“Is it still wrong if another culture says it is right? A teacher’s surprising discovery”

Denyse O’Leary writes:

In “Moments of startling clarity: Moral education programming in Ontario today,”* Dr. Stephen L. Anderson recounts what happened when he tried to show students what can happen to women in a culture with no tradition of treating women as if they were fellow human beings with men….

They became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff .”

Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

[From Is it still wrong if another culture says it is right? A teacher’s surprising discovery]

Comments

  1. Larry Tanner

    As I write on my blog, moral relativism is actually a good thing, and the Anderson story supports this conclusion. It’s not relativism that’s the problem but courage.

  2. The Deuce

    As I write on my blog, moral relativism is actually a good thing…

    I love illogic on a Monday.

  3. BillT

    From Mr. Tanner’s blog:

    “Nothing about moral relativism prevents us from outrage over heinous acts or from punishing wrongdoing. All that relativism actually requires of us is an acknowledgment that our own moral frame of reference is not the only valid one for understanding specific acts.”

    Mr. Tanner couldn’t be more right that nothing in relativism prevents outrage over heinous acts. What he omits is that nothing in moral relativism supports that outrage either. That’s because moral relativism isn’t moral at all. It’s just an opinion without anything but one’s own personal preference to back it up. You say mutilating a young girl is heinous and I say it isn’t. You say vanilla ice cream is best and I say it’s chocolate. Who has a right to say anything is right or wrong, heinous or not heinous when those very terms are relative. Mr. Tanner considers this moral relativism a “good thing”. I think most would consider it utterly bankrupt.

  4. G. Rodrigues

    @BillT:

    Mr. Tanner considers this moral relativism a “good thing”.

    Of course he does. Because then he and his ilk gets to say what is good or not for everybody else.

  5. Larry Tanner

    Yet there is a case for moral relativism:

    a. We are all already relativists in our daily lives.
    b. Relativism is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is not itself a moral system but a condition of moral agents (plural) acting in the world.
    c. Relativism does not entail moral equality between either acts or viewpoints.
    d. Moral relativism does not preclude making, legislating, or enforcing moral behavior.
    e. Relativism enables a necessary flexibility in assessing and evaluating moral acts, and improving moral law.

    In fact, if one is not a relativist, how does one condemn the “mutilation”? Were not the perpetrators enforcing divinely-sanctioned law? Yes, they were indeed acting according to an “objective” moral standard, as surely as the nation of Israel was in the slaughter they perpetrated in Deuteronomy 20:10-20.

    If one’s theory is that morality is divinely given, then one has nothing to say about either of the two cases above, except perhaps “Hallelujah.”

    One can be a relativist and then defend both cases. One can be a relativist and condemn both cases. But one cannot not be a relativist.

  6. Justaguy

    @BillT

    What he omits is that nothing in moral relativism supports that outrage either.

    Indeed.

  7. d

    I think most moral realists (theist and non-theist) recognize that people:

    a) are not perfect moral agents
    b) are often mistaken about what is moral.

    So its no hiccup for the moral realist that many people have wildly different “moral” systems. That fact certainly doesn’t do anything for moral relativism.

    Moral relativism may be true, if by “moral relativism” you simply mean recognition of the fact that there are many different cultures with their own sets of “moral” rules – but moral realism is concerned with what the actual moral facts are, if they exist, not just what many people happen to think they are.

    If moral facts exist, one can (hopefully) discover what, if any, of the “morals” practiced by peoples around the world are true morals or false ones.

    A moral realist would condemn mutilation because he believes causing that kind of unnecessary and irrational harm is wrong, and that is a moral fact, regardless of who practices it or who believes otherwise

  8. Post
    Author
  9. JAD

    d,

    I was waiting for someone to respond. Let me recap.

    Yesterday @ #3 I wrote, “I think we should give gays hormones to reduce their sex drives.”

    I intentionally phrased that sentence in a politically incorrect way for two reasons:

    1. To demonstrate that in a morally relativistic culture “political correctness” (or popular outrage) has replaced objective moral values. However, one of the major problems with political correctness is that while it has some of the pretensions of moral realism it is itself rooted in moral relativism. Like a fashion or trend PC is subject to the whims of society.

    2. I also wanted to demonstrate that if there is anything that is relative it is the rhetoric.

    For example, for even the politically correct who find the statement, “we should give gays hormones to reduce their sex drives,” as outrageous, there is a context under which they probably would find it to be acceptable. Here is the hypothetical context that I was thinking about:

    Under certain circumstances some men might choose to reduce their sex drives. (Servicemen on long overseas deployments; men serving on board ships or submarines; a long spaceflight aboard the Interantional Space Station or, in the future, to another planet.) A libido reducing hormone treatment was recently tested on heterosexual men. Should the same treatment it be made available to gay men?

    I think we should give gays hormones to reduce their sex drives.

    I thinks most people understanding this context, where the treatment was voluntary, would agree that what seemed to be politically incorrect and outrageous is now not only acceptable but might even be seen in the in it’s new context as a statement of equal rights. However, underneath the rhetoric there is an objective moral principle (freedom of the will) which is not relative.

    Of course, if moral values are really relative what is there to keep society, like what happened in Nazi Germany, from deciding that homosexuals are “undesirable” and should be steralized? If morality is just herd morality then it is just a matter of which direction the herd happens to be moving.

  10. Larry Tanner

    @Tom Gilson,

    My definition of moral relativism is taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/: “The term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons. Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with a normative position about how we ought to think about or act towards those with whom we morally disagree, most commonly that we should tolerate them.”

    Why do you think my use is idiosyncratic?

  11. JAD

    “Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with a normative position about how we ought to think about or act towards those with whom we morally disagree, most commonly that we should tolerate them.”

    Questions:

    On the basis of moral relativism, how can you have moral disagreements?

    On the basis of moral relativism, why should I tolerate anyone else? What if I am an egoist and I don’t want to tolerate anyone else? How can there be any “oughts” or “shoulds” on the basis of relativism?

    What gives the moral relativist the right to push his ethical beliefs (or non-beliefs?) on anyone else?

  12. BillT

    JAD,

    Come on now. No asking the relativists serious questions. We wouldn’t want to embarrass them.

  13. Larry Tanner

    JAD,

    Honestly, I think the article I link to earlier gives answers to your questions and/or pointers to fairly authoritative sources.

    I’ll offer quick answers, since you ask me:

    1) You have to have moral disagreements. Different moral frameworks entail disagreements of varying severity.

    2) You should tolerate others because your view is not the only way to see things. Another view may be as rational and useful as yours, or maybe even more so. Oughts and shoulds are always open to review and re-consideration.

    3) The moral relativist should wonder if she truly does have the right to force others (however this would happen) to accept her beliefs. I guess a moral relativist would realize that her power to promote and enforce her beliefs on others is justifiably limited.

  14. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I know there are open questions for me here, but I’m writing something else on a deadline today. Please ping me tomorrow if I forget to come back here and pick up the thread. Thanks for understanding.

  15. BillT

    JAD,

    See. I told you.

    However, just so I’m not accused of sniping. The “moral disagreements” Mr. Tanner refers to aren’t that at all. They are just people’s opinions. They have nothing to do with morality which imposes an obligation that he himself denies exists. “Tolerating others” is a moral position to which Mr. Tanner has no right to impose on others as his own answer #3 attests. And, of course, Mr. Tanner admits he has no right to expect anyone to follow any of his positions.

    There you have it. Morality that really isn’t morality that can’t explain why anyone should tolerate anyone else’s ideas and has no right to expect anyone else to follow. Brilliant.

  16. BillT

    Hate to piggyback posts but the following was too good to pass up.

    Posted today on the Apologetics315 site:

    “7 Things You Can’t Do as a Moral Relativist”

    1.Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing
    2.Relativists Can’t Complain About the Problem of Evil
    3.Relativists Can’t Place Blame or Accept Praise
    4.Relativists Can’t Claim Anything Is Unfair or Unjust
    5.Relativists Can’t Improve Their Morality
    6.Relativists Can’t Hold Meaningful Moral Discussions
    7.Relativists Can’t Promote the Obligation of Tolerance

    http://www.apologetics315.com/2011/12/top-7-things-you-cant-do-as-moral.html

    And an 8th from the comments: Relativists cannot even say one ought to be relativist.

  17. JAD

    Bill,

    Discussions like this always seem to bring us back to the “there is no truth” paradox:

    How do we know the claim “there is no truth” is true?

    Relativists are essentially claiming that there is no moral truth.

  18. BillT

    If “there is no truth” then the claim that there is no truth, itself a “truth” statement, can’t be true. I believe it’s called a “self-referential incoherence.” It disproves itself.

    And though we should expect no more from a relativist, Mr. Tanner goes blithely about his relativism just as we would expect. He supposedly wants to discuss morality but the “morality” he proposes (the relative kind) isn’t morality at all. He champions tolerance but without objective morality as a foundation he can’t demonstrate why tolerance is any better than intolerance. He then finally gives it all up and admits he has no basis to expect anyone to believe anything he has to say. And he is a teacher!

  19. Larry Tanner

    BillT:

    May I ask why you seem to be so eager to impose your morality on others, and why you think it’s moral to impose your morality on others?

    Also, what’s so bad about “just opinions”? As you know, opinions can become law–sometimes very good law, sometimes very bad law (which then, in a rational system, can be improved).

    I happen to be a pretty good teacher, partly because I do not demand that others memorize and hold only the opinions I deem worthy.

    Your casual dismissals of relativism are not unexpected, but I’ll note that no one has been able thus far to challenge even the tiniest part of the argument I outlined in defense of relativism. If perhaps you would like to uncover your eyes, unplug your ears, and stop saying “la-la-la, I can’t hear you!” you might learn a thing or two.

  20. d

    Larry,

    From a moral realist perspective, one doesn’t need to “impose” his morality on others. It doesn’t even make sense to say that. The morality is already imposed, whether others recognize it or know it or not!

    So the question becomes, for the realist, what are and who has the most accurate, genuine moral facts?

    No moral realist expects that people would never have any moral disagreements. But a moral realist has recourse to actually resolve moral disagreements, where the relativist has none at all.

  21. Larry Tanner

    d,

    I think your optimism is misguided. If the moral realist has recourse to actually resolve moral disagreements, how much more time do you think s/he needs to start getting some resolutions?

    Your other remark is insufferably arrogant: “The morality is already imposed, whether others recognize it or not!” Here, you suggest that you alone hold the magic key to the ONE TRUE MORALITY. It was there all along for people to discover, and–whaddaya know–your happy shining people uncovered them and now you are a light unto the nations.

    I would think that as a realist, you might recognize that “the morality” is actually “your morality.” Is this really so difficult to accept?

  22. d

    The old ontology versus epistemology confusion rears its head again!

    You’re confusing the claim “there are moral facts” (aka moral realism) with the claim “I know all the moral facts” (moral epistemology).

    I don’t claim to know all the moral facts, or have some superhuman ability to discover them (moral epistemology). But, as a moral realist, I do believe there are moral facts (moral ontology). Since they are facts, they are possibly discoverable.

    That doesnt entail that my mind must be closed as to what those facts are, that I have final say over what they are, or that I cannot be mistaken about what is morally good or bad. Your charges of arrogance are hasty and misplaced. If moral facts exist, it isnt the moral realist who is doing the “imposing” – its the moral facts themselves, that do the imposing.

    And the fact that its hard, difficult or time-consuming to work out moral facts is no argument against moral realism, anymore than its an argument against, say naturalistic cosmology, to say its hard, difficult or time-consuming to create an accurate naturalistic theory of the origins of the universe.

    On relativism, there are no genuine moral facts, and hence, there is no way to solve any moral disagreement. If a culture practices ritual human sacrifice, and believes with all its heart that this is morally good, the relativist can do nothing but shrug his shoulders and say, “I guess its good for them!”.

  23. d

    And as others have pointed out, the relativist position is self-refuting.

    Perhaps a culture believes it is morally good to impose their morality on others.

    On one hand, you seem to have a problem with this. Imposing morality upon others who disagree is wrong – but as a relativist, you cannot believe this is wrong because its a moral precept of another culture, that – to them – is good.

    So it seems you must hold two contradictory positions – that its wrong for cultures to impose morality on others, but its right for (some) cultures to impose their morality on others.

  24. Larry Tanner

    d,

    If you claim “there are moral facts,” you are also claiming that you have a way to distinguish moral facts from moral non-facts. Therefore you are indeed claiming to have some knowledge, and so your epistemological is indeed on the table.

    It’s just incorrect to charge that relativism entails impotence before different or conflicting moral systems. There’s nothing about moral relativism that entails either tolerating murder or taking a hands-off approach to false and pernicious beliefs.

    Let’s come back to the Bibi Aisha case. I suspect that we all want to see the girl’s attackers brought to trial, convicted of violent crime, and punished. Surely you don’t think a moral relativist would oppose having the attackers brought to justice?

    I ask because it seems to me often that people have a problem with relativism not so much from a philosophical standpoint but from one that thinks it’s too dispassionate. People think that moral relativists cannot get sufficiently outraged at something like the Bibi Aisha case. I don’t think this is true–as I feel that I do qualify as outraged. My point is that it has always seemed to me that resistance to relativism has always had a visceral component.

  25. d

    Relativism is very much impotent with respect to any claim that culture X is morally wrong.

    Let’s say Bibi Aisha was in a culture that found what was done to her, morally commendable.

    A relativist over here can have all the outrage they want (they are not dispassionate, as you say), but they are absolutely impotent in claiming any moral high ground.

    Relativist moral declarations, in this case, will expand to the following:

    “I’m outraged! What you did was morally reprehensible [with respect to my culture and customs]!”

    The people in her culture can say:

    “I’m outraged at your outrage! What we did was morally commendable [with respect to our culture and customs]!”

    So each culture is equally justified in their view, according to relativism, and of course, this presents an impasse.

    If you claim that each culture is not actually equally justified in their view, then I’m afraid you are not actually a moral relativist!

  26. Larry Tanner

    Is claiming “moral high ground” all that is at stake? That’s the endgame?

    Well, congratulations: I guess you have the moral high ground. How’s the view from up there?

  27. d

    Well, there’s the moral high ground, and of course, there’s also the fates of those like Bibi Aisha.

    Then there’s always the internal coherence of relativism to consider, which so far, isn’t looking so good. A moral view which makes both P and ~P true, seems… problematic.

    It seems like maybe you mistake moral relativism with having an “open mind” when relating to other cultures and their moral views, and associate moral realism with being a moral “imperialist” of sorts – which simply isn’t the case. I can be both a moral realist, and have an open mind, think it generally bad to impose my view on others without due justification, and also feel like I have a lot to learn about morality from the cultures of others.

    One must note the irony here – your entrance into the fray has been one not-unlike the moral imperialism that you seem to condemn. Its not only strange because you seem to embody the very thing you condemn, but because you have to concede, on relativism, others are perfectly justified in rejecting your condemnation, and are justified to impose their moral values upon you. Both P and ~P are true….

  28. Larry Tanner

    I haven’t actually conceded anything, but you really have not seemed to comprehend my arguments. How many times can I explain that moral relativism in no way means that all moral systems are equal? If that’s what you think relativism is or entails, then that tells me you are either unwilling or unable to look at arguments that are in your mental “bad” pile.

    You’re flatly wrong about relativism making P and not-P true. Forgive me for not feeling inclined to pursue the matter with you. Ultimately, if you’re going to learn, it’ll be by your own volition. I’ve laid out the case, albeit in thumbnail form, and that case has not been assailed. If you want more information, Philosophy Now recently had a few articles on moral relativism.

    Don’t mistake presenting an argument and defending it with the kind of imperialism most often associated with objectivists.

    What’s most disappointing from my standpoint is the realization that “claiming the moral high ground” is your real goal. Not truth. Not justice for Aisha. You seem not care a whit about either. What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister.

    In any case, I’ve summarized my thoughts on these matters here, and now I’m going to spend the next few days focusing on my job and family. Your moral high ground is worthless as far as I can tell–and it’s a nice day where I am today.

  29. Alex Dawson

    Larry: How many times can I explain that moral relativism in no way means that all moral systems are equal?
    Can you point me to where you’ve explained it rather than just stated it? (I’ve looked at your highlighted blog posts as well) Could you clarify here by what means can a relativist judge which moral systems are “better” than others? And how do you define “better” from a relativist point of view?

  30. Alex Dawson

    Also,
    Larry (#15): 2) You should tolerate others because your view is not the only way to see things
    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article which you earlier link to actually itself (in section 7) explains why the normative position that one should be tolerant of those with different morals positions is untenable under strict metaethical moral relativism (which seems to be the view you hold – please correct me otherwise):
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/#RelTol

  31. Larry Tanner

    @Alex –

    Last item first: I lean to the DMR side. The “should-ness” of tolerance seems to me best located in the specific moral system you hold. Your values hold that tolerance is good within reasonable limits. Your relativism adds that your values are (1) culturally contingent and (2) not necessarily shared by another culture.

    I think the explanation that moral relativism does not mean the equality of all moral systems is–at least–implicit in my blog post and other comment. But I have not provided explanation so much as assertion, so I apologize for sniping when I should have instead given the sought-for explanation.

    Here, then, is an attempt at a brief explanation that there’s nothing in relativism which requires moral systems be viewed as equal. By “equal,” I mean mostly equality in utility and scope. For instance, a system that permits human slavery and trafficking restricts the number of people who benefit from the system. People who are enslaved and trafficked, in particular, get the short end of the stick. For another example, one system may consider the moral values incumbent upon both corporate entities and individuals, while another has a more restricted scope in that it has not considered the moral obligations of corporations.

    I don’t want to quibble over utility and scope, since the point of my examples above is that recognizing difference and cultural contingency does not entail a refusal to evaluate systems or judge specific behaviors.

    in other words, I think we can understand the cultural contingency of the values held by Bibi Aisha’s attackers at the same time we maintain she was a victim of injustice and at the same time we challenge the attackers’ values.

    Now, let me ask you a few questions…and then I’ll run. I can’t spend as much time today responding to comments as I have the last few days. I have other responsibilities that have gotten short shrift.

    Here are my questions: If you believe that there are objective moral values which are the same and immutable in all times and all places (this is objectivism, right?):

    (1) What specific eternal value (or truth) was violated by Bibi Aisha’s attackers?
    (2) How do we know that this specific eternal value is a specific eternal value and not culturally contingent? That is, when did we learn of the existence of this value, how was it learned, and how was it verified to be true and eternal?
    (3) If Aisha’s attackers violated a specific eternal value, what are our moral obligations for action now that we are aware of the violation? Is this action not available to someone who is a moral relativist? Why?

    Thanks!

  32. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I’m catching up as quick as I can now after meeting a deadline yesterday. Never mind that the real deadline was over a week ago.

    Anyway, Larry, here’s why I think your definition of relativism is idiosyncratic. You say that all ethical systems are relativistic, and in support of that you show that in all systems there are some ethical decisions that must take circumstances into account. That’s on your blog, where you point to the Golden Rule in support of relativism.

    But relativism is not the doctrine that some ethical decisions depend on circumstances. It is the view that there are no objective moral standards. If your argument is (as it appears to be) that any moral system that includes circumstantially-dependent decision making is relativistic, then (a) you have changed the meaning of the term, and (b) you win a circular argument.

    You write,

    1) You have to have moral disagreements. Different moral frameworks entail disagreements of varying severity.

    2) You should tolerate others because your view is not the only way to see things.

    In compliance with your point 1, I will (for the sake of argument) disagree with your point 2. Tolerating others is not something I should do, whether my point of view is the only way to see things or not. I think (again, for the sake of argument) tolerating others is morally wrong, evil, and stupid. It was morally wrong for you even to suggest we should tolerate others.

    Now: am I wrong to say that?

    Going on:

    May I ask why you seem to be so eager to impose your morality on others, and why you think it’s moral to impose your morality on others?

    May I ask why you seem to be so eager to find moral fault in Bill for that? You’re imposing your morality on him. Why do you think that’s moral?

    Your casual dismissals of relativism are not unexpected, but I’ll note that no one has been able thus far to challenge even the tiniest part of the argument I outlined in defense of relativism.

    Really? Where’s that outline again? Where is your awareness of the answers that were given?

    You told d (thanks, d, for your contributions, by the way),

    Your other remark is insufferably arrogant: “The morality is already imposed, whether others recognize it or not!” Here, you suggest that you alone hold the magic key to the ONE TRUE MORALITY. It was there all along for people to discover, and–whaddaya know–your happy shining people uncovered them and now you are a light unto the nations.

    Let’s try two options on for size, both for the sake of argument:

    1. My morality (for the sake of argument) holds that insufferably arrogant is good, moral, and proper. Your objection to it is immoral.

    or…

    2. Your complaints about insufferable arrogance are insufferably arrogant, because you assume that it’s morally wrong to suggest that anyone holds the magic key to the ONE TRUE MORALITY. What makes you the shining light to the nations who can pronounce that?

    Surely you don’t think a moral relativist would oppose having the attackers brought to justice?

    Which moral relativist do you have in mind? Suppose there is some Islamic-influenced moral relativist who disagrees with you. Is he wrong?

    Is claiming “moral high ground” all that is at stake? That’s the endgame?

    Well, congratulations: I guess you have the moral high ground. How’s the view from up there?

    Try this on for size (for the sake of argument again): I have the moral high ground, and the view from up here is fine. I’m quite comfortable with that. You, on the other hand, seem to think I ought not to feel comfortable that way. You’re calling me to abandon my position for your superior moral position. In effect, you’re calling to me to drag myself out of what’s really a moral pit–and join you on the moral high ground you occupy.

    You’re a hypocrite. You can’t even see it, but you’re a flaming hypocrite.

    I haven’t actually conceded anything, but you really have not seemed to comprehend my arguments. How many times can I explain that moral relativism in no way means that all moral systems are equal?

    Once would be a good start. This is the first time you’ve mentioned it. Sure, you’ve said that persons need not perceive all moral systems as equal, and that persons can have various emotional reactions to moral situations, but this is the first time you’ve said that moral relativism doesn’t entail that all moral systems are equal. That verb are, plural of to be, implies that there exists some thing as moral systems that can be measured for equality. You haven’t talked about that; you’ve only talked about persons’ reactions. Different topic, my friend.

    What’s most disappointing from my standpoint is the realization that “claiming the moral high ground” is your real goal. Not truth. Not justice for Aisha. You seem not care a whit about either. What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister.

    Now you’re getting all moralistic again. You’re claiming the moral high ground, calling d “strange, unnerving, sinister.” You think you’re morally superior to him, don’t you?

    You’re a hypocrite.

    By “equal,” I mean mostly equality in utility and scope.

    Oh. Now you’re claiming that morality is defined according to utility. You objectivist, you!

    You hypocrite.

    Five times you complain about others claiming the moral high ground, while the whole time you are standing on a hill looking down on the rest of us.

  33. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Let me now add this.

    Moral realism and moral absolutism have controversial definitions and truth values. The word “hypocrite,” however, has a definite meaning in English. It refers to a person who affirms one moral value while practicing something contrary. Larry, you affirm the moral wrongness of claiming a high ground position, (that is, you say it’s wrong to claim a position of moral superiority). Meanwhile you repeatedly affirm d’s (and others’) moral inferiority to you. Your actions fit the definition of hypocrisy.

    Regardless of what you think about moral relativism or realism, you are practicing blatant hypocrisy, repeatedly through this thread.

    Do you like that about yourself?

  34. d

    I’ll add one more remark, and be satisfied with seeing if Larry answers the others questions:

    Larry,

    You wrote:

    What’s most disappointing from my standpoint is the realization that “claiming the moral high ground” is your real goal. Not truth. Not justice for Aisha. You seem not care a whit about either. What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister.

    You accuse me of seeking “the moral high ground” rather than truth or justice.

    If moral facts exist, (i.e., moral realism is true) – then the position of holding the “moral high ground” would be the position where one holds the most justified, accurate or true knowledge of genuine moral facts. Seeking the “moral high ground” for a moral realist, is synonymous with seeking truth!

    Sinister indeed!

    And I’d caution you, if you feel inclined to make assumptions about me, given my line of argument and the context of this blog – I am not a theist (though I am a moral realist), and disagree fundamentally with most everyone here when it comes to morality and meta-ethics, even though we’re mostly in agreement, it seems, in opposition to your views.

  35. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    If moral facts exist, (i.e., moral realism is true) – then the position of holding the “moral high ground” would be the position where one holds the most justified, accurate or true knowledge of genuine moral facts. Seeking the “moral high ground” for a moral realist, is synonymous with seeking truth!

    Bingo.

    Thanks for adding that excellent point.

  36. Larry Tanner

    @Tom,
    Yikes! So much to cover. Here goes:

    On my “idiosyncratic” definition of relativism: Moral relativism posits that cultural values of right and wrong are culturally conditioned. This is the macro level. On my blog, I added that at the micro level we employ relativistic thinking all the time. Relativism is everywhere. Why should moral relativism–i.e., the cultural contingency of moral values–meet such resistance?

    According to my moral values, yes you would be wrong not to tolerate others (as per your hypothetical argument). I acknowledge and accept that you may disagree.

    On your two options regarding insufferable arrogance: I’m not the “shining light” and don’t consider myself to be.

    On your comfort with the moral high ground: I recognize that you think you have the moral high ground. As I said before: congratulations. It must feel wonderful for you. I don’t think you actually have the moral high ground, but this is a statement of opinion and not a judgment of your character.

    On your statement that I think I’m morally superior to d: What I actually said to d is this–“What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister.” Please notice that this is not phrased, nor is it intended, to call d himself strange, unnerving, or perhaps a bit sinister. This is instead focused on what I have understood as an implied assertion made by d.

    On your defense of calling me a hypocrite: I understand that you think I’m trying to seize the moral high ground myself while criticizing others for doing the same. I disagree with your understanding. I am not sure I even agree that there really is a moral high ground, and any impression to that this is what I would seek is made accidentally. Hypocrisy’s a serious thing. I hope not to be one in these discussions or in real life. I’ll chew over what you have said to me. Ultimately, my goal is not to be more of an asshole than absolutely necessary. Will you consider for yourself that you too may be a “flaming hypocrite”?

    On your agreement with d’s statement on “if moral facts exist”: The “if” is all, isn’t it? And if moral facts do not exist, then the position of holding the moral high ground can only be self-asserted. Seeking the moral high ground is synonymous with seeking to appoint oneself cultural authority.

    Finally, I had asked Alex some questions in #33. Please feel free to answer them yourself.

  37. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Okay. You wrote,

    On my “idiosyncratic” definition of relativism: Moral relativism posits that cultural values of right and wrong are culturally conditioned. This is the macro level. On my blog, I added that at the micro level we employ relativistic thinking all the time. Relativism is everywhere. Why should moral relativism–i.e., the cultural contingency of moral values–meet such resistance?

    You have carefully avoided using the key word: all. Moral relativism posits that all values of right and wrong are culturally conditioned, and that there is (on at least one form of relativism) nothing to moral values except for cultural conditioning.

    At the micro level, you say we employ relativistic thinking all the time; but I say that I employ circumstantial, not relativistic thinking; i.e., how do the timeless, objective, real truths of morality apply in this particular circumstance? In other words, on your blog you make a statement that isn’t true of me or of any other moral realist. I’ll break that down even further: your statement is wrong. If you continue to use it in conversation or in argument, remind yourself of that. Try this phrase: “Every time from now on that I claim relativism is everywhere, I am claiming something that has been shown to be false.”

    That’s what reasonable people do: when they discover they’re saying something false they quit affirming it as true.

    Relativism is not everywhere. I hope that’s clear.

    Moral relativism meets such resistance because it is false thinking on multiple levels. I have indicated two of them just now. I could go on. The main point is: it’s wrong. Why shouldn’t I resist it??

    Oh, and here’s another reason to resist it. I’ve had multiple conversations with people who say on the basis of their relativism, for example, slavery was not wrong in slave cultures. Suttee was not wrong in India. Child sacrifice was not wrong in cultures that practiced it. Hitler’s ethics were right in his culture.

    I can document every one of those statements. That’s another reason to oppose moral relativism.

    According to my moral values, yes you would be wrong not to tolerate others (as per your hypothetical argument). I acknowledge and accept that you may disagree.

    Thank you. Next time you tell me that I should tolerate others’ viewpoints I’m going to tell you to shut your stinking trap. You’re arrogantly imposing your private morality on me. I’m going to hold to my moral absolutism, and you can’t disagree with me. And if you think there’s something morally wrong with “shut your stinking trap,” then shut your stinking trap and quit imposing that morality on me, too.

    No, actually I wouldn’t say that–but based on your moral system, there would be nothing wrong with it if I did. Think about it.

    On your two options regarding insufferable arrogance: I’m not the “shining light” and don’t consider myself to be.

    Yes you do. You at least consider yourself brighter and shinier than the rest of us here. It’s impossible for you to deny; it’s all over everything you write here.

    On your comfort with the moral high ground: I recognize that you think you have the moral high ground. As I said before: congratulations. It must feel wonderful for you. I don’t think you actually have the moral high ground, but this is a statement of opinion and not a judgment of your character.

    Hah! Every time you referred to the moral high ground earlier in this thread you were condemning the attitude. Don’t try to weasel out of it.

    On your statement that I think I’m morally superior to d: What I actually said to d is this–“What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister.” Please notice that this is not phrased, nor is it intended, to call d himself strange, unnerving, or perhaps a bit sinister. This is instead focused on what I have understood as an implied assertion made by d.

    Really? I’ll take a poll: how many people here think that distinction makes an ounce of sense? Especially since you made a series of statements that actually do address people directly, and not just their assertions:

    May I ask why you seem to be so eager to impose your morality on others, and why you think it’s moral to impose your morality on others? … If perhaps you would like to uncover your eyes, unplug your ears, and stop saying “la-la-la, I can’t hear you!” you might learn a thing or two…. Here, you suggest that you alone hold the magic key to the ONE TRUE MORALITY. It was there all along for people to discover, and–whaddaya know–your happy shining people uncovered them and now you are a light unto the nations…. Well, congratulations: I guess you have the moral high ground. How’s the view from up there? … If that’s what you think relativism is or entails, then that tells me you are either unwilling or unable to look at arguments that are in your mental “bad” pile…. What’s most disappointing from my standpoint is the realization that “claiming the moral high ground” is your real goal. Not truth. Not justice for Aisha. You seem not care a whit about either. What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister….

    Are you lying to us, or to yourself?

    On your defense of calling me a hypocrite: I understand that you think I’m trying to seize the moral high ground myself while criticizing others for doing the same. I disagree with your understanding. I am not sure I even agree that there really is a moral high ground, and any impression to that this is what I would seek is made accidentally. Hypocrisy’s a serious thing. I hope not to be one in these discussions or in real life. I’ll chew over what you have said to me. Ultimately, my goal is not to be more of an asshole than absolutely necessary. Will you consider for yourself that you too may be a “flaming hypocrite”?>

    Of course I’ll consider it if you’ll give me some reason to think it might be true.

    On your agreement with d’s statement on “if moral facts exist”: The “if” is all, isn’t it? And if moral facts do not exist, then the position of holding the moral high ground can only be self-asserted. Seeking the moral high ground is synonymous with seeking to appoint oneself cultural authority.

    Larry, you’re jumping from “if” to conclusion. You are condemning d and others for seeking the high ground. That’s tantamount to saying, “There is no moral truth, and that’s the moral truth! No one can know the moral truth, of course; just ask me: I know.”

    Get off your moral high horse, would you?

  38. BillT

    “I’ll take a poll: how many people here think that distinction makes an ounce of sense?”

    It especially makes no sense coming from someone who thinks that morality is realtive but at the same time insists that his view of morality (i.e. that it’s relative) isn’t relative but preferrable over other views of morality.

  39. Larry Tanner

    @Tom:

    Hmm. Nice try to dodge with “circumstantial.” Priceless.

    You keep claiming that I’m trying to impose my moral values on you. It just ain’t so. Please put down the persecution complex.

    So, that’s two times–relativism is wrong and you’re trying to impose your morals on me, hypocrite–where you clearly show that you have no grasp of facts.

    My favorite: “Really? I’ll take a poll: how many people here think that distinction makes an ounce of sense?”

    LOL, as the kids say. LOL. I think this says it all about how you determine your sense of awesomeness. “Hey guys, who here thinks we’re on the right side of history?”

    Maybe you should stop worrying about my moral “high horse” and try, just for kicks, to answer (say) the three questions I asked Alex. it might be helpful for you. In any case I would LOVE to see how you apply “the timeless, objective, real truths of morality” in specific circumstances. Start with Bibi Aisha and Deuteronomy 20:10-20.

  40. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Larry, “circumstantial” is a word with actual meaning distinct from “relativistic.” I used a different word because its meaning is more accurate than the meaning of the word you tried to apply.

    You are still carefully avoiding the word “all.”

    You actually are trying to impose your moral values on us. It’s clear as day. You can try to deny it, but it’s too late. You’ve been moralizing throughout this thread, and trying to use your moralisms as persuasive sticks to beat us with. That’s not a persecution complex, you dummy, that’s just a fact.

    Your charge of hypocrisy back at me fails to stick. You see, I’m (a) not imposing my own moral values on you. Rather I am calling you to values that I regard as transcendent. Also (b) I’m not taking a position that I shouldn’t do that. Hypocrisy consists in affirming one moral value and yet practicing another. My moral values include the value of holding those values up as transcendent, not just for myself but for others. I’m being consistent with my own moral values when I call on you to see them for what they are. Moral consistency is not hypocrisy.

    Your making my poll your “favorite” was fine. You can laugh at it if you want. What about the argument that followed that? You are strangely silent about all my arguments except with bare assertions (“It just ain’t so;” “you clearly have no grasp of the facts”), and personal put-downs (“Dodge.” “Priceless.” “Persecution complex.” “Your sense of awesomeness.”)

    You have claimed that there is a case for your position. You’ve said you have an argument that others do not comprehend, or have not been able to challenge “the tiniest part of.”

    And now what you have to offer is name-calling.

    Did you notice that while you were writing it?

    Do you really want to know my answer on Deut. 20:10-20. Do you have a few minutes to spare? I wrote my answer in six parts, beginning here. If you were expecting a shorter answer, please take a close look at the first few paragraphs of part five of that series.

    The Bibi Aisha question is rather too easy and obvious.

  41. d

    On your statement that I think I’m morally superior to d: What I actually said to d is this–“What you want is the high ground. That’s strange and unnerving, and perhaps a bit sinister.” Please notice that this is not phrased, nor is it intended, to call d himself strange, unnerving, or perhaps a bit sinister. This is instead focused on what I have understood as an implied assertion made by d.

    Whether it was aimed at me personally, or at my views, its false. If moral facts exist, the “moral high ground” is the ground that anyone who values truth ought to seek. And its the ground the moral realist would want *everyone* to seek, not just himself.

    Its not about the seeking the ability to moralistically wag one’s finger at others with cosmic authority (though certainly some people act that way) – its to seek out that which is most rational and true!

    I’ll have to echo the sentiment that “we all act like relativists in our daily lives”, does not match my observations. I don’t think people act like relativists at all, though I’m not even sure what it means to “act like a relativist”.

  42. BillT

    One of the sad things here is that hypocrisy is a concept that most, if not all, middle school students have little difficulty understanding and discerning even in themselves. I know I certainly have been in places where I realize that I have done something that is hypocritical. I’m sure I’m not alone. Yet Mr. Tanner, despite numerous thoughtful and thorough explanations, can’t seem to see the obvious in regards to his position. It would be a textbook example of a self-referential incoherence execpt that no one would believe that it could actually be true.

    Or to put it another way;

    YOU: ”So you think it is wrong to impose one’s moral point of view on other people?”
    THEM: “Yes.”
    YOU: “Then why are you imposing your moral point of view on me?
    THEM: “What?”
    YOU: “To say it is wrong to impose one’s moral point of view on other people is itself a moral point of view, and you are imposing that moral point of view on me by morally condemning me for morally condemning the actions of other people. You are guilty of doing the very thing you say should not be done.”

    (Thanks to Apologetics315)

  43. JAD

    I reject moral relativism because I want to help create a better world. You cannot create a better world unless you recognize that there really are universal human rights. You cannot be a consistent moral relativist and have any concern for human rights.

  44. John Andrew

    I guess I’m coming to this conversation late, but I completely disagree with what you just said JAD.

    Hitler wanted to create a better world — wanting to create a better world says absolutely nothing about your system of morals, nor does it say you care about human rights.

    A moral relativist can adopt *any* system of morals and can certainly adopt a consistent system of morals that includes a concept of human rights.

  45. John Andrew

    @BillT, you seem to be confusing the ideas of “imposing one’s morality” and “morally condemning someone”. To impose means to force one to accept whereas to condemn merely means to express strong disapproval.

    It is not hypocrisy to be against imposing one’s point of view while simultaneously expressing disapproval towards those who have a differing point of view. It would only be hypocrisy if someone were to assert the immorality of asserting that something was immoral.

  46. JAD

    John Andrew,

    Please read what I wrote. In my post #45 I wrote, “You cannot create a better world unless you recognize that there universal human rights.

    A consistent relativist would have to say that not only do the Nazi’s have as much right to their moral views as I do to mine, but the Nazi’s view could be as morally right as mine. However, the Nazi’s rejected universal human rights because they saw non-Aryan races (especially the Jews) as inferior. Any kind of racism is the exact opposite as universal human rights.

    To accept universal human rights is to recognize that there moral facts that are objectively real and transcend human history and culture.

  47. BillT

    Sorry for the above the site seems to have glitched.

    John Andrew,

    I think if you read all the comments carefully (I would point you to Tom Gilson’s) you will see that the assertion that Mr. Tanner’s comments are hypocritical is well supported. For a relativist to claim that his position is superior because it is more tolerant is for him to take a position of moral authority when as a relativist he believes there isn’t any moral authority. Can you see how he is taking a superior moral position while claiming there is no such thing as a superior moral position. Further, telling someone they are wrong by expressing “strong disapproval” is perfectly adequate to qualify them as being hypocritical. One need not actually try and “force one to accept” your position (and how would one do that anyway?).

  48. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    More than that: he’s claiming a position of moral superiority while claiming that it’s offensive to take a position of moral superiority.

  49. John Andrew

    @JAD — I personally agree with you that a culture that recognizes certain basic human rights is a better world. But I don’t agree that the word “better” has any objective universal meaning. Nor do the words “good” and “evil”. Those words definitely have meaning to me — but in my experience they have different meanings to different people and that’s all I mean when I claim to be a moral relativist.

    Perhaps I’ve chosen the wrong place to jump in and express my thoughts — at the tail end of a thread that is filled with a host of differing and sometimes conflicting statements — but I don’t think my position is particularly unreasonable or threatening and I suspect that your system of morality agrees with mine on many points. Moral relativism however is not, by itself, a system of morality.

    @BillT, I was very careful to avoid taking a position on whether or not Mr. Tanner was being hypocritical, I was only responding to the dialog you presented, and really only to your word choice. As I read the dialog I felt that the logic was slightly off. I do feel that a person can reasonably object to attempts to impose one’s own moral viewpoint while at the same time verbally condemning another’s moral viewpoint.

    For instance, a person might vote against a law making it illegal for people to practice Christianity because they feel that doing so would be an example of “imposing” their beliefs on others. However, they might feel perfectly justified in verbalizing their disapproval of Christian beliefs. All *I* am saying is that such a person would not be a hypocrite. There is nothing hypocritical about drawing the line at verbal discourse.

    Oh, and to be perfectly clear, I am only arguing the logic of your case, I personally would attempt to impose my morality in certain cases. I would take action to prevent what I consider to be human rights violations perpetrated by other cultures. But again, I don’t believe there is anything “objectively right” about my viewpoint nor would I claim my viewpoint is morally superior to anyone else’s. It is merely the way I would act, nothing more.

  50. John Andrew

    @JAD. I read the following statement of yours very carefully: “You cannot create a better world unless you recognize that there universal human rights.”

    I would argue that this is almost true. Its true except for the use of the word universal. Suppose you and I were members of two separate cultures, each of us for whatever reason having absolute power over our respective societies. Suppose further that you and I happen to agree precisely on what constitutes a basic human right, the only difference being that you believe in the objective truth of those rights and I merely believe that those rights are likely to help my culture thrive, be happy, be productive, etc. I however do not believe that there is any object truth to them — I have simply chosen them as the foundation of my society whereas you believe they are objectively morally superior to all other systems.

    I would claim that the end result is the same. There is no effective or practical difference in the (moral) outcome of our two cultures. I see no reason that a system of morals need be objectively “right” in order to result in a better world. In fact I believe that the entire concept of objective moral truth is inherently meaningless.

  51. JAD

    John Andrew wrote:
    ‘But I don’t agree that the word “better” has any objective universal meaning. Nor do the words “good” and “evil”’.

    Huh? Exterminating another race, like the Nazi’s tried to do, which you deem to be inferior to your own, is not evil?

    The kind of advanced democratic civilization, which we have seen spread through out the world over the last 250 years, would be impossible without the belief that universal human rights are objectively grounded and transcend time and culture.

  52. d

    John Andrews:

    So, we have Culture A (CA) and Culture B (CB). CA recognizes universal human rights. CB does not. Would you posit that, all other things being equal, CA will produce a society where people, on the whole, live happier and more fulfilling lives?

    If so, could you not say that people in CB, should they look at the prosperity of their neighbor, have an objective, quantitative, rational reason to adopt the policies of CA? Upon witnessing the state of CA, could you not call CB irrational if they didnt adopt human rights? You could, couldn’t you?

    And if you’ve gotten that far, why not call that – those types of rational reasons – objective morality? What else could or should it be, but our best ideas about what promotes the flourishing of persons? And can you say objective things about what it takes to bring about flourishing people? I certainly think so – human rights, for one.

    If you can’t, how could you say that CB would be rational to adopt human rights, or irrational to reject them (assuming that you answered that it would be rational for them to adopt human rights ).

  53. d

    would be impossible without the belief that universal human rights are objectively grounded and transcend time and culture.

    Its this type of line that scares off would-be non-theist moral realists away from moral realism, I think! Invoking the “transcendent” comes with too much holy baggage, whether its intended to or not.

    But if you say it like so –

    “There are some common rules, that if adopted, will lead to greater prosperity for any culture (or person) that adopts them, regardless of time or place”

    – it sounds a little more down to earth.

    And I think its a rather uncontroversial statement.

    In fact, if any of the relativists here agree with that statement, then I’d say that they actually do believe in objective moral values, at least according to how I think the terms should be defined – and the debate between us is actually a semantic misunderstanding caused by differing meanings for moral terms.

  54. John Andrew

    @d, You make some excellent points and yes, most definitely I suspect that much of this discussion is one of semantics.

    I am happy to discuss and acknowledge objective truths of the form: “Cultures that do X, Y, and Z, are more likely to survive than cultures that do not”. I am not claiming that there is no such thing as objective truth.

    And if you want to state up front that by objective moral truth you mean nothing more than the existence of a unique set of moral values under which societies are most likely to flourish then we at least have a firm starting point for a discussion.

    Put in your terms then, I still claim to be a moral relativist because, among other things, I believe that the terms flourish and prosper in your description have not yet been defined carefully enough, nor do I believe that there exist universal definitions of those terms waiting to be discovered on which we could all agree.

    And even if you and I carefully and precisely defined what we meant by flourish, prosper, happiness, etc., I still am doubtful that we could demonstrate that there was a unique set of moral principles which would inevitably lead a culture to the ideal state we had described.

    I was motivated to elaborate more on what I personally meant by moral relativism here and perhaps you’ll end up concluding that I am not a moral relativist at all. As I imply in my blog post, my views are my views and whether the term “Moral Relativist” genuinely applies to me is not all that important.

  55. d

    Put in your terms then, I still claim to be a moral relativist because, among other things, I believe that the terms flourish and prosper in your description have not yet been defined carefully enough, nor do I believe that there exist universal definitions of those terms waiting to be discovered on which we could all agree.

    I agree, they are vague – but, perhaps for the first time in history, we are actually in a position to study what it means to flourish (that is, generally exist in a state of happiness and contentment over existing in states of misery), empirically – which brings the possibility of resolving this question.

    I think, so far, scientific forays into this area have confirmed many of the things many moral realists claim… that human nature is configured in such a way that makes certain [moral] things objectively good for us all, and objectively bad for us all.

    And I agree, the labels really arent that important.

  56. JAD

    @d

    I relied to your comment (#57) over on the new thread, “Naturalism and the Ultimate Good That Isn’t”.

  57. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    John Andrew, on your blog you wrote,

    Moral objectivists often use the human rights abuses perpetrated by Nazi Germany as examples of actions which were objectively and universally, morally wrong. I agree that genocide is unacceptable. But all I mean by that is that I will refuse to support groups wishing to carry out genocide and that I will do what I can to prevent such groups from taking action. The only reason I need to support my actions in this area is that the thought of genocide makes me feel terrible. Do I need more reason than that? Do I need a reason to remove my hand from a flame other than that the flame is causing me pain? Obviously I don’t.

    But then, how is my statement above that genocide is unacceptable a moral statement at all? Well it isn’t.

    Thank you for your honesty. Would that you had maintained it through all of your discussion.

  58. John Andrew

    @Tom,

    By your suggestion that I haven’t maintained a level of honesty throughout my discussion, I do hope you only mean that I haven’t been honest with myself. If that is all you mean then please elaborate.

    It is certainly possible that I have made genuinely conflicting statements somewhere along the line, and I certainly agree that, if I have made such a blunder, it likely points to a lack of clarity in my own thinking. On the other hand, perhaps there has been a breakdown in communication and you are assigning meaning to one or more of my statements that I did not intend.

    If, on the other hand, you are suggesting that I am intentionally trying to mislead, all I can do is to state that that is not the case. I have no motivation for intentional dishonesty. I enjoy discussions such as these but I am honestly not motivated to change the way other people think and I am certainly not motivated to convince people to believe the way that I believe.

    The intent behind my participation here and elsewhere in the blogosphere is to reach an understanding of exactly what people believe and, more importantly, what are the day-to-day effects of those beliefs. The connection between belief and action is a fascinating one to me … but I’m rambling now so I’ll stop.

    John

  59. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    John, I don’t have time right now for a fully-thought-through answer to what you’ve written, but I do want to say right away that I appreciate the tone with which you have answered me here. I was careless in my communication regarding your honesty, and I regret that now, with apologies to you. You could have come back at me with anger or defensiveness, and you did neither of those. Thank you.

    I hope to answer some of your questions later today.

  60. Larry Tanner

    Click on the link (i.e., my name). I have a new post up and thought of you when I asked my questions. Hope you’ll answer? And be patient with me…I’m thick.

    LT

  61. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    No thanks, Larry.

    Moral realism is not a matter of “what objective standard does this controversial act violate?” The fact of moral controversy or ambiguity does not obviate moral realism. Moral realism is established if there is even one real moral standard, so even if in this case there were no real moral standard involved, it wouldn’t affect realism.

    I’m not saying there is no real moral standard involved in those controversial acts. My problem with your request is that if I get involved in your conversation, I’ll get caught up in the specifics of the controversy, which have little to do with the fact of moral realism.

    My other problem with it is I don’t like the way that conversation has begun on your blog and I’m not going to jump into the mess.

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