[extropy-chat] Re: In defense of moral relativism

john-c-wright at sff.net john-c-wright at sff.net
Tue May 3 14:39:27 UTC 2005

Mr. Giulio Prisco is convinced we should have no convictions. His standard is
that we should have no standards.  

He makes two arguments: first, he reasons that moral reasoning is unnecessary;
second, that adherence to moral standards, being a person of character and
conviction, always leads to mass-murder and atrocity. In other words, argues
that moral relativism is good, (or, at least, acceptable) and that moral
standards are bad. 

There are several difficulties with these arguments. First, they refute
themselves by their own terms. There is not even a pretense of logic here.
Second, the terms, if taken seriously, would condone any manner of evil. Third,
the argument is historically inaccurate.  

He says: "I believe one should help old ladies to cross the street. But I don't
think I can justify this in terms of any absolute, objective, or whatever morality."

I beg to differ. I should think the matter open to proof. For example: 
Axiom: Do as you would be done by. 
Term One: I would rather be helped across the street than pushed under a bus.
Term Two: Therefore I should help the old lady across the street rather than
push her under a bus. 

He then gives a number of reasons a hypothetical monster could use to excuse
murdering the old lady. By no coincidence, all these reasons (the good of
society, the usefulness for breeding, and so on) of the type of reasons Spartans
found persuasive, as do the modern intellectuals, eugenicists and socialists,
but which Christendom rejects. 

These reasons for doing in the useless old lady are each a species of
utilitarianism, which holds that we should value other men only insofar as they
can serve as means to our ends. Once again, the matter is open to proof:

Axiom: Treat others as ends, never as means.
Term One: Pushing the old lady under a bus to serve the social good is treating
her as a means, not as an end.
Term Two: Therefore I should not push the old lady under a bus. 

Please note that the axiom of the second argument is a lemma of the axiom of the
first. If you would do as you’d be done by, and if you would rather be treated
not merely as a means to the ends of another, you ought to treat others likewise. 

The argument, of course, is only as firm as its axiom. The question here is
whether we accept or reject “Do as you’d be done by” as an axiom. This is merely
one of several ways of stating a principle underlying all moral reasoning: the
principle of uniformity. A moral standard is not a standard unless it is a fixed
standard, that is, the same for all men. A standard that admits of arbitrary
exceptions is not a standard. Once you accept the principle that there should be
moral standards, and if, no matter what the standard might happen to be, it
applies to all men equally, then the standard is one where you are asking others
to treat you as you would be treated. 

The only way to reject this axiom is to reject the process of moral reasoning

This is indeed what the moral relativists does: "I think this is bullshit. Can I
prove that it is bullshit in  terms of any absolute, objective, or whatever
morality? No. Do I lose any sleep on not being able to prove it? Definitely no.
I just don't care. I have chosen to help old ladies to cross the street, and to
hold kindness to others as a basic value. It is a choice, not something that I
can (or want to) prove." 

He has taken a stance of radical subjectivism: he calls a thing is good merely
because he wants to do it. 

In his case, his heart is in the right place. However, to someone whose heart is
in the wrong place, let us say, for example, infanticide-advocate Peter Singer,
who does not share this sentimental attachment to old ladies, the philosophy of
radical subjectivism would have nothing to say. 

This philosophy has nothing to say to refute the cruel practices of the Spartan,
the Roman, the Mongol, the Aztec, the Grand Inquisitor, the Nazi, the Communist,
or even the Eskimo. "Well, I chose to help old ladies, and you chose to leave
them out on the ice flow to starve. My choice is mine and yours is yours."  

This philosophy is absurdly mute and helpless in the face of real evil.

Either through indifference or ignorance, the moral relativist does not know
what moral reasoning is for. It is for two things: first, that a man in a novel
moral situation, such as where two moral principles are in conflict, can make a
 rational rather than merely arbitrary choice; second, that evil can be condemned.  

In this case, Mr. Prisco is merely sentimental about useless old ladies. He
prefers to help them rather than murder them on the same grounds that I prefer
pie to cake: it suits his taste. He has this taste because it is part of his
cultural background. Respect for human life was “in the air” so to speak,
implied or embraced by the various thinkers whose works he read, the speeches he
heard, the acts and manners of the general society around him. 

But where did that culture come from? Where and when did the idea arise, absent
in the ancient pagan world, that individual human life was sacred? 

We can leave that question for another day. 

With no sense of his own irony, Mr. Prisco then says, "History shows that the
convinction of being the sole depository of the Truth *always* leads to mass
murder. For me, this is a good enough reason to keep as far from the Truth as I

Assuming it is true that mass murder is bad, and assuming the statement true
that conviction leads to mass-murder, it would follow that we should avoid
conviction in order to avoid mass-murder. This can be the first and firmest
conviction of our moral system: to avoid all convictions. Let us rally around
the flag of flaglessness and defend our convictions that no convictions should
be defended to the death! 

I would say, in this case, that his wish has been granted: he is certainly far
away from uttering any true statement here. 

Leaving aside this silly paradox, let us merely correct the historical
inaccuracy in the statement:   

The two most famous moral relativists philosophies of the modern age were the
National Socialists of Germany and the International Socialists of Russia. The
former argued that logic and morality was different between members of master
and lesser races; i.e. that the Aryans occupied a privileged moral position, and
need not grant lesser races the benefit of moral law, but must wipe them out.
The latter argued that logic and morality differed between members of economic
classes; i.e. that the exploited proletarian class need not extend the benefit
of moral law to the upper classes, but must wipe them out. 

To argue that moral absolutism leads to more history atrocities than moral
relativism is to concentrate on the Seventeenth Century and ignore the
Twentieth, to fear the Counterreformation but not the Holocaust. The people who
"gassed people for thinking different" were the moral relativists, not those who
believe in an absolute truth knowable by the human mind. The genocides of the
modern age are products of followers of Marx, Neitzsche, Albert Camus, the minds
who thought that logic was either a by-product of material means of production,
a by-product of arbitrary self-will, or an absurdity. Moral relativists one and

The most famous moral movement during the Eighteenth Century was the world-wide
abolition of slavery, which was done by Christians who thought it absolutely the
case that God hated the institution of slavery. Likewise, the great blooming of
human liberty across the globe, the end of Monarchy, was spearheaded by men who
wrote a document that begins: “We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident.” 

In other words, men of absolute moral conviction. 

The argument of the moral relativist runs as follows: He sees jihads and
inquisitions and so he concludes that it is the moral convictions of these
people that lead to atrocity. If everyone were merely uncertain about and
indifferent to questions of morality, he thinks, we would have no atrocities. 

This is merely sawing off the branch on which you sit. The problem with jihad
and inquisition is not that their partisans had convictions, but, rather, that
the convictions they had were wicked and illogical. It is the nature of the
conviction, not the fact that it is a conviction, which causes the evil. The
relativist has no argument to show the conviction right or wrong, and, hence, is
less able to oppose the evil than that rational and righteous person, who
adheres to a moral standard and knows why he adheres to it. 

By the reasoning of the moral relativist, it is worse to believe something
firmly than it is to half-believe something wicked. The nameless Spartan thug
who enslaved Helots or tossed unhealthy babies into the Apothetae, but who was
half-convinced that his practices were not universally acceptable, would win
more praise from the moral relativist than Socrates, who died rather than flee
an injustice, because he thought that this was what unalterable and universal
moral law required. 

The final outcome of this line of reasoning, is that Spartan thugs, the kind of
morally retarded half-convinced nobodies who will condone the most horrific
evils, provided only everyone around them is doing likewise, are lauded by the
moral relativist. The man who opposes the evil around him, the sage, the saint,
the hero, he is singled out for condemnation by the moral relativist, for
committing the sin of believing in sins, and believing he should not commit them.  

People who believe in absolute truth can reason with each other: we have a
common ground to which to refer our arguments. Moral subjectivists cannot reason
with each other or even with themselves. 

When a novel moral situation arises where the moral relativist has no habit of
sentiment on which to rely, logic will not come to his aid, because he has
denounced the roots of logic. 

The moral relativist will coast along following the general moral sentiment of
his culture's background and history: in this case, coast along following the
sentiments of Western Christian tradition, acting on the belief that human life
is sacred, while scorning the logic which gave rise to those sentiments, and
sneering at the idea that anything might be sacred. 

I apologize to have departed from my normal custom of being polite and humble,
and I know my words here are heated and scornful. I mean no disrespect to the
writer himself, whom I hold in high esteem, but his ideas are at once so absurd
and so ugly, so utterly thoughtless and barbaric, that they should not be
allowed to pass in a public forum without a rebuke. 


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