Moral Relativism, Part II

Monday, January 24, 2011
I have always had a problem with moral relativism. I've struggled with it for years, and tried to educate myself on the topic through University coursework and other reading. And I'm finding that in spite of my liberal outlook and dedication to self-determination, more and more I think it's just a big, stinking pile of poo. When you intentionally partake in a societal norm that reduces the quality of life for another, you're going to have a hard time justifying your bad behavior to me on the grounds of multiculturalism.

I'm thinking about this lately because I'm currently listening to The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. While I don't agree with everything he posits in this book (and I'm not finished with it, so by the end I may think he's full of poo, too), I've been spending quite a lot of time saying to myself, "Why, yes, Sam, that does make a lot of sense." Why can't we put some sort of objective standard* to moral behavior?

It bears closer examination from my perspective, so as a stake in the ground, I'll define immoral behavior as that which negatively impacts the demonstrable** long-term well-being of another. Moral behavior I'll define as acts which positively impacts the demonstrable long-term well-being of another.

It's not that simple, of course, and I'm still thinking about and working through what I really think about this. I can think of many circumstances where making the moral choice is ambiguous at best, impossible at worst. And Western civilization certainly doesn't have a monopoly on moral behavior. In fact, there are aspects of Western culture that are decidedly immoral by the yardstick I'm using. But it irks me when people try to imply that morality is entirely a relative construct, and that modern cultures whose morality is influenced by the enlightenment are somehow elitist because we think barbarism and the subjugation of women and children are immoral. I will freely admit that part of my irritation is engendered by the fact that these same people are perfectly willing to entertain the idea that other cultures may have valid points of criticism to make about the West, but won't consider that the converse may be true, as well. If, as an enlightened society, we have an obligation to examine our definition of "well-being" in light of other people's viewpoints (and we do), then other societies have the same obligation to us.

One of the many things I'm struggling with is what this viewpoint means in terms of our obligations to societies that are judged to be "immoral" by this yardstick. Do we have an obligation to educate, to liberate, to put up social constructs that more closely align with an objective standard of morality? Is this violation of their self-determination more or less immoral than doing nothing and allowing these cultures to find their own way?

I don't have the answers, of course, But I feel obligated to think about it, and apply my conclusions (if any) to my opinions about our foreign policy, which NGO charities I choose to support, and the other small ways in which I affect the world.

Not to sound like a complete whiny-butt, but being an adult who tries to live an examined life sure requires a lot of effort.


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*Harris uses the term "well-being" to describe this standard, but I don't think it matters what you call it.

**Please note the inclusion of the qualifier "demonstrable." That means you don't get to point to some non-provable religious dogma and say you're improving little Khadijah's chance at a fabulous afterlife by mutilating her genitals and making sure she remains illiterate. Thanks for playing, but no.

10 comments:

Beastly said...

Well that sounds to me like the least whinny, self-analytical approach to living a daily life I have read in, well ever. The little things like recycling, restoration of the old vice always getting the new, limiting your carbon foot print through daily practical choices, yep things you have control of, yay you. Don't go so far as to analyze daily choices or you will go insane.
There is no reason to sit and constantly contemplate your navel unless of course you are stuck on the couch.

Mrs. Bitch said...

I love these kinds of musings! I'm not all that good at them, but I love them nonetheless.

I also believe in self-determinism, but only within the constraints of the genetics you are born with, the environment you get handed, and all of your life experience up until this very moment. All of those things will impact who you are and every choice you'll make. So, I think we kinda have free-will, but kinda not. It also points at the reason I find morality to be somewhat relative.

I'd like to believe that education and information can lead to moral enlightenment, but that isn't always the case, and then, unfortunately, you can end up with immoral, evil turds that are smart enough to inflict damage on a large scale.

I'd also like to see the day when people could accept the fact that humans can be moral without religion. If the vast majority of people believe the only reason to behave decently is the threat of eternal damnation, that says to me that most of them have no moral compass of their own, or at least need to be told how to behave humanely.

Part of the problem with morality, for me, is that it seems like straining to achieve utopia. I know that my being rude, inconsiderate, mouthy, etc., on my blog is not moral. Is it as immoral as Westboro church? In the big scheme of things, probably. Both are cases of either one person (me) or a group of people trying to make another group of people miserable. Is it as immoral as genital mutilation? Probably. I know what I'm doing is wrong; genital mutilators are convinced that what they're doing is right and necessary.

I could be reading your post wrong, but I think what you may be searching for is the existence of absolute morality - absolute good, absolute evil - and I don't believe they exist. Morality only applies to humans, is a human concept, can become whatever humans decide it is, and therefore will be as varied as the people on the planet. I guess I don't think I can claim my morality is any more "correct" than anyone else's, even though I'll certainly try and cram it down their throats every chance I get.

Carol Elaine said...

Beastly, I have a fascinating navel, which is why I constantly contemplate it. Oddly enough, not much gets accomplished that way.

You're not whiny, Janiece, and frankly, I could never see you as being satisfied with accepting what others say/do without verifying/contemplating the veracity/morality (using the "How does this impact the demonstrable long-term well-being of another?" definition) of the statements/positions, even if it were easier. That's not how you're wired. Personally, I see that as a feature, not a bug.

(My, that certainly was a slashy paragraph.)

Janiece said...

Mrs. Bitch, I think I'm looking for an objective measure of morality, rather than an absolute one. It may be a minor distinction, but since human interaction is so obviously complex, I think it's a valid one.

There will always be ethical dilemmas, and I don't think an absolute morality can deal with a zero sum outcome using the "How does this impact the demonstrable long-term well-being of another" yardstick. An objective one, however, can.

Steve Buchheit said...

That's a tough nut to crack. I think there are some objective standards to morality that we could apply, however, what they are and what their construct would be quickly becomes problematic.

One of the prerogatives of any culture would be to point out the mote in a neighbor's eye while blissfully ignoring the plank in their own. And it's also fairly acceptable to have the "targeted" culture point out that hypocrisy (which then doesn't absolve them of their own moral transgressions). Morals can be a slippery slope that quickly leads to absurdity.

Such as, why is immoral to kill according to the 10 commandments, and then in subsequent laws define how one is to slaughter animals? Perfectly reasonable when you have a world view that humans are superior to animals, repugnant when you realize we as just another animal. But then, if you recognize that we're just another animal and that many other animals are delicious and go well with ketchup, does that then give us the go ahead to get all Donner Party on our friends (or the people in the next village over)?

Defining where the lines are is an exasperating exercise. It's much easier to go into the world with your brain set to the "I'm right, everybody else is a punter" mode.

That, however, isn't a morally sound way of dealing with the world.

Janiece said...

Steve, you said it, brother.

I don't think such exercises are going to result in the unequivocal agreement about what constitutes moral behavior. But I think the exercise has value, both for my own moral growth and as an intellectual pursuit. Because even though I am right and everyone else is an assbag, it behooves me to entertain the remote possibility that I might, in fact, be absolutely full of shit.

Anne C. said...

I think an additional level of complexity is that "How does this impact the demonstrable long-term well-being of another" assumes a passive or objectified nature in the other. Someone could be a complete dick to someone else, who then uses that adversity to become better/stronger/add-your-benifit-here. The end result is positive for the other, but that doesn't make the original behavior moral.

I don't use that as an excuse to be a dick, but I do keep it in mind when I need to stop dwelling on past bad behavior. "OK, that was wrong. Do something different next time. I hope they succeed in spite of me."

Hmm... and there's probably a correlation to moral behavior that hurts others. Like the person who will not lie under any circumstances, but who makes life difficult for him/herself and others because of it.

Anne C. said...

benefit, dammit...

nzforme said...

I think you've got a good start on it, but in your "impacts the demonstrable long-term well-being of another," you're going to end up being relativistic when you try to define "another."

Which is to say, societies that think it's cool to subjugate women, or people with darker skin, justify it by saying those folks aren't, y'know, full PEOPLE, entitled to the same treatment as the rest of us.

And you can safely call BS on that them, and define "another" to include all other living breathing human beings that share the planet with us.

Then it gets harder when someone raises the issue of abortion. To the pro-life folks, the fetus is "another" and aborting it clearly impacts its long-term well-being. Whereas, to the pro-choice folks, the fetus is not "another," but is instead a "thing," and FORBIDDING its abortion is something that negatively impacts the long-term well-being of the only other human in the equation, the pregnant woman.

So you've moved the debate down a level to what (or who) exactly is entitled to consideration as "another," but your answer to that is going to be determined, to some degree, by your culture, your upbringing, or what you read in your Holy Book.

Janiece said...

nzforme, I see that problem, too - especially on the aspect of "another" as a collective. i.e., should individuals suffer as a result of the long-term well-being of the collective?

As for the subject of abortion, I don't think there's a definitive answer. While I'm deeply ambivalent about it for reasons of my own that have nothing to do with anyone's religious book, I still think it should remain safe and legal.