Sunday, February 22, 2009

Morality debate, part 3 of 11

Ephphatha's first rebuttal

While writing my opening statement, I wasn't sure if cheetah was going to argue for individual moral subjectivism or cultural relativism. Though similar, there are some differences, as cheetah pointed out. In my explanation of the difference between a subjective claim and an objective claim, the point I was trying to get across was that subjective claims refer to the perceptions of the subject, and objective claims refer to objects that correspond to those perceptions. In cultural relativism, as cheetah said, a subjective claim refers to one's social construct, which is consistent with my explanation since cheetah also said that in her view, “Morality is a product of human consciousness.” That's my whole point. There are only two views. Either objective moral values exist or they don't. If, when you say, “Rape is wrong,” you're talking about your feelings, preferences, or socially constructed view of reality, then that's moral non-realism since morality only exists in your mind. But if you're talking about the act of rape itself, then that's moral realism.

Now I want to address some arguments cheetah made against objectivism. First, she argued that moral objectivism is question-begging by asking, “Why be moral?” The problem is not that moral objectivism is question-begging, but that the question is meaningless. As cheetah said, “Morality dictates what one should do,” so to ask, “Why should one be moral?” is to ask, “Why should one do what one should do?” which is tautological. Morality is by definition what one should do, so it's meaningless to ask why we should be moral.

Cheetah's observations are more troublesome for relativism than for objectivism. Why should an individual follow the dictates of his society? Is there some transcendent moral imperative that tells everybody, regardless of what culture they belong to, that they have a moral obligation to obey their society's standards? If so, then that's an objective moral value. If not, then cultural relativism reduces to individual subjectivism. Nobody would be obligated to obey their culture's standards.

The second argument cheetah makes against moral objectivism is not really an argument so much as a challenge. She asked two questions: “Where does objectivity originate?” and “How do we know the objective moral code?” Supposedly these questions must be answered before objective morality can be rationally affirmed.

Regarding the first question, I see no reason to think that before we can know objective moral values that we first have to know where they came from. Some people think moral values are just part of the furniture of the universe and have no origin. Others think they have their origin in a transcendent being. We need not answer this question before we can affirm objective moral values. There are many things we know about without having to know where they came from. Although there's controversy over the origin of the universe, for example, hardly anybody disputes its existence.

Regarding the second question, I see no reason to think that before we can know something, we first have to know how we know it. If for everything we knew, we had to know how we knew it, we wouldn't know anything at all, because for anything you claim to know, somebody can always ask, “How do you know that?” For whatever answer is given, that person can continue to ask, “How do you know that?” ad infinitum, in which case, we could have no knowledge. If knowledge were impossible, then this debate would be pointless. If we can know something, then it must be possible to know something without knowing how we know it. So I see no reason to think that we must know how we know morality before we can know it. If cheetah wants to insist that we must, then my question to her is this: How do you know that?

Besides, I haven't claimed that we can know objective moral values with absolute certainty. All I've argued is that it's more reasonable to affirm them than to deny them.

The third argument cheetah makes against objectivism is much like the first two. She argues that objectivism is circular, and she gives the dialogue to illustrate her point. But the dialogue breaks down in several places, beginning with the first question. To ask, “What is moral?” is different than asking, “Is anything moral?” It's possible to know there's a line between right and wrong without knowing where to draw that line. As I said in my opening statement, moral decision making is often difficult. But it's only difficult if we assume there's a correct answer. The fact that we engage in moral dispute and dialogue betrays that we believe there's a line.

The dialogue breaks down again when she asks, “How do you know?” because she assumes that before you can know any moral values that you have to first know how you know, and I've already explained why I think she's mistaken.

The dialogue breaks down yet again when she mischaracterizes my argument by answering, “Because I feel it in my mind.” Due to limited space, I'll refer the reader to the “conclusion” of my opening statement to discover what my real argument is.

Cheetah spends more time explaining cultural relativism than she does arguing for it. In fact, I'm not sure she gave any arguments for it at all, unless you count the arguments against objectivism as arguments for relativism. But one point she has tried to drive home is that cultures differ radically on morality. Assuming they do, what follows from that? Does it follow that if two people disagree on the answer to some question that there is no correct answer? Obviously not. Cheetah and I disagree on whether or not objective moral values exist, but it doesn't follow that neither of us is correct. So it isn't enough for cheetah to merely point to differences in moral opinions. She needs to further explain to us why we should believe that there is no correct answer at all. Cultures may differ on where to draw the line between right and wrong, but they all agree that there's a line. Relativists deny that there's any line at all.

In conclusion, I'll repeat two things I've said before. First, I gave several examples of why relativism is counter-intuitive, and why I think hardly any of us really believe in it. There's no objective basis with which to criticize other cultures, such as Nazi Germany, since morality is defined by a culture's particular values. There's no such thing as moral improvement. Moral reformers like the abolitionists and the civil rights advocates were immoral because they went against their culture's morality. There can be no immoral laws. There's nothing objectively wrong with rape and torture.

Second, I want to reiterate the need for us to be honest with ourselves. It isn't enough for us to say that it's possible objective moral values are illusory. It's possible that we were all created five seconds ago complete with memories of a past that never happened, but just because it's possible doesn't mean it's reasonable to believe. Our memories are incomplete, they're often inaccurate, and we often disagree with each other, but that is insufficient for us to claim that our memories don't refer to anything real.

Remember in June of 1998 when James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick up in Jasper Texas? Be honest with yourself. When you object to that, do you mean you don't like it? Do you mean your culture has agreed to call that “bad”? Or do you mean the act itself was wrong regardless of what your culture may say?

If you take cultural relativism seriously, then all we can say about the holocaust is “different strokes for different folks,” because they were acting consistently with their own cultural values. Does the mere fact that some cultures think genocide is virtuous honestly cause you to doubt that it's a vice? Does the mere fact that some people think the external world is an illusion honestly cause you to doubt that it exists?

In reality, we all believe so strongly in morality that we don't just think dissenters are mistaken; we think they're insane. Think about it. If there are no objective moral values, then sociopaths (people with no conscience) perceive the world more accurately than we do. While we look at the world and see right and wrong, sociopaths look at the world as it truly is—completely devoid of right and wrong. But we all think such people are crazy. Their minds aren't working right. That shows that we think a correctly working mind is a mind that perceives a difference between right and wrong. If a correctly working mind perceives a difference between right and wrong, then the perception of morality is an accurate perception. All cultures everywhere perceive a difference between right and wrong. They may disagree on the particulars, but they all agree that there are correct answers, and that's why moral debate is meaningful.

ephphatha

Part 4

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