Can You Become a Better Person?

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(Update 12/31/07: This blog entry presents a philosophical position on ethics. If you landed here because you desire really to become a better person, I suggest you try this blog entry instead.)

Is it possible to become a better person: more moral, more ethical? Undoubtedly yes, if we know what “a better person” means. I believe we can make a credible case, however, that under moral relativism it doesn’t actually have a usable definition.

That’s not to say (not at all!) that moral relativists cannot become better persons. But they cannot do it under their own terms of morality. They can become better in ways that borrow from other views of morality, including Christian theism. We can all grow and mature and learn, and most of us do. I submit, however, that these are meaningless concepts under ethical relativism.

I ask my relativist readers and friends to stay with me now while I develop some definitions and explanations. I recognize that what I’ve said to start with here may raise objections right off the bat. So I’ll re-emphasize what I’ve already said: I believe you can and do grow and develop ethically. That’s not the question at issue.

What I purpose to show here is that your intuition or knowledge of your personal growth is logically at odds with your philosophy. It is so much at odds that if your philosophy were correct, then your belief that you are growing ethically could not be true. Under relativism, your ethical position is no higher or better now than when you were five years old, and so is mine.

Moral Relativism and Moral Realism
Moral relativism is, broadly speaking, the belief that there is no transcendent, fixed anchor point for right and wrong. Right and wrong are up to individuals, societies, or cultures to decide for themselves; and as they change, right and wrong can change with them. What is actually, truly, right in one place or for one person can be actually, truly wrong for another culture.

Let’s set this against the familiar concept that tastes and customs are locally determined. Tibetans eat everything with their fingers (no forks, spoons, or chopsticks). In Japan (I’ve been told by travelers who have been there) a good belch after a meal sends a welcome message that you really enjoyed the food. Those things things are right in those places, but socially unacceptable in places where the cultural heritage is European. There’s nothing controversial there.

Moral relativism says that just as belching or eating with one’s fingers may either be right or wrong, depending on context, so any other human choice may be right or wrong, depending on context. If a tribal culture believes sacrificing children to the “gods” is right, then in their tribe it is. If we believe it’s wrong here, then it is wrong here. It’s all a matter of context.

The Christian theist position, by contrast, is moral realism: moral principles exist independently of human beliefs or opinions. There are at least some things that are actually right or wrong, and would be right or wrong even if every human had the wrong opinion. If every person and every culture thought that sacrificing children to the “gods” was right, it would still be wrong anyway. For Christians, real morality is grounded in the character of God.

I use “ethical” and “moral” interchangeably (synonymously) in this article.

A Sense of Direction
I see my children, ages 12 and 16, growing ethically year by year. When they were very young they only thought of their own needs, and they were quite demanding about them. Now they quite often put others’ concerns first. They have a way to go yet, to be sure, but I’m confident they’ll continue to mature.

Growing and maturing are directional terms. Physical growth is in the direction of larger, heavier, etc. Mental growth is in the direction of having more knowledge, more capacity to process ideas, etc. Maturity is not just about getting older, but about moving in a direction considered to be more wise, knowledgeable, and so on.

When we speak of moral growth or maturation, we automatically think directionally. We think of a person moving toward being guided by better principles, holding to a better standard, thinking and living more in conformity to some higher ethic.

The Personal View
Now consider yourself: can you become a better person, morally? The relativist position says that what is right for you is what you have decided is right for you. You have the privilege to determine right and wrong for yourself, and presumably you have done so. You’ve defined right and wrong for yourself. It’s hard on that basis to see how you can be more right than you already are, if where you are now is right.

There is no direction for you to move; there is no “bigger” or “larger” (using physical analogies); there is no “ethically wiser” for you to move toward. In order for “ethically wiser” to exist, there must be something existing that is actually more or less wise. Wise is not equivalent to learned. It’s at least arguable that professors like Peter Singer or Ward Churchill, although quite learned, are not examples of ethical wisdom; or at least if they are, then wisdom becomes another directionless word, so we cannot use it to provide our needed sense of direction for moral growth.

So what does moral growth mean under relativism? Let’s consider some possibilities. Certainly it must involve moral change, an alteration of attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors. That’s a minimum.

Now, there’s one form of change that’s worth considering as an example of real growth under relativism, which is resolving personal inconsistencies. If I believe it’s right to sacrifice children to the “gods,” for the sake of next year’s harvest, and yet I also believe that every child’s life is of more value or worth than any crop could be, then I have an inconsistency to resolve. One of those beliefs ought to give way to the other, if not for moral reasons then at least for logical ones. (Let’s set aside for now whether our presumed duty to be logically consistent is a moral duty. That’s at least a possibility, and if so, it muddies these waters considerably, and it certainly doesn’t help the relativist position! My point here does not require us to resolve that, though.)

Which of those two beliefs–the child is more important than the crop, or vice-versa–should we set aside, for the sake of logical consistency? Taken individually it’s hard to see which one, by itself, is more logical than the other. We can’t easily settle the question by appealing to logic. The relativist will probably choose the one that she thinks is more morally compelling. That’s the position one commenter here has taken. He agrees that ethics are like matters of taste, in that each person can have his or her own opinion on every point. There are some matters, however, for which he is willing to sacrifice. That difference is, to him, what defines some opinions as matters of morality rather than of mere taste or custom.

Morally Compelling
So let’s camp there a moment. “Morally compelling” is either a directional term (there’s something I believe is really, actually more moral, so I find myself compelled to assent to it) or something else. That something else could be a gut feeling, it could be the customs of one’s social group, it could even be whatever gives the person a sense of permission to do what she wanted to do anyway. (I suspect there’s a lot of that going on in moral relativism.)

But in the case of our child sacrifice example, either position seems to be of equivalent value or worth. Either could be morally compelling. If one chooses the crops and kills the child, that could certainly be as moral (on relativism) as deciding to save the child and risk the crops. You couldn’t say that one who decides in midlife that he ought to save the child has grown morally, because there’s no directionality there. There’s no “higher” there to grow toward.

What, though, if he comes to understand there’s no relationship after all between such acts of sacrifice and the success of his crops; that child sacrifice doesn’t actually help anything? He might change his practice, but that’s not moral growth. It’s not a better, more ethical weighting of child vs. harvest. It puts the question aside entirely; it makes it irrelevant.

The Challenge to Relativists
Let’s bring this into a modern context with an actual current controversy. I could bring up many issues; embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is as good as any. One side of this debate says that harvesting human embryos is a kind of child sacrifice, killing helpless innocents for the sake of older, more responsible persons. The other side says it’s not correct to regard embryos in that way. There is no moral reference point, on relativism, that makes one of those positions more right or wrong than the other.

Suppose we have a long debate and you convince me that ESCR is good, and should be heavily funded and pursued. Have I experienced moral growth? I’ve changed, in this hypothetical case. But am I morally better than I was? How could we say that I was, since we don’t know what “morally better” means? Let’s suppose again that you convince me that homosexual practice is a morally neutral matter, and that practicing homosexual relationships can be as moral as heterosexual marriage relationships. Again, for me that would be a (large) change in my moral opinion, but in what way have I become morally better for having changed? What does “better” mean in that context?

My challenge to relativists is for you to define “morally better” in a way that actually makes moral growth a coherent principle within your system of thought.

Some Cautions
You might say that you’re willing to give up any conception of moral improvement in order to save your moral relativism. Let me then ask you, are you more ethically mature now than when you were five years old? Are you less self-centered now than you were then, and if so, would you consider that a generally positive change or a neutral one? Another way of asking the question: suppose you were as self-centered today as you were as a five-year-old. Would you consider that acceptable? If you saw some 35-year old with the self-centeredness of a five-year-old, would you not consider that a case of arrested development?

But don’t get careless with invoking the word “maturity” here. It might just mean older. And be cautious also about introducing moral growth theories like, “learning that it’s good to do what promotes the greater happiness,” or “learning to avoid what harms others.” Those are either very dangerously close to moral realism, or else they are simply ways to generalize the statement of a position that still needs defending. If growing older leads one to adopt one moral theory in preference to another, what makes one moral theory better than another?

It’s up to you, relativist friends, to show how any of this actually means morally better. I don’t know how you can do that from within a coherent moral relativist framework. I welcome your responses to explain it. I am quite sure you have grown morally over your years of life, but I believe it takes moral realism for that actually to make sense.

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33 Responses

  1. Tom,

    Let’s be clear about something. You say:

    You might say that you’re willing to give up any conception of moral improvement in order to save your moral relativism. Let me then ask you, are you more ethically mature now than when you were five years old?

    You forgot a word. Instead of moral improvement, you mean “absolute moral improvement.” And the question at hand is really whether there can be such a thing as “subjective moral improvement.”

    Suppose that there were no such thing as subjective improvement in any domain. Then, if gastronomic taste is subjective, your taste in food at age 5 was as good as your present taste, and you have made no gastronomic progress. If you cook, then your best recipes today are as good as your best recipes tomorrow. Similarly, your favorite songs today would be no better than your 5-year-old self’s favorites, and your music appreciation has made no progress.

    How about art appreciation? Suppose you like impressionism. Did you like impressionism at age 5? If not, then you would have made no progress in art appreciation, right?

    I think these examples show that there really is such a thing as subjective improvement (unless one rejects the subjective altogether).

    I also think that subjective improvement depends on two factors.

    The first factor is our basic biological or psychologically “semi-hardwired” tastes. For example, my sense of what tastes bitter or spicy is kind of hardwired. I won’t really change these things by direct force of will, but only through indirect conditioning or long-term taste acquisition.

    The second factor is in our understanding of our actions and of the world as to how to meet those basic tastes.

    Here are some examples…

    Gastronomic progress: I begin to understand how to combine foods, or how to sequence them so as to please my basic gastronomic tastes (sweet, bitter, etc.) better.

    Art appreciation progress: I gain a better understanding of what it was in simple art that pleased me. I gain a deeper understanding of my aesthetic tastes and how to please them by studying more sophisticated art.

    Moral progress: I learn more about my basic moral tastes, and more about how to satisfy them. I learn how to choose my actions better in order to satisfy those tastes.

    If I convince you that ESCR is good, it will be because you have come to see that ESCR satisfies your own basic tastes better than banning ESCR. You will see it as moral progress because that is what convinced you of ESCR’s moral superiority.

    This comes back to what I said about the nature of a moral argument. It’s not an appeal to an external authority (unless it is a basic moral value to value another person’s moral authority, which sounds questionable at best). It’s an appeal to your own basic tastes, those tastes you cannot easily change by force of will.

  2. Tom says:

    doctor(logic),

    Welcome back–I’ve been wondering where you were. I noted a while ago that you had been strangely silent on some earlier questions I had raised for you. But that’s on another thread.

    In regard to this one I have much to reply. It’s a little difficult to know in which order to take them. I’ll start with two observations on “subjective moral improvement:”

    And the question at hand is really whether there can be such a thing as “subjective moral improvement.”

    That’s not a question, really. We can readily agree that people have subjective experiences that they consider as moral improvement. Is it fair, however, to consider this real moral improvement? We need to think about that some.

    Or, more accurately, we need to think about it if we want to entertain the possibility that we adults are living on a moral plane higher than we were on as five-year-olds. If your answer to that question is “no,” or “I don’t care,” then this line of discussion will have no force for you.

    If, however, you consider your morality today to be advanced over, or higher than, your morality as a young child, then you need to consider whether “subjective moral improvement” fills the bill.

    You suggest that subjective improvement in other domains (gastronomic, art appreciation) provides an analogy that shows there is really such a thing as subjective improvement. What, though, is this aesthetic development of which you speak? If someone has more advanced tastes in food or art, what does that actually mean? There seem to be three options, using “AG” for Aesthetic Growth.

    AG1) Subjective advance is objective advance. The person’s growth in taste is a real growth.
    AG2) Subjective advance is an advance only from the individual’s perspective. The person feels more advanced, but the advance is truly subjective in the sense that there is no way to assess or describe that advance by external measures or standards.
    AG3) Subjective advance is entirely an illusion. It’s no advance at all. It’s something else, like perhaps snobbery regarding so-called lesser art forms.

    All of these have been argued. All of them undermine your case. Let me first show that AG1 and AG3 are possible, then we’ll show that AG2, which is probably your position, does not help your case regarding moral growth.

    AG1 has been argued as a plausible aesthetic position because persons do seem to experience growth correlating to change in tastes. I’ll speak of my own field of music. When I was very young I enjoyed nursery rhymes and was bewildered or bored by jazz and classical music. Pop/rock styles were fine for me. I studied music and began to recognize things like the standard form of a classical symphony, and it added to my appreciation and enjoyment. I learned that you listen for something different in Debussy than in Bach. I learned about key relationships in a fugue, and how “episodes” provide structure in the midst of the echoing fugal sections. I learned to listen to inner parts and not just melodies.

    I could go on, but I need not do that. The point is that I had to grow in experience and understanding in order to appreciate and enjoy classical music. Similarly with jazz I learned about intricacies of harmony and rhythm that enable me to enjoy an extended ad lib solo, even if its melody isn’t catchy or singable.

    Persons who develop advanced knowledge and skills in appreciating any art–fiction, visual arts, food, wine, whatever–generally say that they have a higher enjoyment than they did before. Bach and Brubeck beat Britney Spears, objectively, they would say; and those who really know Bach or Brubeck are in such near-unanimous agreement on this, it becomes plausible that they are actually right.

    So much for AG1. I happen to believe it’s plausible and probably generally correct. Maybe you disagree. If you’re going to use subjective aesthetic growth as an analogy to argue against objective moral growth, though, you ought to pay serious attention to the fact that philosophers don’t agree that aesthetic growth is necessarily not objective.

    AG3 has also been argued, often in rebuttal to the argument I’ve given here for AG1. It is said that the more knowledgeable person probably isn’t actually enjoying the “higher” art any more than the less knowledgeable person enjoys the “lower;” and therefore to say that the “higher” is better is meaningless. The aficionado is just more educated, and his opinion of “lower” art is just snobbery.

    Now if AG1 is accurate, then your analogy falls apart, for it supports objectivity. If AG3 is correct, then your analogy also fails, for it removes all support whatever for subjective improvement. What about AG2? I think that even if I’m wrong about AG1, and both it and AG3 are inaccurate depictions of growth but AG2 is accurate, you still have a problem with your analogy.

    Let’s suppose AG2 is a correct analysis of aesthetic growth. What does it mean to grow subjectively in aesthetic taste? I’m struggling to make sense of it.

    Then, if gastronomic taste is subjective, your taste in food at age 5 was as good as your present taste, and you have made no gastronomic progress. If you cook, then your best recipes today are as good as your best recipes tomorrow. Similarly, your favorite songs today would be no better than your 5-year-old self’s favorites, and your music appreciation has made no progress.

    You are assuming that there is something going on that we can call progress. What is it? What is going on that can truly be considered growth, development, or progress? I don’t know what those words mean if they are not growth, development, or progress toward something.

    If it means toward something more mature, or older, I’ve already dealt with that in my main blog post. “Older” certainly doesn’t equate with better; and “more mature” just means “older” unless there’s some sense of “better” included with it. If “better” is just better in one’s own opinion (my taste in music now is better than before because I think it is), then one is surely using a sliding scale of the world’s most unreliable sort; we are surely prone to confusion. For on what grounds are we going to judge that our aesthetic taste has grown? Probably something like this: “I think I’ve grown, and my basis for thinking this is that I’m more qualified now to judge it so; and I’m more qualified to judge it so because my tastes have progressed.” Circular as can be.

    So AG2 is going to tip toward either AG1: my position is better because I think it is and I’m actually qualified to know that it is so, or AG3: my position is better because I think it is, but there’s really no way for me to support that assertion and it means nothing other than that I think it is so.

    So I think you have a position where AG1 is the case, and your analogy supports objective moral growth, or AG3 is the case, and your analogy supports no moral growth, only the illusion or private, massively unreliable opinion of moral growth.

    You have offered two explanations for how subjective improvement happens, but they don’t explain what subjective improvement actually is, and they don’t begin to address why we should not consider such growth to be either objective or unreal (AG3).

    Finally, your second-to-last paragraph on ESCR can be answered according to my paragraph in the blog post beginning:

    Now, there’s one form of change that’s worth considering as an example of real growth under relativism, which is resolving personal inconsistencies…

    Finally again, (and I mean it this time), you haven’t begun to answer the question I asked: what does “morally better” actually mean? (If you think you can become a better person, morally, what does that actually mean?) You danced around it, but that is the real, crucial question. If you think you have advanced morally since you were five years old, please define what that actually means. If you don’t think you have advanced morally since you were five years old, you are of course excused from having to worry about the question.

  3. ordinary seeker says:

    I really don’t see how you can have a discussion about moral growth without referencing Kohlberg.

  4. Tom says:

    He’s working in a different category of study. He takes moral growth as a given and works to show how it happens, what it looks like, and so on. The question here is a different one.

  5. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom, there’s an AG4: Subjective advance is an advance from the group’s perspective. The way to assess or describe the advance is by external measures or standards agreed upon by a group.

  6. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom, I understand what you mean about Kohlberg, but I don’t think it’s entirely irrelevant, especially in the context of my second comment. Kohlberg provides a standard by which to measure moral growth. It’s a subjective standard, but is based on what a group of people understand to be moral growth.

  7. What does it mean to grow subjectively in aesthetic taste?

    It can only mean that your current state seems more preferable to you at the moment than previous states. As you’ve noted, this hardly seems to be a meaningful measurement of growth.

  8. Tom, sorry for my brevity… I am away from my PC for much of this week.

    I stand by AG2, but maybe I can fill in a few gaps for you.

    The fact that’s being overlooked is that our hardwired moral tastes (our most basic values) are highly uniform, IMO. While I may disagree with many of your moral conclusions, I think our core values are very similar. That’s what makes so much of morality seem objective when it isn’t. So if I make progress, it is AG2, but my AG2 is generally your AG2 because our core values are so similar.

    If you fundamentally wanted to cause pain to others, then my AG2 would no longer be your AG2. However, such differences are highly unusual. IOW, most people agree on what constitutes AG2 for biological and cultural reasons.

    Finally, AG2 is progress toward better satisfaction of my core values. That means that I now have more information, and can see how my past policies violated those core values.

    I hope this clears things up a bit.

  9. DL,

    Finally, AG2 is progress toward better satisfaction of my core values. That means that I now have more information, and can see how my past policies violated those core values.

    So a sadistic serial killer who finds more painful – and thus more satisfying, for him – ways to torture his victims is making moral progress (i.e., progress toward better satisfaction of his core values) on your view?

  10. SteveK says:

    Can a person subjectively perceive something that has no basis in objective reality? Yes, but we call these perceptions illusions because they are not part of reality.

    The root cause of all perception is objective reality. If that objective reality isn’t causing your subjective perception then what does that say about your perception? It says your perception is an illusion, which means it’s an objectively false perception like a mirage.

    What DL wants us to believe is that a subjective perception can’t be labeled objectively true or false and that simply isn’t the case. We don’t have to know the answer to the question, but we know there are only two choices available.

    When DL says “It’s wrong to kill innocent people” we know that subjective perception of reality must be true or false according to how DL has defined all the words in that phrase (contextually and so forth).

    If Tom says “It’s NOT wrong to kill innocent people” and Tom is using the words in the same way that DL is using them, then we have a logical contradiction. One or both are wrong.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    os,

    Somehow I missed your comment yesterday morning about AG4: advancing by comparison to group norms. I think you have a valid point there; there is an actual standard there, possibly. It depends on how homogeneous the group is, of course. We’re talking about the aesthetics analogy, of course. Who will you ask whether Metheny (Pat) is superior to Eminem? Because the answer you get will surely depend on who you ask.

    Following the analogy to ethics, that also depends on who you ask. Is it, or is it not, a moral advance to accept that homosexual practice is morally neutral or morally good? You’ll get massively different answers within U.S. culture on that one.

    A bigger issue yet: is it possible for a person to grow morally beyond the ethic of his culture? Take William Wilberforce, for example, who stood virtually alone in making a political push for abolishing the slave trade. In Biblical terms it makes sense to call that moral growth. Does it make sense in cultural terms?

  12. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom,
    I think one answer to your question is that we grow morally as our reference group expands. Again I have to reference Kohlberg: At his highest level of morality, the individual’s reference group is all living beings.

    As young children, for example, our moral reference group might be our family; what we understand to be moral is what our family defines as moral. As we get older and interact more with those outside our family, we may begin to question some of our family’s moral values (our family is racist, but we like and respect people who are of other ethnicities; our family is homophobic but we like and respect people who are gay, etc.) As adults, I would say our moral growth is dependent upon our ability to identify with all others and accept that they are us; when we can have this empathy with others than we can act in ways that are morally just. Isn’t this just the Golden Rule writ large?

  13. Tom says:

    OS, now I don’t know what you mean by reference group, and how we refer to it. Earlier I thought you were saying that moral growth has to do with becoming more aligned with the moral opinions of your group. What you have said just now is about caring about members of your group; and that growth is about enlarging the scope of that group. These are two different things.

    If enlarging the size of my group in the first sense is moral growth, then ultimately my group will tell me that it is and that it is not okay to fly airplanes into American skyscrapers.

    But if you mean it in the second sense, you’re sneaking in a universal moral value. Kohlberg was not asking the same questions we are here, as we already discussed, so it was not out of line for him to do that. But here, we have to ask, what does it mean that caring about others is a moral good, and that caring about more others is a greater moral good yet?

    In order for it to be a greater good, it ought to be closer to some standard, but relativism seems to say there is no standard.

    doctor(logic) says the standard is our hard-wiring. Big problems there. The more moral person is the person who is most like he is hard-wired to be?

  14. Aaron,

    So a sadistic serial killer who finds more painful – and thus more satisfying, for him – ways to torture his victims is making moral progress (i.e., progress toward better satisfaction of his core values) on your view?

    Gosh, not on “my view” but on “his view.”

    However, I think that it is very rare (if ever) that specific actions are core values. I prefer to work out in the morning, but not because I have a core value of “work out in the morning.” I value pleasure over pain, and social status, and rewarding relationships, and working out in the morning satisfies those values for me.

    Likewise, I think that most killers kill for other reasons, e.g., a sense of control, or a sense of sexual fulfillment, a sense of justice or whatever. Things without which they would deem their lives not worth living.

  15. Tom,

    doctor(logic) says the standard is our hard-wiring. Big problems there. The more moral person is the person who is most like he is hard-wired to be?

    In moral relativism, judgment of “the more moral person” is a subjective one. Why do you insist on trying to convert it into some sort of objective moral rule?

    You are looking to moral realism to provide you with an objective way to judge that person A is morally superior than person B. Sorry. No dice. Under relativism, that’s your own subjective decision to make, and, as someone who cares about moral positions, you take responsibility for your own subjective moral decisions.

    Either we can agree (through facts and logical argument) on who is more moral because we share core moral values, or else we will probably disagree. It’s that simple. It’s not something that will be solved by moral relativism. It’s only described by moral relativism.

  16. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom, by “reference group” I mean one’s culture (one’s culture can be as small as one’s immediate family if one is a very young child) and we reference it by using it as a standard by which to judge our actions, among other things.

    I’m not saying that moral growth is about caring about members of one’s group, I’m saying that moral growth is about identifying and empathizing with the members of *other* groups, and those others becoming members of one’s group as one identifies and empathizes with them. “They” becomes “us,” and our sense of moral justice expands to include them as ourselves. I would call that moral growth.

  17. Charlie says:

    Hi DL,

    I value pleasure over pain, and social status, and rewarding relationships, and working out in the morning satisfies those values for me.

    In fact, in our previous discussion you made your own pleasure-seeking your moral reference point.

    You are looking to moral realism to provide you with an objective way to judge that person A is morally superior than person B. Sorry.

    If A is not superior to B then we do not have a standard, and therefore there is no growth or progress.
    ===
    Hi OS,

    I’m not saying that moral growth is about caring about members of one’s group, I’m saying that moral growth is about identifying and empathizing with the members of *other* groups, and those others becoming members of one’s group as one identifies and empathizes with them. “They” becomes “us,” and our sense of moral justice expands to include them as ourselves. I would call that moral growth.

    You have created an absolute standard here but have changed the question Tom was asking. You are no longer “growing” toward the standard of your reference group but, rather, are changing your reference group and claiming that this change (and empathy) are moral goods in themselves. But you are claiming that without reference, and even against the standards, of that very new group you are seeking to include. By expanding your reference group you are not approaching a standard of empathy and caring, but rather admitting standards very much opposed to this. If you want to grow against the Chinese standard you will find experimenting on prisoners to indicate moral growth. Or you will find honour killings and revenge killings more moral if you grow against certain Muslim standards. Your reference group idea is answering the wrong question – it presumes moral absolutes (empathy, love, caring)in order to get off the ground.

  18. ordinary seeker says:

    Charlie, I don’t mean that as you grow you accept the standards of the new group, but that you accept the members of the new group as members of your own group; in this way you eventually come to realize that ALL humans deserve the same dignity and that you should treat everyone in the same way, with the same respect, *as if they were you yourself.*

  19. Charlie says:

    Thanks, OS, I understand that.
    That means that you are not making that group your reference for your morality, nor is your growth measured by such a reference.
    Your growth is measured against a different imperative – treating others as yourself.
    This is not in support of what you first told Tom:

    Tom, there’s an AG4: Subjective advance is an advance from the group’s perspective. The way to assess or describe the advance is by external measures or standards agreed upon by a group.

    Tom caught this immediatley:

    OS, now I don’t know what you mean by reference group, and how we refer to it. Earlier I thought you were saying that moral growth has to do with becoming more aligned with the moral opinions of your group. What you have said just now is about caring about members of your group; and that growth is about enlarging the scope of that group. These are two different things.

    You tried to clarify but merely confirmed his point:

    I’m not saying that moral growth is about caring about members of one’s group, I’m saying that moral growth is about identifying and empathizing with the members of *other* groups, and those others becoming members of one’s group as one identifies and empathizes with them. “They” becomes “us,” and our sense of moral justice expands to include them as ourselves. I would call that moral growth.

    And now you have done so again in response to me.

  20. DL,

    Gosh, not on “my view” but on “his view.”

    I meant on your view of *what* moral progress *is* (in other words, the general definition of the term), not your view of what specific moral behaviors or attitudes constitute moral progress. Do you see the distinction?

    However, I think that it is very rare (if ever) that specific actions are core values.

    I wasn’t referring to our hypothetical sadist’s specific actions as core values.

    Likewise, I think that most killers kill for other reasons, e.g., a sense of control, or a sense of sexual fulfillment, a sense of justice or whatever. Things without which they would deem their lives not worth living.

    Agreed. These are his core values. So if he finds a better way to satisfy his core values (your definition of moral progress) – and “better” simply means that he finds it more satisfying or preferable, for example finding the torture of an individual a more personally satisfying expression of his desire for justice than, say, utilizing the court system – then he is making moral progress, right? I don’t see how, on your view, “better” could be anchored to anything other than his own personal, subjective opinions. It certainly couldn’t be anchored to your view of what would be a better way to acheive satisfaction of, say, his desire for control, sex, or justice. Or are you trying to make an argument for utilitarianism here?

  21. Tom says:

    doctor(logic),

    You are looking to moral realism to provide you with an objective way to judge that person A is morally superior than person B

    Actually I think you introduced that interpersonal comparison before I did. (I could be wrong about that, I haven’t re-read the whole thread.) The question I started with, and would really prefer to stick with, is whether you or I at Time B might be morally more mature or advanced than we were at Time A. It’s about one person’s growth or otherwise.

    So the question I raised here is whether you (or I) can become a better person; specifically, whether that question is meaningful or can be answered under moral relativism. I think based on your recent comment you are saying the answer is no. That’s the best I can make of this:

    Under relativism, that’s your own subjective decision to make, and, as someone who cares about moral positions, you take responsibility for your own subjective moral decisions.

    Either we can agree (through facts and logical argument) on who is more moral because we share core moral values, or else we will probably disagree. It’s that simple. It’s not something that will be solved by moral relativism. It’s only described by moral relativism.

    You ask why I want to keep objectivizing or real-izing morality. I do that because I think it’s a true picture of the way the world is. In this discussion, though, I did not take that stance. Instead, I asked whether becoming a better person is meaningful under your view of morality.

    If the answer is no, I do not take that in itself as proof of moral realism. I just present it to you as something you need to take account of in your moral relativism. If you wish to be consistent with your own beliefs, you will want to avoid the language of moral improvement or growth. If you’re fine with that, then I shouldn’t and wouldn’t expect this line of discussion to change your overall beliefs.

  22. ordinary seeker says:

    Charlie,
    You are right; I am not being clear. Let me try again: I think moral growth is a process in which we begin by conforming to the standards of our group, which is first our family, then expands to include other groups as we interact with individuals from those groups. So, as adolescents we might interact with peers who have different values than our families, and align more with those values than with our families’. *Ultimately,* however, we realize that the group with which we must align is the group of all humans (or all living beings), and when we reach this stage we act according to the ethic of reciprocity. Of course, we could be acting according to this ethic all along; the difference is that prior to accepting all humans as part of our “group,” we used the ethic only with those we believed belonged to our group.

    I am not saying that the ethic of reciprocity is an abolute standard, but that it is my personal standard.

  23. Charlie says:

    Thanks again, OS.

    I am not saying that the ethic of reciprocity is an abolute standard, but that it is my personal standard.

    This doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with your AG4 then, does it?
    You have provided a personal standard, not an absolute standard, and not a group standard.

  24. ordinary seeker says:

    Charlie,
    I tried to explain how I think about the role of the group in the development of a personal ethic. I think it’s a complicated process that I can’t fully explain in a blog comment. My personal standard is a standard developed through interaction with a series of individuals, groups, and individuals who are representative of groups. There is a group of people who also hold my standard, and I judge myself in reference to them.

    I must say it does annoy me that your goal seems to be to prove me wrong rather than to understand my point of view–but I’ve made the observation here before, and I suppose since I keep participating I will have to keep putting up with it.

  25. Charlie says:

    Hi OS,
    Why is it you assume that I am not trying to understand you?
    You admitted that your communication was unclear and I think that it is by my process (following Tom’s observation) that you saw that and are trying to clarify it.

    I tried to explain how I think about the role of the group in the development of a personal ethic.

    Yes you did. At first we conform to a group. And then we interact with other groups and accept people into our group. But along the way you must necessarily be ignoring the standards of those groups as they do not conform to yours. So there is no AG4 as per your process- no group standard to which you are progressing. Rather, you are conforming to your own standard of reciprocity.
    This leads back to the original question: is this growth?
    Yours boils down to really just a defence of the same issue that Tom and Dl are discussing, AG2.

    There is a group of people who also hold my standard, and I judge myself in reference to them.

    There are also others who do not hold your standard and against whom you do not judge yourself. How do you judge yourself against people who are exactly like you (pretending this were possible) when you remove from your standard those who are not?
    Once again, growth and progress are defeated.

  26. Steve,

    Can a person subjectively perceive something that has no basis in objective reality? Yes, but we call these perceptions illusions because they are not part of reality.

    The bases in reality for moral feelings are history and biology.

    But let’s return to gastronomic taste. Suppose that strawberries dipped in chocolate remind you of a love affair that went bad, and so you now dislike strawberries dipped in chocolate (despite liking the two foods by themselves).

    Is your preference for not eating chocolate-dipped strawberries an illusion?

    I put it to you that it cannot be an illusion.
    An illusion is a mis-perception of an objective truth. Like the optical illusions that look as if two lies bend inward when they are actually straight lines. However, if there is no objective moral truth, there are no illusions.

    A core moral feeling cannot fail to be an accurate perception of your own moral feelings. Such feelings are incorrigible, just like your distaste for strawberries in chocolate.

    In contrast, moral reasoning or extrapolation is susceptible to illusion because there is a truth test, namely whether the outcome of the action will be better or worse according to your core moral feelings. For example, many might consider the apparent rightness of revenge to be illusory. They may be surprised to discover that exacting revenge not only fails to sooth their feelings, but actually makes them feel morally worse.

    Under moral relativism, the only thing that is illusory is the objectivity of morality, not its existence.

  27. Charlie,

    If A is not superior to B then we do not have a standard, and therefore there is no growth or progress.

    You forgot the word ‘objective’ again (and again).

    The question is whether it makes sense for me personally to say I am morally better than I was before, of whether it makes sense for me to judge whether one person is better than another. Since the standard only needs to be there for me (and, coincidentally, for others who share my values), the AG2 relativist standard is adequate to the task we’re discussing.

    Again, we’re not looking for a universal standard, just a personal one. Universal standards are for moral realists.

  28. Aaron,

    So if he finds a better way to satisfy his core values (your definition of moral progress) – and “better” simply means that he finds it more satisfying or preferable, for example finding the torture of an individual a more personally satisfying expression of his desire for justice than, say, utilizing the court system – then he is making moral progress, right?

    Yes, to him, he is making moral progress. If moral opinion is subjective, then so is opinion of moral progress.

    I don’t see how, on your view, “better” could be anchored to anything other than his own personal, subjective opinions.

    Technically, moral progress is anchored to the individual. Practically, it is anchored to a specific set of core moral values, hence, widespread agreement about moral progress.

    It certainly couldn’t be anchored to your view of what would be a better way to achieve satisfaction of, say, his desire for control, sex, or justice.

    People with different core moral values will have irreconcilable differences. They will either agree to a peace treaty, or not. They will also cheat the treaty, or not.

  29. Tom,

    So the question I raised here is whether you (or I) can become a better person; specifically, whether that question is meaningful or can be answered under moral relativism. I think based on your recent comment you are saying the answer is no.

    Sorry if my answer wasn’t clear enough. The answer is yes, I can meaningfully talk about my own moral progress. This is because my core moral values do not change much. What changes are the facts I have at hand, my knowledge about how best to satisfy those values, and the resulting policies I create for myself.

    I can say that, for example, becoming less lazy and more productive in my work ethic is moral progress for me. It is not a question of my changing my own values, but of my finding more mature and sophisticated ways of satisfying those values. Policy change is moral progress.

    Here is a better example. I was once a pretty authoritarian chap. However, as I became less fearful, I realized that my authoritarian stance on, say, public behavior, was not something that would make me or those I love any safer. My core values were safety, well-being, and sparing myself emotional social trauma. Those values have not changed. What has changed is 1) my realization that authoritarianism is not a solution to the problem, and 2) that exposure to liberal social behaviors has enriched my life, reduced my fear and eliminated the trauma related to those behaviors.

    There was a time when the sight of a guy with piercings, tattoos and a lewd T-shirt would have filled me with fear and a desire for an authoritarian response (at the time, involving Darth Vader and Imperial Stormtroopers). Experiences and reason have shown me that such a response is irrational and counterproductive, and that many of those once-scary persons are a lot less of a threat to the world than men in more conservative attire.

  30. Yes, to him, he is making moral progress. If moral opinion is subjective, then so is opinion of moral progress.

    Thank you, doctor(logic), for giving such a straightforward answer. This helps.

    The question – the one Tom is asking – then remains: is it at all meaningful to call this growth or progress? Wouldn’t “moral change” be better? Or wouldn’t it be better to say, “I like myself more now than before,” rather than, “I’m a better person”?

  31. DL,

    Sorry, I didn’t catch your above comment to Tom until after I posted mine. You said,

    It is not a question of my changing my own values, but of my finding more mature and sophisticated ways of satisfying those values.

    What does “mature” and “sophisticated” mean under the relativism you are advancing? Here’s what I think the problem is: you’re using words that are loaded with connotations based on common use that make it seem like you are being inconsistent. I wonder if you really aren’t making the contradictions it seems to us like you’re making.

    Here’s my challenge to you (and this is as much for your benefit to relieve frustration in our communication as it is for ours) – instead of using words like “growth”, “progress”, “mature”, etc., which put an objective, non-individual-based standard in the minds of most, just use unequivocally subjective language (e.g., “I like…”).

  32. Aaron,

    Here’s what I think the problem is: you’re using words that are loaded with connotations based on common use that make it seem like you are being inconsistent.

    I’ll give it another go.

    I am saying that we each have what I’ll call primitive moral desires. My desire for my own well-being, and the well-being of people I care about. I also have a primitive desire for fairness and control over my own destiny. The yardstick for these primitive desires are my own emotional reactions. IOW, I don’t need to know in much detail what constitutes “well-being” in order for me to possess the primitive desire to have more of it. It’s sort of a know-it-when-I-see-it thing.

    It’s also very nonlinear. My subjective view of my own fulfillment of my primitive desires gets fed back into my assessment of whether I have better or worse well-being, e.g., if I seclude myself too far in seeking personal safety, I lose some control over my own destiny, and that causes me to feel less well-being. I seek balance for optimum well-being.

    On top of primitive desires we add reason and experience. When reason and experience lead to better ways to satisfy my primitive moral desires, I make moral progress. For example, the knowledge about the relationship between seclusion, personal safety and control is moral progress. I am wiser in light of this information, and I did not need any outside source for this wisdom. It is an empirical/experiential fact that I discover about myself.

    Going back to my work ethic example… reduction of personal labor contributes to my well-being, but only up to a point. At some point it restricts my control and offends my sense of fairness. Hence, I derive a name for laziness, and call it bad. Note that if you are a workaholic, you may consider my lifestyle decadent and lazy by your own standards, but that’s because you have different primitive moral desires of fairness and control. Both of us made progress when we realized it was better not to be lazy, but we progressed to different points of equilibrium, and different definitions of bad behavior.

    Also, I can see when I offend my own moral desires. For example, I sometimes feel that I am lazy by my own standards. I can become less lazy, and that too is moral progress, but again, relative to my own primitive desires.

    Questions of social policy are more abstract, but they too are in reference to primitive desires. As long as tattoos are safe, I see no reason to ban them because they do not affect my well-being, and they do not appear to me to be unfair. However, if I saw tattoos as a disrespect to authority, and I felt authority was the bedrock of society (I don’t), I might feel justified in making it difficult for people to obtain tattoos.

    In the case of ESCR, I would have to be persuaded that ESCR reduced my well-being by offending my senses of fairness, control and well-being. On the contrary, ESCR enhances all of those things because embryos are not persons, as far as I can see.

    To sum up, I can progress relative to my fixed primitive desires.

    Thanks to our evolutionary history, most people share similar primitive desires, and that’s what leads to shared moral policies, and our ability to create compelling abstract moral arguments. When I provide a moral argument for why you ought not drink bottled water, it isn’t compelling to you because I am a moral authority. It is compelling to you because the argument works in the context of your own primitive moral desires and your own framework of policies.

  1. December 18, 2007

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