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Moral realism vs. relativism

  1. Dec 14, 2008 #1
    Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, argues that morality is a kind of science. He says that “the fact that people of different times and cultures disagree about ethical questions should not trouble us. It suggests nothing at all about the status of moral truth.”

    He continues:

    Imagine what it would be like to consult the finest thinkers of antiquity on questions of basic science: “What,” we might ask, “is fire? And how do living systems reproduce themselves? And what are the various lights we see in the night sky?” We would surely encounter a bewildering lack of consensus on these matters. Even though there was no shortage of brilliant minds in the ancient world, they simply lacked the physical and conceptual tools to answer questions of this sort.

    Their lack of consensus signified their ignorance of certain physical truths, not that no such truths exist.

    Do you agree with Harris? Is morality a kind of science, where we progress and learn as we go? That there are objective moral truths that can be discovered? It certainly does seem morality can be progressive — for instance, woman’s rights and ending slavery was almost unthinkable a few hundred years ago.

    If morality is progressive, what do you think the next step will be? An end to war? An end to eating animals? An acceptance of homosexuality? More concern about the environment? An end to religion? Something else?

    For example: is it always wrong to stone homosexuals to death, or does it depend on the culture you live in?

    Or if you don’t think morality is progressive, why not?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 14, 2008 #2
    the use of the word consensus is interesting. i guess the implication is that our morality is better than theirs. indeed, we are better than they were. heck, we are better than people that still practice those old moralities/religions. we should probably do something about that.
  4. Dec 15, 2008 #3
    On the other hand:

    Do you believe that the moral values of the Nazis have equal validity as those of the people who opposed the Holocaust?

    Do you believe that the moral values of a serial killer or rapist have equal validity as those of people who are against rape or murder?
  5. Dec 15, 2008 #4
    i think those are boring questions. on the other hand:

    Do you believe the moral values of the Nazis have equal validity as those of Hebrews in the Old Testament that killed every living thing in the cities they waged war against?
  6. Dec 15, 2008 #5


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    sure their values are equally valid (you're assuming their actions match their values in the first place). But even if their actions did match their values, sure, why not? It doesn't mean the majority of society will just stand by because we're the majority and we all agree on our values so we can make sure that those values are enforced.

    Other values we're not so agreed upon (abortion, death penalty, and the like) but we'll probably eventually reach a majority opinion based on the benefits and risks to the overall health of societies members, not based on some secret objective rule of behavior (unless of course, my prediction is wrong, and fundamental religious groups end up ruling politics in the future instead of the logic/science approach).
  7. Dec 15, 2008 #6
    I'm a moral realist and i hold that we can rationally and empirically come to understand what values are valid or not, and whether actions is moral or immoral. Morality hasn't changed over time as much as people think -- the realm of moral consideration has just expanded in some sense. Naturally, a progressive consensus does not stack against moral realism for the above mentioned reasons in the Sam Harris quote, that is, for the same reason that progressive consensus in science doesn't stack against science.

    I like some form of the morality expressed in http://www.graveyardofthegods.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=5422 [Broken]. This is pretty hefty, but here is a short version of it.

    Sally and Cy: Morality In Action!

    I'd like to suggest some preliminary definitions that where mentioned in the above articles.

    Fact: Something we know
    Value: Something we want to keep
    Morality: What we use to figure out how to keep our values by using facts!

    A really good book about it is Universally Preferable Behaviour - A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics.

    Video sample:
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  8. Dec 15, 2008 #7
    Claiming that two contradictory values are equally valid is, well, contradictory. Also, any moral statement that is based on bold would be moral realism by definition.

    Furthermore, all moral systems based on religion cannot be moral realism by definition, since what is moral is not based on objective reality, but on a deity that in effect can change reality any given time in a very unpredictable manner.
  9. Dec 15, 2008 #8
    Criticising religion is not allowed.
  10. Dec 15, 2008 #9
  11. Dec 15, 2008 #10
    True. My questions are very boring. However, they are valid within the context of this thread.

    In answer to this valid question: Yes. They are both wrong.
  12. Dec 15, 2008 #11
    I commend you for giving a straightforward answer to a question that was obviously only meant to trash a certain culture.
  13. Dec 15, 2008 #12
    i don't think you understood my statement. it is my belief that your man Sam is making an assault on religion. so, actually, your posting of his quote is criticism of religion if i am correct.
  14. Dec 15, 2008 #13
    very well. as for your examples, arguments could be made for either. the Nazis were eugenicists. if you want to get all scientific about it, it hard to argue that striving to attain genetic perfection is immoral.

    as for rapists, i believe it has been proposed that rape may have an evolutionary basis. and indeed, it's difficult to watch some species mating without coming to the conclusion that rape is normal.
  15. Dec 15, 2008 #14


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    Staff: Mentor

    Via the scientific method.
  16. Dec 15, 2008 #15


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    This is the most obvious reason why moral relativism must be incorrect.

    Whenever this subject comes up, I tell people about the morality training I had at the Naval Academy. Besides generic college ethics/philosophy classess where we learned about the different schools of thought and history, we had a series of seminars designed to convince people of the correctness of moral absolutism, though they didn't tell you that up front. The discussions were mostly free-form debate of some of the usual case studies and they had no obvious direction, though we began the seminars with a poll about moral relativism vs absolutism. In the beginning, most people (perhaps 75%) were moral relativists. The main reason given being that it just sounds/seems less arrogant to take that position. After discussion, though, virtually all of these reasonably intelligent people came to the conclusion that morality cannot logically be relative.

    This leads me to believe that most people who are moral relativists are moral relativists because thay have not put much logical thought into the question.
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2008
  17. Dec 16, 2008 #16
    Destroying entire populations of humans (based solely on their identity) in order to achieve homogeneity depletes the gene pool (far from perfection) and undermines the greater good for the human species. In addition, this was done in a way that was intended to cause suffering.

    It does not benefit the human species and here is why: A big factor in the survival of the following generation is the female’s ability to choose a mate that is most likely to beget survivable offspring. Denying the females that ability (through rape) will undermine this process and likely place the future generation at risk (even if by abortion or abandonment). In addition, this causes long term suffering for the victims.

    My conclusion on the morality of these issues still stands.
  18. Dec 16, 2008 #17
    is there a rational basis for avoiding suffering? and suppose we only eliminate the people with genetic diseases? this would cause a bit of suffering in the short term while avoiding a lot of suffering in the long run. or maybe we'd only sterilize them. sterilization would also limit suffering in the short term. don't you think there are genetic diseases for which sterilization is perfectly reasonable?

    i dunno, it might be the rapist's only chance to pass on his genes, and he gets to choose her. you wouldn't want to deplete the gene pool by denying reproduction to psychopaths to achieve homogeneity.
  19. Dec 16, 2008 #18
    How can you test which moral values/basement is better, in a science lab?
  20. Dec 16, 2008 #19
    From a utilitarian perspective, of course it is.

    normal [tex]\neq[/tex] moral
  21. Dec 16, 2008 #20
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