Friday, May 29, 2009

5b Is the relativist right?

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy you'll find a clear and concise description of moral relativism,

"Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.

Nonetheless, moral relativism is a standard topic in metaethics, and there are contemporary philosophers who defend forms of it: The most prominent are Gilbert Harman and David B. Wong.

The term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.

Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with a normative position about how we ought to think about or act towards those with whom we morally disagree, most commonly that we should tolerate them."

Let's concentrate on the thesis that as a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

This thesis was fed by the anthropologists who were fascinated with the diversity of cultures. Who doesnt know the famous Margaret Mead with her well known "Coming of Age in Samoa" (1928).

There seems to be empirical hard evidence, which supports the relativist thesis. Outspoken opponents of the thesis are of course moral objectivists. Their thesis would even be the very opposite of the relativist's thesis.

But how hard is the evidence? Margaret Mead's research -- especially her work in Samoa -- has come under more recent criticism for inaccuracies and naivete. We 'compare' societies, it is said.

However, if societies were clearly organised entities, like the shelves in supermarkets they would be easily comparable. In fact cultures typically are rather heterogeneous and complex internally, with many dissenting voices. Moreover, they often interact and sometimes influence one another, and they may change over time.

And then we have the problem of the biased observer. Like the criticism on Margret Mead shows, we may evidently question the methodoly used in describing other societies.

Then there should be "deep and widespread moral disagreements", but can that not be due to our misinterpretation or misunderstanding of other societies?

Maybe a number of 'disagreements' on issues like polygamy, arranged marriages, suicide as a requirement of honor or widowhood, severe punishments for blasphemy or adultery, female circumcision or genital mutilation (as it is variously called), and so on are related to religious ideas.

And the moral objectivist could say, that the emphasis doesnt need to be put on the disagreements at all - they can be resolved in a rational debate - but on the worldwide moral agreements.

For example, the role-reversal test implied by the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has been prominent beyond Western traditions: A version of it is also endorsed in The Analects of Confucius, The Way of the Bodhisattva of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Shāntideva, and elsewhere.

Hans Küng (1996) and others have maintained that there is a common “global ethic” across the world's major religious traditions regarding respect for human life, distributive justice, truthfulness, and the moral equality of men and women.

As you may realize, there is a huge debate going on about this relativist and objectivist point of view. It gets even more complicated when we add another thesis to our discourse on relativism.

This thesis is, that the truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

That means that e.g. the moral judgement "Female circumcision is wrong" may be true relative to one society, but false relative to another. Besides that, different societies may have different standards of justification

Here we get involved in various philosophical issues. For instance the allegation that moral judgements can have truth-value. Just recall philosophers like Ayer (1938), Stevenson and Hare (1950) with their claim that ethical sentences do not express propositions. Instead, ethical sentences express emotional attitudes, which was called emotivism.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Here we see a serious and complex debate. An interesting observation is that this debate seems to be the successor of the debate on ethics in Oxford in the period 1920 -1950.

Authors in today's arena are Philipa Foot and Martha Nussbaum and David B. Wong with his “Pluralistic Relativism” (1996). know your homework now ^_^.

The Discussion

[13:20] Daruma Boa: ok^^
[13:20] itsme Frederix: Consistent intro Prof. Great.
[13:20] herman Bergson: Thank you Itsme...
[13:21] herman Bergson: In a way frustrating too....
[13:21] herman Bergson: The present day discussion on this subject is really interesting
[13:21] Alarice Beaumont: sorry... totally late :-(
[13:21] Alarice Beaumont: good evening everybody
[13:21] Daruma Boa: hi alarice
[13:21] Gemma Cleanslate: :-)
[13:21] herman Bergson: I can only mention a few details
[13:21] itsme Frederix: I agree with Nussbaum, but she still comes up fro old Greek virtues
[13:21] Gemma Cleanslate: Halllooooo
[13:21] Ze Novikov: waves
[13:21] herman Bergson: Hello Alarice :-)
[13:22] itsme Frederix: and is rationalist
[13:22] Alarice Beaumont: Hello Herman :-))
[13:22] herman Bergson: Yes...and emotion in relation to morals
[13:22] herman Bergson: not just ratio
[13:23] herman Bergson: But what interesting what I already mentioned in the former lecture....
[13:23] itsme Frederix: not just yes - thats what makes it interesting - still reading her books
[13:23] herman Bergson: relativism shows up in many shapes...
[13:23] Samuel Okelly: wouldn’t that suggest an unnecessary polemic between emotionalism and rationalism?
[13:24] herman Bergson: What appears clear to me is that absolute relativism is self-refuting
[13:24] itsme Frederix: Sam that might be a rational view - isn't it
[13:24] herman Bergson: No I dont think so Samuel
[13:24] Superbus Atlas: I am puzzled about your notion of 'global concensus'. Presumably relativists aren't part of this, so in what sense is it a concensus?
[13:24] herman Bergson: I think is is especially about the justifications of moral judgements
[13:25] herman Bergson: It was a believe of Hans Küng and others that such consensus exists
[13:25] Samuel Okelly: if not herman, why should we presuppose that the emotional response can not be identical to the rational response?
[13:26] Samuel Okelly: to do so merely clouds and comp,icates the issue in my view
[13:26] herman Bergson: I think that you also have to take into account the question How can we know moral standards
[13:26] Samuel Okelly: sure
[13:26] Superbus Atlas: This is the problem for the moral absolutist.
[13:26] herman Bergson: I dont know Nussbaum that well to tell you what she thinks about that
[13:27] itsme Frederix: Sam, thats good thinking - I think/guess Nussbaum is telling us the same in a way
[13:27] Laila Schuman: i worry about power and propaganda... and how these things influence a society
[13:28] herman Bergson: These are justified in several ways.....
[13:28] itsme Frederix: Laila rationality in moving emotions has always been a strong weapon
[13:28] herman Bergson: most to worry if they are justified by relativism
[13:28] Laila Schuman: yes Itsme... exactly the problem
[13:29] itsme Frederix: in my opinion thats proves/states the "fact" that there is no absolute moral thruth
[13:29] herman Bergson: I wouldnt dare to say that so explicitely
[13:30] itsme Frederix: every on has to set his goal and make the best of it on a reational way
[13:30] Samuel Okelly: i disagree itsme as it seems little more than an adaptation of the loki’s wager fallacy
[13:30] herman Bergson: Explain Samuel
[13:30] itsme Frederix: explain please Sam (Norwgian myth)?
[13:31] Samuel Okelly: well, to infer that there is no objective moral truth because we can not know it seems flawed..
[13:31] Samuel Okelly: an absence of proof is not “proof of absence”
[13:32] herman Bergson: That is what I just wanted to say too Samuel...
[13:32] itsme Frederix: oke, no proof of absence does not proof
[13:32] Superbus Atlas: if you can never know it, how do you know what it is??
[13:32] herman Bergson: the fact that we have trouble justifying a moral truth doesnt proof that relativism is true/right
[13:32] Superbus Atlas: it might be that killing babies is cool
[13:33] itsme Frederix: why always these extreme examples (jews last lecture, babes this one)
[13:33] Superbus Atlas: misses the point itsme
[13:34] Superbus Atlas: it was an epistemological point, not a moral one
[13:34] itsme Frederix: in many ways we do not know the extreme, just try to get the common right
[13:34] herman Bergson: There is in our rational make-up that knowledge of a beginning, one starting point....and we tend to look for that in many areas
[13:35] herman Bergson: Is this a kind of transcendental feature or a biological inclination ^_^
[13:35] Samuel Okelly: as i said previously i think the key question is not "IS slavery wrong?" but "WHY is slavery wrong?"
[13:35] Samuel Okelly: and can this be answered without resorting to chaos theory, nihilism or "might is right" argumentation
[13:35] herman Bergson: If the later we are back to relativism....where the objecivity is related to our frame of mind :-)
[13:36] herman Bergson: Yes Samuel....and there could be a global consensus...
[13:37] Superbus Atlas: what if 1 person does not agree with the global consensus?
[13:37] itsme Frederix: Sam - mostly (if not always) these why tends to raise another IS and we end searching for the absolute premisse/axiom/
[13:37] herman Bergson: Yes Superbus...what then
[13:37] herman Bergson: Why should he accept that consensus and drop his standard...
[13:37] Superbus Atlas: indeed
[13:38] herman Bergson: That is a fundamental question
[13:38] itsme Frederix: Sounds like Abraham questioning God about Sodom
[13:38] Superbus Atlas scratches head
[13:38] herman Bergson: Can rationality help out in this matter?
[13:38] herman Bergson: But if we say that....why the primacy of rationality?
[13:38] Superbus Atlas: You mean 'global' rationality?
[13:39] Superbus Atlas: A Kantian idea
[13:39] herman Bergson: Well that may be one solution....
[13:40] Superbus Atlas: But nobody has ever found a truly global rationalty
[13:40] itsme Frederix: Still Kant end with ... what may we hope!
[13:40] herman Bergson: This disagreement with the global consensus has to mean that the individual and global standard are contradictory
[13:40] herman Bergson: Otherwise it is a matter of 'who cares?'
[13:40] Superbus Atlas: How could one ever know if one had global consensus... do we ask everyone in the world what they think?
[13:40] herman Bergson: This being contradictory is the essence of relativism....and its problem
[13:41] Superbus Atlas: i don't think the idea of global consenus is coherent
[13:41] Samuel Okelly: is morality decided by a democratic show of hands? i dont think so.
[13:41] herman Bergson: Ok....drop the global aspect...even then the contradiction between a group and individual has to be resolved
[13:42] itsme Frederix: Mill argues that even if there is wide consensus - there is need for disagreement - just to show the consensus
[13:42] herman Bergson: But neither by a "Leap of Faith" , Samuel :-)
[13:42] Superbus Atlas: but if we drop the global, what is left of our 'absolute'
[13:43] Gemma Cleanslate: hmmm
[13:43] herman Bergson: Well..let's start on a small scale first then, Super :-)
[13:43] Samuel Okelly: with respect herman that is a seperate discussion which i am willing to defend but view as a digression here
[13:43] itsme Frederix: Super and global did sound already like some soft absolute I think
[13:43] herman Bergson: Agreed Samuel :-)
[13:43] Gemma Cleanslate: have to go now i am afraid very interesting
[13:43] Gemma Cleanslate: see you
[13:43] Gemma Cleanslate: :-0
[13:44] Ze Novikov: bye gemma
[13:44] Alarice Beaumont: bye gemma :-)
[13:44] Daruma Boa: bye gemma
[13:44] bergfrau Apfelbaum: byebye gemma :-)
[13:44] Superbus Atlas: honestly, i just cannot understand what a moral absolute is even supposed to mean
[13:44] herman Bergson: That is not the issue, I would say...
[13:45] herman Bergson: It is about the justification of moral standards...
[13:45] Superbus Atlas: ok
[13:45] herman Bergson: The relativist might relate it to a group or a culture...
[13:45] herman Bergson: The objectivist wouldnt do that
[13:46] herman Bergson: He looks for a general justification
[13:46] herman Bergson: which isnt dependent on the idividual opinions
[13:46] Superbus Atlas: then his standards are relative to the community/culture
[13:46] Superbus Atlas: isn't that relativism?
[13:47] herman Bergson: That it is indeed...
[13:47] Superbus Atlas: aha
[13:47] herman Bergson: But like that related to our culture or independent of any culture in its justification
[13:47] itsme Frederix: now the point is can a culture be relative - or are there some absolute virtues which make a culteru superbe?
[13:47] Superbus Atlas: well
[13:48] Samuel Okelly: how does the moral relativist define justice?
[13:48] Superbus Atlas: wittgenstein though maths was relative to culture
[13:48] Superbus Atlas: to community rather
[13:48] herman Bergson: a global community then?
[13:48] itsme Frederix: Herman, global or universal
[13:49] Superbus Atlas: a community of mathematicians is still a community
[13:49] herman Bergson: well looks like the whole universe fitts into mathematics, Itsme :-)
[13:49] herman Bergson: But mathematicians are not mathematics...
[13:49] itsme Frederix: thats what I mean, global sounds like soft universal - the claim is almost the same
[13:50] herman Bergson: yes..
[13:50] Superbus Atlas: who says what is mathematics?
[13:50] Superbus Atlas: mathematicians
[13:50] Samuel Okelly: please excuse me folks but i need to leave :(
[13:50] Superbus Atlas: the community thereof
[13:50] herman Bergson: Well..Itsme had an interesting question about that...
[13:50] Daruma Boa: so bye samuel
[13:50] Samuel Okelly: thanks herman :) cheerio for now :)
[13:50] itsme Frederix: I mentioned math in my question I left for you Herman. Do we invent math or do we discover math?
[13:50] herman Bergson: are mathematical truths invented or discovered?
[13:51] herman Bergson: I mean...if you try to agrue for a relativist mathematics...?
[13:51] herman Bergson: But I think these are nice questions for your private studies...
[13:52] herman Bergson: We wont solve them here that quickly ^_^
[13:52] itsme Frederix: well almost always math is used as an example of absolute - still this question of me is valid
[13:52] itsme Frederix: and illustrative for this discusion topic
[13:53] herman Bergson: Yes it is Itsme and also a complex debate among mathematicians :-)
[13:53] herman Bergson: It is a fascinating question
[13:53] itsme Frederix: I know, so we do not have to wonder that moral "truth" might be complicate too
[13:53] Daruma Boa: sorry to leave also
[13:54] herman Bergson: Indeed Itsme...
[13:54] herman Bergson: Bye Daruma....
[13:54] Daruma Boa: bye see you^^
[13:54] Ze Novikov: bye
[13:54] herman Bergson: And all of you thank you for your partcipation....
[13:54] itsme Frederix: Still math can be used, so maybe we should state some moral laws to
[13:54] Jangle McElroy: Thanks Prof
[13:54] Jangle McElroy: Bye everyone
[13:54] Alarice Beaumont: subject is really difficult
[13:54] herman Bergson: Bye Jangle
[13:55] Alarice Beaumont: thanks Herman :-)
[13:55] herman Bergson: Terribly difficult Alarice
[13:55] Ze Novikov: yes tyvm herman
[13:55] herman Bergson: But to know how difficult a subject is , is already valuable knowledge
[13:55] Alarice Beaumont: yes.. in english even more.. getting more difficult since you started choosing to talk about a subject and not persons....
[13:56] Alarice Beaumont: have to try and translate all that lol
[13:56] Alarice Beaumont: thanks ...
[13:56] herman Bergson: take your time, Alarice...all will be posted in our blog
[13:56] itsme Frederix: more difficult if you try the WHY, its already diificult to be just moral (if you can/)
[13:56] Alarice Beaumont: yes... it will take time.. :-)
[13:57] herman Bergson: Yes Itsme....the issue of justification...
[13:57] Alarice Beaumont: well... it's difficult to talk about moral.. who fixes moral and why??
[13:57] itsme Frederix: is it a relativme answer if I say we will never ever find the answer?!
[13:57] Alarice Beaumont: your moral might be different than mine
[13:58] herman Bergson: First of all you cant say 'never'
[13:58] herman Bergson: neither proofs our inability to find it that relativism is the right answer
[13:59] Ze Novikov: must 'fly' see you all soon bbfn
[13:59] itsme Frederix: well if I use never I'm absolute - contradiction again -
[13:59] herman Bergson: Bye Ze..:-)
[13:59] Alarice Beaumont: bye everybody .-)
[14:00] itsme Frederix: its alway the old Gödel (you can not proof the system is right as long you are in the system)
[14:00] Superbus Atlas: bye all
[14:00] herman Bergson: Bye Alarice :-)
[14:00] bergfrau Apfelbaum: byebye Alarice :o)
[14:01] itsme Frederix: and thats why we seek for absolute answers - to get out of it
[14:01] Odious Noyes: many thanks all, and Prof. -- I must be off
[14:01] itsme Frederix: I quit, getting to much talky
[14:02] herman Bergson: We ran into that Gödel theorem more than once here :-)
[14:02] itsme Frederix: its "universal"
[14:02] itsme Frederix: or better its human all to human
[14:02] Laila Schuman: lol
[14:02] herman Bergson: Yes..:-)
[14:02] itsme Frederix: free to N.
[14:03] itsme Frederix: Herman I like these lecture - straight and still no answers but thats not the purpose so... Great THX
[14:03] itsme Frederix: Bye to you all - keep going -

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