Saturday, March 26, 2005

Relativism - The Lack Of Absolutes

In the previous post it was concluded that we can only judge moral statements as correct or incorrect if people understand them as refering to a universal moral standard, and if such a universal moral standard does in fact exist. Here it will be argued that such a standard does not exist, or if it does that it is far beyond us to recognise it. The basic way to see this is to question how there could be such thing as an absolute moral standard. How could something qualify? It would need authority. But how could something have the authority to make ethical rules binding? By nature, this will be a negative argument. It is notoriously difficult to prove that something does not exist. Therefore, I shall try to dismiss some of the main arguments that such an authority exist.

A lot of the time, people look to the rules of God as the absolute rules. As an atheist, obviously this does not work for me. However, I would argue that it does not make sense for anyone of whatever religion. This is not an argument that there is no god. It is an argument that even if there is a god, there is no reason why we should look to this god to tell us what is right and wrong. What authority would any conceivable god have to tell us what is right?

One might argue that God is omniscient, therefore he is in the best position to know what is right and wrong. While this seems reasonable, what this does is shift the question from God's rules to rules independent of God, towards which He is merely a guide. If this were accepted, then there would still be the question of trusting God to be this guide. However, more importantly the standards would not come from God, but from elsewhere, and so the criticisms of other sources of these standards can be used.

Other arguments posit God as the actual source of these standards. Therefore, the question shifts back to authority. Simply being powerful is not enough to give standards any weight in a pure, ethical world. It may be worth obeying the man in control for reasons of self-preservation, but on a pure ethical level there must be better reasons for the standards to be absolute. Equally the possibility of heaven and hell as reward and punishment do not in themselves give moral weight to the commands.

So on to the most persuasive reason why God might be able to set absolute standards. He might be able to at least set standards universal to the Universe because He is supposed to have created the Universe. The argument is that as Creator, he is entitled to the respect and obedience of His creations, and this entitlement creates an obligation of universal, absolute rules in accordance with His will. Is this true?

What is generally assumed in these cases is that the maker does have such an entitlement. The first problem with this is that this does not seem to follow from any general pattern. It can be said that a mother 'makes' her baby in some sense. Does that give her the right to decide in any way what it is right for the child to do? If she ordered him or her to kill, would there be a moral imperative to do so? The principle would seem ridiculous here. Equally well if a man created a robot programmed to understand orders, then ordered it to kill, would it be right for it to do so? The idea that making something means that we also create a moral system for it seems antithetical to the very universal system originally posited, as well as relativist principles. The maker principle seems only to apply to God, and there seems to be no good reason for this.

There are of course other reasons why one may wish to obey what one believes to be the will of God, including gratitude and reverence along with self-interest (with the possibility of Heaven). These would however not be in themselves reasons why God's commands would be moral absolutes, just reasons to use them in shaping what one finds good. One could of course argue that labeling an action as good is refering to God's stance on the issue. While in a way this answers the language argument, it does so by admitting that the standard to which it refers has no claim to be a universal truth. "Good" as "meeting God's standards" is no different ethically to "meeting Bob's standards" unless it can be shown that there is a particular moral imperative to do the former. Furthermore, the near-infinite number of interpretations of God's standards ensure that it does not provide a universal conception of good.

There are other possible sources whoch have been suggested as creating absolute values. The nature of the Universe (whether or not it was created) is one. It has been suggested that the Universe contains within it clear rules as to how to behave. However, there seems to be no scientific test for such standards. Often people will use selective statements about animal behaviour to suggest that such standards exist in the animal world. Firstly, they often conveniently ignore contrary findings (they will point to species which mate for life as reason for monogamy while ignoring the many which do not). Secondly, they make the mistake of imagining that what is defines what should be. If this were to be accepted, then practices which once were widespread (like slavery) would have to then be considered right, and now no longer right. This denies the very universal and unchanging nature of right and wrong which were posited.

A more specialised view of what is right stemming from nature centres on humanity, and specifically the views of the conscience. There are myriad problems with drawing any universals from the extremely varying values gleaned from the conscience, especially as it is largely influenced by culture, and shaped by evolution favouring groups. But beyond all this, there seems to be no reason why the conscience should have the authority to dictate universal standards. If instead of what we consider the conscience, we had some malevolent voice calling us to evil, it would clearly not make that right. At best the conscience could guide us to prociples created elsewhere, and that again leads to problems of authority.

In the end, authority is a human concept. Furthermore, while clearly whatever posits universal standards requires authority to do so for legitimacy, authority itself is merely a status given to one which allows him or her certain rights to do things and creates obligations on others to do other things. Rights and obligations are in themselves creations of morality, so in the end there is a circularity to the concepts. Morality is only underpinned by morality, perhaps underpinned by the acceptance of the people. In the end therefore, morality is dependant on the understanding of the people, and that can only mean relativism.

What should be seen therefore is that relativism is simply the acknowledgement that we cannot appeal to some absolute outside of human nature to justify our moral beliefs. It does not mean that we cannot have such beliefs. In the next post, I will consider what happens when different moral systems clash, and how such disputes can be argued meaningfully.


crazy/evil/chocoholic/crazy-girl said...

... you write too much :s
and big words
big words hurt :(

Abi said...

Good post, again, but I have a slight disagreement with one point you made in this paragraph:

It can be said that a mother 'makes' her baby in some sense. Does that give her the right to decide in any way what it is right for the child to do? ... The idea that making something means that we also create a moral system for it seems antithetical to the very universal system originally posited, as well as relativist principles.

There is a good reason for making the universe being different to making a child or a robot. A child or a robot are stil bounf by the laws of nature, and the laws of this universe, including any laws of morality that existed, if there were any, whereas God creating the worl is starting with a blank slate, so could apply morality to it, theoretically. :P
Does that make sense?

Pejar said...

So you're arguing that when God created the universe and set the moral rules, He thereby precluded the creation of any more rules by beings within the system?

That's certainly a valid point, and perhaps one that merits more time. The main point is that it does not address the problem of authority. Your argument seems to be that God uses His authority to override the authority of others. However, it still does not answer the question of the source of this authority.

My argument used the examples to show that there is no logical reason as far as we can tell that a creator should have this authority. If there was a logical reason for this, it would suggest that a worldly creator should theoretically have some authority, even if in practice this is overridden by that of God. Since it does not even prima facie seem true that worldly creators have authority, there is no reason why we should see God's creation as being any different.

To illustrate this, take the creator of the robot and the mother. If creation gave authority, our thought process would be "it would be right for the robot / child to do the will of its maker / mother, except that God's authority overrides it." Instead, what is usually thought is merely "God is the only one with any authority here." God is the only one to Whom this principle is applied, and that suggests that there is no logical reason for the principle.

Pejar said...

I have edited the end of this post to better reflect the subject matter of the next post.

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