By and large, I'm a moral relativist. This fits with my irreligious inclinations. I don't believe in the Ten Commandments, or any set of moral codes that supposedly emanated from a divine, supernatural, or more-than-human source.
I think Sam Harris got it mostly right in his book, "The Moral Landscape." Even though I lean toward moral relativism, I agree with Harris that human flourishing is the standard by which moral decisions should be made. He writes:
Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures -- and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.
June being Gay/LGBT Pride Month, with celebrations going on around the world, an article I came across in Scientific American made me think about how much attitudes toward gays have changed over the past few decades.
I don't know anyone who is openly antagonistic toward lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgendered people. But almost all of my friends, family, and acquaintances are open-minded. Meaning, opposed to religious fundamentalism, receptive to facts, accepting of diversity.
According to the article, "Experimental Philosophy: Thoughts Become the New Lab Rats," seemingly intractable philosophical problems such as the nature of free will and of good and evil are being investigated through empirical data.
The author, Joshua Knobe, says:
These “experimental philosophers” argue that inquiry into the most profound questions of philosophy can be informed by actual investigations into why people think and feel as they do. To make progress on these questions, they use all the methods of contemporary cognitive science. They conduct experiments, team up with psychologists and publish in journals that had previously been reserved primarily for scientists.
Knobe describes a study aimed at better understanding moral relativism. Fundamentalist religious believers hate the notion that morality is an "it depends" sort of thing.
For example, allowing gays to marry depends on whether this contributes to human flourishing, not on what some holy book or holy person says. Likewise, allowing gays to adopt children depends on whether this contributes to human flourishing, not on prejudices, biases, or unfactual opinions.
In the study, Knobe says researchers gave participants a story about people who hold opposite views on a moral question. They then were asked whether one person had to be wrong (the antirelativist answer) or whether there might be no single correct position (the relativist answer).
The most interesting part of the study was this: the researchers also gave each participant a measure of the personality trait "openness to experience." Here's what they found.
The results showed a significant correlation: the higher a participant was in openness to experience, the more likely that participant was to endorse the relativist answer. These studies suggest a hypothesis about the roots of relativism. Perhaps the pull people sometimes feel toward moral relativism is related to a kind of openness.
When confronted with other perspectives and other possible ways of life, they feel drawn to relativism to the extent that they open themselves up to these other possibilities and enter into them imaginatively... people feel drawn to relativism to the extent that they can open themselves to other possible perspectives.
Of course, this doesn't mean that everything is relative. Scientific facts aren't relative.
I have no problem rejecting someone's perspective that God created the world ten thousand years ago, or that human-caused global warming isn't happening. Still, people who reject demonstrable facts about reality aren't bad or evil; they're just wrong.
However, when it comes to morality, ethics, lifestyles, and the like, often facts either are lacking, or the issue isn't amenable to a fact-based analysis. I have no idea how someone could decide whether wearing blue jeans or black jeans is good or bad. This is simply a personal preference.
Homosexuality would be a relativistic moral question for me even if being gay was a choice. But almost certainly, it isn't.
Like Lady Gaga sings, "I was born this way." Though I'm a man who is sexually attracted to women, I can easily imagine myself being attracted to other men. (After all, I'm married to someone who feels that way, and I know my wife very well.)
I can also easily imagine myself being opposed to moral relativism, partly because I had some leanings in that direction during my true-believing days. But I was never deeply judgmental toward people with differing moral views. I've been a vegetarian for over forty years; I don't believe in killing animals for food; however, I'm fine with meat-eating, having done that myself until I was twenty.
Openness. Embrace it. Along with a fact-based form of moral relativism. If something contributes to human flourishing, its good. If it doesn't, its bad.