Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Moral Relativism

Hellbound Alleee has started a so-called self-proclaimed "war on moral relativism". She describes this in terms of a proposed "strike against the rejection of fact in morality."

I do not know, actually, where the ideas that I present in this blog would put me in terms of her war.

I am a moral relativist.

I also believe that there are objective moral facts.

The common belief that these are mutually exclusive categories is mistaken. If we look at the two options in detail, there is no way to draw the distinction between 'relativism' as it is commonly understood and 'objective morality' that allows the two terms to be both (a) mutually exclusive, and (2) coherent.

The Distinction


Moral absolutism is the claim that there are these fundamental moral laws that determine what ought and ought not to be done. These laws exist as substantive moral forces that we can somehow 'sense' with our 'moral senses' and which tell us how to behave.

The problem with this view is that we have no evidence that such a force exists. If they exist, what are they made of? How do we sense them? Why do two people looking at the same action get two different moral readings? Which one of them is right?

The difficulty in answering these questions strongly suggests that such a property does not exist.


Moral relativism, as it is commonly understood, asserts that each individual or culture merely asserts a set of moral principles. Right and wrong are determined by these baseless, unfounded assertions. If Culture A holds that slavery is good, then slavery is 'good for them' merely on the grounds that they have asserted its goodness. This system is no 'better'' or 'worse' than any other system. The concepts of 'better' and 'worse' in this context imply an intrinsic, absolute value that does not exist.

Moral values, on this model, have the same substance as any other work of fiction. Having no foundation or no grounding, a person can 'make up' whatever he wants just as he can make up the characters and events in a story. He can make up a system of ethics where slavery is permissible, and where people are obligated to help in the extermination of Jews in a Holocaust. Again, any system he makes up is no better or worse (in an absolute sense) than any other.

The absurdity of these implications lead some to think that morality must be more substantive than this; it must clearly prohibit such things as slavery and a Holocaust.

Mutual Rejection

The fact is, the critics of both of these positions are correct.

There is no such thing as 'intrinsic value.' It does not exist. We have no evidence for such an entity. No instrument has yet measured it. No theory in physics requires it. It is a fiction, like ghosts and angels.

At the same time, 'subjectivist' morality is nothing more than a game of make-believe. The subjectivist is like the kid who says to his friend, "Let's pretend that there is a dinosaur between here and school and we have to get to school without it seeing us." The kids will then scamper down alleys and through yards on the way to school, and may even point at their fictitious dinosaur and scream, "There it is!" However, the dinosaur is not real. Neither is the subjectivist's morality. It is just a game of 'let's pretend'.

Unfortunately, the subjectivist is willing to take his game to the extreme of actually throwing people in prison and killing them. It would be like one of the kids deciding that the only way to save himself from the dinosaur would be to kill the other and let the dinosaur eat it -- so he kills his playmate. This is taking a game of "let's pretend" a little too far.

Objective Relativism

To find a sensible alternative to these two options, I would first like to make the idea of objective relativism at least initially plausible.

When I first started college, I was interested in astronomy, so I took a lot of science classes -- namely physics, chemistry, and earth science. My physics courses included a class in relativity theory. In it, I learned how Einstein showed that many of the things we thought were absolute -- mss, length, and even the speed at which time passes -- are actually relative, and depend on the speed of the object.

In spite of the fact that Einstein blew away many of the absolutes in physics, physics did not become any less objective. Physics is still a hard science. So, this told me that objectivism does not require absolutes.

I applied this to the concept of location.

I assure you, you will never be able to tell me the location of anything without describing its position relative to something else. Where are your car keys? On the kitchen table? In your coat pocket? Try answering that question without mentioning some other object. It cannot be done.

All location statements are statements about an object relative to some other object -- the keys relative to a kitchen table or a coat. There are no location absolutes. Yet, location statements are as objective as any statement in science. Statements about relational properties are no less objectively true or false than statements about absolutes.

The Objectivity of Brain States

Desires exist.

Desires are mind/brain states and they are as real as the minds/brains that instantiate them.

Some people try to prove that values cannot be objective by saying, "If you eliminate all of the people, there would be no value."

This is a poor argument.

We would have no moons if planets did not exist.

However, planets do exist. Moons do exist. We can objectively study the moons that exist and make hard, scientific claims about them. The fact that moons depend on the existence of planets that do, in face, exist does nothing to affect their objective reality.

The fact that values depend on desires that do, in fact, exist does not allow us to draw the conclusion that values lack objectivity either.

The critic may say, "But desires are brain states and planets are not."

And planets are round while brain states are not.


Some things in the world exist as brain states. Some things in the world exist as round clumps of rock. There is no fundamental difference between brain states and clumps of rock; no reason at all to say that one has 'objectivity' in any way that the other lacks.

Value as a Relational Property

As I wrote yesterday, desires are propositional attitudes. A 'desire that P' is a brain state that motivates the agent to pursue states of affairs where 'P' is true.

If it is an objective fact that Agent has a desire that P, and it is objectively true of some state of affairs S that P is true in S, then it is objectively true that S is such as to fulfill Agent's desire that P. Then it is an objective fact that Agent has a reason to bring about S. Agent may also have reasons not to bring about S -- depending on other desires. Yet, the reason to bring about S remains.

This is what I call 'value.'

Why do I call this 'value'? Because 'value' has to do with reasons for action, and the only reasons for action that exist are desires.

If somebody is making a value claim, and he is not at all concerned about reasons for action, I hold that his statements are incoherent. Since the only reasons for action that exist are desires, then the person making a value claim had better be speaking about desires, or he is asserting the existence of reasons for action that do not, in fact, exist.

Desires and Action

Now, I do not need to convince you -- by reason or any other means -- to seek to fulfill your desires. Intentional actions simply are attempts by agents to fulfill their desires. Even the choice to do nothing, if it is intentional, is grounded on the fact that, if the agent's beliefs were all true, doing nothing would best fulfill his desires. If he leaves some desires unfulfilled, it is because he has other desires that outweigh those he chooses not to fulfill.

I argue that moral value has to do with the value of malleable desires. By 'malleable desires' I mean those desires that can be modified through social conditioning such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We have discovered that we have the power to determine, to some limited extent, the desires that others have. This has invited us to ask which desires we should choose to instill in others, and which we should seek to prevent. The institution known as ‘morality’ is that institution of choosing desires to promote and desires to inhibit through social conditioning.


Another thing that I learned about the time I spent studying astronomy is that scientists care little about definitions. As long as we all agree to use the same definitions -- or to allow easy translation from one set of definitions to another -- that is all that matters.

So, astronomers name comets after those who discover them, and planets after ancient gods. The people who discover an asteroid gets to name it, which is why we have four asteroids named George, John, Paul, and Ringo.

The names of all things in science are somewhat haphazard. For a while, newly discovered elements are named after the location of their discovery, giving us elements such as Berklium and Californium. Somebody just named a newly discovered dinosaur species out of a fictional school of magic, Dracorex Hogwartsia.

The names of things are wholly made up. Yet, these made-up names do not affect the objectivity of science.

So, if you, the reader, do not like that I call these things ‘value’ and ‘morality’, that is fine with me. Call them what you like. The names do not matter. No matter what you do with the terms ‘value’ and ‘morality’, the following are still true.

Desires exist.

• Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

• Any claim that there is a 'reason for action' that does not reference a desire is a claim that is false – there are no other reasons for action in the real world.

• Some desires are malleable and can be influenced through social conditioning.

• Because our actions have the power to influence the desires that exist, we have the option of choosing those desires. This raises the question of which desires to promote, and which desires to discourage.

• For desire-fulfilling creatures, it makes sense to promote desires that fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that thwart other desires.

• So, it makes sense to discover what those malleable desire-fulfilling desires are and to promote them through social conditioning. At the same time, it makes sense for us to seek to discover what those desire-thwarting desires are so that we may set to work inhibiting them.

Though I assert that this particular set of propositions come quite close to describing that phenomena that we call ‘morality,’ I do not care if others agree with me. They remain true nonetheless.

Absolutism and Subjectivism Revisited

Absolutism invents reasons for action and assert that they are real, intrinsic properties of certain states of affairs. Anybody who appeals to such an entity as a reason for action is making a mistake. There are no such entities. There are no such reasons for action.

Subjectivism involves somebody picking a state or entity and saying, “Let us pretend that there are reasons for action that are intrinsic properties of this state. We will admit that they are not real. If somebody else decides to invent a different game of let’s pretend, we cannot say that our game is better than theirs, except within the context of our game.”

Their reasons for action are still “let’s pretend” reasons – like the dinosaur that the children try to avoid on the way to school is a “let’s pretend” dinosaur.

Unfortunately, “let’s pretend” subjectivist moralists are using their game as a reason to do harm to others. Theirs is a game of, “let’s pretend that there is a reason to kill, enslave, imprison, fine, or otherwise do harm to these people.” They then assert that their “let’s pretend” rules somehow justify this real-world harm. The problem is that “let’s pretend” reasons for action justify nothing.


So, I can't tell where I would fit into Hellbound Alleee's war on moral relativism.

I consider moral relativism to be a fact. Value statements, including moral statements, are statements that describe the position of an object of evaluation relative to a given set of reasons for action. An object that is in one position relative to a given reason for action may bear an entirely different relationship to a different set of reasons for action.

Yet, these relationships exist as a matter of fact. Anybody who is asserting a relationship between an object of evaluation and a set of reasons for action had better be talking about reasons for action that exist, or his statement is false. Value statements are objectively true or false depending on whether the relationships between objects of evaluation and reasons for action that exist are objectively true or false.

I am a moral relativist.

I also believe in objective moral values.

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