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.
We haven't been refuting what the definition of "moral relativism" is. You've given a good one. What I am saying is...moral relativism is irrelevant. It is, at best, a useful term when doing comparative anthropological work (cultural differences, cultural explanations). All moral relativist pontificating does is state the obvious. From there we move on to critical thinking.
In terms of ethics or moral systems moral relativism is useless (as will all applications of post-modern tropes to philosophy and the social sciences). Many moral systems do not care about the "relativity of morals between cultures" or at the very least relative moral values comes AFTER arguing the groundwork of a moral system.
Get past the fact that morality within cultures is what that culture defines it as...and get back to philosophical ethical analysis. The same game works with aesthetics and other value laden and so called "subjective" philosophy.
So, then, in the sense of my original post, you grant that we must be ethical relativists. You just want to change the topic to a different approach you find more interesting.
Zheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesh. I throw in the towel.
"So, then, in the sense of my original post, you grant that we must be ethical relativists. ... Zheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesh." -
no, I think Unseen is right. The assignation of values to facts is a choice, albeit one that most people agree on when it comes to universal values.
Narrow it down to two individuals. "One's culture" works to get in the ball park, but an example involving just two people with differing views would be interesting to see–in the absence of "third person" interference.
It's true that we may well be able to objectively determine health or flourishing. That's not at issue. The issue is, as Unseen says, that it's an arbitrary choice to say that to increase health or flourishing in an optimum way for all concerned, is good.
This interpretation of good happens to be a universal value for human beings, but it's still an interpretation, and others are possible. ISIS think that genocide is good, and they're as philosophically justified to think that as we are to think the opposite.
"perfectly reasonable" - perfectly reasonable, yes, to almost everyone except ISIS and people like them, because it's a universal value that we all hold without question. But I challenge you to provide a nuts-and-bolts reason why it's factually good to promote health, flourishing and survival for oneself and others. When you get down to it, you have to concede that this designation of goodness is still a choice that we make. I agree with Davis that it's a somewhat useless point when it comes to real life, because we're so entrenched within our own moral system and we buy into it completely with very good reasons. But in putting together a moral system, it's a crucial step that needs to be explicitly addressed. Christians address it by saying that it's good because God says so. That's fine - they address it and give a reason. We need to address it and justify it in our own way, going further than mere "reasonableness". That's just a fudge.
Because God says so is not a good reason.
We all agree with you, but at least they have some reason and justification. If we're to assign goodness to health and survival, then we need to come up with some justifications too, otherwise it's just "reasonable", which can be used to justify anything we like.
Simon...you keep speaking as though there is an absence of a sound moral framework in secular philosophy. Philosophers have come up with these justifications. Very good ones. While the search never ends and the tweaking continues (and new ideas come along) ... there is no pressing need to "FIND" a system. That work has been done very well.
You also speak as though there is no moral framework in place in modern secular society. There most certainly is. It might be extremely difficult to articulate and vary between person to person but a random citizen of Greece and a random citizen of Australia will almost certainly share the same over all moral framework...and it is very much a modern secular one. I would venture to guess that it would be about 95 to 99 percent the same. And I would argue that the modern secular moral framework is among one of the fairest, most equal, kindest, suffering reducing and respectful moral system in history.
"there is no pressing need to "FIND" a system. That work has been done very well." - OK, but where is it? Why is it not common knowledge among atheists? Why can atheists not say anything when Christians ask us to describe a coherent moral system? If the work has been done, I don't think it has been done in the right way, because we just don't have one.
"Philosophers have come up with these justifications. Very good ones." - you may be right, but I couldn't find any. What is the best philosophical justification you know, for being good?
I think one takeaway from this is that it's the religious people who believe that their system is superior that should be learning to open up to alternatives that are not designed and/or enforced by absolute authority. That's pretty much what's in place now, in law, in countries committed to secularist/pluralistic authority, with balance of powers.
Successful movements still need some brand names and luminaries to latch on to. Dr. Bob says we have nothing to offer. Perhaps secularism provides more working examples (especially in government) that critical masses of people are most willing to get behind? I wish to focus battles mostly against the enemies of secularism (and science and modernity).