Friday, February 15, 2013

On The Spectrum Between Moral Realism and Relativism

One of the topics that really started my gears turning towards my more modern analytic self was a discussion in a philosophy class about moral realism vs. moral relativism. There are, I think, some interesting ideas to be explored within here.
First, a definition of the terms is in order. Moral realism is a belief that morality is unchanging. The things that define a moral act are the same in America as they are in China, and the same today as they were in ancient times. Morals are, in short, universal. Moral relativism is often defined as the antithesis of moral realism; what is moral depends on the place and time. This is not to say that what is legal changes with place and time, but specifically says that what is good changes with the place and time. When in Rome, doing as the Romans do isn't just smart, it's also (potentially) morally good.
To a theist (or to one indoctrinated by theism as a child), moral realism is often a default assumption. After all, why would we still be following those Ten Commandments from so long ago, if morality is ever-shifting with the times? Also supporting the default of such a stance is the use of absolute language within many religions: “their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever“. Eternal reward and eternal punishment only really make sense if ones’ actions remain good or bad eternally. If morality changes, then it would make more sense to only reap your reward until your actions are no longer moral with the times. And while there are some fascinating ideas there about your actions leading to cycles between existing in heaven and in hell, that discussion is for another day.
Another thing that draws people towards the default of moral realism is the “slippery slope” of relativism. For many, certain acts like rape or slavery are so bad, so evil, that they cannot condone any belief in which such a thing could ever be a moral act.
One of the things that I feel confuses the issue is the way that these concepts are presented. They are often taught (as they were to me) as a dichotomy. Either the universe is morally realistic, or morally relativistic: it’s one or the other.
For me, however, I do not see a system where there are only two answers. Whenever I am presented with only two choices, my default response is to seek a third. Just as Richard Dawkins presents a spectrum of beliefs between theism and atheism in his book, so too do I envision a spectrum existing between Realism and Relativism. And as a nod to Dawkins, I will attempt to present some possible moral views, laid out as a spectrum between the extremes.
1. Complete Moral Realism. This is the type that is usually presented in philosophy books; there is one set of defining morals, and those morals are absolute and unchanging. They might even be part of the fabric of the universe, for they are as unalterable as the cosmological constants of physics.
2. Mostly Morally Realistic. There are a couple of ways this one is (probably) most often applied. The first is to believe that the mutability of a moral is directly tied to its importance. In other words, the small and unimportant morals might change over time, but the big and important ones are unchanging. Caffeinated drinks might change morality, but the Ten Commandments never will.
The other way to take this stance is to believe that morals are only changeable by God’s Will.   This is the belief that god is the only exception to the immutability of morals, so that whenever he changes his mind, the morality of specific actions also changes. This is another popular view among theists, since almost every single religion has had its rules and doctrines change over time. The God Exception essentially lets them believe in the immutability of morals in the face of the history and the reality of their chosen church.
3. The 50/50 Split. Obviously, a moral agnostic would reside here. But aside from those that refuse to form (or give) opinions on the matter, this category would also be occupied by believers of what I like to call Dynastic morality. For such a believer, morals are largely fixed within the confines of any specific society. But those morals are modified by any sufficiently large changes in a society, such as a change in government type or the proliferation of a new technology that drastically alters how people live their lives. When the dynasty falls, so do its morals. There is obviously a lot of wiggle room in here. One person might believe that the morals of the US are largely unchanged for as long as the Constitution still stands, while another might believe that the spread of the Internet (and other forms of international communication) is combining the moralities of (formerly) separate regions into a single global morality.
4. Relativism With A Few Exceptions. This is a stance where most morals depend on the circumstances, with an admission that there are a few morals that simply do not change. Rape and slavery will always be Wrong. Altruism and selflessness will always be Right. But outside of a few absolutes, the rest depend on the “where”s and the “when”s, the “how”s and the “why”s.
5. Absolute Moral Relativism. This is the slippery slope that prevents many from embracing relativism. Each and every individual event will have its own different set of morals. The individual details of every event will be different, and these details matter, because they determine what is and is not moral. Any action can be moral, if the circumstances surrounding it justify the action.
As the descriptions imply, not too many people actually populate numbers 1 and 5; most people will be either a 2 or a 4. Which begs the natural (for this post) question: where do I lie? It’s not quite as clear-cut as you might think.
When I took the philosophy course that discussed this topic, I ended up writing a term paper on this very subject. I had to spend a lot of time considering the consequences and implications of different stances, and I ended up rejecting position 1; my arguments also largely sink number 2. The details are a bit long to list here, but I may post an updated version of the paper sometime if there is interest.
Okay, so wholesale Realism is out, but what flavor of relativism am I? If I use my imagination, can I come up with a situation where rape or slavery might be a morally good action to commit? I like to think that I could, if I really wanted to. Will such a situation ever happen in this world? No. And if it will never actually happen, then my ability to conjure up a scenario means little. So while I might be near a 5 in theory, in practice I’m more like a 3.5. Where do you fall in the spectrum, and why? Feel free to post your thoughts and opinions.

1 comment:

  1. I give lip service to 3 (the fully agnostic position), but find myself closer to a 4.5. While morality is dependent on circumstances, many of the relevant considerations are consistent enough to appear to construct a moral absolute. Nonetheless, I attribute them to our values, and evolutionary past.

    Of course, it is difficult to imagine a successful organism (or "being" of sorts) that would lack certain moral similarities. Perhaps I should exercise my imagination further.