When it comes to value theory (ethics and aesthetics) one has a binary choice. Either such value judgments as "This is good/bad" or "That is beautiful/not beautiful" are true or they are not. But clearly they aren't facts in the sense that "Water freezes at 32F/0C" is a fact or "My microwave oven is to the left of my refrigerator" are facts. They aren't facts about the world of things. Clearly, they express opinions. Whatever truth applies to them is the truth of whether or not you really believe what you are saying.

So, how can an opinion become a fact? The only way the ingenuity of man has ever come up with is that there must be some standard or standard-setter independent of the world of stuff and things according to which such statements become factual.

Throughout most of recorded history, the guarantor has been a deity. What is true is what accords with his mind.

We skeptics and free thinkers typically don't believe in deities which means they come up short when trying to claim that an ethical or aesthetic judgment qualifies as factual.

In the clip above, Richard Dawkins was asked how, without making the sort of leap of faith atheists are known to abhor, could there be moral certainty? After recounting many of the abhorrent things one finds in The Bible and Koran, he basically says that, by contrast with the past when such things were decided by scriptural authority and other nonsense, we today discuss and debate and reason and arrive at more rational and humane views.In other words, better opinions and attitudes. Notice, curiously, that he doesn't make any factual claims about ethics or morality. All he says, basically, is that today we're doing our opinions better than they used to in the past because today we have better intellectual tools and we leave religion out of the pictures.

But, of course, even that view is an opinion and not a fact.

And yet, such views as we arrive at by such methods are still not absolutes just as science knows no absolutes other than very basic facts and measurements. No matter how established a theory or law is, it's never out of bounds to question whether it is true or precisely enough stated, and in that sense they really are not facts. Unlike facts, theories and laws are attempts at description. Even if they work every time and in every way possible so far, and even if we treat them much like facts, they are still tentative.

Consensus or majority vote doesn't establish certainty any more than rolling one's eyes at something we disagree with proves it is false.

People believe what people in their day believe, or to be a bit more precise, people tend to believe pretty close to what those in their social or intellectual circle believe. That's the way it is and the way it's always been, and it's obviously true. People in the United States are far more likely to be Christian than Hindu whereas in India the opposite is the case, to take an obvious example.

This is why ethical judgments, just like aesthetic ones, are not factual, much as we may agree with them, and much as we may want them to be true. They are beliefs, attitudes, and opinions which are compelling, and sometimes compelling enough for people to act on, whether the action might be an act of heroism or an act of condemnation. This is what ethics actually amounts to. It involves caring about a belief, attitude, or opinion enough to treat it AS THOUGH it's a fact and feel a need to act upon it.

This may be distressing enough, but it becomes really distressing for many of us when we realize that things we believe in our heart of hearts to be true are still basically just beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. They may be better informed and supported than those other persons or groups hold—and they are comforting (or distressing)—but not even that makes them true, and certainly not absolutely true.

Do slavery, lynchings, The Holocaust have to be absolutely and objectively wrong to be abhorrent to us? No! The concept of a fact is really poorly crafted to be applied to morality and ethics. And thinking they have to be absolutely and objectively wrong rather than abhorrent and disgusting is a kind of category error, which tricks us into wishing for absolutism.

However, even perfect objectivity can't turn an opinion into a fact. That may be distressing and depressing, but it's good to know.

Views: 2404

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

This is mistaking moral relativism with moral absolutism (or in a sense moral certainty).

There are only one or two users here who have made comments that betray moral relativism. Dawkins is not a moral relativist...nor are any of the four horsemen. They are the utter opposite of moral relativists.

Atheists do not HAVE to be moral relativists. Atheists can have whatever moral code they please. In any case I highly doubt you are a moral relativist (I certainly have seen comments from you in the past that say the absolute opposite).

What we ought not to be is moral absolutists. But even then...there is no "has to be" to it. Atheists are people who don't believe in God. That says nothing about how their ethical world view must be. 

@Davis, what is your understanding of moral relativism as you use it here? I thought that if you were not a moral absolutist you were a moral relativist. In other words, you do not get your morals from an absolute authority. If that is not the correct philosophical definition I suspect that a lot of people use it that way in everyday discussion.

Moral relativism, at least as abused in philosophy and post-modern thought. more or less states that one cannot apply cultural values and moralities to those with other world views.

For instance false liberals including radical feminists use moral relativism to explain why sexism isn't really sexism in the Muslim world because in Islam gender distinction is so fundamentally different to that we in the west cannot judge their culture as "sexist" in the way we know the term. To call it sexist is to apply our own values to their society instead of understanding their world view (even though in some muslim countries sexism finds its most extreme utopia of misogyny).

The same applies to allowing Native Americans to have different laws, for example in Canada recently a judge allowed a Native Canadian mother to let her daughter stop chemo and ultimately die unnecessarily even though it was in complete opposition to legal precedent and general policy. The justification was moral-relativism. Western civilization cannot impose their own values onto the traditional values of native Canadians (even though most Canadians share a very similar ethic). It is really an argument from post-colonialism which I'll get to in a moment.

Cultural relativists who are often extremely enamored with greek and roman culture also use this slight of hand argument to justify the enslavement of various races by Greeks and child molestation (pederasty). Because it was a different time with different ideas and different world views, we simply cannot call out "child rape" because for them it wasn't really child rape (even when children where socially forced into sex that they didn't want to have). And since slaves weren't treated quite in the way black slaves in the US were, we should not judge Greek slavery but simply try to understand their world view and blah blah blah. So it goes with those in love with India who sugar coat the caste system and in it's most extreme form...those who defend the cultural practice of the Caribs raising children as farm animals and eating them as food. It is moral-relativism taken to such a radical end that even genocide and human meat farms are beyond our critique when they come from older times or exotic cultures.

The difference between moral-non-absolutism and moral relativism lies in the application of judgement between two "seemingly" different moral systems, as well as what to do in the face of conflicts between two moral systems. In the first case, it is almost always false liberals telling us not to judge non western cultures through our own moral lense. In the second case, it is usually post-modernists in the tradition of post-colonialism who argue that Western society has already taken away so much cultural plurality from the colonialised and has forced itself upon other societies that most further imposition of Western values (whatever that quite means) is simply a furtherance of colonialism (which is bad). So trying to get Africans to not chop off girls vaginas is simply a modern version of manipulative colonialism. That is the beauty of the meta-ethical.

In reality Simon...we should try to understand what goes on when Africans chop off their daughters vaginas, the role it plays in broader society, the values it implies...instead of judging the fact that adults hold down little girls and cut off their labias and clitorises with sharp knives.

Moral-non-absolutism and moral-relativism share in common the belief that there are no moral absolutes and that moral systems depend on the people who formulate them...however some moral-non-absolutist ethics allows for the application of rationally devised systems to be applied to all difficult problems no matter what the circumstances are.

In this sense...almost no one here at think atheist is a moral-relativist.

While it is true that moral-relativism in it's broadest sense is simply a rejection of moral certainty...that is not what it has come to mean in contemporary philosophy, cultural studies and the humanities in general.

Ok, I understand it better now. I never really understood why people used the term moral relativism pejoratively but I get it now.

Anyone worth their salt should not be a moral relativist under this definition because it involves ignoring what I consider basic ethical values (obviously these are themselves subjective and not absolute). Anyone who thinks it's ok to enslave because the culture allows it is not thinking clearly.

While it is true that moral-relativism in it's broadest sense is simply a rejection of moral certainty...that is not what it has come to mean in contemporary philosophy, cultural studies and the humanities in general.

I guess by your definition I'm "moral-relativist in the broadest sense." Since moral judgments are inherently opinions/attitudes/beliefs, they can't be facts. Well, then, what are they and what do they allow us to say without qualification?

They are cultural, social, and psychogical artifacts (note arti [artificial] facts). Unreal facts. The difference between them vs real facts is that they change over time. Our modern values are wildly different from those held by people in the past and, in the future, values may (and are likely to be) wildly different from the values we have today.

What is the basis by which we have to judge Mayans, Greeks, Egyptians for things that to us today seem horrific if it is not to apply today's values on them, all the while pretending that they are other than just the opinions, attitudes, or beliefs of a certain period of time, the present?

We aren't right because we believe we are right. If so, then we have to give that to the Mayans, Greeks, and Egyptians. If we claim "But we are really right" then we are claiming that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs qualify as facts.

But it's obvious that they aren't and can't be facts. If you think they are, then at least admit that the moral judgments that a future generation in the year 4000 make about us are facts as well, even though you have no idea what those judgments may be.

Being a moral-non-absolutist means that I don't claim that any moral judgement comes from a fact. But that doesn't mean that reason cannot be used to devise useful comprehensive moral systems and that they cannot be applied to all moral problems.

Moral relativism in its worse sense denies that morality can be devised an applied rationally and or consistently and or in any way objectively.

In its watered down yet still terrible form, it implies that there are certain divides where moral systems cannot cross. The arguments used to justify these are terrible and far from rigorous. It always comes down to (because I said so) which is really...where the subjective relativism comes in (they do the worst of the relativism...not those who divide consistent moral systems). Often the argument to justify moral-relativism is made using critical analysis yet then at some point...a relativist claims that critical analysis cannot be used any further...because well...just because Muslims are different because of really weak argument x and you are an ignorant imperialist if you disagree. LOL

Moral systems don't have to be everything or nothing (absolute independent fact or pure watery utterly subjective random unreasoned illogical arbitrary blah). moral relativism in general makes it very difficult to find anything in between despite the fact that moral-relativists do a whole lot of judging themselves including moral analysis of what they despise and preserve as exotically sacredly untouchable for cultures they pity or are enamored with.

You've made a lot of value judgments there (grading different shadings of relativism from bad to worse). Are these judgments of yours facts, though, or just an opinion?

I'm analyzing these arguments through the same kind of analytically process in which they are made. They are formed using philosophical critical analysis and yet the far majority of analytically philosophers reject the soundness of these arguments (there has been a torrent of books and articles in the last couple years shredding these moral-relativist arguments apart).

This is what drives me (and others) crazy is that they always want to have their cake and eat it too. They frame these ethical theories using critically constructed arguments...and yet claim that their ultimate results cannot be dissected using critically constructed arguments. 

If you want to say critically/rationally that morality is just a frame of mind or a world view, then that in itself is a worthy argument (and is not moral-relativism as is discussed in contemporary philosophy). This argument has been made by philosophers for dozens of centuries. A philosopher today can repeat it, give some examples of how hard it is to compare world views and you have done your job. Now go have a coffee, join a scruples club and talk about your moral opinions with friends or write some fiction. There is little left to say of academic interest.

Taking this further by making arbitrary claims that x can be analysed with moral system z but y cannot because you say so without giving any justification for it (which is almost never ever given) ... is not a respectable argument. Moral philosophers have no reason to pay any attention to such nonsense and in recent analytic philosophy...they write off these arguments as fear of knowledge or fear of values and/or just plain laugh at it.

Well, gee, a lot of philosophers think they have shredded an argument. It must be a bad argument, then, right? Well, I don't crumble under the "some/many philosophers disagree with you" since philosophy isn't physics. There is standard or orthodox view. 

Philosophers disagree. It's what we do.

I don't claim my argument can't be criticized, just that it can't be criticized successfully. If you think you have an argument that makes moral/ethical judgments facts, I haven't run across it yet.

The bankruptcy of your position is evident in your resorting to the sometimes thinly-veiled and sometimes overt ad hominem attacks exemplified in your third paragraph above, substituting a cheap display of invective for anything resembling a pointed criticism.

We already know you want to disagree, but you are very chary of explaining WHY you disagree.

You remind me of Kant who basically argued that God must exist otherwise the universe would be unjust. It seems like you're arguing that moral and ethical judgments must be objective because it would be terrible if they weren't.

just that it can't be criticized successfully

I've done it twice LOL

It seems like you're arguing that moral and ethical judgments must be objective because it would be terrible if they weren't.

For the love of god.

You've shown that moral and ethical judgments can be facts and not just, well, judgments? I did miss that.

And more ad hominem, I see.

You've shown that moral and ethical judgments can be facts and not just, well, judgments? I did miss that.

And more ad hominem, I see.

No...I've shown how your brand of relativism is nonsense.


© 2017   Created by Rebel.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service