I began this exchange in the midst of another thread, but as it was developing into its own discourse, I decided it should be moved to its own thread. If you'd like to see the comments that lead up to this reply by my friend Glen Rosenberg, they are here.


"John, you just want an argument. OKAY

Your hard core [moral relativism] excuses any and all acts of violence, depredation and all of the awful -isms. INTOLERABLE. You manage to arrive at the same place as a fundamentalist (absolute moral standards) in accepting the very worst of human behavior. Furthermore, liberals who have been persuaded by moral relativism are more apt to accept religious and cultural actions (muslims in Scandinavia) which are inferior to their own standards. ENABLERS.


Atheists do not require 100 % overlapping of moral standards to understand that some things are just plain wrong. (most of the faith-based morals-women are shit, slavery is cool, infidels ought to be murdered etc.) I have told Catholics that their failure to accept all of the teachings means that they are not catholics and that in a different age they would have been excommunicated or worse. Nevertheless your analogy does not stand. Break a law and you are still a citizen. You have not broken the covenant.


In matters of true cultural variations such as the boundaries of sex and friendship there are pockets of relative morals which are truly elastic and the judger can say that one is no better than another. Other aspects of sex and friendship are to be judged as wrong in any culture."


And here's my new reply:

I like an analysis more than an argument. My intention is not to be combative, but to find a common ground between all peoples. To reconcile differences, we must first become aware of them, and it is my position that morality is one of the differences between us all. I see a potential for great harm in any attempt to paint over this situation with the broad stroke of a universal or societal moral code.


People's individual tendencies will not be swayed by  a legal document or a divine decree, they will only be supressed. Things like guilt, shame, and threats of force or imprisonment can get us to change our behaviors, but not our motivators. Instead of adressing the underlying causes of our thoughts and actions, such supression will merely squeeze that motivation through alternative openings, the outcome of which may be unforseeable (look what happens when priests take a vow of celebacy - lot's of people suffer because the rule does not quell the urge, only the ability to express it honestly). Yet, we embrace those unknowns rather than face the real issue we know is there: that we all are individuals who are entitled to our own concept of right and wrong.


What's wrong to me is what harms me, and what's good to me is what helps me (along with any thing or other that I define as part of "me"). But if I try to project those values of right and wrong onto you, I may inadvertantly harm you by thinking that we are similar. One man's trash is another man's treasure; one man's pain, another's pleasure. There is not a single issue on which you could get everyone to agree. Not death, not rape, not torture...not anything.


Although a particular concept may seem starkly harmful or helpful to a great many of us, we cannot know that a person won't come along whose experience of it is opposite. Indeed history teaches us to expect exactly that. And what right does the majority have to impose their values on that minority? The argument ad populum is a text-book logical fallacy. 'Greatest good for the greatest number' is the embodiment of that fallacious thinking. Even a minority of one can be correct, but a shared moral code supresses the individual for the benefit of the collective.


I think we try so hard to find universal morality because we are weak and insecure as individuals. The affirmation of the collective is a seductive offer; one that makes us feel powerful, accepted and safe. I arrived at moral relativism because I was trying to find that security and power myself. I wanted sure footing by which to stake my claim to righteousness and never have to suffer the humiliation of being considered wrong, or the loss of backing down. I sought to force my will on others by basing my thoughts and actions on unquestionable absolutes. Such is the allure of moral absolutism; a danger more potentially catastrophic than any individual with abberant morals could ever be. I am glad now that I was never able to find that secure footing.


Relativism does allow me to justify any and all of my behaviors, but it leaves room for disagreement because it only justifies them to me - always allowing that others may differ. It does not condemn difference the way moral absolutism does. With relativism, we can agree to disagree, but with absolutism one of us is evil and must be supressed. And the only way to tell which of us is evil is by how many others stand on our side, or by who has the holier book, or by whose legal document is backed up by a more capable military - all very fickle systems of measurement, and all based on logical fallacies.

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Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 29, 2011 at 10:16pm

John I could make like Jefferson and write it but who the hell would care. Understand I am only interested in the barest protection against the most egregious conduct and a minimal assertion in favor of the individual's freedom and rights. The core will actually be a protection against imposition of the moral absolutes that would be applicable in a world of relativism.

Outside of the core it ought to be understood that there are no absolutes in questions of morality.

How about segregating hunters and letting em have at each other? Bambi lives and we have fewer mindless troglodites.

Comment by John Camilli on December 29, 2011 at 10:07pm

"....no rational person will deny a core of moral absolutes except John Camilli."

One person's rational dissent is all it takes to make something fail as an absolute. If I must be the one rational voice in an irrational world, then so be it. It couldn't have happened any other way. But I suspect I'm far from the only one; it's just that most relativists don't bother to speak up because they don't care what other people think and don't think it's their place to try and change them. I only do it because I'm bored and I enjoy writing :-). And I suppose because I tire of absolutists trying to push their morals on me, so I simply point out the flaws in their logic.


I think you're right that there needs to be some kind of foundation around which a society can congeal, but I don't think it necessarily needs to be a set of inviolable rules. Perhaps it should merely be the unanimous understanding that there are no other unanimous understandings, so conflict should both be expected and planned for, so as to minimize it's potential harm to as many as possible. I think my idea of segragating people with different morals would be much more effective than trying to impose popular morals on everyone.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 29, 2011 at 8:29pm

A core of absolutes is absolutely necessary. Pragmatically speaking its appeal as a universal code will have to outlast the propensity of humanity to hero worship and god worship. Worshipping distorts the perception of rational self-interest.

What is it that is paramount in the lives of earthlings? Is there a sine quan non to the pursuit of happiness and freedom? To self-actualization and equality? Neither the individual nor the collective can prosper without a core of moral absolutes. We all need to be safe in our persons from harm caused by those who will injure us willfully, from the various forms of discrimination, from unwarranted intrusions by church and state. We all need to have opportunity to pursue happiness and economic gain (unless a socialist state provides)and to express ourselves.

How can I justify this stance? I am reminded of Justice Frankfurter's definition of pornography. He knows it when he sees it. Unlike pornography which is defined by contemporary community standards and is therefore relative, no rational person will deny a core of moral absolutes except John Camilli. But look at that image of the red devil. Cant trust that guy. Unless one is the dreaded worshipper or a nihilist any value, yes value in our lives requires a modicum of unanimity in deciding right and wrong.

Moral relativism insures that the core of absolutes will be trampled. It is not necessary to elaborate here. There is alot of room for relativism beyond the core which treat cultural and individual preferences.

Comment by John Camilli on December 28, 2011 at 3:41am

Perhaps you could cite some of the facts that have established even the possibility of an absolute moral position. I have been playing in that sandbox for more than a decade, and all I've ever found is piss and sand. It's not enough to say 'nobody I know supports murder, therefore it is wrong.' If it is an absolute position, there has to be some logic behind it. It has to be rational; cogitable; you have to be able to explain it. You would literally have to describe a moral position against which no one could make a rational argument for it to be considered absolute. I'd be very interrested to hear such a description. I'm not being facetious: I really would like to hear what you have to say. Don't just say 'I've learned things that changed my mind about relativism.' Tell me what those things are so I can learn them too. A valid absolutist position would, by its very nature, be superior to a relative one, and if you don't mind I'd like to feel superior too. Personally, I just haven't found any indicator that my opinion even CAN be superior to someone else's, but I'll listen with an open mind.

Comment by mistercliff on December 28, 2011 at 3:17am

I've been very tolerant of people who believe in moral relativism since it was the hardest thing for me to give up. A background in anthropology and much of my adult life spent abroad, my instincts yearn for moral relativism. But, by paying attention to the facts and educating myself on secular humanism and evolution, I have come to disavow myself of my prior doctrines. I suspect similar work will lead others down similar paths.

Comment by John Camilli on December 28, 2011 at 1:38am

I'm glad you find it useful.


I like the inmates with animals idea. That would be a catchy name for a proposition to implement it, eh? It would probably never pass because most people clearly hate lawbreakers in this country, which is more reason to call the legal system a moral code. In fact, practicallity is often superceded for the sake of punishing people with whom the majority disagrees.


I would have no problem abiding a legal system which truly sought societal utility. I think people who have similar ideas on morality should live together, and the similarity of ideas should be the basis for enforcing borders. If you're okay with murder, you go live with other people who are okay with murder, and you can all kill each other to your heart's content. If you're okay with rape, you go live with others who feel similarly, and you can watch your own ass. In such a world, laws could be based on unanimous consent of the constituents, and people who disagree could just go live somewhere else. But if wishes were fishes, we'd all be enjoying sushi.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 27, 2011 at 10:22pm


I was aware of your path to moral relativism. If society posits strict determinism it makes the concept of punishment untenable. Of course the prosecution can say that he was always going to prosecute to the full extent of the law just like the accused was always going to commit some crime or other. Maybe some of us were always going to seek to improve things.

Of necessity atheists have to live with their own little mythology, free will or choice or self determinism. Otherwise insanity will be commonplace and civilization goes the way of the sci-fi author's imagination.

I think US jurisprudence is messy. On the one hand we see the weight of the state where elected prosecutors have a vested interest in convictions, not truth, on the other a myriad of indigent defendants disproportionately minority for "crimes" that are not criminal. We have sentences for those crimes which are sometimes unconscionable. One idea I like is to give inmates the right to take care of animals who will otherwise be put to sleep. That is a win/win. The issue of vengeance vs. rehab is a big one. I have mixed feelings.

Btw, John, thanks for sciencedaily.com. I read it almost every day. There are more things under the stars Horatio than Heavan and Earther can conceive.

Comment by John Camilli on December 27, 2011 at 9:12pm

Did anyone else notice that we have a "Heaven" and an "Earther" here. Funny

Btw, Glen, thank you for making me look up the word "pernicious." I hadn't seen that word in so long that I was losing my understanding of what it means. Great word.



Comment by John Camilli on December 27, 2011 at 9:05pm

Glen, I want to agree with you, but I just can't. To me, genocide and lynchings and rape are "wrongs," as are a great many other things. But I can also understand arguments that justify them. One such example is the argument I often make for the lack of "chocie." I understand that most people think that's a ridiculous notion, but other people don't, including myself. I honestly believe, to the fullest extent that I am capable of being convinced, that humans, just like the rest of existence, are compelled by causal interractions, and only by causal interractions. So if someone commits rape or murder, I honestly believe they could not have done otherwise. Punishing it is, to me, the same as punishing a speech impediment, or blindness, or cerebral paulsy.


So what do you do with someone like that? Someone who truly believes they cannot act other than they do. Do you lock them up in prison or an asylum? Currently, that's exactly what we do, if they get caught doing something of which the majority disapproves. That's a practical, utilitarian response, except that we take it much further by deny imprisoned people most of the rights that we extend to others, which is an effective condemnation of their behavior. Heaven argued that the law is different from morality, but when the law includes condemnation, instead of just utility, then it effectively becomes a moral code. If we simply sequestered murderers and rapists in a locale populated with other murderers and rapists, that might be fine, but we go beyond that. We take away their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We take away their right to vote, to protect themselves, to have privacy, and countless more. Once a person can no longer affect the public in ways the public does not like, what is the need for those additional punishments? There is no utility in those things; there is only an indignant expression of moral superiority based on nothing more than the authority of majority, and the right of might. To me, those notions are far more evil than rape and murder because they allow us to tread on others while pretending we are "good." How is this an improvement of morality.

Comment by Earther on December 27, 2011 at 2:44pm

I am going to jump in breifly.  I am wondering if your conversation is an attempt to find the language to describe what happens when you are managing behavior for understanding and for purposes of civilization.  Mental health is probably one of the most neglected sciences in a modern society.  People observe the environment they are in and decide what to do.  People observe their own suffering and decide what to do.  A word like moral rests on the shoulders of a state of mind.  Having the support and respect of others allows us to internalize a sense of respect and integrity for ourselves in respect of living with others.  If you lack that support and respect for what ever reason, the order in which you react to the world may be different than those who do possess this.  The results may also differ.  Our view of self defense will also be reconciled by you and others.  The way you have a relationship with others who may be challenged by others could affect you on how you decide to create an effect.  Some say there are three absolutes, life, death, and taxes.  Consider what you would do:  If you had the ability to counsel a murderer with a 100% certainty that person would never do any harm to anyone again and could also lead a productive life thereafter, would you still put that person in a prison? 



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