the majority. The reason why Joe(1) disobeys is that he finds the act objectionable. Joe(1) believes the reason why he finds the act objectionable is not because the act is an absolute moral wrong, but due to influences from his family, society, experiences growing up, genetic makeup, etc. Joe(1) believes that, while he believes the act to be objectionable, if he had grown up in a different environment he might just as well believe the act to be permissible. Joe(2): Despite what the majority wants, Joe(2) chooses to disobey the majority. The reason why Joe(2) disobeys is that he believes the act to be objectionable. Joe(2) believes the reason why he finds the act objectionable is simply because the act is an absolute moral wrong, regardless of the influences from his family, society, experiences growing up, genetic makeup, etc. Since Joe(2) believes the act to be an absolute moral wrong, he also believes that is wrong for everyone at all times. Joe(3): Despite what the majority wants, Joe(3) chooses to disobey the majority. The reason why Joe(3) disobeys is that he believes the act to be objectionable. However, Joe(3) believes that the act, in and of itself, is enjoyable, so he sets out to commit the act on the 2nd born daughters of other men. Joe(3) believes the reason why he finds the act enjoyable is not because the act is an absolute moral right, but because of the influences from his family, society, experiences growing up, genetic makeup, etc. Joe(3) could be considered a sort of alter ego of Joe(1) in that he also believes a variety of external influences have determined how he views reality. In other words, the external influences have determined how he determines what is right and wrong. Discussion: Q: In the land of moral relativism, which Joe is morally right? A: They all are; along with the individual morality beliefs of Joe(4)…Joe(n). Q: In the land of moral relativism, which Joe could rightfully be restrained? A: None of them; since restraining the actions of one over the other implies that the one who is restrained ought to act in a manner that the other mandates. I would argue that hidden within the original premise is the belief that the opinion of the majority should apply to all. Yet such a belief folds in on itself. While a society may decide that murder is legal, it cannot determine murder to be moral. Consider the argument for moral relativism which supposes that on a particular Monday society considers murder to be illegal and morally wrong. On the next day, Tuesday, society votes to define murder as legal and morally right. If we truly live in a morally relative environment, then certain questions should immediately be asked. Questions such as:
How could we truly live in a morally relative environment? Why should society be able to determine what is morally right? Why should it matter that the majority have decided to use the majority process? By what standard is it determined that the majority process seems to work best? If morality is relative, then why are some members of society prevented from practicing their morality? Doesn’t the notion of the common good imply ought for the whole of society? Where does this ought come from? If the ought is relative, then ought I ignore it? If not, then ought I follow it? If not, then where am I left, as an individual, in a society of many?
Why does a moral relativist even bother to debate the issue of morality with anyone?

11 comments:

Paul said...

I'd disagree with your use of the word ought, Rusty - there isn't an ought in your scenario. The Joe's are doing things which either are or are not morally wrong (depending on what the majority decides). In neither case are they absolutely 'good' or 'bad', they're just classifiable by morality. At the same time, neither of us believe that laws have to relate to morality (though they often do) so various Joes can be constrained because what they do is illegal, regardless of any absolute morality. Still no ought involved, just convention.

Incidentally, your list of questions at the end:

How could we truly live in a morally relative environment? - Just like we do now.
Why should society be able to determine what is morally right? - there is no should, that's just what societies do.
Why should it matter that the majority have decided to use the majority process? - depends on what you mean by matter, but for many countries that's how their society works.
By what standard is it determined that the majority process seems to work best? - there is no best.
If morality is relative, then why are some members of society prevented from practicing their morality? - because we also have laws, which are informed by but independent of morality.
Doesn’t the notion of the common good imply ought for the whole of society? - no
Where does this ought come from? - your imagination/faith
If the ought is relative, then ought I ignore it? - there still isn't an ought.
If not, then ought I follow it? - again, no ought.
If not, then where am I left, as an individual, in a society of many? - that's right, you are left as an individual in a society of many.

A clarification - I'm assuming you mean 'ought' as in must; if you mean 'ought' as in "it would really be a good idea" then the argument changes, but not, I think, in your favor.
Any more questions?

Rusty said...

Of course you know that I disagree with you Paul. There is no fancy use of the word ought in my scenario... ought means ought - a moral obligation, as opposed to convention, which would be simply an argreement about basic principles. Any Joe that did not agree with the convention is still obliged to follow it. If he doesn't, society is obliged to restrain him.

You're trying to have it both ways, that is, having a society that is morally relative while also having a society that functions in a responsible manner. My whole argument has been to show how this is unworkable in real life. I defy any moral relativist to just sit by and watch their family be slaughtered by another person simply because that other person's morality tells them it is okay. As soon as the moral relativist lifts a finger to stop the other person, he's betrayed his moral relativism.

How could we truly live in a morally relative environment? - Just like we do now. But we don't. I'm not allowed to rape the neighbor next door. BTW, it is nonsensical to attempt to reclassify rape as not a moral issue.

Why should society be able to determine what is morally right? - there is no should, that's just what societies do. You've made an assertion, "there is no should," but have no basis for it. Again, you've implied should (i.e., we should believe there is no should).

Why should it matter that the majority have decided to use the majority process? - depends on what you mean by matter, but for many countries that's how their society works. Telling me how a society works doesn't tell me why we should use the process. Can you tell me why we should use the process without resorting to some sort of standard comparison?

By what standard is it determined that the majority process seems to work best? - there is no best. Is that the best way to look at it?

If morality is relative, then why are some members of society prevented from practicing their morality? - because we also have laws, which are informed by but independent of morality. You're evading the issue here but I'm intrigued by your admission that morality influences our laws. Regardless, the laws directly imply ought.

Doesn’t the notion of the common good imply ought for the whole of society? - no Only for the elite?

Where does this ought come from? - your imagination/faith So there is ought?

If the ought is relative, then ought I ignore it? - there still isn't an ought. But if it comes from my imagination / faith then it must exist.

If not, then ought I follow it? - again, no ought. Why ought I believe you?

If not, then where am I left, as an individual, in a society of many? - that's right, you are left as an individual in a society of many. So I can do as I please...

Paul said...

So much to answer, but I'll take just two things for now:

Ought -
1. Used to indicate obligation or duty: You ought to work harder than that.
2. Used to indicate advisability or prudence: You ought to wear a raincoat.
3. Used to indicate desirability: You ought to have been there; it was great fun.
4. Used to indicate probability or likelihood: She ought to finish by next week.

If by ought you meant option 1, then I stand by my disagreement. I think societies imply use of the word ought only in sense 2, with overtones of sense 3; "these are the rules we play by, you should play by them too or we'll take steps to see that you don't play anymore."

The other thing I'll highlight is your insistance on an absolute from which you reason. You might not like it, but some things just are, without great reason, that's just how they end up. To say that my assertion that "there is no should" implies a should is nonsense; most of the rules we obey don't have a reason, they're just something we agreed on. For example, why should the standard depreciation period for capital investments be 3 years? Why isn't it 2, or 4, or 3.5? I can't think of a should, it's just a useful standard we set ourselves.

Oh, I've finally come through with my definition of morality, along with a little discussion. I still have some reflecting to do on it, but I welcome your comments here or there.

http://bopl.samharris.us/pivot/entry.php?id=160

Anonymous said...

I take it I'm jumping in at the middle here, but I'll go ahead.

I'm not getting this "there is no spoon" argument about the word "ought." In any social conflict, the group that has the most effective "ought" wins. "Because that's the way we do it" is always the argument of someone who won't be doing it that way for very much longer. People just don't do things, except in the face of an ought. There are people who fail to breathe because of a lack of ought.

"We have laws just because we have them" doesn't work for very long. Because eventually somebody comes along who says ought: "we ought not to have that law." And they either change the law or break the law. But then the law gets enforced. Why? Because that's what societies do? No, because the people enforcing the law say "ought." When the people enforcing the law fail to say "ought," then the law doesn't get enforced.

Fine. Then the law doesn't get enforced and society changes. No. Because some people say "ought." The law ought to be enforced. So they enforce it anyway.

Of course, there are those people who sit on the sidelines and just do what they're told. And they may change their habits 100 times in a few days as a result. These people are also saying "ought." I ought to stay out of the way; I ought to do what I'm told. Eventually perhaps they say I ought to stand up for myself.

"There is no spoon" works in the movies, but people who abandon all sense of "ought" eventually die out. And perhaps they ought. It's one thing to disagree about what all the "oughts" are. It's entirely another thing to attempt to live without them.

kyle

Paul said...

That's what my last comment was trying to clarify - there's always an 'ought', but 'ought' doesn't imply 'must'. Societies create a series of things you ought to do. Not because they represent absolute truth, but because that's what the society decided on. If you don't do those things then society will punish you - again, not because they have ultimate wisdom, but because that's the punishment for not doing what you 'ought'. And at some point I guess you get caught in 'might makes right' - you get arrested, protest quite rightly that they don't have a lock on absolute truth, and they nod as they lock you up because that's what they've agreed to do.

It all comes down to what the meaning of 'ought' is. I say it's just a reflection of a consensus with some motivational backing. Rusty contends that it's because there is a truth being realized.

Bonnie said...

Hi Paul,

We're doing the morality/faith go-round again, aren't we? Only now the concept "ought" is on for the ride.

Do you not have personal "oughts" along with the ones society imposes on you? Did they come from your family, culture, etc. only, or did you arrive at some of them independently?

Rusty said...

Okay Paul, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. I've attempted to show how a moral relativist cannot live out his contentions without betraying them. I'll leave you with a bit from C. S. Lewis on the topic:

Every one has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: 'How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?' -- 'That's my seat, I was there first' -- 'Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm' -- 'Why should you shove in first?' -- 'Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine' -- 'Come on, you promised.' People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man's behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: 'To hell with your standard.' Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are...

Paul said...

Bonnie - I have plenty of personal 'oughts' that reflect my personal morality, whether inherited from my parents or made up myself. But none of them carry a particular weight, they are all just things it would be wise to do, without anything that actually obliges me to do them.

It's a tricky concept really; any type of morality implies that some things are better than others, which in turn implies 'ought'. I suspect we disagree on what 'ought' means, based on what we think backs it up.

Paul said...

Rusty, I appreciate the discussion, and will leave you with a couple of points. First, I seem to manage to live this apparent inconsistency every day - I believe there is no absolute morality, just what we decide between us, and I try to argue my side of that without telling anyone that they are absolutely wrong. Society places obligations on people through its morality and other standards, but they're just the rules of the game, not absolutes.

The second thing is that, fundamentally, our arguments both founder on the same point, it's just that mine does it one step earlier. Everything I claim rests on a foundation of 'Just because'; "Why should I do what society wants?", "Who says society is right?", "Why can society do these things?" - they're all answered by some variant of 'just because'. And your Christianity is the same, we just go through the additional step of 'because god says so'. Once god has said so the next question for me is always "But why?", and your answer must always be some variant of 'just because'.

Rusty said...

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” - Michael CorleoneThree final points Paul:
1) Regardless of whether one claims to believe in relative morality, I see no fulfillment of that belief in everyday life. People are still expected to follow certain rules whether they agree with them or not. It does not matter if the relativist doesn’t consider his rules absolute. They are rules nonetheless.

2) I was going to accuse you of using the “just because” argument but I thought it might make me look a bit too arrogant. At least we both agree on that aspect of this issue.

3) To clarify your closing remarks, the Christian is not claiming that we know that there is such a thing as absolute morality simply because God has revealed it to us (i.e., “God says so”); rather, the Christian posits that if all humans appeal to a some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about, then there really is such a standard, directed by a transcendent mind.

P.S. I haven't been by your site yet... but I'll get there.

Paul said...

There are things I could say in response, but let's try and mean that "final" bit! So instead I wanted to say that even on your last comment you've given me things to think about, which I greatly appreciate. Cheers!