[extropy-chat] Moral Relativism and Intellectual Poverty

Samantha Atkins sjatkins at mac.com
Sat May 14 09:30:54 UTC 2005

On May 13, 2005, at 12:28 PM, John-C-Wright at sff.net wrote:

> So far, three people have taken me to task for using the term "slay  
> the child"
> in reference to a hypothetical question about an abortion being  
> sought by a
> fourteen-year-old. My language has been called emotive and dishonest.
> I humbly beg to differ. The language was precise and unemotional.  
> Any emotion
> involved was because of the subject matter, not because of the  
> language used to
> depict it.

I don't see much sign of humility.  It looks to me largely like a  
self-defensive failure to understand what was objected to.

> When an organism reproduces a second organism, the first is the  
> parent of the
> second: the second organism, with no violence done to the ordinary  
> meaning of
> the word, is properly called a "child."

Reproduction takes place when there are now two (or more) separate  
organisms.  Conception by itself is not a full cycle of  
reproduction.  Before birth and especially in early pregnancy the  
"child" is not present in the sense you alluded to.   You are too  
fine a wordsmith for me to believe there was anything innocent in  
your choice of words.

> I did not call it an “embryo” or a
> “fetus” for the simple reason that the hypothetical did not,  
> originally, specify
> a stage of development for the child. It could have been the  
> morning after or
> nine months after. The word “child” is broad enough to cover all  
> those cases.

Hardly.  Did you get that straw you reached for so hard?

> The hypothetical was concerned, not with disposing of a mass of  
> dead tissues,
> but with taking a living organism and rendering it not-living, that  
> is to say,
> dead. The word "slay" meaning to render a living organism non- 
> living is
> perfectly clear and unambiguous.

In short, by the definitions relevant, an embryo or fetus, not child.

>> From the reaction, one would think I had blasphemed in a church:  
>> two of my
> esteemed correspondents are now in despair that the human race is not
> intelligent enough to survive, merely because I did not adopt the  
> currently
> fashionable language of euphemism.

No.  My reaction was over more than your incendiary prose.  It was  
despair that morality seems to be so poorly understood  and our  
communication skills so limited that its discussion devolves in these  
unfortunately characteristic ways even here.

> Of course, the point of adopting the language of euphemism is to  
> halt the
> analysis. It is not done to make things clear, but to shut  
> questions out of
> consideration. But if we shut the question out of consideration,  
> then there is
> no point in raising the hypothetical.

The point of incendiary language is to halt the analysis.  You did so  

> The hypothetical was not whether "Sue" wished to remove a  
> meaningless mass of
> cells, an abscessed tooth or an unsightly wart. The moral question  
> was whether
> she wished to stop of life process (slay) an organism that stands  
> to her in the
> relation of reproductive cause and effect (child).

Everyone knows that given time enough and general health there will  
eventually be a child unless the pregnancy is terminated by accident  
or on purpose.  But it is hardly a universally accepted as murder to  
terminate a pregnancy.   Why is it moral to accidentally or on  
purpose destroy sperm or egg but an act of murder to remove a  
fertilized egg immediately or some ways into a pregnancy  if a child  
is not desired?   Are you also against birth control generally?  If  
birth control is ok but accidents happen does the right of people to  
decide when to bear children end once an unwanted conception occurs?

Again this specialized subarea of ethics isn't even the point we were  
attempting to discuss!

> If this so-called clump of cells were not an entity to whom she has  
> a particular
> duty and obligation, such as a mother’s obligation to love and care  
> for her
> child, and if that duty were not, as in this case, calling upon her  
> to make
> severe and painful sacrifices, such as founding a family at a  
> tender age, and
> foreswearing her other ambitions, then there would be no moral  
> question involved
> in the hypothetical.

That she may (or may not) fel a "duty" in no small part driven by  
hormones and conditioning des not justify comparing the situation of  
being pregnant to the situation after the pregnancy comes to term and  
an actual child is born into this world.   AGAIN, this was not even  
the point.  Again, you simply derailed the conversation.   Your  
choice of words prejudged this specific area and the shape of the  

> If there is no conflict of duties, there is no moral question.

Duties are a poor way to define morality.

> I also did not think weighing the pros and cons of abortion was the  
> point of the
> question. The point of the question was to ask what is the mental  
> process by
> which the pros and cons are weighed.
> In that regard, I actually thought he question was useful. Some  
> answers
> addresses the duties of the various parties involved, without  
> taking into
> account their desires; and some addresses the desires of the  
> mother, without
> taking into account either her duties, or the desires of any other  
> person.

It is not fruitful to discuss morality as a tradeoff of supposed duties.

> The question was also useful in that it brought out the  
> intellectual poverty of
> the “moral relativist” camp: note how the “relative” morals always  
> happen to be
> the ones that excuse difficult duties, never ones that impose new  
> and more
> rigorous duties.

It is not my problem you are hung up on "duty" when you attempt to  
talk about morality.  I am personally not a moral relativist.  I am  
also not a moral absolutist.  My morality does not hang on something  
as flimsy as "duty".

> Indeed, the idea of duty is alien to Epicureanism or Eudaemonism,  
> or any other
> moral philosophy which takes pleasure or self-interest to be the  
> foundation of
> morality.

Self interest including interest in social interactions with others  
is the heart of morality in my view.  You seem to take the view,  
which I would expect from certain types of religious belief although  
not only there, that morality is imposed from without by God or  
Nature as unchosen duties.

> In the happy world of the epicurean, he need only select between  
> what shall
> please him more and what shall please him less, like a gourmand  
> choosing from a
> wine list. Shall I raise the child, abort it, or give it up for  
> adoption? Shall
> I have white wine or red?
> No serious thought or debate can take place in the world where mere  
> emotion is
> sovereign.

Do you think self-interest is about mere whim?  Really?

- samantha

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