July 27, 2005

What is: moral relativism

Well, it's a phrase that movement conservatives and other culture warriors just love to toss out by which to condemn us lefties as horrible degenerate: we condone ANYTHING because we're MORAL RELATIVISTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But maybe, just maybe, you'd like to know what a phrase means before you use it as an insult. This would be a good idea, because it keeps you from making an ass of yourself when someone comes along who does actually know how 'relativism' modifies 'moral'. Rad Geek to the rescue!

"Moral relativism" does not mean "being lax about taboos that you shouldn’t be lax about"; far less does it mean "drawing a mistaken comparison in ethics". Moral relativism is the doctrine that one and the same action can be both right and wrong at the same time—that is, that questions of moral value can only be answered relative to some frame of reference that can change from one judgment to the next.

And a fine working definition it is! Follow the linky for an amusing anecdote/examples of the proper and improper use of the phrase.

Now, I'm supposed to be our resident philosopher (or some shit like that), so I guess I have to have an opinion on moral relativism. Here's the thing: as many of you know, I'm a big fan of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Foucault, and other existentialists and postmodernists, but also Kant. On the one hand, existentialism comes with a pretty hefty helping of relativism; since you're all about autonomy, recognizing that you're judging from your own point of view and using phrases like 'teleological suspension of the ethical', you don't put a lot of stock in universal regulations. On the other hand, Kant has a bunch of books on morality, ethics, and social/political philosophy, and in all of them his starting point is that moral rules are universally binding.

I don't have a systematic way of merging these two very different streams of thought, but I'm inclined to do something like the following: Kant's system provides certain moral laws, which are in fact universally binding. Well, one: the categorical imperative, a maxim of respect for rational agents. But to work out the details, to decide in any particular situation which actions are morally permissible and which are not, that is, to actually apply the categorical imperative, you have to incorporate a lot of background information, which comes from your own perspective on the issue. So it seems entirely possible for two individuals to look at the same situation and come to starkly different conclusions about what actions are right or wrong.

I think you can see this really well in Kant's own work. Not that he condones this sort of analysis; far from it. But, for example, when he condemns any sex outside of (heterosexual) marriage in the harshest language, it's obvious that he's using certain ideas about the metaphysics of sex as grist for the mill of the categorical imperative. Then, with a different metaphysics of sex, the categorical imperative concludes that extra-marital sex is morally permissible.


MosBen said...

It's always bugged me that people construe "moral reletivism" to mean "no rules" when it's actually quite the opposite, "lots of rule systems, applied by different people differently in different situations." But that's modern conservatism for you, a complete disregard for complexity.

I'd actually add another layer to your moral framework: At the base we have our own perspective and assumptions, then we have the categorical imperative, which determines logically what our actions should be but is influenced by the base level of subjectivity. Then I'd have what I'd call the Hume level which is that really, we can't know anything for certain and everything from our assumptions to our logic could be completely flawed due to some basic misperception of the universe. Certainty is impossible in anything. Obviously, as a practical matter we have to behave in some way from day to day, and for that we fall back to our levels two and one, but we should always be aware that it's all constructed.

Noumena said...

Well, the Humean layer sounds like a sort of intellectual scepticism about moral realism -- are this particular action "really" good or "really" evil, etc. That's Hume's thing, of course, his strict empiricsm informing his metaphysics as scepticism.

Have you read Hume's equiry on ethics? It's called something like that, and I got my copy in a bundled edition with the Equiry on Human Understanding. $2 at a used bookstore -- awesome. He develops a sort of utilitarianism, where good = beneficial to ourselves or others.

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