Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Brief Thoughts on Moral Relativism

[I had originally decided not to post this after writing it, I'm unsure about how much I want this blog to venture into morality.  But after writing that last post, I think I do need to give a more complete example of what my moral view of the world is.]

So, after reading today's post on The Stone blog (also) I've got some brief thoughts to share.  First of all, it's a good post on why pure moral relativism doesn't work, which I don't think will surprise anyone that much.

That said, I don't know that I agree with the thought at the end, that there are still some hard more questions.  I think truly moral issues tend to be easy and clear, and completely impossible to live by.  For the hard stuff, we end up knee deep in cultural norms and are outside the realm of morality.

Let me explain my views a bit more.  I regard there being two distinct domains for what is traditionally called morality.  The first is what I agree in calling morality, those are moral precepts that are inherent in human nature, the result of either divine intervention or human evolution depending on your beliefs.  We can test for these things with cross-cultural comparison, these moral concepts will be found in all human cultures, and possibly some animal ones as well.

We end up with a pretty short list, basically, the principle of reciprocity, loyalty to "kin," and thou shalt not kill.

Everything else is culture, and culture tends to go through significant acrobatics to make it seem like taking intrinsically immoral actions are moral.  For most cultures there is some subset of actions where it becomes moral to kill, for instance, yet this seems to me to obviously be a violation of intrinsic morality because individuals are still deeply troubled by the act of killing, even when sanctioned by their culture, to me, this says there is a violation of a deeply set moral norm that trumps the acrobatics of culture seeking to justify it.

Of course, there is an intrinsic tension to this view, the principle of reciprocity and kin, the bonds that one feels to one's fellow man, can in certain cases mean that the only option available to fulfill these obligations is to kill (say in self-defense, defense of others, or the military).  In these cases it becomes impossible not to violate a moral norm.

Which is really the point of my system.  Morality should be an ideal that can't be reached in this world.  It's an ideal and an aspiration, not something that can be lived by in practice.  For it to retain its force, we have to be aware of when we fall short of its tenants.  In this sense, the cultural component of morality becomes very important, while this may not be a foundational intrinsic morality, we are bound to it through the principles of kin and reciprocity; it is necessary for society to function and for us to function within it.

But it is an important distinction to make, the cultural component of morality is ultimately to some degree relativistic, we can't judge among them and we are all equal when comparing our personal cultural moralities to each other.  But intrinsic morality is different, seeking to renounce all ties to other people and show no respect for their wants and needs or to commit heinous actions such as murder are of a different kind from violating understandings that are simply part of one culture and not intrinsic to all humanity.

My point here isn't to get into a complete moral system, just to point out that I think evidence can be applied to discerning the contents of some kind of base moral system and that a much broader realm of what is traditionally called morality* is more narrowly cultural normative (not that the two don't interact).  Of course, more has to be added in, when two intrinsic components of morality are in conflict, such as killing and reciprocity, then a moral decision becomes impossible and we are forced to make a decision based upon efficiency or expediency.  But I don't believe these factors are properly considered moral, killing, say, a mass murderer to defend someone is something I'd continue to regard as immoral but so would not killing the mass murderer.**  In this case, the decision has to be made upon amoral grounds, killing the mass murderer is certainly better for society, but this form of expediency moves into a cultural dimension and is outside of what I think of as morality.

*As my readers know, I put a very high premium on evidence and believe it should be used whenever possible.  I do think in this case there are constants to human behavior that can be looked at, making it unnecessary to leave this in the realm of pure philosophy.

**I also believe that to the extent that outcomes can be known that it is important to consider action and inaction as equal.  While this goes against some people's intuitions I don't really see a good reason to treat the two as distinct, again to the extent that consequences can be known.  As a separate issue, I do think this imposes a moral burden on the individual to increase their knowledge and thus their ability to predict consequences, negative consequences of actions with other intended outcomes continue to bear a degree of moral culpability, though to a lesser extent than actions with known outcomes.  Not knowing doesn't necessarily provide any additional moral leeway, since if an individual could have been reasonably expected to have opportunities to learn better they are culpable for the consequences of their actions at the level of having chosen not to learn that which they could have learned.

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