Moral Frameworks

I replied to a post from Jasper on “What Would JT Do” with a long comment about morality. This is kinda cheating, but I figured I’d reproduce it here as a post because it highlights a number of very general issues. The original post is here.

Note that I’m going to focus more on your moral framework here than on the theistic moral framework and their arguments for that, since I think it more important at this point … and it lets me talk more about what I actually think, which is a very good thing [grin]. I’ll also go out of order and likely quote less than the last time.

Well, to start, I strongly recommend you read “The Emotional Construction of Morals” by Jesse Prinz if you haven’t already. He’s a relativist like you, but he does an excellent job of outlining the opposing viewpoints and how they matter to his view, and I think he has a more credible structure for his relativism than you do.

Because despite what you say, you are, indeed, a full-fledged relativist. The objection you raise against relativism is this:

This is why I don’t buy into “Moral Relativism”… that it’s “correct” that each society’s version of morality is necessarily “good”, relative to that society.

Which means that you oppose one specific type of relativism: cultural relativism. But relativism is not just cultural relativism. When philosophers talk about relativism at a basic level, they tend to use “individual relativism”, that what is moral for an individual is defined relative to what an individual believes is moral. The reason is that using that it is much easier to see the problems that relativism, in general, has. Cultural relativism is popular in serious debates because it has much less problems than the alternatives and is also the one that has the most empirical support. In general, relativistic views are popular because we can all see that individuals and societies disagree strongly about what is moral and we’ve had a massively hard time finding a more objective morality to replace it. So then it seems reasonable to suggest that maybe, just maybe, there isn’t an objective morality at all.

Relativism, in general, just says that morality and moral judgements are meaningless outside of a particular defined group (that’s different from the group of moral agents). That grouping can be as small as an individual and as wide as a species. Your argument seems to suggest that for you, that grouping is a shared evolutionary history. There are two main problems with this move (although I concede that you didn’t go into massive detail on it, so I might be oversimplifying it):

1) The evidence for cultural relativism works against your view, as humans roughly share the same evolutionary history, even in terms of morality, and yet have radically different ideas of what is or isn’t moral, sometimes as wide as whether the individual should sacrifice their interests for that of the community or not. The evidence for individual relativism also works against you, since even there we know that individuals with the same evolutionary history also have radically different moral intuitions at times. So it’s hard to justify your grouping as being an actual grouping at all.

2) In order to make it what you’re calling objective — note that when I talk about an objective morality here, you should probably just insert “non-relativistic”, so when you say yours is objective that doesn’t count as an objective morality to me — you’re appealing to evolved properties, so that you avoid the issue that individual and cultural relativists have of the moral frameworks being essentially arbitrary. The problem is that you are still selecting what evolved properties count as moral and which don’t, without a good argument (I think a good argument is not possible). For example, you select empathy, and while most people at least currently think that empathy is related to morality, we can still ask why you don’t also consider in-group/out-group thinking or self-interest as equally important to morality. Well, perhaps you do, but even as presented here you are highlighting the “nicer” ones, but there’s little reason to think that the nicer ones are necessarily the ones that are more relevant morally. Without an argument for how to select which evolved properties that impact our behaviour are the moral ones before you go look to see what evolved properties we have, your view is just as arbitrary as the individual relativist, the cultural relativist … and the theist. And, in fact, the theist is arguably LESS arbitrary than you are, because they at least DO have that argument.

Ultimately, though, and most relevantly here and for understanding my view, you still have the problem that all forms of relativism is: if moral judgements are meaningless outside of the grouping you talk about, how do you apply them in any meaningful way to those outside of the grouping? In your case, the problem is in applying your judgements about morality outside of those who accept your moral framework, which could mean people who do not have quite the same evolved views of morality as you do — for example, it is known that autistics tend to take a more Kantian view of morality, and you clearly don’t accept that — or, more importantly, people who for whatever reason explicitly and, they think, rationally REJECT your moral framework?

Under a relativistic view and I think a consequence of your view when you say “I think you’re immoral” or “I think you’re a horrible person morally” or “I find your view abhorrent”, what you are saying is pretty much the same thing as “How can you eat that?” or “How can you listen to rock music?”. There’s no fact of the matter there for you, so it does come down to a matter of strong opinions. And so when you say “It is morally wrong to watch a baby drown when you can save it”, if someone did indeed reject your moral framework their response is the same as yours to those who don’t accept your moral framework: a declaration that they do not care. Your judgement of their morality is utterly meaningless to them, because it cannot overturn their OWN judgement of their OWN morality based on their OWN moral framework.

And this works right up to the point where you try to treat your moral judgements AS matters of fact that others have to consider. The Problem of Evil, for example, depends on it being a matter of fact that an action or inaction on God’s part is immoral. The argument is this:

1) If God exists, then He must always act morally.

2) X is an action of God.

3) X is immoral.

Therefore, God doesn’t exist (or isn’t moral).

Now, under your view, you have to treat 3) as having the rider “in my moral framework”. And note then that whether or not 3) is true depends on the moral framework of the person reading the argument. So to theists who think that the morality of a action depends on what God says is moral, this is clearly false. And so the argument fails. And it fails for ANY moral framework that doesn’t agree with you about the morality of X. And it fails for any moral framework that isn’t SURE about it. At that point, it’s not an argument anymore … except to people who share your moral framework. Who are not the people you are generally arguing with here, as you yourself do seem to accept.

But worse, in my view, is this:

It’s not a question of demonstrating it to them. If they don’t follow my moral framework, and if they disagree, I’m going to think they’re immoral too. I can try to explain it… and they can either buy it or not.

If they don’t think morality is about harm and benefit, and are doing things to harm people, and reduce their benefit, I will do everything within my power to stop them.

To which my only reply can be “Well, let me go get my baseball bat, and then we can hash it out” [grin]. Because without a way of demonstrating that it is just a fact that your moral framework maps to the proper moral facts and that it is just a fact that I am immoral, all you have to enforce your moral judgements is force: physical force, social force, economic force … whatever. You don’t have a rational demonstration by your own admission, which means that no one else can be rationally compelled to accept it. At which point, it looks to someone like me like you want to impose your own arbitrary morality on everyone just like you say the theists want to impose theirs.

When I talk about an objective morality, again all I mean is that there is a fact of the matter about moral questions. There is a fact of the matter about whether in any particular situation it is moral to allow that baby to drown when you could do something to save it, and that doesn’t depend on what moral framework either the individual or the observer is using. Which implies that there is indeed a moral framework that produces appropriate moral facts. And the evidence for that is that everyone seems to want to be able to say that someone else who is using a different framework than themselves did indeed do something morally wrong that they need to correct or atone for even if — and often ESPECIALLY if — their own moral framework doesn’t consider that wrong. If you do that, then you have to consider that there are moral facts outside of moral frameworks, and that moral frameworks can identify those facts incorrectly. And the fact is that most people do indeed try to do that, giving prime evidence that to most people morality is objective, and that there are moral facts of the matter.


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