Tom Gilson

How To Be a Better Person (Relativist Version)

The Relativist’s Answer To “How Do I Become a Morally Better Person?”

The more you recognize there is really no such thing as a morally better person, the better person you are, morally speaking.

Note: If you came here searching for real ideas on how to be a better person, I suggest you try this blog entry instead.

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15 thoughts on “How To Be a Better Person (Relativist Version)

  1. Sure, it’s oversimplistic, but aphorisms tend to be that way. I chose the wording carefully here, and I know it needs further explication. I’m doing that through a comment so as not to dilute the aphorism.

    Relativists, like every other person in the world, have moral beliefs. One of the most basic is, “It is a good thing to strive to be a better person.” We all share that belief, even though we have different views on what it means in practice.

    So how does one become a better person? Usually it’s by living in greater conformity to what you take to be your overall ethical philosophy. Relativism includes the belief that each person, community, and/or culture chooses their own ethics, and that there is no standard by which one can be judged better than another. A person might say, “Ethic A is a better match to mine than Ethic B,” but he has no standing to say that Ethic A is therefore really, objectively better than Ethic B. (I included “really” in the aphorism, which was quite intentional.)

    Therefore it is wrong, it is a faux pas, a social offense to suggest that one ethical system is better than another; and it is personally arrogant and offensive to claim that my ethic is better than yours. This is summed up in, “Who are you to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong?” or, in an often out-of-context and misguided attempt to use Jesus’ words, “Who are you to judge me!?” There is a moral tone in those statements that cannot be denied.

    To avoid naming one ethic as better than another—that is the objective most to be desired. The more you recognize this, the more you line up with this desired objective, and the better person you are, morally speaking. The way to become morally better is by denying that there is such a thing as morally better.

  2. You called a person a relativist for holding an absolute value (progress). Somehow I doubt your criteria is accurate.

  3. No, that wasn’t the point, Samuel. The point was to show that relativism is absurd. The contradiction you point out here is not due to my misunderstanding of what relativism means. It’s a logical conclusion to be drawn from relativism.

    Please understand that I’m not speaking of every person here. I’m speaking of actual relativists. You would have had to have been a part of the many conversations we’ve had with actual relativists here to know the context. Paul, doctor(logic), ordinary seeker, Esko Heimonen, Tony Hoffman, and Adonais have all adopted relativist positions to at least a significant extent (some take it as an absolute description of their position, actually).

    You can find all this by using the search function above and searching “relativism.”

  4. Tom,

    Relativism includes the belief that each person, community, and/or culture chooses their own ethics, and that there is no standard by which one can be judged better than another.

    Well, they don’t “choose” their ethics, but let’s say that they come to some agreement on their ethics.

    This doesn’t mean that there is no standard by which one ethic can be judged better than another. There is no objective standard, but not no standard at all. I can use my own ideal ethic as my standard for judging others.

    Therefore it is wrong, it is a faux pas, a social offense to suggest that one ethical system is better than another; and it is personally arrogant and offensive to claim that my ethic is better than yours.

    What do you mean by “better”? If you mean “objectively better”, then your argument is broken because the relativist would never say their moral position is objectively “better” than someone else’s.

    However, as a relativist, you can say your ethic is better than mine subjectively. You can say that you prefer your ethic to mine, and you can say that you will act to impose your ethic on me.

    In response to this, I may well be offended. However, it’s possible that you and I share the same moral ideals, and you have simply done a better job of reasoning your way through to a moral policy than I have, or a better job researching the facts of the case. So, in that case, I ought to at least hear your reasoning.

  5. DL,

    However, it’s possible that you and I share the same moral ideals, and you have simply done a better job of reasoning your way through to a moral policy than I have, or a better job researching the facts of the case. So, in that case, I ought to at least hear your reasoning.

    Nice to see you again. How does a person arrive at a subjective conclusion via objective ‘facts of the case’ and reasoning? I’m a little confused so maybe an example outside of morality would help.

  6. Welcome back, doctor(logic)!

    What do you mean by “better”? If you mean “objectively better”, then your argument is broken because the relativist would never say their moral position is objectively “better” than someone else’s.

    That’s just where I was heading with the original post. There is an absurdity in saying one can really be a better person, morally, under relativism, because it entails that there is such a thing as really better.

    This doesn’t mean that there is no standard by which one ethic can be judged better than another. There is no objective standard, but not no standard at all. I can use my own ideal ethic as my standard for judging others.

    I don’t doubt that you can do that, but consider this case. You and Zeke have different ethical standards. Zeke thinks it’s okay to steal candy bars from convenience stores, as long as one doesn’t do it too much and as long as one doesn’t get caught. He knows it’s against the law, but he considers that a matter of risk, not of morality.

    Now, if you know that Zeke actually does steal candy bars, you can use your own ideal ethic as a standard for judging him; but on relativism, your own ideal ethic is not better than his, as you have already acknowledged. Suppose then that Zeke changes his mind and decides that stealing candy bars is never okay on moral grounds, and he changes his ways completely with respect to that. Has he become a better person for it?

    (Bear in mind that the same illustration could have been made with child sexual abuse, murder, torture, etc. as the moral issues in question.)

  7. One further question:

    So, in that case, I ought to at least hear your reasoning.

    What kind of ought is that? Is it a moral ought or something else?

  8. Steve,

    How does a person arrive at a subjective conclusion via objective ‘facts of the case’ and reasoning? I’m a little confused so maybe an example outside of morality would help.

    Two astronauts are floating in space. Relative to each other they are upside down. Each astronaut suggests steering their shared space module so that the module is right-way-up for himself.

    Of course, there are objective facts here, and neither astronaut has the high ground (no pun intended), but they disagree. The reason for this is that the location or properties of each astronaut is objectively different. An objective difference between observers leads to a subjective difference between them.

    Another example. It’s too cold to go outside for a cigarette in in January. This is not true objectively. It objectively depends where you live. That means that “it’s too cold in January” is a subjective view.

    One more.
    Twin A: “I love that song on the radio.”
    Twin B: “I hate it.”
    Twin A: “Why? We have the same taste in music!”
    Twin B: “My MP3 player broke and would play nothing but that song. I’ve heard it a thousand times already.”

    There are objective facts about the song, but the twins disagree on whether the song is good because the twins are different. The twins objectively have different properties. That objectively leads to a different perspective, a different subjective view.

    I’ll just add that you might say that there’s a God’s-eye view in which everything is objective. An omniscient observer sees why the twins disagree, sees why you think abortion is wrong and why I don’t, etc. However, this is not enough to say that either one of us is objectively right. It just shows objectively that our perspectives differ because we are different people with different histories. It objectively explains our subjective differences.

  9. Tom,

    Suppose then that Zeke changes his mind and decides that stealing candy bars is never okay on moral grounds, and he changes his ways completely with respect to that. Has he become a better person for it?

    He’s better according to my ethic, yes. The fact that my ethic is not objectively privileged makes no difference.

    Maybe it will help us if we postfix the subjective owner of oughts with initials. For example, “I ought(DL) not steal candy bars.” “Zeke ought(Zeke I) steal candy bars” “Zeke ought(Zeke II) not steal candy bars.” etc.

    “Zeke is better(DL) when he gives up stealing candy bars.”

    “Zeke is better(Zeke II) when he gives up stealing candy bars.”

    “Zeke is NOT better(Zeke I) when he gives up stealing candy bars.”

    All of these statements are objectively true. The question we are asking is whether there is some “better(absolute)” or “ought(absolute)”, so you can say that better(Zeke II) is better(absolute). You’re not making a case for that.

    I just want to add that Zeke could change for one of two kinds of reasons.

    1) He could have been hit on the head with a mallet, have been zapped by God, or have taken a pill, and this might change his deepest moral objectives. His reasoning was sound before and after, but his premises are different.

    2) Alternatively, Zeke may have some moral objectives (e.g., general happiness), and only just now have reasoned things through well enough to conclude he ought not steal.

    I think this distinction is very important. If someone changes a moral conclusion, it could be because his axioms changed (though drugs, mallets, holy spirits, etc) or it could be because he has worked out new theorems from his original axioms.

    Bear in mind that the same illustration could have been made with child sexual abuse, murder, torture, etc. as the moral issues in question.

    Tom, what is the relevance of this to our conversation?

    You just want me to think “Zeke is really really really really really better(DL) when he gives up murder.”

    How is my acknowledging this going to advance your argument in any way?

    So, in that case, I ought to at least hear your reasoning.

    What kind of ought is that? Is it a moral ought or something else?

    It is a subjective moral ought. An ought(DL), but it happens to be an ought(most people). I value living by my own subjective ethical standard (tautologically?), and so if you have a better way of doing this, I have an interest in your analysis. However, if I learn that your ethic is fundamentally irreconcilable with my own, I probably won’t be so interested, because even if your reasoning is correct, you will be reasoning from premises that I don’t accept.

  10. Relativism includes the belief that each person, community, and/or culture chooses their own ethics, and that there is no standard by which one can be judged better than another.

    Tom, how many times have I pointed out to you that framing relativism in terms of (pure) choice is disingenuous? Evolution, and more specifically enculturation, says that morality has a basis in group survival, hints of which are evident in other primates. When you define relativism in terms of choice, you make it seem like it is an arbitrary decision, under relativism, to believe that torture, for instance, is as easily opted for as against. Rather, the dynamics of a social group help define the broad outlines of morality, while not, perhaps, all the specifics.

  11. Okay, Paul, I agree, “pure choice” is inaccurate as a description for relativism. Let me correct it then this way:

    Relativism includes the belief that each person, community, and/or culture has their own ethics, and that there is no standard by which one can be judged better than another.

    Is that agreeable to you? I’ll try to keep this in mind in the future.

  12. Tom, it’s surely a measure of how right one’s approach is when they can say that they’ve been wrong, and you’re one of the few people on your site that do that.

    No one can be never wrong. (Kinda like the saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”)

  13. No one can be never wrong. (Kinda like the saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”)

    … because he is a false Buddaha. The true Buddaha is inside you. The quote is about seeking enlightenment from others.

    I can’t tell what the argument is about. I’m an objectivist… er, not the Randite kind. The one who argue for objective moral values- morality doesn’t exist free form, but there is only one best way.

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