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 27, 2011 at 10:45am

John, a rational system will have a mixture of absolute and relative. Without a core of rational absolutes the philosophical appeal of relativism is utterly chimerical. Individuals who wish to express their individuality are thwarted through the absolutism of dictatorship and or religion. Again, civilization will not improve its morality until we stop hero worship and religion. The absolutes derived of those branches is pernicious. The absolutes derived of rationalism serves the individual and the collective.

Genocide and lynchings and rape wrong anytime any place.

Comment by John Camilli on December 26, 2011 at 10:48pm

I must respectfully disagree, Rock Girl. If your morality tells you that you have the right to try to help people who you believe are being opressed, then that is your right. Relativism does not prohibit anyone from doing anything, nor does it promote it. It simply limits the depth of "right/wrong" labels to an individual consideration. There is no system more devoted to individual rights or less devoted to collective rights than relativism.

Keep in mind, your idea of "inhumane" is not going to be everyone else's idea of "inhumane," but if you see something going on that you consider wrong or evil, then by all means, step up and do something about it if you are so compelled. From a relativism stance, no one else has the right to tell you that you are not witnessing an evil, because it would be ludicrous to try to dictate someone else's opinion to them. A moral absolutist system will try to compell you, or supress you compulsion, by dictating and enforcing "right" and "wrong" to you. If you happen to agree with most of what the system dictates, then you may never realize the problem with this, but the moment you become a minority in opposition to an absolutist moral system, you will see its limitations quite clearly.

Comment by Prog Rock Girl on December 26, 2011 at 7:43pm

You're talking about individual rights, but relativism puts collective rights ahead of individual rights. A relativist culture, in not judging or interfering in other cultures, allows the other culture to treat individuals inhumanely.

In abstract one culture can't do much to affect a culture in another region, but it can put individuals ahead of subcultures on its own land.

Comment by Heaven on December 26, 2011 at 7:13pm

Excellent post. Well said. I understand the urge to have everything be all black and white, as well, but in the end it's just not.

In my view, there is only "right" or "wrong" in terms of a goal or a context; and no one can say which goal is right or wrong. As you say, because we are all individuals with differences, we have different needs and wants. 

Law is a different issue than morality. Morality is relative, but law is "absolute" in a sense. This is necessary to make certain societies work, obviously. If everyone within the society could do whatever they wanted than the structure of the society would fall apart, ruining the benefits of the system for anyone who might want them. So law is used to keep the structure of certain societies together; even though it's not necessary. 

Anyways, keep up the good work. =) 

Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 26, 2011 at 6:48pm

John, it is an interesting topic.

My take-when civilization has a compendium of rational moral absolutes it will be an indication of growth and progress. All humans ought to have inalienable rights and personal liberties. Obviously this cant happen until religion is defeated or effete. Also humans must stop lionizing powerful individuals. When the powerful individual is the state the citizens have enabled bad morality and an abdication of critical thinking. For instance,  sexism and racism and murder and rape should be universally yucky. 

Whatever lies outside these fundamental rights and liberties is relative. Polyamorous hump lickers are no better or worse than victorian date one person for one year before having sex and be monogamous forever. When the state dictates the morality of sexuality it is wrong. When the state criminalizes rape it is correctamundo.

I agree that all are free to have their own concept of right and wrong. However when the moral free thinker acts based on his freedom to infringe the inalienable rights and liberties of the individual he ought to be lashed and keelhauled. (Morality of appropriate punishment is another issue, eh?)

Long hike and I am tiud. Might address other stuff latuh.




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