Should we be moral relativists? (Part 2)



Since antiquity man has pondered the source of our morality. Indeed, early Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the controversial phrase, “man is the measure of all things.”  Is this true though?  Is the mind of man, either his personal or societal bent, the measure of moral quality, or are moral laws akin to the laws of physics or mathematics, being a described feature of the universe, rather than a personally or culturally defined development?  While the debate will inevitably carry on between camps that claim moral objectivism is true, and camps that claim relativism is true, one thing it seems we can say for certain is that neither view of morality allows us to say we “should” be moral relativists, as the question necessarily falls on its own sword.

Moral relativism seems to manifest itself either personally or culturally.  What’s deemed good for me and by me, is the “right” thing, or what’s deemed good by my culture is the “right” thing.  Assuming the question, “should we be moral relativists” is meant to apply to a universal “we”, it seems moral relativism itself disqualifies any meaningful answer to such a question.  The question implies an oughtness, as if there is a correct answer to the question about how we should behave.  It seems to presuppose that the answer “yes” may be less morally dubious than the answer “no”, or vice versa.  However, one would need an objective source of morality to affirm or deny the premise in any real sense.  If moral relativism is true, the question, and other questions whose answers imply a proper mode of right conduct by mankind, simply become meaningless.

If moral relativism is true, then to say we “should” behave any particular way becomes nonsensical.  We are permitted to say I “prefer” a certain action, or my culture “prefers” a certain action, but to carry moral relativism any further than preference to a particular action or outcome begins to reek of objectivism.  Further, what one person or culture prefers, cannot be a recipe for what I ought to do.  I am free to reject the preference of anybody else.  Consider a culture in which believing the sacrifice of children to a deity is considered “good”.  On moral relativism, we are impotent to condemn it as wrong.  My personal sensibilities, or the sensibilities of my culture, may find it distasteful, but in no way can that be applied across the personal or cultural boundaries inside which the ideology is promoted.

One might offer a rejoinder that appeals to some seemingly universal recognizable wrongdoing.  For instance, one might say it’s wrong to torture children for fun, and everybody seems to recognize that across cultures. Therefore, the relativist may say, there are just some things we can all agree on, and so we “should” do some things and “should not” do others.  However, on moral relativism we become free to reject any such notion as a fallacious appeal to popularity.  If one person decides killing babies for fun brings them joy, the moral relativist is impotent to condemn that action as intrinsically wrong.  The relativist may impose his current cultural standards upon the stray ideology by force of law, but this is simply a “might makes right” tactic, rather than an appeal to a true state of affairs in the universe where killing babies for fun is always wrong.  The worst any action can be is personally or culturally distasteful.  On this view of reality, an individual or societal quest for power by extermination of opposing people-groups and force, such as the ideology of the Third Reich, is no more or less valid than any other way of living.

In the end, moral relativism does not allow for any “should” or “should not”, as both would imply there are objective moral truth claims that can be applied to all people, places, and times in the history of the universe.  The moral relativist has removed from himself, all grounds for being able to say anybody else ought to be a moral relativist. In short, the question, “should we be moral relativists,” implies a state of affairs in the universe where there is a correct answer to the question.  However, moral relativism itself ensures that there can be no correct answer to questions about how we should behave.  Since the question itself makes an inquiry into how we ought to behave, its self-defeating nature allows it to be safely ignored as incoherent.

Secular Morality: Barfing Up A Moral Landscape

Yes, I’m still here.  I bet you thought that you’d gotten rid of me.  In my last post I referred you to an article on secular morality that a friend of mine had passed on to me after a discussion about the basis for moral judgments.  I began by dispatching the false dichotomy the article leads with in an attempt to establish that morality based in God is no less arbitrary than that based in a secular worldview.  Please read my previous post to understand why this is not the case.

Now, on to the task at hand, which is an attempt to understand how morality can be objective in the context of secular naturalism. The article tries to get going by asking the questions, “How should unbelievers behave? Where does our understanding of morality ultimately come from? How do we know that our standards are correct in a meaningful and universal sense?” These are great questions! How then, do we began to answer these questions? The article continues, “…if we approach the question from a humanistic, scientific stand point, atheists ought to agree that there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.”

Say what now?

I seem to be being told, that in order to conclude where “oughts” (statements about morality) come from, that we ought to agree there should be rational standards. This is absurd though. I see no reason why atheists ought to agree, unless there is some transcendent atheist herdsman that sets the moral standard for all people. The statement that atheists (or anybody else) “ought” to do anything is the very thing that is in question, and so at the outset this article commits the logical fallacy known as “begging the question“. This circular form of argument gets stuck in an infinite loop that usually goes something like this:

Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.
Me: Doesn’t whether or not there are objective moral conclusions impact whether we “ought” to do anything, like agree on rational standards?
Atheist: No. We can know some things are right and some things are wrong?
Me: How?
Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.

Unfortunately, a claim cannot use its own conclusion to justify itself, and so this article falls on its sword before it ever gets underway, by appealing to a sense of “ought” prior to establishing that such a thing can exist, or where it comes from. The fact of the matter is that either moral principles are universal laws that we discover, like the laws of mathematics or physics, or they’re merely social conventions that we’ve created for ourselves. In the event they are social conventions, there is no “ought” involved. There remains only the opinion based product of myself or my society. In this case, I have no grounds to judge the actions of other people or other societies. If another society believes nirvana is achieved by using babies for skeet shooting, that is their prerogative. I can object on the subjective grounds that I don’t like it because it is mean, but I have no objective standard on which to base my assessment.

In Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, he lays out a much more thorough case for an objective morality without God. Harris defines his so-called “moral landscape” as, “…real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” Again, from the outset, the case for secular morality lies within the human condition. Though eloquent, Harris’s definition of morality holds water no better than the aforementioned article. The Moral Landscape makes its case using moral language with words like “well-being”, “should”, “right”, and “good”. All of these words are meaningless though, unless something gives them meaning. Harris dodges the problem of question begging by instead relying on the equivocation of these words so that they are synonymous with the promotion of human life. This secular humanism is arbitrary speciesism though. On naturalism I see no objective reason to think protecting human animals is any more right than protecting aardvarks or cockroaches. Surely you can assign subjective rightness to the flourishing of human life, simply on the grounds that you are one of them, but why stop there? Why not use you’re nationalism to promote an ideal society of whatever sub-class of humans you think is superior to others (WWHD)?

Theism presents the solution to this problem though, by recognizing a transcendent moral law giver outside of creation that provides a universal moral law. People seem to nearly universally recognize and affirm that human life is important, but unlike a secular humanist’s worldview, Christianity in particular has objective reasons for elevating humans over aardvarks or cockroaches. God, as the creator of all things, gives mankind special position in the creation. Without a transcendent moral law, all morality is reduced to individual and societal opinions. Sam Harris can use science to tell me that certain brain states equate to unhappiness. However, science is powerless to say in any meaningful sense why I ought not put you in these unhappy brain states.  It is not his science (as he would have you believe), but his philosophy that makes the claim we ought to look out for the well-being of people. This is his opinion…and we simply ought to agree with his moral conclusions.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying that the atheist cannot be moral, I’m simply saying that on atheism there is no objective grounds on which to base the concept of morality.  In a secular worldview it seems it must be admitted that “oughts” and “ought nots” are no more meaningful than in any other part of the animal kingdom. If we really think that an objective morality exists though, and that things like “human rights” are real things, then we must look outside ourselves to find the source, for it is only something beyond mankind that can apply universally to mankind. Once we identify the source of moral laws and duties outside ourselves, only then can we say with confidence that we ought not eat our babies like guppies do, and this is more than just mere personal opinion or cultural convention!