Is it All Just Relative?

18 March 2011

Our topic this week is relativism.   “Is it all Just Relative?” we ask.   Clearly some things are relative.  Tastes in food or matters of etiquette, for example.  If I like single malt scotch and you don’t, there’s no basis for saying that one of us is right and the other is wrong about how good it tastes. Taste is just relative to our individual taste buds.    Same thing seems true of etiquette – except that etiquette is relative to cultures or subcultures rather than to individual people.  I’m told that in some cultures, a gentle burp after a meal is a polite way of expressing satisfaction.    Not in mine.   But again, there isn’t any basis for saying that one culture has it right and the other has it wrong.   Our question is whether everything – including truth, knowledge, and morality – is  like matters of taste or etiquette? 

At first blush, that seems like a pretty straight-forward  and easy question.   It seems pretty clear that some things are not relative.   It’s hard to feel much intuitive pull in the idea that truth is  relative. Clearly, believing something to be true, doesn’t make it true. Certainly there's a sense in which if I believe something to be true,  then it is "true for me."   But to say that something is true for me really is just to say that I believe it.  It is not to say that it is flat-out true.  Just because we take there to be a distinction between believing true and actually being true,  relativism about truth seems pretty hard to make out.  

The same might seem to go for morality -- though here making a case against relativism seems a little harder.  I think Hitler was a really bad man. And I think that's not just a matter of opinion, that's  a matter of cold hard fact.  And I like to think that the fact that  he  and his Nazi followers  thought it was a morally good thing to slaughter the Jews, didn't make it so.  Not for me  and not for them either.

Still, as little intuitive pull as relativism about truth seems to have,  there are people who take relativism, especially moral relativism to be both obvious and obviously true.  Partly due to the influence of thinkers like Rorty and Derrida,  even relativism about truth and knowledge  is something of the  rage in certain circles of academia. And with respect to the intuitive pull of moral relativism,  scratch any 17 year old college freshman, for example, and you’ll get a reflex moral relativism, according to which each of us has his own moral code, and nobody is really entitled to question anybody else’s moral code.  Moreover, if you believe Pope Benedict,  relativism is just about  everywhere. Not only does he  see relativism everywhere, he decries it as the main enemy of the Church and laments that  Western civilization is being destroyed by “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Of course, sometimes people’s commitment to a controversial doctrine is   more in word than in deed.  Lots of people may think that they  (and others)  are  relativists. Some people may  even talk like relativists.  But when push comes to shove,  it may be that they  don’t act like relativists.   Ask yourself what your supposedly secular, post-modern  relativist actually  does when faced with the reality of female genital mutilation or the criminalization of homosexuality in certain African countries?  Do they just shrug their shoulders in indifference and say “well, that’s how they do things over there? ”   I bet that that's  not at all what they would do.  Most of them would feel some degree of moral outrage or disgust.

Now  most arguments for relativism begin by observing that some cultures endorse things like female genital mutilation, while other cultures prohibit such things.   But the argument can’t end there.   The relativist has to show not only that there are diverse moral outlooks but that they are all “equally valid” and that “disputes” between them can’t be rationally adjudicated.   And you might think that the very fact that we express moral outrage over female genital mutilation in other cultures shows that we don’t regard all moral systems as equally valid, even if we say we do. In practice, we regard some systems as superior to others, as closer to the moral truth of the matter.

Of course, one kind of relativist will insist that regarding our own moral system  (or our belief system more broadly) as superior to another is little better than a form of intolerant arrogance or cultural imperialism.   But against the line of reasoning I am trying out now that observation misses a point. The point is that on the face of it,  we don’t regard differences in moral systems as on a par with differences in taste or rules of etiquette.  In these domains,  we may indeed say “to each his own,”  “live and let live” and leave it at that.   But when it comes to weighty moral matters, we certainly behave as if there’s a right and wrong of the matter.  Or so it seems, anyway.    It is certainly true that we may or may not be certain where the truth lies in a particular case.  But when we doubt that we know the truth, we don’t ipso facto doubt that there is a truth to be found out, somehow or other. That’s why we engage in further argument and investigation in the face of disagreement. If we didn’t believe that there was a truth out there to be known, the absolutist will say,  argument and investigation would simply lose their  point.  The conclusion is supposed to be that the bare fact that we greet moral disagreements with arguments, rather than with automatic acceptance or indifference, shows that we aren’t really relativists after all.

But a not so small voice inside me thinks that the last line of argument just went by much too fast. Why,  the not so small voice plaintively asks,  can’t a relativist rationally prefer that others share his or her moral outlook?   If she does rationally prefer such a thing,  then that bare optional preference itself would give her a reason to invite further argument in the face of apparent disagreement.  And there’s no reason,  the not so small voice says,  that she can’t coherently both have such a preference and believe that there is no absolute truth of the matter where things  like morality are concerned. 

Consider an analogy with matters of taste.  I offer you a sip of what I take to be a very fine pinot noir.   You don’t like it.  Perhaps you find it disgusting.  What do I do?  Shrug my shoulders?  I could, but I am not required to do so.   Cause I might believe that I could,  by giving you the right experiences, educate your palate into the glories of fine pinot.   I might believe this even if I also believed there were no absolute, taste bud independent facts about the taste of pinot.   How might I do this re-education of your palate?  Well, by offering you the functional equivalent of further arguments and evidence.   That is, I’ll get you to taste it again,  perhaps after having gotten you to taste several inferior varieties.  Perhaps, in the end, with the right arrangement of vinoic arguments, as it were,   I could bring it about that your tastes and my tastes converge.

Now why on earth would I bother to do such a thing, especially if there are no objective facts about taste?   Well, perhaps partly because I simply don’t like to drink alone and partly because its fine pinots that I love to drink.   That is, because I want to keep drinking pinot and I want company in the drinking of them,  I try to bring you around to my way of tasting.  

Couldn’t an analog of the same story be told about moral arguments?  I prefer company in my way of valuing the world. In the face of disagreement,  it’s not so much that I try to get  you to see the truth.  Rather,  I try to bring you around to my way of valuing.  I offer you up what I take to be a compelling version of how the world is to be valued and try to lead you into adopting that version as your own.  I can have perfectly good reasons for that attempt.  It need not be a form of arrogance.  And it need not presuppose that there are objective matters of fact about what things are really and truly valuable independently of our valuing.

Who knows if this is the right way of thinking about relativism, disagreement, and argument.   But I’m sure our guest,  Paul Boghossian, author of Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism,  can help us straighten this all out.  Paul tends to give no quarter to relativism, while I feel its pull quite strongly – at least in the realm of morality.  So it should be an interesting conversation. 

Comments (26)


Chris's picture

Chris

Friday, March 18, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Great read. This topic is so frustratingly complic

Great read. This topic is so frustratingly complicated. My immediate reaction is to ask, "Can we truly prefer one thing over another without believing the thing to be superior to the other on some fundamental level?" I believe that we can answer in the affirmative when it comes to chocolate versus vanilla ice-cream--I may prefer chocolate, but I attribute this to my taste buds. Morality seems to be qualitatively distinct. I'm not sure most people immediately attribute moral preference to their biology. Although I personally believe that moral preference is absolutely enmeshed in our biology, or neuroscience more specifically, many people are of a different standpoint--these people are typically dualists, believing the "self" to be qualitatively distinct from the brain.
So what's my point? Well, I think it would be hard for many people to have a moral preference and still call themselves relativists. Since these people may not attribute their moral preferences to their brains (the way that people would attribute tastes to their tongues), I must feel that they will inevitably feel, on some level (if not subconsciously) that their moral preferences are grounded in something more than relativity.
I'm rambling, but that's what you get when you type the first thoughts that come to mind. :P

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 18, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Read your post thoroughly and enjoyed it. Having s

Read your post thoroughly and enjoyed it. Having said that, I'll refer anyone who may be interested to two small books written by Ernest Becker in the 1970s: The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil. It appears that Becker was not widely regarded for his insights. A shame and perhaps an enigma of his time. Others are welcome to disagree.
I think that relativism has been overshadowed by irrelevence. We can all talk a good game when we are in front of the camera; we can all feign sympathy and solidarity with the repressed and downtrodden. But the climate I have seen recently says isolationism: if it does not affect me and mine directly, I just don't care.
Arguably, there are exceptions and those indicate the remnants of morality. As the current administration embarks upon yet another military adventure, pressured by detractors and supporters alike,we might ask: what does relativism have to do with it? Very little, I think.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 18, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I am working on the hypothesis that all ethics and

I am working on the hypothesis that all ethics and morality is tribal. That is, what is acceptable to the tribe or in the modern world a Social Support Group (SSG) is absolutely the right thing to do and if you wish to be a part of the SSG you do it that way. There are several distinct but overlapping SSGs in the USA but within the SSG there is little latitude for divergence.
Take for example the SSG of educated rational people. If you think I am talking about those reading this blog you are correct. Things like sexism or homophobia, if openly expressed would likely be met with that raised eyebrow that says "We don't think that way." Ignore the eyebrow and you will find that SSG meetings will be closed to you.
But there are SSGs where such things are the moral standards.
It makes it difficult to ignore relativism even though within a SSG the standards are absolute. This is where discussion becomes confused. Are we talking about society in general or our SSG when discussing morality?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 19, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Life without measure is true. Just be, = MJA

Life without measure is true.
Just be,
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 19, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

SQUIRMING RATIONALITY Nothing entertains me mor

SQUIRMING RATIONALITY
Nothing entertains me more than rational thinkers squirming to justify: 1. immoral or amoral actions, 2. drawing lines (or refusing to draw them).
The morality content of any issue is just one factor to consider before taking action (as opposed to having an opinion, short of acting). There are others: such as, convenience, necessity, well-being, survival, expense, social consequences, etc. Disagreements about moral action often hinge not on the assessment of moral content, but on the assessment of the impact of these other factors on action.
Examples of such squirming: 1. female genital mutilation (bad, immoral) but male genital mutilation, i.e. circumcision (good), 2. abortion (good, immoral murder) but justified by necessity or other overwhelming issues, 3. Taliban (good ?freedom fighters? when throwing out Russia, bad ?terrorists? when throwing out the US), 4. Abraham Lincoln (good, he conducted the war that killed innocent millions and destroyed the South in order to preserve the country and prevent succession, i.e. self-determination), Saddam Hussein and Khadaffi (bad, they conducted repression of minorities and secessionists to preserve the country), 5. war: killing 250,000 innocent people to keep them from killing 10,000 other innocent people.
As for line drawing: Remember: the only real-life practical worth of philosophers is to draw lines for those immobilized by ?but where do you draw the line?? The philosopher recognizes it is immoral NOT to draw lines. Relativism in these instances is a refuge for wimps who use the ?but?line? as a cop-out. They are afraid to draw lines.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 19, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

It is all relative, isn't it? I think I understand

It is all relative, isn't it? I think I understand the comments so far and mostly agree with them. I'll leave any exceptions to the imagination of other commenters. The thing about relativism is that it depends upon a gamut of influences, some old-some new, which arise to convince us of what is and what is not relative/relevant at any given point in time. Those influences necessarily include politics, culture, theology, ethics and so on. Certain aspects of relativism morph slowly; evolutionarily. Others change in revolutionary ways-totally unexpected by most, other than serious students of social change.
For my own sanity, I cobble together the works of people like Becker,Dennett, Dawkins, Gould and lately, Diamond and Pinker, to try to figure out the progressive nature of relativism. But that statement may be overly optimistic because there are indications that relativism has many regressive facets. Just in case no one has noticed. I suppose relativism is important-if it were not, it would not merit study, would it? But it is a moving target and difficult to pin down, seems to me.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 20, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

A Symposium I?d love to have a symposium with

A Symposium
I?d love to have a symposium with Socrates, Einstein, and King, but will settle equally and happily with all of you. The menu is simple, it?s simply the Truth.
(Sorry for clarity no alcohol will be served)
Let?s eat!
First Course:
The flaw in our mentality is our continued practice and belief in measure or measurement. Science has proven nature to be truly immeasurable but unfortunately as of yet most including science itself has failed to move on. Probability is all we have today, QM, the grey area of fairness, of justice, a dice game. ?Man is the measure of all things,? yet truly everything is immeasurable!
Main Course:
Einstein knew God or nature doesn?t play dice but unfortunately again science rather than searching for the absolute path went the most probable way instead, the wrong way. Beyond our path of measurements, of uncertainty or chance, beyond our judgments of good and bad, beyond our philosophies of East and West, beyond our theories and faiths, or beyond what you call relativity IS nature?s absolute; a truth more simple and more powerful than thought; the true Way.
Desert (The Cake):
There was an old Greek who asked his wife to follow him outside into the starry night so that he could show her the truth of the universe he had found. As they walked through the darkness the man stumbled and fell into a ditch. The woman began to laugh. The man became angry and asked why she found this so funny. She said you claim to know the truth of the universe yet you fail to know what is in front of your own to feet.
The Frosting:
The truth is not only in front of us All, it is us All.
Truth is!
Bon appetite,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 20, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I have truly enjoyed all commenters' notions, idea

I have truly enjoyed all commenters' notions, ideas and opinions on this post. Savinar is intelligent and eloquent, as always; cudos to Michael J. for posting far more than haiku---liked your idea for symposium. Relativism becomes us, because we are human and we have this burning need to measure things. I think the Carpenter is on the right track in saying relativism is evolutionary---I have no proof of his assertion-it just feels right. Whatever that is worth.
We make this world and we shape and reshape relativism. Somewhen, we could have decided that it was not worthy of consideration, investigation or analysis. But that would have been inconsistent with our penchant for inquiry, our excruciating need for measurement of stuff.
KT's query at the beginning answers itself. Yes, everything IS relative. What ever would we do if things were otherwise? Well, that is another line of inquiry.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

This exposition of relativism ignores what I think

This exposition of relativism ignores what I think is the only really interesting form of relativism - what you might call objective relativism. Define objective relativism as standard moral realism minus moral universalism. On this view, values are objective, but only relative to a particular organism. So x is objectively good for A, though not necessarily good for B. And x is good for A not in virtue of A's opinion or choice, but because x and A are objectively so constituted that x is valuable for A (on whatever theory of value you like).
By now, we're very used to the idea that even within a species there is a lot of variation. So you'd think we'd be suspicious about any morality that claims to be both universal and based on (or consistent with) human nature. There is no "human nature"; there are just "humans," with highly variable talents, interests, drives, disabilities, and so on. So we should expect that some humans might properly be bound by moral imperatives that conflict with the moral imperatives that properly bind others.
Now, this idea just seems to freak people out. "But...Hitler!" Well, first, there's no reason to suppose that Hitler was following any properly ethical imperatives. (Part of the virtue of this form of relativism is that it's possible to be wrong about what one ought to do.) And second, even if Hitler had been following principles that were ethically proper to him, there's no reason his ethical principles should have precluded our acting upon ours to stop him. "The tiger that assails me is in the right, and I who strike him down am also in the right. I defend against him not my right, but myself."*
* Max Stirner.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Ayn Rand would be proud. Maybe. If she did not fin

Ayn Rand would be proud. Maybe. If she did not find it all far too confusing to be worth her time. Hitler seems to continue to get attention. This is fascinating to me because Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were also masters of ruthlessness, yet they have mostly rested in peace for a long, long time. Hitler had technology to assist him in his quest and we had means of accounting for numbers of victims---I guess those are the primary differences. Of course, the exploits of the the Hun and the Khan lack temporal proximity: out of mind, out of sight. We have selective memory. Of course.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

All good and diverse opinions. In reading Mr. Pink

All good and diverse opinions. In reading Mr. Pinker's THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, I came upon something in his chapter thirteen, Mind Design. He was quoting philosopher and 'experimental psycholinguist' Jerry Fodor who (allegedly) said:
The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate anything else, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats. More to the point, I think that relativism is very probably FALSE (emphasis added).What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature...
Fodor's rant continues for a bit, but you should get the general drift. The characterization of Fodor as an experimental psycholinguist is vague: is experimental psycholinguistics an experimental sub-science, or is Fodor experimenting with it? The distinction is not clear to me. But I digressed---all thinkers do so.
After some thought and consideration of the above comments, I must conclude that relativism is real. If it were not, we would not be vexed by it and Jerry Fodor could---would have to---find other things to hate. I expect it is a PROBLEM because it represents a class of differences over which we conjure wars and other more-or-less destructive anti-social behaviors.
IS the structure of human nature 'fixed'? I suppose it might be, though how fixed may be open to debate. Perhaps it is all relative. If so, would we want it any other way? Could we imagine, let alone abide, something else?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

The problem with discussions about cultural morali

The problem with discussions about cultural morality is that they assume everyone in a culture has the same beliefs. This is rarely true. For instance, we may say culture X believes homosexuality is wrong, but it's almost certain that within culture X there are people who question or outright disagree with that belief. So it's not a question of, Who are we to disagree with culture x?, but rather, Should we side with the majority/spokespersons of culture x or with some minority/less powerful group? "Cultural relativism" is just a lazy choice for the status quo.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

As the king of Siam said, "Is a puzzlement!" Is a

As the king of Siam said, "Is a puzzlement!" Is a puzzlement to me about all the discussions brought up about 'relative morality', 'culturally determined morality' and other such issues regarding a once perfectly defined and understood concept.
Morality was simply about (1) refraining from harming the well-being of others, and (2) furthermore enhancing the well-being of others. If the universe has suddenly emerged from a wormhole where this fundamental definition no longer holds, then let's talk about "decency and non-decency" and start again from there.
Perhaps it's that some wish to quibble over what constitutes "well-being". If so, I suggest a better waste of time is debating what is sadness or happiness.
The role of government or social/cultural factors in morality {or 'decency/non-decency') is indeed a tricky one and is perhaps what much of the fretting is about. So let's clarify that fact at least.
Also the role of preternatural forces or "spirits" is commonly brought up. I recommend settling that issue by proposing preternatural forces as exclusively ENFORCING decency/non-decency. However, beware of extending this to the Abraham-Isaac sacrifice of infants problem in religion. Preternatural MANDATE outside of decency/non-decency is big puzzlement!

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 25, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

There are a lot of ideas floating about concerning

There are a lot of ideas floating about concerning this post. But I will posit another one for those who remain unfulfilled. Relativism, by its nature, assumes there are no absolutes. Bad assumption. MJA simplifies absolute to one word: truth. This may be oversimplification, yet he re-emphasizes his point, time after time. And whether you agree with him, or believe him to be a lost seeker, something inside your head cannot dispute his claim. Take this where you will, or dismiss it. I'm just playing devil's advocate.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 27, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Here is some non-relativity for ya: We are trul

Here is some non-relativity for ya:
We are truly just One,
The Universe,
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 28, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

When all the relativities are equal, Relativity b

When all the relativities are equal,
Relativity becomes the Truth.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I have been perusing E. O. Wilson's CONSILIENCE, T

I have been perusing E. O. Wilson's CONSILIENCE, THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE (1998). He said something that solidified what was for me previously unexpressible. Ths substance of his remark was that relativism denies any sort of objective truth. The sentiment seems elegant to this layman, even if it is incomplete in some way or another (not saying it IS). But when we relegate matters to their relativity to others, we appear to be discounting the fact that some things, just ARE, WERE and have always BEEN. I'm sure MJA would agree.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

PT writes (I assume it's Ken's argument): "The

PT writes (I assume it's Ken's argument):
"The conclusion is supposed to be that the bare fact that we greet moral disagreements with arguments, rather than with automatic acceptance or indifference, shows that we aren?t really relativists after all.
But a not so small voice inside me thinks that the last line of argument just went by much too fast. Why, the not so small voice plaintively asks, can?t a relativist rationally prefer that others share his or her moral outlook? If she does rationally prefer such a thing, then that bare optional preference itself would give her a reason to invite further argument in the face of apparent disagreement. And there?s no reason, the not so small voice says, that she can?t coherently both have such a preference and believe that there is no absolute truth of the matter where things like morality are concerned"
Ken's "small voice" is correct. A relativist can coherently engage in moral arguments while believing all the time that the outcome can only be her preferred consensus, never a shared truth. However, for such a relativist to use her "rational preference" strategy would be to engage in a deception. Let us imagine her entering into an argument about a moral issue, say whether burning a Koran is justifiable. Unless she declares at the outset that she is a relativist and that she is only arguing on the basis of her preference that her interlocutor come to share her position, then whatever arguments she may use in the discussion will be fraudulent, mere rhetorical devices. Her opponent would rightly be incensed to discover that the relativist had no real use for arguments in such matters and was only hoping her powers of rhetorical or emotional persuasion would be sufficient to carry the issue. That's acting in bad faith.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 22, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Hello, a visitor here! I have to say that in regar

Hello, a visitor here! I have to say that in regards to the comment about hitler and the nazis, it's a rather problematic subject in regards to relativity. On one hand, Hitler and the Nazis were all humans, and their the fault of their deeds doesn't necessarily lie on just their hands, but on civilisation's for allowing them to every get away with what they did. But, if you mention that to the average joe, you'll likely be branded as some sort of inconsiderate, apathetic individual. I believe the problem here might be that empathy is often seen as feeling sorry for victims, rather than it's more raw form of understanding the viewpoints of others. So a problem about relativity might be the scope of it - it's hard to go fully holistic with it and try to understand things from everyone's viewpoint, which leads to the demonisation of some offenders, the sanctification of some victims, despite the fact that ultimately both parties are human and neither is demonic nor holy/righteous, and often reality is more blurred than that.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 23, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

What a lively, thoughtful, insightful group! This

What a lively, thoughtful, insightful group! This has been great fun and the exchange stimulating. Taking off on the last part of Chrissomerry's comment: is reality, then, relative? Or is it merely what it is? Hmmmm.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

A challenge to Fodor's alleged assertion (from Van

A challenge to Fodor's alleged assertion (from Van Pelt's comment): Is human nature 'fixed'? We have often assumed so, but do our views of and relationships toward others remain the same as they were fifty, one hundred, five hundred years ago? If this is what Fodor meant, he must have been sleeping lately.
An example(and Pinker might like this one): 'Thanks for your help with this.' Response: 'Oh, no problem.' Oh, no problem is noncommital---even disdainful. But if we cannot utter the words, you are welcome, without feeling that we just apologized for being human, then human nature is far from fixed---it may be irreparable. But check on the 90-year hypothesis, recently advanced by some science folks. Human nature may be running out of wiggle room.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

If your searching for Truth beyond relativity, stu

If your searching for Truth beyond relativity, study nature; it worked for Michelangelo and me.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 30, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I stumbled upon this forum and it's a great discus

I stumbled upon this forum and it's a great discussion. I've been thinking about this very thing for a while. Here's my 2c:
Humans have an "objective" aspect to their morality. That is tied to their biology. All humans are the same species and are very nearly identical in the way they operate, their desires, their motives, so they lie in the same moral domain because of their biology. You can't just decide to change your genetic makeup, otherwise you wouldn't be human (by degrees). This is why I accept the quote:
"The tiger that assails me is in the right, and I who strike him down am also in the right. I defend against him not my right, but myself."
But I don't think it applies to Hitler. Hitler was being immoral. I can say that because he was breaking the golden rule of empathy and a bunch of others that were ingrained into his biology.
A thought experiment: Say an island is discovered where humans have mutated into a different species - let's call the species choomans. Choomans are just like humans in every regard, except that they must eat a baby chooman every ten years to survive. If one of these people doesn't eat a baby of their own kind, they will die.
This means that every surviving adult chooman on the island has eaten a baby. Every chooman of reproductive age has eaten a baby.
So, assume that we know for humans that it's immoral to eat people's babies (you can disagree but then we'll have to have a different discussion). Can we judge the choomans to be immoral for eating their babies? Remember, they need to do it to survive.
My conclusion is that the choomans aren't being immoral in eating their babies. Their biology dictates that it is something they must do, and thus they do what leads to the best outcome.
As it happens, some animals do eat their own babies, but we don't judge them morally because we don't consider them to have moral capacity. But, if a fully sentient being was forced biologically to eat their own babies, we could not impose the same rules of human morality on them.
In many ways these rules of morality come down to survival and reproduction, and the choomans eating their babies is the best way they can survive and reproduce.
The point of all this is to say that I think we can empirically reach an optimal ethical system to the degree that our species' biology stays constant. If aliens were discovered, we couldn't automatically assume morals that objectively apply to humans would apply to them - it would depend on how similar they were to us biologically. I oppose moral relativism, but at the same time I don't think there are any cosmically objective moral imperatives - there are only biologically objective moral imperatives.
What do you think of the thought experiment? It's my original thought (although I'm sure others have considered this) and I'd like it shot to pieces if possible, thanks!

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, June 13, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Good topic. If I may draw inferences from Buddhism

Good topic. If I may draw inferences from Buddhism, this world is a result of 1 and 0. Therefore, technically, this is a realm of relatively.
In Buddhism, there is this realm of Absoluteness. And meditation is the key to it. This realm of Absoluteness is located within each of us. Whilst, the realm of Relativity that we know of is located away from us. The more we try to explore outside for answers, the further we dive into relativity...so the further away we are from absoluteness (which what some people calls, "The Truth").
Hope that makes sense ;)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, July 21, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I had not read much of Rene Descartes at the time

I had not read much of Rene Descartes at the time this post appeared on your blog. But in reading his Rules for the Direction of the Mind,I found something. Under his discussion of Rule VI, he said: "...all things can be said to be either absolute or relative..." Notice his usage of the either/or qualification. He posits that it is one or the other---not both. If after three hundred years or so, we are now saying everything is relative, I think we are pulling our own leg. Or, as I have suspected for some time, we are in serious denial of certain immutable facts. Paradigms shift, but, a tree is still a tree. Seems to me, anyway. Other commenters alluded to this.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

This post couldnt be more

This post couldnt be more right on

 
 
 

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