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.


Alex said...


I don't think that's even vaguely analogous. I'd challenge you to find two developed cultures that hadn't individually stumbled on gravity or the weak force. Natural laws are immutable by the virtue that, well, they're immutable. I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but scientific laws arise out of empirical observation. I can't think of any moral imperatives that could legitimately claim the same basis.
A good read nevertheless.

Yusuke said...

It's analogous if you work on his previous argument that moral truths have an objective basis.

As for the second point, empirical observation is the basis for the whole of (Bentham's) utilitarianism, and it certainly has a place in Christianity or any other moral imperative that takes the well-being of others into account.

nightbringer said...

Hey Alex thanks for the compliment. I think the analogy definitely holds though. Whether or not empiricism is the manner for attaining knowledge of moral truths, it doesn't follow that variance in belief demonstrates the lack of a universal truth (and I don't think the variance in belief is that great anyway).

You'd have to argue that if a universal moral truth existed, necessarily it would have to be believed by everyone (or some significant percentage of everyone) for the "variance" argument to work. I don't see however why that should be the case.