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Moral relativity

  1. Oct 26, 2005 #1
    If morals are relitive to their circumstances, how can we ever define what it ethical and nonethical? If they are relitive then it would seem that there is no one solid moral fact and the entire idea of morals is useless. one the other hand, how can there be absolute facts about something that has no physical form? Since morals are entirly a matter of the conscience mind how do we even know if they exists?:uhh:
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 26, 2005 #2


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    Yes, I too see the concept of "moral relativism" to be inherrently self-contradictory and useless in the practical sense.

    I went to a military academy, and they taught ethics and morality there. Most people have never put much thought into such things, and most people have an aversion to the idea of absolutes in general - paradoxically, even religious people. So the vast majority (above 75%) of people started out with a belief in moral relativism. But once you get deep into the discussion of it, most ended up realizing that the idea is fundamentally flawed, and they abandon it.

    As for "how do we know they exist?" - simple: we invented them! Since morality is an idea it need only exist in our minds and in our communications.

    And there is a question you left out: if there is an absolute morality, what is it or how do we find it? That's the tough part. But the way to find the correct moral theory is the same way you find the correct theory in physics: through logical formulation and experimentation.
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2005
  4. Oct 26, 2005 #3
    I would say morality and ethics are two different things. Ethics seems to be more structured, laying out certain actions which we deem ethical or non-ethical. For instance, ethics would deal with the question,"how do we treat animals who are in clinical testing?" I see morality dealing with more solely right vs. wrong, like, "is it right to test on animals?"

    I agree with russ in that morality is a concept made up by humans. I've encountered two main ways of thinking about the origin or morality: (1)It came from some sort of deity, or (2) humans have made up the concept.

    I think that absolute morals are only justifiable if you claim that some sort of deity that transcends humanity has set out universal morals. How can you prove that your morals are right? I can't even see how you would go about this.
  5. Oct 27, 2005 #4
    I can see how you could use logic to define your own invention, if morals are indeed human inventions, but how could you use experimentation? You can't experiment with something that doesn't physicaly exist. It seems to me that there are only two ways an absolute law can be in existance, a. it is part of nature, i.e. thermodynamics, etc., or b. it is created, computer programming is the only example I can think of.
    Now we know it is not part of nature, and this leaves only creation. If every man creates his own morals, or simply bases them on someone else's beleifs, then they are not absolute sicne they do not apply to everybody.
    This seems to indicate that either there is a higher being of some sort that created an absolute moral code for all of humanity, or there simply are no absolute morals at all.
  6. Oct 30, 2005 #5
    please define your terms

    I just checked the rules for this forum, and definitions are in good place.

    What do you call 'moral relativism'. Could you give an exemple in order to discuss a concrete case. With more precise definitions I might ask you "why *morals* would be useless if relative", how did you come to this conclusion based on your definitions and assumptions. Maybe I could proof the contrary.

    What do you call *morals*, are these the same as 'living rules', something like 'you should not kill' ?
    What do you call relativism? Is it something like 'you should not kill, but somtimes you are obliged to'?

    Let me note that I truly don't care about the belief of people regarding morals like 'you should not kill', as long as they don't threaten anybody.

    Finally let me explain my guess, probably independent from the definitions you will propose. For me the only difference between an "absolute moral" and a "relative moral" is in the length or complexity of its definition. In this sense, an "advanced moral" would only be relative in the sense that it is advanced, by which I mean that it takes the reality more precisely into account.

    Would you define morals by simplicity ?
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2005
  7. Oct 31, 2005 #6
    "Morals" What are completely right and wrong. It is absolutely wrong to steal from someone. Murder is absolutely wrong, etc.
    "Relativism" The idea that everything is dependent on the circumstances around it. Ergo, a man's father is a thief and a killer, and he was raised believing these were not wrong. When he kills and steals, somehow he is less responsible for his deeds since it depends on his upbringing, not him.

    What relativism states is that the morals cannot be applied to every case. Once you start adding 'ifs, ands and buts' to it then they cannot be defined. If murder is not completly wrong then someone might be excused, yet who can judge all of the details that could have made the man commit murder. It is impossible to completely reconcile the two, because relativism will allows cloud morals with the impossible to know. Ergo, moral relativism cannot exist.
    This might be a crude statement, and if anyone can define it better, please do so. I haven't studied the subject and am only using my own logic. Any help would be greatly apprecieated.

    And no, I would not define morals by simplicity. While murder is always wrong, what composes murder is up for debate. Is self-defense murder? Pre-emtive self-defense? These are where complications arise, not in the moral itself; but they cast a cloud of doubt upon the moral and make it appear complicated.
  8. Nov 29, 2005 #7
    Morality stems from choice. Choice is for the most part a solely human abstract. Therefore morality should follow from what defines us as humans. What is our means of existence and what makes our existence possible. Understanding these things is necessary to lay a proper foundation for morality. Morality is dependent on us and we are dependent on morality, one is a function of the other.
  9. Dec 1, 2005 #8
    I think the most applicale sort of morality is based on empathy and reason. Because people's minds work on different premises (everyone understands the world differntly) AND people empathize differntly (both as a result of their premises and probably their empathetic processes) realtive morality is the reality.

    Since morality is entirely a human conception it should be realized that it is whatever we make it out to be (it's just gotta fit into what we've already made it out to be).

    I think making a science out of it is silly. If you want to understand morality understand neuroscience and cognition, that'll give you the keys to the morality mobile: *Driving experience may vary*. Or if you want another sort of (absolute) morality I think there's a sort of utilitarian based 'best' action that could be found via a perfect understanding of cause and effect. To find that you'd have to use a unified theory of science(s) something that I think will never be found to pinpoint accuracy (but is a worthy goal none the less). No matter, either way moral science is silly.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2005
  10. Dec 8, 2005 #9
    I do not think morality can be based on empathy and reason at the same time. In fact, morals and emotions should not mix when you are trying to disern what is correct. Emotions are misleading, blinding, and at worst destructive. To base any sort of action on emotion is folly. Saying that, we cannot be seperated from emotions, so the only thing we can do is try to not them interfere with our actions. Why should we base something so important as morals on something as untrustworthy as empathy?
  11. Dec 15, 2005 #10
    I agree in essence with your statement, but it is important to understand that our emotions do serve a useful function. Emotions are indicators of our mental state. If we have conflicting beliefs or values our emotions will alert us to this.

    But emotions like beliefs should not be taken at face value. They require careful evaluation and understanding. Only after we have determined what it is they are alerting us to and come to a rational decision as to what to do about it should we act on them.

    The exception to this is that in certain emergency situations where immediate action is necessary our emotions may take control over our actions as a life supporting measure. When this happens all we can do is hope that our emotions arise from the practice of sound judgment and a valid belief system until the emergency is over.
  12. Dec 18, 2005 #11
    Well the way I understand it is that relative refers to the relation things have to each other. Everything has both a relative and absolute aspect. relative in its relation to other things and absolute in that it is the very thing that it is. From one perspective a house is big when compared to a person, but a house is small when compared to the sun. Relativism usually talks about a very specific sense where something is different from place to place and/or from time to time, and is mainly invoked to mean differences in value judgements from different societies. There is no question that some values like this are relative. For instance, in France some people enjoy eating snails, but in other countries people might not enjoy the taste of snails. And no society has the same laws that they feel are appropriate to themselves. Most do not think exactly the same things are right or wrong.

    I mention that all things are both relative and absolute. The thing to bare in mind that all human judgements are always relative in what they judge to be true. The absolute is what comes from the fact that a particular person makes a particular judgement. When talking about judgements that are made about something factual that can be verified objectively we can say whether they are true or not. Like to say that tree leaves are green in the spring. I can go out, check, and see a tree and verify that its leaves are green. However, when dealing with statements that are not factual in nature it's another story. A moral is an "ought" statement. It says that one should or shouldn't do something. For example, "you ought not kill other people," "you shouldn't kill," or "do not kill" are not a factual, descriptive statement. An example of a descriptive statement would be "Booth killed Lincoln." Further, as Hume points out, "is" statements do not imply ought statements. This means that the truth of a descriptive statement has no baring on the "truth" of an ought statement. Even if you could know every true factual statement, they could never lead you to any "truth" about what you should do. Without being able to arrive at this kind of verifiable truth about value-judgements from outside the subjectivity perspective of a person, I doubt you could ever seriously expect to uphold an absolutist morality. I would say that the burden of proof lies on being able to show just one ought that is absolute.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2005
  13. Dec 20, 2005 #12
    You ought not kill an innocent person; I defy anyone here to disagree with that absolute statement. Never forget that there is a difference between what ought to be done, and what needs to be done. Should you kill someone in self defense? no: Must you kill in self defense? to protect yourself and others around you, yes. The justifies the killing, but does not make it right. There should be no murder, no rape, no stealing, but there is and it must be prevented. Sometimes the only means to prevent it ought not be done, but have to anyway.
    When this line of reasoning is placed on everyday moral choices, its fine line is all but impossible to walk. These subtle differences in morals make it so hard to see what is real and what isn't that many people simply throw up their hands and say "nothing is real". There are so many things affecting what should and what needs to be done that it is easy to loose sight of a simple fact. Without moral absolutes; there are no morals. It is the duty of those who can walk this line and see the shining light of truth through the haze of confusion to show it to others. The burden is placed on us, and we shouldn't throw it off because of the near impossibility of the task.
  14. Dec 20, 2005 #13
    It seems to defy a lot of deeply held beliefs of people to say that morality isn't absolute. It seems that people often grow up just accepting that some things are just plain right and other things are just plain wrong. But people gain an impression that it's against common sense find things otherwise. It's very disquieting to think that things might not be so certain. I know I'm not trying to do damage. I just don't think there is such certainty in this world.

    Argumentum ad populum?

    When the UN was working on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the preliminary work was outsourced from the Commission on Human Rights to UNESCO. The diverse philosophical group representing "people" (the UN actually represents governments not people) from around the world found that they could agree on no common principles. However, the project didn't stop there. After the horrors of WWII and really also centuries without common standards, they were able to agree that certian things must not be allowed to happen ever again. They were able to agree on things like, "everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person," but they could never agree on why. But this is positive law (but really the UDHR doesn't acutally have the force of law). This is relativism. The fact that no one is likely to defy you and say innocents ought to be killed doesn't make it an absolute statement. This concensus your bating is the essense of a relativist argument. Nowhere have you demostated this to be absolutely correct and universal to everyone.

    There is a distinction here between statements or propsitions and judgements of those statements. A person may judge the statement that tree leaves are green to be true. Another may judge the proposition to be false. The judgements are what are relative not the the truth or falsity of the proposition. When people say that something is true, they generally mean that something "corresponds to reality." But what can we say about value judgements? When someone values something, what is real is that a particular person values a particular thing. What isn't real is that those values are absolute. Saying, "I enjoy ice cream," or "ice cream is capable of being enjoyed," are very different from saying "ice cream should be enjoyed by everyone," or "ice cream is intrisically good." Why should ice cream be enjoyed by everyone, when clearly some people do not enjoy it? Ice cream is considered good because people find it enjoyable. It is not good because it posseses some property of "goodness." The absurdity can easily be seen. Morality is not really a completely different matter. Your statement as you seem to say is a preference, a wish. One wishes that people not kill, rape, etc. A morality conceived as an expression of preference is a value, these values are judgements, and all judgments are relative. This doesn't do it for me. Perhaps you can find an absolute morality. I'm not saying you can't.

    Needs that aren't choices have no moral implications. Choices that come in the form of "if... then" can "have" a sort of truth. If you value not dying, then you ought to defend yourself. However, one might be quick to object that people like Hitler or Saddam Hussein never gave a second thought to killing an innocent person. If they didn't value life, and they didn't, they need not concern themselves. Unfortunately, might really does make right.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2005
  15. Dec 20, 2005 #14
    Life is the basis for all value; without life and that which is required for its sustenance, value does not exist. Rocks, dirt, sunlight, etc., have no value other than how they can contribute to the sustenance and well-being of living organisms. Since life is the basis for value than values must pertain to life.

    Morality arises from creatures with the capacity to reason and choose. On this basis morality is the province of creatures that require, for their survival and well being, making the proper choice. What contributes to the freedom of an individual to achieve one's own existence by the products of ones own efforts is the fundamental guiding basic moral principal. Might is right if and only when it is applied to defend the rights of all individuals.
  16. Dec 21, 2005 #15
    Taking your example of the UN and how humans make morals, I would say this leads to the belief that morals simply don't exist. If they are an absolute law then they have always existed like the laws of physics. We do not make the law of gravity, we discover it. So to with morals, we discover what is right and wrong. To say we make them is to say they are nothing more then figments of our imagination, part of our minds and nothing more. If they are that, then they are not real and do not exist. I can do whatever I want, when I want to and fear not whether they are right or wrong. What the UN put together, as you said, was a law and not a moral.
    Perhaps you are right, that there are no absolutes, for what was around to create the laws of morals? Certanly not us, and not science for morals have nothing to do with matierial reality. But if that is the case, and there is nothing more to this universe then matter in motion, then morals are not relative because they[/I]do not exist[/I].
  17. Dec 21, 2005 #16


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    Morality is a social contract of sorts and is not anything that exists in the absence of mind and social order. As such, absolute morality is an attempt by some to have the rules they make up take precedence over all others. Absolute morality imposes rigidity on society; it sees no shades of grey and is incapable of dealing with nuance and changing conditions or circumstances.

    Moral relativism is far from anarchistic with everyone doing anything they want. There is survival benefit for the species and social order in agreeing to cooperate with some agreed upon notions of right and wrong while maintaining some degree of flexibility allowing for adaptation.
  18. Dec 21, 2005 #17
    Basicaly what you are saying is that morality is defined by the scociety, therefore the 'social contract'. Therefore whatever society deems moral, is moral. Now what happens when two different societies exist that differ on the definition of morals. For example, in America it is considered moral reprehensible for anyone in government to interfere in your private life without your knowledge and consent. The recent news stories about domestic spying and the outrage it caused is a good example of this. However, in China this is not the case. Communism judges the individual less worthy then the society, so the state, i.e. the government, can do whatever they want to them. Anyone here remember Tenamin Square?
    So, which one is correct? According to you they both are and can both exist because they are seperate societies.
    Now, when an American visits China, do Chinese morals suddenly become the only ones that aply to him? He is still part of the culture of America but dwelling under Chinese laws. Surly he must obey the law, but laws and morals are different. Vice versa, if a Chinese citizen comes to America do they sudenly gain the morals rights of us?
    Now expand on this and ask yourself something. Let there be one hundred people, half American and half Chinese. They take a ship into international waters where there is no law and make their own government. What morals do they base their laws on? A compromise maybe, where the two moral ideas have some common ground. In this both moral ideas are changed and something new is formed, a new moral code.
    Repeat this a hundred times with different groups of people. Now we have one hundred societies existing, each with their own unique, and acording to you, valid moral system. Do you see the anarchy of this? In one place murder is OK and in another it isn't! In one the government cannot have any authority because it is immoral for one man to tell another what to do, but yet another exists where there is nothing but a totalitarian government, and that is moraly correct.
    I hope you see the utter folly of this. These are not morals, they are simply codes of conduct. And don't try and tell me that morals are here to help us thrive as a society. I agree that morals do help a society, for they generaly cause you to act on everyone's behalf and not just your own; but this is not moral. It is nothing more then acting intellegently if you wish to survive. One could have the most corupt soul and be willing to do every evil thing under the sun, but still be a moral man simply because he knows it is the smartest thing to do. He will appear very moral, but it is all a sham. Machiavelli said in The Prince that a ruler must do everything necesary to gain power, ignoring all moral implications. But yet he also said one of the keys to Roman success was that they did not do what was on the lips of learned men of his day, i.e whatever is expedient; instead they looked to the future and built their power based on what would be best for the society of Rome. Apparently it worked, yet they would often times wipe out entire cities and countries for their own cause. Would you say the infamous destruction of Carthage was moral? They killed every man woman and child in the place, burnt it to the ground, razed the buildings and sowed the land with salt. It certanly was good for them, because they never had a fourth Punic war and Egypt was scared enough not to go to war with them.
    No, morals are not made for the good of society. Society demands to much of the world in order for it to succeed and be moral atthe same time. Any morals must be ignored if you are building a country, culture, or society.
    So, this turned out longer then I expected but I hope it was not to verbose to loose its import. I can see no logical reason to suport either of relativism's main arguments, that is made by people or that is whatever is good for people. It must be absolute or not at all.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2005
  19. Dec 21, 2005 #18
    If by "ought" you mean an obligation (Webster), then the Romans ought to have killed the innocent Jesus so that future Christians could be saved. Although at the time they did not understand why they must, it was their obligation to so kill. Second example, a women in good health raising two healthy children ought to kill her innocent unborn if she knows with certainty that she will die giving birth and so will her two children (e.g., her x husband told her in confidence that he would kill the two children if she ever died). So I find no absolute in your statement.
  20. Dec 21, 2005 #19


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    I'm not sure where to begin. You seem to be all over the place.

    Okay. That seems to reflect reality. When cultures intermingle they either learn to accomodate (good) or make war (not good).

    This contradicts your earlier conclusion (see quote above).

    I won't and I didn't. My assertion was that moral relativism has distinct advantages over moral absolutism.

    What's that got to do with absolutism vs relativism? That will happen in either world view.

    I would not but I don't believe that the commission of an immoral act addresses or answers the question either way regarding absolutism vs relativism. In either system there will be immoral people commiting immoral acts. I happen to think there will be more people commiting immoral acts in an absolutist environment.

    And if my absolute morality conflicts with your absolute morality - then what? :)
  21. Dec 21, 2005 #20
    I am afraid you completely ignored the rest of my post. I went on to say that there is a difference between what should be done and what needs to be done. In each of the cases you mentioned something wrong happened in order to prevent further, greater wrongs. This does not make the first wrong right, it only justifies it. A very small difference, but one that has large consequences.
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