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An argument that moral relativism is wrong.

  1. Jun 9, 2004 #1
    An argument that moral relativism is "wrong." :)

    I understand that it may be fashionable to call yourself a 'relativist' now-a-days but, before you take that idea as your own, maybe you will test the waters a bit. I, for one, just don’t see the "blank slate" morality approach as being a real possibility. I doubt, that as social animals we are born without certain "moral" attitudes toward one another. For example, the ‘reaction’ we call "empathy." The feeling of "shame." What purpose do these feelings serve? IMO, these are genetic reactions that preserve our social bonds with other individuals. By preserving our social bonds our individual genes gain that much of an advantage. ‘Group behavior’ can be seen working its advantage in many species in nature. Not saying there isn’t a ‘tug and pull’ between self-interest and group-interest. There is. Walking that line is what it is all about when living in a group as a social animal. Solitary animals can act with reckless self-interest. Social animals cannot. So - If we accept that familial "love" (familial bonds) is a genetic mechanism that protects our genetic legacy than why would it be different on a bigger scale when considering social bonds? If determining the limits of self-interested behavior is described, in part, by our genetic inheritance than why isn’t this the basis for a "morality."

    Here is an example I read somewhere – sorry I forget where – but think it was in Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. ---- It went something like this:

    We have a flock of birds infested with ticks. No bird can pull the ticks off their own backs but the two birds, working together, can remove all of the ticks off of each other. Assume there is no advantage to either bird other than this. The disadvantage to each bird is the energy expended in pulling off the ticks of the other bird. Energy that will have to be replaced. Birds take turns pulling off ticks. Now if ‘Bird 1’ expends the energy to pull ticks off ‘Bird 2’ but ‘Bird 2’ does not reciprocate – it seems that ‘Bird 2’ is ahead of the game. All of ‘Bird 2’s’ ticks are gone without expending energy. Having no advantage ‘Bird 1’ will not pull ticks from ‘Bird 2’s’ back again. Others who witnessed this ‘injustice’ will recall ‘Bird 2’s’ behavior when their turn comes since it is in their self-interest to do so. Now, if this behavior is repeated too many times by ‘Bird 2’ – he will die due to tick infestation. So – if with a calculating, cunning ‘Bird 2,’ a bird who wants to cheat, he had still better either be secretive or selective when doing so – or his calculating, cunning genes will stop with his tick infested death. Cooperating genes live for another day.

    And here is a very interesting scenario relating to moral choices which comes from Discover Magazine - This relates to the question what are the origins of 'moral choices.’

    http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-04/features/whose-life-would-you-save/

    NOW with that in hand ------ back to our human brothers and sisters. – Taking the ‘bird example,’ our reaction to other people in ‘moral situations’ depends on this same sort of genetic ‘give and take.’ A ‘give and take’ response encoded in our genes that the ‘large majority’ of us have inherited. Yet, you say, we certainly behave differently around different people. One set of responses for our child, another for our friends, and yet another for total strangers. Why? it appears that it would generally be in our interest to help those around us who we know. In our interest to be distrustful of those who are not members of our clan. Genetically, it is probably not in our interest to help a member from another tribe that has come into our territory. In fact, where the evolution of our genetic response is concerned, it is probably in our genetic interest to encourage their absence since we will have to compete for available resources with those folks.

    MAYBE, this might translate into modern cultures as a ‘Is this person living in a small town or in a large city?’ question. Taking the example given to us by Discover Magazine – (see the quote above) – and extend it out a bit. Not to just the visceral reaction to killing up close and personal ---- but also to whether we have a personal relationship with the person or we don't. That is, do I know this person AND do others know me? Will others in my ‘social group’ / clan recognize my behavior has good for the group or totally selfish? It is one thing to be a habitual traitor in a small town, and hide that fact, and quite another to blend in with that behavior in a large city. I think that our genes just might be selected for this sort of automatic behavior. They 'think' for us --- always calculating the best chances to past itself to the next generation. As such we remain 'morally loyal' to our social group but not to others. Big, artificial social groups like cities make some of us act in ways that we would not act if we had to be socially accountable. That would make a difference but it would still be a difference with instinctual / social roots IMO.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 10, 2004 #2
    Why are you equating moral relativism and the "blank slate" idea?
     
  4. Jun 11, 2004 #3
    I’m not equating the two. I’m saying that as human social animals we are not born "blank slates' but with a genetic framework that predisposes certain behaviors and feelings. That we are genetically social animals and that genetics are the origins of morals and as such are not relative.
     
  5. Jun 11, 2004 #4

    selfAdjoint

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    I don't think genetics prescribes our morals. For example killing humans has been common throughout our record (and killing chimps is a feature of the life of our cousins the chimps), yet morals everywhere say thou shalt not kill (except as specified).
     
  6. Jun 11, 2004 #5
    First, I’m not arguing for an absolute morality here ----- I’m arguing against Relativism. I’m arguing for a genetic framework that pre-describes how we see right and wrong in the world.

    But more to your point ----- the act of killing and the social reaction to that killing can be radically different. So social 'right' and 'wrong' may not be described by the actions of an individual. Social groups certainly don't tolerate random murderers in their number nor do they allow for other indiscriminate self-interested acts that break down the social group and it's protections. In addition, the group might favor certain killing – when it favors that group -- for example the killing of a member of another clan, a competitor for the available food and warm places.

    Also, there is always a 'give and take' between the immediate self-interest and the long-term social interest when your genes are deciding what course of action helps insures their (genes) continued existence. In simple terms, those genes that predispose the "wrong" behavior in the individual typically don’t get to do that again in the next generation. And to make it even more complicated, if a person can act in a selfish way without repercussions, than he or she may be genetically inclined to do that --- since this creates a survival advantage for the individual. Much like being the bird who is always gets the ticks picked off his back but never has to expend the energy to pick the ticks off the backs of others. (see my first post) Certainly, when the genetic balance favors murder - than that will be the favored behavior.
    So - then the question becomes, if we’re not predisposed to a social morality, what is the organizing / directing mechanism that causes us to experience empathy or shame? That these ‘feelings’ are in our genetic self-interest – that these ‘attitudes’ support the social group and therefore the individual within that protecting, providing group, is the point I want to make.

    Here is an excerpt from E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge regarding human universals. That is, human behaviors found in all cultures – no matter how otherwise diverse or distant. The question becomes --- why do we have these similarities?

    Included in this quote is Wilson’s take– The link goes to the quote on the Net.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/bookauth/eow3.htm

     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2004
  7. Jun 11, 2004 #6

    russ_watters

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    Good (important) topic. I'll be back when I have more time...
     
  8. Jun 11, 2004 #7
    Well I didn't have time to read all of this but nevertheless obviously contextualism is true. You cannot make moral decisions based on action categories, such as killing and so forth. Killing is not morally wrong, it is an action category. And yes, Tigers2B1, I don't fnid moral relativism very interesting either.
    *Nico
     
  9. Jun 11, 2004 #8

    selfAdjoint

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    I want to be very careful here. I am a believer that selection operates ONLY on individuals. That is, I deny group selection unless and until someone can persuade me that it is rigorously well defined.

    So for example we have people who will do random killing - sociopaths - born into every generation. And it's not clear to me that selection prevents them from breeding. And yes, I also believe that a propensity for sociopathism, at least, is genetically determined.

    We also have anecdotal evidence that it useful to have sociopaths around when it comes to licit killing, for example warfare. So it is at least possible that the rate of sociopath birth is an Evolutioanary Stable Strategy (ESS). Which kind of throws evo-morals out the window.
     
  10. Jun 11, 2004 #9
    Evo-morals? hah. Poppycock.
    *Nico
     
  11. Jun 11, 2004 #10

    loseyourname

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    Rigorously, I don't know, but it is becoming fairly well-defined.

    Do you not think that the average woman would be less likely to mate with a sociopath, if she indeed knew of his sickness and was not sick herself?

    Now, it may be difficult to imagine this being much of a factor now. But remember, this isn't a trait that evolved recently. It evolved very early in the history of mankind, when men still roamed in very small bands. A member of that small band who behaved unfairly toward or even killed other members of his band would almost certainly be dealt with and not allowed to breed. On the other hand, men who were unfair or murderous toward other groups, at the profit of their own group, would have benifited in kind.

    As far I know, the hypothesis being thrown out here is that men have evolved a certain group mentality. There is the in-group (family, tribe, country, race, etc.) and the out-group (everyone else). The idea is that we have developed a sense of fairness in dealing with our in-group while pitting ourselves against anyone who is not part of that group. This is used to explain the galling inconsistencies in, say, biblical morality. On the one hand, the Jews are told "thou shalt not kill." On the other, they are told to commit genocide on the native inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This is thought to be a result of their inborn tendency to behave morally toward members of their own in-group while attempting to destroy all other groups.

    This is a very hopeful hypothesis in that there are indications that the idea of an in-group has grown over time to encompass a greater number of people. When men first emerged from the ranks of older primates, the only in-group was one's own tribe. That eventually grew to include larger and larger tribes (eventually ethnicities and ethnic nations). In time again this grew to include ideological groups, such as nations that are not based on ethnicity. While the moral behavior toward one's in-group is innate, the basis of that group is not. The hope is that as cultural barriers break down, men will eventually come to see themselves as primarily part of the entire human race, rather than some smaller group, and this hypothetical genetic imperative to behave morally toward one's in-group will produce a more peaceful and ethical world.

    Obviously, the hypothesis needs some work, but if it's true, it could mean great things.
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2004
  12. Jun 12, 2004 #11

    Njorl

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    Then you are just arguing absolute morality with a different basis - genetic rather than religious. I consider myself a relativist, but I always believed that our morals were significantly grounded in evolution. Any belief system is subject to the same evolutionary pressures as genes are - survival of the fittest. It does not mean that morals are genetically coded though. Languages face the same pressures. They live and die based on their effectiveness. Would you argue that languages are genetically encoded in us?

    So, while I believe that the existance of the concept of morality might be genetic, and a few very basic aspects of morality might also be genetic, most of morality is defined by society. Since no two people see society in exactly the same way, no two people will have the same morality.

    Njorl
     
  13. Jun 12, 2004 #12

    selfAdjoint

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    Actually they do pretty well at mating. They are experts at fooling others.
     
  14. Jun 12, 2004 #13

    loseyourname

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    Adjoint, you're still thinking in modern terms. I don't think anybody was covertly killing members of their own tribe for no good reason without retribution and then successfully mating 400,000 years ago when a trait like this would have evolved.
     
  15. Jun 12, 2004 #14

    loseyourname

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    I don't know that morals differ as much as you think they do. People often cite the phenomenon of Eskimos killing off their old, but I would argue that every culture believes unjustified killing to be wrong. They simply disagree as to what constitutes proper justification. The fact that culture has badly clouded the basic underlying moral structure of a human being doesn't mean that that structure is invalid or even relative.

    Either way, the existence of a disagreement very obviously does not rule out the possibility of one party being correct and the other being incorrect.
     
  16. Jun 12, 2004 #15
    Ah, I missed this before. Yes, the mentality you are referring to is probably the notions of "identity" and to a lesser extent "empathy." Although, I do not really accept the in-group/out-group dichotomy. I think it is more based on individualism and the previously mentioned notion of empathy, from a psychological standpoint; I do not accept the validity of the "community" concept. As far as the "Biblical" accounts you dicuss, those are not really about morality, the examples you could give will ultimately be about transcending morality. For example, when Abraham was going to sacrifice his child, obviously that was not moral but it was instance in which Morality was transcended. So I don't think the Biblical accounts would be good justification for an argument on morality of this sort. Though, I agree Jewish/Christian morality is absurd and it is the result of a slave mentality.
    *Nico

    --Edit-- I should expand, Jews are not told "Thou shalt not kill," they are told "Thou shalt not murder." It seems to be trivial but "killing" is an action category and is neither right nor wrong and murder is probably more relavently defined in contextualism. But genocide, nonetheless =)
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2004
  17. Jun 12, 2004 #16
    Well, you are essentially right because contextualism is true. Although, being an objectivist .. that is another story. However, as I said in the previous post "killing" is an action category and is neither right nor wrong and by using the phrase "unjustified killing" it seems you realize it is in context where value can be derived and not the action itself.
    *Nico
     
  18. Jun 12, 2004 #17

    loseyourname

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    Is there any particular reason why you reject it? Pre-moral sentiments such as fairness and justice have been found in lesser primates, such as chimpanzees, as well, who behave by a certain code of conduct within their own social group that does not apply to other groups, with whom they will even go to war.

    I wasn't trying to make any comment on religion. I was only pointing out an example from ancient times of varying codes of conduct that depended on whether one was interacting with one's own group or with another. We see this in all ancient societies, most of which codified laws prohibiting the unjust treatment of fellow citizens, but which excluded all non-citizens from this application of justice.


    True. I should have clarified that. Still, the point stands that their system of morality extended only to their fellow Jews. They were not allowed to murder their fellows, but they had no problem murdering Gentiles.
     
  19. Jun 12, 2004 #18

    loseyourname

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    Of course. Murder is what is considered to be wrong. I'm defining murder as unjustified killing.
     
  20. Jun 13, 2004 #19
    loseyourname, with respect to why I reject the "community" concept and the chimpanzees, I do accept "identity" which you could call the group I suppose, however I contend "community" is more imaginary than anything else. But "identity," I suppose would work equally well in this case, I haven't given it much thought at this point. I suppose the problem is that it is, instead of this "community" or group-concept, it is really the identity, however one chooses to construct one's identity. Though, in effect, I can accept your position for now.
    *Nico
     
  21. Jun 13, 2004 #20

    loseyourname

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    I'm not going to take any strong stance on this because, as I pointed out, much testing remains to be done of this hypothesis, and the hypothesis really isn't fully worked out to begin with. I'm just trying to present it in a way such that the posters here actually understand it, because there seem to be many misconceptions.

    Remember what I said about the flexibility of the in-group notion. The only thing postulated to be hardwired into our genetic code is the sense of justice applied to those we identify as part of our in-group. What that in-group consists of is entirely dependent on circumstance, and it may very well only be oneself. The only qualm I have with your characterization is that you say this identity is the choice of the individual in question. I would argue that this identity is formed at a very young age and is mostly separate from that individual's consciousness. This isn't to say that willpower can have no effect, but to say that a person chooses his in-group is a gross oversimplification.
     
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