Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Objective Moral Relativism

Moral Relativism

I am a moral relativist.  More precisely I am a Meta-ethical moral relativist.  According to wikipedia "Meta-ethical relativism is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective."

But recently I've been having discussions with various people wanting to challenge my position -- apparently moral relativism has more than a few negative historical and cultural connotations beyond the basic definition of the term.  Who knew?

This sort of thing is nothing new to me.  My education is in mathematics, not philosophy, and certainly not history.   So of course what often happens is that I will first figure out my own position on a matter and only then go about attempting to find the appropriate established terminology by which to concisely relate my point of view to others.

So, returning to my assertion that I'm a Meta-ethical moral relativist, I thought perhaps I should write down much more precisely what I mean by that.  Perhaps I'll discover that I've misnamed my position entirely.

Objective Truth

In my search to clarify my position using common language I ran across an article on Moral Objectivism which, among other things, had an interesting explanation of what the author meant by objective truth.  The principal example given was whether an object was was red.  Whether or not an object was red was an objective truth because the "redness" was "in the object".  Now I'm not bringing up this definition of objective truth because I agree with it, I'm bringing it up because I find the statement "This object is red" to be wonderfully analogous to the statement "This action is morally wrong".

Now, let me be clear.  I'm not at all suggesting that moral truths are objective -- as a moral relativist I certainly cannot make that claim.  Nor am I suggesting that redness is subjective, I'm simply trying to point out that one cannot make a claim of objective truth without first defining one's terms.  What is meant by a "red object"?  One could define red light to be any light with a wavelength between, say, 648nm and 652nm.  And then one could define an object to be red if, when the object (in a certain temperature and pressure range) is placed in a beam of white light, that only red light is reflected away from the object.  And then one could finally make objective assertions about whether an object is red.

The point here is that the statement "This object is red" is no more inherently yielding to a determination of objective truth than the statement "This blarg is bilgeboppleful".  We can't even have a discussion on the objective truth of a statement until we mutually agree on what the statement means.

One final observation regarding objective truth is in order.  I claimed an analogy between the statements "This object is red." and "This action is morally wrong" and I maintain that the analogy goes beyond a mere requirement that we must define our terms before we can discuss objective truth.  I maintain that typical efforts to define the redness of an object will ultimately result in a statement about actions and reactions.   If you shine white light on it, red light will be reflected.  In the same way, when two people begin a discussion of what is meant by a morally wrong action, they often end up making claims about the consequences of so-called morally wrong actions.

If I did believe in any sort of universal moral truth, I do feel that this would be the "correct" way in which to go about defining one's terms.  Don't tell me that "This action is morally wrong" is universally true.  Instead explain to me exactly what you think the consequences of those actions would be.  At least then we can begin to have a discussion about the objective truth of statements.


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.  By reducing it to the level of "pain equals bad", I've effectively avoided the morality question entirely.  A system of morality is a system that assigns the concepts of "good" and "bad" to actions independently of the immediate painful or pleasurable consequences.

Personally I do place genocide in the "bad" category and I can therefore make the assertion that I find genocide to be not only unacceptable but morally wrong as well.  But what I'm not willing to do is make the additional leap that there is any underlying objective truth to my statement that genocide is morally wrong.  This unwillingness on my part has outraged certain individuals, but I tend to feel that the outrage is misplaced.

People seem to associate my denial of objective moral truth with a willingness to accept any system of morality.  I cannot stress enough that this is not the case.  I have my own system of morality and do not find immoral actions acceptable or justified.   The only place I draw the line is when I'm asked to assign some sort of objective or universal truth to any moral statement.  How can I agree to something to which I am unable to assign a meaning?   Asking me to assert that "The wrongness of genocide is objectively true" is the same as asking me to assert that "All blargs are bilgeboppleful."   Until we have some sort of agreement on what we mean by a statement, how can we possibly agree that the statement even has meaning, let alone whether or not the statement is true?


It seems at this point that I've merely reiterated the same point over and over.  I cannot accept, in fact I cannot even discuss the objective truth of moral judgments until we all agree on what is meant by the objective truth of moral judgments.  It probably seems that I've simply avoided the question.  Well in a sense I have, at least for now.  Clearly the next stage of my analysis must address the possibility of actually defining objective truth for a system of morality.  Because if we were to do such a thing, and agree on our definitions, then all of a sudden I would be forced by my own reasoning to use said definitions to finally address the objective truth of specific moral questions.   And an obvious side-effect of this would be that I would no longer consider myself a moral relativist at all.

Well I do have some additional thoughts on this, on how one might go about defining objective truth for a system of morality.  But the short version is that I don't really believe that acceptable universal definitions even exist.  I do plan on elaborating in a followup post, but at least if you've read this far you now have the punchline.  There are no objective moral truths because the concept of an objective moral truth is inherently meaningless.  Furthermore, any attempt to give it meaning will fail.  I don't claim to have proven either of these assertions by the way.  These are simply things that I believe.  Perhaps at some point in the future I will believe something else entirely.

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