Moral relativity, through my eyes.

Posted Prickle-Prickle, Confusion 44 YOLD 3173

This was sparked by a comment in my previous post. It would be customary to respond in the comments thread, but I tend to get long-winded, and to stray to tangential topics, so I felt it best to respond in a full post.

First, the comment:

It is wonderful that you love humanity, that you love laughter and humor, and so forth.But what about someone beyond yourself? How do you tell someone that they should feel these things if you are basing them only on your own feelings?

We have no authority to judge the sociopath who commits multiple murders out of spite, because he or she and we are using the same source of authority: our personal feelings.

Many act out of love (as you do), but many act out of selfishness and a hunger for power, I’m sure you would agree.

Is one just as good as the other for an atheist?

These are not new questions, I would love to hear your response. Thank you.

johannesclimacus June 27th, 2007 at 22:23:10
The comment appears, in my opinion, to deal with the question of moral relativism, the idea that, absent external (usually divine) mandated morality, morals are entirely cultural, and fairly meaningless. As the commenter notes, this is not a new question, and has definitely been settled by others. The question then, was how do I deal with this issue, and I commend the honesty of the poster in this matter.

Moral relativism has long been a tough subject for me, and since leaving the Church (I grew up Catholic) I was a moral relativist, up until recently. As I noted, I was a chaote at one point, and, on some level, this necessitates moral relativism. Ultimately, I resolved this problem by adopting a kind of fence-sitting position, in that morality (what is right and wrong, good or bad) is objective, in the general sense, given a starting point, in this case, humans. With a starting point, what is and isn’t ok begins to fall into place, and a vague morality can be determined, which can be used to determine the rightness of any given action.

In the vaguest sense, the basic outline of this morality is pleasure good, pain bad. I don’t mean this in the purely physical sense, I just mean that good things are those which increase the general happiness, bad things are those which decrease general happiness. No, this isn’t a write-off “Do what feels good.” It’s deeper than that, and boils more accurately to , “act with compassion.” A bit of a leap, I’ll admit, but the idea here is to build the bridge between the two.

Personally, most of this is built on intuition, in that acting compassionately brings me greater happiness than acting selfishly, and this, I imagine, is what johannesclimacus objects to, so I’m going to build up the case a little. This same position is also attributable to observation. It can be observed that acting with compassion increases the happiness of those around you, which tends to reflect back, and bring more happiness your way. Sounds cynical, I know, but it’s true. Karma may not be a universal law, like gravity or thermodynamics, but it does work. By working toward a better future (to put it as clichéd as possible) for everyone, we improve our own futures. (See also, Prisoner’s Dilemma.)

A further case can be built upon evolutionary history. From a biological perspective, the purpose of any organism is propagation of the species. On the surface, this seems like a license to “go forth and multiply,” but that’s only part of it. In order for the species to propagate, it can’t destroy itself. If killing sprees are allowable, this tends to have a negative impact on long-term species survival, particularly within communities. This is why killing has been viewed as a Bad Thing since the dawn of civilization. Theft, rape, and most other crimes are Bad Things for a similar reason, they damage community cohesion. If the community can’t work together, it falls apart, which is exactly the opposite of survival.

The argument can be, and has been, made that violence serves a purpose much like hunting of herd animals (in the lion sense, not in the sport sense). It encourages those most fit to survive, and weeds out those least capable of survivng. At this point in our development, however, this argument holds little water. Violence rarely targets specifically the weakest, by any measure, and almost never has any significant impact on the gene pool. All it does is reduce numbers, and never by a significant amount. Overpopulation can be handled by much better means. Contraception, for starters.

Hoping you’ve all managed to wade through this, I’m now able to answer the questions. First, I was never laying a moral framework, I was merely noting how to solve the issue of nihilism as a result of a materialistic philosophy. That is based on feelings, and I can’t tell someone they should feel those things. I can tell them that finding something to be passionate about can help make life meaningful, and ask if they want help looking for something.

We do have authority to judge that sociopath, because killing, as shown, is demonstratively wrong. Yes, the sociopath may “feel” that they are doing the right thing, but we can use solid reasoning and verifiable fact to show that it is the wrong thing.

I do recognize that many people (of all faiths and none) act from selfishness and hunger for power. Just because it happens doesn’t make it right. We can condemn these people, and we should.

What it all boils down to is the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” The point where your actions interfere with another person’s pursuit of happiness is the point where it becomes wrong. This applies both ways.

Hopefully this wasn’t too rambling, and hopefully I’ve answered the questions satisfactorily.

~Pope Matthew Illustrious, et al.


2 Responses to “Moral relativity, through my eyes.”

  1. Bronze Dog Says:

    Of course, one problem the typical theist doesn’t realize with asking the question is that theism doesn’t really have the kind of smackdown answer they’re looking for, either:

    What makes a god’s point of view inherently different than your average mortal’s?

    Most of the time when I ask that question in response, it usually amounts to “might makes right.”

  2. PricklePrickle Says:

    I think the omnipotent creator argument holds a little water. Having designed all the laws by which the universe works, Creators get to assign what is Right and what is Wrong. This falls apart when you dig too far, but so does my argument. At some level, both become, “That’s what good and right IS.” I just feel the secular answer goes further, and explains more, before hitting that inevitable wall.

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