[extropy-chat] Re: moral relativism

Claribel claribel at intermessage.com
Mon May 9 09:57:11 UTC 2005

> Thank you ben, for helping to illuminate the difficulty with the way these 
> terms are applied.  It appears muddled because these concepts of absolute 
> and relative are a poor match to human affairs which involve subjective 
> viewpoints and incomplete knowledge of the context.  Seeing the muddle is 
> a step along the way to asking questions about what really underlies our 
> evaluation of "right" and "wrong" across a range of situations and a range 
> of moral agents from the simple to the more complex.

I am also in favor of an 'in-between' view of relativism & absolutism. Both 
of them, taken in literal form, contain inherent paradoxes.

With absolutism, the paradox is this: Not all absolutists agree on /what/ 
values should be regarded as absolute. Therefore, to profess an absolute 
system of values, you must choose between different possible absolute value 
systems. But, on what criteria do you base this choice? They cannot be 
absolute criteria, for, until you have made the choice, you do not have 
absolute criteria yet. You cannot have absolute criteria before you have 
them (well, not without a time travel paradox.) Therefore, the principles 
upon which you base your selection of absolute principles must themselves be 
either relative, arbitrary or nonrational  (based on faith, intuition, 
feeling, etc. As a matter of fact, it is quite common to use faith as a 
basis for absolute values.)

The paradox of relativism, on the other hand, is that each choice made must 
be relative /to/ something (otherwise it is purely arbitrary, which means 
that no choice is better than any other; therefore one has no basis for 
choosing at all.) But if a relative choice is relative /to/ something, that 
something must be either absolute or relative. If it is absolute, then what 
you have is an absolute value system buried under one or more levels of 
if-then clauses; the absolutes are simply at a more abstract level than that 
of immediate judgements. If it is relative, then /those/ criteria must be 
relative to still others, and so on, and so on, so you end up with an 
infinite regress.

Thus, both absolutism and relativism ultimately deconstruct themselves.

I think that in actual practice, people often make difficult moral decisions 
not through a clear-cut, linear list of ordered criteria, but through a 
complex calculus of multiple, interconnected values -- not maximizing any 
one of them, but optimizing a complex combination of them. And nonrational 
factors often play a role, precisely because the complexity is greater than 
can be easily reduced to a discrete set of rules.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie /The Golden Child/, in which a young 
Asian boy is given a test to determine his worthiness to be the next 
spiritual leader. He is given a bunch of objects that represent the 
different virtues, and told to place them on a balance in the correct order. 
He thinks about it for a while, then, finally, he claps his hands and asks 
for a plate. Then he puts all of the weights on the plate at the same time, 
and it balances correctly.  Of course, in the real world, it's not always 
that easy.

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