I commented on a blog post yesterday and the author responded to me with:
“Thanks for exposing your moral relativism.”
For the purpose of this post, it’s not really important what that post was about; based on a quick perusal of other writing by the same author, however, I feel safe in assigning a pejorative tone to the remark.
This surprised me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on why, so I did what any thoughtful person might do: I questioned my assumptions and did a little research. It turns out that like most pure philosophical discussions, splitting hairs over what moral relativism actually is gets boring in a hurry. I’ve been slogging my way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy for two or three years now and believe you me, philosophy in the abstract is some semantic, boring shit.
A hat tip is in order to Dr. Robert Noggle, whose analysis of Moral Relativism is near the top of the Google results, but here’s a link anyway:
Dr. Noggle is (or was) an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, so I’m going to believe him when he says that moral relativism is “the claim that every society’s (or every individual’s) moral beliefs ARE TRUE. Everyone agrees that moral beliefs differ. What moral relativism says is that all of these differing moral beliefs ARE TRUE.”
Now this is clearly poppycock, and if Dr. Noggle is correct, a moral relativist is a pretty confused person. Beliefs are subjective; truth is objective and otherwise known as fact. You have many factual (verified) beliefs, but unverified beliefs cannot be truth. I don’t have two hands because I believe I have two hands, I just have two hands. You may believe I have only one hand, since you’ve never met me and it is entirely possible that I am an amputee. But your belief is unverified and also incorrect. We cannot both be right.
So there’s one way the snarky reply surprised me, because I was trying to point out that two people could use the same prejudices to achieve very different results. That’s only half of the story, though.
I don’t think the author/snarker assigned the Noggle definition to “moral relativism”. Again, based on other writings, I think the meaning was more along the lines of
“You don’t believe in moral absolutes; you believe in adjusting morals relative to context (and are therefore a bad/idiotic/mean/satanic/etc. person worthy of only disgust.)
And here’s the rub: I agree with that statement (not including the parenthetical.) I don’t see a problem at all. In fact, I submit that someone who applies moral reasoning to questions is a more highly-developed human consciousness than someone who relies on moral absolutes. Dr. Noggle again:
“To do this is to accept that your own moral opinions might be wrong, and it is also to accept that some answers to moral questions might be better than others. There may even be correct and incorrect answers to moral questions.”
The last bit is a little hard for me to swallow… again, “correct and incorrect” imply fact and truth and mathematics and certainty and such.
Morals, after all, focus on what we should do, which is different than truth. Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend with a gun; that is a fact which even he does not dispute. His girlfriend is verifiably dead, also a fact. We come very close to assigning truth when we say “he should not have done that”, but morality changes into judgment when it’s in the past tense, right? So Oscar’s argument is “I thought there was an intruder and I thought I should kill him, because it was morally right to do so.” And we can argue about that moral position a lot, because it is not a fact, it is an opinion.
But back to moral absolutism versus moral reasoning. It seems to me that moral absolutists are way more scary than moral reasoners. The Taliban, Al-Qaida, and Westboro Baptist Church are all pretty convinced of the absolute correctness of their morals, and they range from obnoxious to deadly in their levels of asshattery.
Moral reasoners realize that there is sometimes a choice of only bad options, and they make choices based on the expected outcomes of their action. Sometimes their experience will lead them to a choice which others believe is bad, but people rarely act outside of their interests and the moral reasoner will usually believe they’ve made the best choice possible. I’m thinking here of the woman who gets an abortion, or the court that hands down a death penalty, or the president who sends people to war.
Most moral absolutists I have met have been young, and children make the best moral absolutists of all. Maybe that’s the basis for my opinion that moral reasoners have more evolved thinking… but hey, I could be wrong.