Friday, September 11, 2009

Moral Relativism and Responsibility Part One: Time and Space

As I mentioned in my last, I got into a hot and heavy discussion about morality over at my brother's blog. I already dealt with the pedantic asshats, so this will be a post devoted to addressing a couple of issues that came up there, as well as addressing another consideration that has come up outside the blogs. There were a couple of people arguing rather strenuously for the notion that there are certain universal moral truths, which, while I find it patently absurd, is far from an unreasonable position. Then there was Fortuna, a commenter who was more interested in probing what he perceives as inconsistencies in my position. Finally, I am going to discuss the apparent contradiction in the notion of the responsibility of the moral relativist to be a constant seeker of the absolute moral truths - more accurately, absolute personal truths.

There are several factors to consider, when it comes to moral relativism. The first thing I think must be done, is to provide an operational definition for moral relativism, because there is often some confusion about what it actually means and I would like to avoid confusion. This post in particular, will actually address pretty much all of the propositions that can be attributed to moral relativism. Put simply, moral relativism is the values neutral assertion that morality is relative to one or all of the following; time, culture, space and the individual. It holds that there are no universal objective moral truths. To reiterate the previous post, moral relativism is not the prospect that morality is only relative to culture. Neither is it the proposition that one must simply accept the moral frames of others as valid - all that it does is recognize that there are no universal objective moral truths.

I will begin with the broadest relative position, that of time. General cultural mores have been in a constant state of evolution since the advent of sentience. While it is patently absurd to assume that our earliest sentient ancestors were capable of considering an abstraction as complex as morality, that does not mean we cannot consider them in that context. Indeed, if there were any universal objective moral truths, they would by definition apply to all sentient beings, regardless of context. Very few of us would consider any person alive today as being somehow outside the purview of moral judgments, regardless of whether they understand the concept of morality or not. Yet most of us would probably accept that our earliest sentient ancestors can't really be judged by any of our individual moral frames. Most of us would accept that our earliest sentient ancestors were pretty much amoral, having only rudimentary conceptions of right and wrong. But by accepting that, we are complicating the abstraction that is morality. Because if we accept that we simply cannot judge our earliest sentient ancestors by our own moral frames or generalized cultural mores, at what point in history can we?

If we fast forward from the dawn of sentience, to the Magdalenian period of the development of culture we find that humans have managed to achieve enough leisure time to produce artwork that had no obvious functional purpose. With that leisure time it is likely they had the breathing room for intellectual considerations. And given that they were producing objects for their aesthetic value, they were obviously capable of abstract considerations. So can we judge the Magdalenians by our own moral frames? While I am sure that there are some people who might argue that we can, I suspect most of us are going to take into account the context of Magdalenian culture and still have to refrain from judging them by our own moral frames.

For fairness sake, why don't we move forward to a mere twenty five hundred years ago and the birth of western philosophy. We now see people actually formally studying the concept of morality - surely at this point we can begin to judge people by our own moral frames. Or can we? The world was a very different place. The environment that people lived in at the time was considerably different than our own. Even if we forward another five hundred years, to the point when the Romans have pretty well spread a great deal of what the Greeks had to offer, including the concept of philosophy, over much of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, we are still dealing with very different contexts. And this doesn't even take into account the largely separate Eastern world of the time. The East was just as foreign a context to the Roman world of the time, as the Roman world of the time is to us. Even further forward into the dark ages, it is completely unreasonable to consider the cultures of the time in the context of our own moral frames. The context in which most people of the time lived completely precludes consideration of our own moral frames.

This is just one aspect of the argument for moral relativism. We could continue to move forward in time, but I think the point has been made. The context of history precludes the consideration of people throughout history by any of our conceptions of morality. And while we can consider space throughout history, we will just move forward to the present day (or rather very recent history) for our next foray, morality relative to space. While space overlaps with culture to some extent, it should be recognized that culture doesn't always overlap with space. In many places there are multiple cultures and cultural contexts to consider. In the context of moral relativism space is also in many ways synonymous with environment. That environment can include the actual planetary environment, which in some places creates relatively unique moral considerations. It also includes the social situation in a given location, whether it be the interface of multiple cultures in the same space, or the primary type (or types) of subsistence in a given area.

A few years ago, Kristoff of the NYTs wrote a piece about his experience in Darfur early on in the genocide. After reading it, I was literally ill for a few days, especially as I considered a particular incident. This incident was a major influence on my views about morality. As Kristoff was traveling through the region, he came upon a rather young girl gathering water at a well. Both concerned for her safety and because of her size, he decided help her carry the water. He was somewhat shocked when they came to the treeline and he discovered the child's father waiting in hiding. Put short, the father explained that this daughter was the most expendable of his children. That is was certain death for him if he was caught by the Janjiweed militia, while it was possible that his daughter might not be raped and killed if she were caught. That he needed to survive, because he had other children to care for.

As I said, reading that article tore me up. Not because I made a moral judgment about the father's actions, but because I realized that I couldn't. In the context of my own moral frame, it is simply inconceivable that I could even wittingly put my own child (or any child) in harms way. It just isn't possible for me. And within our western cultural context, I would consider any person who would to be reprehensibly vile, much less immoral. Yet here I was presented with a context in which is was not only not immoral for a parent to do just that, it would have been arguably immoral for him not to. So much for universal objective moral truths, even in the context of our current period of time.

I am going to wrap this part up right here and continue with culture and the individual in part two. I am going to try to also fit the responsibility of the moral relativist and the conclusion into that post, but I can't promise anything.

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