[ExI] The mosque at Ground Zero.

Jebadiah Moore jebdm at jebdm.net
Sat Aug 14 18:12:31 UTC 2010

2010/8/14 John Clark <jonkc at bellsouth.net>

> On Aug 13, 2010, at 2:54 PM, Stefano Vaj wrote:
> I would not generalise in terms of "objective" good and bad.
> I see, there is nothing you would generalize as good or bad. Would you say
> that such a policy was objectively good?

There is a form of relativism that doesn't posit that relativism itself is
objectively good, only that objectivity doesn't exist.  In fact, using a
word like "good" or "bad" is like using the word "freedom" without
qualification.  "Freedom" does not exist by itself; in fact, freedom in one
area almost always limits freedom in another.  Instead, group X gains
freedom from Y when X no longer has to worry about Y when making their
decisions, and group X gains freedom to/of Y when X no longer has to worry
about anything when deciding to do Y.  It seems virtually impossible to gain
complete freedom to/of anything (including freedom of speech, etc.), since
if that were the case the action the freedom was for would probably be of no
consequence, and very few things are truly of no consequence (and if they
are, why would you want to do them?).

So I advocate always qualifying "freedom", since it very easily becomes a
patriotic buzzword with little meaning otherwise.  I would prefer that
instead of "freedom of speech" we called it "freedom from government
restriction on speech that is not slanderous or violently threatening",
since that's what we actually have.  Roughly.

Similarly, "good" and "bad" are super-generalized terms of value, with
"good" and "bad" usually being relative to some value of "normal" and with
"better" and "worse" being used comparatively.  They aren't quite as general
as "many" and "few"/"more" and "less", because they refer only to judgments
of value.  Value is judged according to some standard; there isn't a
universal standard of value, obviously, because different entities have
different values due to their different goals, positions, and domains of

Morality is one particular set of systems of values.  Moral values generally
attempt to generalize so that what is moral to one person is moral to
another; they do so based on perceptions of universality in the human
species.  Unfortunately, while there are some universals, they aren't nearly
so many as people expect.  This is especially true because most people grow
up in moderately homogeneous cultures (although this has been less true for
the past couple of centuries, this will probably become more true again
within the next couple, because the forces of globalization/mass
communication and trade tend to be homogenizing), and thus take what are
actually just cultural normals from their particular society to be universal
normals for all of humanity, or worse, universal imperatives for all of the
universe.  This is often aided along by various religions, as most posit
some sort of divine/otherworldly source of morality, by laws, which
generally apply across-the-board and give the illusion of a universal system
of judgement, and by propagandists, which state their views in terms of an
absolute morality either because they believe it or because it blurs away
the subtle flaws of their arguments and builds up a feeling of righteous
hatred or outrage in those it affects.

However, as I mentioned above, moral systems are a subset of value systems,
and valuation is always relative to some standard.  In moral systems, this
standard is strongly driven by genetically evolved social mores (hence the
general trend to disallow murder, theft, incest, rape, etc.).  But due to
our application of intelligence to our intuitions through the miracle of
consciousness, plus the biases instilled by societies that have decided it
was in their interests to modify the average moral intuition for some
purpose (i.e., allowing certain types of killing, considering copyright as
theft, allowing theft in the form of taxation, etc.), plus the fact that our
logic of morality operates on the level of people and not on the base level
of reality, we find that people vary rather a lot in their beliefs on
morality.  There is a large overlap, to be sure, but even this overlap is
not completely universal; for most acts, you would probably find that
perhaps 95% will agree on the morality thereof, but it would be rare to get
100% agreement.  And there are many acts where the agreement will not reach
95%, but 80%, 70%, 60%, and sometimes you will not even get a majority in

So, in conclusion, there is no objective morality--because saying something
is objectively good is like saying it is objectively tasty.  There may be
many things that many people find tasty, but there are no things that
everyone finds tasty.  Asserting an objective morality despite this requires
a normative source of morality--in other words, a god of some sort.
 (Imagine if this wasn't so; if there just "is" an objective morality, what
would that mean?  Just because it exists doesn't mean that people follow it
or believe it, obviously, due to the amount of variation in beliefs in
behaviors.  And morality doesn't really govern anything but people.  So what
influence does it have?  What is its function?)

Instead, morality is relative to a particular value system.  Value systems
vary between humans, although there is a large degree of overlap.  Due to
that overlap, it is possible to have sensible systems of law and operating
moral frameworks, despite the existence of relativity; that is, although in
theory each individual human could have a totally different system of
morality, this is not actually the case (as you would expect given a shared
evolutionary environment and lineage).  It would be good to have a word for
this overlap--perhaps one exists already that I'm not aware of, but if not
you could call it "normal morality", so that things that most people
consider to be good you'd say were "normally good" and things most people
consider to be bad you'd say were "normally bad".  In any case, "objective"
is not the right term.

(Note that, in response to your actual question--"Would you say that [not
generalizing anything as good or bad] was objectively good?", the proper
answer is, of course, "no".  But this isn't the trap that you get when you
consider all value systems equally "valid"--i.e., "I believe all value
systems are equally valid." + "I believe that all value systems except mine
are invalid." = contradiction.  This is because this form of relativism
doesn't say anything about "validity", which in this context is basically
devoid of meaning.  Instead, by saying that "not generalizing anything as
good or bad is not objectively good", all I'm saying is that objective good
doesn't make sense at all.  It's equivalent to saying that "not generalizing
anything as purple or green is not objectively purple".  I would say that
not generalizing all things as objectively good or bad *is* good in many
human value systems, especially non-religious ones which usually don't have
that nasty property which makes them value their value system first and
foremost, because usually peace and prosperity--which are significantly
aided by societies allowing multiple worldviews to coexist by endorsing
relativism, given that the worldviews in questions aren't *too* different or
are at least willing to liberalize themselves--are usually valued more
highly than perfectly agreeing beliefs and one's own moral values being
perfectly enforced.)

Whew, that was long.  Sorry.

Jebadiah Moore
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