Moral Relativism – in answer to a comment on “Religion Running Scared”

Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Thoughts | 4 comments

There was one comment from my previous blogpost that I thought I’d better answer, so I took the liberty of making it a new post.

This comment was left by “Me“. It addresses a few points, so I’ll answer it in sections. It reads:

Interesting article, but I disagree on the moral relativism thing. Defending moral relativism allows you to say that what is OK in one society, is OK in that society, regardless of how offensive it may be. So, for example, if circumcision, suttee, burqa, martyrdom, and other potentially obnoxious religious practices are OK in their respective societies, then, by your reasoning, and your defence of moral relativism, you have to OK these practices. America, for example, will no longer be allowed to play ‘world police’ and go around imposing democracy on everyone.

With regards to moral relativism, it’s not so much that I think that humans differ in different areas of the earth in their wants and needs for well being. What I was hoping to get across is the idea that “accepted” morality differs from culture to culture. What one culture sees as morally OK, another sees as repugnant. Take for example the recent laws passed in New York City legalising gay marriage. There are people in the world who see this as morally reprehensible, whole tracts of religious people who see it as the ultimate sin, and even people who live in New York City who find this law to be disgusting. Personally, I welcome the law, as it signifies another step toward a reasonable and rational society. After all, what happens in another person’s bedroom is of no interest to me, and nor should it be. Both I and the person who sees homosexuality as a sin would bring this point to bear as a point of morality, whatever the source of this morality. This is because morality is based on personal judgement calls from a society, culture or belief, not based on a physical or testable certainty. If this is true, then moral relativism is a reality, whether you like it or not.

In the Rabbi’s case, he’s probably thinking about Hitler. If moral relativism is true, then Hitler was OK. Since Hitler was not OK, it follows that moral relativism cannot be true.

I’m not sure Hitler was acting on morals, I think he was acting on megalomania. He would probably use morality to sell it to others, but I think that his actions were wrong because they go against the relative well being of many people, as enacted by jut one person.

So whence do we derive our universally-felt moral repugnances, e.g. infanticide, to use his example? Well, certainly not from the Bible. Psalms 137:9 “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

I agree, as I’ll outline briefly below.

The answer must lie in science. One example theory I’ve seen is primate group cooperation. So the idea runs like this: since primates, such as chimps, display group cooperation, aka morality, morality must be a survival instinct, or evolutionarily beneficial. So it’s actually not that hard to come up with a universalist moral system based in science.

My 2c.

In the Rabbi’s case, it’s obvious that he draws his morality from his religion, because he says so. In a thought experiment, do you think the Rabbi would think that things like infanticide, rape and murder were right if he didn’t believe in a higher power? Probably not, because these judgement calls sit much deeper within us, in our social and interpersonal cultures. Some of it comes from learned behaviours which link to our motor neurons and our ability to have empathy (i.e. I have seen that a person in pain dislikes it. My brain can imagine that sensation, it looks unpleasant, therefore I would not wish it upon myself, nor others.) Then there’s larger scale judgements, based on what allows humanity to best get along. Of course these judgements will be stronger in smaller and tighter-knit communities, starting from the family, moving upward to the village, state, country etc.

I think the problem lies with saying that “Science is a moral system” because, of course, it’s not. By its very nature science is amoral, and in isolation is incapable of making calls on morality. But what we can do is see what it is among humans that bind us together, what is it that makes us all the same, and how would we all best like to live? Again Sam Harris has eluded to this in The Moral Landscape, saying that there must be a testable bottom-line that best suits us all. I’m not so sure about that, but I’m not totally uncoinvinced either. What is important here is to say that science cannot be a system of morality, it can only offer us the answers to questions like “is human wellbeing universal and quantifable, and if so to what extent can we measure and produce that wellbeing?” I think this is what could be accepted as a morality based on a scientific platform, but not looking to science for the answers to moral questions.

I hope this makes my standpoint a little clearer. Thank you for your 2c “Me”.

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  1. It’s ironic that Christians call out atheists on moral relativity, since Christ was the consummate moral revisionist – and Christians have merrily continued the tradition albeit some two generations behind the rest of society.

    There are numerous Old Testament examples: stoning as punishment for adultery and disobedient children, women required to marry their rapists, rape of war victims, mass murder, genocide, as well as things like slavery in the New. Jesus spoke up against stoning women, and I can’t think that anyone these days would approve of Numbers 31:17-18 (Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves) although it would have been acceptable spoils of war in Biblical days.

    When Dispensationalists get talking about ‘Dispensation of Law’ and Dispensation of Grace’ they are simply acknowledging the dispensation (revising) of a barbaric (and silly) moral system.

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  2. Enlightened Self-Interest

    See my blog at

    A popular theist argument for religion is “Without religion (god) we would have no morality or ethics.” So without religion can there be morality? Morality based upon fear of punishment or seeking rewards isn’t really morality at all. Perhaps what they are saying is that they would be evil without fear of hell. Then they project that lack of moral courage upon everyone else. I say to them, “Don’t judge others by yourself. Your lack of ethical backbone is not universal.” 

    True moral behavior is based upon simple self-interest.  The guiding ethic is to truly act in your own best interest.  That would mean treating all people fairly, honestly and, as it says in the Hippocratic Oath, “Cause no harm.”  Religions invent all other “sins” to increase their control over people.

    People can practice what I term enlightened self-interest.  An individual’s self-interest is best served by doing no harm to others except in defense of themselves or those in their care.  This thinking does not need threats of eternal punishment to follow, It only requires thinking about what will ultimately yield the best results for yourself.  Treating others fairly and generously is always better for yourself, personally, financially, and socially.   Those that co-operate and adapt have always been more successful.  

    For example, robbing a bank may yield temporary wealth, but at the expense of either a prison term or a life of fear, running from the law. Similarly, cheating others in business dealings may increase profits for a time. Eventually, your reputation will be so poor that your business may fail. This is a simple principle that, “It’s always cheaper to make a customer happy than it is to make him angry.” This same idea can pay dividends in ordinary human relations. For reasons I don’t understand, few businesses or people appreciate this idea. Maybe it’s because they operate on deist principles? Everything is forgiven if you repent before you die. Although that wouldn’t seem to help those you cheated, treated badly, or even murdered.

    So should nothing be discouraged? Should everything be permitted? Capable, informed individuals could engage in any activity that interests them even if it puts them personally at risk.

    An example would be an automobile race. It is certainly dangerous to drive at racing speeds and it is equally dangerous to stand near the race course to observe or record this event. Two people may choose to do these things if they understand and accept the risks involved.

    One question that arises from this would be, what if one or both of these people have a spouse and children that depend upon them for financial and emotional support? Should they still do this knowing that if they are injured or killed it will cause some degree of harm to these dependents? If they choose to do so, does anyone else have the right to prevent them?

    Those are ethical questions that can and should be debated, but each person must be free to choose his own answer. No other person, religion, or government should have the right to make these choices for us. If you are keeping in mind that humans are often in error and thus prepared for all possible consequences, no matter how remote the possibility, you can do what you think best.

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    • Thanks for your comment James, certainly some interesting thoughts there. For some reason, perhaps that you put your blog address early in your comment, this comment was caught up by the spam filters. But don’t fear it is approved now. Thanks for your input!

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  3. Yahweh and Allah speak with forked tongues- all those sects! Google covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism to see my take on wide-reflective subjectivism as underpinning objective morality! John Bouleversluis account about subjectivism helpted me see that paradox! Anway, morality binds even gods!

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