[extropy-chat] In defense of moral relativism

Adrian Tymes wingcat at pacbell.net
Fri Apr 29 22:06:26 UTC 2005

--- Giu1i0 Pri5c0 <pgptag at gmail.com> wrote:
> I believe one should help old ladies to cross the street.
> But I don't think I can justify this in terms of any absolute,
> objective, or whatever morality.
> The universe, as we presently know and understand it, does not seem
> to
> care about old ladies. Others may say, well the old lady is past
> reproductive age and probably has nothing left to contribute to the
> biological or memetic evolution of the human race. She is consuming
> or
> holding resources that should be given to younger generations. Her
> flat should be given to a younger person who can still have children
> or develop breakthrough ideas. The money of her pension should be put
> to a productive use. Ergo, the moral thing to do is NOT helping her
> to
> cross the street: the sooner she is killed by a car, the better.
> I think this is bullshit. Can I prove that it is bullshit in terms of
> any absolute, objective, or whatever morality? No.

I can take a crack at it:

Even the elderly can and often do, for instance by staffing support
systems (sometimes formal, sometimes ad-hoc) or acting as repositories
of wisdom which might not be accessible to certain youths in any other
practical manner, contribute to the biological and memetic evolution
of the human race.  In most cases, this contribution is larger than
the resources to maintain them - at least in fairly recent historic
times, after food became relatively cheap (to where politics became the
prime reason for the continued existance of serious hunger) but before
elder care started requiring massive capital flows, and arguably even
today (since the capital flows are mostly from the elder and relatives,
and relatively minimally from strangers via taxes; further, any elderly
going across the street is probably not currently consuming said
massive flows).

In part because the elderly are dispending wisdom to the young, it
makes sense to help them demonstrate the virtues of kindness and
cooperation: so that the young that they impress will, in turn, be more
inclined to cooperate with you should you ever encounter them.
(Refer to Prisoner's Dillema for the meaning of "cooperate" here.)
This includes helping old ladies across the street.

It has generally been my experience that many of these morals do
eventually make sense, although some may take a while to figure out.
However, precisely because of that, it sometimes makes sense to do what
does not currently seem logical: one might have merely not yet figured
out the logic behind it.  (This is a general weakness of the "logic
only" morality systems: confusing the set of all logic with the subset
of logic that is currently known to a given person, specifically making
the assumption that if the set of all logic can justify moral practices
and unjustify immoral ones, then the set of logic that is currently
known to a given person can suffice to meet the same end - even if that
may seem a practical necessity in order to fulfill a "logic only"
morality system.  Instead of being a requirement whose implications can
be ignored, it means that said morality system can never be perfect in

Quite a few morality systems fall apart when one looks at how a human
being can actually use them.  For instance, if there were a perfect
human being, then treating that person as infallible might make moral
sense.  But even the Pope is imperfect - it has been demonstrated
beyond reasonable doubt that previous Popes have been in error at
times, and even the Catholic Church has acknowledged this by
apologizing for said errors - therefore the Catholic doctrine of papal
infallibility is itself immoral: it allows mistakes and misjudgements
to be hardened into unyielding evils merely because a certain person
made them.

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