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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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    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
  22. Dec 17, 2008 #21


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    [partially via pm]
    Moral realism is the philosophical idea that morality is scientific. It's a starting assumption that says 'yes, you can test a moral theory'. What you really mean is 'can you prove moral theories in a science lab?' The answer is yes, you can, and it is an active area of psychology research.

    That's a non-sequitur, though, since science does not require a lab.
  23. Dec 17, 2008 #22


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    The question Proton Soup asked is a properly worded scientific question. The question you asked is not. The question has a simple answer: Societies based on an individual's right to pursuse happiness function better than those that do not.

    You'll probably ask what "function better" means: a society that functions better is one that is better capable of providing the needs and wants of the members of the society.

    Please note: the word "better" does not always work in a scientific context and by focusing on it, you are a priori assuming the answer to the debate. You can say one theory functions better than another because it produces results closer to its predictions than another. But you can't say green is better than blue. You're not getting this because you are looking for pure value judgements, when theories need to be nothing more than correct predictions of the outcome of experiments. Try analyzing the subject without using such subjective words an concentrate on predictions and outcomes. For example: Legalizing drugs decreases drug use. It should be obious how this hypothesis/theory can be tested.
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2008
  24. Dec 17, 2008 #23
    This might be somewhat harsh, but isn't moral absolutism just a form of moral relativism?

    In this context, I take moral absolutism means that those moral statement that are correct, are correct regardless of time, place and circumstances, that is, regardless of what empirical facts exist. I further take moral relativism to mean that morality is just subjective and in the end arbitrary or even nonexistent because there is, according to moral relativists, no empirical basis for morality. Naturally, i could be completely mistaken here. Perhaps moral realism, in the sense that moral truths are necessarily based on our shared empirical reality, is a better and less confusing, term.

    I think that everyone lives their life as moral realists. Imagine you like milk and you have a carton of it at home. One day, you discover that the expiration day has passed. You would probably, and instinctively so, think to yourself something like the following: I ought not drink this milk, because of empirical fact x, empirical fact y and empirical fact z. Hardly anyone would argue that all forms of justification for not drinking bad milk are purely subjective and arbitrary.

    Moreover, i would like to argue that all arguments against moral realism must presuppose the truth of moral realism, and therefore automatically self destruct. This is because moral anti-realists are effectively arguing that it is true to claim that moral realism ought to be considered false. That is, they are making a normative moral statement that no normative moral statements exists. It is like claiming that it is true that no truths exists or that all language is meaningless; it simply disproves itself on deployment.

    I've found that most objections to moral realism comes from the absolutists of the religious or cultural right who claims that it is their religion, spiritual leader or deity that decides or proclaims that which is morally right or the academic left, mostly as a reaction to the before mentioned group and their own dogmatism about certain ideas.

    Naturally, moral realism is incompatible with core leftist doctrines such as the blank slate or the noble savage and with the core rightist idea of divine morality and the ghost in the machine because moral realism suggests that we all have i) the innate means to come to true moral conclusions ii) that some cultures are, in fact, morally better than others and that iii) morality is empirical, rather than supernatural. I am certain that hardcore leftists or rightists reject some or all of these propositions right away.
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2008
  25. Dec 17, 2008 #24


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    I don't think it is harsh, just illogical.
    No. There is no reason why any theory in morality or science would be purposely constructed to fail to address differing circumstances and facts. Explaining/predicting facts is kinda the whole point of a theory/science.
    Yes, you are. You are taking the view of moral relativists, assuming it to be true, then applying it to determine if it is true. To a moral relativist, moral absolutism is just one of many moralities and no more correct than any other. But the whole point here is discussing whether they are wrong!
    That is most definitely untrue. How many times have you heard people say "who are we to tell them what is right and wrong?"? Heck, international politics is dominated largely by the conflict beteween these concepts, in determining whether the international community can intervene in countries to right wrongs.
    You argued just the opposite in the beginning of the post! But no, if moral realism is what it says it is, individual theories must be scientific and falsifiable.

    If, for example, a country that does not punish murder is able to maintain a functional society, that could falsify the idea that murder is morally wrong.
    The statement "no normative moral statements exist" is not a normative moral statement. You are confusing a structural basis of the science/philosophy with the philosophy itself. It's like confusing the scientific method with a scientific theory. The scientific method is not a theory.
    You do realize that moral realism is a form of moral absolutism, right? They are on the same side of the discussion here. Because:
    I have not seen any descriptions of moral realism that imply that moral realism can't be supernatural. If the moral laws of the universe are woven into the very fabric of the universe just like the laws of physics, doesn't that just mean that God created those too? Put another way, no religious person would claim or agree that the morality handed down to them by God was not the "right" morality or that there could be another objective morality that disagrees with their religious morality. It's like if a scientific theory disagrees with a religious belief, the scientific belief simply must be wrong.

    Additionally, why would a religious person who believes God wrote the laws of the universe and provided brians for us to figure them out have a problem with your #1? And certainly virtually all religious people would agree with your #2 (mine is the right one: otherwise, I'd believe yours).
  26. Dec 18, 2008 #25
    The statement by itself may indeed not be a normative moral statement, but the moment you put forward the statement in a discussion in an attempt to convince me of its truth, you are in reality claiming that I ought to hold that said statement is correct (why else would you put forward an argument in the first place if not in an attempt to convince me of its correctness?). Of course, it cannot be the case that you think it is your mere opinion that the statement ought to be considered correct, because then your justification for putting forward the argument would then be arbitrary.

    Perhaps an example would help me to explain the idea. The moment you try to convince me of something, you must explicitly presuppose that truth ought to be preferable over falsehood. For if it is not the case that truth ought to be preferable over falsehood, the justification for making an argument is again undermined, because holding its negation would be equally justified. If it is instead the case that falsehood ought to be preferable over truth, then you cannot hold that the statement "falsehood ought to be preferable over truth" ought to be considered true, since falsehood ought to be preferable over truth. If it is the case that truth or falsehood is equally preferable, then the statements "falsehood ought to be preferable over truth" and "truth ought to be preferable over falsehood" are equally, which of course is a logical paradox. I see no other option other than the universal truth of the statement that "you ought to prefer truth over falsehood". Naturally, the moment someone attempts to argue against this statement, he or she must implicitly accept it as true (because otherwise your equally justified in holding its negation), therefore undermining all attempts to counter the statement that you ought to prefer truth over falsehood.

    If i say that blue is a better color than green, there you have no moral obligation to accept that, since color preferences are almost entirely subjective. However, if i say that the current President elect of the United States is Obama, then you have a moral obligation to accept that statement if it is the case that truth is preferably over falsehood. Now, it cannot be my mere opinion that truth is preferable over falsehood, because arguing that is as rational as arguing that blue is better than green in that you have no moral obligation to accept it. Similarly, if it is not the case that truth ought to be preferable over falsehood, then you have no moral obligation to accept anything and the entire reason or point behind rational argumentation, which i take as convince the person you are discussing with of the truth of your arguments, is undermined.

    If the moral relativist claims that no normative moral statements exists, then i would simply respond asking "Why ought i hold that no normative moral statements exists?". The moral relativists would be forced to argue that "you ought to hold that no normative moral statements exists because of fact x, fact y and fact z", which surely by definition would be a normative moral statement?
    Yes I agree, I made a poorly formulated statement. Let me rephrase. Most people live their personal everyday life as moral realists, because they are forced by reality to take facts into account when making moral decisions about their personal life in various situations. I certainly agree that the utter failure of humanity to understand morality has plagued humanity and led to horrible situations and most likely the murder of millions of people.

    I seem to have been expressing myself a bit vague before. You wrote

    responding to

    What I mean here is that I could be completely mistaken concerning the definition of moral relativism that i put forward, not about morality having an empirical basis. I do not support or subscribe to moral relativism in any shape or form. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

    I seem to have expressed myself a bit odd later on in my post as well. What I am arguing is that i) the innate means to come to true moral conclusions and ii) that some cultures are, in fact, morally better than others, are incompatible with the ideas of the far left (blank slate, noble savage) whereas iii) morality is empirical, rather than supernatural is incompatible with the far right (I'll explain why i think this below). Naturally, the right rejects the blank slate (because of original sin, for instance) and the noble savage (since they are not cultural relativists).

    The last issue I will address is what I perceive as an incompatibility between moral realism, which I here take to mean the a) notion that morality has an empirical basis that b) morality is contingent on reality and that c) true moral statements can be discovered and supported by various empirical investigations of the natural world, and essentially all forms of supernaturalism. If you can accept this definition of moral realism, we can begin to investigate if this notion is compatible with supernaturalism, which I take to mean that there exists something or someone beyond the natural, material world.

    Most supernatural entities are often considered to be both extremely powerful as well as fundamentally unpredictable. They must be extremely powerful, because if they where not, there would not be anything particularly extraordinary about them. If something that is labeled as supernatural could not, for instance, rise above the laws of physics then it would not make much sense to apply such a label. Now, supernatural entities must be fundamentally unpredictable, because if they where predictable, then such investigations would immediately be incorporated into scientific methodology and it would again cease to be supernatural. If you can accept these two attributes as necessary constraints on supernatural entities, we can soon begin to see why supernaturalism and moral realism are incompatible. These two constraints apply to entities such as gods, ghosts, demons, spirits, souls, witches and most other supernatural entities, at least in popular imagination and as I have argued, they must apply to all supernatural entities.

    Now, moral realism is based on, and indeed depends on, the fabric of reality. The problem for supernaturalists is of course that they must hold that there exists something extremely powerful and fundamentally unpredictable in addition to the material world. Now these entities thus have the power to change the fabric of reality, and thus morality at any given time, which is fundamentally unpredictable. This would mean that no action could be considered truly moral or immoral. If Bob hits his wife Alice over the head with a baseball bat for no apparently reason, most people would consider that an immoral action. However, what if the facts of reality has the ability to change unpredictably? What if hitting Alice over the head with a baseball bat does not harm her in any way, but puts 1M$ into her bank account? Would the action still be immoral? However, Bob could not predict what the outcome of his action would be, since putting a supernatural entity into the mix makes such estimations invalid, since you have an enormous and unpredictable factor in the form of one or more supernatural entities. Thus, these supernatural entities become Cartesian demons. Even worse, if Bob regularly use to hit Alice with a baseball bat and every time he does it 1M$ is deposited into her bank account, he cannot be sure that the next hit will have the same outcome. After all, it might actually kill Alice. In other words, all forms of induction breaks down the moment you attempt to introduce any form of supernatural entities. Thus, we cannot say that any action is moral or immoral, because the facts of reality are no longer available to us or that they can arbitrarily change at any time.

    In summary, the problems with the idea that moral realism is compatible with any form of supernaturalism is that supernatural entities would be Cartesian demons and that induction would be completely invalid. Coincidentally, the same sort of argument can be made in favor of the position that science, or for that matter organized knowledge of any form, is incompatible with all forms of supernaturalism. The atomic theory of matter might represent a valid approximation to reality today, but if Casper the Ghost exists and can arbitrary and unpredictably manipulate reality according to his whims, surely we cannot hold the atomic theory of matter in the same regard as we did before? For materialists or naturalists who hold that predictable matter, that is, matter acting according with its identity, is all that exists would not have such a problem.

    If mass shootings lead to economic stability instead of mass deaths, would the genocides in Darfur be immoral? If you cannot know whether or not the conservation of energy is valid at this precise moment (Casper would have altered it just a second ago), how can one hold that a free lunch is impossible?
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