Moral Relativism

It is the view that what is right or wrong depends on the person you ask this of (sorry if this has been said already - I skipped most of this thread).

I guess I’m a quasi-relativist when it comes to morality. Although I believe that what’s right or wrong certainly depends on who you ask, I also believe that some perspectives carry more weight than others. Murder, for example, carries way more weight as an immoral act than, say, fornication. So “though shalt not kill” is a moral maxim that is much ‘closer’ to universal (absolute?) than “though shalt not fornicate”.

I’m also torn between relativism and utilitarianism. Though I don’t equate pain/pleasure with morality exactly, I do think of the former as the origin of our understanding of the latter. That is to say, if it weren’t for our experiences with pain/pleasure, we’d have no comprehension of what the word ‘morality’ even means. Insofar as pain can be understood as the quintessence of ‘bad’ and pleasure that of ‘good’, then these experience, I think, are more or less absolute in that to have them is for there to be bad or good. That is, pain, where ever it exists, and whatever one thinks about it (even if he’s the one experiencing it), is inherently bad, and pleasure good. Just because one person feels pain while another doesn’t, and just because we can call the experience “subjective” because it’s private, doesn’t mean it feels like anything other than ‘bad’.

Though, as I say, I’m torn between this and my quasi-relativism. I don’t take a firm stance on either. I’m thinking maybe the two can be synthesized somehow, but I haven’t figured that out yet. Certainly the experiences of pain and pleasure can be conceptually torn away from the idea of morality (which is why, even though morality may be the origin of such ideas, it has branched off and distanced itself from pain and pleasure as we can see with the kaleidoscope of different theories out there). I guess that’s a discussion for another thread.

Properties can be relative or absolute. For example, ‘in front of’. My computer is in front of me, but it is not in front of you. ‘In front of’ is a relative property. ‘Broken’ is usually considered a relative property. My computer is not broken for me. And My coputer is not broken for you. Irregardless of your position, my computer is not broken.

Moral relativism would be the position that morals are relative. Usually relative to culture, but sometimes other things. So for example you could say, Pot smoking is good in Jamaca, but it is bad in the USA.

For my part I think Moral Relativists suffer from a bad case of missing the point. The whole reason we play the ethics language game is so that I can write a letter to my congressman saying, “Pot is good because it aliviates pain and causes no long term psychological damage.” (Assuming of course that I had good evidence of those facts.)

To put it another way, even if Morals are relative to culture, I as a member of my culture have to treat morals as absolute. I must make an argument like a utilitarian (as above), a religionist, or use some other kind of absolute ethical theory. Moral relativism seems to me only to have real traction and applicability when traveling.

Absolute morals are involved with moral relativism in that they’re said to not exist. Metaphysics has much to do with morality. Yes, morality deals primarily with the relationships between human agents, but the nature of the values attributed to acts and to characters of these human agents is something metaphysical for most moralities, i.e., good, bad, evil are said to exist independently of any human minds in the act, or in the character (that’s what absolute means.) A moral statement involving adjectives such as good, or bad, or evil, whatever, according to most moral systems says something which is true in the world itself. It is only recently that the world has become tolerant of noncognitivism, which depending on who you ask, means either that the world is going to shit, or that that it’s progressing. I’m one of the ones holding the latter.

what do you say to counter-examples to utilitarianism…you know, where utilitarianism says that it’s obligatory for a doctor to kill a patient who comes into the hospital for a hangnail or a sore foot, or something innocent like that, in order to take his organs and save 5 people?

I don’t know, xzc, I’m not in the business of doing the nitty-gritty calculus that goes along with utilitarianism. I don’t even know how the doctor would do the calculus. What would he have to take into account? The suffering he’d cause to the loved ones of the patient? The quality of life of the patients he’d save? The repercussions he himself would have to face? I think the shear volume of factors you’d need to consider would be enormous, and quite impossible to measure, so for me the thought of actually practicing utilitarianism is a bit absurd (except, of course, in situations where the right course of action is obvious).

The stance I take on utilitarianism (if you can call it a ‘stance’) is one of pure description - not prescription - that is, I bring it up as a description of how to define ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, not as a prescription for how to act.

This example - about the doctor obliged to sacrifice the life of an innocent and relatively healthy patient for the sake of several terminally ill patients - is one of the reasons I said that…

IOW, it’s examples like these that lead us to believe that morality is something more than the raw experiences of pain and pleasure, though I still say that such experiences are where the idea of morality originates from.

This is a good point, but I don’t quite get why a relativist can’t do both - profess relativism but also go along with his own morality - to do the latter isn’t necessarily to profess absolutism - it can be to acknowledge that within the framework of relativism, we are all subjects with our own idiosyncratic POVs, so it makes more sense to fall back on your own moral POV rather than deny you have one.

Okay, so the thing to take into account when labeling acts either right or wrong is whether they produce the greatest amount of pleasure and/or decrease the greatest amount of suffering. But can’t it be said once you’ve defined an act as right, that you’ve justified acting in that way? It’s a pure hypothetical example, which means it’s real world applicability can be pushed aside for a moment. Assuming that each of the five terminally ill patients and the sacrificial healthy person are of the same value, and if they live they will each have and cause the same amount of pleasure, and the doc would get away with it, then would you describe the doctors action as right…it is, after all, an action that increases utility? And if you did, then wouldn’t you inadvertently prescribe a course of action? It probably isn’t your intention, but if you told me that this action is right and that is wrong, then I think you’ve also told me the manner in which to act.

…as a tongue in cheek [size=85]noncognitivist[/size], I agree.

p.s., looking back at this, I see there’s another way to interpret what you said. Did you mean that you think people in general, as a matter of fact, go about defining right and wrong based on utility? If you did, then just disregard the above stuff.

Here’s the thing XZC, moral relativists are concerned with how morality is justified through a posteriori and subjective information. It does not assert that there is no such thing as “an absolute moral”, it by definition does not include or concern itself with any kind of concept of “absolute morals”.

You can object and say that this somehow discriminates or rejects the notion of possible absolute morals, but frankly it cannot discriminate against something which has yet to “be discovered”.

“absolute morals” are a nice idea but moral arguments have not yet been considered “absolute”.

It’s a different kind of moral (absolute morals). Moral relativists talk about how we base our arguments and decisions off of what criteria and experience we have. Absolute morals would need some sort of moral argument which did not change regardless of criteria or circumstance.

Dude, just read the first sentence on the article on wiki about moral relativism. Moral relativism is defined as much by what it says is the case, as it is by what it says isn’t the case. In fact, it couldn’t say what is the case without first saying what isn’t the case. Were you to come up with your own theory about the nature of morality, you would probably first have to show where the other theories about the nature of morality go wrong, or right. Moral relativism is not simply saying, “hey guys, look at all these different moralities. THere’s plenty of them, eh?” It fundamentally is making a claim about the origin of morality. It says that morality is invented, and not discovered, because there’s nothing there to discover. Objectivist claim the origin of morality is perception, in a way, of moral facts which exist out there independently of our minds (like rocks and trees, perhaps). Relativist necessarily have to refute this if their position is to make any sense. Moral relativism and moral universalism are incompatible.

Wiki is not absolute, i think i should point out.

There has been more than one moral relativist i daresay, with differing specifics.

As i have said before, moral relativism doesn’t have to make any sort of statement about “objective morals”. It only considers subjective ones.

Here is the second line of wiki

Discover or create one and any good moral relativist will concede.

it isn’t concerned with what it overlooks or what it isn’t. it is concerned with its own application.

moral relativists do not have the travel the world refuting people who believe different things to make their own beliefs “bona fide”.

or you could just create and accept your own!

moral relativism does not say that. it says, Look at these differing justifications for seemingly contradictory yet equally justified moralities!

to deny a moral relativist or call him inferior is to make a claim about the origin of morality.

In creating your own set of morals, you are not making a claim about “the origin of morality”… You are defining the origin of your own morals.

Did we discover that 1+1=2? did we create mathematics?

When you create something, you discover a way to make it. Saying do we discover or create morality is like asking a hunter if he created or discovered his hunting methods, or a damned mountain goat if it created or discovered a mountain path.

What you see morality as, (it must be like some sort of shining city on top of the highest hill with golden light emanating from the background (maybe with nice green trees and song birds flying around)), i do not…

The morality i see and talk about is the decisions i make which govern my actions based the various circumstances of life.

It is a wheel or a hammer, or a calculator…

How about the objectivists justify their own fantastical notions and theories before we go changing what is considered a very simple situation.

Seriously, you won’t believe it’s not butter.

Meh…not up to correcting your misunderstandings, W. But I will say this, moral relativism is not applied. It’s a descriptive theory about the nature of morality.

it’s a descriptive theory about a morality.

Well, first let’s distinguish between the experience of pain/pleasure and the act that brings it about. My brand of utilitarianism says nothing of acts being inherently good or bad - only insofar as they bring about a net maxima of pleasure or minima of pain (for the greatest number, for the longest time, etc.) can we say they’re indirectly good.

I’ll address your hypothetical scenario, but let me first say that in cases like this (where it’s next to impossible to measure or deduce the best course of action in practice), dealing in hypotheticals is an exercise in futility. It’s useful if you want to dig out the logic behind a certain idea or argument, but that’s about all we’ll be getting from it. I say my utilitarianism isn’t prescriptive for a reason - if the only context in which we can make such prescriptions is in hypotheticals, what sense does it make to preach it as a prescription practically?

Anyway, to answer your question (which isn’t too complicated), I’d say the doctor should kill the patient and donate the organs to the other five. Assuming those five patients will benefit from it and live long and happy lives thereafter, it seems pretty cut and dry. Sure, it seems pretty darn cold and inhumane (to the sacrificial patient), but if we’re sticking to a utilitarian paradigm, I’m afraid those are the cards it deals. If good and bad are to be found solely in the pains and pleasures that certain courses of action bring about, then you can’t give any weight to the seeming reprehensibility of the act. A true utilitarian would say such reprehensibility is just a particular human impression, probably innate within all of us, but bears no moral standing. Yes, utilitarianism can be cold.

But don’t hold me to any of this. Like I already said, I’m not committed to utilitarianism. I’m somewhat partial to it because the logic behind it is rather neat and tidy, and makes a lot of sense out of where we get our moral conceptions from. But cases like the above make me question whether morality is something best understood as ‘above’ pain and pleasure - that is, it makes me wonder if there’s anything to our impression that killing is wrong - even if it were to save the lives of countless others.

No, not really. See, here’s where I think the history of philosophy has screwed up in regards to utilitarianism. It’s often talked about as if pain and pleasure are the only way to define ‘utility’. But ‘utility’ technically only means ‘usefulness’. Sure, pain and pleasure are one way to measure utility, but what about other things (like survival, or economic considerations, or arbitrary goals, etc.)? The kind of utilitarianism I’m talking about might be called ‘hedonistic utilitarianism’. So if you were to ask whether I mean that people, as a matter of fact, go about defining right and wrong based on hedonistic utility, then… well, then I’d still say not really… but you’re getting closer :slight_smile:.

I mean to say that people in general require the experiences of pain and pleasure before they can understand what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean. These experiences start the ball rolling, so to speak, but after a rudimentary understanding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is grasped (at a very young age), it can then break away from pain and pleasure and become associated with other things (like not eating too many cookies and eat your vegetables). By the time you’re an adult, you can pretty much associate morality with almost anything, but I say it always starts with our experiences of pain and pleasure.

hypotheticals are the corner stone of moral philosophy. Through hypotheticals one can test out a theory against intuition, and then render a judgment about the theory itself depending on how the theory fares up against our intuitions. Because utilitarianism in the example I gave says that the right thing to do is to kill the one guy to save the five, and because this is intuitively repulsive, it must be the case that utilitarianism is a bad theory. This is why utilitarianism sucks…because in certain situations it implies that it is good to do what we feel is wrong. A challenge of moral philosophy is to develop a theory of morality which implies in every case the same thing we think is right…if a theory gives the wrong answer in some hypothetical, then it’s not a good theory.

Despite what you think the metaphysical nature of good is for your theory, you still have a normative claim on your hands, in that you’ve made the good, and the bad conditional…such that if the conditions are not met then the act ought not be called good, or bad, i.e., you’re saying that good ought to apply only to those acts that bring about a net maxima of pleasure. You’re not saying that this is what people have in mind when they do call things right or wrong, or good or bad.

Take psychological hedonism for instance, which I think is what better suits your position. All it says is that whenever people act, they do so because they believe insodoing they will alleviate pain and/or gain pleasure. It’s a claim that can be put to a test. Would you do anything if you thought it wasn’t going to alleviate your pain and/or increase your pleasure? Do you ever act in such a way? No?..well, then this must be true. It’s a descriptive claim. It says nothing about how we should define good or bad.

As a moral relativist i have to point out that in your hypothetical, the man who has to die might not consider his situation to be fair, or his killing justified.

Who cares? His wishes aren’t at all relevant.

The hypothetical man who must die of course.

They are relevant to himself.

He values his own life more than the lives of 5 strangers (potentially)

That doesn’t factor in to the fact that utilitarianism would still label the doctors act of killing the man the good, and thus the obligatory thing to do.

It’s not obligatory to use utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is just a tactic for evaluating options.

And the person who has to die probably puts an infinitely negative value on the option of himself being killed, so through utilitarianism, he would want to live.

Do you see how the conclusions of utilitarianism change from person to person?

different people value different things…

I never said it was. I said utilitarianism says that it is obligatory to act in that manner.

It’s a flawed tactic.

This isn’t about the person…it’s about the doctors choice to kill that person, and what utilitarianism says of it. The fucking example is used to show where utilitarianism is flawed. Sure, you can go ahead and use utilitarianism to justify your acts for one thing, and egoism for another, neat…good for you.

Do you even get the point of that counter-example?

no, the doctors conclusions in using utilitarianism suggest he act that way.

nobody says it’s perfect.

It is what it is…

How exactly is utilitarianism flawed again? is it that the man should be murdered which indicates a flaw?

Not really, I’m just applying what i know to the situation.

You seem to be trying to say something bad about utilitarianism and by extension moral relativism, i can only assume.

I was just providing additional context. It’s interesting how the doctor can conclude to murder while the victim would conclude the doctor is “bad”.

Sorry, maybe I’m just being foolish.