Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On the Problems of Moral Relativism

Further on that Guardian article about pre-school assessments of children, we hear that children will be assessed upon respecting the beliefs of others.

"When children enter compulsory schooling, they should be able to read simple sentences using a phonics-based approach, count reliably up to 10 and sing simple songs from memory, as well as respecting others' beliefs and learning to share and take turns."

This apparently unqualified requirement (in red) either points to the tortured logic of moral relativism, in other words - will children be required to show this respect if a person believes that it is right to commit murder, or steal from or otherwise abuse others? Or it points to such a limited definition of the notion of respect as to render having it virtually useless and irrelevant, which, whilst not being a relativist problem, is still likely to be a problem, in that it is likely to lead to misunderstandings along relativist lines.

To demonstrate more clearly what I am trying to say on the matter of the potential for illogicality inherent in moral relativism, what, say, if a child doesn't want to be measured by all these standards? If you respect his belief properly, surely you would act on this respect for his belief and not appraise him according to these standards? If, on the other hand, you say you respect his belief, but are still going to appraise him, what is the point the notion of respect, and what is the point of teaching that children should have it for others?

It may be that this apparently unqualified call to moral relativism may be more accurately described in the original documentation. However, if this is indeed the case, it is not good enough to allow the press to put about such terribly misleading representations of what you want. Of course, I don't think you should be making these sort of requirements of your population in the first place, for all the reasons already stated, see here and here, but it is even more unforgiveable that the government should be putting about such apparently feel-good but at best utterly meaningless, at worst, hugely damaging pronouncements on how we formulate moral theories.


Pete said...

It's a textbook example of a tautology: we will force you to be tolerant.

but it's also indicative of the attitude of the bush-blair mindset; in order to protect democracy, we must destroy it.

We must not allow people to choose freedoms which we find threatening...

All the way along, the attitude has been one of the problems with upper class "left" intellectuals in power; "Oh, if only everyone agreed with us and was nice and bourgois like us, we wouldn't have to tell you how to think..."

reminds me a lot of myself when I was young and stupid.

Anonymous said...

There's so much wrong with this it's hard to know where to begin to comment!

Firstly the thing I love about moral relativism is that it's a paradox in itself. If all things are relative, then so is relativism - thus, a realtivist is never in danger of taking themselves too seriously! :)

But because of this paradox it is certainly not a belief that can be preached. As Pete said, it's an example of a tautology. I see it more as "We will not tolerate intolerance." Which, of course, is nonsensical.

Then, as you say Carlotta, it also leads on logically to the suggestion that kids should tolerate those who believe that murder is acceptable etc

But the biggest pitfall I see here is that it's *pointless*. Kids don't learn how to pass tests/assessments by learning about subject matter; they pass them by learning about assessments, learning how to tell what is wanted/expected of them, and how to manipulate this. Good skills in their own way! But do we really think it worthwhile to teach children how to put on an act, how to please to avoid trouble, and how to manipulate?

I consider myself to be a relativist and am proud to be so, so I must point something out here. I do not believe that moral truths exist independently of human perception, that does NOT mean that I do not believe that moral truths exist. I think it wrong to kill.

I think it wrong to kill because I am a human being and human beings don't wish to be killed, and human beings recognise that human beings think it wrong to kill others. But I don't think this moral truth would exist if mankind didn't exist. Objectivists *do* believe this, which I don't understand - moral truths are not like scientific ones; they don't refer to an empirical world.

Human morality cannot exist without humans.


Anonymous said...

Gosh, I'm not necessarily a relativist - I'm a *subjectivist*! Well, you learn something new everyday! LOL!

Hubby has just informed me that SUBJECTIVISM is the opposite of objectivism. And relativism is the opposite of absolutism.

I'll have to read up on this I guess!

LOL! For decades now I've been going around refering to myself by the wrong label! Makes the "coercion" confusion pale by comparison, doesn't it? LOL!

I think I may well be a relativist TOO, as I'm not sure whether I believe in absolutes or not...

Very, very, complicated stuff absolutism... If absolutism would claim that it's always wrong to kill, then I'm not an absolutist, as I'm pro-suicide. But if it would claim it is always wrong to kill an unwilling person, then maybe I could be an absolutist... But then what about if a chap goes into a school with a bomb, hands you a gun, and instructs you to shoot the headteacher or he will detonate the bomb, *then* it would be right to kill an unwilling person, as it would save many other lives... Erm... Not sure on absolutism. Will think on that one!

But primarily, I'm a subjectivist anyway! Sorry for the confusion! :D


Anonymous said...

Okay... I'm definitely 100% a subjectivist.

And I lean heavily towards relativism too. If absolutism can be contextual/situational then I could go with it. If not, I'm a relativist.

Ie I could accept the proposition that in X situation Y is always right.

I could *not* accept the proposition that in *any* situation Y is always right.

Now, like objectivism, absolutism is, well, *absolute* really! LOL! Thus I think I *mostly* reject that too. And it's a "with us or against us" philosphy. You can't be a sort-of-absolutist!

So I'm a full on subjectivist and a half-assed relativist! :D

Just in case anyone's interested.

I'm also a corruptor of comments boxes! Sorry, Carlotta! *smiles sheepishly*

Okay folks, you can all go back to what you were doing now! :D


Anonymous said...

Though there's a thicket of philosophical entanglement and confusion to clear away here (like the governator, Ah'll be back), I'll stick with the obvious for now:

"Dear Mr Blair,

Whilst I could never agree to your belief that you were right in lying to the country in order to drag them into an immoral and brutal invasion and occupation in order to impress that new idiot hick on the block, I do of course respect that belief and so won't be sending you to the ICC, kicking your arse every step of the way.

(Up) yours, sincerely


To Ms 452 (or can I call you 33?)

Are you saying that you've changed your beliefs, or have you just found a better fitting label?


Anonymous said...

Hi B. Non

Ms 452 will do nicely, thank you. It can be rather imprudent to discuss philosophy with someone once you get onto first name terms! :D

Good question. I was thinking about this actually and I realised that I haven't been using the wrong label; *I* haven't been using *any* label. It's just that whenever I mention how adhorent I find Moral Objectivism, people tend to conclude from this that I am a relativist, and I've never bothered to find out what a relativist actually is in order to either confirm or deny this! LOL!

Today is actually the first time I've attempted to attach labels to my beliefs, and, on reflection, I don't think it's a very wise thing to do. I thought it might provide clarity, but, of course, it does not.

My beliefs are informed by introspection and observation, rather than from reading the philosophical thoughts of others anyway, and the problems I have with labels are a) that it's very unusual to find one that fits, and b) that they can encourage stagnation of thought.

I was having a look at the Wikipedia page Carlotta linked to. Thanks for that, Carlotta - it's fascinating stuff - I didn't know there were so many labels within labels! :)

In answer to your question, my beliefs have not changed; I've just decided that it's about time I stopped accepting labels that might not fit them.

I can't find one that fits entirely with what I believe anyway: If I had to then I would say I'm something of a Radical Subjectivist, and something of a Moral Pluralist, but I wouldn't accept these doctrines completely.

I revoke that statement about being 100% subjectivist that I made earlier - that was a damned fool thing to say! LOL! I should, at least, have read more about what a Subjectivist is before I made such a silly pronouncement!(That's the disadvantage to being anonymous, you can't delete your posts when you say something silly and regretable!)

I meant I am 100% against Moral Objectivism and I took Subjectivism to be simply the opposite of Moral Objectivism and, of course, it isn't actually that simple.

All I know *for sure* is that I abhore Moral Objectivism and am none too keen on Moral Absolutism either.

I usually just explain what I believe first hand, rather than refering to currently existing systems of thought - I find it easier that way.

And what I believe is this:

There are no such things as moral truths independent of the human species.

The ethical beliefs of one person cannot be judged against the ethical beliefs of another.

There is almost always more than one right path; there are potentially thousands of them.

It is the duty of each man to attempt to live up to the dictates of his own individual conscience.

It is the duty of society to protect the individual from harm. Now how to reconcile this with individual liberty is far too big an issue for me to even consider, but if we are going to be interested in moral philosophy it would seem to me that solving the problem of how to reconcile these two things is what we should be focusing on. To my mind, almost every moral issue rests upon this conflict and how we resolve it.

I consider that it is wrong to intentionally cause harm or pain to another. *Why* it is wrong, I do not know. Maybe it's only wrong inside my own conscience, maybe it's only wrong within the society we live in, maybe it's universally wrong within the whole of human society. But it *is in some way conditional upon humanity*. It isn't a principal that exists outside of the human mind, whether that is the individual human mind or the collective.

In other words I am definitely NOT an objectivist. But I don't really fall into any other category either. :)


Anonymous said...

Sorry, me again, why did I say "tautology" in my first post when I meant to say "paradox"? It's because Pete said tautology and then the word got stuck in my head! LOL!

I wish I could give up a) thinking and b) talking/typing... I'm not very good at either!


Carlotta said...

Dear anon,

That, I think would be a shame...and thank you for your questions, as they have been very helpful in reminding me of all the stuff I think I have forgotten!!

Carlotta said...

With regard to the post, I think I also needed to remind myself about the issue concerning the link between moral relativism and the call for for tolerance. It seems to me that the two ideas are almost invariably inextricably linked, though I do realise that the first does not essentially include a call to the latter, though the latter almost invariably results in the former.
I should perhaps have made this clearer in the original post.

Anonymous said...

"I think I also needed to remind myself about the issue concerning the link between moral relativism and the call for for tolerance. It seems to me that the two ideas are almost invariably inextricably linked, though I do realise that the first does not essentially include a call to the latter, though the latter almost invariably results in the former."

Hi Carlotta,

I think it's the other way round - tolerance doesn't necessarily result in moral relativism, but moral relativism does result in tolerance.

You can actually be a tolerant objectivist. You can think "This *is* objectively wrong, but it is not up to me to say so, it is up to the person to discover for themselves." (Not advising this; just saying it's logically possible!) But I don't see how it's possible to be an intolerant relativist? Except for by the "we won't tolerate intolerance" paradox.

But, then I freely admit that I am getting REALLY confused here! :)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Ms 452. I seem to be like yourself, in that I'll try and find labels to fit my beliefs, rather than fit my beliefs to a label. If I have to give a one word introduction, it'd be pluralism. There's more than one way to skin a rabbit (though I find it easier to at least stun it first).

Objectivist (in the broad, non-Randian sense) morality can be a bit tricky. Even religions, who can refer all questions back to a deity and His Holy Book(s) run up against the Divine Command Problem. And there can be plenty of disagreement amongst atheists; I don't imagine Carlotta has much time for Marxist objective morality, say, or Peter Singer's ethics.

It's probably just me, but in my thinking moral objectivism runs into a lot more problems than relativism or subjectivism. Are we talking objective moral commands, or objective moral ideas? Can there be degrees of objectivity? What is it that gives atheistic objective morality its objective status? Is it rooted in common human experience (something innate in a, say, biological sense), or what are commonly held to virtues? Will we finally know what the objective morals are when every person then alive 'discovers' and agrees to them?

My current thinking is to look at moral experience, to see what goes into making up moral decisions or judgements.

I find tolerance a bit paradoxical. On one hand, I think it's a virtue. On the other hand, it carries a suggestion that other people are a burden. But I don't see how this leads to relativism. Unless TCS have redefi - sorry, *clarified* - the meaning.

33, 452 said...

Hi Anon above (B.Non, I presume?)

"Is it rooted in common human experience (something innate in a, say, biological sense), or what are commonly held to virtues? Will we finally know what the objective morals are when every person then alive 'discovers' and agrees to them?"

I thought objectivism rejects the idea that moral truths are dependent on human perception, and believes that moral truths exist somewhere in the natural world?

But I suppose there's probably many different branches of objectivism and maybe they don't *all* hold this? Or do they have to hold to that in order to come under the "objectivist" heading at all?

I have to admit that I am thoroughly confused about it all.

I think I must be fanatical about the dictionary, and see it as some kind of gospel! LOL!

By dictionary definitons objectivism is the theory that moral truths exist independently of human percpetion. Ie independently of *all* human perception(as in, if human beings became extinct the moral truths would still exist). I never understood Atheistic Objectivism, it always seemed a bit of a contradiction-in-terms to me, but I haven't a bloody clue what I'm talking about so don't pay too much attention to me! :P

I'm surprised to discover that I'm really not very well-informed here at all. I'm actually quite ignorant, which surprises me.

I think my *beliefs* are well-informed because my beliefs are informed by experience rather than by reference to current theories, if you get what I mean. But I'm still shamefully ignorant about the philosophies being discussed here.

"I find tolerance a bit paradoxical. On one hand, I think it's a virtue. On the other hand, it carries a suggestion that other people are a burden."

I don't see it as either. It's not a virtue, it's just practical. And I don't think it necessarily implies that people are a burden, but I can see how such associations could be made. To me, tolerating someone's beliefs means disagreeing with the *beliefs* but respecting the *person* who holds them and respecting their right to believe whatever they wish to.

I'm getting a headache now! I used to love philosophy! It used to be my greatest passion, but now I just can't be bothered with it all.

So why did I just go get myself a new blog...?


Carlotta said...

I don't think this is a terribly clear description...a much better simpler introduction being the Magee Fontana Classic "Popper", but this intro to critical rationalism explains that it is neither a relativistic or an objective epistemology and ethical framework...

Does this help at all?


33, 452 said...

Thanks, Carlotta.

I just skim-read this, and it seems that Critical Rationalists are not actually objectivists in the true sense.

I thought it would be odd for such a profoundly humanist philosophy as TCS to be classically objectivist, so its good to see clarification that they're actually not.

Will read properly and then I'll be back! :)

33, 452 said...

This isn't too bad!

Makes far more sense than classical objectivism.

It passes the 33452 test anyway! LOL!

It's actually worth reading more on, I would say. I never bothered before because I knew it was an objectivist philosophy and I despise objectivism, BUT this is NOT classic objectivism! I may even look into this more, Carlotta! :)

I think the only problem I would have with this is if it is taken to the extreme of vocalising criticism/refutation of the beliefs/thoughts/ideas of others in cases where they have not expressed an obvious willingness to have their beliefs/thoughts/ideas criticised in this way.

It may be interesting to examine when it is and when it is not appropriate to subject a person's ideas to criticism. For example I would say that if you blog about your ideas and have a comments box, you invite criticism. If you chat about them with a friend, you do not invite criticism unless you expressly say "Let's examine this critically here" or something to that effect.

Other than that, I actually quite like it based on what I've read so far! :)