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Moral Relativism: There are No Moral Absolutes

  1. Jun 3, 2005 #1
    Interesting article I read a week ago:

    What You Can't Say

    January 2004

    Have you ever seen an old photo of yourself and been embarrassed at the way you looked? Did we actually dress like that? We did. And we had no idea how silly we looked. It's the nature of fashion to be invisible, in the same way the movement of the earth is invisible to all of us riding on it.

    What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They're just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they're much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

    [ . . . ]

    Complete article at http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 7, 2005 #2


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    I must admit that after reading the first few paragraphs I only skimmed the rest, but I don't see what the article has to do with moral absolutism vs relativism.
  4. Jun 8, 2005 #3
    That gave some good ways to look at ourselves.

    However, I would not say that just because most societies view one thing as right, that it is right. There are probably things common that benefit humans, and so most view it as a good. But, the idea of that being some universal, all specie good, doesnt really hold..
  5. Jun 8, 2005 #4
    i would have to think contrary to your (Dennis4) implyed corralation between morals and fashion.

    morals can be absloute, that is for one individual, if, however, that person is not effected by ethics. by ethics i mean socity's principle's of living; what the people say collecetivly about how to live one's life. this may change with time. for instance, the acceptance of brith controll in the 60s that was rejected in the victorian era. now it is proclaimed to be ethical.

    But, as a cathloic I see birh controll as amoral. Although it may be ethical, i would never accept it to be moral.
  6. Jun 13, 2005 #5
    Oh Yes, There Are Moral Absolutes,
    AND IMO they can be determined objectively, that is, empircally, that is, scientifically. Let me a give you a few (commonly known or acceptable) objectively determinable moral absolutes to illustrate the idea.
    1) Slavery and exploitation are completely morally and reasonably wrong. Slavery is parasitism, feeding off the non-consensual choice of another for the complete benefit of an other(s). (Slavery enslaves the slave and the slave-holder.)
    2) Humans are animals that have a specific set of needs, like any and all other animals and when those needs are met the animal is "happy" and maximally functional. And when they are not met, to the degree they aren't met, the human animal will first substitute any other resource available to it to substitute for the unmet need and second will go (increasingly) dysfunctional. (Dr. Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs.)
    3) Overpopulation ruins everything for everybody, sooner or later.
    4) Violence only breeds violence. Violence avoidence is generally the best policy and plan. Non-violence, except in relatively rare and extreme cases and emergencies, eventually will win out.
    5) Life is a means to an end - and not an end in itself.
    6) There are some things worse than death.

    There are probably many tens of these knowably objectively determinable absolutes. But, by the same token, one can identify subjetively maintained absolutes that arent universally true. As such, we have a basis for secular and scientifically-determinable religion.

    Peace and love,
  7. Jun 15, 2005 #6
    No, you're really claiming that there are moral absolutes, but the morality that an individual holds are subject to change. Well, of course thats true because our beliefs are subject to change as one expands his/her knowledge base. And just because someone believes something to be good, doesn't mean it is in the long run.
  8. Jun 17, 2005 #7
    There are absolutes...Probably!

    But i think it depends on people's beleifs, education, community, ..bla bla.
    I don't beleive in absolutes in general, but there r things that a large number of people agree on..So maybe these are what uc an call absolutes...

    But everyone of us is really in his own frame of referrence, looking to the world through his own glasses, so morality also comes when u try to understand what's goin on with the other frame sittin next to u..
  9. Jun 29, 2005 #8
    Here is my thing about absolutes:

    If one made the claim, "There are no absolutes." Then wouldn't that statement contradict itself since it just stated an absolute?
  10. Jun 30, 2005 #9
    Of course there are moral absolutes.

    Aren't murder, adultery, and theft universally considered wrong?

    Some might argue that universal perception does not determine what is absolute. So how does one truly perceive what is absolute?

    There has to be moral absolutes. Otherwise there is only chaos.
  11. Jun 30, 2005 #10
    Not if your society values sacrifice to the gods and free love and rejects material possessions.

    Why? Why cannot two societies with complete opposite moral values coexist? Each society would be ordered within itself, with each member adhering to that society's moral codes, but the two societies themselves are entirely different and so no moral absolutes exist.
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2005
  12. Jun 30, 2005 #11


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    That's why you make the claim, "There are no moral absolutes." Such a claim is an absolute claim in itself, but not a moral absolute, so there is no contradiction.
  13. Jun 30, 2005 #12
    WEll two opposite morals community could be existing at the same time but only one of them is 'right' in its perception of reality and fullfiling the meaning of their existence.

    SO moral absolutes can exists even though not every community/individual knows about them and/or follows them.

    In otherword there is only one TRUTH, one correct interpretation of our physical world. SInce our 'morals/beliefs/knowledge' are based on this physical world (what we can sense) there is only one CORRECT set of morals/beliefs/etc . Of cause only the frameworks, not the details , etc.
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2005
  14. Jun 30, 2005 #13


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  15. Jun 30, 2005 #14
    I think the problem with absolutes is that, by definition, they really don't leave any room for grey. It is black and white.

    For instance, like others have said, killing a fellow person is generally accepted to be wrong.

    But what about if that person breaks into your house? And has gun pointed at you?

    Still think there's a general consensus?
  16. Jun 30, 2005 #15
    Thats very interesting about the physical reality no being connected. I have not thought about it could you give me something i can read upon this...

    Can you explain me my logical error in the i dont quite get it....

    thank you very much

  17. Jun 30, 2005 #16
    I don't really see you making a logical error per se, but you make a few assumptions that are not necessarily true, for example
    Which about half the student body and 3/4 of the faculty of the philosophy department at my university would disagree with you on.

    Some food for thought:
    Just because two people disagree does not mean one is more right than the other, they may be both equally right (or, you could say, equally wrong). And if one is more 'right' than the other, how do you prove it?

    Everybody interpretes and perceives our world differently, what may be self-evident as wrong to one person, another person may be completely indifferent towards, or he/she may desire it. So if you're going to say something is absolute you must use more than people's perspectives to argue it.
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2005
  18. Jun 30, 2005 #17
    I see. thanx,

    About the two communities, of cause there is more option of both of them being wrong etc but my point was that that two communities in opposite moral can coexist. And even though each one of them will think they are right one of them will be wrong (if the other is following the 'truth');

    Now about the truth definition i had in mind. And about the perception....

    I assumed that since our universe seems to be obeying one law (the ultimate theory scientist are trying to crack) there is only one correct interpretation of the laws physical objects obey. Plus throughout the universe we assume that physical laws are the same.

    I made connection with morals here because we live as physical objects (our learning/growth/etc must come from material world, lets drop soul and stuff for now) and perceive only physical objects. human cannot perceive anything which is not an object (physical).

    NOw the connection: since we learn from physical world and form beliefs based on it, if we got the physical interpretation correctly we should derive the correct beliefs about us as well. Therefore an 'absolute' moral could be formed.

    Now im not sure if i cleared things up (how i meant them) or the opposite. IF i did the same mistake let me know.

  19. Jun 30, 2005 #18
    (Leaving aside any Solipsism ideas)

    Here you make 3 assumptions:
    1.You are also assuming that humans (to whom alone, morals apply) are also subject to definite, unchanging rules of the universe. This is, in science, in debate.
    see: Freewill, Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle.

    2. That a single 'true' series of events has, as a result, a single 'true' corresponding moral absolute of 'right' or 'wrong'.

    3. That this single 'true' series of events can be determined by humans by some systematic procedure, and that every human will arrive at the same result.

    #2 + 3 are very interesting things because in order to argue them you have to define what morality is, which brings up all sorts of questions. Are morals only defined by humans? Can they exist without humans? Can non-humans commit moral or immoral acts? Can inanimate objects be moral or immoral?

    *sigh* I miss saint.
  20. Jul 1, 2005 #19
    Thanx so much for this,

    let me take 2 and 3 since holding the 1 as valid assumption (reasonable ?).

    Morals are defined only by humans and living things. Since living things are objects in universe furthermore morals apply only to INTERACTION among/between LIVING objects. There is not moral to be applied to 'dead' objects. NO object is inherently immoral or moral. Only interaction can we can talk about here.

    Since only living objects are related to morals => morals do not exists without life.

    Humans and animals are conscious creatures. (here lenghty discussion whats the difference between humans and animals. And if we find an alien would we judge him to be able to commit immoral act or would we consider him animal which is only driven by immediate desires. I realize this point is very hard..)
    SO furthermor moral actions can be taken only by the cretures which that which distninguished animals from humans (since i was not able to define it very well in short paragraph). Not vice versa, i dont think animal can take immoral step toward human or toward other animal.

    Yeah now i see its hard to even define moral. (other than behavior of coformance to accepted right/wrong). hmm how to define right and wrong? An injustice to oneself or others.

    Now i see that maybe without some background definition of right and wrong (justice) its very hard to even talk about moral. For example religion, that would be very easy do define morals in therms of religion but from nothing there is lot of relativism to be dealt with.

    what is your stance on it?
  21. Jul 1, 2005 #20


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    How about this statement:

    "It is wrong to kill a person when the killing of that person protects nobody from harm, and is of no benefit to anybody."

    Is this statement absolutely true?
  22. Jul 1, 2005 #21
    What makes it wrong? The harm to the person being killed? or the fact that there is no benefit to anyone as a result of it?

    Can we justify murder with gain?

    There's actually a guy who specialises in this kind of argument. You may have heard of him, Peter singer.
  23. Jul 1, 2005 #22

    I would add 'sentient' to your definition. Or can bacteria and plants perform evil as well?

    I would argue your wording, using this rule you could draw some illogical deductions. For example: If all life ceased to exist, morality would cease to exist as well. This is treating an intangible concept as something physical.

    The whole alien thing is rather irrelevant. We don't know aliens, and if we did it would quite possibly be extremely difficult if not impossible for us to understand how they view the world in comparison to us. So discussing their moral implications is.. strenuous, with no real benefit.

    The most interesting definition I've heard is:
    "An Evil act is an act where you use something against it's purpose". And he explained it with this example, if you use a butter knife to kill someone, you are doing evil to the knife because that's not it's purpose, and you are doing evil to the human, because you are killing it against it's will (humans create their own purpose - therefor will). Similarily, if you use a sword to spread butter, you are doing evil to the sword. But if you kill someone with it, you are not doing evil to it (but you are still doing evil to the human).
    However, in this you are treating evil not as a living thing, but as a projection, a force of sorts to which one can throw at someone (thing) else. Which is very different from your own definition, where you treat it as a label, something to which you either are or are not.

    Tell me, which one is right and which one is wrong? :wink:

    :biggrin: That's what philosophies all about.

    Oh me? I don't believe Morality exists at all or has any usefull application to our existance. Having said that, it does seem to be an ingrained part of our psyche, necessary even.

    Absolutists say "This is wrong (or right) no matter what, because it is"
    Relativists say "We don't know enough about it to say what's right or wrong"

    In practical discussions (I.e. when discussing something tangible, like an event or a person) I tend to be quite a relativist.

    To me, morality appears to be a conceptualised instinct. It's our excuse for doing everything we do. I'll explain it with an example (sort of..).

    A man builds a house. Ask him "Why did you build a house?" Because I need to stay warm. Why do you need to stay dry? Because I need to stay health. Why do you need to stay healthy? Because I don't want to die.
    Why don't you want to die? Because I'm afraid of death. Why are you afraid of death? Because I don't understand it. Why are you afraid of that which you don't understand? Because I don't know how to react to it. Why do you want to know how to react to it? So that I can stop it bringing harm to me. Why are you afraid of harm coming to you? Because I don't want to die.

    Oversimplified I know. But at the source of every action we take is some primal instinct biologically built into us that we can't escape. A more honest answer for the above example might simply be "Because I think it's right", which is synonymous with "Because it is my nature to".
  24. Jul 1, 2005 #23


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    The harm done. "No benefit" implies moral neutrality.

    It depends on what type of gain we are talking about. If the quick painless death of one person leads to millions of other people living lives free of torture (which would otherwise be filled with torture), then I think it is certainly justified.

    Yes. I don't know enough about him, but I seem to agree with his views.
  25. Jul 1, 2005 #24


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    I'd not answer like this. I'd say "To stay healthy, and to not suffer". Why not suffer? It is difficult to answer this question. The badness of suffering "in itself" is IMO an inescapable truth, and the basis of any morality.
  26. Jul 1, 2005 #25
    Your statement leaves a lot of subjective thinking, with words like "benefit" and "protects". My main point was that when the complexity of life is added to absolute morals, these supposedly innate rules of right and wrong seem to waiver among men.
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