Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Relativism : taking a piss on morality part 1

This entry is part of the War on Relativism.

Recently, I had a frustrating discussion with David Eller, a respected and otherwise intelligent scientist who wrote many books about atheism, who believes firmly in cultural relativism. I know many atheists hold to such an irrational, anti-scientific and repugnant belief.

The first problem with cultural relativism is that there is no such thing as "culture", as people commonly use the concept. Culture in reality is a generalization on patterns of behaviour and thought that exist within loosely-defined groups. Following this definition, cultural relativism therefore means absolutely nothing, since the individeual creates his part of the culture.

What the relativists really mean is a monolithic block of behaviour and belief which can be attributed to a specific "country" or race, such as "the Greek culture" or "the black culture", that we can use to make moral judgments on the individual. That is to say, it is a collectivist construct which does not apply to any specific person's behaviour.

Only this premise can explain the tribalist cries for "protecting our culture" and "following the culture". If culture was composed of individual action, then any action performed by the individual would be "cultural", and "protecting the culture" would be considered an oxymoron. But obviously relativists think they are saying something meaningful when they utter this nonsense.

This monolithic view of culture is an exploitative construct promoted by religion and the state in order to justify their monopolizing morality. If one assumes that morality is the product of individual reasoning, then on what grounds can the Church and the State justify their imposition of a singular value system ? At best it can only be seen as personal belief gone awry.

A fatal problem with cultural relativism is that "culture", of either kind, is not a rational standard. While people's actions are automatically self-interested, they are not necessarily rationally so. People do extremely irrational things - given that the majority of the population of the world is religious and indoctrinated from birth, what do you expect ? Given this, how can "culture" indicate anything factual ?

Of course, the relativists don't want to talk about facts. They are not talking about rational knowledge, they are taking a piss on it (hence the title). They completely follow religious and political premises in stating that morality is completely arbitrary and subject to "might makes right". This, of course, is hypocrite since few people follow this idea in any other area of life, as I will discuss in future entries.

Another fatal problem is that cultural relativism is eliminated nicely by the Moral Razor, which is to say, the principle of universality. This principle states that a moral principle can only be valid if it applies universally - to all people, at all times, in all places - otherwise it implies moral contradictions, as people have the same needs everywhere. To give an obvious political example, if it is moral for policemen to wield guns because they need to defend themselves from criminals, then it must be also moral for other people to do the same, since they have the same need.

Go to part 2.

Post a Comment


At 4/22/2006 3:57 AM, Blogger BlackSun declaimed...

Francois, from what I've observed, most relativists don't agree with "might makes right." That's more of a Darwinian position. I have found that most relativists adopt situational ethics, such as that it's OK to steal if you're starving, etc. Or it's OK to steal from corporations and rich people. They don't usually justify the strong preying upon the weak, however. Relativists seem to feel sorry for the underdog.

Also, actions of individuals aggregate and become trends. I agree that trends don't make morality, but since peer pressure and suggestion are known to be powerful influences, I can see how social scientists would try to come up with a way of classifying group behaviors.

I think it's OK to define your terms and act differently depending on your level of analysis. For example, I don't think that the same exact morality applies at the individual, group, national, or global levels of analysis. We need to account for aggregation through some kind of method.

It's back to our old discussion about collective interests again. ;-) I don't think it's a sin to acknowledge the existence, interests, and characteristics of groups and coalitions.

But I agree with you that morality can best be defined by studying human nature, individually and culturally, without resorting to relativism.

At 4/22/2006 12:56 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"Francois, from what I've observed, most relativists don't agree with "might makes right.""

Sure they do. What do you think "culture" is ? Culture is an arbitrary construct determined by force.

"I have found that most relativists adopt situational ethics, such as that it's OK to steal if you're starving, etc."

That would actually be based on facts, and thus a realist position.

"I don't think it's a sin to acknowledge the existence, interests, and characteristics of groups and coalitions."

As long as you admit that they don't exist, sure. Otherwise you're not being honest about it.

At 4/22/2006 3:30 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

The fucking moral razor/principle of universality. I love that goddamn thing!


A relative morality is a functional might = right morality, although you wont hear relativists admitting it, because they either dont realize it or dont see it that way.

But if relativism is true, and everyones moral position is relative -- they are all equally valid (or none of them are depending on how you look at it) -- then how else would that society function other than a might = right system?

If morality is relative and everyone agrees that everyones morality is just as fine as the other, then wouldnt might by default become the deciding factor in who was "right" simply because the stronger or more coercive one will be the last one standing?

At 4/22/2006 7:49 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Kudos Franc! Nicely developed. People tend to idealize everything, "family values", "culture"... They never met my family and they weren't thinking about the "culture" of a Rwanda or Ethiopia.

At 7/21/2006 12:07 PM, Blogger JesusMarine declaimed...

I do appreciate your war on relativism. Relativism is false indeed. However, you make it sound like ALL religious groups are irrational. Your antitheoretical position becomes a theory in itself! From this stance your arguments are self defeating. So then I must ask...if everyone should be a realist, by what idea do we conform to this realistic state of mind by? I do the same with idealism. By what realistic state of mind do we conform to idealism by? Christianity is right smack in the middle. It makes the most sense on both sides. We can not be labelled egoists, because we are Christocentric. And we can not be labelled idealists, because we believe in objective reality. But as a Christian, I can just sit back and enjoy the show. Carry on.

At 7/21/2006 12:08 PM, Blogger JesusMarine declaimed...

Might does not determine who is right. Christ does. It is not by the nature of mankind, but by the strength of Christ alone! Such a frustrating proposition to argue against a Christian. One should just stop already!

At 7/21/2006 12:10 PM, Blogger JesusMarine declaimed...

For the record....what religious groups do you belong to? Are you a humanist? That requires a lot of faith.....what about a Darwinist! I have a book coming out very soon called "The Darwin Code." You will be interested in knowing that I am going to write a book stating that Charles Darwin never existed and that the Galapogos islands was a hallucination considered by Adolf Hitler when he wrote Mein Kampf. I'm sure Glenn Morton and Richard Dawkins will love this one. Have a great day to all!

At 5/24/2007 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...

hi, blacksun,

i reached your blog via google when i was looking for something else.

people - usually christian conservatives - who lambaste "moral relativism" often paint with an overly-broad brush, failing to recognize a critical distinction.

it is one thing to believe that moral absolutes exist. for the record, i myself believe in an absolute morality.

the problem is, who knows it? who has a direct, static-free phone line to the mind of god?

bobby baptist says, "thou shalt not drink." cathy catholic says, "thou shalt recognize the pope as infallible." izzy islam says, "thou shalt deny the divinity of christ and recognize muhammad as the supreme prophet." who is right, and [i]more importantly[/i] by what authority is one vision of absolute morality imposed by law on other members of society who do not subscribe to the same vision?

morality is absolute; but [i]understanding[/i] of that morality is relative - it can't be otherwise, because human beings are imperfect.

democracy and freedom rely on the precept that each man is equal in dignity to other men. this means that no one has a right to impose his religious, or moral, vision on another. each man has a right to seek god for himself - or not to seek god at all. so, you cannot use the fact that absolute morality exists to impose morality - as you see it - on others in your society -- because your vision of absolute morality, like your vision of god, is imperfect, i.e. relative to your limitations, despite the fact that morality, and god, are absolute.

so people should be left free to be nudists, swingers, drinkers, perusers of erotica, etc., etc., although all these things were at one time illegal, and some are still. not because morality is relative; but because understanding of it is relative, and no man is master to his fellows.

At 5/06/2008 4:25 PM, Blogger The Celtic Chimp declaimed...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/06/2008 4:26 PM, Blogger The Celtic Chimp declaimed...

Thems fightin words :)

I am a moral relativist. I do not hold to a 'might makes right' ideology. If your understanding of moral relativism is so poor as to assert this, I suggest you find out a little more about it.

Some of the 'reasoning' in use here is very dodgy indeed.

Take this for example (francois responding to black sun)

"I have found that most relativists adopt situational ethics, such as that it's OK to steal if you're starving, etc."

That would actually be based on facts, and thus a realist position.

What facts???
What have any facts got to do with the morality of the decision?

Is the stealing because you are greedy any less based in fact?

The denial that culture exists is also patently ridiculous. Culture is used to describe general trends and opions and practices of specific groups of people. Generalities are perfectly fine. No they are not true for everyone, but they are generally true.

Religions are the ones who posit an objective moral fact. I have never met a religious moral relativist.

The 'Moral Razor' is only the case if you accept moral objectivism as axiomatic. It can hardly therefore be used as an argument against moral subjectivism. It is simply an assertion based on nothing. There is no value whatsoever in the moral razor. It is a pointless assertion.


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