Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Morality Disconnect part 2

This entry is part of the War on Relativism.

Look at our "buying a car" example again. Is it a moral issue ? Yes, definitely ! To be a moral issue, it needs to be about an individual taking a decision. So while the concept of "buying a car" itself is not moral, an individual deciding how to buy a car is in a moral context.

And this is intuitively obvious, in this specific example. We distinguish between good and bad ways to buy a car (thus passing moral judgment). We agree that, say, "refusing to buy a red car because it does the Devil's work" is a very bad reason to not buy a car, and that a decision taken on its basis alone would be very irrational.

A reasonable person, buying a car, would choose his criteria based on what his values are in buying that car. Obviously, a collector of old cars is not going to use the same criteria as someone buying a car to go to work. Therefore the same moral process applies here as in any other moral decision : identification of one's values, sifting between rational and irrational values, and implementation of these values (or in cases where we have no time to make such evaluations - the rapid identification and application of relevant virtues).

I was involved in a very frustrating discussion with noted atheist author David Eller, who holds to the firm belief that all morality is cultural. This of course is complete nonsense - even he himself admits that he considers nothing else to be cultural. And yet he holds fast to the belief that morality is somehow a completely different study from any other study in existence. Even when I pressed him on a specific example, he would not say that the wholesale murder of atheists is immoral. Now that's dedication to a belief.

What can you say to such a person ? This is the kind of fanaticism that only religious or political beliefs usually invoke. And yet there is no concentrated effort on anyone's part to brainwash people into cultural relativism. Rather, this particular belief is carried on the shoulders of both religion and politics.

This reminds me of another debate I had, this time against Bible inerrancy nut Jason Gastrich. When confronted by the different moral principles presented in different parts of the Bible, Gastrich's answer was that these rules were meant for a specific people at a specific time, and that this was demonstrated by their specific nature. Of course, when I pointed out that these rules were in fact NON-specific, as they applied to things such as retaliation against evil, which apply to all people at all times.

Therefore we see that cultural relativism is not at all exclusive to atheists. I assume that most Christians hold to some form of this view as well, at least to justify their blatant disobedience of Biblical orders. And they then justify their obedience to a specific "culture" or "duty" with "might (of God, of the religion, of the state, of the majority) makes right". Cultural relativism and "might makes right" are plagues of both the religious right and the post-modernist liberals.

Against both these enemies we must make clear that morality, like any other field of study, is and must be based on empirical fact. That actions performed on the basis of culture, religion or beliefs are immoral because they go against the principle of reason. And finally, that being an atheist is wholly incompatible with any such irrational method - and that therefore any atheist who holds to them is irrational.

By the way, if you're a relativist and want to comment about this post, there's no point - since nothing you say is based on fact, I really don't care. Simply answer this : do you base your decisions on facts ? If you answer yes you are a hypocrite (since relativism by definition is not based on facts), if you answer no you are a liar (since you do base most of your decisions on facts).

For another entry on this topic with excellent points, see "Morality: Is it Different from Everything Else? Many Atheists Think So", by Alleee.

Post a Comment


At 4/17/2006 6:25 AM, Blogger Mike declaimed...

Well, my initial reaction is to think that you have a very differant concept of morality than most others. Which is fine, except that you don't seem to understand this; you talk as if everyone had essentially the same definition of morality, but that they disagree on the source. You project your definition of morality onto everyone else.

You seem to argue that morality and practical reason are identical. That's a novel position. A more typical position - one you do not even seem to be aware of - is that morality is not primarily a practical issue. Morality is a series of idealistic rules and principles that govern our relationship to other people and our own desires. Practical reason, on the other hand, is typically seen as being, well, practical.

Like your car collecter example; most people simply wouldn't consider that a moral issue, unless something like asceticism is considered.

Your ideas about morally obviouslly follow from your definitions of the words; I doubt many would disagree with you if they weren't making the same error of projection that you are.

Your conclusions follow from your definitions, but your definitions are arbitrary. And your seeming inability to understand the positions of others limits your ability to develop your own with any depth.

At 4/17/2006 9:29 AM, Blogger Hellbound Alleee declaimed...


I think you might be a little confused. The fact that morality can be defined is exactly what we are arguing.

You can say that "everyone has their own morality," or "different cultures define morality," or "morality has different definitions, so you have to accept them." That would be what we are arguing against,

The idea that you might make important decisions based on idealistic rules and principles--that have no earthly reason behind them, is barely believable, unless you are religious. You just said that morality is not practical. That doesn't bode well for your moral decisions, Mike. So tell us: what life decisions do you make based on belief?

I would hope that you go back and re-read Franc's paragraph on the car. He explained exactly why making decisions based on color preference is assinine.

So Mike, your moral decisions: how do you make them? Throw a coin? Ask your horoscope? Those who do: is that a good way to make a moral decision? Are all ways equally good? If so, as Napoleon The Relativist would say, "All morality is relative, but some morality is more relative than others."

At 4/17/2006 1:22 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

mike : You are correct. I don't accept anyone else's definition of morality, because it is counter-intuitive. Every other domain of study pertains to causality and its application, and morality should be too. If you deny this, then you are falling into the same disconnect that I refuted in my entry.

At 4/17/2006 1:22 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

And I don't care about a non-realist's definition of morality any more than I care about a Christian's definition of atheism. So keep your stupid beliefs to yourself.

At 4/17/2006 3:54 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Hi Franc. Hi Alleee. I've stayed out of this one up 'til now. You have succeeded in convincing me that morality is not relative. You actually did this some time ago by making me think really hard about it. I forgive you. Seriously though, thanks. At that time, I seem to recall that you were arguing that there were axioms of morality. I think this is true, at least to the extent that if something is immoral today, then it was always immoral no matter what cave-dwelling society didn't think so in the past. Without getting into an individual's ability to determine right from wrong, and the ability of humans to contravene their own value systems through rationalization, do you believe that there are some, or no, moral absolutes?

At 4/17/2006 4:16 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"Hi Franc. Hi Alleee. I've stayed out of this one up 'til now. You have succeeded in convincing me that morality is not relative."

Hooray !

Now you can join in the war ! ;)

"You actually did this some time ago by making me think really hard about it. I forgive you."

Heeee he he.

"Without getting into an individual's ability to determine right from wrong, and the ability of humans to contravene their own value systems through rationalization, do you believe that there are some, or no, moral absolutes?"

I only use the word "absolute" to designate a relatively small set of metaphysical and epistemic concepts. I don't use it in morality. So my answer would be no.

If you mean universal facts, then yes, there are plenty of universal facts in morality. Values are universal (by definition). Virtues are universal. Moral principles in general (if they are valid, of course) are universal. Their instanciation is not, however.

At 4/18/2006 6:07 AM, Blogger Mike declaimed...

You just said that morality is not practical. That doesn't bode well for your moral decisions, Mike.

Um, I think I was pretty clear in stating that I was talking about a common position, not necessarily my own.

So Mike, your moral decisions: how do you make them?

First you need to understand that I consider "moral decisions" to be a subset of my decisions deriving from practical reason. You seem to think that morality and practical reason are synomous - if I am wrong, correct me. I think morality is a subsection of practical reason, so of course I approach it differently from you. I make moral choices based on the kind of person I wish to be.

And I don't care about a non-realist's definition of morality any more than I care about a Christian's definition of atheism. So keep your stupid beliefs to yourself.

Goodness, you're a little snappy, aren't you. Considering that you know absolutely nothing about my metaphysics or my morality, you're presuming an awful lot. In fact, you've reached an adament conclusion here without using even a shadow of a fact. That's what some would call hypocrisy.

At 4/21/2006 3:22 PM, Blogger Cai declaimed...

I've been shunted here from Hellbound Alleee's morality discussion, the one linked at the bottom of your entry.

Facts and reasons are open to debate.

When I consider my car I start with the facts:

AC is destructive to the natural environment.
Destruction to the natural environment may cause some innocent beings to suffer.

Then I throw in some of my own brand of arbitrary values:

It's horrible when innocent beings suffer.

Then I use some deductive reasoning:

Therefore I don't want a car with AC.

Now, people are quite at liberty to dispute my facts, and my reasoning. Perhaps I'm wrong about the facts. Perhaps I'm not that good at logic. But no-one can argue with my preferences.

Person A: "The world is flat"
Person B: "No, the world is not flat"

Which one is the right one? Person B is right.

Person A: "X implies Y, X, therefore Y"
Person B: "No, X implies Y, X, therefore not Y"

Which person is right? Person A is right.

Person A: "Chocolate ice cream is the best"
Person B: "No, vanilla is much better"

Which person is right? Neither. Because they're just expressing their own personal preferences.

I think your point that the colour of a car is a bad way to pick is rubbish. If you associate the colour blue with your ex-wife and that brings up painful memories to you and to you alone, then by all means don't pick a blue car! That's a damn good reason! And yet, a totally subjective one. You think "doing the devil's work" is a silly reason, but that's only because you don't believe in the devil. If you did, that'd be just as good a reason as the above one, surely.

When I pick a job, I may chose not to work for the armed services, even though it pays well and allows me to travel, because it would mean that I was putting the whims of the government above my own live. The reason I don't want to do that is entirely based on my traditions, culture and belief system. Does that mean I'm not a rational person? No, that just means that my emotions play at least some small part in my decision-making process.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, as these things seem very obvious to me.

You see to get angry with people who "disconnect" morality from everything because they claim it's not based on facts. Well in some respects you're right: morality is partially based on facts, but at it's core, it's fundamentally different from the study of history, say, in that history is entirely based on facts and is therefore open to dispute. When two people disagree about history, one (or both) of them are always wrong. But when two people disagree about something which is just really an expression of their own personal emotion, how can one of them be considered wrong? That doesn't seem to make sense.

The only alternative that I can see is to accept that morals are different to other aspects of life in that they contain at their core something that is not derived either from experience or rationality, but is just arbitrary. That doesn't make them mysterious or untouchable, just different.

And since emotions clearly differ from person to person, isn't that all relativism is saying?

At 6/13/2006 6:29 PM, Blogger Brian Berkey declaimed...

I think a few distinctions are in order. First, Mike's point about morality being distinct from practical reason is an important one. There are a number of positions one might hold regarding the relationship of morality to practical reason, and one of the least plausible is (what I gather is) Francois' view that they are identical. If they were, then deciding between a red and a blue car would be a moral decision, and this seems wrong. That said, I am inclined to think that moral constraints are binding on practical rationality, such that individuals make a serious mistake in their practical reasoning when they decide to act on their (perhaps selfish) preferences rather than doing what morality requires (some philosophers disagree, arguing that it can sometimes be rational to act immorally, for example in cases in which morality demands a great deal).

Though personal preferences do not, on my view, play a role in determining what morality requires (I think relativism is completely misguided), preferences do play a role in practical reason. If I am deciding between chocolate and vanilla ice cream (and there are no relevant moral considerations, such as implications of my decision on the welfare of others), the fact that I like chocolate much better makes a difference to what my choice should be.

Cai's claim that all relativism says is that emotions (and, I suppose, preferences) differ from person to person is a serious mischaracterization of relativism. Relativism recognizes the obvious fact (which no moral realist would deny) that such things differ between people (and across societies/cultures/religions/historical periods), and says that a consequence of this fact is that morality must be, in some sense or other, a function of the preferences/emotions/etc. of individuals (or cultures, religions, etc.). And this conclusion certainly does not follow. Deciding what sort of government would be best, whether slavery should be allowed, or whether to kill those who disagree with you is not like choosing an ice cream flavor. There are universally correct answers to moral questions, and people often get them wrong due to the influence of culture/religion/etc.

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