Ethics Isn’t All-or-Nothing: Why Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are Incoherent and Untenable

What does it mean for something to be “good?” or “bad?” Even now there seems to be a fog of confusion surrounding ethics. On one side there are moral absolutists who cling to a Kantian-style worship of principles, while the moral relativists at the other end think that one morality is good as the next. They are both, of course, deeply mistaken.

In order to see why these views are nonsensical moral positions, we first need to establish why morality exists in the first place, analyze how it has evolved through time, and based upon these things, determine what function it serves – or rather what function it should serve.

Evolution tells us that morality wasn’t handed down from on high, but arose for a very specific purpose: to help human beings survive and thrive. To suggest that morality is in no way connected to the relations between conscious beings or survival is akin to saying that religion is in no way connected with having faith or beliefs about the supernatural.

By recognizing the origin of morality as a survival tool, we can therefore conclude that when we talk about morality, we are talking specifically about relations between living conscious beings and not about the relations between living unconscious beings or non-living unconscious objects.

Furthermore, by recognizing that we are talking about relations between conscious beings rather than one between unconscious beings, we are also necessarily talking about the nature of interactions between conscious beings – interactions which involve pain, pleasure, intentions, and consequences. To base morality on a lack of, pain, pleasure, intentions, and consequences is altogether incoherent, and yet I argue that both moral absolutism and moral relativism attempt to do just that.

Let’s start with moral absolutism. Perhaps the most famous moral absolutist (other than Yaweh) was Immanuel Kant. Not only did Kant believe that a “good will” (the intention to do good) was inherently good; he believed it was so good that consequences didn’t matter: “If with its greatest effort this will should yet achieve nothing…then, like a jewel, good will would still shine by its own light as a thing having its whole value in itself.” Furthermore, and perhaps more strangely, Kant believed that people were bound by objective moral duties called “imperatives,” which must be obeyed without question for their own sake.

Perhaps the most often cited of Kant’s imperatives are the imperative not to lie and the imperative not to take one’s own life. For Kant, the act of lying – even for a greater good – was always bad, just as suicide for any reason was bad. This line of reasoning, of course, becomes problematic when we consider lying to Nazis to save the Jews hiding in your attic, or when discussing issues surrounding assisted suicide.

Therefore, Kant’s moral absolutism, however noble it might have seemed at first glance, is morally problematic because it favors intentions, principles, and duties regarding intentions and principles at the expense of other relevant variables – namely, pain, pleasure, and consequences. Moreover, once we recall that morality comes from and relates to interactions between conscious beings, we can also realize the absurdity of the concept of “good in itself” because it is a proposition that suggests something can be valued without being valued by somebody.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have moral relativism, which is arguably just as absurd. While moral absolutism makes the mistake of discounting moral variables and detaching judgments about good and bad from human value judgments and interactions, moral relativism makes the mistake of assuming that because there are no moral absolutes, morality is therefore arbitrary.

Again, although this might make sense at a distance, it falls apart upon closer scrutiny. For example, nobody would say that since all exam grades are ultimately subjective that grades are therefore arbitrary. Just because one can’t say that something is an “A” or “F” as a matter of fact does not mean that there is no qualitative distinction between the two.

Of course, relativists will object here and say that the determination of an “A” or an “F,” just like the determination of “good” or “bad” is predicated on a list of criteria that determined by individual preferences; therefore, morality is arbitrary. However, this objection ignores the fact that our determinations about grading criteria, like our determinations of moral criteria, are not solely based on personal preference, but are also based on the application of reason and the appeal to consensus.

This explains the relative uniformity among grading within universities and the general uniformity among ethical systems worldwide. For example, while it is understandable that an “A” for one teacher might be a “B” for another, it is also less likely than an “A” for one teacher will be an “F” for another. Therefore, we can conclude that although we cannot know for a fact if a grade is an “A” or an “F,” this doesn’t mean we can’t reasonably agree upon meaningful qualitative differences between the two.

Moreover, if asked to explain their evaluations, teachers will (or should) substantiate their individual preferences by explaining their reasons for assigning certain grades, and by appealing to their colleagues’ opinions as to what constitutes a “good” or “bad” grade. Anyone who has participated in the process of grade norming understands the truth of this. Although there are always outliers as to what grade an essay should receive, there usually ends up being a general, reasoned consensus about the distinction between an “A” and an “F.”

Returning to the subject of morality, we can see that when we make moral judgments about whether something is “good” or “bad,” we too are (or should be) using reason and consensus to justify why we feel it to be so. Of course, naysayers might ask, “Why should we invoke reason and consensus to justify whether something is immoral?” However, asking this question is akin to asking why teachers should apply their reason or appeal to their colleagues when justifying what grade a student receives. The best answer to both of these  questions is simple: because it works.

We should invoke reason and consensus when making moral choices just as teachers invoke reason and consensus when determining grades on an essay – namely, because personal preference (or in the case of absolutism, lack of preference) is an unreliable means of determining student competency or ascribing moral value, respectively. In other words, it doesn’t work.

At this point the moral relativist might ask what I mean by “work” when it comes to morality, but such a question implies either a rejection or an ignorance of the fact that morality exists as a tool for the purposes of human survival and flourishing, just as the idea of grades exists as a means of measuring academic excellence. To argue that morality shouldn’t be about human flourishing would be like arguing that grades shouldn’t be about assessing student competency.

But there is also another problem with moral relativism and absolutism – namely, that they are anti-knowledge, anti-reason, and anti-progress. While moral absolutism relies on a kind of dogmatic assertion of the truth which fails to allow for the consideration of other moral variables, let alone new knowledge pertaining to them, moral relativism takes an equally useless and solipsistic approach by denying that anything about morality can ever be known.

Both positions are thus deeply ironic if one looks at not just the biological evolution of morality which we have so far been talking about, but especially if one considers the socio-historical of evolution of morality. If moral absolutism were true, then we should expect the influx of new information should have no effect on the truth of its principles. For example, if Kant’s categorical imperative to tell the truth was absolute and objectively “good” for all times and all places, then we shouldn’t expect to see any historical exceptions to this rule, and should expect all moral systems that were ever created to be identical – which they aren’t. After all, the ethics of the Old Testament contrasts quite strongly with the ethics of the Enlightenment.

Similarly, if moral relativism were true, not only should we expect to see a lack of evolution in ethical systems throughout history, but we should naturally expect all ethical systems to be radically different from each other with very little overlap. However, as with absolutism, reality does not bear this out. On the contrary, we can see many similarities across cultures and across time periods which suggests a kind of gradual moral aggregation or evolution whereby some moral precepts are retained while less popular or useful ones are discarded.

While the ability of various historical figures to arrive at the same moral precepts such as the golden rule is not proof of an objective, universal morality, neither is it evidence for moral relativism. Instead, history shows that morality is not absolute nor arbitrary, but is a continually evolving product of collective negotiation between people – a product which is made better (that is, more useful) by the influx of new knowledge, the application of reason, and the appeal to general consensus.

It’s also clear that these negotiations are fundamentally rooted in the survival and flourishing of conscious creatures, and are therefore inextricably tied to ideas about pain, pleasure, intentions, and consequences. To argue that something should be “good” or “bad” regardless of what we feel or think about it, or to argue that something can never really be “good” nor “bad” no matter what anyone feels or thinks about it is to either ignore or misunderstand the very concept of morality as well as its biological and socio-historical evolution. It is an abandonment of both reason and evidence, and rallying cry against the moral progress of our species.

 

 

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Ethics Isn’t All-or-Nothing: Why Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are Incoherent and Untenable

  1. I want to begin by saying that overall I am about 90% in agreement with your conclusions. I just want to challenge you on a few points. First off, I would just challenge you to be more specific in your introduction. Namely, when you criticize “moral relativists” for thinking that one morality is as good as the next, you should probably specify “Good for who?” and “To what end?” Not all moralities share the same fundamental assumptions in terms of the who is the ultimate beneficiary of the moral system and to what end it is employed. To act as if they do is to argue on false grounds. You are appealing to a standard of goodness that is not specified.

    Secondly, you assert that “morality” serves one function, but in fact there are many many moralities out there, all of which serve slightly different functions, and all of which can be exploited by crafty individuals to accomplish their goals (even if that is not their original function). All moralities have both prescriptive and descriptive elements. When you ask, “What function should morality serve?” You are prepping us for a prescriptive moral claim. In that case, again we need to know “For who?” and “To what end?” since not all interests are aligned and not all people have the same objectives when they employ whatever morality it is they employ (and of course there is the option to remain agnostic/amoral on the topic).

    I love your summary of moralities being used as survival tools by groups of conscious beings. This seems in alignment with every scholar I have read on the subject. I would just add the caveat that any given morality’s original function as a survival tool does not necessitate its continuous use as a survival tool. At any given time a specific morality may be commandeered by a persuasive individual and distorted or employed to benefit the few at the expense of the many (perhaps I lean a bit toward Marx and Mancur Olson on this point).

    When you say that moralities deal with “relations between living, conscious beings”, I think that definition cuts out a few important aspects of the standard definition, namely that all moral systems deal with valuation of any behavior or act under discussion. This can, and often does, include prescriptive moral claims of “conscious beings” toward what are thought to be unconscious or non-living things. For instance, many ancient Eastern religions and their associated systems of morality valued the preservation of “light energy” at all costs. This valuation of light as goodness/holiness resulted in a very specific, prescriptive behavioral code toward both “living” and “nonliving” aspects of reality…

    I liked your synopsis of Kant’s moral theories as being exemplary of the more “absolutist” forms of morality. Life is indeed much more complex than he wanted to admit and therefore necessitates much more complex decision-making skills than he allowed in his system. Personally, I think your position on “absolutism” assumes that we have more free will than we really do, but we have already discussed our disagreement on that issue. I know your argument won’t be persuasive to religious folks who will simply assert that without the divine dictator anything goes…(not that you really thought you would persuade them)

    I agree with your critique of “relativism” to an extent. I think that the picture you paint of “relativism” is a bit of a straw man though. For a moral relativist to say that the lines we draw on specific moral issues (like abortion) are somewhat arbitrary depending on the ultimate goal of your morality and how you define the terms of that morality is completely different from saying that all moral systems are entirely arbitrary and relative to nothing in particular. I think that you and I both would fall into the first category of “relativists” and would consider the second category of “relativists” absurd. Obviously the evolution of moralities are relative to many very specific circumstances on the ground. To assert that most “relativists” believe this second, “out of a void” type of relativism is, I think, an unfair mischaracterization. All moral systems of valuation arose in very specific contexts, and then went on to have a variety of functions.

    Lastly, I like your grading scale analogy to illustrate the usefulness of moral norms (that betrays a bit of a utilitarian bent – not a bad thing). I just think that you are a little too optimistic about consensus as a reliable indicator for what “should” and “should not” be considered moral. Consensus seems so easily manipulated by powerful personalities throughout history. In my experience, more moral progress is made by creative/innovative individuals who challenge “reasonable” consensus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post. I’ve thought a lot about the points you made, and would like to present my rebuttal in the interest of furthering and clarifying the discussion.

      “First off, I would just challenge you to be more specific in your introduction. Namely, when you criticize “moral relativists” for thinking that one morality is as good as the next, you should probably specify “Good for who?” and “To what end?’”

      If we accept that all values are relative, then we are forced to accept that all ethical standards are equally valid, and hence that all value judgments based on those standards are equally valid. I reject this proposition outright. Although morality is ultimately subjective, I believe that we can know, in an approximate sense (not an absolute sense) whether an ethical system or behavior is “good” or “bad.”

      In response to your question about who morality is “good for,” I would answer that morality (at least as I understand it, and as most other people understand it) is good for the well-being of all humans, the goal of which is to promote the survival and flourishing of the species. If morality originally concerned itself with the survival and well-being of trees, or with the survival and well-being of a few humans at the expense of the majority, it would be a self-defeating and useless evolutionary tool which would either have been discarded by natural selection long ago or rendered us extinct. The fact that you and I can have this conversation right now is proof of this.

      “Not all moralities share the same fundamental assumptions in terms of the who is the ultimate beneficiary of the moral system and to what end it is employed. To act as if they do is to argue on false grounds. You are appealing to a standard of goodness that is not specified.”

      The fact that all moral systems that have ever existed or which now exist do not share the same fundamental assumptions about how human beings should behave within societies is proof of the fact that we are still in the embryonic stages of understanding morality as a social phenomenon in the same way that our Medieval understanding of astronomy was proof of the fact that we didn’t yet understand the solar system. In other words, the lack of shared assumptions demonstrates varying degrees of ignorance and enlightenment regarding what best constitutes the best possible society just as conflicting the scientific models of the past demonstrated varying degrees of ignorance and enlightenment about the best way to accurately describe the cosmos.

      “Secondly, you assert that “morality” serves one function, but in fact there are many many moralities out there, all of which serve slightly different functions, and all of which can be exploited by crafty individuals to accomplish their goals.”

      Of course morality ultimately serves one basic function – survival and flourishing, although I admit there are many possible paths to achieving that end. The fact that many competing versions of morality exist is not an argument that every morality is therefore valid or useful any more than the fact that there are many different religions is an argument that every religion is valid or useful. Some may serve humanity better than others.

      I just think it’s a case of special pleading to suggest that the function of morality should remain mysterious to us while simultaneously assuming the known functions of other social constructs like government, religion, science, and education. For instance, you would never say, “you assert that “education” serves one function, but in fact there are many conflicting ideas about education out there, so we cannot really say what the function of education should be.” While it’s true that there may be various styles or methods of education, the function of education is tied to learning just as the function of morality is tied to human flourishing.

      “When you ask, “What function should morality serve?” You are prepping us for a prescriptive moral claim. In that case, again we need to know “For who?” and “To what end?’”

      The prescription of what morality should be used for arises from the nature of why it exists in the first place – namely, to help human beings survive and thrive for the intended purpose of passing on genes. If I gave you a hammer and told you that you ought to use it to hammer a nail, you wouldn’t question what function the hammer should serve since it was created for the sole purpose of hammering nails. While you could reason that the hammer can also be used for hammering other objects like nails, you would be hard-pressed to convince yourself or others that hammers should be used for cooking or laundry.

      “I would just add the caveat that any given morality’s original function as a survival tool does not necessitate its continuous use as a survival tool. At any given time a specific morality may be commandeered by a persuasive individual and distorted.”

      True, but the benefits we collectively receive from its continued use is a good enough reason to keep using it – and to develop it beyond its instinctual origins through the application of reason. If morality was no longer beneficial for our species, we’d create a new system more conducive to human flourishing. The fact that any morality can be “distorted” is also true, but the same thing can be said for religion, education, or science. It seems like you’re making my argument for me by conceding that some individuals can misuse and abuse morality in the same way they would religion or science, which implies that there is a base “good” morality which can be “distorted” and therefore made “bad.”

      “all moral systems deal with valuation of any behavior or act under discussion. For instance, many ancient Eastern religions and their associated systems of morality valued the preservation of “light energy” at all costs.”

      I’m not familiar with the valuation of “light energy” specifically, but I can tell you that it doesn’t make sense to have moral obligations to non-living objects evolutionarily speaking, unless those objects are needed for survival or well-being. The specific example you gave suggests that the people in question ascribed meaning to non-living things because they operated under the (wrong) assumption that certain non-living things possess supernatural powers which relate to human well-being and survival. If it was evolutionarily advantageous to value inanimate objects over conscious creatures, morality would not have arisen, or at least it would not be a morality we would recognize. Your example therefore speaks more to the evolutionary advantage of religion than to the advantage of valuing non-sentient objects.

      “For a moral relativist to say that the lines we draw on specific moral issues (like abortion) are somewhat arbitrary depending on the ultimate goal of your morality and how you define the terms of that morality is completely different from saying that all moral systems are entirely arbitrary and relative to nothing in particular.”

      If you are a moral relativist, in order to be consistent you can’t make meaningful distinctions between what is morally acceptable or unacceptable beyond appealing to personal preference – and preferences alone are arbitrary. To be a moral relativist is to say that my version of what constitutes appropriate behavior (murdering children) is just as good as your version of appropriate behavior (caring for children). To draw a line in the sand is to suggest that one principle or behavior should be valued over another, and therefore to suggest that some ethical systems are qualitatively better or more useful than others, at which point you are no longer a moral relativist.

      To “define the terms” of one’s own morality is also incoherent and absurd since it suggests that moral systems are created by individuals in a vacuum instead of within societies that negotiate acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. It’s like arguing that a person can “define the terms” of a society composed of themselves and nobody else. It just doesn’t make any sense.

      “I just think that you are a little too optimistic about consensus as a reliable indicator for what “should” and “should not” be considered moral. Consensus seems so easily manipulated by powerful personalities throughout history.”

      My emphasis on consensus isn’t optimism; it’s an accurate description of how societies negotiate and arrive at approximations toward moral truths given the resources and information they have to work with at the time. I’m not saying that the moral consensus is perfect (obviously the influx of knowledge and use of reason changes moral consensus), but it’s the most reliable method we have for determining what constitutes “good” and “bad” behavior.

      “In my experience, more moral progress is made by creative/innovative individuals who challenge “reasonable” consensus.”

      I disagree. After all, religions have always been quite “creative” and “innovative” in their approach to constructing complex, beautiful, and nonsensical stories to validate bloody atrocities. It was only until the Renaissance and the dawn of the Enlightenment that things like autonomy, tolerance, liberty, equality, and personal dignity came to be valued – based on the influx of new information and the exercise of reason. I’m not denying the role of creative texts to teach important moral lessons, but even great works of literature are predicated upon the use of reason. Obviously emotion is involved, but reason is the rudder that steers the ship of morality in my opinion.

      Like

  2. I don’t have the time right now to respond back to your rebuttals as a whole, but just wanted to point out that I think you are still trying to oversimplify matters by lumping all “relativists” into the same camp (throwing the baby out with the bathwater) regardless of what each of these individuals claims that moralities are relevant “to”. You, yourself said that you believe moralities were developed by our species as survival tools. All tools are relative to the types of beings that employ them and the purposes they were intended to address. That is what tools are, whether they are abstract or physical. Just as all construction tools share common characteristics, so too do all abstract moral tools. These common characteristics thus must “relate to” (are relative to) the beings in which they arose and situations they are designed to address…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not denying that morality is “relative” to human beings for the same reason I don’t deny that sense perception, emotion, and cognition are all “relative” to humans, and hence “relative” to one’s subjective experience. However, there is an important conceptual distinction between the relativity of the human experience and moral relativity. While it’s true that all morality is “relative” to humans as a whole since morality does not apply to beings incapable of critical thought, this is entirely different than saying that the approximate “goodness” or “badness” of all moral systems or moral precepts is relative. So, while all moral systems are “relative,” the approximate value or usefulness of each is not. The former kind of relativism presents an evaluative non-moral claim, while the latter type of relativism (moral relativism) presents an evaluative moral claim.

      Like

  3. For a simpler and clearer illustration of the difference between moral relativity and non-moral relativity, consider the experience of physical pain: a subjective phenomenon relative to all humans. If we agree that this subjective experience of pain exists for all people (excluding those with sensory deficiencies), then we can use our individual, subjective experiences to collectively establish what it means to feel pain, and can use our reason to come to a general consensus regarding degrees of pain – that is, what is generally considered more or less painful for all people.

    Although the degrees of pain we establish are not absolute (some people might feel that steam burns are more painful than being burned with a hot iron), we can nevertheless agree that the pain of stubbing one’s toe is less severe than the pain of being shot or burned with a hot iron.

    To be a non-moral relativist regarding pain is simply to acknowledge that pain is a concept relative to our experience of it, as are the degrees of pain we establish. However, to be a moral relativist regarding pain requires one to either claim that the pain from stubbing one’s toe is just as severe as the pain from being shot (equivalency), or to claim that one can have no real way of distinguishing between degrees of pain (agnosticism).

    Similarly, to be an absolutist regarding pain is to claim that the sensation of being burned with a hot iron is the most painful experience for all people, or that the least painful experience for all people is to stub their toe. Neither of these positions seem coherent.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s