Sunday, 30 May 2010

What's moral for me IS moral for you. Objection (1)

In the previous entry we looked at moral relativism in its most popular form today. It’s the belief that we create our own moral codes and as such what is moral for me may not be moral for you. We saw that if we acted consistently in believing moral relativism we’d have to accept that every moral belief is equally worthy – even those that promote cruelty of the highest order. If your mate punched you in the face and said that he felt morally compelled to do so, you could have no rational basis for rebuking him if you were a moral relativist! Needless to say, it is worth considering that there may be universal truths to moral matters. First we should look at common defences of moral relativism. This short entry will examine one such defence.

Different cultures have different moral beliefs

This defence argues that because different cultures across different regions and eras have different moral beliefs there cannot be any universal moral laws. On the face of it this seems somewhat reasonable. Sometimes however it is good to use an analogy to see whether the same logic holds in another situation. Let’s do this right now with our beliefs in universal natural laws. We all believe that the universe generally operates in a stable manner across time and space. You probably don’t think that gravity doesn’t work in some parts of the universe or that it didn’t work at some points in time. You would say that gravity and other natural laws are universal truths. Imagine if we argued against the universality of these laws in the following way:

“Pfft, universal natural laws! Different cultures across different regions and eras have had different scientific beliefs. Obviously no such universal laws exist.”

We can see that this objection is silly because what people believe is irrelevant to what is true. Gravity exists whether or not you believe it does and if there is an actually existing moral law prohibiting murder, murder would be wrong whether or not you believed it is. As such pointing to the variance in moral beliefs throughout time and eras does not serve to prove that there is no universal truth about morality. So much for that objection then. We shall look at another in the next entry.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

What's right and wrong for you isn't right and wrong for me?

In the last entry I looked at “truth-relativism” – the belief that there is nothing which is true for everyone - and concluded that it had some rather serious problems. In this entry I want to look at another commonly held belief in the post-modern culture: moral relativism. What is moral relativism? It’s the belief that “what’s right and wrong for you isn’t right and wrong for me.” If you live in Britain like I do, you’ve probably heard somebody express something like this belief. It seems to come up nearly every time when I talk to people about the topic of morality! Perhaps it’s something you believe yourself. If it is, while this entry will hopefully show why we shouldn’t believe in moral relativism, the intent is not to belittle. In fact, more than with truth-relativism, moral relativism seems to have some common sense and observational truth behind it (this will be shown more in the next entry). I hope though, you’ll be willing to abandon the belief, if, like me, you come to see some serious flaws in adopting it if we want to think about morality seriously. Let’s first of all explain what morality and moral relativism is in a bit more detail.

Moral beliefs are those beliefs we have which relate to how we should or shouldn’t act. They are usually phrased like orders or commands – there is an ‘oughtness’ about them. Some examples might be;

“A person ought to not steal.”
“A person ought to be charitable with their money.”
“A person ought to not be boastful.”
“A person ought to be kind.”

Even if you don’t agree with the sentiments expressed by these particular examples, I’m sure you’d agree that they at least demonstrate what moral beliefs ‘look like’. They resemble laws for governing how we act. Moral relativism is the belief that some laws that apply to me do not necessarily apply to you. For instance it may be wrong for me to be boastful, but not for you. We have to be careful not to be confused here however. Even in a non-relativistic way of looking at morality you can still assert that not every moral law applies to everyone at one time. For example if you are married you could have moral obligations to look after your spouse in ways that would perhaps be immoral for anyone else to! Moral relativism has a different meaning when it claims that moral laws apply don’t apply to everyone. Under moral relativism, even if your spouse had married someone else, that person’s moral duties in the marriage may not be the same as what yours would have been. This is because within moral relativism, it is said that moral laws don’t actually exist properly speaking. It is claimed that morality is something we create. As such, I, as one particular human being, may invent and live my life to a moral code that differs from yours. It is in that sense that, supposedly, what is right and wrong for you isn’t right and wrong for me.

So how’re you gonna sway me?

If you recall, in the previous entry I explained that ‘truth’ is about how ideas and reality match up. When I say “it is raining outside” and it actually is raining outside we would call this a 'true' statement because the content of the statement - the ideas - match up to the reality it is aiming to describe. Similarly, it works the other way round. If I say you are a true friend it means that the reality of your qualities as a friend matches up to the proper idea of a friend. The possibility of there being a truth to something is very important when we want to rationally discuss that thing. Imagine the following conversation,

Fred: Man I love dinosaurs.
Vicky: Me too. I think some fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in dinosaurs or something, but I love them. Especially T-Rex. It was like 9ft or something.
Fred: T-Rex is pretty ace. You’re wrong about the height though. It was over 460089ft.
Vicky: You’re crazy. They weren’t that tall.
Fred: Yes they were.
Vicky: Okay, we’re gonna have to debate this.

While a comic example you’d agree that in principle there’s nothing irrational about debating the size of the average T-Rex. Compare that conversation to this one,

Fred: Man, I wish some really bad-ass huge lizards used to exist.
Vicky: Me too. I’d call them dinosaurs. And one called T-Rex would be my favourite. It’s like 9ft tall.
Fred: That “dinosaw” or whatever you called it sounds ace, but yeah, it wasn’t 9ft. It was over 460089ft.
Vicky: Laughable. They weren’t that tall.
Fred: Okay but ... yeah ... they were.
Vicky: Bring your best arguments because we’re gonna have to debate this.

Why does this conversation seem so irrational? It’s because neither participant believes that T-Rex existed, yet they’re debating its height. They’re debating the truth of the matter even though they don’t think there is any reality for their ideas to match up to. But as we’ve already seen, truth is precisely about how ideas and reality match up. If T-Rex never existed, no ideas about its height could be true. Fred and Vicky are being inconsistent. Because none of their arguments about T-Rex’s height can be true if T-Rex didn’t exist, it doesn’t matter who can sway who. Neither Fred nor Vicky’s beliefs would be more valid than the other. Moral relativists are acting just as inconsistently when they debate moral beliefs.

Irrationality or immorality!

As already noted, moral relativists claim that moral laws do not actually exist; we create moral ideas but they do not exist independently of our minds. A moral relativist who claims that there is a truth to moral matters is consequently being inconsistent. If there are no moral laws then there is no reality for moral ideas to match up to. Without such a reality there can be no truth to moral matters. Any moral opinion would be just as valid as another. I’m sure you can begin to see why it would be very hard for anyone to maintain this view. To be consistent they’d have to accept that a moral belief such as, “a person ought to brutally murder” is just a valid as one such as, “a person ought to treat the elderly with care.” This offends our moral sensibilities so much it’s impossible to live with. I haven’t encountered a single moral relativist who is consistent with the logical conclusion of their belief and I doubt you can show me otherwise!

While then I haven’t proved that moral laws do exist, I hope I’ve shown that we should at least be thinking about them and considering where they might reside. Only when we believe that moral matters have a truth to them that is true for everyone can we rationally debate moral matters. In the next entries I shall look at some common defences of moral relativism made against the argument I’ve presented here.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

What's true for you isn't true for me?

"What's true for you isn't true for me!"

Most likely you've heard this statement being made, or you've perhaps said it and believe it yourself. This idea - that there isn't a universally applicable truth - is expressive of what's generally known as 'post-modern thought'. In case you weren't aware, if you're living in Britain as I am, you're living in a post-modern culture. It sounds kinda weird. How can we be already passed what is modern you might ask? That would be a good question, the answer being "I doubt we could", but post-modernity refers not so much to literal time but to the movement from one type of thinking to another. The 'modern' type of thinking, if you'll bear with me, is actually the older way of thinking and post-modernity is the type of thinking that has come after it. The origin of 'post-modern' thought is a story I shan't go into (I'm not confident enough that I can tell it accurately) but it certaintly has some strong roots in the philosophy of the German thinker, Nietzsche. His philosophy wasn't quite the same as that expressed by the popular phrase quoted at the start of this blog entry, but it shares some of its distrust toward universal truths.

In this entry I'm going to take a look at this popular expression of post-modern thought and hopefully show that it just doesn't make much sense! As a result we can let go of this way of thinking, agree that there are universally applicable truths, and start to discover what those may be. So let's crack on.

First question to ask is "what exactly do we mean when we talk about something being true?" It probably sounds like a very silly question. After all we use the concept of 'truth' a great deal and nobody seems to complain about it. Why bother going into detail defining it? Philosophers, as you may be aware, like to question common sense (we apparently like to question the existence of chairs for example), and while it may seem a tad ridiculous at times, it's actually really helpful to make sure we are thinking clearly about the issue and that we haven't just taken something really important for granted. So humour me as I talk about truth for a bit!

When I say "it is raining outside" and it actually is raining outside we would call this a 'true' statement because the content of the statement - the ideas - match up to the reality it is aiming to describe. Similarly, it works the other way round. If I say you are a true friend it means that the reality of your qualities as a friend matches up to the proper idea of a friend. Truth then, is about how ideas and reality match up. So what are we saying when we say that "what's true for you isn't true for me"?

We're either saying that the reality we both have cannot be the same or that the ideas we have cannot be the same (or both).

Do we have completely different realities?

Be careful not to confuse the idea that we may have different realities with the idea that we may see the same reality differently. A common musing along the lines of the latter is whether the colour I label as blue is the same colour you label as blue. This is a different issue relating to whether we can both have the same knowledge of the same thing. I'll address that issue in a later post. For now just recognise that even if we labelled a colour differently that wouldn't mean that the light hitting our eyes would be different. We would probably agree that even if we see or interpret things differently, we have the same reality around us. In fact it would be bizarre to believe that we didn't. Could we really claim that we live in different universes from one another? Does the sun exist for me but not for you? If we believed this was the case why would we bother talking to anyone about anything? I wouldn't be writing this blog to you the reader because you wouldn't have the internet in your universe or the postmodern movement or anything I have in my reality. I hope you can see that holding this sort of view would be rather extreme. After all nobody can talk to another person in the same room and seriously believe that to the other person the room exists completely differently. You might think however that this view still has some merit in relation to more blatantly philosophical or religious topics. In fact it is around these topics that the "what's true for you isn't true for me" idea commonly emerges. Let's imagine the following conversation between a muslim, a christian, and a religious skeptic.

Skeptic: So what do you two believe about God then?
Christian: I believe in one God who is three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Muslim: I believe in one God, Allah, who is completely unified; there is no plurality in him at all.
Christian: I have a few objections to your concept of God.
Muslim: Funny you should say that, I have some objections to your concept of God as well!
Skeptic: Look at you guys arguing! Just remember that what's true for one of you isn't necessarily true for the other.

Is the skeptic's remark here any more plausible than the idea that the sun may exist for me and not for you? Surely not. Does God exist in three persons only for the Christian and as a completely unified being only for the Muslim? For God to exist as both those things would be a contradiction. So no, the skeptic's claim is false, at least one of them has to be wrong about their concept of God. We can see that it is simply unreasonable to believe that we have different realities.

Do we have completely different ideas?

No doubt you will think of things that I won't and you will have ideas that I won't. In this context however, ideas refers more to concepts than to ideas in the sense of an inventor or poet having a new idea. It is our concepts in our statements that match up to reality and produce either truth or falsehood. In the example used earlier it was the concepts of rain and outsideness that matched up to reality. If however your concepts are completely different to mine we could never believe in the same truths. Clearly however, our concepts are not completely different. You have been reading this and have hopefully understood a good portion of it. This would be impossible if our concepts were irreconcilably different. Probably we have some individual meanings attached to certain concepts but our differences aren't untraversable. We share many concepts. So there is no reason to think that "what is true for you isn't true for me" at all. In fact we have seen that to believe that requires you to believe some rather silly things. If however you still think there might be some merit to the position, there is one final thing you should bear in mind.

It is self-defeating!

The major problem with 'truth-relativism' - the belief we've been discussing here - is that it is self-defeating, or to be more technical, it is 'self-referentially incoherent'. A philosophy is self-defeating if it sets up a standard for what can be known or what is true and then fails to meet that standard itself. An example would be me saying that "the only statements which can be true are mathematical statements". That statement is self-defeating because it is itself not a mathematical statement. That truth relativism is similarly self-defeating can easily be shown.

If someone says to you "what's true for one person isn't true for another," ask them this question; "is it true for me that what's true for you isn't true for me?" That person shall be trapped. If they agree that is true for you then they will have conceded that at least something is true for the both of you. If they say it isn't true for you, then truth-relativism isn't true for you and universal truth is. But if truth is universal it is universal for the other person too. This might all sound confusing so let's look at it another way.

Truth relativism can be expressed in this statement; "there are no universal truths." But is that not itself a universal truth? If it is then it breaks its own rule and thus must be false. But if it is not a universal truth then there can still be universal truths. Either way it is false.

The idea then that "what is true for you isn't true for me" is a very bad idea! It is necessarily false and we should not entertain it. Next I shall look at moral relativism which is another popular belief in our culture today.

A tentative start

So I thought I'd create this as a space to share some thoughts and maybe some essays and whatnot, mostly on philosophy and religion. Whether or not this works out as being an ideal medium for that is yet to be seen. Let's see how it goes.