Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Moral Relativism And Moral Absolutism

This is a philosophical topic that I have been meaning to tackle here for awhile. Some of these terms have been badly butchered by those with agendas, or those that lack understanding of what these terms mean in theory and in practice. First, what moral relativism does not mean: It does not mean that you do whatever you feel like doing. That is by definition amorality, or lack of any morals. It is also not hedonism. That is doing whatever is most pleasurable.

Moral relativism is the idea that ethics are a social construct. Only the purest form of moral relativism believes that "right" is whatever the society believes. It never works that way in practice. There are always a certain number of "non-negotiable" baselines in practice. Killing and stealing are a good example of these. Of course, even right there at what would seem to be the most basic level, you will have problems getting agreement. Some will say that abortion is killing. Others will say that illegal immigrants that use health services are stealing in some way. Put all that aside though for now and think about it in terms of areas where everyone can agree. A moral relativist in practice will have certain areas where they could be considered a moral absolutist, but not as many as a moral absolutist.

Moral absolutism is the idea that morals are inherently and inarguably right or wrong. They are seen as having a fundamental source. This source for most of the strongest absolutists is religion, but can certainly be other things that guide behavior. It is the opposite of moral relativism, and so this is why sometimes conservatives will call liberals moral relativists as a derogatory term. Like relativism, absolutism also has extremes, but most people are a combination of both.

Then you have value pluralism, which is sort of an in-between, which I would say that many people are some shade of. This means that differences in morals are accepted, but only to a point. Sometimes they can be seen as wrong, but not wrong enough that those practicing it feel that they must stop it, but sometimes they do. (This can be the case with the other two as well.)

This essentially divides people into a few camps on every issue, and as with the liberalism/conservatism post I did a couple weeks back, you have to do it on a per-issue basis. Almost nobody is purely one or the other for every issue. You must decide what code of ethics you have, drawn from what source if any, and how flexible you are to allowing the actions of others that believe differently.

This is very much a defining point of who we are, so we would all do well to examine it within ourselves.


Mike Malpas ("Captain Malpas") said...


I love how wise you are. You seem to just be able to put things in such a perfect perspective. I agree with you so much... Speaking as someone who probably at one time would have been a moral absolutist (or would have been considered as much) i definitely agree that too often we cannont distinguish between these two.

I must speak that from my experience, I have come to not particularly care for the moral absolutists. Who are we to judge what is and what isn't exactly right? Who are we to define whether or not what someone else does is wrong. Yes I have a moral standard for myself, but that doesn't mean I'm going to condemn someone else for their moral code. If they are ok with it, even if I may not agree, I'm not going to shun, or judge them for it. I've come to a place in my life where I've decided to be more accepting and that my life will be more fulfilled, and will be much happier if I, if we can come to a place where we can be accepting of each other.

I believe that you (Erik) are a very reasonable and accepting person, and I appreciate that back when we met, when I was a hard-headed little prick, that you were willing to still be there to talk to and that you didn't judge me just because we didn't agree about certain things. It's amazing how life changes people isn't it?

Imagine if people could get off their little pedastals and accept others. I know that for myself, whether or not anyone else is with me, I am never again going to judge someone for what they do, for the decisions they make. I have had enough judgement made upon me for the decisions I've made in these last few months, and I will not do that to someone else. Is it ok to disagree with someone elses morals? sure. Is it ok to debate it? of course, as long as you agree that it is simple a chance to throw opinions out and help each other think about what they truly believe.

Good post Erik,

~"Captain Malpas"

nicnerd said...

I am not sure that I can fit into a classification because I am firm in my beliefs, unwavering on most of them. However, I would not really thrust my views on others, they are mine. I need to live with my choices, as other have to live with theirs.

Erik Grow said...

None of these have anything to do with being unwavering. It has to do with how you judge the beliefs of others and what actions you are willing to take to see to it that others live as you would.

You would force others to live by your rules on a number of different issues that you have mentioned!

nicnerd said...

I respect the views of others, they are wrong, but I respect them all the same.


Sarah said...

That is a really tough decision to make, in regards to which school of thought and opinion you fall into. Personally, I think it is fine for people to fall in the middle - wheter it is between relativism or absolutism or political leanings.

I like your blog - it is really thought provoking.

Two Dogs said...

Moral relativism sings "The times they are a-changing". I disagree totally with your take on the three? sides of this. Erik, there are moral constructs to which one side of this argument adheres. The other side comes up with thought provoking ideas like "who can tell if this is right or wrong".

I am here as a resource for people that are too stupid to judge the difference between good and evil. If you have any questions about why this post is absolutely asinine, just ask and I shall begin "Morality: The Two Dogs Way" class.

Oh, and I am not saying that it's not thought provoking, but I guess that is how I was in my twenties, too. Only problem is that y'all can vote.

soundboyz said...

Two Dogs, somehow I think there is one other category that you fit into just nicely!!

Erik Grow said...

Thank you Sarah! Glad to have you aboard. Yes, most people will fall somewhere into the middle, but when given a certain issue, people can and will switch tendencies. It's interesting to see, and certainly very normal.

Two Dogs, I'm actually 31, but anyway, you are making the same mistake that I was talking about when discussing moral relativism. In actual *practice* it is not extreme in terms of not making any judgements. I *do* believe my values are correct, and I believe many of your values are incorrect, but because our values are from two incompatible sources, what are we supposed to do about it? Neither of us is going to just let the other dictate, so we fight through the political process. There are many issues where I am much more of an absolutist on when it comes to human rights and the morality of human behavior. The big difference is where I get my values from and why. That is what sets us apart more than the concepts in this post.

Two Dogs said...

I find it hard to understand when someone does make it through the twenties and still has ideas like you do, then I remembered you have a grad degree. Another couple of years and you'll probably grow (no pun intended) out of this stuff.

Erik Grow said...

I think you say this because I have not articulated where *my own* set of values actually fall in this particular debate, and I think those assumptions are leading you astray. I will write more on that soon.

More education leads to stupidity? I find that a bit counter-intuitive, but I've heard it before, mostly from conservatives. Unless you go to a particularly reactionary school, or you do nothing but study for a few years, I find it hard to believe. Neither college I went to for my degrees is at all known for being liberal. My wife's college she went to for undergrad on the other hand, Oberlin, is a different story. They were very left there.

Two Dogs said...

Erik, I am most definitely making assumptions from how you lead the debate. If you are pulling my leg, I am falling for it.

No, I am not saying more education leads to stupidity, quite the contrary. My point is that as long as you are in college, you are not living in the real world, for the most part.

I attended Mississippi State University and you would think that a college that was primarily engineering and agriculture would tend toward conservative. Erik, they just don't exist anymore, outside of Bob Jones. My Passive Building Systems class was nothing more than a treatise on global warming and saving the whales. There are not a whole lot of whales around these parts.

I am not at all attacking you personally, Erik and please don't take offense. It seems that your heart is in the right place, the direction just appears to be misguided.

Even I think that people should make more money, but they should earn it. If you work at McDonalds, you can be making 50k a year after four years even if you started as a fry cook. I have seen it happen and the person that achieved that, never received an employee of the month award.

Rid yourself of Keynes and embrace Mises.