Saturday, January 29, 2011

Moral relativism, part 2

Well, last time I wrote here I was talking about moral relativism, and I brought up the idea that you can do whatever you want, as long as you don't either (1) impinge on someone's freedom, and (2) hurt anyone.  I was trying to make the point that there are problems with (1), because freedom could be an absolute standard and because how do you know you "shouldn't" impinge on someone's freedom unless that is given from a higher standard?

But what about hurting someone?

Let's return to the example of the man who raped your little sister.  How do we know it's wrong?  There are two views to this.  First, if there are moral absolutes, then the rape itself is wrong.  No matter who I am, if you ask me if the rape is wrong, no matter what I answer, the rape is still wrong.  (In other words, I could say the rape isn't wrong, and I would be incorrect.)

On the other hand, if you're a relativist, then the rape is no longer wrong.  It is only up to the observer to choose whether it is right or wrong.  If you ask me if it was wrong, then I would say it's wrong, OR I could say it wasn't; in either case, I would be correct.  The rightness or wrongness of the action doesn't have to do with the action, it only has to do with whom your are asking.  No one has a privileged opinion.

Michael Shermer (a moral relativist and founder of Skeptic magazine) would say that we need to ask the girl whether the rape is wrong.  Ok, so let's ask the girl her opinion on whether the rape was wrong.  I have no doubt she'd say yes, it was wrong.  So does that settle it?  She says she was hurt, therefore the rape was wrong?

But if there are no moral absolutes, then again, no one has a privileged opinion.  In other words, we would be just as accurate to ask the rapist whether he thought the rape was wrong.  I'm not a criminal psychologist, but I get the feeling that he'd say it was wrong, too.  But let's just say for the sake of argument that he said it wasn't a wrong thing to do.  Now where do we stand?

Well, we could bring him to court, since the girl or her family would probably press charges.  Then it's up to the jury to decide (based on the evidence at hand) whether the rapist should be punished.  But again, if there are no moral absolutes, then no one has a privileged opinion.  Why should the jury be allowed to decide that it was wrong if we're supposed to be able to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves?  Sure, you could claim the guy hurt the girl, and that's why he should be punished, but what if he says she's lying and that he didn't hurt her?  And why in the world, if there are no moral absolutes, can we say you shouldn't hurt someone?

In summary, if you're a moral relativist, then metaphysically you have no power to stand in judgment over someone who has committed a crime.  The jury cannot decide, the judge cannot decide, the police cannot decide, and the family similarly has no moral highground to stand on to judge this man's actions.

The answer that most people give to this seeming absurdity is that, as a culture, we define our own morality.  So, sure, no moral absolutes exist, but for the good of mankind and the good of the culture, we have decided to enforce some rules, and one of them is you shouldn't rape someone.  That's why a jury of twelve peers should be able to make a decision on this: it's a sufficient cross-section of our society to come together and decide what our culture's point of view is on such a case.

But when you carry that to its logical end, even that doesn't make sense.  More on this later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Moral relativism

From my last post, I laid out a brief description of postmodernism, as I understand it.  One of the outworkings of postmodernism is this view called moral relativism, which essentially says that no one has a privileged view of morality.  You should do what feels right to you, and that's what's right.

Well, that's clearly not true.   If it were, then what I think is right and what might feel good to me is to go on a shooting spree (as has been done recently and several times in the last couple of decades).  I don't think anyone would agree that the people who committed these terrible acts were well within their moral right.  So, that alone is easy to defeat.

But some would say that you can do whatever feels right to you, as long as you're not hurting others or impinging on their freedom.  OK, that's fine, but the questions I have then are, how do we know (1) what freedom is or what hurting someone else is, and (2) that upholding others' freedom and not hurting them are "good" things?  Those two points might be confusing, so I'll elaborate a bit further.  I'll talk about freedom first because I think it's easier.

In order to make a claim like "you can do whatever you feel is right as long as you don't impinge on someone else's freedom" (note italics), you have to have some absolute standard that tells you what freedom is and why you shouldn't take it away from someone.  Because how can you recognize that someone's freedom has been violated without knowing, inherently and subconsciously and conscience-ly, that such an abstract thing as "freedom" exists?  But most of us understand (or at least think we understand) what freedom is, even if we don't know where it comes from.  But even so, how do we know that freedom should be something that is good?  Maybe we can define freedom without an absolute standard (and that's a big maybe).  But what gives us the right to say that you shouldn't take it away from someone?  Do you see what I'm saying?  The very moral claim that says, "you can do whatever you want except take away someone else's freedom" is making an absolute moral claim regarding taking away someone else's freedom.  So even then, there are moral absolutes.

Here's another.  Justice.  Everyone longs for justice in their heart.  If your little sister got raped, there would be something burning within you, saying the person responsible must be punished.  But why?  If everything's relative, then how can you judge someone else's actions?  Well, most people would answer that the criminal hurt your little sister (to put it lightly).  And that's why there should be justice.  But there we have it again.  Where do we get this abstract standard of justice if no such absolute standard exists?  And even if we did somehow know what justice was, what standard of goodness is telling us that justice ought to be upheld?

Let's take it a step further.  Let's say the rapist went on trial for his actions and was jailed.  Then he could claim that the people jailing him were taking away his freedom, something they should not be allowed to do.  But you could answer, "that's what you get for hurting someone else."  That's justice.  But again, if everything's relative (with the exception being, for this example, that you can't take away someone's freedom), on what moral grounds can you stand while insisting justice be served?  If you have no moral grounds for justice (as the moral relativists say), then the rapist, as he is being jailed, could rightly say that his jailers should then be then jailed because they were taking away his freedom and thus deserve punishment as well.  But then the jailers of the jailers should be jailed, etc.

OK, so that seems absurd, but don't miss my point: if you follow moral relativism to its logical conclusion, then you end up somewhere absurd.  In other words, no one, not even the most die-hard moral relativist, really lives as if everything were relative.  We only appeal to it when it's convenient for us.  We only go to it when we want to justify our actions.  When it comes right down to it, search your heart of hearts: there must be a standard.  I can't even speak of these examples without inherently appealing to a standard.  Everywhere in this post where I said, "should" and "must be" and "ought," I am using the language of moral absolutes.  You can't even talk about these things without borrowing the capital of moral absolutism.

Ok, but then what about hurting someone?  Surely you can say that you shouldn't hurt someone, even in a relativistic world, right?  More on this later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I was answering an email question the other day that someone had about postmodernism.  It's an interesting thing, this philosophical (and now cultural) movement of postmodernism.  It's really just a pendulum swing away from what everyone thought in the early 1900's (a philosophical movement interestingly enough called "modernism").

Modernism is essentially scientific positivism.  It had to do with the idea that advances in science and technology would eventually cure all of the world's ills.  We would become advanced enough to the point that pain and suffering would no longer be a problem, and evil and sin would be overcome, just because we'd have enough knowledge to make it happen.

Well, sometime in the mid-1900's, people began to realize that was hogwash.  And that makes sense from the Christian worldview: man is both brilliant and despicable.  It's in our nature.  We're made in the image of God, tarnished by sin.  And that's what we are, so how could knowledge and science and technology erase that?

A quick tangent from my already worn-out tangent on modernism (remember the topic of this post is supposed to be postmodernism).  The Christian worldview is really the only worldview that makes perfect sense out of what has been called for ages "the enigma of man."  Many people (philosophers, writers, etc) down through the ages have wondered whether man was inherently good or evil, and there were brilliant people in both camps.  I think Jung was one of the bigger names in this struggle: he considered man to be "an enigma to himself."  But the Christian worldview really hits the nail on the head, that we are both made in the image of God and have made unto ourselves a sin nature.

Anyway, postmodernism was in part the violent reaction to the failure of modernism.  In postmodernism, nothing is for sure.  You can't know truth, you can't prove anything, you can't even know what I'm saying (because my true intent to tell you things may get lost in translation).  This got extended into two major cultural ideas: (1) there is no absolute truth, so whatever you want to believe is fine; I'll stick with my own beliefs, and (2) there is no absolute morality, so go with whatever "feels" good, and if you do something nice and self-sacrificial for someone else, it's just because it makes you feel good inside to do something nice.

Ugh.  OK, the first point is obviously false when you think about it.  If there is no absolute truth, then the statement "there is no absolute truth" is in and of itself, not absolutely true.  It's self-contradictory.  As a "scientist" (if I may call myself that), that statement makes no sense at all.  If there were no absolute truth, what's the point of empirical investigation (which is what science is)?

The second point (moral relativism) is a bit trickier.  I think it's one of the biggest challenges facing Christianity today (that and the problem of evil).  First of all, I don't believe it's true.  I think it's clear there are absolute moral imperatives.  I also think that if everyone was straight with themselves, they also would realize it's true.  I don't think anyone can really go about their lives as if moral absolutes didn't exist.  We all inherently and subconsciously act as if they did exist.  The problem for atheists and agnostics is, if moral absolutes do exist, then where do they come from?  More on this later.