[extropy-chat] Moral Relativism--Duty, Fashion, or Personal Taste

John-C-Wright at sff.net John-C-Wright at sff.net
Wed May 11 21:20:37 UTC 2005

I wrote: The thing the two objectivist answers have in common is that they are
weighing duties, not desires ... The subjective component of decision, desire,
falls out of the equation. 

Dirk Bruere writes: “Not really, because you have not examined why one feels
'duty bound'.”

I admit I am baffled by this response. What does it matter what a man feels
about his duty, so long as he does it? A man might have any number of accidental
and subjective reasons for doing a duty, but the essential and formal reason is,
he does his duty because he recognizes it as a “duty”. 

Reasonable men can disagree as to what duties exist and what is their scope; but
if duties do exist, the one property all duties share, is that they are claims
on our behavior independent of our personal satisfactions. 

Now, if a philosopher should say that no duties at all exist, he must logically
say that nothing is or should be done save what serves one’s own pleasure,
either immediately or in the long-term. The question immediately comes to mind
whether that philosopher would be indignant if someone stole his seat on a bus,
or cut ahead of him in queue. 

Myself, I observe that men have consciences, which they go to elaborate
precautions to ignore. We were machines designed by evolution to act in a
self-interested fashion, or to propagate the generations, and nothing more, a
conscience would be an excrescence, and we should all do ourselves a service by
shedding them as quickly as is safe.   

Jeff Albright writes: “It seems that the difference between the two categories
here is that those in the first category based their moral decision-making on
subjective evaluation within their individual context, while those in the second
category based their decision-making on subjective evaluation with the group

Actually, I gave three cases: the subjective see his morals as an expression of
his tastes; the relativist sees his morals as an expression of the consensus of
his local social mores; the objectivist sees his morals as an expression of
universal law, independent of taste and mores.  

I grant you that there may be a superficial similarity between the last two
cases. But notice the difference between a man who says, for example, “I will be
faithful to my wife because my neighbors hold it to be our fashion and our law;
but if they change their consensus, and change the laws, I have no objection to
adultery.” and someone who says, “I will be faithful to my wife because that is
the universal duty of any husband; and that duty applies in this case.” 

Jef Allbright writes: “In either case, the evaluation was subjective; as you
pointed out, the Stoics and the Spartans each had their own codes of moral duty,
and neither fit the definition of "objective" as meaning "apparent to all", or
"based on factual measurement rather than interpretation."”

With all due respect, I would not accept this definition of objective for any
science but an empirical one. I am bold enough to say the strange fetish of
modern thinkers to try to reduce the rational sciences to empirical ones is the
source of the intellectual mischief of the modern age: you must end up believing
in nothing, not even in metaphysical axioms of empiricism, if you believe in
only what can be reduced to measurement. 

Only empirical sciences are concerned with measurement, but they are not the
only objective science. The laws of logic are the same to all observers, and so
I call them “objective”; and yet no one can measure the law of non-contradiction
nor measure the fallacy of the excluded middle. Your terminology would call all
these things not objective, which is a misleading way to talk. 

If you define the word objective to mean that which does not change when the
observer changes, I am confident you can see the difference between someone who
believes morals are a matter of duty, which is the same for anyone in that role,
and someone who believes morals are a matter of taste, which exists nowhere but
in the eye of the beholder. 

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