Where Relativism Leads: Focusing the Question

Where Relativism Leads: Focusing the Question

Following dozens of interactions here on the topic of moral relativism, it’s time to try to focus our discussions toward a more productive point.

Definitions
Moral realists (by way of review) believe that there are at least some moral principles that hold universally, objectively, and absolutely; they would obtain even if no human accepted them. These ultimate moral principles are grounded in God, at least in the view of realists who have been involved in discussion here. (Whether moral realism actually entails belief in God has not been much discussed here; we’ve all assumed the two beliefs are connected.)

Moral relativism is just the belief that there are no such absolute moral principles; that all morality without exception is based on some contingent circumstance (a circumstance that could be otherwise); that such circumstances typically involve some person or group of persons holding to particular moral principles; and that for every moral principle held by any person or group, it is at least conceivable that a contrary principle could be held by another person or group with equal justification.

Clarifications
Those are the terms in dispute. I don’t think, though, that we’ve been clear about what the question is. For one thing, theists commenting here (including myself) have been accused of misunderstanding or misinterpreting relativism. My intention here is to state the relativist position as clearly and fairly as I can. The most common misunderstandings mentioned here have been:

  • Realists think relativism means there is no morality; that if you can’t say absolute morality, you can’t speak of any morality. In fact relativism does not deny morality, just its objective or transcendent basis.
  • Realists think relativists have no basis at all for their moral preferences, while in fact relativists’ moral beliefs are strongly conditioned by culture and biology.

For the health of the debate we moral realists ought to be careful not to fall into either error.

Recognizing the Right Question
There is yet another sense in which we have been misdirecting our debate. The relativists have been taking the realists as trying to prove logical inconsistencies within relativism. That is, it seems to me the position the relativists are defending is, “Our position cannot be shown to be incoherent on its own terms.” I’m sure I’ve contributed to this impression, along with other realists in the discussion. Let me clear the air on this: If that is our quest, we lose. I don’t think there’s a way to show that relativism as a system of thought is internally inconsistent or self-defeating. If there is, I haven’t come across it.

Here, instead, is how I view the question: forget whether the logical conclusions of relativism are rationally incoherent. Let’s just consider what they actually are. We cannot prove with unassailable logic that realism is correct and relativism is incorrect, but we can show where relativism leads. Relativists can do the same with respect to realism, for that is a welcome kind of interaction. And then each person must make his or her choice.

Charlie, by the way, did an excellent job of trying to draw out “ordinary seeker’s” implications in a dialogue, sprinkled in among a discussion thread, beginning here. Medicine Man’s “hopeless hypotheses” idea, which I linked to and commented on here, was about essentially the same thing. It’s not whether relativism, viewed dispassionately as a set of propositions, is necessarily self-destructive. It’s about whether humans can live with it.

Absurdities Within Relativism
I suggest that the relativists have conceded four points that argue against it being something we ought to accept.

1. Where moral differences exist, there is no standard for persuasion: only power decides. The power principle is uncontested:

Yes, I agree about the definition change to the extent that absolute morality disappears, and all that’s left is 1) within an accepted moral code, people say “A is moral” or “B is not moral,” but 2) when looked at from an incompatible culture, or better, from above both cultures, what is right is defined by those with power (the relativistic Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules”), However, that doesn’t mean that people don’t feel like things are right and wrong, which is why the words are used as if absolutes, even by relativists, but, strictly speaking (or, from the vantage of being above two competing systems), it does come down to a matter of power as to which system will prevail, or, better, seem to be absolute from within one culture.

If that turns your stomach, I sympathize, but an argument from personal revulsion is not rational.

An argument from personal revulsion is not logically binding, but neither is it necessarily irrational. Given that a principle of power has led to horrific atrocities throughout history, it makes very good sense to question its ethical adequacy.

2. Relativism can lead to absurd moral conclusions. This goes back to a discussion from a while ago:

I think the Holocaust was wrong. From my culture’s morality, from many cultures’ morality, but not from Hitler’s.

Also here:

I reject that approach and that does mean that I give up the ability to say that in their own times and places, slavery, suttee, and child sacrifice were wrong.

3. No society is more moral than any other; no culture is more (or less) moral than it was 10, 50, or 1000 years ago. (South Africa after apartheid is no more moral than South Africa during apartheid.) This is because moral improvement under relativism is defined in terms of increased conformity to existing standards, whether they be internal standards or group standards. The standards themselves are measured according to no other standards. That means that no change in those actual standards could mean moral improvement, it could only mean change.

This was the subject of lengthy discussion here, and while there is no bald, clear statement from relativists agreeing with this, I cannot find anything they wrote that refutes it. I find rebuttals in that thread; but all of them have to do with standardless standards, for example, core values or core principles. Though core values involves only the individual, it serves to illustrate the larger societal point: If the person’s core is the standard, and the core changes, it cannot be improvement (nor can it be degrading), for the core has no up or down direction to move in a moral sense.

The argument scales upward, to reach the conclusion I highlight here in point 3: If the culture rather than the inner person’s core is taken as the standard, then the same critique applies. The culture can change but it can not change in any moral direction. It cannot degrade, it cannot improve; it cannot be better or worse than it was, and it cannot be better or worse than another culture.

4. Relativists are bound to live in contradiction, existentially if not logically. I’ll quote myself here:

1. If you think you can affirm what I suggested Paul affirm at the end of [this comment], then you can probably continue to think that relativism is coherent.

2. But for the sake of logical and lexical consistency, you ought not to use the word “wrong” or “right” around any other person without explaining that to you, “right” could in some circumstances encompass being killed because you wear glasses. Your hearers will be very misled otherwise.

3. If you ever hear yourself thinking that someone did something wrong to you, you owe it to yourself for the sake of consistency to bear in mind that this is just your own conception and the other person’s is as valid as yours.

4. If you ever think about moral improvement or betterment, in regard to yourself, another person, or another culture, logical consistency forces you to recognize it is just change, not improvement. South Africa’s racial policies in 2008 are different than in 1960, but in both those years they were what they were, which by any standard except for some outsiders’ feelings were just fine.

If you can affirm those things, then I know I will not convince you moral relativism is not logically incoherent. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing about it, since I’m sure there are readers lurking out there who wear glasses, or have friends or family members who wear glasses, and don’t think that’s such a good reason to justify being killed along with millions of their countrymen…

So to reiterate, the question is not whether relativism is logically coherent. I haven’t had much to say about moral realism in this blog post, and I’m aware that gap needs filling. We need also to remember that we have a larger evidence base to work from: evidence for or against God works for or against moral realism. But if we were to consider just the ethical considerations, we could still stand relativism up against realism and compare the two. Given their logical consequences, which makes the more sense? I submit to you that the four moral absurdities I’ve detailed here count very strongly against relativism.

41 thoughts on “Where Relativism Leads: Focusing the Question

  1. Anticipating an objection on point 3:

    Anyone (given relativism) can affirm that South Africa is more moral now than 50 years ago, and can say they base that affirmation on their own moral standards to their own satisfaction. But any other person could also affirm the contrary with equal justification. It’s not even necessary to use the terms “right” or “wrong” with respect to those opinions. It’s enough to note that the opinion that South Africa has backslidden morally can be justified as readily as the opinion that it has progressed.

    This, I think, is morally absurd.

  2. Tom, I think you’re trying to set up relativism vs objective morality as a choice, but it seems to me that the question is an empirical one. If the Bible is true, there is objective morality. If it’s false, and if there is no personal god, then there is no objective morality (as you’ve defined it, particularly as “absolute”).

  3. I think, Paul, that it all ties together from many angles. You’re right that if there is a God as revealed in the Bible, that settles the question (and vice versa). What we get out of viewing the discussion from this angle are two things:

    1. To the extent that objective morality is supported by evidence and moral experience, we have evidence for the existence of God (and again, vice versa).

    2. Relativism is a problem in its own right.
    If I am correct (as you have conceded in prior discussions) that it leads to the power principle, then this is a matter for serious concern. The same applies to the other three listed absurdities.

  4. Tom, no time for a long comment (maybe later) but I do want to point out that power, like money, is not inherently bad. There are ethical ways of of using power–and even in your system, God is the ultimately powerful, correct?

  5. Tom,

    I think it might be helpful to imagine what your ideal moral realist world looks like. That is, to imagine what it is you think you give up with relativism.

    I think that in your ideal world:

    1) we all agree that morality is objective, and we’re just arguing over what form that morality takes.

    2) we all rationally decide to be objectively good, no matter what that entails.

    3) we will all reach the same conclusions, and when we don’t, we will debate the issues without resorting to force.

    Now, why would you think this is ideal?

    Well, of course, there’s some satisfaction in the possibility of finding an objectively correct answer to moral questions.

    It’s certainly attractive to believe that if we could just get people to think straight, they would agree with us.

    Finally, if we could get people to debate (and presumably agree) on moral issues without force, the world would be a better place.

    The general problem with these ideals is that they don’t reflect reality, and their persuasive power is derived from subjective moral feelings.

    In particular, (3) does not follow. There has been plenty of war and destruction, and the vast majority of it was conducted by people who were moral realists (perhaps because there have been more realists than relativists).

    The unpleasant truth is that moral decisions have to get made today and with incomplete information, and that frequently leads to decisions that some people refuse to live with (or live without). Neither of us intends to allow killers to roam the streets while all the issues get hammered out in the Harvard Debating Society. Instead, we use government to make decisions for today, even if some people are upset with the decision. We also enact rules to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands.

    This means that as a moral realist, you often have to live with social decisions that you don’t like. And you choose to abide by the social contract because the alternative is worse for you and the people you love. For example, it’s not worth killing people to repeal a woman’s right to choose, even if you are very unhappy with that right as it stands today. The consequences would be much worse than if the laws were left standing as they do.

    Now, this is almost exactly the calculus used by the moral relativist. Like you, the moral relativist agrees that there is much to debate, that debate is better than violence most of the time, and there is much to study in the field of ethics. (The study of ethics can teach us a lot about the consequences of our actions, and allows us to reflect on action with due diligence.) The relativist is also rational in agreeing to submit to rules that are less than ideal (subjectively speaking), in exchange for a broader set of rules that are more subjectively valuable.

    What about (2) and the “bad” players in society? Well, even if a person acknowledges that something will objectively end up with an objectively evil result, that’s not enough to compel objectively good behavior. First, people are not totally rational, and even if everyone were a moral realist, and everyone shared the definition of “subjective good”, very little would change. Second, even if moral realism is the case, I don’t understand why it would be rational to be objectively good. It is rational to be subjectively good. No one values following rules for rules sake. If God punished those who were good and rewarded those who were bad, I suspect a lot fewer people would want to be good.

    So I’m really not seeing any significant practical differences. I’ll get to your specific points in my next comment.

  6. I’m beginning to believe discussions of this sort with atheists are fruitless because we’re not arguing from shared reality.

    We may as well be parallel lines that never cross. We each can think logically and reasonably from our presuppositions and land in opposite camps on the important issues.

    An atheist can not logically disprove Christianity if he accepts Christian presuppositions. Neither can a Christians disprove atheism or relativism if he accepts Western atheists presuppositions.

    I think this situation argues for having different sorts of discussions with atheists that recognize the futility of persuasion by reason and instead focus on understanding the other side.

  7. Tom,

    To your specific points:

    1. Where moral differences exist, there is no standard for persuasion: only power decides.

    The same is true under realism.

    2. Relativism can lead to absurd moral conclusions.

    Paul (?): I think the Holocaust was wrong. From my culture’s morality, from many cultures’ morality, but not from Hitler’s.

    The absurdity here is only in the subjective disagreement. Nowhere is relativism saying that if you subjectively think Hitler was bad, you have to think otherwise. If relativism said that you have to change your subjective views, that would be a problem. That would be like a biologist telling you you have to subjectively dislike the taste of bananas, even if you actually like them. That would be absurd. This isn’t absurd because moral relativism does not ask you to conflict with your own moral feelings. It asks you to conflict only with your feeling that morality is absolute. I put it to you that it is the conflict with moral realism you find absurd.

    3. No society is more [OBJECTIVELY] moral than any other; no culture is [OBJECTIVELY] more (or less) moral than it was 10, 50, or 1000 years ago.

    Again, there’s no absurdity because this does not conflict with our feeling that there has been moral progress. The only absurdity is a conflict between relativism and your feeling that morality is objective. That’s not a good criticism, IMO. That’s just a feeling that relativism is wrong.

    But for the sake of logical and lexical consistency, you ought not to use the word “wrong” or “right” around any other person without explaining that to you, “right” could in some circumstances encompass being killed because you wear glasses.

    But it never means that for me, correct? If I say “it is wrong to kill people with glasses,” I don’t mean that “it is also right for some people to do so if they think it is a good idea.” That would be a contradiction or an absurdity. Rather, when I say “it is wrong to kill people who wear glasses” I really mean “‘Boo!’ to killing people with glasses.” It is an expression of moral, emotional preference.

    Such expressions are significant to others because other people care how I feel, even if they disagree. If nothing else, they care how I will deploy my power in defense of my feelings.

    3. If you ever hear yourself thinking that someone did something wrong to you, you owe it to yourself for the sake of consistency to bear in mind that this is just your own conception and the other person’s is as valid as yours.

    Valid? Objectively valid, yes. I may even say to myself, “that guy is pretty intelligent and rational to deny me my rights in that way.” However, it is not valid in the sense of ‘valued’.

    Furthermore, much of the time that people have a differing moral view to me, they are not being smart by their own standards, nor true to their values.

    4. If you ever think about moral improvement or betterment, in regard to yourself, another person, or another culture, logical consistency forces you to recognize it is just change, not improvement.

    It’s not objective improvement, but it is improvement. As a chef, more pepper may be an improvement. Objectively, it is just change. There is only absurdity if the intellectual discovery says you ought not feel the soup tastes better with more pepper, when it actually does taste better to you.

  8. Econ,

    I’m beginning to believe discussions of this sort with atheists are fruitless because we’re not arguing from shared reality.

    You know, I was thinking a few days ago about how moral persuasion works. I’ve maintained that it does not work by reliance on the moral authority of the persuader.

    However, it occurred to me that Christians might be conditioned to reason about morality in that fashion. If you posit that there can be moral authorities, and you discipline your moral thinking to accommodate that axiom, it may be second nature to you. You may prefer things work that way. It may be as unthinkable to you to go without moral authorities as it is to me to accept them. Whether realists actually think this way in practice, and whether it is actually a good thing are still open questions to me. Nonetheless, it was thought provoking to me to imagine that, despite similar outward appearances, our internal moral reasoning processes might be so radically different.

  9. Well, that post didn’t get us anywhere. Looking at doctor(logic)’s last sentence at 7;18 pm, I see that he missed the whole point of what improvement means. Completely ignored the whole argument I presented, that is. It’s rather disappointing.

    Like econ grad student, I’m not sure it’s worth pressing on with this, but I’ll give it one more shot:

    I think that in your ideal world:

    1) we all agree that morality is objective, and we’re just arguing over what form that morality takes.

    2) we all rationally decide to be objectively good, no matter what that entails.

    3) we will all reach the same conclusions, and when we don’t, we will debate the issues without resorting to force.

    Now, why would you think that this is ideal?

    The answer is, no, this isn’t the theists’ ideal world in any sense. The theist does not have an ideal world except upon the return of Jesus Christ, when everything changes. The argument does not rest upon an ideal world, so it’s a red herring I won’t chase. The discussion is about what it’s about, which is to say there’s no need to introduce a new topic when what matters is already on the table.

    To your specific points:

    1. Where moral differences exist, there is no standard for persuasion: only power decides.

    The same is true under realism.

    Three differences: one, good is decided by good, that is it is determined by the good character of a good God. Two, God’s power does not corrupt God the way it reliably corrupts humans. Three: when humans with power decide “morality,” they are generally deciding self-interest instead and calling it morality.

    The absurdity here is only in the subjective disagreement. Nowhere is relativism saying that if you subjectively think Hitler was bad, you have to think otherwise.

    You’re still thinking that by “absurdity” I mean logical contradiction. I just mean that under relativism it is conceivable to hold a position that makes Hitler good, and that this is morally absurd on the face of it. In other words, I think that if you think Hitler was good, you ought to think otherwise, not because under relativism this can be proved but because it is simply true on the face of it. You can logically disagree, but you do so only by taking an absurd position.

    Rather, when I say “it is wrong to kill people who wear glasses” I really mean “‘Boo!’ to killing people with glasses.” It is an expression of moral, emotional preference.

    Okay, if you want to feel that way. I could say, Boo! to people who disagree with me! Boo! to people who think homosexuality is good!

    Anybody could also say, Boo! to people who think we should treat different races equally! Boo! to South Africa for abolishing apartheid! Boo! to people who ended child labor! Boo! to anybody who cares about children! Boo! to people who want to improve the environment!

    And I challenge you: Refute it! You can’t say a word against any of it, can you, except, “Boo! to you for thinking that way!” That’s the only answer you have.

    And if that’s your choice, as I said, I don’t know of any logical contradiction to point to in your position; but existentially it is absurd. Nietzsche was right about that, by the way: It does matter that we have cut ourselves loose.

  10. DL, I assume much of what the Christians write on here seems self-evidently silly to you.

    Much of what you write appears that way to me.

    It is as if someone was laughing on the other side of the internet while doing their best to appear to believe internally consistent nonsense. A perverse long-running practical joke.

    I then remember your presuppositions and see that your beliefs are the logical result.

  11. Three: when humans with power decide “morality,” they are generally deciding self-interest instead and calling it morality.

    Not true, Tom. Like you believe you must follow God’s wishes, I believe I must act according to what I believe is ethical, even if it is contrary to my self-interest.

    I just mean that under relativism it is conceivable to hold a position that makes Hitler good, and that this is morally absurd on the face of it.

    You’re missing the point, Tom. The point is that Hitler may have thought that he was acting morally, and that as moral relativists we can understand how he might have thought this about himself. We are not saying that he was right in thinking this or that anyone else would be right in thinking this.

    And I challenge you: Refute it! You can’t say a word against any of it, can you, except, “Boo! to you for thinking that way!” That’s the only answer you have.

    And you believe you have more of an answer by pointing to God, but this means no more to me than you saying “Boo! to you for thinking that way.” Perhaps your use of God as justification only works with those who are already believers?

  12. Like you believe you must follow God’s wishes, I believe I must act according to what I believe is ethical, even if it is contrary to my self-interest.

    I was referring to people with power–and Lord Acton was right.

    The point is that Hitler may have thought that he was acting morally, and that as moral relativists we can understand how he might have thought this about himself. We are not saying that he was right in thinking this or that anyone else would be right in thinking this.

    No, as I said, it’s not about who is actually right or wrong. The point is that (on moral relativism) when Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, his opinion was as justifiable as your opinion that he was wrong. This is the absurdity to which I point.

    And you believe you have more of an answer by pointing to God, but this means no more to me than you saying “Boo! to you for thinking that way.” Perhaps your use of God as justification only works with those who are already believers?

    In terms of effective moral persuasion, that is so. But there is in theism (moral realism) a coherent basis on which morals are grounded, which permits another answer besides “Boo!” It permits the answer (coherently, without internal contradiction), “You are wrong.” Moral relativism only allows (in dl’s colorful language), “Boo!”

  13. Not everyone in a position of power acts only in self-interest, Tom. I do in fact hold a position of power over others in some areas of my life and, as I have said before, I am governed in those areas not only by my own code of ethics but also by the code of ethics of my profession–which relies not at all on absolutes, but on the explicit understanding that what is ethical cannot ever be completely proscribed.

    The point is that (on moral relativism) when Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, his opinion was as justifiable as your opinion that he was wrong.

    Wrong again, I’m afraid. He, I’m sure, had a way of justifying his opinion to himself (and unfortunately to many others), but that doesn’t mean that his opinion is justifiable to me, or DL, or Paul, or any other relativist. Like you, we measure others’ morality according to our own standards, and find it acceptable or not, according to what we believe, not according to what the other believes.

    I’m troubled, Tom, by your continued use of the term “justifiable,” and wonder if this is where the breakdown in communication between realists and relativists lies: as a relativist, I have no need of “justifying” my morality, but perhaps this is very important to you?

    I don’t need to be a theist to say “You are wrong;” all I need is my own strong belief system. DL, I think, has already clarified this.

  14. Tom, it seems to me that you keep on judging relativism with the standard of objective morality. I agree, if one did judge relativism with objective standards, it would be absurd. But that is ultimately absurd itself. You’re appealing to one’s intuitive, natural sense of morality, but it is exactly the position of relativism that one’s intuitive sense is not the same as objectively true.

  15. Tom,

    Sorry, I think maybe you misunderstood my “ideal world” comment. I was speculating on what you perceive to be the practical advantages of moral realism over moral relativism, nothing broader than that.

    Three differences: one, good is decided by good, that is it is determined by the good character of a good God. Two, God’s power does not corrupt God the way it reliably corrupts humans. Three: when humans with power decide “morality,” they are generally deciding self-interest instead and calling it morality.

    I find one and two to be highly circular, and not really relevant. You are trying to justify coercion with moral realism, not eliminate coercion. However, moral feelings are adequate justification for coercion (perhaps even by definition).

    You’re still thinking that by “absurdity” I mean logical contradiction. I just mean that under relativism it is conceivable to hold a position that makes Hitler good, and that this is morally absurd on the face of it.

    The Earth’s rotation means that, even when I feel I’m standing still, I’m moving almost half a kilometer per second. That’s sort of absurd, but it doesn’t affect the way I walk around on the planet’s surface. It’s not hard to live with the knowledge that the Earth is rotating. Morality is just the same. I don’t have to change even one of my moral policies in order to comfortably accept relativism. The only thing that I really need to sacrifice under relativism is the notion that coercion for subjective good has to be motivated by some absolute good.

    And I challenge you: Refute it! You can’t say a word against any of it, can you, except, “Boo! to you for thinking that way!” That’s the only answer you have.

    Except very few people really do say Boo! to those bad things, least of all you. So, the refutation is simple. I just correct you and say “you don’t say Boo! to then end of child labor.”

    In the event that someone does indeed say Boo! to those bad things, we coerce. You and me, arm in arm.

  16. A question, Tom: How do you understand the fact that Christians disagree widely on what is God’s message about morality? For example, some Christians believe that God indicates in the Bible that homosexuality is wrong, but other Christians believe that God teaches love and acceptance and that therefore homosexuality is not immoral. These views seem too divergent to me to be simply different interpretations of one objective morality.

  17. Hi OS,
    None of your statements bears upon any other.
    Some Christians believe that God says in the Bible that homosexuality is wrong.
    Some Christians believe that God teaches love and acceptance.
    They may believe that this means that homosexuality is not wrong, but it does not follow. In fact, some Christians believe both of the above.
    You may believe that these two views are too divergent to be true, but they are only so in the faulty conclusion already drawn, that God ‘s love and acceptance entails that nothing can be morally wrong. Since this is illogical your conclusion based upon this is also illogical.
    In fact, they show conclusively that your final conclusion, that they cannot be divergent interpretations of a single objective truth is not logical. People can, by being mistaken, by applying faulty logic, or by virtue of being only partially informed, come to different interpretations of truth.
    But truth still stands.

  18. I think you misinterpreted my question, Charlie. I’m not asking what’s right, I’m asking how you and Tom make sense of the fact that Christians who presumably believe in an objective morality determined by God have divergent understanding of that morality–not just different interpretations, but vastly different understandings of what God’s morality is.

  19. Hi OS,
    I think I understood you.
    I think you are making up a category there which does not follow from your question. We are talking about a different interpretation of God’s loving, accepting, just and good nature. There is nothing wildly diverging here. In fact, I showed above that the two views you presented are not even contrary, let alone contradictory.

  20. os, the explanation is just this: that there is objective universal morality, but imperfect humans interpret what God says and don’t always get it right. Thus there are disagreements. One side is right and the other wrong, or both are right and wrong in some nuances or details; but they are right or wrong in relation to to an actual standard of what is right.

  21. Hi OS, As I said:
    There is nothing wildly diverging here. In fact, I showed above that the two views you presented are not even contrary, let alone contradictory.

    You have leapt to calling these different interpretations “vastly different understandings of what God’s morality is“.

    I showed they are not. Your position was not at all thought out.

  22. Homosexuality is wrong. Homosexuality is right. God thinks homosexuality is wrong. God thinks homosexuality is right. How is it that these two views can both be supported by an objective morality that is predetermined by God? Wouldn’t that be like saying objective morality tells us that killing is both right and wrong?

  23. Tom writes,

    os, the explanation is just this: that there is objective universal morality, but imperfect humans interpret what God says and don’t always get it right. Thus there are disagreements. One side is right and the other wrong, or both are right and wrong in some nuances or details; but they are right or wrong in relation to to an actual standard of what is right.

    So, you think you’re right and that Christians who think homosexuality is right are wrong, but you don’t know which of you is right? So, you act as though you are right, but you hold in your mind the possibility that the other Christians could be right instead? Sounds a lot like how I am as a relativist…

  24. So, you think you’re right and that Christians who think homosexuality is right are wrong, but you don’t know which of you is right? So, you act as though you are right, but you hold in your mind the possibility that the other Christians could be right instead? Sounds a lot like how I am as a relativist…

    Your first question was how realism could be true when there is disagreement on it. I answered that question. This is a different question.

    Yes, I am quite convinced that the message of God’s morality on homosexuality is clear, and that those who think its practice is okay with God–well, they’re wrong. But that wasn’t the purpose or the point of this discussion, so I didn’t head there first.

  25. You’re still not understanding or answering my question–which is not about the morality of homosexuality–but I’m dropping it.

  26. Hi OS,

    Homosexuality is wrong. Homosexuality is right. God thinks homosexuality is wrong. God thinks homosexuality is right. How is it that these two views can both be supported by an objective morality that is predetermined by God? Wouldn’t that be like saying objective morality tells us that killing is both right and wrong?

    Does the objectivity of mathematics mean nobody can ever make a mistake?
    If a music student can’t figure out the melody to a piece does that mean there is no melody? Does it mean that the question is subjective and that any old notes will do?

  27. I agree with Tom to a point – that relativism, per se, is not contradictory. The problem as I see it is this: the epistemology that leads a person to adopt moral relativism isn’t the same epistemology that leads a person to adopt realism in areas outside morality. That is the ‘contradiction’. That is the double-standard of the moral relativist that comes glaring to the forefront.

    Ask a relativist how he knows certain things fit under the umbrella of realism and then ask them how he knows certain things fit under the umbrella of relativism (as we have done here many times), and you’ll soon discover the double-standard.

  28. continuing…

    So where does that epistemological double-standard lead? It leads to a life of mental gymnastics in the form of compartmentalization and rationalization.

    1) ‘Standard A’ tells me that the value of human life is the same as the value of animal life. ‘Standard B’ tells me that my neighbor’s life is more valuable than my dog’s life.

    2) ‘Standard A’ tells me that who I become is determined by my genes and by external causes. ‘Standard B’ tells me that I (not my genes) can resist my genes and my external forces and play a role in determining who I become.

    3) ‘Standard A’ tells me that I am just an assemblage of matter and energy. ‘Standard B’ tells me that I am somehow more than that.

    4) ‘Standard A’ tells me that the universe is wholly determined. ‘Standard B’ tells me that I am responsible for my decisions.

    5) ‘Standard A’ tells me that I create my own moral standard and so this process guarantees that I can do no moral wrong. ‘Standard B’ tells me that I am guilty of moral wrongdoing despite the fact that (supposedly) I am in charge of my own moral code.

  29. How did I miss this one?!

    6) ‘Standard A’ tells me that a fetus isn’t a human person. ‘Standard B’ tells me that two human persons died in that car crash with the pregnant driver.

  30. Steve,

    Double-standards?

    We have considered how to grade properties as subjective versus objective. Though we disagreed on how to do this, we arrived at the same endpoint on several occasions. At that endpoint, you were motivated to gauge the objectivity of morality on the same terms as the objectivity of taste in food, music and art. IOW, you have said (or at least strongly hinted) that taste in food, music and art are probably objective after all. Well, bravo for applying your own standard consistently. Unfortunately, you have destroyed the objective/subjective distinction in the process, because there’s nothing left to have a subjective opinion about.

    As for claim (1), it is simply incorrect. If there is no standard by which X is objectively worth more than Y, that does not mean that X is objectively worth the same as Y. For it could be that it is nonsensical to speak of an objective standard of value at all. It might make no more sense to speak of an “objective morality” than an “objective favorite.”

    I think you intended (1) to be translated as “If you subjectively think humans and animals have equal value, then Standard A is for you. If you subjectively think otherwise, Standard B is for you.”

    This is a rhetorical trick that relies on the reader carelessly inserting the word “subjective” where the word “objective” should have been inserted. I subscribe to Standard A, and I (subjectively) value humans more than animals, and there’s no contradiction because non-existence of objective values does not contradict the presence of subjective values. If there were no objective aesthetics, I do not contradict aesthetic relativism by liking some paintings and not others. If I have a favorite X, I do not contradict my view by saying that there is no objective favorite.

    (2)-(4) also do not follow. Even if I am matter in a deterministic universe, I am still responsible for my own actions and decisions. I saw my choices, predicted the outcomes, chose an outcome based on my preferences, and those outcomes occurred. Also, my own thoughts and reflections play a role in who I become. That is, I am a non-linear system that feeds back on itself.

    Here’s the question you should be asking yourself. Suppose that Standard A is correct, and that, objectively, “the value of human life is the same as the value of animal life”, or better yet, the concept of objective value is incoherent. If you came to this conclusion, would you then value human life the same as animal life? Because value has no meaning in any absolute sense, will you disavow any subjective values you possess?

    I don’t believe it for a minute.

  31. DL:

    Well, bravo for applying your own standard consistently. Unfortunately, you have destroyed the objective/subjective distinction in the process, because there’s nothing left to have a subjective opinion about.

    Not really. I’ve only changed what it means to be subjective/objective.

    Consider how you view the laws of logic. You view them as objective…but why? Jacob and many others would certainly disagree with you. Is this a matter of subjective opinion or objective fact? Whatever your standard is, apply the same to the laws of morality and I’m certain you’ll find they are objective for the same reasons. If you want to say axioms are the standard, then fine, agreed upon axioms determine objectivity. If it’s something else then tell me what it is and I will apply the same to the laws of morality.

  32. Steve,

    If there’s no rational discourse, then there are no rational attributes, nor truth about anything.

    So, as a starting point in rational discourse, we have to accept certain axioms, including the axioms of logic. In any context in which it makes sense to discuss objective and subjective distinctions, there is an implicit assumption that logic is objective. Logic is objective to anyone discussing the distinction.

    However, objective morality is not a necessity to rational discourse in the way that logic is. We can meaningfully discuss the absence of absolute morality, so absolute morality cannot be necessary to rational discourse.

  33. DL:

    If there’s no rational discourse, then there are no rational attributes, nor truth about anything.

    The fact remains that the absense of objective laws of logic don’t preclude the presence of subjective laws of logic – which means truth would be subjective truth as defined by the subjective laws of logic.

    You said something similar about values earlier: “[The] non-existence of objective values does not contradict the presence of subjective values.”

    In any context in which it makes sense to discuss objective and subjective distinctions, there is an implicit assumption that logic is objective.

    I can use subjective laws of logic and still discuss the same thing in a subjective or irrational manner. You and I both reject this, but why? WHY?!

    You may think I’m playing with you here, but I am not. While I agree with you that the laws of logic are objective, I agree for different reasons**. You say we must accept this axiom, but clearly we don’t.

    ** Which demonstrates (again) that YOUR criteria for ‘objectivity’, itself, lacks objectivity per your own criteria. Hmmm….

  34. Steve,

    Merely by asking a question about objectivity and subjectivity, you are assuming logic.

    When you ask “Is logic objective?” you really mean “If one assumes that the laws of rational thought (including the laws of logic) are true, and consequently that this question makes sense, then are the laws of logic objectively true?”

    And, of course, they are true by definition. The way that theorems follows from axioms is objective. Generally speaking, the axioms themselves are not objective.

    You cannot ask any true/false questions in the absence of assumptions required for rational thinking, logic, induction, etc. The question wouldn’t even have any meaning without those assumptions. The assumptions are necessary for rational thought, knowledge, etc.

    Personally, I don’t see much room for subjective laws of logic because people don’t accept logics per se. They accept principles of non-contradiction and identity. From these principles, logic follows. Or I should say, logics. We are happy to accept Boolean logics, fuzzy logics, quantum logics, etc., despite their incompatibilities (theorems in quantum logic contradict theorems in standard logic). It’s not that we regard these logics as contradictory. Rather, we accept what is consistent, and different axioms lead to different sorts of consistent structures and logics. For example, we don’t have bones to pick with Euclidean versus non-Euclidean geometry. We accept both as being nice, tidy, self-consistent systems. Assume their axioms, you get their theorems. I don’t know anyone who disputes that the theorems of non-Euclidean geometry follow from the axioms of non-Euclidean geometry. And the same goes for logic. Quantum logic may be bizarre, but I don’t fault its consistency. Quantum logic is not wrong, even if it is different.

    IOW, the objective part of logic is how theorems follow from axioms, once the axioms are assumed. The minimum criteria for all these systems are non-contradiction and identity. I don’t think it’s possible to coherently have subjective views on this subject because that would result in contradiction.

    This discussion also raises another question, Steve. What does the word subjective mean to you? Can something be objectively subjective?

  35. Victor Reppert addressed this in his book on the argument from reason. You’re right in that you cannot successfully use logic to question logic. That is, you cannot argue thus: if naturalism/evolution is true, that leads to the logical conclusion that there is no such thing as logic or reason. That’s invalid because we know the conclusion is false, and must be false even in order to proceed toward the conclusion.

    The AFR is not that kind of argument, but an argument of inference to the best explanation: given that we have the ability to reason, what best explains that ability? Naturalism’s explanation is weak and contrived, in my opinion, and this counts very seriously against naturalism.

  36. Tom:

    You’re right in that you cannot successfully use logic to question logic.

    Just to be clear, I’m not questioning logic. I’m questioning what it means for logic to be objective or subjective. I think DL tosses the word ‘objective’ around in rather loose (read: subjective) fashion – especially when it helps get him out of a jam.

    In other words, his critera for determining what is, and what is not, objective changes depending on the subject matter. One minute it’s predictive models, the next minute it’s not.

  37. Tom,

    The AFR is not that kind of argument, but an argument of inference to the best explanation: given that we have the ability to reason, what best explains that ability?

    We disagree here. There’s a huge evolutionary advantage to rational ability, even imperfect rationality.

    Also, there seem to be many variations of the AfR. There are arguments against naturalistic origins of rational thought (like the one to which you refer), and arguments against the possibility of mechanistic/physical thought.

  38. Steve,

    I’m not questioning logic. I’m questioning what it means for logic to be objective or subjective. I think DL tosses the word ‘objective’ around in rather loose (read: subjective) fashion – especially when it helps get him out of a jam.

    My question to you still stands. What does it mean for something to be objective versus subjective?

    I have been very clear in my definition, and that definition leads to multiple techniques for detecting the distinction.

    My definition is that if you have a subject, S, and an object, O, then perceived property P of O is subjective if property P is a product of the interaction of S and O, and not something in O itself. Correspondingly, if the perceived property P of O is in O itself, requiring no subject to perceive it, then it is objective.

    That leaves us two ways to confirm a property’s status.

    1) We can infer that the property is objective by showing that the property affects how O interacts with other objects. That is, the property doesn’t only show up when the object interacts with subjective entities like S. For example, weight is in a projectile, and the way the projectile interacts with other non-subjective entities (like tanks) is independent of the observer.

    2) We could show objectively that P is subjective by understanding the detailed mechanism by which O causes S to perceive P. For example, the allergic nature of peanuts can be proven to be subjective (i.e., not in the peanut itself, but in the interactions of the peanut with a subject who is allergic to peanuts).

    Now, morality has no effect on other non-subjective entities. On the other hand, there is mounting evidence from evolutionary biology that morality is a physical mechanism, like a peanut allergy. Even if you discount the positive evidence for the subjective nature of morality, there’s still no positive evidence for the objective nature of morality. That means that if morality is objective, it’s objective in a rather peculiar/coincidental fashion, i.e., one in which only subjective entities can see it. Such morality is a phantom that has to be taken on faith alone.

  39. DL:

    My question to you still stands. What does it mean for something to be objective versus subjective?

    I’ll let Victor Reppert do the talking for me. From his blog:

    This “fact and opinion” dichotomy strikes me as being intellectual rat poison. According to the school exercise, A fact is what can be proven true or false and can be true for everyone, an opinion is a personal feeling and is not necessarily true for everyone.

    This seems, pretty clearly, to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. There can be a fact of the matter as to whether something is true or false, without our being able to prove it true or false. There can be a “fact of the matter” about something, and at the same time there can be more or less reasonable opinions about it. In fact, the most reasonable opinion about something may turn out to be false, nevertheless it is the most reasonable opinion. Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders. Is opinion a) something purely subjective, or b) something about which there is a truth, but uncertainty amongst human beings as to what the truth is? I frequently use that term of b, but very often people mean a. This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want them to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility.

    and

    1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.

    2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.

    3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

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