A defense of moral relativism
I recently had a class in business ethics. At the end we to chose our own topic(long as it had to do with ethics) and write a paper on it. I liked the way my paper turned out so I decided to post it.
A defense of moral relativism
Moral relativism is often maligned, and perhaps for good reason. If all morals are relative then how can we determine which morals are the ones we should follow? Some people say that morels are based on cultural, and you can’t judge one culture by the standard of another. This perspective is easily criticized because we judge the moral standard of other countries all the time. In regards to cultural relativism one person wrote “According to you (at least the implication is there) the only mistake Hitler did was try to impose his standard on the rest of the world. So if he didn't do that, it would've been perfectly fine for him to commit genocide on his own people; making genocide perfectly moral to the German people.” ("Atheism As A Valid Worldview |." ). I won’t try to defend all views of moral relativism(I don't even know all view), but I will defend my own. To start with I will define relative morals to mean that morals have no truth value outside of the minds of the people who use them. This doesn’t mean that some people morals aren’t better then others, it just means that there is no universal standard by which to compare them. Critics of moral relativism often ask; if you can’t judge other people’s moral standards then how can you interact with them in any meaningful way? Will you simple go along with the ideals of whoever you are with at the time never taking any kind of a stance on a moral issue? If such a question were asked to me, my answer would be that people who operate under a moral relative world view have no inherent obligation to accept anyone else’s views. Just because I don’t believe there is universal moral truth doesn’t mean that I don’t posses my own moral truth. The problem most people seem to have with moral relativism is that from a relativistic moral world view you can’t see things out side of some perspective, or in other words there is no way to view the world objectively. You can look at things from someone else’s perspective, and you can look it from a cultural perspective, or your own perspective, but you can’t not have a perspective. It is impossible to see things without some kind of bias.
It is believed by some that if there is no universal truth then there is no way to judge the moral standards of one person as being better then another, and that if morals are relative all statements of morality must be taken equally. Yet it does not follow logically that just because things are relative they are equal. An example to the contrary can easily be found in physics. In physics motion is relative. This means that there is no single reference frame by which the motion of all other bodies can be compared. In other words in physics there is no universal frame of reference. In essence there are a limitless number of frames of reference all of them equally valid. Now from this you may be thinking that because all objects frames of reference are equally valid it doesn’t matter from which frame of reference you view things, yet in physics there are other thing to take into consideration other then frame of reference; the most obvious is matter. Objects with mass expert force on each other which affect their motion, and how the motion of these objects is affected by force is controlled by their momentum. While all forms of reference in the universe may be equally valid they are not equally useful. As a being of matter within this universe I would be poorly served by considering the things about me in any frame of reference other then the one that I am sitting in. For some purposes it might be to my advantage to consider other frames of reference, but to ever ignore my own would make it impossible for me to do such simple thing as walk around normally. There are non relative rules that govern things in this relativistic universe I propose that there are rules that govern things in a moral universe as well, and not all frames of reference are equally useful.
In discussion of my reasoning it is necessary for me to create a few new terms. Moral forces will be defined as anything that acts on a person’s moral views in such a way as to bring about change. There are many examples of moral forces in this world. Some of the more common ones would include guilt, reason, empathy and desire. Another term I will need to describe my view is moral momentum. Moral momentum is the tendency of people’s moral values to resist change. Also I will need the term moral trajectory which describes a persons current morel views. In this model some people have parallel trajectories which mean that their morals don’t conflict with each other while others have trajectories that cause collision, which in this case are moral conflicts with each other. During these collision people’s moral momentum cause them to exert moral forces upon each other. Over time as they continuously exert moral forces on each other the moral trajectories of members of a society seems to come into equilibrium with each other. Also I need the concept of moral memes. A morel meme is hard to describe. To understand it first you must know what a regular meme is. Consider this; a person comes up with an idea. That person passes that idea on to another person who passes it onto another. Eventually as that idea is passed around it slowly changes. Maybe one person will add a new insight, and another person may make a song about it which effects how the idea is viewed. The idea is reproducing, mutating and in a way becoming a whole new animal. Dawkins, a famous writer talks about memes in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. In his book Dawkins describes memes as “Anything that spreads by imitation, as genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, is a meme.” This can include virtually everything from poems, to songs, to ideas or even to language itself (Dawkins 304). Basically what I think he is saying is that DNA is to the body as meme is to the mind. A moral meme is the same thing as a normal meme except it is about morality. In the example I am giving it is like the moral matter upon which the moral forces are acting. The last phrase I need is moral evolution. Moral evolution is the process by which moral memes are selected. As moral forces act upon moral memes some are reproduced, some mutate, and others die out and are forgotten. A good example of meme evolution can be seen in the game telephone which is played by a long line of people. The first person in the line will say something to the second and tell them to pass it on to the third, who will pass it on to the forth and so on until it reaches the end of the line. The point of this game is that when it reaches the end of the line it is never the same as it was at the beginning, and often times it isn’t even close. People will have made mistakes in duplicating the phrase. Maybe some one will have left out a word, or added a world, or maybe forgotten a whole sentence. An example of moral evolution is harder to show because people’s moral stances tend to change slowly, but I thing a good example would be the vastly different morals that existed a few centuries ago. You don’t have to go back centuries to see changes. Every generation has difference in their moral outlook. All older generations tend to view the morals of newer generations with suspicion, and newer generations tend to view the morals of older generations as outdated.
In the version of moral relativism that I am describing there is no universal point of view to describe morals. In fact there are a virtually limitless numbers of points of view, but that does mean that all morals must be held as equal. Any individual in this system is a part of the system and though a subject and a sources of all the forces that govern the system. As a part of the system they are not under any obligation to consider the system from some point outside of the system. The only thing that makes sense in this model is for them to consider the system from something close to their own moral trajectory. For them to consider a view too far outside of their own trajectory is to risk no longer being able to make sense of the moral universe in which they live.
In my version of moral relativism the moral memes undergo the process that I call moral evolution. In this process the moral memes in their environment are subjected to forces that cause them to either flourish, decline, or even die out. This model does not make a distinction between ‘good’ moral forces and ‘bad’ moral forces. There are many moral forces that can cause effects that are not perhaps good for humanity as a whole. An example of one such force is hate. Hate has a tendency to affect people’s morals, but it is rarely good for society as a whole. Luckily unlike real physics, the mode I described is not filled with simple passive objects subjected to the whim of whatever comes there way. In this model people have will which is perhaps the most important moral force of all. Will allows people to respond to the moral forces around them in such a way as to allow them to alter the moral universe in which they live. I would argue that it is because of human will that over time morals have generally evolved toward the betterment of man kind.
My stance is this; morals are relative, but so what. Just because there are no universal truth doesn’t mean you can’t take a stance on anything. Just because an argument isn’t the only argument doesn’t mean it has no merit, and just because my morals are not universal doesn’t mean they have no value. I have made no argument toward moral relativism being the truth in the first place, but if it is true I don't think it is such a horrible thing.
"Atheism As A Valid Worldview |." The Rational Response Squad. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/17332?page=2>.
Dawkins, Richard. Unweaving the Rainbow : Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.