Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moral Relativism and Responsibility Part Two: Culture and the Ind

In the last post we briefly explored the relativistic nature of morality in the context of time and space. In this post we will explore it in the context of culture and the individual.

It can be difficult to separate space and culture in relation to moral relativism, because the context of space always includes culture. So I am going to use an example that includes only culture, making the context of space pretty much irrelevant. For this next foray, we will discuss the general social mores of gang culture. I think this is a reasonable example because it is a culture that exists within larger cultural contexts, yet remains relatively consistent in and of itself. Specifically we will explore U.S. urban gang culture.

For anyone who has lived in areas with high levels of gang activity, it is easy to simply dismiss gang bangers as immoral, unethical criminal thugs. Indeed I would be hard pressed to disagree, as my own moral framework precludes many of the activities that are common within gang banger culture. From the perspective of our generalized cultural mores, gang bangers are a pretty nasty bunch who, in their blatant disregard for people who aren't involved in their stupid, deadly games are very bad people - immoral people. But that does not mean they are not operating within the confines of any moral frame. Indeed, given the illicit nature of many of their activities, their general social mores are considerably more restrictive than those of the larger cultural contexts in which they live and act. And the social consequences for acting outside that framework are brutal. Rather than simply being marginalized by their peers, becoming an object of disdain, a gang banger is more likely to be severely beaten, possibly killed. And it doesn't necessarily stop there. Their family and/or close friends may also be at risk for retaliation.

There is some overlap of course. From my own perspective, I think it is blatantly immoral for someone who gets busted with a bag of cannabis to tell the police where they got it. My own reaction is not to kill the person or beat them, but at the same time, I am not going to be terribly upset if they get their ass kicked. I firmly believe that one should take ownership of their own choices and that it is immoral to push their consequences off onto someone else. But gang bangers tend to take that concept much further - it doesn't matter what the crime is, or even who committed it. You simply cannot talk to the police about it. Doesn't matter if it was your worst enemy, doesn't matter if the crime was raping someone and beating them to death - you cannot tell the authorities. If it is bad enough - offensive enough, then you deal with the perpetrator yourself or with some help from your fellow gang members. It is simply unacceptable to narc. The only possible exception would be something that is too egregious to ignore and too much to deal with, such as terrorism. But the exceptions would be rare and extreme. In general, the consequences of talking out of turn are severe and often permanent.

There is also a strong emphasis placed on taking care of your own. Another concept that is quite conducive to my own moral framework. The difference is the extreme it is taken to. I am not inclined to kick the crap out of somebody or shoot them, because they talked shit about my best friend. Gang bangers take this basic concept to a dangerous and from my perspective immoral extreme. They aren't inclined to worry about collateral damage when it comes to settling scores. What must take precedence at all cost, is vengeance and protecting their space - if there is some random innocent person in the way, too bad they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The key though, is that from their perspective they are operating from the context of their general cultural mores. And the individuals within that cultural context generally mold their moral framework to function within that context. While from our perspective, it would be perfectly reasonable to call the police and give a statement if we had the misfortune to witness a murder, from theirs it is immoral to do so. To them, any situation that would require they talk to the police about a crime would be a serious and significant moral dilemma.

With that, we come to the individual. By this point you may have noticed a pattern - that culture encompasses space, which in turn encompasses time. So it shouldn't be surprising that the individual encompasses all of these. Coming to the individual, we come to the most finite context of all - though even that can be broken down further by time, space and culture. The individual is not static. We mature as we move through time and if we are even the tiniest bit introspective, our moral framework evolves as we age. And many people change their space, moving to a different environment that will have an impact on their moral frame. Likewise, some of us also change our cultural context to some degree or another. A good example of this is my ability to relate to the notion of not talking to the cops about certain things - this was not the result of the culture in which I was raised, to any strong degree. This was the result of my having spent many years in a subculture that found certain types of illicit behavior acceptable - mostly in regards to illicit drugs. It actually contradicts to some degree my upbringing, which would not discourage one from reporting illicit activities. Though there was a supporting moral premise that one should accept responsibility for their choices, so that is not an absolute.

An example that I used in the thread over at Dispatches, is the death penalty. I like this one because I think it very nicely breaks through the surface agreement that two individuals respective moral frames might have and delves into the moral reasoning that produces the same outcome. Like many people I know, I am morally opposed to the death penalty. I am not apposed to it for the same reason that a lot of people I know are. I have a great many friends who believe that the state should never take the life of a criminal, under any circumstances. I rather fervently disagree with the moral calculus they use to oppose the death penalty. I don't believe that it is the least bit immoral for the state to execute people who are guilty of certain crimes. There are crimes that I fervently believe are reprehensible enough to warrant the execution of the guilty party. The moral calculus that brings me to so voraciously oppose the death penalty, is the risk that people who are not guilty of a capital offense might be executed for one. I simply cannot accept that any perceived benefit of capital punishment is worth the risk.

So the outcome of the calculus is exactly the same - both my friends who believe absolutely nothing could excuse state sanctioned execution and I come to the same conclusion. But there is more than a little bit of difference in how we get there. It is not a simple matter of nuance. We have a full fledged and extreme difference of opinion that is only made irrelevant by the fact that a strong enough certainty of guilt to satisfy my moral sensibility is virtually impossible and rare enough that I don't think it is worth executing those few and having the capital option on the table at all. If it were hypothetically possible to determine absolutely, the guilt or innocence of everyone convicted of certain crimes, I would have absolutely no qualms about the state executing them.

This very naturally leads to the question of the imposition of any person's moral framework on society as a whole. If there are no universal objective moral truths, then how can anyone justify imposing their moral frames on anyone else - even if a lot of people take very similar moral positions? The short answer is that we simply can't. There is never a reasonable justification for imposing one's moral frame on anyone else, with the possible exception of parents imposing their moral frame on their children. But even that is not an entirely reasonable proposition. The most important and to some degree the only purpose of morality, is as a governor of an individuals own behavior. Morality transcends law, social conventions, the environment in which one is raised and all cultural considerations, when it comes to any person's daily decision making processes. It is the single most profound control of our behaviors, our innate sense of what is right and wrong.

That is not to say that laws, social conventions, the environment in which we were raised and cultural considerations don't also play a part in our decision making - indeed all of those things provide a profound influence on the development of our moral frames. It is just that none of those things can have the absolute impact on our decisions, that our moral frame has. Our moral frame is why we choose to do what is right, even if we are quite certain we could get away with doing something we believe is wrong. It is why, for example, I couldn't just walk into a book store and slip that copy of The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome into my briefcase, even if no one is looking. It is not the fear of consequences - I am pretty sure that if I actually tried, I could get away with it. It is my moral belief that it is inexcusable to steal something that I can live without that stops me.

So where then do - or should laws come from, if not from some universal or simply objective moral truth? In point of fact, they should come from what is determined to be the best way for people to behave within a society, for making that society a reasonable place for everyone who lives within it. We don't need morality to tell us that a society that allows people to gun each other down in the street, is not going to be a very reasonable one to live in. We don't need morality to tell us that allowing rape will make a society untenable for most of those who make up that society. We don't need morality to tell us that allowing people to steal from others is going to make society rather chaotic and unpleasant. We can debate the definitions of murder and manslaughter. I don't believe, for example, that shooting someone who has invaded your home with clearly nefarious intent is the least bit immoral - yet there are plenty of situations in many states where doing so is illegal. There are gray areas when it comes to rape as well - is it rape when a man (or women) applies a great deal of verbal pressure, until the other person acquiesces? I don't happen to think so (though I could see contexts in which it would) but there are those who feel that no should be the end of it and any questioning or pressure after that - no matter what, constitutes rape if the other person gives in. And while I am not one to countenance theft or suggest that it should be legal, I do believe that the context of a theft determines it's morality and legally speaking should be taken into account. I am not inclined to think that someone who steals food in a desperate attempt to feed his or her family is being immoral.

I do however, tend to perceive many aspects of my moral frame as objectively true. This is not to be confused with believing that any aspect of my moral frame is a universal objective truth. There may be aspects of my moral frame for which I have a hard time conceiving of a context that would make them moral or at least not immoral. There are many aspects of my moral frame that I believe are absolute within my cultural context. But this is my opinion, nothing more and nothing left. This is my opinion, which forms the core of that which arbitrates my conception of right and wrong. It is that which prevents me from beating or killing someone, merely because they made me so very intensely angry - even if I was certain I could avoid legal repercussions. While there are a lot of people within my culture who have very similar moral positions on many of the things that I do, they are still nothing more than our opinions. What stretches beyond out relative opinions on issues such as equality, slavery, murder, rape and theft are laws. Unfortunately, sometimes laws are produced that are based on morality, rather than on the basis that they make for a better society for more of the population. It is almost inevitable that when laws are made that reflect morality, rather than a reasoned attempt to make society function more smoothly, they are going to unreasonably restrict the rights of some people.

In part three, I will discuss further the differentiation of perceiving one's morality objectively and universal objective moral truths, because that was tripping someone up on Ed's blog, so I imagine that I need to be especially clear on that point. The person who was seeing a contradiction there, Fortuna, is probably a pretty bright person, so I can only assume that this is going to confuse a lot of people - probably because of a failure on my part. So I will definitely explore this in somewhat greater detail. And I will wrap it up with a discussion about what I see as the responsibilities of the moral relativist - and indeed anyone - to constantly reexamine their moral frame and their motivations, their moral calculus.

And I promise, if there is anyone left reading this at this point, that I will do my best to make it as interesting as possible.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article. In the article you state, "the best way for people to behave within a society, for making that society a reasonable place for everyone who lives within it"

I noted that once you did away with an objective moral law. You then replaced it with an individuals subjective sense of what one ought to do. Without an objective moral law, "reasonable" becomes a subjective word. For instance, a Christian does not think it is reasonable for everyone to embrace homosexual marrage; however, a moral relativist may think this is reasonable. A Christian believes the lifestyle harms both the person claiming to be a homosexual as well as the lives that this individual brings into that lifestyle.

The fact is that reason itself has to transcend the human experience and become universal in order to reach your goal. If reason transcends human experience then you are just back at the objective moral law.

steven said...

Duwayne, if you believe that there are no universal objective moral truths, and that if there are no universal objective moral truths then no one can justify imposing their moral frames on anyone else (both of which I agree with, by the way), then how can you repeatedly advocate for government welfare benefits? After all, advocating for government welfare benefits to be received by some at the expense of others amounts to attempting to impose your moral frame on other people.

It's one thing to advocate for the right to use force to defend people against the harmful actions or threats of others. It's quite another thing to advocate for the right to use force against people who have not caused or threatened harm to anyone else, because you consider your cause and your intentions to be good. Using force against innocent people, good intentions or not, is never justifiable.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Steven -

There are plenty of reasons to support welfare, that have nothing whatever to do with morality. People dying in the streets is bad for the majority. Increasing crime rates are bad for the majority.

Besides which, there is nothing wrong with convincing a lot of other people - enough people to get laws passed, that they should adopt aspects of one's moral frame. The death penalty example was a very good one, because it illustrates laws being passed on a quasi-moral basis - though the moral framing that gets us there can vastly differ from person to person.

Anon -

For instance, a Christian does not think it is reasonable for everyone to embrace homosexual marrage; however, a moral relativist may think this is reasonable.

No. There is nothing inherent to moral relativism that requires anyone accept or embrace anything. There is no reason that a moral relativist couldn't believe that homosexuality is immoral. Yes, a moral relativist might believe that it would be nice if anti-gay bigots quit being bigoted fucking morons - I happen to be one. But there is no reason that a moral relativist can't be a bigoted fucking moron.

DuWayne Brayton said...

The fact is that reason itself has to transcend the human experience and become universal in order to reach your goal. If reason transcends human experience then you are just back at the objective moral law.

What kind of fucktarded idiocy is that? Denny, please read that primer on logic I linked for you.

steven said...

There is nothing wrong with convincing people to voluntarily contribute to the welfare of others, if they truly deserve help (who decides this?). But that's not what you're advocating. You're advocating for the use of force to compel others to adopt aspects of your own moral frame. You're advocating for the idea that some have the right to determine what's in the best interests of others and the right to institute it by the use of force. That's exactly what the religious fanatics advocate, Duwayne. It's a shame you can't see that.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Steve -

We allow morality into law all the time - it's just that usually there is a compelling reason outside of morality to justify it.

Allowing people to die in the streets is a risk to public health. It is also a loss of a consumer base and workforce. And increases in crime are bad for all of us. People choosing to subsist by theft and the trade of contraband is a recipe for disaster - we've been there before and it wasn't very good for anyone. And creating an underclass without any presumed value, would be an economic regression. The wealthy got significantly wealthier when the bottom end started rising up a bit and actually had money to spend.

It can certainly be argued that a balance should be struck - I have advocated that for a very long time. But to just eliminate all or most redistributive government functions would be to send us straight into a darkages again, where wealth was concentrated in a very few and there was very little between that extreme wealth and abject poverty.

And holding a gun to your head demanding you pay for it, is no different than them holding a gun to my head, forcing me to pay for the incarceration of masses of people who victimized no one and are there only because society doesn't approve of their lifestyle choices. It is no different than holding a gun to my head, demanding that I help pay for wars we have no business fighting.

Most importantly though, again, there is no reason to avoid altogether, thoughts of morality in the law. You used welfare as an example. Well, what about laws against slavery? What about laws against taking the life of one's own children? What about child labor laws? I could go on and on. These are most certainly not universal moral truths - yet they are a part of our culture's general social mores, to the extent that we have chosen to codify them into law. This does not mean that they are a part of everyone's moral frame - even in this culture and society. It doesn't even mean that they have the same place in the moral frames of those who accept them - my moral calculus for finding child labor immoral, is not the same as that of a close friend of mine.

And there are cultures that don't have these mores codified into law, because not only are they not a part of the general cultural mores, if they were, people - including the very children they should protect - would die.

steven said...

"And holding a gun to your head demanding you pay for it, is no different than them holding a gun to my head, forcing my to pay for...............wars we have no business fighting."

You're making my point, Duwayne, whether you realize it or not. But it sounds like you think that I would favor holding a gun to your head for all of those things you mentioned. What could have ever given you that idea?

What about slavery and killing your own children? How does that compare with someone wanting to use their own discretion as to whom and how much assistance they provide to others, instead of having those decisions dictated by someone else? Your entire comment makes no sense at all.

DuWayne Brayton said...

No Steve, I am not making your point. You are completely missing the point here. The mere fact that there aren't any universal objective moral truths, does not preclude morality playing a role in the laws we pass.

The bottom line - it is morality that underlies laws against slavery, laws against child labor, laws against parents having absolute powers of life and death over their children. Sure, there are practical reasons for those laws as well - but they would not exist, were it not for moral considerations entering the equation. That doesn't mean there was some sort of universal moral absolute in play though - it just means that enough people, for a variety of reasons - a variety of moral calculations, decided these laws were necessary.

The same is true of wars we enter, the war on drugs and social welfare. These are decisions that are made in part, based on moral considerations - but also because of practical considerations. I happen to disagree with the practical considerations that go into the war on drugs and most wars we have ever gotten into - but that doesn't mean a practical argument cannot be made.

You are entirely too stuck on the idea that because morality enters the equation, it is just plain wrong. The problem is morality is far from the only consideration. Indeed, moral considerations are merely an impetus. It is the practical arguments that legitimize it.

In the case of social welfare systems, the impetus is the notion that shit happens and people need help sometimes - yet private sector charity simply doesn't have the infrastructure and cannot develop the infrastructure to manage the need. Too, there is the argument that we as a society have a responsibility to children - the dependents of those who live in poverty - again, a moral argument, yet one that the vast majority of persons in our society would agree with.

But that is not the end - nor is it really even the whole of the beginning. There are a host of practical considerations that come into play. Not the least being that no social welfare system, is far more expensive than some. That cost could be reduced a little, if we refuse people service in the ER, if they haven't the ability to pay - but that still wouldn't reduce the costs enough that social welfare would be more expensive.

There are certainly moral considerations going into redistributive services, but those are far from the whole and without addressing the whole, your argument fails. I mean hell, you could argue - correctly, that moral considerations are part and parcel with the public school system. Yet there were and are, practical reasons for it as well. The fact that it is in need of serious overhaul is irrelevant - we are still better off as a society with public education, than we were or would be without it.

steven said...

Duwayne, you misunderstand my point and contradict yourself. My point, which was also your original point, is that because people have different views of morality, nobody has the right to impose their moral frame on anyone else. But then you advocate imposing your moral frame on others through government redistribution of wealth. You call it practicality, but it's really your moral preference.

DuWayne Brayton said...

steve -

You call it practicality, but it's really your moral preference.

You are not understanding me. The bottom line is that it is both. I absolutely believe that it is immoral for us as a society to let people die in the streets, to let children go without education, to refuse people healthcare, to refuse people the very basic necessities of life.

I also think that laws that allow for the abrogation of any person's liberty, excepting when that person has committed criminal acts are again, immoral. I believe that sexually exploiting children is also immoral.

That does not mean there shouldn't be laws that recognize those things. The problem lies, when the only argument to be made is based in morality. For everything I listed, there are practical reasons beyond morality that support them.

Believe me, the primary reason I cannot countenance slavery or pedophilia, is my moral outrage and utter disgust. Likewise, my primary drive for comprehensive and scaled back social welfare is also moral - I believe that food, shelter, clothing and healthcare should be recognized as basic human rights - that is my moral perspective. But I am also perfectly capable of providing a rational, well reasoned argument for how this would benefit society as a whole, outside the context of morality.

steven said...

Duwayne, you're using practicality as an excuse to override your own moral views. Using your logic, if it were somehow practical to exploit children sexually, then it would be ok to do so, even though you believe it is immoral to sexually exploit children. What I think that you're doing is just fooling yourself (but you're not fooling me).

DuWayne Brayton said...

Oh for fucks sake Steve - I said there are practical reasons not to sexually exploit children. And that there are practical reasons not to enslave people. I did not say that I would find it acceptable if there weren't. But lets follow that line of reason for a moment...

If there were no practical considerations involved, would you accept legally sanctioned slavery or pedophilia? Is morality the only reason you don't?

The bottom line, is that there are practical reasons for welfare, that a lot of people have agreed upon. Just as a lot of people have agreed that there are practical reasons for outlawing slavery and child rape. Just as the "practical" arguments that a lot of people are trying to make against gay marriage are falling flat, so more and more states are coming to allow it.

What my moral motivations may be are irrelevant, when it comes to welfare, just as they are when it comes to pedophilia and slavery. Indeed, just as my moral motivations for opposing the death penalty are irrelevant. What matters, are the practical considerations, in regards to passing laws regarding all those things.

steven said...

Yes, Duwayne, morality is the only reason I don't accept slavery or pedophilia. It's the only reason I need. Different people can come up with all sorts of practical reasons why or why not to accept something. There are practical reasons to accept torture, slavery, murder, and all sorts of other terrible things. There are also practical reasons to not accept public welfare schemes. Arguing from practicality is, most of the time, nothing more than an attempt to disregard the immorality of what is being proposed. I'm not saying that you're intentionally doing that. I think that you're just confused. Examine yourself. Constantly.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Now we come to the head.

Arguing from practicality is, most of the time, nothing more than an attempt to disregard the immorality of what is being proposed.

What? Not in the least and now you are contradicting yourself. You said there are no universal moral truths and that we shouldn't make laws based on our moral frames. Now you are saying that you do (with the mention of pedophilia) and that practical arguments are how we can argue for something that is immoral.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The practical, rational arguments are the only way we can actually have a discussion.

Take the argument about welfare. You believe it is immoral to take tax dollars and spend them on welfare - I believe it is immoral not to. If that is all there is to the discussion, then the discussion is over. We both have opposing moral views and the passion we both feel for our relative views are not likely to sway anything.

But there are also rational, practical arguments to be made on both sides as well. Those are what's ultimately important.

Examine yourself. Constantly.

I do. Not only do I consider what I believe to be moral, I examine what I believe isn't. I have tried to look objectively at murder, torture and all sorts of horrors that humans can commit. I have looked for paradigms that would make any and all of those activities valid, because I not only want, but need to understand how humans can do the things they do (excepting sociopaths) and still lay claim to being human.

Note, these are not attempts to justify what I believe is immoral, but to understand humanity and more abstractly, the nature of morality itself. To dispassionately explore the limits of or whether there even are limits, to the human experience. It is by this that I have concluded that there are absolutely no objective, universal moral truths.

That there cannot be.

steven said...

I give up arguing with you, Duwayne. It's a waste of time. You're impossible to reason with.

steven said...

Let me try this one more time, Duwayne (since I'm back from the weekend).

You asked me if I didn't accept slavery and pedophilia only because of morality, and I said yes. Maybe you meant it as, did I think that slavery and pedophilia should be unlawful only because of morality, but that's not what you said, and that's not how I took it. There are a lot of things I don't accept because of morality, but that doesn't mean that I think they should be unlawful. I don't accept it when people go to the casino and gamble away their grocery money for the week, but I don't think that it should be against the law to do so. I don't accept it when parents curse in front of their children, but that doesn't mean that I think it should be against the law to curse in front of your children. There is a big difference between what I think is immoral and what I think should be against the law. Some things, like slavery, fit into both categories. Some things, such as those I mentioned above, don't.

Look at the 2nd paragraph of my first comment. That should have told you what I think should be the criteria for making something against the law and legitimize the use of force. ONLY ACTS THAT HARM OR THREATEN TO HARM OTHER PEOPLE SHOULD BE AGAINST THE LAW AND LEGITIMIZE THE USE OF FORCE. PERIOD.

If someone is in need of health care, food, clothing or anything else and can't afford them, and I have done nothing to cause them to be in need, then no one else has any right to use force against me to compel me to assist those people in need. I'll say it again - only acts that harm or threaten to harm other people should be against the law and legitimize the use of force.

For you to advocte the use of force against me to compel me to assist someone who is in need, when I did absolutely nothing to cause that person to be in need, amounts to you trying to impose your moral frame on me.

You said that nobody can justify imposing their moral frames on anyone else, but you are using practicality to try to JUSTIFY imposing your moral frame on other people.

I'm done for now. Have a good day, Duwayne.