[extropy-chat] In defense of moral relativism

Bryan Moss bryan.moss at dsl.pipex.com
Fri Apr 29 20:48:45 UTC 2005

Giu1i0 Pri5c0 wrote:

>The universe, as we presently know and understand it, does not seem to
>care about old ladies.

Sure it does. In so far as we can say there are old ladies in the 
universe, we can say there's also caring-about-old-ladies in the 
universe. Things like "old ladies" and "caring-about-old-ladies" are 
about equally problematic when it comes to the connection between 
representation and world.

>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 we can have a perfectly naturalistic assessment of this 
situation. In this case, the statement is an intentionally contrarian 
example, and thus we can dismiss it.

>I think this is bullshit. Can I prove that it is bullshit in terms of
>any absolute, objective, or whatever morality? No.

I just gave what I consider a pretty good hypothesis as to why the 
statement is bullshit; you can probably corroborate it for me. You may 
think I'm being disingenuous, but that's my point: that just *is* a 
naturalistic account of morality. A moral is, loosely, a representation 
that becomes stable within some population and alters moral behaviour. A 
naturalistic account of morality asks how this happens. Philosophy books 
are filled with pages of statements that, on such a naturalistic account 
of morality, we can probably safely ignore, simply because, as moral 
representations, they don't have legs. (They might illuminate other 
aspects of moral psychology, however.)

What sort of moral things do people do in practise? How do they differ 
between groups? As far as I know, this is an area where differences 
aren't extreme. The sort of extreme moral situations we do see tend to 
concern inter-group dynamics; either in-group fundamentalism in reaction 
to an outside challenge to group integrity, or the perceived necessity 
to one group of destroying another. In less extreme circumstances, we 
can usefully ask what leads to situations where people routinely break 
moral norms. Since I doubt the average criminal's career choice was made 
through a sense of moral autonomy, I don't think this is likely to 
present any problems of the sort we're discussing.

Where morals do differ, we might be tempted to lapse back into 
relativism. But if there is no fact as to which moral you should accept, 
then we can happily eliminate moral conflicts by arbitrarily changing 
prevalent morality. Basically, we can operate under a form of 
utilitarianism where utility is defined as the satisfaction of innate 
moral intuitions. Whereas it isn’t obvious on most accounts of 
utilitarianism whether the increase of utility is a genuine moral good, 
on this account, the more moral satisfaction you have, the more moral 
satisfaction you have. Thus, what is ultimately moral is what can become 
stable within a population and morally satisfies the most people.

Unlike a criminal, a sociopath might make a convincing argument for 
moral autonomy, which leads to a more difficult question. Is there a 
standpoint from which we can judge whether moral intuition is 
functioning properly? Pragmatically, the answer is probably yes; on a 
deeper level, I'm not sure. That presents a problem for transhumanists, 
who might want to alter their moral intuitions. Then we can ask, Are 
there moral intuitions that are necessary given X, Y, Z? Where X, Y, Z 
are general axioms of the space of autonomous intelligent beings. Is it 
possible to answer this question? I don't know. Regardless, for our 
immediate purposes we don't need an answer, we can dissolve most 
problems in a straightforward way with a simple naturalistic approach.

There are other objections here. For example, it might turn out to be 
the case that our intuitive moral expectations and our moral intuitions 
are always in conflict. Perhaps we routinely expect more than we're 
willing to give. Perhaps we expect types of things we cannot give at 
all. Resolving such issues would be problematic but they would at least 
be finite.


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