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

Jeff Medina analyticphilosophy at gmail.com
Tue May 3 21:24:49 UTC 2005

On 5/3/05, john-c-wright at sff.net <john-c-wright at sff.net> wrote:
> He [Giulio] 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.

Given that others consider your 'axiom' is not absolute or objective,
what then? Giulio was quite right, and your failure to provide a
justification in terms of -absolute or objective- morality is further
evidence of his point. Demanding that your personal moral beliefs be
acknowledged as absolute does not make them so, John.

> 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,

Thanks for letting us know you don't have a clue concerning the
reasoning of modern intellectuals and socialists. It helps to see the
context of your other statements.

> 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.

Bentham, arguably the founder of utilitarianism, proposed his theory
out of consideration for the interests of all beings capable of
suffering. If you must choose between helping an old lady on her long
walk home and building sandbag reinforcements to protecting a homeless
shelter from being destroyed in a coming flood, which should you
choose? If you let the old lady go it alone so you might help the
shelter inhabitants, are you a heartless utilitarian, treating people
as means rather than ends? Her life is over, hit as she was by an
oncoming bus, because you realized you could save more people one way
than the other. This sort of consideration is the bedrock of
utilitarianism (and more broadly, of consequentialism, of which
utilitarian theories form but a subset), and it has not the cold
flavor you attribute it.

Another classic source on utilitarianism, if you care to understand
that which you denigrate at least at a basic level, is Singer's
Practical Ethics, which you comment on later in your message (calling
him an infanticide advocate, which he clearly isn't, if you read his
work rather than the nutjob religionists who've slandered him in the
press). You needn't go further than the first chapter to find Singer
declare that ethics demands equal consideration of the interests of
others -- they are explicitly not means to our own ends.
Another smidgen of information on Singer's heart being in the wrong
place; he donates a minimum of 20% of his earnings to charities each
year. How much do you help the less fortunate each year, John?

> 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.

We can keep your axiom and reverse the conclusion, exposing the axiom
for the confusion it is.

(Premise 1) Treat others as ends, never as means.
(Premise 2) Allowing various members of society to suffer and die [*]
to serve the good of the old lady is treating all of those members as
means to an end.
[* which I take to be a plausible result of not doing that which
serves the social good, but other examples of social harms would
(Conclusion) I should not let those people suffer and die.

> 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.

Just men, eh? What a fine moral outlook you have indeed. Please, speak
on, fellow manly man!

You're living in the wrong century for that sort of language, John.
"... a fixed standard,that is, the same for all people." would be
rather more appropriate. Or should we move in the other direction, and
specify not just men, but straight white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men?

I'm quite glad that you recognize the argument fails on rejection of
the axiom. It's a pity you don't take the next step in recognizing
that you haven't provided any objective or absolute reasons for us to
agree with your version of axiomatic morality.

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

You're oversimplifying unacceptably. Your statement implies Giulio
would call theft good if he wanted to do it, yet nothing Giulio said
requires this; it is completely consistent for Giulio to have
first-order desires ("I want to X"), second-order desires ("I don't
want to want X"), and higher-order desires. I imagine he is much like
you and I -- we can want something at a first-order level (a tempting
vice, say; whatever poison suits you), yet not want to want it,
feeling that - even though we want it - it is not a good thing to

Giulio can correct me if I'm wrong and he actually does fit your
caricature. But it remains that none of what he said requires the
straw-man you've constructed to be accurate.

> 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?

So not only are you ignorant of moral philosophy, you're ignorant of
pagan and other pre-Christian religions as well. That bit about "Do
unto others"? Think that originated in Christianity or even Old
Testament Judaism and then spread out to other religious and secular
mindsets? Wrong, John.

The very first record appears to be in Ancient Egypt, somewhere
between 1970 and 1640 BCE:
"Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do."
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (pp. 109-110 in the R.B. Parkinson

We see this in numerous other societies prior to any introduction of
Judaism or Christianity. E.g., Confucius:
"Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" Analects 15:23
and... "Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a
principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word
'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not
desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
and... "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated
yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to
benevolence." Mencius VII.A.4

And Hinduism:
"This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you
pain if done to you". Mahabharata, 5:1517

And the Buddhists:
"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Udana-Varga 5:18

And the Taoists:
"Regard your neighbors gain, as your own gain and your neighbor's loss
as your own loss." Tai Shang Kan Ying Pien

And in Native American religion, which they had prior to interacting
with our culture:
"Respect for all life is the foundation." The Great Law of Peace

> 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.

Neither of these two positions are examples of moral relativism.
Proponents in either case could consistently hold the views you
attribute to them *and* also that their moral views are absolutely and
objectively true.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism for definition and
history and http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/2005/05/whats_wrong_wit.html
for some clarificational remarks made by someone trained in moral
philosophy at one of the best programs in the world.

> 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.

Quite not. Continuing my comment just above, the Holocaust was the
result of belief of the sort of absolutism that Giulio was referring
to. The Nazis believed in their absolute superiority; they didn't
acknowledge or respect the distinct moral views of other cultures.
Considering Jews to be beneath moral consideration is not relativism
any more than your belief that the animals you eat are beneath your
consideration. Don't conflate colloquial usage of the term 'relative'
(e.g., "the moral status of Jews is negligible *relative* to the moral
status of Aryans") with the meaning of moral relativism. Again, see
the links I provided above to get a better idea of what moral
relativism is (or at least what other people mean by the term, if you
choose for some reason to be adamant about using it to mean something

> 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.

Except for the Scripture that speaks in favor of slavery, eh?

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is
sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to
Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the
people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest
proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, vol. 1, page 286.
(biographer: Dunbar Rowland)

See religioustolerance.org for numerous quotes from the Old and New
Testament evidencing Biblical acceptance of slavery; here are some

Matthew 18:25: "But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded
him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and
payment to be made."

"One of the favorite passages of slave-owning Christians was St.
Paul's infamous instruction that slaves to obey their owners in the
same way that they obey Christ:"
Ephesians 6:5-9: "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters
according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your
heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the
servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good
will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that
whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the
Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things
unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in
heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him."

On a happier slavery-endorsing note, the Bible did say slave-owners
shouldn't beat their slaves:
Exodus 21:26-27 "And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye
of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's
sake. And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's
tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake."

> 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."

Men like... the non-Christian Thomas Jefferson?

Or John Adams, who ratified (with all of Congress unanimously) the
Treaty of Tripoli, which states in Article XI that "the government of
the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the
Christian Religion."?

Or James Madison, called the father of the Constitution, who said
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for
every noble enterprise."?
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of
Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in
all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility
in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."

Keen. Yeah, they may have been moral objectivists. They needn't have
been, though. You can be a moral subjectivist and still assert what
you think should be the foundations of a good nation. You can agree
with your contemporaries on various moral matters without declaring
said morality a universal truth (this being similar to Giulio's
apparent stance -- it is not whim, but it isn't objective dictate

> 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.

Hey, that's all right. If any of what you said were true, I'd be just
as up-in-arms about it. But it isn't. So, just as you hope to be
pardoned for your tone, I hope you'll pardon me as well and engage the
ideas (however impolitely I've presented them) rather than dismiss
them because of my umbrage at what I see as misguided piety,
ignorance, and fundamentalist propaganda.


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