Back to Matt Flannagan’s tirade against moral relativism – that producer of such moral outrages as equality for women, freedom of homosexuals from legal persecution, and all those other things that cause your average member of a conservative think-tank to worry about all night in bed.
Later on in his presentation, Matt announces that he is going to produce ‘counterexamples’ to moral relativism. Now, usually a ‘counterexample’ would demonstrate the illogical or absurd nature of moral relativism. So does Matt produce this type of ’counterexample’? Does any one of his examples demonstrate the illogical or absurd nature of moral relativism? In fact… none of them do.
Matt makes the following confused suggestions about moral relativism:
– If a society considered wife-bashing to be morally acceptable, it would not be ‘right’ for a feminist or a moral relativist to object to it;
– In an Islamic society which believed that conversion to another religion was a capital offense, it would be morally required to execute converts;
– In countries in which racism is widely practiced, then racism is acceptable;
– An individual who thinks it is right to rape, torture, kill or ‘chop up’ women would be morally right under individual relativism, and nobody could impose their views on them.
Matt adds, “If you accept cultural relativism, essentially the norms of your society become infallible. They can’t be wrong. Because right and wrong just is what your society says it is.” As Matt concludes that is it implausible that societies can be morally infallible in their judgments, he concludes that moral relativism is not true.
Matt’s reference to ‘infalliblity’ here is interesting. For infallibility is a normal trait of divine commands. Once again, it seems that Matt is assuming that moral relativism must have the characteristics of moral objectivism. He just cannot appreciate how moral relativism works. For moral relativism is not some monolithic system across society, but a variety of different views, some coalescing together, some in conflict to some degree or another. Moral relativism is not some stationary edifice, as Matt pretends, but is always developing, always reacting to material circumstances and prior ideologies. Once one removes the imaginary characteristics of divine command theory – infallibility, immutability, universality, etc – from the description of moral relativism, then Matt’s conclusions are exposed as unsound.
For moral rules are always sites of dispute. A society that approves of wife-bashing, like most of New Zealand did only about 50-or-so years ago, can certainly renegotiate the moral rightness or wrongness of such behaviour. And such disputes need not only occur within a society. Our learned (not objective) disgust at certain behaviour might prompt us to attempt to alter the behaviour of other societies (and it often has, for better or for worse, relatively speaking). So there is no illogic in the system, once relativism is properly viewed as a fluid process, rather than as the artificial imaginary associated with Matt’s divine command theory.
Moreover, there is no absurdity in the fact that a person or sector of society with very unusual morals might consider their behaviour to be morally good. To the contrary, if morality depends on cultural norms, the examples he provides are exactly as we would expect. Only a few people would openly claim moral rectitude for really weird or kinky behaviour. For if everybody openly claimed it was morally good, then – culturally – it wouldn’t be considered weird or kinky in the first place! When Matt fantasizes about some weird behaviour (and his favourite suggestion, for some reason, is a person who rapes, tortures and ‘chops up’ women, which places Matt in the position of patriarchal protector of women), the very fact that this behaviour is culturally abnormal is consistent with the claims of moral relativism. Moral relativism in fact claims that morally weird behaviour will usually correspond to culturally abnormal behaviour. Morality follows cultural norms. Just as we would expect from moral relativism.
So Matt’s so-called ‘counterexamples’ are nothing of the sort. Instead, these examples have all backfired on him. Matt’s examples are entirely consistent with the truth of moral relativism.
Ed Babinski said:
Can Matt Flanagan prove that any particular document, book of laws, etc., is “infallible?” What about his interpretation of that book? Can he prove his interpretations are “infallible” too?
Matt’s chief concern seems to be that society will revert to barbarism–the pursuit of the most superficial immediate pleasures such as murder, theft and rape . . . , i.e., unless certain laws are declared to be “infallible,” such as laws against murder, theft and rape. If that’s his fear, then he should say so. I don’t fear that at all.
In fact I suspect that civilization came about because people recognized that they didn’t like being murdered, having their stuff taken away, nor being raped — at another person’s whim. Though of course even at the earliest points in the development of human civilizations, such as those in Mesopotamia and MesoAmerica, the divinities–and the kings linked to them–continued to command the taking of lives, of other people’s stuff, and women, at the whim of THOSE DIVINITIES and the kings to which they were linked.
However, human beings are reaching a point now at which many of us no longer wish to build nor base civilization on the whims of a particular divinity nor even on an autocratic ruler who wishes to bend all mankind to their beliefs and whims. Instead, people seem to be more willing than ever to reject the idea that any god or autocratic human ruler has the right to mess with everyone else, at their whim.
Thus humanity seems to have undergone a widening sense of equality on a human/human level that now includes a wish for freedom for slaves of all kinds, equal pay for women, equal rights for gays, no legal persecution of people for holding different religious beliefs or none at all (barring members of sects that imagine they can spread their religious or phiosophical or political beliefs via violence).
Matters could revert backwards of course, away from a widening circle of equality, and toward an infallible ruler, infallible ideology, infallible God, infallible book, taught by infallible interpreters. But I personally hope they do not. So in that respect my fears are the opposite of Matthew’s.
Secondly, Christian apologists like Matthew don’t seem to recognize that human beings are social, curious, and inventive. Speaking of our socialibility, the vast majority of us much prefer each other’s company than becoming either hermits or serial killers. And we learn by attempting various things (just as babies learn), we study results, and we invent new ideas and rules as the result of noting things we’ve previously learned. It’s part of a feedback process. Same goes for the invention of both spoken and written languages that arose as part of such a process. So human beings are not just rule breakers, WE ARE ALSO RULE MAKERS. We made spoken and written languages, developed different art forms, created cultures and civilizations and we made . . . rules. There are benefits to generalizing, making rules, checking results, generalizing some more, tweaking rules, and not just in the sense of creating ethical rules, but rules in all spheres of knowledge.
Early on we discovered that most people like being liked and hated being hated. And we found that joys shared were doubled, not just for two people but for society as a whole–while physical (as well as emotional and financial burdens) shared are halved, again, not just in the case of two people, but for society as a whole. Such recognitions formed the foundations of even the earliest social gatherings and the tribes and socieites that developed out of them. The founations are therefore widely recognized. Not much to argue with others over. They have been tested over eons of human social interaction. Are the laws that resulted from such recognitions infallible? How could you tell unless you had an infallible sense of what was infallible? Would declaring ethical laws to be “infallible” automatically make them so?
The main question is, do laws need to be “infallible” in order to function? I don’t think so. And their foundation is basic, namely that biologically and psychologically speaking no human likes having things done to them simply “at the whim” of another person. There are exceptions such as masochists, but even they have their limits and employ “safe words” when their partner’s “whims” appear to have gone too far even for the masochist. I also suspect that tweaking will continue concerning both the enforcement and penalties assigned for various behaviors. I also suspect that new challenging behaviors of an addictive sort, or new mass movements, may arise in the future, and humans we’ll have to debate whether such new behaviors and activities has gone “too far.” Even among Christians there are debates of that sort. Has Christian Contemporary Music gone “too far?” Should your church ban it, or ban listening to non-Christian music? Or ban certain types of dress or speech, or certain books, websites, or friendships with outsiders, etc.? Each culture and sub-culture has their own concerns when it comes to deciding when certain behaviors have gone “too far.” So I suspect we will continue to disagree as to exactly where the line is to be drawn concerning any number of behaviors. But the generality remains that biologically and psychologically speaking no human likes having things done to them simply “at the whim” of another person, including having their lives or freedom or things taken from them at another’s whim.
Added factors by which we recognize what’s most “agreeable” include the joy of simply being curious about something, wanting to learn more about it, aas well as the heightened mental stimulation produced whenever we apply foresight. Our minds can get into ruts, we can get bored with repetition and then crave at least slightly different music or conversation. Some people have wider interests and might listen to a broader range of music, read a broader range of books. But we all can get bored, even by the things we used to listen to the most or like the most. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. It’s part of the process of feedback and learning I mentioned earlier.
We also have the challenging and stimulating ability to employ foresight. Both curiousity and foresight go into the making of laws. So it’s not just sorrows and joys of an immediate sort but also a craving we share to dig deeper (after basic physical necessities are met), to remain curious, as well as our ability to consider future consequences, that all go into the formulation of laws. We ask, how will this law work out? What might its consequences be? If we changed it, what might happen? We also look to see what did happen, digging into that information in different ways, and that affects our future decisions concerning such laws.
But in the end it seems like human beings are worried about many of the same things. If that were not so, then there would not be any laws at all.