Battlepanda: Relativism vs. Absolutism


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Relativism vs. Absolutism

Unfortunately, both the term "moral relativism" and the term "moral absolutism" has picked up their fair share of unfair connotations. But since I am just a simple panda who isn't even quite sure what 'epistemology' means, let just keep to the very basic definition of those two terms in this discussion: Those who believe in an absolute morality are moral absolutists. Those who don't believe in an absolute morality are moral relativists.

My previous post in which I compared moral absolutism to Santa Claus and God has sparked quite a bit of disagreement, and not a few misunderstandings.

According to David from The Debate Link:
Other people [note: That'll be me] have written that any moral standard (situational or no) is necessarily arbitrary and unprovable, no matter how much we may "want" or "need" it. This might or might not be true, but it is irrelevant. We have to live some way, even if living means, as Max Weber put it, committing ourselves to "warring Gods and Demons" without any solace or hope that our choice can be "justified" in the abstract, metaphysical sense of the term.
I might have inadvertantly given the impression that I reject the existance of all morality. Or that my objection to absolute morality is an abstract one with no real-life ramifications. This cannot be any further from my intentions! I think that morality is an essential human construct that allows us to live together, to function as societal units large and small. But like all human constructs, it must necessarily change as human society changes. I don't think you can get any more pragmatic than that.

The Ethical Werewolf posits that I'm not a moral relativist, but an error theorist:
[T]he error theorist also thinks that the property of being morally right is absent from our world, just as the property of being Santa Claus is absent. This is why it's called error theory -- you hold that everyone who makes positive moral claims is in error. Battlepanda is an error theorist about Santa Claus and God, and maybe she should call herself an error theorist about morality as well.
Well, it depends on what we define as morality. I define morality as any system of judging right and wrong that stems from our values. Our values, in turn, are formed by various biological, social and environmental circumstances. I find no contradiction in being a (mostly) moral person with strong values and yet rejecting the thesis that somewhere in the ether there exists the gold standard of morality disconnected from any human society yet applicable to all.

More from the Werewolf:
I just think we have a special way of knowing that pleasure is good and pain is bad, which gets us around problems in moral epistemology that trouble other ethical theories. Were it not for this, I'd be one of the few error theorists in today's philosophy world. As things stand, I'm one of the few Benthamite utilitarians.
I also heard this argument echoed in the comments. This line of thinking posits that our justification for an absolute morality comes from the hard-to-argue-with fact that pleasure is good and pain is bad. This line of reasoning takes you to utilitarianism. Yet I've always thought that utilitarianism is antithetical to most moral absolutists. What gives?

A couple of commenters asked me how I can fail to acknowledge that genocide, slavery, the raping of mothers and the torturing of babies must be universally wrong. Well, you know who has moral absolutism in spades? Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. How about if we drop the point scoring by resorting to emotional appeals and engage with the argument rationally instead? For the record, if anybody starts any mother-raping or baby-torturing, I will be outraged with the best of them. I don't need to check that my values are sturdily absolute before I act.