[extropy-chat] Moral relativism

Samantha Atkins sjatkins at mac.com
Sat May 7 23:39:15 UTC 2005

On May 7, 2005, at 2:36 AM, ben wrote:

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

I don't think you have helped this much with the following.

> I'd like to ask the moral philosophers on this list some questions,  
> and hopefully clear up just what is meant by 'moral relativism'.
> Here's a hypothetical situation in which decisions need to be made,  
> that will be guided by moral considerations:
> Frank and Sue are relatively poor westerners.
> Frank is Sue's stepfather. Sue is 14. She has just discovered she  
> is pregnant. She is reasonably intelligent, and could to to college  
> and have a chance to improve her life. But a baby would make that  
> impossible. Frank is not the father of her baby.
> What should Sue decide to do? What should Frank decide to advise  
> her (assume that they have a good relationship, and she would  
> listen to his advice)?

Even objective morality does not dictate particular decisions.   
Objective moral guidelines and principles would be applied to the  
particulars as part of the decision process.   It isn't a bunch of  
rules from some high autocrat.

> 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."

You are confusing absolutism with objectivity.

> 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."

A moral objectivist would also consider all the circumstances.   
Objective morality has nothing to do with rigidity.  It has to do  
with being objective and honestly applying all one knows about ethics  
and other relevant aspects of reality to the situation.   That one's  
ethics is based in objective reality does not mean that the facts of  
reality in the case at hand are ignored.  That would hardly be  
objective now would it?

> 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 circumstances.

The discussion was not about absolutism or at least I hope it has not  
gone that far astray from anything worth talking about.

> So what do the people here who call themselves moral relativists  
> and moral absolutists think that Frank and Sue should decide?
> (Note: I am equating 'objectivism' with 'absolutism' here. My  
> impression is that the new pope's issue is with relative moral  
> rules as against absolute ones, and i think that using the word  
> 'objective' just confuses the matter.)

In this you have made the entire discussion more of a fruitless  
muddle than it was.  Congratulations.

- samantha

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