Ethical Relativism

Responses to Chapter 19 in The Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau

“The worry, specifically, is that moral skepticism – the denial of objective moral standards- is correct, and that morality therefore lacks any real authority.”

But skepticism and denial lack moral authority as well- there is no authority. Denial doesn’t mean that something is false- oftentimes, “to be in denial” means that a person is not accepting something that is very much tangible.

“Objective moral standards are those that apply to everyone, even if people don’t believe that they do, even if people are indifferent to them, and even if obeying them fails to satisfy anyone’s desires. Moral claims are objectively true whenever they accurately tell us what these objective moral standards are or what they require of us.”

How do we know when they’re accurate? I suppose through cause and effect; children are constantly testing the principles and boundaries of their actions. Even through young adulthood, we push the boundaries. I’ve wondered about this myself; there were things I did in my early twenties that I felt no remorse for then that I regret very much now that I’ve gained some life experience and maturity. I don’t believe this is due to upbringing; I think it’s due to a point in my life when I was brought to the painful realization of just how consequential my actions were, even when they didn’t seem inherently wrong. My actions that didn’t harm me had the ability to harm another person. One could say, the hedonist in me wanted to sleep at night instead of tossing and turning wondering what could’ve been- but I wouldn’t feel guilt should not empathy be such a prominent force. Empathy forces a person to feel things that are uncomfortable, painful, and depressing- not in its entirety, but it does seem to be counter productive to the agenda of selfishness. But does this experimentation prove objectivity?

Ethical relativists claim that morality is a human construct: we made it up. But why would we make up something so self-defeating and why do we feel empathy? But let’s flip this: mathematics is a construct designed by humans to understand the order of the universe, build within it, and other things. Morality, then, would be a construct designed by humans to understand the feelings within us- the desire to hide from God after biting into the fruit of knowledge.

But, societies and individuals have different moral standards: according to Ethical Relativism, there is no correct set of rules; a culture that kills a rape victim for honor is no more correct than a culture that leaps on the opportunity to defend the victim. How can two cultures that are so opposing in their values both be absolutely “whatever, a-okay, no one is right or wrong because those are also just constructs”- language itself is falling apart; we can throw out the word “correct” and replace it with, “it is what it is”.

Does this mean we feel differently- that our internal compasses all point in different directions? A man whose daughter was raped would sleep like a baby after killing her for honor just because of his culture, while another man would have to hunt down the rapist and beat him senseless in order to get any rest again- it’s hard to believe the first father could even exist. I could get into population control conspiracy theories: I heard one that Somalian women are made to cover themselves to hide their identity. The purpose: if they have no identity, they can’t express individuality, and they can easily be controlled. I don’t enjoy this train of thought, but I am starting to believe that we tend towards behaving more like computers than not; it’s possible to condition and to program mass amounts of people. The Nazis are an obvious and overused example of this- the Jews in the concentration camps are another. Shave their heads, take away from them any form of self-expression, give to them a number instead of a name- dehumanization is another program that can be installed within us through the codes of fear, propaganda, discrimination, ego- etc. These can appeal to our base natures in both senses, to install in us the belief that we are something or are not something and install in us what to believe about other people. And yet, those who survived held onto the part of themselves that was opposite to the computer; their wills could not be programmed.

“If our species ever becomes extinct, morality will cease to exist.”

In a godless universe, yes. But all of nature abides by order; the deeper we indulge in the physics of that order, the more beautiful the mathematical equations become. Why would an arbitrary universe hold aesthetic? Morality is the equations which explore the metaphysical order of the universe (which, actions create reactions; we can test ‘moral theories’ throughout our lives.) All the material world, whether conscious or not, does what it is supposed to do; maybe no humans would be around to jot down moral mathematics but, once again, mathematics is only a man-made- construct to understand things. The things it describes proceed to be without it. They are not contingent on it.

“If morality is in the eye of the beholder, then everyone is seeing things equally well.”

Are they? Eyes can be flawed- eye doctors aren’t around without reason. Also, the number of times that I have walked straight into a pole demonstrates, at least to me, that even good vision can miss important details. So if we’re comparing morality to eyesight, then we need someone with perfect eyesight (the ideal observer) to determine these things. We physically exist in a structured environment: we don’t see things how they are as soon as we pop out of the womb; we need to wiggle around, crawl, fall, and touch to interpret the physical boundaries of our world. This is similar to morality: we’ve got to experiment with it in order to understand it’s structure. This is how an individual in Nazi Germany would be able to bypass the installation of brainwashing programs and continue to see things as they really are: that there were humans being killed and persecuted for no legitimate reason. The iconoclast is the hacker- he is outside of the Matrix.

Let’s say that everything I’ve discussed up until now is bullsh*t. The equivalence of each societal or individual moral code (they say moral equivalence but is there anything moral when it’s all just structures? Moral doesn’t mean anything. There is no such thing) would mean that, should one society believe another society is deeply flawed in their programming (like Americans felt towards Muslim extremism in 2001), they would need to embark on a war for moral cleansing. There will always be contradiction, and if we can’t accept that there is any real, solid, provable way that we ought to engage with our existence, we’d have to expect that either nations would be self-actualized about the arbitrary natures of their ethics which would prevent them from forcefully spreading their preferred “moral” order, or, they would feel especially empowered to spread it, and do away with other societies who opposed it, as well as subcultures who opposed it- moral cleansing could be used to wipe out religious groups in China who oppose an atheistic state, for example. Or, to wipe out native tribes when the conquistadors came to America. Unless, within the arbitrary moral order was some sort of clause preserving humans for the sake of their humanity- perhaps we could still be regarded as valuable for the sake of ourselves even if morality is arbitrary? But acknowledging the infinite value of human life is not necessarily conductive to brainwashing programming- I don’t think it would contradict ethical relativism though because it confirms moral equivalence. But if we have moral equivalence, and are equally valuable, would that also prove that our emotions, pain, joy, passions, thoughts, experiences, all the things that come along with being human, are also equivalent and thus shouldn’t be overlooked or violated when determining arbitrary actions? Or maybe we hold an equal lack of value; humans and societies are equivalently meaningless. Beings are not meaningful because they are moral; morality is a meaningful system because beings are valuable. It has no value in and of itself because it isn’t real in and of itself- we are.

4 thoughts on “Ethical Relativism”

    1. Oh, thanks!! I’m glad you enjoyed it; I didn’t even think anyone would read it when I posted. I think that there’s a floating bar that comes up when you scroll up and down- at least in safari, that allows you to follow.

      Also, what’s a dad post?


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