Monday, June 15, 2009

Two Types of Moral Relativism

A member of the studio audience reported:

I once again have to strongly disagree with your definition of evil. First of all it's far to vague, the phrase "malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit" is so vague it's borderline moral relativism.

It is interesting that the author used a concern with vagueness in a sentence in which he accuses the definition to be borderline moral relativism. Because borderline moral relativism is itself a vague term. Or, more precisely, it is ambiguous – having multiple meanings (with no clear indication in context of which meaning the author had in mind).

On both definitions, however, the claim is false.

Using one definition of 'moral relativism', I would answer, "What do you mean, borderline?"

The theory explicitly states that value properties are relational properties. They describe relationships between states of affairs and desires. That is, they describe how a state of affairs stands in relation to – or relative to - a set of desires. This is not borderline relativism. This is relativism.

However, most, if not all, scientific claims are relativist in the same sense.

I often use location as my preferred analogy. Give me the location of something . . . anything . . . in absolute terms; that is, without referring to something else. I’ll wager it cannot be done. The only way to describe the location of something is to describe its position relative to some other thing. All location claims are relational claims.

Yet, locational relativism is not considered a barrier to objectivity. Scientists fill their papers and books with location statements, yet we do not hear anybody protest that this location relativism somehow detracts from the objectivity of those science reports.

It’s even the case that no natural law dictates what one uses as the relationship in any claim. If I wanted to describe where Denver was, I could say that it is southeast of Boulder, Colorado, or that it is north of Colorado Springs. Both descriptions are true. Neither conflicts with the other. Yet it is an objective fact that Denver is southeast of Bounder and north of Colorado Springs. Science does not come crumbling down as a result of introducing this type of relativism.

We can even go further. Why would a person choose to describe the location of Denver in relation to Boulder as opposed to Colorado Springs? We can find the answer to this question in terms of the interests of the speaker and those he communicates with. He chooses the relationships that are personally important to him, and he ignores the rest.

Yet, still this does not in any way threaten the scientific objectivity of location statements. We are still talking about statements that scientists accept as models of objectivity.

Of course, moral relativism has another meaning.

Using the other definition of moral relativism, I would answer, "Your statement is a flat contradiction. Moral relativism in this sense means that objects of evaluation are measured according to their relationship to the sentiments of the evaluator."

Desire utilitarianism specifically states that moral statements describe relationships between malleable desires and all other desires, not just those of the agent. Saying that one is borderline the other is the same as saying that all desires that exist is borderline equivalent to the desires of the specific evaluator.

These are two different and incompatible theories.

So, we have two definitions of moral relativism. On the first definition, it is absolutely true that desire utilitarianism is a relativistic theory. It says that moral statements are relational statements – but so are almost all scientific statements. On the second definition, saying that desire utilitarianism is the same as “moral relativism" is as absurd as saying that "all the desires that exist" is the same as "the sentiments as the assessor."

16 comments:

Joe Otten said...

Yes, yes, but clearly you are arguing with someone who uses 'relativism' to indicate a degree of vagueness, rather than in any technical sense.

I can sympathise. Relativists - in the second sense - usually seem pretty vague to me.

Tep said...

To me it seems you bypassed the question, Alonzo. It seems very valid point to me.

I suppose the issue is that "Malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit" is both a) not very clear, in that what does "generally" mean in that phrase, and also b) it does seem to lead to what people usually refer to as moral relativism, i.e., where moral values are completely dependent upon the biased opinions of those in question, or on the majority.

I've followed your site for some time, and I appreciate your devotion to honesty above all (which, personally, I think is the largest failing of our society, in that people arguing for particular values/outcomes seem to feel distortion of the truth is fair game to achieve their goals). However, I do wonder the same thing, about how your DU concept ties to the problems I have with moral relativism.

When I examine the phrase "malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit" I also wonder about "generally". Let me give some hypothetical examples.

Let's say people get together and decide (have a desire to) to pass laws that make everyone named "Bob" into a slave. Anyone named "Bob" will have to obey the orders of the VAST majority of people not named "Bob" and work for those people's benefit, under pain of torture/death. Now, in that case it seems "generally" people DO NOT have a desire to inhibit this desire. Most people are not named "Bob" and this desire therefore benefits them. Do we then refer to some vague overall desire for "decency" that should make people oppose this desire, even if will benefit them. Even if there is absolutely no chance that further laws will be passed that will make them a slave?

Seems to me that's the link to a moral relativism. My supposition is that this is a very valid claim about desire utilitarianism -- that it is, in fact, a theory with the characteristic of "moral relativism" in that it refers to but fails to define on its own, this idea of "good desires." I'd really appreciate some clarification on where "good desires" come from in the theory without the use of a recursive definition.

faithlessgod said...

I just put down some musings on this confusion at Confusing Desire Utiltiarianism with Moral Relativism but am not happy with any. My suggestion is "a good desire is is one that people, all things considered, have reasons to promote, a bad desire is one that people, all things considered, have reason to inhibit"

Kip said...

Tep> ... desire utilitarianism ... refers to but fails to define on its own, this idea of "good desires." I'd really appreciate some clarification on where "good desires" come from in the theory without the use of a recursive definition.

DU defines "good desire" to be a desire that tends to fulfill desires. Yes, it's recursive. However, some desires are not malleable, so DU would stop evaluating at that point. But what happens if we gain the ability to change all desires? Or what if we were able to remove all desires? Would that be good, or bad?

Eneasz said...

Hiya Kip

But what happens if we gain the ability to change all desires?

I think I commented on this before, but I can't find the post. Basically I hypothesized that the human race will have to go through a period of experimentation taking generations in which we discover which desires are the best to instill, and which are the best to remove, and that this would inevitably result in the needless suffering and death of millions. I'm unsure how this could be avoided. Perhaps a strict prohibition on modifying any but the most obvious and strong desires?

Or what if we were able to remove all desires? Would that be good, or bad?

Well, if all desires were removed the subject would quickly die. Given our current desires, this would be a bad thing.

Eneasz said...

Tep -

Regarding your Bob-slave hypothesis, let us entertain it for a bit and see where it leads.

On the surface, this is already a bad idea, because it's even better to have a system where everyone named Bob AND everyone named Steve is a slave. And even better once we have a third name. And so on, until we have a roughly 51% Owner to 49% Slave ratio. Since being a slave is considerably more bad than being an owner is good, people have good reasons to prevent this sort of slide from every happening by resisting all slavery at the start.

However that is a simple slippery-slope argument, and flawed, so let's discard it.

We have also proven (over the millenia) that societies without slavery will, on the whole, actually do better than those with slavery. Due to the fact that the full potential of ex-slaves can be used (rather than just their physical labor), society grows richer quicker. A member of a non-slave society nowadays is better off than even a slave-owner nowadays would have been if slavery hadn't been abolished.

Unfortunatly, even though the evidence points us to this conclusion, it cannot be said to be absolutely certain, since we cannot rewind time and see what would happen if slavery had been permitted to continue. So it is at least partially debatable. So let us discard this as well.

It is undeniable that a society that keeps slaves MUST weaken other desires to accomodate slavery. This results in a weakening of the desire for compassion, or the desire for justice, or the desire for truth, or (usually) all three. As well as other desires we would rather have more of. And it tends to enforce many desires we have reason to eliminate entirely (brutality, bigotry, aristocracy, etc).

Therefore a society with slavery is forced by its acceptance of slavery to be a much worse place for everyone - including the free and the slave-owner - than it would be without slavery. And any society that begins to strongly promote desires such as a love for truth, justice, rights, and equality, will inevitably eventually have to discard slavery.

This, I feel, is the strongest argument against your slavery scenario. There are probably others, and the two I mentioned earlier aren't terrible either.

But to bring this back to the topic at hand - I believe that the third argument is an objective one. Meaning that it could be right or it could be wrong, and the facts of reality will prove it one way or the other. But it is not subject to anyone's subjective opinion, nor the subjective opinion of the majority. This is why I consider DU an objective morality. It rests not on people's opinions, but upon real-world facts that can prove or disprove its statements.

faithlessgod said...

I disagree that "good desire" is not defined or recursively defined. A good desire is an extension of generic good and that is not recursively defined.
1. Good is such as to fulfil the desire of the kind in question.
2. Moral good is such as to fulfil the desires of everyone where the application is
- here "the desires of everyone" = "desire of the kind in question"
3. A good desire is a desire such as to fulfil the desire of everyone.
and so on. It is defined. And this can be done without using the term good as well.

Kip said...

> I hypothesized that the human race will have to go through a period of experimentation taking generations in which we discover which desires are the best to instill, and which are the best to remove

If you can change all desires, then how do you know what is "best"?

Tep said...

faithlessgod said...

3. A good desire is a desire such as to fulfill the desire of everyone.

I find myself being confused here. For example, I have the desire to "make money". Now I don't have the desire to make whole piles of money, unless I can do so without basically gaining that money by denying it to others who might also deserve it, but, even my modest desire will probably thwart other peoples desires to "make money".

Or for another example, I have the desire to "keep my home and my family safe" which may thwart the desires of others in that I might put up fencing or barriers (denying their access) or I might teach my children to be reticent with strangers (with the common side effect of seeming unfriendly).

I think both of these are good desires, but they don't necessarily fulfill the desires of everyone. Seems to me its necessary to refer to something outside the direct statements about desires to rate the "goodness" of desires in order to determine which ones should be preferred and which should be proscribed. I'm interested to know how you and other respondents see that issue.

Kip said...

Tep: I think Alonzo answers your question in this post: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/06/generally-fulfilling-desires.html

A desire is good if it tends to (generally) fulfill more and stronger desires, and is bad if it tends to (generally) thwart more and stronger desires.

That's what "good" and "bad" means. There is no intrinsic value.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am not often as technical as I should be.

Technicall, "A desire is good [to the degree that] it tends to (generally) fulfill more and stronger desires, and is bad [to the degree that] it tends to (generally) thwart more and stronger desires," is not what "good" and "bad" mean.

Technically, a desire is good to the degree that there are reasons for action that exist for promoting that desire, and bad to the degree that there are reasons for action that exist for inhibiting that desire.

Now, as it turns out, desires are the only reasons for action that exist. So, as it turns out, a desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires and bad to the degree that it tends to thwart other desires. However, this is not true by definition.

If reasons for action other than desires are shown to exist, they would be immediately relevant to value claims. They cannot be excluded merely because we have defined them as irrelevant. we have no power to define as irrelevant any reasons for action that exist.

faithlessgod said...

Tep.
I might not have been quite clear.

Everyone has desires. Their fulfilment or thwarting is not a moral question. The moral question is over whether a desire is desirable - with respect to everyone. Specifically due to that desires material and physical affects on other desires (and more specifically their fulfilment or thwarting)

A desire is morally good to the degree that it fulfils, or tends to fulfil, does not thwart or tends not to thwart other desires.

This is not taken over one token instance but over the whole range where that type of desire can have such effects.

Is that better?

faithlessgod said...

Woops Alonzo beat me to the punch.

Kip said...

Alonzo> Technically, a desire is good to the degree that there are reasons for action that exist for promoting that desire, and bad to the degree that there are reasons for action that exist for inhibiting that desire.

On your website you write: "“Good” means “is such as to fulfill the desires in question”. If there are no “desires in question”, then there is no “good”."

Can you explain how these two things are related?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip wrote: "On your website you write: "'Good' means 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question'. If there are no 'desires in question', then there is no 'good'."

Let me start by saying that this is one of the things about desire utilitarianism that I have changed over time as people convinced me that I was mistaken.

'Good' does not mean 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question'. It means 'that for which there are reasons for action that exist to realize.'

However, I still accept the following proposition:

"X is good only insofar as it is such as to fulfill the desires in question." This is not true by definition (my earlier claim), but it is still true.

Anyway, the second half of this states is just an extension of the proposition that if there are no desires, there is no value. If no desires exist, then no 'reasons for action to bring about X' exists, and the claim that 'X is good' is false."

Without desires, there is no value.

Kip said...

Alonzo> 'Good' ... means 'that for which there are reasons for action that exist to realize.'

So, desires are the only reason for action that exist. And "good" is 'that for which there are reasons for action that exist to realize'. So, "good" is that for which there are desires to realize.

Hmmm... interesting.