jump to navigation

Fearing the Consequences of Relative Morality May 1, 2011

Posted by Ian in Morality.

There seems to be a common argument against relative (or non-objective) morality which basically involves saying it is wrong because if it was true it would be chaotic or bad or somehow different to what we see around us.  One almost gets a sense from some arguments like this that it is something to be afraid of.

The problem is that in a world where you are taught to see things as absolute, the relative seems like a crazy or chaotic idea.  To someone used to the idea of absolute rules, the idea that (in principle) anything goes appears as a frightening concept.  I have a few ideas why this might be the case.

One aspect of this is that people used to rules see true freedom as scary.  This is most easily seen by how difficult people who have become institutionalised in prison find life after being released.  Blind obedience to rules is also easier than having to calculate for yourself what the best action is.  If the law says “don’t steal” then decisions about what you can take become easy.  Absent those laws it takes a lot more thought to figure out what action is preferable for you.

The problem is that for someone who has been told that rape is absolutely wrong, they don’t need a reason other than that for it to be wrong.  Therefore they view the problem as “if it wasn’t inherently wrong not to rape then why don’t we all rape?”  There are two answers to that:  either widespread rape wouldn’t actually be a problem and it would happen and no-one would care.  Or widespread rape would be a problem and people wouldn’t do it because other people would stop them via group pressure.  It is so hard to lose the “rape is bad –> so if rape wasn’t bad then lots of rape would occur –> which is bad” kind of logic.

I also think we have become so used to seeing and describing the world in terms of good and bad  that it is difficult at first to imagine a world without those concepts permeating them.  These concepts are so obviously useful as shortcuts for explaining behaviours that it is inevitable they’d show up in any system of moral decision making.  It then becomes very difficult to view the world without them.  Difficult but not impossible.

There is also the argument that moral freedom is the easy way out – it is somehow cheating.  I think I have managed to shed as much of the objective moral baggage as I can from my life and I find myself spending far more time on my moral decisions than I used to.  Because I don’t have absolute beliefs I have to actually think about my decisions and figure them out.  I wish I had the luxury of having someone else make those decisions for me but just because it would be easier doesn’t make it any more valid.  Those that think moral freedom is easy simply haven’t thought it through.


1. Ken - May 2, 2011

I don’t like the term “relatiuve morality” because like many such terms it means different things to different people. We end up talking past each other.

But some comments on your post:

1: I don’t think we are all taught to see morality as absolute – although of course this attitude is imposed in relgious cults and similar. I think one strong reason why we tend to see morality as absolute or objective is because thats how it feels. We have extremely strong intutions of “right” and “wrong” – strong moral rules or prescritpons. But these are illusions. They have arrived naturally for very good evolutionary reasons and largely operate unconsciously.

The fact that our rules change over time – we have a personal as well as social moral zeitgeist does indicate that the absoluteness or objectivity is illusionary. However, when we apply the “manual model” and consiously deliberate on moral questions we start to use facts about reality and about ourselves. This means that our morality, while not objective – is objectively-based. We can often come to similar decisions in our deliberations. (This is not what a lot of people mean by “moral relativism.”).

2: People do rave on about the need to have some sort of “values” to make moral decisions (and then wave their hands about where these values come from). There is no need to postulate gods to explain these (“god did it” is never a good explanation). i think we can actually justify the humane values our species has naturally. Both Domasio and Churchland talk about biological value as an inevitable consequence of any living organism. This biological value is manifested even in bacteria. But evolution means that biological value is manifested in more and more complex and social forms. So with our species our social and empathetic nature does provide an objective basis in our human nature for morality.

3: I am not sure that it is harder for non-theists to deal with morality than theists who believe in objective or absolute morality. Sure, theists can just take the moral edicts of their relgious leaders, rather than think, when morality is dealt with consciously. However, that itself has consequences in that they do not develop an inbuilt moral sense which means that when they are really on their own they may have real difficulties.

And the other factor is that most of our moral decisions are made unconsciously. They are under the bonnett, not accessible, and appear effortless. However, our unconscious processes are a result of the conscious learning that goes on during conscious and reasoned deliberations.

2. Ian - May 2, 2011

Thanks for the comment Ken. I think we are largely on the same page although there might be some subtle differences. I agree “relative” is not the best term given it has varying meanings: perhaps non-absolute morality is a more useful term?

1. We are brought up for a variety of reasons to see actions as good or bad, which is essentially teaching morality as absolute even if not intended that way. This reinforces the natural tendency to make decisions you mentioned.

2. I get the sense that there is a problem with the use of the word “objective” here too. It is possible to make objective moral decisions in the sense that, given goals (natural or otherwise) and knowledge about the world we can “objectively” determine which decision is “better”. However this is different from an objective morality where the “betterness” itself can be determined. In other words you can say “x is better than y for achieving z” but you can’t say “x is better than y.”

Regarding values, I think we can show that people have a tendency to place value on some things or other things for whatever reason. I don’t think we should necessarily take those values as locked in stone though – we could ignore them if we had to.

3. It is harder for people who don’t defer their decision making to other systems than it is for those who do. There is no doubt many theists end up struggling when they don’t defer and many non-theists do defer.

3. Ken - May 3, 2011

I agree we both seem to be singing from the same hymn book.

Just a couple of points.

True we tend to see things in absolute terms. I am interested, though, in the secular ethics classes trialed in some NSW schools and now to be introduced into all. These take kids tr=hrough scenarios where no absolute solution nis offerred – kids work it our for themselves. I think this is grat because it helps kids transition form an aboslutist sense of morality to a reasoned apporoach. And to become morally autonomous.

Incidentally the course has been actively opposed by the fundies who wish to impose absolute morals in ntheir scripture classes. But kids and parents support it. It’s the way we brought up our children and I imagine many parents do these days.

I also can’t stress enough that I am using “objectively-based” rather than “objective.” There is a clear difference but I find that many people just refuse to see that.

4. Ian - May 3, 2011

Re the secular ethics class: I’d be interested in seeing how these scenarios are graded? Are solutions rewarded based on train of thought or recognising underlying values or simply not killing each other?

I also can’t stress enough that I am using “objectively-based” rather than “objective.” There is a clear difference but I find that many people just refuse to see that.

I’m more and more tempted to use the term “functional-morality” in that what we really want is a system that works. The term “objective” is a mess now 🙂

5. Ken - May 3, 2011

The NSW Secular Ethics was originally offered as an alternative to scripture classes – operaitng before school. It was bascially participatory and I don’t imagine that any grading was done. This year it has been introduced statewide so it could be worth hunting out current details.

It has been welcomed by some relgious leaders, others have campaigned agianst it. No doubt they will also be demanding a role in changing the course procedures. And the parliamentary opposition has promised to stop it if they are elected. (Although I think there has been a law change to make that impoossible).

I don’t think “functional” is appropriate as a substitute for “objectively-based.” I am tempted to start using “materially-based”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: