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.
(I've blogged about the book here and here.)
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.
My mother said she cried for two days upon the birth of my sister Sophia. She wanted to be excited about a baby girl after having given birth to three boys. Sophia looked exactly like a monkey, and she had a beard (sic!). The doctors chalked it up to a transient hormonal imbalance involving an overload of testosterone, which accounted for all the hair. She was a tomboy-ish sort, and grew to be a passably pleasant looking specimen of the gender. She is a Lesbian. Gee - I wonder why?
One of my own sons is gay, but you would never know it. He is intensely private about his life. But then again, I have another son who is 32 and has never been on a date with a female (or a male). And yet another son who goes through women the way grass goes through a goose.
And then there's little old me. I became profoundly disinterested in sex years ago. And not by choice, either. I have no desire to seek a solution for something that is not a problem for me - I enjoy the neutrality and live a like of ease in that respect. People who know me are bereft when I explain that sex for me is a "been there, done that" activity.
Bottom line is - I couldn't care less what people do with each other's bodies. That's moral relativism or indifference - take your pick.
Posted by: Willie R | June 19, 2012 at 06:43 AM
Is not Moral relativism analogous to lawful anarchy?
Posted by: Frank Haynes | June 19, 2012 at 08:42 AM
Frank, I'm not familiar with the term "lawful anarchy." Wikipedia pointed me in a certain direction:
If this is what you're referring to, it isn't really what I'm talking about. I'm not promoting an "anything goes" morality, but rather a "whatever works" morality.
Meaning, I see relativism not as floating free from reality -- quite the opposite. Morality is how we humans best relate to each other, relative to our needs, goals, desire for happiness, etc.
Absolutist moral codes tend to ignore this. They root morality in some ethereal other-worldly place, like a revelation from on high.
Moral relativism looks at ethics and such by relating a hypothesis such as "gays should be able to marry" to the facts of human flourishing, such as "treating people as equally as possible is good for both individuals and society."
Posted by: Brian Hines | June 19, 2012 at 09:11 AM
---found this piece awhile back.....sorry, I don't have the author's name
We can make a clear distinction between Subjectivity and Relativity: Subjectivity focuses on experience, which is private to the individual, without necessarily making an account on metaphysical things; Relativity focuses on the claim that there is nothing in the thing, which is (metaphysically) Absolute, e.g. Truth, regardless of the method/s used to arrive at such claim.
When it comes to truths of belief systems, we start by saying that the truth of a particular thing is either subjective or objective, and not as either absolute or relative (because relativity and Absoluteness deal not with particulars as they deal not with experience; they rather deal with the universals). Examples of subjective truths are those of opinions (as opinions are dependent solely on our subjective experiences), e.g. “Chocolate flavored ice cream is more delicious than vanilla flavored ice cream”. Recognition of the subjectivity of taste could lead to a conclusion that ‘Taste is relative’. The statement “This table is red” could also be a subjective truth (depending on theories) if we are to say that the red-ness is recognized as an appearance of a thing and is grasped through our subjective experience of the table. However, if we are to say that color is a primary quality of a thing (as opposed to Locke’s claim), then the statement is not a subjective truth as it rests not on our subjective experience of the table but on the table itself. The issue on this statement needs further investigation but we cannot speak of it as of this moment. There is a need for another essay to discuss this issue.
Examples of objective truths are the logical truths, e.g. A = A, A ≠ ~A, etc. There is no question when it comes to objectivity of these logical truths, so let me focus on the ‘considered objective truths’ or those that we can get from Science.
The claims, “Biology is the study of living things”, “Salt is Sodium Chloride (NaCl)” and “The amount of Force can be obtained by multiplying the mass with acceleration” are said to be objective truths. The first one is true by virtue of definition. It is analytic and could be lined up in the list of logically true propositions (because of analyticity). The second one is true as concluded through observation. The third one is true by virtue of being a Scientific law (second law of motion), and as a result of calculations and derivations from other pre-established laws. The objectivity of the second and third claims is still questionable. First, because they are not analytic and so we cannot say that they are true a priori. Second, they are products of empirical observation and any other observation of a fact contradictory to them could lead to their falsity.
In this case, scientific claims cannot actually claim objectivity. Through the want of scientists to arrive at objective truths or an Absolute Truth, they tried to institutionalize scientific claims, which actually made Science Relative. The Truth of Science is Relative in the sense that its claims are relative or relational to the scientific community; anything that they accept is scientific, anything that they reject is unscientific. If the previous examples (second and third Scientific claims in the previous paragraph) are falsified through experimentation, observation and Mathematical calculations, they will be devoid of being called as Scientific claims. The objectivity of Science is not really objective because it is not possible for us to be extremely loyal to the object; we cannot speak of anything that we did not experience in the object. In science, scientists can only have an account of their subjective experiences (through experimentation and observation) of objects. Through their want to claim these subjective experiences as objective truths, they institutionalize their claims, which actually makes Scientific claims Relative. Science merely purports to be objective in its being Relative.
 Let me use significant relation to mean the relation of something to another something without which that another something, something would not exist.
 With ‘methods’ that lead to a relativistic claim, I am referring to either subjective experience of an individual or conventional claims of a community.
 “Salt is NaCl” can be falsified if someone happens to discover that salt is actually composed of (let’s say) two atoms of Sodium per Chlorine. In this case, the statement is wrong and must be replaced with “Salt is Na2Cl”.
“The amount of Force can be obtained by multiplying the mass with acceleration” can be falsified if any scientific proposition that is contradictory with it will be considered as true or if through calculations, it were disproved.
Posted by: Roger | June 19, 2012 at 01:25 PM
I don't know who said this ...
"Sex is like air, it's not important unless you aren't getting any."
A sex-addict said it.
I don't know who would repeat it ...
Posted by: cc | June 20, 2012 at 02:42 PM
I endorse your opinion.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | June 21, 2012 at 11:50 AM
I deplore your opinion
Richard Lionel Rupert Asquith Worcester
Posted by: cc | June 21, 2012 at 04:24 PM