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Semiformalishmaybe

Notes for meetup on moral absolutism and moral relativism

These are notes for a discussion I led today on moral absolutism versus moral relativism; I aimed to be more of a tour guide for ideas and questions rather than someone sharing my beliefs. It turns out I way overprepared for this.

Before we start, I note that the term "Moral Absolutism" has a few uses in philosophy. The one we're talking about today and contrasting with moral relativism is a set of theories about the nature of morals; you'll sometimes hear the term used in other ways.

There are a few related questions these terms offer answers to:

  • Are morals and ethics statements about the nature of things, or are they matters of rough consensus between people, groups, and societies?
  • Are there right answers to questions on whether something is right or wrong, good or bad?
  • Do we reach an understanding of morality by reflection, upbringing, independent thought,
  • Is morality a theory about action and punishment, things we should desire?
Moral absolutism refers to a set of views on these questions where there are right answers to moral questions; in some forms, these answers are given by a god (whether that god defines or knows morality is often a matter for theological debate), discoverable by reason, present in humans through intuition, or are otherwise intrinsic to the nature of things.

By contrast, moral relativism refers to a set of views where there are not right answers to moral questions, at least not independent of some perspective, and we cannot reach one of these perspectives in a way that denies the reasonability of others. The source of this perspective may be personal, professional (for some kinds of morals), or societal.

As a (possible) third position which I don't intend to sketch further here, amoralism holds that we cannot or should not make moral claims, either because they believe that any system of rules cannot adequately express good behaviour, or they use the definitions of moral absolutism but believe we have no way to reach such a standard.

There are hybrid positions possible, of course.

Taking either of these frameworks does not specify how we should react to other ideas about morality, either in practice or in discussion. A moral relativist might either decide to push their moral conclusions or not, perhaps seeing morals as useful tools for society and having an adherence to their morals stronger than, say, a commitment to spreading ideas of what good science looks like, edging out rival ideas as much as they can. Or a moral relativist might decide that their inability to create axiomatic arguments to address other values makes morals largely a matter of personal code. A moral absolutist might feel that they have heard or come to understand the correct morality and feel an obligation to spread that as part of that moral code, or they might feel that through listening to whatever means they have reached their moral conclusion is a sign of virtue and that is the end of their obligation, at least on the level of ideas.

How do we handle moral disagreements in practice? What is the role of society and laws in preventing or mediating such disputes? Are laws and morality talking about the same thing? In some religious traditions, there is an obligation for communities to establish houses of justice (in Judaism, these are called Beth Din) to mediate disputes and enforce law. Some communities hold that western secular courts adequately fulfill that requirement, some still set up private courts for some or all of the traditional functions. When we find ourselves in situations of moral conflict in societies with a court system, do we act or speak our mind? Does this change if we agree or disagree with the existing legal system, and if police are present or absent? Our views (and society's views) on moral absolutism probably impact our decision.

Many famous figures have talked about morality in public life; some of them have used the language of universal human rights, some of them have spoken of consensus. In Islam, broad consensus is held to be guided by Allah; there is a hadith that says "My ummah will never achieve consensus on an error", one of the rare attempts at fusion between absolute and relative morality. Societies that institutionalised ideas of moral absolutism have often left the business of determining morality to central religious or legal scholars, with religious codes such as Sharia, Halakah, and to a limited extent Christian Canon law providing codes of morality held to be inspired by higher powers. Democracy is sometimes seen to be in opposition to moral absolutism; unless one believes that people converge on practices that are morally correct by their nature, it makes possible (probable, given the ever-changing nature of law) that whatever practice is correct, it won't be what people vote on. Creating structures that attempt to mitigate this are an active endeavour in nations that have an explicit commitment to religious rule, such as Iran and perhaps Egypt. (Talk about Guardian Council?). How do rights relate to morality? Are they political? Moral? Are the "self-evident truths" and "natural rights" advertising slogan for whatever the moral ideas of the writer are, or are they showing that people have found a way to some truth about morality?

How do we know or come to believe in specifics of what we believe to be right/moral? If we believe in moral absolutes, what is the mechanism by which we come to understand those absolutes? If we believe in moral relativism, how do we reach and find comfort with our ideas about morality?

Other questions:

  • Is there morality that would apply if there were no other humans in the world?
  • Is morality to be commanded, taught, or cultivated? What would these strategies mean and what would the effects be on society or the people involved?
  • Is morality based on codes of conduct, a desire for certain results, or something else?
  • What are the effects of living a moral life?
  • What is the relation of law and morality?
  • Is morality axiomatic?
  • Is morality more about positive or negative duties or is it a mix?
  • Would we be better off talking about morality using non-truth claims? There is a body of language; "I hold that ...", "I feel" that doesn't seem to treat morality in absolute terms, and sometimes people use them rather than truth-language. Do we avoid those phrasings because remembering that there exists and consistently using the appropriate framework is too much of a hassle, or do we generally speak of morality in truth-terms because most people are moral absolutist?

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