The Death of Moral Relativism
March 31, 2016 7:54 AM   Subscribe

From the Cold War to the War on Terror, conservatives have protested the “evils” of moral relativism for decades, and now it may be a relic of the past. But although conservatives got what they wanted, they didn’t get what they expected. It’s hard to say for sure whether they’re better off now than they were before. It depends on how you look at it. Or, as some might say, it’s all relative
posted by y2karl (85 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, well, it might be worrying to people who long for the days of "moral consensus" when they realize that voices of the marginalized are no longer totally silenced, and that "moral concensus"might not be 100% written by straight cis heterosexual white men.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:12 AM on March 31, 2016 [22 favorites]


interestingly (i think!), my impression is that the philosophical consensus these days is for moral realism.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:13 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Article is kind of a half baked mismash, but I think the argument that we have moved on from moral relativism and on to developing a morality of our own is mostly true. Shame culture is shitty as hell, but I don't think it calls the moral code itself into question.

Rittelmeyer points also to recent trends in cinema, which are now dominated by heroes who draw clear moral lines. Modern audiences do not wonder if Voldemort or the Joker is actually justified, right, or moral.


Meh, there are still plenty of grey area characters in media. The last big superhero movie was Deadpool and he isn't exactly a boy scout.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:13 AM on March 31, 2016 [6 favorites]


Was moral relativism ever anything but a right-wing boogeyman? I always saw it as a way of rejecting multiculturalism and a backlash against the erosion of white-christian heteronormativity. This little thinkpiece seems lightweight in its historical research. Kurt Cobain wasn't a moral relativist, but like a lot of punks from that era, anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-male-chauvinism.
posted by dis_integration at 8:17 AM on March 31, 2016 [39 favorites]


In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place.

The "shame culture" has been around a long time, David. It's just that people like you used to never be subjected to it, so you're only now noticing. But if you were the "wrong" color/gender/sexual orientation/pregnant while not married ETC., you sure as hell knew about "shame culture."
posted by rtha at 8:19 AM on March 31, 2016 [115 favorites]


A couple of right-wing American academics whose blogs I follow are fulminating about a New Political Correctness sweeping over campuses and censoring/shaming anyone who doesn't toe the acceptable ideological line.

These are the same folks who here fulminating about moral relativism during the W. presidency, calling for a return to moral values, and so on. Well, they got their high-contrast morality—just not leaning in the direction they expected.

I am tempted to say, "you made your own bed, now you get to lie in it", but it's a tie with "world's smallest violin".
posted by cstross at 8:20 AM on March 31, 2016 [47 favorites]


I don't think it's fair to equate "family values" with tolerance and diversity as systems of social virtue. This article subtly suggests that today's emphasis on tolerance and diversity is merely one in a string of semi-faddish sets of values. Doing so ignores the argument that we as a culture have made progress and fails to acknowledge that today's "social virtue" is better than yesteryear's for an enormous amount of people (i.e. those of us who are not WASP white men with money).

I have been and continue to be disturbed by The Atlantic's constant drumbeat of "you kids and your dictatorial tolerance are infantalizing and ruining our culture and you're too dumb to realize it." That's not expressed so clearly in this piece, but I can smell it right under the surface.
posted by sallybrown at 8:21 AM on March 31, 2016 [49 favorites]


interestingly (i think!), my impression is that the philosophical consensus these days is for moral realism.

There is like, exactly zero consensus on the status of moral properties in the philosophy community, but some of the hot shots in at the Top Schools are heavy on moral realism today. It's hard to say how significant it is that a bunch of the tenured analytic philosophers are really hot for Parfit right now, or how long that will last.
posted by dis_integration at 8:22 AM on March 31, 2016 [8 favorites]


Those who most loudly demanded moral absolutism are alarmed to suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of it. I say if they're not willing to accept the risk of being shamed from time to time, the guillotine is always an alternative.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:25 AM on March 31, 2016 [11 favorites]


I am not really convinced by this article at all, to be honest. Maybe somebody can convince me that "some sort of moral system is coming into place," but it isn't Helen Rittelmeyer or David Brooks. In fact, the problem with the way we talk about this is probably the assumption that there was every any consensus, any strict and thoroughly accepted moral order, at all – and, as a corollary, the assumption that we then moved to a time when there wasn't any accepted moral order, that we were purely morally relativist.

The trick about moral relativism is that it's actually fairly impossible to maintain if one actually lives with other humans in society. Intelligent people like Plato have argued against moral relativism not so much because moral relativism is some sort of cultural force of evil (as conservatives would have us believe) but because the urge to say "fuck it, nothing really actually matters" is often there to fill in the cracks when people are faced with difficult questions and end up doing really atrocious things. Max Weber famously believed that moral right could not be rooted in any kind of truth – if academia's toothless "moral relativism" has any source, it's him – and his attitude toward justice led directly to the academy's bland acceptance of Hitler.

Meanwhile, though, people have to live with each other. They get hurt by other people, and when they do, they say, "it was wrong when you hurt me that way." They say that even when they're sociology professors who spend a lot of time at work distinguishing "values" and "facts" and proclaiming that "values" must be avoided because they are anathema to proper investigation of the world. It's not so much that belief in a moral order is "good" – it's that belief in a moral order is unavoidable; and even if you're an intellectual who's convinced themselves that consideration of moral truth is pointless and should be abandoned, you'll find yourself going back on that if you have any intention of living among other human beings.
posted by koeselitz at 8:28 AM on March 31, 2016 [25 favorites]


Since when was Kurt Cobain reflective of a "live-and-let-live" attitude? His 1990s work is filled with anger expressed at parents who fail to uphold their responsibility. Think of "Serve the Servants" ("I tried hard to have a father. Instead I had a Dad.") or "Sliver" ("Grandma take me home!").
posted by jonp72 at 8:34 AM on March 31, 2016 [13 favorites]


Rittelmeyer points also to recent trends in cinema, which are now dominated by heroes who draw clear moral lines. Modern audiences do not wonder if Voldemort or the Joker is actually justified, right, or moral.

Maybe that's where I've been going wrong. I watched London has Fallen last week and what stood out to me was the extent to which it was assumed that the US was right/good even though its actions in the film are on a par with those of the terrorists in terms of wiping out innocent third parties, etc. in some ways worse, since the protagonist actually kills two terrorists in cold blood. He also proclaims the thousand year Reich at the end of the final action scene.
posted by biffa at 8:34 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


God, I hate these nasty little political versions of thought-terminating-cliches. There is no "political correctness." There is no "shame culture."

There is "getting called on being shitty," and that's something we all experience as adults, except the tiny minority who were privileged enough to avoid it or ignore it, and can't fucking stand that that undeserved privilege has eroded oh so very very slightly.
posted by maxsparber at 8:35 AM on March 31, 2016 [48 favorites]


I appreciated the article. Perhaps it's a mess, as some of you have suggested, but it does point to something interesting that I hadn't thought of before.

I wonder if moral relativism came to the fore for a couple of decades because so much of the leftist moral movement got subsumed by Communism and Maoism in the 50s-70s. When we found out how horrible those movements turned out to be in practise, leftist morality ended up in the desert for a couple of decades. Not that it didn't exist, or that people weren't doing important work on it during the 80s and 90s, but it was mostly outside the Overton window.

It'll be interesting to see whether the revival of the respectability of a hard morality of the left will lead to a bigger Overton window - conservative morality, leftist morality, and moral relativism all respectable at once - or whether the window is cracking, and we'll end up with Overton islands which don't talk to each other.

I recognize that these thoughts are at least as messy as those in the article. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 8:41 AM on March 31, 2016 [6 favorites]


However moral relativism is absolutely triumphant, in the incompatibility of moral maxims by which political actors claim some form of moral high ground: abortion and even birth control denounced as crimes, whereas rape is just boys being boys; waterboarding no big deal, but drone assassinations a fit and just outcome; and I could go on. There's relativism for you.
posted by homerica at 8:42 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


God, I hate these nasty little political versions of thought-terminating-cliches. There is no "political correctness." There is no "shame culture."

Yes there is. What happened to Justine Sacco was orders of magnitude worse than what she did. People leverage callouts to have an excuse to be a mob of bullying assholes. It needs to stop. The Internet has changed society. Random schlubs can't stand up to global outrage when they make a mistake.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:46 AM on March 31, 2016 [21 favorites]


Article is kind of a half baked mismash

Relieved - I thought it was just me. I really want to like the Atlantic - they have some very good writers and are up for taking on heavy, heady topics - but more often than not I feel that the basis for good analysis is lacking.

Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip.

Yep, that's a really sloppy sentence ("law?" "virtue?" what do you mean exactly, here? Law "rose to prominence" a long time ago. Ugh, I couldn't get away with academic writing like this). It also undermines the thesis - "shame culture" could not possibly exist without moral relativism, simply because it reflects moral disagreement.

Also, what the hell was he listening to in the '90s that sounded like "Live and let live?" Certainly not hip-hop, not Tracy Chapman, not Liz Phair, not riot grrls.

fulminating about a New Political Correctness sweeping over campuses and censoring/shaming anyone who doesn't toe the acceptable ideological line.

The old in the guise of the new. It's just another silencing tactic.

I just read a bit of super general stuff about moral realism. I'm no philosopher, so I can't deeply engage. It would seem to me, though, that morality is the subject of a biological-social development process and results from both a material reality (the brain is inclined to parse things in certain ways and have certain preferences, a certain amount of resource competition is built into the world, evolution has exerted its pressures) and social conditioning. So it seems like sort of silly to retreat to any absolutist point on the question of moral development and which moral stance is "true." I suppose all you can say is which overly reductive stance is most in fashion to serve ideological ends at a given moment.
posted by Miko at 8:50 AM on March 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


interestingly (i think!), my impression is that the philosophical consensus these days is for moral realism.

It's not too late to try quasi-realism! (pdf link)
posted by thelonius at 8:51 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm not able to make much sense of this.

Is the author trying to come to terms with Kids-These-Days having virtual lawns that the author/conservative-anti-tolerance-voices/whatever-their-target-demographic-is aren't welcome on?
posted by Slackermagee at 8:56 AM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


Does The Atlantic have some kind of maximum character count for an article? This essay barely started to get into its argument when all of a sudden a clumsy high school closing paragraph is plugged in. There's so much more to say about this topic and respectfully it deserves an in depth journalistic effort. As it stands this is like a pitch paper for a longer piece. Journalism is dead, man.
posted by spicynuts at 8:56 AM on March 31, 2016 [12 favorites]


I'm not sure that "leftist morality" went missing exactly in the 1980s and 1990s. What, after all, was alternative culture, with its attention to ethical eating habits, ethically produced music, small scale, artisanal cultural production, anti-capitalism, and anti-sexism? What this piece seems to be blundering towards is a rearticulation of bits and pieces of Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites, but doing it very badly.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:59 AM on March 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


Miko: It would seem to me, though, that morality is the subject of a biological-social development process and results from both a material reality (the brain is inclined to parse things in certain ways and have certain preferences, a certain amount of resource competition is built into the world, evolution has exerted its pressures) and social conditioning.

I have half-baked this in my mind as a three-part set of learning processes: Biological evolution has learned things over millions of years, and mostly encoded moral stuff in our emotions. Cultural/historical/religious development has learned things over thousands of years, and mostly encoded moral stuff in what we're taught by our parents, teachers, peers, and books we read. Our brains have grown and learned over tens of years, and mostly encode moral stuff in the thoughts we have about our own experiences. We integrate all of that together to make moral decisions.

[/derail]

So it seems like sort of silly to retreat to any absolutist point on the question of moral development and which moral stance is "true." I suppose all you can say is which overly reductive stance is most in fashion to serve ideological ends at a given moment.

You are putting yourself clearly in the relativist camp, if I'm reading you correctly. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 9:00 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


What happened to Justine Sacco was orders of magnitude worse than what she did.

This does not demonstrate that there is some rising culture of shame. What happened to Sacco would have happened to some extent, but was made nuclear by a technological, rather than a cultural, innovation.

But when people talk about "callout culture," or a "culture of shame," they're not generally discussing Sacco. They've just rebranded an older idea that there are intolerant people in this world, lefties all, who are too precious to take a joke, too easy to get their feelings hurt, and too quick to band together to make your life miserable for your innocuous and constitutionally protected opinions. Somehow Tumblr tends to get bundled into it, and it's mostly a reaction to another technological innovation -- that the same sort of people whose voices used to be invisible now have a platform.
posted by maxsparber at 9:03 AM on March 31, 2016 [24 favorites]


I've held the view for quite some time now that disagreements about moral values in practice don't really exist, but are really just disguised disagreements about non-moral matters of fact, like "women aren't really people", or "gay marriage looks fine now, but will lead inevitably to infinite suffering", or "white people are now a disadvantaged group", or "children born into extreme poverty have just as much of a chance to succeed as anyone else". Accusing the left of moral relativism was mostly a smokescreen to disguise attempts to preserve for a select few the right to wrap assertions of fact in the language of "values" that are necessary for a functioning society. Having lost this fight, reactionaries are now moping about it.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:04 AM on March 31, 2016 [27 favorites]


Sonny Jim: I'm not sure that "leftist morality" went missing exactly in the 1980s and 1990s. What, after all, was alternative culture, with its attention to ethical eating habits, ethically produced music, small scale, artisanal cultural production, anti-capitalism, and anti-sexism?

It didn't go missing, but I'd suggest that it was pushed off the main stage. See, for example, the takeover of parties of the left by Blair's "New Labour" and Clinton's "Democratic Leadership Council". A huge amount of work was being done, as you correctly point out, but it wasn't much recognized by anyone near the levers of power.
posted by clawsoon at 9:07 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


The author opens with a reference to the War on Terror, so I would have thought that every argument to support the "enhanced interrogation" of detainees was a form of moral relativism; not "live and let live" but "we're entitled to fulfill our revenge fantasies". Nearly every political response to the 9/11 attacks abandoned any kind of objective moral high ground.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:08 AM on March 31, 2016 [7 favorites]


Popular music in 1990s, for example, was marked by a live-and-let-live mindset voiced by musicians such as Kurt Cobain. [...] Having come of age during the shift from moral relativism, they place a higher value on tolerating others’ opinions and avoiding discrimination.

So "a live-and-let-live mindset" is characteristic of moral relativism, but "tolerating others' opinions" is characteristic of our new post-relativist morality? Okay...

I guess it was foolish of me to expect coherent argument from someone who considers David Brooks a "thoughtful conservative."

1. If I'm not mistaken, "moral relativism" doesn't imply wishy-washy live-and-let-live-ism. Quite the contrary—the moral relativist holds that moral norms are real and binding, albeit context-specific. Quod placet principi legis habet vigorem: "my house, my rules."

2. Both conservative culture-warriors and online virtue-mongers strengthen me in my conviction that moral stridency is very funny.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 9:10 AM on March 31, 2016 [6 favorites]


I've always found the whole conservative dismissal of "moral relativism" essentially an attack on nuance and reflection in favor of easily digestible sound bites. It's a communication strategy. Instead of addressing what a "liberal" is saying, they can reply with "I know in my heart of hearts what's right and wrong and this is wrong" and be done with it.

Moral relativism IMO is actually a pretty good placeholder in situations where you are ignorant of context and history, which is the case a lot more than a lot of people want to let on. I know it is for me. It's kind of difficult for me to look at things a group or people I'm unfamiliar with does and make a moral judgement on it.
posted by Hoopo at 9:12 AM on March 31, 2016 [17 favorites]


This does not demonstrate that there is some rising culture of shame. What happened to Sacco would have happened to some extent, but was made nuclear by a technological, rather than a cultural, innovation.

Not to mention enabled by corporate cowardice that views employees as interchangeable and is more than willing to drop them in a heartbeat if they're perceived as any kind of liability. See also: Allison Rapp.

What's happening in situations like this is definitely not as simple as pointing to some kind of "shame culture" and calling it a day.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:12 AM on March 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


I wonder when did the idea the idea that the subject of morality can be collective, and not just an individual moral agent, first become articulated? A lot of the English language moral philosophy that I read seemed to be governed by the latter conception of the subject.

If I'm not mistaken, "moral relativism" doesn't imply wishy-washy live-and-let-live-ism. Quite the contrary—the moral relativist holds that moral norms are real and binding, albeit context-specific.

Part of the difficulty, as usual, is that people take it to mean lots of different things, and they often consider it to be obvious that everyone else sees it the same way.as they do, that their take is natural or even "rational" ...
posted by thelonius at 9:13 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Meanwhile, over at Jacobin (natch), Kate Robinson argues that dissatisfaction with the atomising, liberal-individualistic moral campaigns of contemporary activism can lead to, well ... socialism:
How I Became a Socialist
...
Socialism provides a more consistent and effective way to realize the values I held as a self-identified liberal. It’s moral without being moralistic, arguing that the best way to change people’s behavior is to attack the systems that force them into competition, and that the material self-interest of the working class is a better motivating principle than concepts of sin and redemption.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:15 AM on March 31, 2016 [11 favorites]


It's clear ethics/morality have incorporated more "elements of objective reality", but actually moral realism sounds understated. We're slowly adopting consequentialist or utilitarian positions. Animal rights, veganism, etc. are not moral realism, but outright utilitarianism.

I suspect moral relativism was useful for discarding our frequently evil traditional moralities or the pathological moralities invented by religious extremists. And moral realism was useful for discarding the silliest excesses of relativism, without encouraging anyone to revert to religion. We'll hopefully move towards greater focus actions' actual consequences, including aggregate effects.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:23 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


Miko: “It would seem to me, though, that morality is the subject of a biological-social development process and results from both a material reality (the brain is inclined to parse things in certain ways and have certain preferences, a certain amount of resource competition is built into the world, evolution has exerted its pressures) and social conditioning. So it seems like sort of silly to retreat to any absolutist point on the question of moral development and which moral stance is 'true.' I suppose all you can say is which overly reductive stance is most in fashion to serve ideological ends at a given moment.”

The problem is that it's just not possible to reduce the way we see moral thought down to biological-social development processes and a combination of material reality and social conditioning. There's clearly something more there – in other words, there is a good for human beings, something that is good for us as a species and as a society, and a real moral obligation we have to act in accordance with that good that isn't just some arbitrary biological imperative or social conditioning.

I realize that this makes me that one guy who's arguing against "moral relativism" and in favor of "moral absolutism," but – the trouble is that, as I said above, I just don't think it's possible to live in society without being a moral absolutist. I can convince myself intellectually that moral values are really arbitrary results of resource competition, biological development processes, and social conditioning – but tomorrow morning, when some asshole cuts me off in traffic or some douchebag at work tells a racist joke, I'm going to say, "you're an asshole, what you did was wrong, and you really shouldn't have done it." This is not even resorting to those annoyingly epic examples ("what about Hitler – is he actually morally wrong?") but really just talking about day-to-day life with human beings: we need moral absolutism to live. It's part of life in every culture that's ever existed.

And that's because, I think, moral absolutism isn't as mystical or religio-traditional as the conservative advocates of moral absolutism would have us believe. Moral absolutism is really just an understanding of the good of the many and what each of us owes to it and to other human beings. There's nothing strange or obscure about this: don't be an asshole to other people, don't take what doesn't belong to you, don't harm people, do what you can to help people be happy while preserving your own happiness, etc. I really am convinced that most of the confusion about "moral absolutism" and "moral relativism" stems from our modern way of confusing everything with poor terminologies that don't really fit what we're talking about, and our fetishistic urge to invent dialects for talking about subjects that are better served by plain speaking. Give what you owe to others, treat them right. There's nothing weird about this.
posted by koeselitz at 9:24 AM on March 31, 2016 [13 favorites]




koeselitz: ...plain speaking. Give what you owe to others, treat them right. There's nothing weird about this.

Such plain speaking is only plain in a moral context that's already well established. You & I might (maybe) agree what it means to "treat them right". Others may disagree violently.

Moral relativism recognises that context-dependence. Within the context of our practices around driving, there's really nothing stopping the relativist from calling out that asshole who cut you up in traffic. If you go and drive in another country, you may find that it's just normal behaviour.
posted by rd45 at 9:36 AM on March 31, 2016 [7 favorites]


rd45: “Moral relativism recognises that context-dependence. Within the context of our practices around driving, there's really nothing stopping the relativist from calling out that asshole who cut you up in traffic. If you go and drive in another country, you may find that it's just normal behaviour.”

Well, that depends on what your definition of "moral relativism" is. If by "moral relativism" you just mean "a consideration of relative contexts in assessing morality," then sure. But there's clearly no difference between that and moral absolutism – or at least any moral absolutism that's coherent at all. No sane moral absolutist would suggest that it's really and truly always wrong to cut someone off in traffic – even if you're driving an ambulance headed to an accident, for example. (Of course, there are a lot of moral absolutists who aren't sane.)

When I talk about "moral relativism," though, I mean the suggestion that all moral considerations are relative and have no absolute basis whatsoever. It isn't the idea that cutting someone off in traffic is less wrong or more wrong in certain circumstances; it's the idea that cutting people off in traffic isn't really "wrong" in any circumstance, because "wrong" is just a word we say when we mean "that's not how I was raised."
posted by koeselitz at 9:43 AM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


The funny thing about conservatives is that, though they decry moral relativism, they couldn't have shifted the Overton Window without it. But what's worse, an 'amoral' society, or to try and force a 'moral' opinion on the majority of a society that hold an 'amoral' opinion? You've set up a choice: democracy or morality?
posted by eclectist at 9:54 AM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


But does that moral absolutism apply freely across cultural, ethnic, and geographical boundaries, koeselitz?
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:54 AM on March 31, 2016


I'm interested in your argument referencing an ultimate and identifiable good, koeselitz, but I'm not convinced by the traffic analogy. It is much too easy to see the good for the asshole in that incident. Is there some other example that might illustrate something that is both an unequivocal human good regardless of culture and is the subject of moral debate?
posted by Miko at 9:55 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


In practice, I've long thought that conservatives were the first to embrace moral relativism (in the popular definition, not in more academic definitions) in the form of Fox News and the like: there is no single truth in news. There's ours (which we believe to be objectively true) and everything else is liberal propaganda.
posted by tippiedog at 9:56 AM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have found the most heinous sufferings considered tolerable by people who I've had the misfortune of bothering to hear arguments in favor of moral relativism. Whatever it's supposed to be, that it is a ultimately most favored by people who want to care less about the sufferings of their fellow humans has been my personal experience. If those who have a deep love of humans and other living beings find moral relativism is an asset in serving that purpose I might hear their arguments, but too often moral relativist proponents I have heard are willing to say "Well the idea that suffering is bad is relative" essentially we reach a point were there is a devotion to permitting harm and to shaming those who want to rise against it that I am simply done with. Moral relativism when it's used to make those who seek justice and stand against suffering feel intellectually inferior and ungrounded in a relevant position is a tool of great harm and can be put in the trash so far as I'm concerned.
posted by xarnop at 9:57 AM on March 31, 2016


I will add to clarify, I agree whole heartedly with koeslitz that there is huge difference in meaning when people invoke the term ranging from ""a consideration of relative contexts in assessing morality," to essentially seeing horrible crimes against humanity as perfectly acceptable.
posted by xarnop at 10:01 AM on March 31, 2016


I have found the most heinous sufferings considered tolerable by people who I've had the misfortune of bothering to hear arguments in favor of moral relativism.

The bad news is that many of the people actually committing the acts causing heinous suffering are moral absolutists who believe they are right above all else.
posted by Hoopo at 10:03 AM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


I bought Russel Kirks' Enemies of the Permanent Things at a book sale a few years ago because I loved the title. I think it does a good job outlining the case for an outlook which takes the fundamental qualities of human nature into account. Where it stumbles is in what Kirk (and Conservatives more generally) consider to be the Permanent Things.

More and more things which were considered permanent have been shown to change. Some things change more slowly than human perception can detect, requiring scientific investigation to observe. Others change with breathtaking speed after appearing timeless.

I believe that we are in a period of sorting out what must change, what should not change, what may change, and what cannot be changed. As always, the pace is much more rapid than conservatives can tolerate and much slower than the left demands.
posted by ethansr at 10:04 AM on March 31, 2016


The "shame culture" has been around a long time, David. It's just that people like you used to never be subjected to it, so you're only now noticing. But if you were the "wrong" color/gender/sexual orientation/pregnant while not married ETC., you sure as hell knew about "shame culture."

Your post is itself a pretty damning indictment of shame culture.
posted by echocollate at 10:05 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sonny Jim: “But does that moral absolutism apply freely across cultural, ethnic, and geographical boundaries, koeselitz?”

Well, yeah. In the sense that all humans wonder what is good for them, and try to figure out how they should act in accord with that good.

Miko: “I'm interested in your argument referencing an ultimate and identifiable good, koeselitz, but I'm not convinced by the traffic analogy. It is much too easy to see the good for the asshole in that incident. Is there some other example that might illustrate something that is both an unequivocal human good regardless of culture and is the subject of moral debate?”

I didn't really pursue it, but the other example I gave – the guy who tells a racist joke – is probably one. Racism in general. And sexism. We have beliefs about whether these things are right or wrong, and as far as I can tell those beliefs really are earnest and sincere; we believe that it's really wrong to treat someone poorly because of their gender or gender status or race, and as far as I can tell that belief is based on a cogent assessment of what is good for society. I can't believe I'd ever come to the conclusion that racist and sexist prejudice is actually inherently value-free, and that my impression that it's wrong is really just a result of my own conditioning.
posted by koeselitz at 10:09 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's clearly something more there – in other words, there is a good for human beings, something that is good for us as a species and as a society, and a real moral obligation we have to act in accordance with that good that isn't just some arbitrary biological imperative or social conditioning.

This is almost verbatim Alasdair MacIntyre's thesis in Beyond Virtue. I find a lot of the prescriptive jabs of that book a little hand wavy, but it presents the most comprehensive, well-reasoned takedown of modern emotivist ethics I've ever read.
posted by echocollate at 10:13 AM on March 31, 2016


Is "shame culture" the same as "shame society", or something different? Like, are we basically talking about just twitter and tumblr or whatever here, or something bigger?
posted by Hoopo at 10:17 AM on March 31, 2016


I'd also add that I've met precious few moral absolutists. Most people, regardless of their political persuasion, who profess a moral absolutism do so from a position of personal convenience. It's a posture, not a lived ethos.
posted by echocollate at 10:22 AM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


In the sense that all humans wonder what is good for them, and try to figure out how they should act in accord with that good.

this thread is giving me flashbacks to some intense discussions from a few decades back when the word choice "politically correct" first got used to justify some decision taking.

It confused me.

I didn't know what it was supposed to mean beyond what it appeared to mean which was, based on certain agreed upon political principles, this is the right way to go. The confusion being that I wasn't aware that the particular group I'm thinking about had agreed on its political principles. In fact, we argued about that shit all the time. But now suddenly, there was apparently agreed upon correctness.

How is this any different from trying to impose morality, I wondered? Which got me thinking a lot about morality. How I clearly had my own moral guidelines, directives, principles (whatever you want to call them), which I maybe couldn't articulate in a few words, but they tended to come into focus when situations demanded it -- and thus I would decide/act accordingly. But I never assumed that anybody else, even a close friend, would share my exact guidelines-directives-principles-whatever. Life-the-universe-everything just isn't that tidy.

So I finally just decided that morals weren't relative, but they were personal. That is, we all had them but they came from inside, and whether we're all different inside, or stuff just gets distorted when it moves from inside to outside, our morals were really only useful for driving/informing our unique individual decisions/positions. Which left politics (which come from outside) that place where we figured out how to reconcile all this divergent individual stuff.

In other words, the discussion (sometimes heated) continues. As it should ... until the stars fall from the skies.
posted by philip-random at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


Say what you will about the tenets
posted by maxsparber at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2016 [8 favorites]


I certainly hope that a strong moral context never leaves our great nation, as I will always need something to rebel against. If the battle lines lie between the Paul Krassners and the Mary Whitehouses of the world, I will always stand with my fellow zen bastards.

I'm reminded of a conversation recently in, of all things, a webgame chat channel turning to discussion of religion as all chat channels eventually do. Someone was trying to pin me down on issues of morality and how All Morality Obviously Comes Directly From God and got increasingly frustrated when I refused to cite a specific authority from which my morality was derived.

"But what keeps you from going out and murdering orphans?" "I don't have that kind of spare time."
"..." "Common sense. The Golden Rule. The social contract. Wanting to do as I wish if no one else is harmed. Assuming others and things have inherent value."
"But who assigned that value?" "I did."
"But who told you what was valuable?" "I did. What do you think is valuable?"
"But who told you what is GOOD and what isn't?" "My eyes? My experiences? My upbringing? My intelligence? What else do I need?"

...and so we went back and forth until he called me something rude and conversation drifted back to DPS and owl-humping.

Conservatives howling about moral relativism is nothing new and not going away any time soon; it is an outraged shout that Our Morality Is The Only One That Matters. Might be "Legislate Our Morals So That Everyone Must Obey Them" (prohibit abortions for all because God Doesn't Like That), might be "God's Law Trumps Man's Law" (we want exemptions from Obamacare because Jesus, we don't want to fill out marriage licenses or bake wedding cakes for gays because Jesus), might be more mundane than godly (All Government Is Bad, All Taxes Are Bad, All Spending Not On Weapons Systems Is Bad, so sayeth Our Lord Fox News). But it's all bits of the same formula -- incredulity when they hear that anyone other than them could be right or be in charge.
posted by delfin at 10:45 AM on March 31, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'd also add that I've met precious few moral absolutists. Most people, regardless of their political persuasion, who profess a moral absolutism do so from a position of personal convenience. It's a posture, not a lived ethos.

Now I'm thinking about what moral absolutism actually is. A lot of people seem to assume that a morally absolute position must be simple or able to be expressed in simple terms. Maybe a lot of what appears to be moral relativism is really moral absolutism, but a form of moral absolutism that contains a vast multitude of clauses, sub-clauses and exceptions. It's universally applicable and internally consistent, but it's very, very complicated.

Moral absolutism isn't always the Ten Commandments. Sometimes it's the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player's Handbook.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:00 AM on March 31, 2016 [12 favorites]


Now I'm thinking about what moral absolutism actually is. A lot of people seem to assume that a morally absolute position must be simple or able to be expressed in simple terms. Maybe a lot of what appears to be moral relativism is really moral absolutism, but a form of moral absolutism that contains a vast multitude of clauses, sub-clauses and exceptions. It's universally applicable and internally consistent, but it's very, very complicated.

I was referring more to how people can hold absolutist views on a particular subject, but when the question is posed to them Why is this good/bad?, in order to extract a general principle from a specific instance, most people are unwilling or incapable of extending that principle to others in different contexts, particularly if it disadvantages them personally.
posted by echocollate at 11:18 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


most people are unwilling or incapable of extending that principle to others in different contexts, particularly if it disadvantages them personally.

The absolute principle is still there. It's just deeper.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:25 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


It seems to me that the arguments fall on either side of the perception of "what it is," and "what it means."

Normative relativists may agree with descriptive relativists that [this] is a lion, but then they each must decide whether the lion was sent [by God] or [by chance] to provide them with [a meal and a coat] or [the opportunity to offer themselves up as a few snacks for the lion's family]. You may manipulate the decision tree to come up with, surprisingly, a few versions of reality shared by both groups. Issues may chafe some members later on, when the king dies and the new king wants to pet the cat instead of having his troops skin it and hang it over the cooking fire.

Shame, guilt, or the edge of the sword exemplify a few means by which a moral system can be imposed. Even so, a moral base ought to have some sort of logical cohesion. A sense of order prevails when everybody agrees that obeying the rules is either more rewarding or less painful than resisting them. Outsiders enjoy a perspective that lets them jeer or cheer, or pat the cargo cultists on the head while they introduce them to Jesus.

Reasonable thinkers insist that any system of morality ought to be cohesive. Other reasonable thinkers realize that people don't really give a shit about cohesion if their itches are getting scratched. That's how the normative thinkers are able to believe either that some things are written in stone by some secular guru, or that God, though loving all his children, has chosen them to be ushers at the gates of Eden--non-believers will go elsewhere, which is the metaphor for the way "others" are ignored here on Earth. Scientific relativism meets the Cosmic Muffin.
posted by mule98J at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


To me, "moral relativism BAD" is the cry of a declining hegemony.
posted by rhizome at 12:09 PM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have observed a pseudo moral relativism where people say, "There's no right or wrong". They react in this coercive way when I ask or present a viewpoint that is too leftist for them to digest. I've personally had liberals, conservatives, relatives, Asians, Asian Americans, Whites, strangers, white-collar professionals, bureaucrats, the young, and the old resort, and online, AskMe advice givers resort to this. To the extent that I've caught myself starting to use it, as a clumsy
way to be diplomatic.

That's not moral relativism; it only sounds like it when said in a "concerned" tone--and people are good at conveying the rhetoric that way. What's actually going on is expressing and then coercing upon our exchange an attitude of blatant amoralism, and/or ethical hypocrisy.

I can recognise my own privilege in identifying and framing the social phenomenon this way. But I'd prefer it if people took responsibility for not attempting that sort of bullshit.
posted by polymodus at 12:55 PM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's nihilism, or checking out from the system, which is a luxury.
posted by rhizome at 1:08 PM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've known moral relativists. Although, truth be told, I could never quite tell if they actually believed what they were saying or if they were just trying to troll me. To a one, they always came off like the guy playing devil's advocate in a college bull session. It's like, good for you, you know how to argue. Doesn't mean your viewpoint has any merit in the real world.
posted by panama joe at 1:14 PM on March 31, 2016


I was thinking about this recently, and i feel that in my lifetime (disclaimer first) we've moved from relativism back to consensus.
(in the old days, teachers went to college, trained, got taught by some old relic and some new textbooks, then went out and taught with no more training or information, so you got taught ideas that were up to half a century out of date quite normally, especially in the sort of places and schools elderly teachers went for as pupils got ruder and more violent (another, separate change) - rural, girls' and private schools. I went to a private rural girls' school...nearly all my teachers were over 60 and bent on trying to correct all the problems caused by the 1960s. In the 1980s. One thing young people don't realise is that the fast spread of information now means everyone knows immediately, and if they don't, everyone around them does so they soon hear it from them. Plus now we have compulsory 'continuing professional development' for teachers, nurses etc)
So the consensus then was that Behaviourism (retired in the intellectual centre in the 1950s) was factual, religion being challenged, and relativism a new trend. At some point, we developed a new, strict moral consensus, in Britain around paedophilia and in America more around rights groups (anti-racism, anti-sexism etc). There's a lot of proactive criticism and telling people off for violating your sensitivity. As if the tide has turned the other way. (That saying is repeated so often by the old, that the sensation is clearly one of age: once, you were more radical than society, then it agreed with you, then it overtook you.) So it seems to me, that whereas you couldn't speak up easily against the consensus once, now you must watch your words a lot for other people's taking offence, whereas in the past, it was assumed that in life, you would get offended and the thing you needed to fight for was the right to argue back, not the right to shut people up.

The idea i had, which i've lost in this waffle, was: once, there was a moral norm. Then it was completely questioned by the various minority groups whom it oppressed. Then their accepted grievances became the new moral norm. But the important change isn't this - a new morality is normal - but that originally, the norms were between god and individuals (you sinned, god saved you), and crimes were individual, but now the moral contract is between various representative groups of minorities or their representatives. So those who go 'i'm a rich white male, i have no voice' are slightly right in this: they have no representative voice in the negotiation of new moral norms. They may be the starting norm, but they don't get to yell, which on an individual basis is bound to make a person feel a bit jealous. Something about this group-collective model replacing a personal-god one is changed.

Definitely there is a lot more censorship and less freedom of speech now, just as there is less violence and stuff. The room within which you are free to manoeuvre is smaller, your neighbours occupy more of what was your personal space, in the moral sphere. Overall, it's better, but all change must include better and worse because they're subjective.
posted by maiamaia at 1:40 PM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I could never quite tell if they actually believed what they were saying or if they were just trying to troll me. To a one, they always came off like the guy playing devil's advocate in a college bull session. It's like, good for you, you know how to argue. Doesn't mean your viewpoint has any merit in the real world.

Apropos—happy 420th birthday, René Descartes!
posted by DaDaDaDave at 1:45 PM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


They react in this coercive way

coercive? What do you think MeFites are going to do to you, exactly?

I could never quite tell if they actually believed what they were saying or if they were just trying to troll me


I've found this a lot in my very brief study of morality and ethics in university (only one "intro" undergrad course many years ago), and not just confined to relativism. Most of the extreme forms in a given ... uhh...school? is that the term I'm looking for? came off to me like half-serious trolling. The worst for me was Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics", because while he makes what to me was a pretty convincing case for utilitarian ethics in practice, some of the conclusions he draws make you wonder "are you for real serious right now? Because no." If it comes down to it, in a lot of instances I think I'm OK with certain unethical behaviours, at least for certain values of "ethical"
posted by Hoopo at 1:53 PM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


I like to think about moral realism in this way: Basically there does exist a right answer and a wrong answer, but we will never know it. So similar to understanding physics or other characteristics of the universe, morality is something we are continually uncovering and refining. Unfortunately we don't have objective experiments we can use but have to rely on reasoning and intuition. So it seems like a lot of casting about in the dark.

The alternative (moral relativism) that there does not actually exist a right and wrong answer is difficult for me to come to grips with as a human. It basically means that the only thing holding it all together is some set of social mores. I don't have a lot of patience with social mores.

One advantage of this philosophy is that it allows healthy skepticism of anyone who claims some sort of special moral knowledge.
posted by spaceviking at 2:07 PM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


1. This is barely an article.

2. AFAICT moral relativism as conceived here was always more of a conservative bugbear to mobilize against the academy than a prevalent social phenomenon.

3. It is perfectly possible to simultaneously reject an ontological notion of some inherently true universal morality, while accepting that humans seem to keep trying for one. Moral relativism shows up all over the place in various forms and cultures throughout history, from the Jains to Nietzsche, and it just never seems to stick in the face of what seems to be a pretty pervasive impulse to moralize.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:14 PM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


So similar to understanding physics... allows healthy skepticism of anyone who claims some sort of special moral knowledge.

Aren't there people who claim special knowledge of physics? If so, why wouldn't there be people who have special knowledge of morals?
posted by No Robots at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


Moral Relativism: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by echocollate at 2:40 PM on March 31, 2016


Guys, I'm still thinking about the trolley switch, can you just give me a bit more time?

The problem with an absolute morality is that is only exists as informed by the past (if it exists at all). Things we believed and acted on throughout our history were done with the idea of "improving" things, but in retrospect were obviously terrible decisions which made things worse.

I guess you could argue there is only "one right way" and those past bad decisions were simply because we don't know The Answer yet. I'd argue if that's true, it's a much more harmful belief than to be simply be generous, considerate and careful. Enshrining absolutes has a long history of being about the most harmful thing a human can glom onto.

If there is an absolute morality, and humans are overall inclined to be good in relation to it, it must be the weakest natural force in the universe.
posted by maxwelton at 3:01 PM on March 31, 2016


Since when was Kurt Cobain reflective of a "live-and-let-live" attitude? His 1990s work is filled with anger expressed at parents who fail to uphold their responsibility. Think of "Serve the Servants" ("I tried hard to have a father. Instead I had a Dad.") or "Sliver" ("Grandma take me home!").

See also his comics: Mr. Moustache
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 3:51 PM on March 31, 2016


It's sort of crazy when this comes up to see both sides feeling like the other side is obviously mad, lying and / or comprised entirely of monsters. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it "absolutism" and "relativism" are both umbrella terms which cover a very broad range of strictness. I suspect basically everyone would agree with the weakest form of both in the context of humans operating with other humans, and it's the idea that believing one necessarily precludes believing the other that makes the division seem insane.
posted by lucidium at 3:58 PM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


delfin: I'm reminded of a conversation recently in, of all things, a webgame chat channel turning to discussion of religion as all chat channels eventually do. Someone was trying to pin me down on issues of morality and how All Morality Obviously Comes Directly From God and got increasingly frustrated when I refused to cite a specific authority from which my morality was derived.

It'd be interesting to ask them what they'd do if their God told them to kill a bunch of innocent people. Would they do it, or would they demur based on their individual moral feelings?
posted by clawsoon at 4:06 PM on March 31, 2016


The author opens with a reference to the War on Terror, so I would have thought that every argument to support the "enhanced interrogation" of detainees was a form of moral relativism; not "live and let live" but "we're entitled to fulfill our revenge fantasies". Nearly every political response to the 9/11 attacks abandoned any kind of objective moral high ground.

Most of what we saw post-9/11 was antinomianism- that what we did was right not because it could be morally justified but because we, the just and the good, were the ones doing it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:50 PM on March 31, 2016 [8 favorites]


Racism in general. And sexism. We have beliefs about whether these things are right or wrong

We do, but they aren't the same beliefs. Regrettably, I have known a few people who strongly believe there is a real racial hierarchy and that racist systems are just honest reflections of inherent capacities. To be abundantly clear, I totally reject this, but I don't have to leave my own family to find a person who does not think racism is wrong.

I can't believe I'd ever come to the conclusion that racist and sexist prejudice is actually inherently value-free, and that my impression that it's wrong is really just a result of my own conditioning.

But I think it really is. As a public historian, I run across this questions most often w/r/t/ interpretations of slavery. Most people today, most well-intentioned people, really like to hear stories of the people today we consider heroes - abolitionists, white underground railroad volunteers, people who boycotted slave products. These are the people most site visitors identify with today, because these are the people whom we morally understand. But for most of the period of American slavery, most free white people did not consider the freeing of enslaved people to be morally right. Anti-slavery activists regularly faced ridicule, mobs, riots, and exclusion from society. The majority was not in support of their cause. The overwhelming statistical likelihood is that if I had lived in the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century as a white middle-class woman, I would probably not have been an abolitionist, or if I had been I'd much more likely have been a mildly sympathetic supporter who didn't actually do much of anything and still held a tremendous number of racist beliefs about black people, even if I thought they should be free. Most free white people would have, for most of the slavery period. Of course, over time it did become more and more agreed by more and more people that slavery was a moral evil and socially damaging. But it actually took the slow, incremental development of moral models and alternatives and arguments for many people who directly benefited from slavery to be gradually persuaded its moral cost was too great.
posted by Miko at 5:31 PM on March 31, 2016 [9 favorites]


"But it actually took the slow, incremental development of moral models and alternatives and arguments for many people who directly benefited from slavery to be gradually persuaded its moral cost was too great."

But it still doesn't seem like you're advocating that none of it mattered then and none matters now, people just have constructs they think mean things but don't actually.

Like essentially, if morality is the science pertaining to caring for the experiences of sensing beings, alleviating suffering, prolonging life, really something that ALL LIFE participates on the level of the self and often the species, and often in complex interspecies relationships, then the question is not whether it ever was or will be possible to do the most good for all the beings involved but what is possible and what intellectual capacity and empathic skills to sense the feeling nature of other beings, and skills they have to actually act on that knowledge for the good of others. Morality has always involved the art of doing the most good for the beings involved given complex algorithms of millions of variables involved. The variables change, the goal doesn't, it's more or less possible to carry it out at various times and places.

I really really don't understand the value of pointing out there's not REALLY anything wrong with rape or slavery, that's just some random value that humans made up and it's not better or worse to live in a world full of rape or child death or abuse. Yes that people are limited of intellectual capacity to feel the welfare of other beings due to biological, developmental, and cultural variables exists, but that doesn't make it more ok; just more likely that people will do harmful things and not see or care about it.

I mean, I know a lot of people don't think love is real and it's just a biological sensation designed to boost survival, but I am not convinced this is an absolute truth that's been proven as fact at all. It gives a lot of people a lot of comfort about how disconnected and uncaring that I know though (and in my own experience the men who spend the most time pointing this out are also trying to tell me why rape isn't really bad, age of consent laws are oppressive when there's nothing really wrong with it). I do genuinely wonder how for those who are moral relativists that oppose rape, on what grounds to argue they are wrong against those who do them? Or is it a "live and let rape because it's all relative?" I have actually known people who promote this so when I hear the term "moral relativity" I get ready to deal with a sociopath personally though I know there are non-sociopaths who share the value. Or... lack of value?

How do we argue with people like that when they actually hold positions of power in our lives, our families, and peer groups if we agree that "it's all relative" and human welfare doesn't really matter?
posted by xarnop at 7:08 PM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


xarnop: I have actually known people who promote this so when I hear the term "moral relativity" I get ready to deal with a sociopath personally though I know there are non-sociopaths who share the value. Or... lack of value?

Some of it, sometimes - sometimes! - is humility. I like to think that I'm a morally upstanding person, but as Miko points out, it's overwhelming likely that both me and Miko and you would have all believed some pretty horrid things if we had been born in a different time and place. Most of us - almost all of us - are not inherent paragons of virtue, so we shouldn't be too proud of how much we're inherently morally better than individuals of previous generations.

And it's also a reminder that we shouldn't be too proud of our moral superiority given what future yet-more-enlightened generations will realize about us. Most of us will be rightly damned for moral failings that will never occur to us, or that will occur to us but that we'll find ways to minimize and justify. A simple example: Are you paying taxes in the US? Then you've helped kill some kids in Yemen. Most of us find ways to block thinking about that, or weakly justify it in light of our own self-interest, but we'll be rightly condemned for it in the future. And I've little doubt that there are many harms I'm causing that I've never thought of and never will, but which I'll be rightly condemned for by moralists of the future.
posted by clawsoon at 7:31 PM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I used a really bad pull quote for my reply, xarnop, and I'm not disagreeing with you. This is 100% true, IMO: "Yes that people are limited of intellectual capacity to feel the welfare of other beings due to biological, developmental, and cultural variables exists, but that doesn't make it more ok; just more likely that people will do harmful things and not see or care about it." I'm trying to awkwardly amplify that point, not disagree with it, in case that wasn't clear.
posted by clawsoon at 7:40 PM on March 31, 2016


Perhaps we need a new term: Moral ratchetivism.

I'm not a moral absolutist, because I don't believe that anyone has figured out an ultimate set of moral rules. Whatever system you've got, I'm not going to buy that it's the end point of our moral striving.

But I'm not a moral relativist, because I do believe that some moral systems are better than others.

What I am is a moral ratchetivist, because I believe that we should aim to make moral systems better over time. We should add better moral ideas to our moral systems as we discover them, and throw away worse moral ideas as we discover what's wrong with them.

We should be continuously ratcheting up our morals, both in personal behaviour and in the systems we design for ourselves to live in.
posted by clawsoon at 7:50 PM on March 31, 2016


Some of it, sometimes - sometimes! - is humility. I like to think that I'm a morally upstanding person, but as Miko points out, it's overwhelming likely that both me and Miko and you would have all believed some pretty horrid things if we had been born in a different time and place. Most of us - almost all of us - are not inherent paragons of virtue, so we shouldn't be too proud of how much we're inherently morally better than individuals of previous generations.

Surely there's a difference between thinking something is right or wrong and thinking of yourself as good for believing that. And sympathy is not the same thing as moral judgment. Surely most people have the capacity to understand why someone might hold destructive or morally wrong ideas while simultaneously thinking that the actions that result from it are bad.
posted by kewb at 4:21 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


But it still doesn't seem like you're advocating that none of it mattered then and none matters now

I don't think that "moral relativism" equates to "none of it matters." I think morality does matter, but it matters within the context of a society.

Morality has always involved the art of doing the most good for the beings involved given complex algorithms of millions of variables involved

That's really a definition of a utilitarian morality, not of all moral systems. Utilitarianism is different from absolutism - in an absolutist morality, outcomes matter less than strictures. So, for an absolutist, it's moral to do what's usually the right thing, even if the right thing ends up inadvertently harming someone. For a utilitarian, it's ok to bend the absolutist's moral 'rules' in order to produce the best possible outcomes.
posted by Miko at 9:37 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


To Clawsoon's point about time, I suspect that once society perfects lab-generated meat, most will look back in utter horror at our era for eating animals. They will also (rightly) blame us for allowing environmental degradation and sea level rise without doing much about it and continuing to fire up our powered devices every day.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think everyone needs to go read Ada Palmer's incredible blog series on Machiavelli, or at least the one about The Three Theories of Ethics, and then come back to this thread.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:52 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the article doesn't set up the makings of a very good thread, and we don't really have enough people here knowledgeable about moral/ethical frameworks to make a ton of progress. I think I will wait for the next opportunity, as trying to respond to the muddle in the piece is a muddle in itself.
posted by Miko at 10:48 AM on April 1, 2016


It did give a chance for some of us stupid people (meaning me) to work out a couple of thoughts, so there's that. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 12:08 PM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the blog suggestion, tobascodagama. My initial reaction to the "three theories of ethics" is that I can't favour one over the other.

Utilitarianism would be great if utility could be calculated in all situations, if the world weren't full of unknown unknowns and butterfly effects and incommensurate experiences and the occasional utility monster. (Warning: Pun.)

Virtue Ethics and deontology (Follow The Rules†) both strike me as time-tested rules of thumb which give mostly good utilitarian outcomes most of the time. If in doubt, go with voluntarism, the combination of virtue and deontology.

However, sometimes utilitarian measurements will be possible and will show that The Rules are giving horrible outcomes and/or good intentions are paving a road to hell; in that case, go with utilitarianism. (And use your moral ratchet to make The Rules better, if you can.)

So what does all that make me? Some sort of ethical mongrel?

† The Rules are usually a mix of How To Be Good and How To Keep Current Elites In Power. Keeping current elites in power has its own utilitarian calculus, in the balance between the evils of oppression and the evils of civil war. But that's another discussion altogether.
posted by clawsoon at 7:04 PM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


It makes you a human of the 21st century, rather than 500 years ago when this post would have been the state of the art.
posted by rhizome at 7:18 PM on April 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


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