27 December 2009

Preliminary Thoughts of Moral Relativity (Unclearly Stated)

I'm afraid that this post will almost necessarily be long-winded, rambling, and maybe even incoherent to some. It was difficult to write and I may one day come back to it, but for now, here's what you get:

This is the first of what I intend to be three posts regarding my rejection of what I term "modern liberal ideals" - which I was basically born into and indoctrinated with from the public education system. To me, modern liberalism is an essentially hollow philosophy, but one which is readily accepted - unquestioningly - by a disturbingly high number of people despite being little more than thinly veiled hedonism and "feel-good" mentalities. I see it comprised of, essentially, three constituent doctrines: feminism, political correctness, and moral relativism. It is my intention to deal fully with each subject in turn, but this post will focus on moral relativism. It is the element of liberalism which I held onto the longest - sometimes without even realizing it - and probably forms the basis for the other two ideas. Being almost a purely abstract idea, however, it requires less research and evidence to refute, and thus why I will be writing on it first.

Moral relativism has a lot of appeal in the modern world, which is extremely complicated and admittedly hard to understand. It requires a lot of mental energy to consider the values, morals and ethics advocated by competing societies or cultures, and attempt to arrive at a sound and reasonable conclusion as to why a person should prefer one over the other. And especially in our youth, when we are given (and encouraged) to pursue whatever is our fancy, it is easier to digest the platitudes that relativism offers than to take a more considered stance.

Why do women in the Middle East wear veils and why should that concern us? It shouldn't concern us, relativism answers, and furthermore, it doesn't matter! The way Arab peoples want to run their societies is their business, and ultimately, they are no better or worse than us. Relativism might even offer some more theorizing as to why this may be the case; Arab culture evolved differently due to different starting conditions, such as a different environment and different socializing tendencies. Ultimately, "good" and "evil" are constructs of the mind that do not exist in nature, says relativism, so judging other societies by such metrics is hypocritical and short-sighted at best, and the cause of war and genocide at worst.

Fair enough, one might say. That seems to make good sense and it seems an answer that would apply in every case of differing culture and belief systems that one encounters in the modern world.

The fatal flaw of moral relativity is its tolerance of all behavior, however. A person who is trying to lead a "good" life will inevitably run into problems with relativism. If you follow the tenants of relativism to its logical conclusion, no way of life is better than any other way of life. One is, in effect, permitted to do anything. When one is permitted to do anything, how does one begin to answer the question "what should I do?" After all, we may be permitted to do anything, but that does not mean we will have the opportunity to try out everything. Many choices we make in life open doors but simultaneously close off many others. If the ultimate goal of life is to be as happy as we can be (which is an ancient idea I tend to agree with - but that's for another discussion, perhaps), how can we be sure under a relativist understanding of the world that the path we have chosen for ourselves will guarantee us maximal happiness over the long run compared to other choices we could have made?

Additionally, the idea that every behavior is of equal value should ring out as patently false for almost any person. I do not think any sane person would tell you that an adult who chooses to rape and murder one's way through life is of equal morality to one who chooses to neither rape nor murder. Yet relativism would logically demand that we regard the two as equal. Morals, after all, are just a human construct, and they have no bearing on physical reality, and therefore neither person is "right" or "wrong" in their behavior.

In this sense, relativism seems to be a hedonistic philosophy that could be used to justify whatever placates one's temporary indulgences. It is the philosophy that undermines feminism, for instance, when feminists shout that women should be able to do whatever they want to do without any sort of personal accountability, simply because it is what the woman wants. (That it is ironically applied in a non-relative and narrow manner is another matter entirely.) The only real justification one needs for one's actions in a relativist moral world is that the actor wanted to perform the action; that's it.

Indeed, relativism seems to be a very slippery idea that can seemingly be used to justify any sort of action. Long after I'd rejected feminism and political correctness, I still held on to relativism, not quite aware of its poisonous effects on my thinking. Here is an example from a letter I wrote, justifying in part my decision to enlist (a very complicated and multi-faceted decision, as you might imagine):

[I] no longer [have] an active, seething hatred, but something different. A kind of acknowledgment that humanity is flawed, over-arrogant...The kind of attitude that leads to relativism, the idea that my life is worth no more than any other life is worth no more than any other life. That extends to everything - your viewpoint is no less convincing than my viewpoint than any other viewpoint. There is justification for anything in this world. And right and wrong are moral judgments, and morals are a strictly human construct - there is no physical law that correlates to "good" and "evil" in the universe, or to "right" and "wrong." "Right" is what an organism must do to survive, and "wrong" are actions that doom that organism to death. And with these kinds of attitudes, I can join the military with no qualms. Send me to Iraq, give me a gun, tell me to shoot whoever, it doesn't matter. I don't care.

Relativism also seems to inform mainstream ideas regarding equality. Equality, from a rational and objective analysis, is a patently absurd idea that will always be impossible to achieve. Angry Harry goes to lengths to explain this under the context of male-female relationships here, but really the analysis applies to any measure of "equality." However, relativism teaches us platitudes like "all men are born equal" or "that's just your opinion" or any number of other thought-terminating-cliches that sound authoritative and considered. A favorite appeal of the relativist for legislating equality is by mistakenly referring to the phrase "all men are created equal" as appearing in the Constitution when it in fact appears only in the Declaration of Independence, which is not a legal document by any means. (The Constitution never ceases to impress me.) The word "equal" (to include "equally" - "equality" does not appear) appears six times in the text of the Constitution, each time referring to divisions of votes and power of the various agencies of government; never to the abilities or even rights of citizens or non-citizens, nor human beings. The next time it shows up is in the 14th Amendment, where it applies to equal protection under the law. This is a dangerous use of the word, considering again it is logically impossible to have equal enforcement/protection of the law - we can certainly strive for "more fair" or "more nearly equal," but we will never attain legitimately equal. In any case, it says nothing of humans being equal. The final time it appears is in the 23rd Amendment where it again is rightfully used as a mere mathematical term. Equality only makes sense as a mathematical concept, not a political ideology. A statement like 2 multiplied by 2 is equal to 4 is easily understood and demonstrated. Statements like men are equal to women or all men are equal or all women are equal, aside from being literally false, only ignore useful distinctions, raise questions and create confusion. Fairness is a much more reasonable ideology to advocate, so long as it is understood that perfect fairness is the ideal we strive for even if we may never attain it.

Of course, relativism isn't actually adhered to, even if its platitudes are often cited. Instead what we have is an engine that creates many doublespeak ideas like "equality" and thought-terminating-cliches like "you're just saying that because you're a racist" or "you're just saying that because you're a misogynist," which congeal into ideas like political correctness and feminism, ultimately destroying rational thought and considered debate.

The sobering fact we must own up to is that the world is not fair nor will it ever be. No amount of social engineering is going to change the fact that human attributes, such as physical prowess and intelligence quotient, are distributed unequally. This does not endorse a 'might makes right' notion of morality, however, where intelligent people are justified in manipulating less intelligent people merely by virtue of their superior intelligence (or whatever other permutation of "might makes right" you might conceive). What people have forgotten is that morality is the ultimate equalizer. Morality does not depend on any sort of measurable capacity - you are not more or less moral for being more or less intelligent, more or less strong, and so on. Generally, morality is concerned with the responsible use and application of one's talents and abilities - regardless of how numerous and masterful those aforementioned gifts may be. You cannot legislate morality just as much as you cannot legislate equality, but you can certainly create a society that rewards good morality and punishes bad morality to foster moral growth and encourage, overall, increased moral behavior.

It is impossible to be "more moral" in a relativist system, however. Trying to discourage people from a "might makes right" disposition in a relativist system is hypocritical, even. Logically, you must tolerate all views as morally equal. And this is not conducive to a healthy or vigorous society. Shouldn't we strive for the best instead of tolerating everything, to include the worst?

Moral relativism is intoxicating because while adhering to it you can never be wrong. It is ludicrous because while adhering to it you can never be right.

I just read this, and it is good.


fschmidt said...

This is a great topic for you to think about. What you have written in this post is totally wrong, not just wrong but the opposite of the truth. I hope you will have the patience to debate this with me here. Unlike questions of truth and deeper philosophical issues, we can resolve this simpler issue right here in a dialog of 10 to 20 exchanges.

What does "relative" mean? It means the opposite of absolute. It means a quality that varies relative to something, in this case relative to people. An obvious example of something that is relative is taste in food. Different people like different food. I love a good steak. I hate mayonnaise. So does that fact that taste is relative mean that I consider all foods to be fundamentally equal? No way. As I said, I love a good steak and I hate mayonnaise, and the relativity of taste in no way diminishes my feelings for these foods. What my recognition of the relativity of taste makes possible is for me to respect and tolerate other people's tastes.

What is morality? Morality is a feeling of right and wrong regarding actions. In a sense, it is a kind of taste for actions. But while taste is a reaction to food placed in your mouth, morality is a reaction to being informed of an event that took place. I feel (taste) disgust when mayonnaise is in my mouth. I feel moral disgust when informed of an injustice. Morality is relative in the same sense that taste is relative. Different people do have different senses of morality. But this in no way diminishes my sense of morality or my disgust with what I feel to be immoral behavior. What my recognition of the relativity of morality makes possible is for me to respect and tolerate other people's moralities. This does not mean that I accept any immoral behavior. What it means is that if a group of people on the other side of world want to form an immoral culture (which doesn't interfere with other cultures), I can tolerate it by ignoring it and thereby preventing myself from being informed of their immorality and so avoiding my feeling of moral disgust. On the other hand, if I see immorality in my community, I cannot avoid feeling disgust and so I would try to act against it.

What is liberalism? Like feminists, what liberals say about themselves has almost nothing to do with what they are. Liberalism is actually an offshoot of Christianity. Liberalism is an evangelical religion with no God. It is extremely intolerant and pushy. Liberals are not relativists. They are the most absolutist religion that I know of. Even Christians who couldn't tolerate other Gods at least showed some respect for other religions and just called other Gods "false Gods". But liberals ridicule any belief that differs from their own. They are completely unable to respect anything outside of their narrow beliefs.

Above all, liberals are hypocrites. Liberals confuse moral relativism with moral nihilism. They say that no morality is better than the other, which is itself an absolute moral statement. And even in this, they are just saying this against morals that they don't agree with. As you point out, liberals do not accept rape and murder which contradicts moral nihilism. In fact, liberal societies have more laws and rules, all of which reflect liberal morality, than any other belief system. Liberals have social programs, alimony, child support, no-fault divorce, etc. all to shove their morality down all of our throats. And why do liberals do this? Because above all, liberals are moral absolutists. They cannot tolerate any morality but their own, so they use this nonsensical story of moral relativism, which they themselves do not understand, to attack other moralities. But when you question them about their moral rules, they huff and puff and come up with some twisted explanation of why these rules must exist (in an absolute sense).

I could write more, but I think this is enough to start with, so I'll stop here.

J. Durden said...

I agree with a lot of what you said. Untangling myself from the modern liberal doctrine is difficult, so I may have stated things confusingly or perhaps even outright incorrectly.

I agree with you about the meaning of relative. Tastes can be relative, morality can be, in a certain sense, relative. There is an important distinction, however - taste only dictates what types of food you prefer, and essentially impacts only you. (Okay, maybe it impacts whoever has to cook and live with you, but for the sake of argument, let's just say it's an individual preference that does not impact others.) Morality, however, directs how you treat other people. In that sense, I think there is room to say that some systems of morality are better than others, given their likelihood to increase happiness or efficiency or what have you. They are still ultimately relative, but there are good reasons to prefer one system over another - especially when you're talking about the system that a society should adopt. Taste doesn't have the same parameters to evaluate - having a particular taste isn't likely to increase happiness or efficiency on a large scale. I reject the idea that merely because morality is technically relative, we have no reason to prefer one moral system over any other.

I agree that perhaps we can ignore "immorality" in certain situations, but the world is becoming a pretty global place. Moral competitions seem only more likely to occur as cultures clash and boundaries shrink. Easy answers like "don't think about it" won't be available in the future.

I also agree with your diagnosis of modern liberalism being a highly absolutist philosophy. I've thought this for a long time but failed to get the point properly across in my post. I will need to revise it. Like feminism, liberalism claims to be one thing (open minded, relative, tolerant) but is actually another thing entirely. Untangling myself from the web of deceit was a lengthy and confusing process.

J. Durden said...

I do not think we so much disagree as I was just unable to properly express my ideas on the matter; more feedback would be great as it points out areas I need to revise to be more clear with what I am trying to say. (The initial comment was already very helpful.)

fschmidt said...

Of course I prefer certain moral systems to others. I prefer moral systems that are as close as possible to my morality. Trying to create an absolute measure for moral systems is just rationalization and is bound to fail. For example, if you want to maximize happiness, the best approach would be to provide opiates to the population. But of course this conflicts with other parts of your morality. So my point is that you shouldn't hold any external measure as being higher than your own personal morality.

The fact that morality affects one's environment because it dictates how people treat each other means that it is generally best for people in a community to share similar morality. This is less true of taste in food because it is relatively easy to provide people with different foods. But even with food, I would not be happy in a place where everyone else has bad taste (by my standards) because that means that I won't find any restaurants that I will like.

True moral tolerance is the ability to tolerate other communities that have different moralities as long as these communities don't threaten others. Because liberals are so intolerant, they oppose local and states' rights and centralize all authority in the federal government. A morally tolerant person would prefer that moral legal issues are decided locally.

It's true that globalization makes moral/cultural competition more intense. But especially for those of us in the moral minority, it is important to focus on creating one island of high moral standards rather than worrying about the morality of the entire world. In this sense, moral relativism and tolerance is a practical approach.

J. Durden said...

Good points. I guess it boils down to that age old notion of "everything in moderation." You can't be completely absolute, but you can't be completely relative either. Striking the perfect balance may be difficult but we've swung too far in one way, it seems to me.

The idea of islands of high moral standards also makes a lot of sense, so long as those islands are tolerant of the other islands. It's just very unfortunate that liberals have been masquerading a very sick kind of absolutism under the guise of "tolerance." It makes it hard to actually talk about the issue in a way that makes sense.

I'll edit this post up when I have some more energy.

fschmidt said...

It seems we reached agreement more quickly than I expected. I hope my first comment wasn't too harsh, but that is one of me weaknesses, not being able to tone down what I feel. The one thing that I would add is the your blog post reflects a typical conservative reaction to liberalism. The American Right is no better than the American Left. You are smart enough to be an independent thinker, so don't fall into these traps. Think for yourself and come to your own conclusions. If you completely agree with anyone, including me, then you aren't thinking independently enough.

One more thing. When you say "It makes it hard to actually talk about the issue in a way that makes sense." I want to know who you want to make sense to? The more that you think for yourself, the further that you will get from "the matrix", the harder it will be to talk to normal people in a way that will make sense to them. So focus on making sure that you make sense to yourself.

J. Durden said...

The post made a bit of sense to myself, but the problem is I am dealing with terms that have slippery definitions. What relativism is versus how most people understand it versus how liberals apply it... that sort of thing. I need to more clearly organize my thoughts in order to communicate them better in this post. I'm not sure we completely agree, and your first post wasn't too harsh at all - my original post is lacking in clarity. I suspected as much, hence the disclaimer at the start. I'll give it another go in a bit, perhaps renaming this one "draft" and posting a new one entirely or something (just so this conversation doesn't lose all meaning).