[extropy-chat] Moral relativism

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Sat May 7 19:22:38 UTC 2005

These discussions are getting a bit too much for me - too abstract, too 
silly, too confused.

<presents hypothetical test case involving question of abortion>

My understanding of things is that a moral absolutist might say 
"abortion is wrong, period. It doesn't matter what the circumstances 
are, it's just wrong. I've been told this and i believe it, and it 
applies to everybody under all circumstances. Sue should have the baby, 
Frank should advise her to have it, regardless of what this leads to."

A moral relativist might say "Whether or not Sue should keep or abort 
the baby depends upon the circumstances. These include, but are not 
limited to, Her attitude towards abortion, her future prospects with or 
without a baby at her age, her social and financial circumstances, etc. 
Frank should weigh factors such as the importance to him of the 
happiness of his stepdaughter, the fact that the baby is not genetically 
related to him, the impact of a baby on his family, his estimation of 
her ability to make a responsible decision in the matter, etc. These 
things cannot be decided by applying a single, rigid rule, because 
different things are more important to different people, and 
circumstances change."

That is what 'moral relativism' versus 'moral absolutism' means to me. 
Nothing to do with objective reality, or with 'truth'. Just about what 
rules people decide to apply to their behaviour under different 

So what do the people here who call themselves moral relativists and 
moral absolutists think that Frank and Sue should decide?

Thank you for posing the question, which at the lowest level may appear 
to be a simple question of "right" and "wrong", while at the level of 
popular discourse it may appear paradoxical as people ask themselves how 
they can possibly decide which is morally correct, and at a higher level 
it may be seen that the framing of the question is what limits our 
comprehension of these issues.

As a moral objectivist, I say the solution is clearly that Sue should
have the kid, and that Uncle Frank should adopt it and raise it while
Sue goes off to college. If Frank thinks life is so important, then he
needs to put his money where his mouth is. Choice "C" always works.

Very simple answer:
Sue should have the baby if she wants to have the baby, she should not
have the baby if she doesn't want to have the baby.
And this is precisely the advice Frank should give her. He should
also, of course, offer to help her evaluate different options in view
of his greater experience of things.
Well, I don't really care whether this answer reveals a moral
relativist or objectivist stance.


Giulio, do you think *all* moral issues are equally relative, or was 
this an exceptionally easy case?

What if Sue were contemplating murdering some adult, perhaps based on 
simple jealousy.  Would you still say that the answer is simply that Sue 
should do as she wants?  If not, then can you help us understand what 
basis of reasoning applies?

- Jef

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