Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Relative

Having argued that the “objective vs subjective” distinction isn’t useful, Carrier moves on to the “objective vs relative” distinction:

Defenders of objective moral truth will rail against “cultural relativism,” for example, which they imagine is the belief that morals are only true within specific cultures, such that one culture cannot criticize the morality of another culture (and there are fools and loons who actually believe that, so it’s not simply a straw man; it becomes a straw man, though, when it is assumed most relativists think that way). Or they rail against some kind of biogenic relativism (“speciesism” they call it: Sense and Goodness without God, index). Or individual relativism (whereby every individual has their own moral truth, so what’s morally true is relative to them). Or situational relativism (what’s morally true is relative to and thus changes with the circumstances). Or whatever.

This is actually a false distinction. Even if every one of those “relativisms” is true, morality is still an objective fact. If biogenic relativism is true, then it is an objective fact of the world that certain morals are true for one species and not another. And if there are moral facts for humans that aren’t true for other animals like sharks or apes, it is no argument to say we should act like sharks or apes, when in fact we should act like humans, a specific kind of animal. It remains objectively true in that case that certain moral facts are true for us, that aren’t true for sharks or apes.

But, again, Carrier misses the point of the objection. No one argues that if we discovered that morality was really relativistic — ie defined solely by reference to what a particular group thinks is moral, even if that’s a group of one — that that wouldn’t be an objective fact about morality. But it would make moral claims like “Slavery is morally wrong” not an objective fact, in the sense that, as I said in the introduction they would not be required to justify that to anyone outside that group, even if they actually might be able to. Sure, it might be true that for humans the morally right thing to do is to end slavery, but that might not be true for sharks. Or, to put it better, imagine that we run into sentient sharks, who are capable of moral reasoning. It might be reasonable, given their species, for them to consider anything as food, even other sentient beings and moral agents. Now, it seems reasonable that we wouldn’t accept that; while there might be some debate over whether it is moral to use animals for food, surely we’d all at least tend to agree that eating other sentient beings, at least without permission, is morally wrong. But it is possible that under speciesism that that would be true for humans but not for sharks. And thus the sharks would be morally right to eat us.

This … is not a conclusion that most will accept.

Also, as stated in the post on objective vs subjective morality, it’s not really relativism to say that morality changes wrt the circumstances. Non-relativistic moralities can, in fact, do so. For example, returning to species, imagine that we have a vegetarian species, an omnivorous species, and a carnivorous species. We are debating the moral question “Is it immoral to use non-sentient animals as food?”. For the vegetarian species, this isn’t a moral question at all; they have no interest in it, and so that they abstain from it is not morally praiseworthy, although any of their species that did eat non-sentient animals would have to be seen as doing so for reasons that almost certainly had to be immoral. On the other end of the spectrum, since ought implies can it would be seen as unreasonable to claim that the carnivorous species is immoral for doing so if they can’t survive any other way. It’s only in the omnivorous species where it is a moral question, as they would both have a desire to and get a biological benefit from doing it, but likely could do without it. Of course, they’d need a moral reason to argue that it is immoral or them to eat animals, but the moral status here depends critically on the specific circumstances and details of the species involved.

Thus, I have to conclude that if “situational relativism” is really relativistic, then it has to go further than this, likely arguing that the details of the situation are so integral to that determination that you can’t have anything like a moral principle — even “Maximize utility” — without appealing to the specific circumstances. But this seems like something that would be massively difficult to pull off, and so is either, to my mind, a rather implausible view or, more likely, is confused over very strong objectivist moralities that deny that the circumstances matter, taking it as saying that circumstances never matter as opposed to the more common answer that the circumstances that opponents think matter really don’t. (For example, Kant’s rejection of lying isn’t that lying just has to be morally wrong no matter the circumstances, but is more that no possible circumstances can make lying not self-defeating. This hasn’t stopped many opponents from asserting that Kant can’t possibly consider circumstances ever, which is not correct).

Again, Carrier somewhat grasps what people are concerned about but then stops worrying about it almost immediately:

For example, traffic laws are obviously culturally relative. Like fictional stories, they are completely invented by each culture however they want. And yet there is an objective fact of the matter that they realize. There are better and worse traffic systems, when measured by the standard they were invented for. And this remains so regardless of your opinions, feelings, or beliefs. For example, a system in which there was no enforced rule as to which side of multi-lane roads to drive on would produce far more traffic collisions, and the universally recognized (and universally needed) goal of traffic laws is to facilitate transportation while minimizing collisions. Thus, in some cultures vehicles are expected to drive on the right; in others, the left. Which it is is completely arbitrary. And in consequence completely relative to which culture you are in at the time. Yet it is an objectively true fact that everyone ought to drive on the same side of the road—whichever side that happens culturally to be—if they want to avoid traffic collisions.

Thus, cultural relativism does not allow just any rules or morals willy nilly. There is no objectively true fact that cars must drive on the right rather than the left to reduce collisions. There is, however, an objectively true fact that cars must all drive on the right or on the left to reduce collisions. Moreover, even though it is culturally relative whether you drive on the right or the left, when you are in a culture that drives on the right, you ought to drive on the right. Which side you ought to drive on is an objective fact of which cultural system you are traversing at the time. Relativism thus has no bearing on whether objective morals exist. Objective morals might exist—and be relative, to the individual, culture, situation, or species.

Which leads into the problem: if morals are relative, then there is no right answer, and so you don’t have to justify them to anyone who disagrees if they are not part of the relevant group (and maybe not even then). So I can’t go to Britain and argue that they should drive on the right-hand side of the road, and demand that they justify why their solution is better. They are free to answer that that’s just what they do, and that has to settle the question. If I press the argument, I’m invalidly trying to impose my view on them, which I have no right to do.

Which works out reasonably well for traffic laws. It doesn’t work very well for morals. Take the standard “Slavery is morally wrong” example. Do we really want to say that if a culture was convinced that slavery was morally right or even morally mandatory and say “That’s just what we believe” that that’d be all that could be said on the matter? Likely not. So we don’t think that morality works like traffic laws, and so we don’t think that morality is relative in that way. Thus, Carrier’s defense of their objectivity is not a defense at all.

Strangely, Carrier accepts that later:

But some people want to be able to truthfully say that everyone should agree on what’s morally true—and that when they don’t, someone is wrong. They want to be able to say that the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites were immoral—indeed, that this should be an indisputable fact. They want to be able to say that there has been moral progress in human history—which requires there to be some true morality we are getting closer to. This is what most people actually mean, and want, when they say there has to be an objectively true morality. It’s not enough to just say we don’t like the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites. Because anyone who wanted to be like them can just say “So what?” Just like someone who disagreed with us about what kind of music to like, our saying they were immoral would be a meaningless and useless gesture—and wholly ineffectual to any purpose. We could no more call them wrong for acting like that, than we could call them wrong for liking different music.

But then he moves on to admonish people arguing for subjective or relativistic moralities:

But this means it’s a derailing tactic to answer someone who says there are objective moral facts with “but values are subjective.” That in no way entails there is no objectively true fact of the matter as to which values we all do or should have. It is likewise impertinent to insist that morality is all just relative. Because that is only true if it is objectively true that different moralities obtain for different people. Which obligates you to check. Is it actually the case that different cultures ought to behave in different ways? Is it actually the case that every moral system is entirely the equal of any other and there can never be any grounds to criticize any? Is it actually the case that there is no moral system that, implemented anywhere by anyone, would make the world a better place even by their own standards?

Which, again, staggeringly misses the point. The argument is that people are arguing for subjective and relativistic moralities and giving reasons why morality really is that way, and the objectivists are saying that that means that there is no right answer to moral questions which seems to make morality useless and pointless, and doesn’t align with what we think is moral. You’d be just as reasonable to conclude that objectivists are derailing or being impertinent for arguing those consequences as if they mattered to the underlying argument for subjective or relativistic moralities. But in reality neither are. A big problem for subjectivists and relativists is the consequence that those moralities mean that we can’t really say if a moral proposition is true or false, and it is an issue for objectivists that they can’t justify any moral claim universally. And the main evidence for these tactics not being bad ones is the number of people who accept that there is no right answer to moral questions as a consequence of their views. In short, they respond to the objectivist by saying that there are no objective moral facts at all — or at least not relevant ones — and so there are no right answers, and that objectivists are wrong because they assume there should be. Objectivists, unknowingly, are like people arguing that there should be one style of music that everyone ought to like, but musical tastes don’t work that way … and moral “tastes” don’t work that way either.

So the distinctions and tactics are useful, as they define the positions. In the next post, I’ll look at how Carrier tries to deal with moral criticism and the validity — or invalidity — of it.



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