Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Framing Morality: In Support of Moral Relativism

There is a very interesting conversation about morality and faith, happening at my brothers blog, Dispatches From the Culture Wars. It is attached to a post about Brian Tamanaha's response to Emory University legal scholar, Micheal Perry. I am still working on what's becoming a very long piece on morality, faith, evolution and cognition. It was my original intent that this article be focused on the neurology of violence, especially torture, but I am finding it very hard to stay within those parameters, anyone familiar with ADHD, will understand why. I will address the topic of torture in the near future, but in a slightly different context. When I got into the discussion at Ed's blog, I wandered rather off and on the beaten track, so I felt it would be a good idea to bring it over here.


Micheal Perry, makes the assertion that the foundation for morality and indeed, human rights, is found in religion. He questions whether those without faith can have any real basis for morality or support of human rights. Brian does a decent job of responding to this notion, but I think, still misses the mark. When I get finished with and start posting (in multiple sections) a long article on morality that I am working on, it will become rapidly apparent that many folks subscribe to the notion of universal moral axioms. Such folks are almost universal in their support of socially constructed moral frames. In a distinct minority, not only do I think this is a bad idea, I think it's a dangerous idea. In large part, I think this is a semantic discussion.


It should be noted now, that this should not marginalize the discussion. While pedantry annoys the hell out of me sometimes, it's important to remember that language largely defines the reality we live. It is easy to decide that people are parsing things rather fine, indeed I am about to do just that, but often times, that is when language becomes most important. There are times when absolute precision is very important, in my mind, this is one of those times. I am going to take this opportunity to define the terms that I will be using in this post and future posts about moral philosophy. I should note that these will be my definitions, not necessarily that which other's who post here might be using.


What this discussion boils down to, is the difference between external and internal moral frames. While much of society puts a lot of focus on externally constructed moral frames, I am a believer in focusing on internally constructed moral frames. I should add, that I will, in future post go into much greater detail in these definitions.


External moral frames, are socially or religiously constructed moral frames. In religion, the obvious example is the dogma of the church, or other body of worship, as well as the dogma of holy texts. These are what outwardly defines or codifies right and wrong. In secular society it is more complicated. The short hand, would be defining the external moral frame, in terms of secular law. To an extent this can be accurate, but it is less than complete and sometimes counterintuitive. So added to this, are too often presumed universal axioms, such as “don't harm others,” or “don't infringe on the rights of others to be.” Finally, we have simple social pressure. This would be a secular amalgam to church dogma, in that it is more relative than any other aspect of moral framing. What it really boils down to is conformity. We want to fit in, so this aspect of morality often becomes assumed.


Internal moral frames, on the other hand, are that which are inherent to the individual. There is ample evidence that some aspects of morality, may well be genetic, or evolutionary in nature. This does not mean that that they are universal. Indeed, I accept that they may well be genetic, but would tend to reject the idea that they are evolutionary, simply because evolution implies that they are species wide. Being a Christian, I must also point out the biblical support for this aspect of internal moral framing. Rather than accepting dogma as the end all of moral framework, many Christians believe that the conviction of the Holy Spirit is the progenitor of our conscience, I take this a step further and claim it as the progenitor of our internal moral framework. Some, though certainly not all Christians would probably agree with me.


The thing is, that our inherent moral frame is also influenced by environmental conditioning. This makes for a messy, complicated situation. Indeed, this alone is a good argument against attempts to instill universal mores and external frames. Individuals are just that, individuals. We all react differently to the same stimuli, because we are different. While the internal moral frame certainly takes social pressures and religious dogma (for those who are religious), it is in no way dependent on them. In effect, the difference is that one should reject the idea that social pressures or religious dogma define morality. Instead, we should define morality as what we know inherently, to be right and wrong. This is not parsing it as fine as it seems and I did mention that to me, this is largely a semantic discussion.


To use the example of sexuality. Even in today's largely secular society, there is a strong tendency to equate "loose" sex, with immorality and not just in religious circles. This would be an example of what I consider an amoral ideal. Very few people in todays society, actually manage to live up to that ideal, even if they believe that not doing so is immoral. So you have people committing an act that they believe is immoral. What this in turn does, is weaken their adherence to the rest of their moral frame. In effect, it become easier to commit immoral actions, thus making morality essentially meaningless.


Ideally, morality should be the ultimate governor of our actions. Above the law, above social pressures, above dogmatic framing, morality should be the overwhelming control on our actions and behavior. For it to be effective in this regard, it by needs, must come from within. Anything that weakens it, makes it easier to commit acts that we consider immoral, essentially weakening our discernment of what is truly right and wrong. Morality must come from within. Whether through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, through genetic inputs, through environmental conditioning, or, as I believe, through all of the above, the moral framework, constructed from within, is a far more powerful governing force than any external construct can ever be. Yes, this is indeed moral relativism, but to date, no one has really come up with a coherent argument for why moral relativism is actually a bad thing. For that matter, no one has really come up with a coherent argument that morality is anything but relative or in any way universal.

21 comments:

Beth said...

I understand where you say our morals framework must come from within to be effective, but you mentioned various ways we get our morals then how can you know if any of them are inherent?

Also, why can't there be a few morals which we all agree are right or wrong? I am thinking of basic things like killing someone is wrong unless that person is trying to kill you or someone else, for example.

BobApril said...

DuWayne,

You said that internal moral frames are those inherent to the individual, with the sources being genetic, environmental, and the
influence of the Holy Spirit. Is it fair for me to assume that the influence of the Holy Spirit would be the same for each individual, and therefore that the differences in moral choices results from differences in the other influences? I can't conceive of any other option - to say otherwise is to assume that God's own morality is highly relative, and that makes any form of religious framework break down completely. Perhaps, in defining your terms, you should take a swing at defining the Holy Spirit, especially for those of us who are not Christians.

I also have trouble with the idea that genetic and environmental influences can override the morality ordained by God. I can, for the sake of argument, accept that an omniscient and omnipotent God allows free will, and therefore the Holy Spirit's influence on a person's morality is limited by his acceptance of the Holy Spirit. Those environmental influences could therefore confuse the person as to the Will of God. But genetics? If you behave based on your internal morality, and that internal morality disagrees with God, you'll suffer whatever punishment sinners are supposed to suffer, right? But if that disagreement is based on genetic traits over which you have no control, is that free will?

I would agree one who violates his own internal morality once finds it easier to violate it again, and to increase the severity of his violations. The problem comes when the internal moral code contains
contradictions. That's hard to discuss without offering specific examples - I do not necessarily attribute these specific beliefs to you. But for example, how does one reconcile the sincerely-held belief in Hell for sinners, the sincerely-held belief in love for one's neighbor, and the sincerely-held belief in freedom of religion, when one's neighbor is an Atheist who brings home a different consensual sexual partner every night? By your own example, that would be "loose sex," and therefore immoral. That implies that the neighbor is bound for Hell. Such a result is surely abhorrent and painful to contemplate. In fact, seeing your neighbor in such imminent danger of eternal torment is bound to encourage you to try to guide him to a more moral path - but by HIS internal morality, he may be doing nothing wrong, and any efforts you make to guide him would certainly be seen as infringing on his beliefs. Which is immoral - to see him continue to risk his soul in his misguided beliefs, or to pressure him to change? And whichever way you choose - is that the "good," or merely the lesser evil?

In any event, claiming that "Above the law, above social pressures, above dogmatic framing, morality should be the overwhelming control on our actions and behavior," makes such morality useless in building a society. I certainly agree that one must act according to one's own comprehension of morality and "right" - but society cannot afford to recognize that as above the law, lest claimed beliefs be used to excuse any act. Certainly, a person may choose to violate society's norms or even break the law to satisfy his own moral demands - but he should be prepared for the consequences that result, be they merely the antipathy of his neighbors, or the fines, imprisonment, or even execution imposed by the state.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

I will be expounding on these a lot more, when I finish writing the article I am working on.

...how can you know if any of them are inherent?

Like I said, this is largely a semantic argument. In large part, our morals are affected by our environment. Whether it be social pressure, religious dogma or our parent's teachings, these things affect our sense of morality. What I am saying is that we need to reject the notion that these are moral axioms, just because others tell us they are. Rather, we should consider what we as individuals, feel are right and wrong, to be the makeup of our moral frame, not what others tell us to.

Also, why can't there be a few morals which we all agree are right or wrong?

I am not saying that people can't agree that certain things are moral or immoral. What I am saying is that as individuals, we shouldn't just accept that on face value as being moral or make that our moral frame. Certainly, I think that anyone who is engaging in such things as torture, rape or murder, is acting immorally. However, I don't just believe that because society tells me I should, nor do I assume that the person committing those acts believes that they are being immoral by doing so.

This has nothing to do with not agreeing with others about things that are moral or not. It is about taking ownership of our morality, making it our own, instead of accepting a ready made frame.

Besides, while we would agree on a lot of notions of morality, I expect that we would disagree on many others. I don't happen to believe that sex out of wedlock is immoral, nor do I believe that homosexuality is immoral. Indeed, I believe that repressing one's sexuality or pressuring others to, is immoral.

Now, if I believed that those things were immoral, as I one time did, then if I engaged in those activities anyways, I am just making it easier to commit other immoral acts. Indeed, that is exactly what I have done in the past. At one time, I took it as an all or nothing approach. I didn't decide that it gave me free reign to do anything that I wished, but was very close to that mentality. I since have reevaluated my beliefs and attitudes, accepting a very different, far more personal moral framework. I wouldn't dream of committing some of the actions that I have in the past.

DuWayne Brayton said...

BobApril -

Is it fair for me to assume that the influence of the Holy Spirit would be the same for each individual, and therefore that the differences in moral choices results from differences in the other influences?

Actually, I don't think that the influence of the Holy Spirit is exactly the same for everyone. Different people are exactly that, different. In effect, yes, I think God is somewhat morally relative, in that we are all different people, endowed with different talents and even different neurochemistry. We are who we are, and I think that God treats us as such.

I also have trouble with the idea that genetic and environmental influences can override the morality ordained by God. I can, for the sake of argument, accept that an omniscient and omnipotent God allows free will, and therefore the Holy Spirit's influence on a person's morality is limited by his acceptance of the Holy Spirit. Those environmental influences could therefore confuse the person as to the Will of God. But genetics? If you behave based on your internal morality, and that internal morality disagrees with God, you'll suffer whatever punishment sinners are supposed to suffer, right? But if that disagreement is based on genetic traits over which you have no control, is that free will?

I tend to look at these aspects of morality to be what makes up our innate moral baseline. I am not differentiating them as two different factors, i.e. they can't contradict each other, because they have the same origin.

i.e. your third para

Heres the thing, I know people who think, absolutely, that I am a heretic and bound for hell. Some of them have accepted that I believe what I believe and my soul is my own concern. They pray for my redemption, that God will change my heart and leave it at that. We're still friends. I have another acquaintance who just can't let it go. He feels compelled to harass me every time he sees me, we're not friends.

The sadness they feel, at my supposed damnation, is their problem. I'm sorry that they feel that way, but it is not my fault they feel that way, but theirs. Personally, I feel that it is wrong for people to pressure others to conform to their beliefs. I am more than happy to share my beliefs with others, but only if it is relevant to the discussion at hand, usually only if I am asked. I wouldn't dream of pressuring someone to believe as I do.

I would add, that indeed I don't think it's immoral for someone to bring home a different sex partner every night. I do think it can be very unhealthy, even dangerous, but not immoral.

i.e. the last para

I don't think that morality can ever be a tool for social development. Indeed, that is what laws and social taboos are for. Nor do I think that one's innate sense of morality should excuse illicit behavior. Falling within one's moral frame or not, if one breaks the law, they have to accept the potential consequences. For example, I don't think smoking pot is immoral. If I do it however, I accept that there are potential consequences to that action.

I also think this is largely irrelevant to the difference between internal and external moral frames. Indeed this also applies to most of this. There are far too many people out there who think it's entirely moral for them to kill abortion doctor for example. Not based on an internal moral frame, but one based entirely on an external one. Likewise, most people who believe as the person you describe in the paragraph above this one, are depending on an external frame for those feelings.


Really, my whole argument is based not on how the morality we develop guides us. Such discussion is equally valid whether we are talking external or internal framing. All that I am really saying is that internally developed moral frames, have much more potency, much more meaning, than external ones.

Beth said...

Okay DuWayne, so you say that you changed your beliefs and attitudes and so there are things you have done in the past that you wouldn't do now, but you don't think that there was any external forces or influences or social pressures that made you change?

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

I'm not saying that at all. What I am saying is that I have rejected a certain view of morality, internalized and taken ownership of my morality. Certainly external forces have influenced that process, I'm not suggesting they shouldn't, inevitably they will.

BobApril said...

The sadness they feel, at my supposed damnation, is their problem.

I agree with you - but they don't. Try putting yourself in their place, with that contradiction facing them. Alternatively, come up with a plausible situation that challenges two or more of your own moral principles from different directions, demanding different answers. Where is the good when all choices lead to evil?

I once read a novel where the protagonist was challenged to write down her personal set of morals. The point was to force her to think through them, give due consideration to their consequences and contradictions, and thus be better prepared when morally ambiguous situations arose. Internal morality can be very slippery, especially when other factors (like lust, anger, hunger, fear) come into play. External morality, especially in the form of laws, is often written down and thus well-defined. That can be a great aid in making choices the pressure is high.

Beth said...

I would point out also that whether we don't kill someone because it's one of the 10 Commandments, or because we'd go to jail, or because we personally feel I wouldn't want someone to kill me therefore I will not kill another, the outcome is still the same, and so why do we need to say with absoluteness that only that from within is the acceptable way to frame our morals?

DuWayne Brayton said...

BobApril & Beth -

Sorry, I haven't gotten back to respond to you, I will. It was my intention to do so last night, but I was unable to do so.

I had a fairly busy day yesterday and was looking forward to coming home, writing another post and responding to both of you. I was also planning on throwing my two cents on the privacy threads and watching some tv on dvd that I finally got in to the library.

Unfortunately, due to a particularly nasty neighbor who has been evicted but has yet to reach her date of departure, I spent most of the evening talking to the cops and trying to keep another neighbor from getting her butt kicked.

I am about ready to take one of my church friends up on an offer to live in their basement, until we can afford to move. Our landlord has promised and promised to do things that might help us get rid of all of the neighbors who are causing problems and making noise until all hours, yet continually failed to follow through on any of them.

I am getting ready to take Cay to the park, to play with a friend. I will respond to this as soon as I get back.

Beth said...

DuWayne, no need to worry about a timely response, just take care of your family situation. I hope it works out for the best!

DuWayne Brayton said...

BobApril -

As far as your first para -

Again, this is largely irrelevant to the question of internal versus external morality. Regardless of one's moral frame, these sorts of decisions will come up, it's a fact of life.

Here's a alternate scenario, one that I have had to deal with more than once. You have a decision to make. If you choose a particular life path, it will upset, cause grief, to your parents, whom you care for very much. Alternatively, if you choose to not upset your parents, you will cause yourself serious grief. In such situations, it really becomes a decision of, which will cause the most grief, at least for me.

As per your last para -

I disagree. First, part of the process of taking ownership of your morality, is to give it great consideration, to understand what is moral. Second, when we are talking about an internal frame, we are talking about fairly inherent responses. Making a decision under pressure is actually easier because you are not sitting there trying ot figure out what you should do, for the most part you will just do it, even when you are running into conflicting moral parameters. I.e. you subconsciously know which conflicting value is more important in that context.

Take this scenario;

You catch a coworker stealing from the till. You also happen to know that he is doing so because he desperately needs to purchase diapers and formula for his baby, food for his family. If you tell your manager, you know that he will not only be fired, but go to jail for sixty days and his family will end up on the streets. It's the end of the shift, your company has a policy that requires you tell your manager, as soon as you are aware of the situation. If you are going to tell, you have to tell immediately. Keeping in mind that he has only stolen exactly what he needs to provide for his family.

Now if you are operating by an external frame this is going to be a hard decision to make. Unless of course your's is based on the law, in which case it's very easy, but then, is it actually the right one?

Contrast that with an internal moral frame, the conflict becomes much easier to quell. Easier, because it's instinctive.

Lets now look at it from a third perspective. Your moral frame is external, based largely on law. You are presented with the same scenario. You decide to have compassion and go dead against your basically black and white moral frame. Not only did you go against your moral frame, but it was instinctive to do so, you hardly even considered turning the guy in. How much easier is it going to be the next time something comes up to challenge your mores?

Beth -

Because, if our moral frame is internalized and defined by what we truly believe is right and wrong, it becomes very difficult to act immorally. Look at the scenario I laid out above, for BobApril. Take the last person I describe in that scenario, the one who has gone dead against his moral frame. Lets put him into another scenario, after the one described above.

He's moved on from the crappy job he had, finished school and gotten a good corporate job. Lets say that he's overextended himself and come close to losing his very nice home. Of he just lets it go, he could sell his house, take the small amount of equity he's built up and buy a more modest home in a decent neighborhood. The other option open to him, is to make a very shady deal. One that is probably not going to destroy anyone's life, but will hurt several people financially. It is right on the edge of being illegal, possibly it is, possibly not, but it is quite clearly, highly unethical. Indeed, it goes directly against the code of conduct and professional ethics he signed when he took his position.

Now if his internal moral frame, had given him the leeway to find the first scenario and his response to it, morally correct, it is far more likely that this is a very simple decision. However, given the circumstances, given that he has previously gone directly against his actual moral frame, it makes it that much easier to make the shady deal, to go dead against his moral frame again. At this point, his moral frame is basically worthless, meaningless.

This is why I make the point of putting morality above external forces, as the ultimate governor of our actions. This is not to marginalize the law, social taboo or social ethical frames. This is what governs our actions, when we could get away with something under those frames alone. This is what transcends all of these and must transcend all of these. If it does not, then what one is on, is a truly slippery slope.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

I should also note that I am not saying that internal moral framing is essential, just that I think it's superior.

Beth said...

Oh if you think it's superior but not essential, then I would totally agree with you.

About moral relativism though, couldn't anyone really justify everything to make it "moral" if it's all relative?

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

That is a very good question, I am glad you asked.

The short answer, yes, yes they can. However, it doesn't mean anything. The very notion that someone does something that is immoral or moral, does not, in itself, have any real world consequences. The action that is committed might, often does produce real world consequences, but the morality of it does not.

People who use external moral frames can make the same claims, some based on their interpretation of biblical truths, others based on their interpretation of more social mores.

Ex1;
A man beats his kids, with a heavy paddle, to the point that they literally cannot sit down. The fact that he firmly believes that not only is this moral, but the bible demands that he do so, will not make a lick of difference in a court of law. He may firmly believe that not only is this moral, but that it is also an expression of love, some people are insane enough to think like that.

Ex2;
(This is not intended as a needle, I know full well that you wouldn't condone it. It's just the first example that jumped into my head.)

A person who firmly believes that a fetus, is as fully human as you or I, decides to execute an abortionist. Outside of any religious influence on his belief, he perceives abortion to be murder, he also believes that the best thing to do to a mass murderer, is to execute them in turn. In this regard, he is basing his actions on his interpretation of social morality. He believes his actions are entirely moral, moreover, he believes that this may well save some of the lives that doctor would have taken.

So really, while it can indeed cause someone to think that their actions are moral and therefor justified, it's no different than the aforementioned justifications.

Beth said...

Don't your examples show how moral relativism can be dangerous?

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

Not at all. Really, they make clear that moral relativism is the natural state of things. I don't think it's dangerous, so much as reality - no matter the external framing, morality always has been and always will be, relative. Ultimately, I think it would be far more dangerous, were it not. At that point, morality itself would cease to have any meaning or use as a governor of our actions.

Beth said...

I'm not sure how having some universal code of morals makes them dangerous or meaningless, but I do agree that today morals are relative by and large. I'd personally like to see more agreement on some issues of morality than we have, but resigned to the fact we probably never will.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Such universality would be dangerous because it would make morality irrelevant to most people. Simply put, people do things everyday, that while they don't perceive them as immoral, others do. If those things were a part of some universal morality, people would still do them and thus discount morality altogether. It would no longer have any impact on their actions.

The thing is, that there are a lot of areas that most people would and do agree on morality. I daresay that few people think that murder, rape and torture are moral. Most people also think that theft, kidnapping and vandalism are immoral in most circumstances. There is a lot that people can, do and will agree on, regardless of the source of their moral frame.

I think you need to also realize that never, not at any point in history, has morality ever been universal. There has always been some moral relativism, in every culture. The reason I think it is more pronounced today, is more the result of globalization than anything else.

Beth said...

Simply put, people do things everyday, that while they don't perceive them as immoral, others do. If those things were a part of some universal morality, people would still do them and thus discount morality altogether. It would no longer have any impact on their actions.

On the contrary, having one person decide for themselves that some actions they do are moral while other perceive them as immoral I think totally makes the idea of morality meaningless. It's an "anything goes" attitude.

DuWayne Brayton said...

No, if anything, it's the antithesis of "anything goes." Anyting goes, is what you get when people have a complete disregard for morals, because they become irrelevant.

Who is to decide what is moral, and what isn't? Who's version of morality is correct? If we are to have universal morality, if we can't decide for ourselves what is moral, then who is to decide for us?

Beth said...

Well maybe I am too simple a person but how about just using the golden rule as our guide for moral judgments?