Dialog on Morality, Part II: Moral Relativism

We are continuing our discussion of morality, inspired by Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and the insights it provides into current political trends.

There is a strong drift in social science toward moral relativism. That’s the idea that the truth of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the standards of a group.

Man (anthrôpos) is the measure (metron) of all things (chrêmatôn), of the things which are, that they are, and of the things which are not, that they are not (tôn men ontôn hôs esti, tôn de mê ontôn hôs ouk estin) (from Plato’s Theaetetus 152a 2–4)

In the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists started to study the diversity of human cultures, and to challenge the Victorian prejudice that the moral system of white Europeans was superior to that of any “primitive” non-Western culture. In 1947, during the United Nations debate on universal human rights, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement “declaring that moral values are relative to cultures and that there is no way of showing that the values of one culture are better than those of another.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Moral Relativism” is excellent, as is the more general “Relativism”).

The immediate problem is: how can there be universal human rights if no values are better than any others. If I say that “slavery is bad and violates a universal human right”, I do not expect the response to be “that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” (The Big Lebowski, Coen brothers’ movie 1998. Is The Dude a moral relativist? Or maybe a Stoic https://philosophynow.org/issues/123/The_Big_Lebowski “Like a good Stoic, the Dude is above all calm in the face of adversity.”) Yes, it is my opinion, but in saying “slavery is bad” I don’t mean that it’s only my opinion or only the opinion of a group.

Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory provides the psychological underpinnings for the anthropologists. A moral system can draw on the Foundations in a variety of ways, and the implication is that diverse moral systems deserve respect. Haidt opens The Righteous Mind quoting Rodney King’s plea for tolerance, “Can we all get along?” Haidt says “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering [roughly utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill], or concerns about fairness and injustice [roughly Kant’s deontology]. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.” Haidt spends a lot of time in his book criticizing philosophers who have limited taste buds, but he never makes clear whether all combinations of the six tastes are equally valid, and if not, how he chooses among them. To invoke what’s known as the Argumentum ad Nazium, fascism places strong emphasis on the Authority and Loyalty Modules; doesn’t that result in a valid moral system? (“Say what you will about National Socialism. At least it’s an ethos”, Walter Sobchek in Lebowski draws the contrast with moral nihilism, which would seem to reject MFT entirely.)

In Part I of our discussion, Carter Gillies argued forcefully for tolerance:

We don’t often see the boundaries of our activities, where things fit, and where they don’t. We so often do a poor job of respecting differences. As if our differences were a muddle or a misunderstanding rather than merely starting from incompatible points of view. As if our differences were a fiction to be overcome by a more ‘objective reality’! But between any two disagreeing human values there is not necessarily some objective take that adjudicates between them. Not without mistreating them, as Haidt also suggests.

Haidt indeed suggests that Liberals ought to understand that Conservatives are drawing on valid moral foundations like Authority, Loyalty and Sanctity, and that complaints that only Care and Fairness matter fail to respect that validity. Nobody likes a self-righteous snob, who claims that only he has access to objective moral truth. Carter: “I am less concerned with being justified in that sense. And I don’t think morality suffers from being invented and inherently contingent. Morality that is invented is real in the only sense of ‘real’ that matters. It is real to humans for real human purposes.” Carter says that my claim that the consequences of relativism can be tough to accept “says more about his own needs than what we ordinarily take for reality. Because on the ground floor, where we live our lives, we muddle along just fine in its (objectivity’s) absence.” 

Philosophy has the job of coming up with an objective foundation for morality, if one can be had. So far, nobody has been able to state a foundation which garners general agreement. Nevertheless, “we muddle along just fine in its (objectivity’s) absence.”  So maybe relativism is fine and I’m wrong that it’s tough to accept. Certainly human life is possible in the absence of a philosophically satisfactory objective moral theory, since that’s what we do.

But accepting relativism means giving up the right to condemn any moral system, even fascism. All we can say is, “they have their system and we have ours”, since as the anthropologists said, “there is no way of showing that the values of one culture are better than those of another.” So there are no universal human rights? That might be the truth, but it’s tough to accept.


Rick Lenon

I still cannot see how a realist/objectivist puts a foundation under a morality, if he doesn’t have a god.  What does he do when he encounters an opponent who disagrees?  Joshua Greene, in his book Moral Tribes, suggests that the opposing parties can often find common ground, and from there work out a position that both can accept.  He suggests having some respected 3rd party mediate the dispute. The 3rd party would maintain a neutral stance, ask both sides to explain their positions to him as clearly as possible, and keep asking questions until maximum obtainable clarity is achieved. Greene cited a study using Obamacare as an example; each side realized, without having to admit it to the other side, that they did not know much about it. The subsequent negotiations were much more civil than they were without the prior questioning by the 3rd party. 

I simply cannot imagine a solution to the opposing parties problem that does not require an authority recognized by both sides.  Best I can do is posit the construction of a moral structure so compelling that sincere opposition could never arise; and if it did, resolution would always be possible. 

But there was no common ground between Hitler and the Russians.  Passive resistance would have become passive pavement.  Hitler was responding to what he saw as an imperative.  The Russians had a pretty clear choice to make as well. Nietzsche had the answer to that one.  It does seem moral to me, that when you have irreconcilable differences on that scale, war is the appropriate solution. 

A better moral solution would have prevented that encounter.  Much easier to imagine arguments that could have prevented WW I, than ones that would have stopped Hitler from pulling the trigger on Operation Barbarossa. No WW I, probably no WW II. 

I’m thinking science has the answer!  A clearer understanding of how human beings actually work would allow for much better predictions about the consequences of choices made, at many levels.  For example, what are the long term consequences of a free market ideology?  A necessary part of that is believing people are rewarded in proportion to value created, and that their value as human beings shows up as net worth.  On Wall Street, every man is entitled to his own opinion, and every man accepts that every transaction has as its goal, maximum return.  Goldman Sachs defended selling what it regarded as trash to its own clients, by arguing that there was no way to know that it really was trash, as long as there was a willing buyer.  Goldman didn’t have to tell everything it knew about what it was selling; Goldman didn’t necessarily know everything that the buyer did.  One concession made is that there are markets that only admit “big boys”; initial public offerings being one, and most derivatives another.  Lots of derivatives require updating of good faith money when the market moves. 

A consequence is that people come to expect that any given interaction, or position taken, will have the intent of making them losers.  Climate change scientists want bigger grants, and that will raise your taxes.  Pharm companies  want to sell you vaccines, which will make your kids autistic.  Wall Street is rigged.  Obama wanted to raise your taxes, and spend it all on his Kenyan friends.

But what this all means is that the weak should expect to be exploited by the strong.  People who are smarter than you are, and/or know more, are dangerous, and should never be trusted.  Combine that with an economy so specialized and complex that no one can understand more than a small fraction of it, and you have a recipe for paralysis, polarization, tribalism. 

Meritocracy is another aspect of the same problem.  Best qualified person in every position.  How far back does that go?  Bassinets?  Preschool (yes), kindergarten (yes), etc.  It could come the the point that college admissions will have to be granted solely on the basis of standardized testing; grades, recommendations, even prior accomplishments, will be challenged as too prone to subjective error. 

Alternatively, if we try from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs, the guys in charge of enforcing that tend to take so much for themselves that ability tends to get discouraged.  It also seems that position in hierarchy tends to become more important than quality of life, in that system more than in others.  It matters more that I have more than my neighbors, than that my life is as good as it could be. 

A better understanding of humans, and we can build better models. The underlying thought is that the best morality attainable may need to be thought of more in terms of process, than product. 



Haidt would agree that science has the answer to human nature, at least potentially,  and that a better understanding of human nature is the key to solving most social problems. 

But Haidt says that MFT is only descriptive, not normative; which means that it only describes how actual people muddle along in real situations, not how they or anyone else ought to do anything. How can we solve social problems without knowing how we ought to do things? How can we even decide what ought to count as a problem?

David Hume claimed you cannot derive “ought” from “is”. (Haidt is a big fan of Hume, mostly for “reason is the slave of the passions.”) Science deals with “is”: the way things actually are. Most scientists, Haidt included, agree with Hume about the ought/is distinction. “Metaethical versions of moral relativism are often motivated by the thought that ethical positions, unlike scientific beliefs, are not apt for objective truth-evaluation.” (SEP) But if science cannot tell us what we ought to do, what can?

Rick says he “still cannot see how a realist/objectivist puts a foundation under a morality, if he doesn’t have a god.  What does he do when he encounters an opponent who disagrees?

If God does not exist, he is not available to provide a foundation for anything. And where else we could get our foundations is not easy to explain. If science is out and God is out, what’s left? Nothing?

Maybe we’re left with moral relativism. What I still cannot see is how relativism shows that anyone ought to do anything. These people have these feelings and do these things, and those people have other feelings and do other things. Got it. What should they do? And for that matter, what should I do. It seems to me that relativism has nothing to say about it. I have feelings and I will do something, just like everyone else. Is what I do better or worse than anyone else? By what standard, mine or theirs?

Moral relativism is an unstable position,. It quickly devolves into moral skepticism and from there into nihilism: there is no morality in the real world, only in people’s imaginations. God and morality exist only in people’s imaginations. That’s the view bravely taken up by Alex Rosenberg in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. Rosenberg takes the implications of the scientific worldview very seriously and claims it leads to “nice nihilism.”

Relativism has its defenders who “see it as a harbinger of tolerance and the only ethical and epistemic stance worthy of the open-minded and tolerant.” (SEP) On the other hand, “Detractors think it undermines the very possibility of ethics and signals either confused thinking or moral turpitude.”

Moral turpitude? Yikes! Hard to accept.


lebowski national socialism
Nihilists! …Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

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