Sunday, February 20, 2011
Moral Relativism: An Invitation to Chaos
Is morality solely the result of cultural influences? According to CUNY philosopher and moral relativist Jesse Prinz, it is just that! We are socially conditioned to experience certain emotions and that’s it:
• An argument for relativism must also show that there is no basis for morality beyond the emotions with which we have been conditioned.
Prinz therefore argues against objective morality (moral absolutes) based upon a divine morality-Giver. In other words, genocide and torturing babies isn’t absolutely wrong! He presents several arguments:
• Morals vary dramatically…If morality were objective, shouldn’t we see greater consensus?
• The problem with divine commands as a cure for relativism is that there is no consensus among believers about what God or the gods want us to do. Even when there are holy scriptures containing lists of divine commands, there are disagreements about interpretation…No defense of objectivism [moral absolutes] has swayed doubter.
• With morals, unlike science, there is no well-recognized standard that can be used to test, confirm, or correct when disagreements arise.
All of Prinz’ challenges focus on a secondary issue – consensus regarding what moral judgments are objective and absolute, the identification of the absolutes. However important this issue might be, consensus says nothing about whether moral absolutes exist, but merely the difficulty in identifying them. Similarly, we might have difficulty identifying a rapist, but this difficulty says little about his existence. We can’t conclude that because we’re having trouble finding him that he doesn’t exist!
Furthermore, the problem of consensus is equally problematic for moral relativism. No two relativists seem to be in complete agreement about which morals or laws are the most expedient.
Prinz also seems to exaggerate the degree of non-consensus, even by his own admission:
• Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground.
Evidently, his system requires a lot of “common ground,” but where does it come from? While Prinz doesn’t venture a guess, neuro-physiology and psychology have conclusively demonstrated that we are wired for moral-judgments. In fact, these judgments appear at distinct ages as the child’s neural network comes into play.
Consequently, although people might verbally disagree about which morals they regard as absolute, their common wiring proclaims something very different. For instance, although Prinz is a moral relativist, if someone pushes in line in front of him, he might say, “You have no right to do that,” assuming that they both operate according to the same objective rules. And if someone takes his wallet, he will go to the police to demand justice! Although, for a relativist, “justice” is no more than a set of arbitrary, but mutually accepted rules, he will protest that he has been victimized, if the police fail to respond to his charges. If the policeman counters, “well, this is just a matter of the survival-of-the-fittest, and your robber proved fitter than you,” Prinz will be enraged! C.S. Lewis wisely wrote that such a man,
• …is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies, “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.” (“Mere Christianity”)
Lewis claims that this type of reaction is equally true for the absolutist as well as the relativist:
• Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promises to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, “It’s not fair.”
For this same reason, when the relativist is criticized, he doesn’t say, “Who cares about your relativistic, arbitrary standards.” Instead, he tries to justify himself:
• If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.
We live in deep denial (Matthew 7:1-5; Proverbs 21:2). It’s therefore difficult to come to a verbal moral consensus, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t consensus on a deeper, less apparent level.
Prinz concludes his article with an attempt to demonstrate the adequacy of moral relativism, denying that it means that “anything goes.” Applying a Darwinian survival-of the-fittest explanation, he retorts that “Values that are completely self-destructive can’t last.” However, this seems to mean that “anything goes” until it kills you. It also seems to deny that there is any basis for moral persuasion or for raising ones children morally, apart from warning them that certain moral behaviors will hurt them.
However, Prinz does claim that there is a basis to criticize and resist the Hitlers of this world:
• Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.
Yes, we are! While it is true that our self-interested emotions kick in when a Hitler wants to exterminate us, these same self-interested motivations may also prevent us from helping our neighbor who is threatened, especially if it might entail catching a Nazi bullet to the head. If self-interest and other pragmatic concerns are all that govern morality, there is no reason to behave against my immediate self-interest, even if it requires me to do immoral acts.
Prinz then tries to answer the charge, “Relativism doesn’t allow for moral progress” [I guess like civil rights.] He answers,
• Moral values do not become more true. [But aren’t certain laws more just than others?] But they can become better by other criteria. For example, some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability.
Indeed, certain laws are “more conducive to social stability.” However, why should we be concerned about social stability? Why should Prinz? If you are a relativist who enjoys things falling apart, then there’s nothing wrong with chaos. To make some sense out of his moral system, Prinz has covertly imported the moral absolute of “social stability.” However, if this is the ultimate moral absolute, all forms of injustice will flourish. It is easy to argue that social stability will satisfy the majority or solidify the position of the royalty, and naturally, we want our royalty to be strong to resist invaders!
Prinz concludes, “once we see that there is no single true morality, we lose one incentive for trying to impose our values on others.” Perhaps, but why is this a good thing?