The Instigator
alto2osu
Pro (for)
Losing
31 Points
The Contender
RoyLatham
Con (against)
Winning
44 Points

There is no universal moral standard.

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Post Voting Period
The voting period for this debate has ended.
after 16 votes the winner is...
RoyLatham
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 4/9/2009 Category: Religion
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 23,357 times Debate No: 7762
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (78)
Votes (16)

 

alto2osu

Pro

This is my first created debate at this website, so please bear with me as I experiment. I apologize for my possible miscategorization. At first blush, the most common arguments for moral absolutism will be from a theistic standpoint, but I address the biological con as well.

This is a debate that I will be performing very soon in public, and wanted to test drive it here!

This particular debate boils down to the universality of a moral code amongst members of the human race. For the purposes of debate, my position is that all moral conceptions are relative, hence established by cultural/geographical/etc. schema, rather than via a priori knowledge or knowledge otherwise transmitted by a deity, whichever you will. Since I'm not sure how much detail goes into my initial post, I will simplify my answer for the purposes of beginning a debate and refine my position as needed. Essentially, there is simply too much moral variance in the world to believe that a supreme being has instilled in us, via a priori methods, divination, holy communication, etc., any sort of universally right or wrong moral code.

The issue of the death penalty is a very illustrative example. Though most first world countries have eliminated capital punishment from the punitive menu, and though Western religions clearly forbid murder (the commandments are often cited as a universal code of ethics), the United States, to the chagrin of the first world, still allows murder by the state in exchange for extreme criminal activity.

I will even go so far as to say that moral universalism based on human biology is also flawed. Though I have a decent fundamental knowledge of genetic histories of human beings and especially of our behavioral and genetic tendencies to being social, evolution clearly negates the possibility of a universal moral code. After all, societies routinely incorporate what some of us would call "morally objectionable" actions into their daily lives, and they still exist and thrive.

Again, murder becomes my example of choice, specifically in the context of warring tribes & other, more rural societies. Warring tribes in sub-Saharan Africa conflicted naturally and "normally" for centuries prior to Western invasion. Those tribes thrived via their "uncivilized" and often "barbaric" conflict codes. It was not until their value and societal systems were crushed and supplanted with Western systems that they were devastated.

In fact, it could be said that attempting to promote, or especially enforce, a universal moral code actually leads to more violations of human rights and human dignity than leaving a culture to its own devices. The fact that countries are even able to hegemonically spread their cultural belief systems negates the existence of a universal moral code.

Have at me! :D
RoyLatham

Con

Welcome to the site. You have selected an excellent topic, and I look forward to a good debate.

Pro's opening argument does not define "moral standard" precisely, but I think it is best to proceed with a general understanding until a semantic issue arises. Pro is contending that morality is a strictly a construction of society. Pro says, "all moral conceptions are relative, hence established by cultural/geographical/etc. schema, rather than via a priori knowledge." If Pro is correct then, for example, there is no sound basis for asserting universal human rights, because enforcing rights embodies moral judgments from outside a society and, according to Pro, morality is merely an artifact of society.

My position in this debate is that there is a transcendental morality (and hence universal human rights), and that absolute morality is derived from the nature of man. This is essentially the position of Jefferson and Madison. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." http://www.ushistory.org... The rights drive from a Creator, but Jefferson, being a Deist, did not believe in any form of divine revelation. Without revelation, how can one know what the particulars of universal morality are? Jefferson said they are "self-evident." Madison provided a similar rationale for the Constitution. He said it was derived strictly from "natural law," i.e., observation of the nature of man. http://www.answers.com... In Pro's formulation, I am claiming it is biologically based. The derivation of morality from the nature of man works as well for atheists as Deists.

Consider for a moment the absolute morality of a different species, the praying mantis. In that species, the female characteristically eats her mate. This supposedly has something to do with recycling protein for the benefit of the soon-to-be-hatched offspring. We'll suppose that's true. If an unusually intelligent praying mantis were to write down a universal code of morality for the species, then it would be logical to consider a failure to consume the mate to be a form of child neglect. The point is: The nature of the species dictates the morality.

Bears and tigers are not social animals. Tribal (herd) behavior obligations have no role for bears and tigers. Herd behavior is important for caribou. A responsible caribou does not strike out on his own.

Humans are also creatures of instinct. There are instincts to protect the self, the family, and the tribe ("society"). For example, the individual wants to be free, wants to care for his children, and wants to be a part of a tribe that affords social conventions. There are no human societies that eat their young; there are species of fish that do. Humans universally avoid pain, want sex, want freedom, and want security. From this nature derives the universal rights to pursue these objectives. Societies that deny them are in those respects immoral.

Animals do not have enough intelligence to worry about what they should be doing. Humans have instincts to serve self, family, and tribe and those instincts can conflict. this should not be interpreted as meaning that there are no moral absolutes. What it means is that even moral absolutes can clash. For example, consider "Free speech does not include the right to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater." Morality demands that the individual be allowed to speak. Morality also demands that individuals not act to injure others in their society. Most of the time these two moral principles do not conflict, but in the crowded theater they do. Nonetheless, there are absolute rights to freedom and to avoid pain.

Pro says, "After all, societies routinely incorporate what some of us would call "morally objectionable" actions into their daily lives, and they still exist and thrive." Pro is required to avoid saying anything IS "morally objectionable" so instead says "what some of us call morally objectionable." However, in what follows it is clear that Pro is in fact asserting an absolute moral standard. If Pro did not believe that there was any morality aside from that which societies have dreamed up, there would be no moral grounds for criticizing tribes that war endlessly or societies that happen to eat their child or anything else that a society might do. A moral relativist would have to take a blas� attitude of "Isn't it interesting how different societies do different things." ... and leave it at that. That's not the sense of what Pro is saying. Pro is saying that what those people were doing is wrong, and evolution has not made them stop it.

Endless pointless warring is wrong, although I don't know for sure that in the case that Pro cites the warring was pointless. I'll assume it was. It's true that evolution didn't stop it. The explanation, however, is not that there are no moral instincts. There is a moral instinct to serve the tribe, and that has not been properly weighed against the instinct to protect the self, another valid instinct. Evolution only has to work well enough to provide positive survival rates. Humans have not fully evolved to walking upright, so half the world has back problems. Yet we do well enough to survive, and that's all that counts.

The sub-Saharan folks very like could not survive without a very strong instinct to support a tribe. That translates properly to a moral obligation to support their society. That moral obligation is far more important for survival than the error of continual warring. In New Guinea, perpetually warring tribes have developed traditions that limit the frequency and severity of attacks. The warring deepens the tribal bond, but it is moderated to the point of not posing a threat to survival.

Pro continually confuses "murder" with "warring." Murder is "unlawful killing of another human being with ... malice" http://en.wikipedia.org.... Killing in self-defense is not murder. Warring is legal and is for the perceived benefit of the society, either for offense or defense. Execution is killing an individual for the perceived benefit of the society. Pro wrongly equates all these things. It is moral to kill someone to protect your children, it is immoral to kill someone to steal their wallet.

Pro argues, "In fact, it could be said that attempting to promote, or especially enforce, a universal moral code actually leads to more violations of human rights and human dignity than leaving a culture to its own devices." In making that argument, Pro is implying that there are universal human rights and that she knows what they are. A true moral relativist could only say, "Some societies have moral codes that involve imposing certain rules on others. There is no way to say whether that is right or wrong, it's just what they do."

When Pro asserts that a universal code may be worse than no code, she is admitting that there is a biological basis that defines human rights. That is the only way she could know what is worse. What Pro is really asserting is that formulating and imposing an errant code can be worse than not attempting to formulate a code. that is true. Native peoples may have perfectly reasonable codes of morality, even though they haven't intellectualized them.

The Founders were right, there are moral absolutes derived from the nature of mankind. You cannot rightly eat your children, period. All men are created equal and have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Genocide is wrong. The problem arrives with asserting too much as being absolute. We can recognize genocide as absolutely wrong while arguing whether or not a criminal death penalty is wrong. Arguable cases do not invalidate clear cases.

The resolution is negated.
Debate Round No. 1
alto2osu

Pro

Organized via negation post.

I would like to begin by providing an overview that will become an important issue, and I'm sure a repeated one. The negation continually assumes that I must be blas�, as it were, about morality, that I must affirm by saying we have no morality that can be counted on. This isn't inherent in affirming my position, which is rightly characterized by my opponent in his first paragraph, which is that I am attempting to advocate a morality that is created by cultural and environmental factors. If human beings find themselves in similar situations (such as the countries that have joined the UN), then they can easily rationalize their way to a moral rule. However, that doesn't prove that this agreed upon rule was derived of an innate property in humanity. What I claim is that the moral standard upon which I am using to judge others is not one that all will agree with innately. It is perfectly acceptable for the UN to have a declaration of human rights, and by a majority of countries to act on such a declaration. However, I would object to anyone who tried to convince me that this declaration is anything more than a collection of countries that, by like circumstances, have come to agree upon a moral standard that some countries still don't share.

On the issue of a universal set of human rights: the two are not mutually exclusive. The declaration of human rights, drafted and ratified by the United Nations, is merely a product of a majority vote of the United Nations. Note that the dissenters and those who violate these rights, not a mere rarity, but a significant number of nations around the world, clearly prove that not all cultures value these rights.

Only the countries that are members of the United Nations agree that these are universal, which doesn't actually empirically prove them universal.

The concepts of evolution negate a morality that is biologically universal. Murder is a prime example. Though the negation claims to establish that there are undeniable human rights that all humans are aware of, how can it be proven empirically when humans still kill each other, no matter their ideologies? Killing is even built into the laws of nations of all varieties, including the United States, but not other nations, showing a fundamentally different view on the right to life. It is only absolute in some societies.

Mantises are not moral beings. They don't use reason because they don't have the evolutionary brain function to put the pen to paper, much less think about the concepts of morality and rationalize them. Because humans have this capacity, we have the infinite potential to individually determine moral standards. This is what makes moral standards different from community to community- though we all have biological urges, we have a far more keen ability to redirect our actions or partially/completely ignore those urges. We can't ignore the urge to breathe most of the time, but we can ignore the urge to not kill other people.

Again, you can't compare the human animal to any other, save some species of primates, due to their biological inability to move beyond instinct. Caribou do what they are programmed to do genetically or they die off due to evolutionary constraints. Humans, on the other hand, with their superior ability to adapt environments to their own survival and to rationalize and decision-make will always have more freedom of action than a caribou.
We do have a genetic subconscious that encourages species survival. That is a scientifically sound argument. However, as we have found empirically, the more advanced human societies become, the more the "universality" of morality slips away. We are able to cognitively escape previous resource-based restraints. Primitive or ancient societies could not escape those restraints as of the time. As human societies advanced, the illusion of uniform morality dissolved because we were no longer living in the same environments. Hence, even ancient societies didn't have universal morality, just the illusion of it because they all lived under the same basic constraints. As we modified the environment, our morality changed, as well.

The things you describe are a natural want of any animal, but the application of those instincts is vastly different, and THAT is morality. It isn't a moral standard to be secure. It is a moral standard to dictate what secure means. Security for me is inherently not the same as security for you. Same thing goes with freedom. What I consider a wise application of freedom may be far more liberal or conservative than the next person. And freedom differs significantly from country to country. Take gun control. Canadians don't feel oppressed because they have no access to fire power. However, a significant sect of the US population objects strenuously to the loss of guns as a matter of security and personal liberty. How do you account for this difference?

Of "fire in a crowded theater": This example is inherently legal system-specific. In fact, this came (give or take) directly from Schenk vs. US. Again, this doesn't prove that this is universal, just that you believe that it should be. While this also makes sense to me, and is a very basic concept, there have still been myriad countries that have limited "free speech" further in order to protect the interests of another, such as a government, and could be said to have done so legitimately. Freedom of speech is clearly situational in that, even in the United States, free speech is not always guaranteed in the same ways all the time. It fluctuates with the needs of the country. Then, you take countries like China, which restrict it even further. We as citizens of the US call it a human rights violation, but how can we be sure? Is it only US law that determines what universal rights should be?

The sub-Saharan example serves as a stark reminder that cultures develop different moralities and ethics, and to superimpose one on another causes integral damage to a society. Though it might be said that these societies did have a strong tribal sense, that "moral standard" was shattered in the wake of colonialism, and once peaceful tribes began to war furiously, both within the tribe and with other tribes. In fact, tribal lines were often dissolved, which shouldn't be able to happen if the instinct to protect the tribe is so strong. The 180-degree reversal of the environment in which they existed caused moral upheaval. To address the New Guinea example, those specific tribes have put rules on warring at this point, but other countries can achieve nationalism without such frequent battles—why does THIS society feel it necessary to fight in order to bond? Not only that, but how many generations did it take to refine those warring standards? Chances are the standards are in response to societal changes, such as people dying too much or societal instability, rather than an innate desire to not war. Obviously, they still want to fight each other.

First of all, native peoples have intellectualized their moral codes. They have come to the conclusion that, based on their society's needs and their resources at hand, these are the best moral codes to abide by (like the tribes of New Guinea). All humans intellectualize their moral standards. That's why they are moral standards. They come from something more than instinct that only humans can offer up.

On the closing arguments regarding Founders: though you and I affirm certain standards, as does a majority of the UN, not every country is willing to ratify these standards. My argument here doesn't prove that genocide, for example, is RIGHT. Not only that, but the fact that genocide happens and that the UN felt the need to enforce a moral standard restricting it, or any other behavior, proves that these standards cannot be universal. Otherwise, humans in every society would never feel the need or want to commit genocide or take away gifted rights.
RoyLatham

Con

1. Let's use Pro's line of argumentation to attempt to prove that how tall a person is is not genetically predisposed.

P: "People vary considerably in height. If there was a genetic predisposition, then they would all be the same height, and that's not the case. We know that factors like nutrition affect height. If there is any doubt that there is no genetic commonality, observe that some adults are three feet tall and others are seven feet tall. That proves there is no genetic commonality."

C: "You are looking at it far too finely. Bees are typically a quarter inch tall, mice an inch tall, giraffes seventeen feet tall. Humans are around five and a half feet tall. Even though there is variation, the genetic commonality is clear."

P: "You cannot use other species in an attempt to prove a point about humans. I repeat that the fact that some humans are three feet and others seven feet proves there is no genetic predisposition."

With respect to our present debate, the reference to other species is to illustrate how genetic characteristics determine relevant moral standards. We can imagine humans having genetic characteristics being more akin to praying mantis or bears or caribou, while remaining intelligent and contemplative. It's clear that the "nature of the beast" determines the rules related to social interaction. In intelligent beings, that is the basis of moral behavior.

2. I pointed out the error in Pro's definition of "murder" and Pro did not respond. Pro falsely equates "murder" with any killing for any reason, then claims there is no commonality in the moral rules that are applied by different societies. If the definitions are properly sorted out, there is great deal of commonality. Is there any large society that does not believe that killing to defend one's family is not morally justified? The morality is very nearly universal. Is there any society that does not find killing for personal gain morally reprehensible? Again, the morality is very nearly universal. How about a tribe killing to defend itself against annihilation by another tribe? One can go down the list and find great commonality. The commonality derives from the nature of man to protect his kin and his tribe.

3. I pointed out that there are instincts to be loyal to one's family and to be loyal to one's tribe (society) and that usually instincts do not produce a conflict, but sometimes they do. Unsatisfactory resolution of moral conflict produces errant moral behavior. I argued that evolved instincts do not have to provide perfect problem resolution, but rather only a net positive survival rate. Con ignored the argument in favor of restating the belief that moral inconsistency proves that there are no moral instincts.

4. In the case of perpetually warring tribes, I argued that in those circumstances the strong bonding to the tribe that results may provide a positive survival benefit that outweighs the loses due to warring. If the warring has been going on for generations, then obviously neither tribe has perished due to the practice. This is not a claim that there is no better way to live; it is aberrant. Nonetheless, the explanation based upon conflicting moral instincts is a much better one than Pro's notion that it is a random artifact of society.

5. Pro claims, "We do have a genetic subconscious that encourages species survival. That is a scientifically sound argument. However, as we have found empirically, the more advanced human societies become, the more the "universality" of morality slips away." Pro's claim is false, and clearly so. Track the progress of human rights over time as societies have advanced. For example, consider the acceptance of slavery as being morally justified. The moral justification was widespread 400 years ago and has all but disappeared today. The same trends can be observed for equal rights, freedom of expression, the divine right of kings (and allied concepts), the unacceptability of genocide, and so forth. What is the driving force behind this commonality? It is that what is better is accepted in favor of what is worse, and what is better is determined by what is most consistent with the nature of mankind. Freedom is preferred because mankind inherently wants to be free, and that's what makes it a human right.

This is not to argue that civilization has achieved perfection. There is a continual tension between what is best for society, generally a moral good, and what is best for the individual, generally another moral good. Moreover, circumstances that affect the tradeoffs change. If a primitive society not having prisons has to deal with a psychotic serial killer, they have fewer options to debate than a more advanced society. Nonetheless, the net advance is unquestionable.

6. Pro argues with respect to free speech, "Then, you take countries like China, which restrict it even further. We as citizens of the US call it a human rights violation, but how can we be sure? Is it only US law that determines what universal rights should be?" We know it because we observe that people inherently want to be free. This is the way the Founders knew it. There is no shortage of Chinese who want it; they are repressed by their government who denies the right. The limits of free speech can be argued in terms of conflicting rights, but there are always moral conflicts and difficult issues of resolving them. That does not deny the inherent fundamental right.

7. Pro asks, "Canadians don't feel oppressed because they have no access to fire power. However, a significant sect of the US population objects strenuously... How do you account for this difference?" There is an innate desire for personal security. That leads to a human right to defend oneself, either personally or through society. What the two approaches have in common is a recognition to a right to have security. No one argues, "If some people like to kill other people for their personal satisfaction, they have as much right to do that as the people who want to be free from assault."

8. Pro argues, "The things you describe are a natural want of any animal, but the application of those instincts is vastly different, and THAT is morality. It isn't a moral standard to be secure. It is a moral standard to dictate what secure means." Here is the semantic argument that I earlier pointed out as a potential problem. I claim that the fundamental human right is to seek security, and that to deny a person from seeking security by any means is immoral. Pro argues that a "moral code" is not about what is moral or immoral, but about the detailed mechanism by which the underlying morality is believed to be achieved. No, the implementation is subordinate to the morality.

9. I argued, that when Pro asserts that a universal code may be worse than no code, she is admitting that there is a biological basis that defines human rights. That is the only way she could know what is worse. Pro did not respond.

10. I claimed that if one believes that there is no inherent basis for morality in the nature of man, then one must, to be consistent, be fundamentally indifferent about what rules of moral conduct are accepted. Pro argues that one can simply vote on morality and that determines it. But if you believe that all moral decision have no basis in human absolutes, there is no basis to passionately support one side or the other. How would one vote on the morality of genocide, for example, without supposing that it was contrary to human nature? Would one make some sort of economic argument that the country would be more or less prosperous without the group proposed to be purged? It makes no sense without a moral framework derived from the nature of mankind.
Debate Round No. 2
alto2osu

Pro

First of all, I want to thank the negation for making my first debate here a wonderful one. I appreciate the time he's put into his arguments, and the challenge that they have presented.

As is customary in the debate formats I'm familiar with, I'll spend this last round on voting issues for our members. I'll be parsing the debate down into a few key arguments that I believe have proved my advocacy over my opponent's.

1. If you don't read any other voting issue, read this one. It was present in my overview in round 2, and it will be emphasized again since the negation failed to properly address it. I assert that prevalent moral standards, even those that are agreed upon by many countries, are not contrary in any way to my position that those standards are situationally created. Though my opponent attempts paint me as the indifferent, amoral being of the round, I need not be characterized as such. Use the UN's declaration of human rights as our example again, which was never addressed: it fits well within the relativist perspective in that it was ratified by a collection of countries who have agreed upon a set of rights for human beings. The negation never addresses the fact that these rights are not empirically universally accepted.

Also, the negation fails to address a key turn I made against his advocacy at the end of the 2nd round: the UN, by even proposing a resolution laying out the rights of all human beings, realized that not every society in the world shared the same views on human rights. I'm sure that this resolution went through much subjective debate, and like any law or policy, was finely worded and tailored to attempt to meet the needs of the most countries simultaneously. This, in and of itself, proves that seemingly "universal" moral codes are the product of societal compromise, as each society didn't share the same conceptions of morality to begin with.

2. I believe my arguments regarding the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa to have been mishandled during this debate. The negation says that I'm either trying to paint war as a meaningless cultural artifact, or I am accidentally affirming a biological basis for moral standards by asserting that "universal laws are worse than no laws." I never make either of these arguments. To the first, war is certainly not a random artifact. Prior to European invasion, war in Africa was the same as war anywhere else: resource-related or culture-related (for our purposes, religious motivation will be part of a given culture). However, these skirmishes never had the characteristics of the warring that occurred after European invasion of Africa. Once that invasion occurred, once Europe hegemonically divided and conquered tribes and restructured their entire way of life, we saw Rwanda, Uganda, Congo civil wars, Darfur, etc., ad infinitum. It wasn't causeless or meaningless until one culture superimposed itself onto another, which is precisely what moral universalism seeks to do. To the second, my argument is that relative moral laws are better than universal law. I am not required to argue that relativism means we have no moral laws, nor that we can't count on certain ones within many different societies, as I've already asserted. We just can't count on having all the same moral laws within all societies, and that doing so or attempting to force all societies to do so will cause those sub-Saharan African harms I discuss throughout the debate.

3. My opponent holds moral standards and instincts to be equals. This is just plain untrue. I made this argument before, and I'll make it again: the only thing that distinguishes us from our other animal brethren is reason. This difference is crucial to the understanding of morality and how it is formed. We all have instincts. We all, as animals, from bed bugs to blue whales, genetically want for some sort of security, for example. That is not a moral standard. Non-rational animals have no moral standards. Mantises don't have them. Bears don't have them. Caribou don't have them. Why don't they have them? Because they can't intellectualize those instincts, weigh them in a given environment, and then choose to modify behavior to ignore that instinct. Or to meet the instinct halfway. They fulfill their genetic duties or they die. End of story. It isn't the same for humans. We have and we exercise so many more choices than the simplistic choices other animals make regarding instinctual behavior. The gun control example illustrates this: Canadians have chosen a completely different moral standard of security than the US. The instinct of security is shared, but the way of fulfilling that instinct, the behavior on the part of society, is entirely different based on the needs of that given society.

The death penalty example also backs this up. The United States still legally and ethically supports the use of the death penalty as a state's right. All other first world nations disagree strenuously. Why is that? Why, if killing is universally bad, does the United States continue to allow its states to violate this universal moral standard? Because the standard isn't universal. Laws, codes, and standards, the rhetoric my opponent and I have mutually chosen for this debate, are all applications of something. Just as a federal statute is the application of a given majority belief within society, a moral statute is the application of a given majority belief within a society.

Thank you, Roy, for the awesome debate! Enjoy the read, everyone.
RoyLatham

Con

Thanks to Pro for a spirited debate. I think it was well worth the lengthy arguments.

I will first address Pro's three summary issues, then return my ten items, for Pro have little response.

1. Pro claims that because there is no universal agreement on moral issues that therefore it cannot be that morality is genetically based. I addressed that point redundantly (notably in my points 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7). Citing the lack of universal acceptance of the UN Declaration adds no additional logic to Pro's argument. My contention has been that morality is based upon the genetic nature of mankind, and that the genetics include predispositions to protect one's self, family, and tribe. Much of the time there is no conflict among those instincts. Thus we see virtually universal moral condemnation of murder for personal gain, and we see nearly universal moral approval of a right to self-defense. The "interesting" moral variations occur when there are conflicting moral values between loyalty to self and loyalty to society. Over time, civilization has settled many of these conflicts by some combination of reason and pragmatism. The slavery issue has been resolved, virtually universally, in favor of personal freedom. the nature of mankind dictates many moral principles, but it has taken time to understand the nature of mankind. Some thinkers, like the Founders, were ahead of the curve.

Even when no resolution on a moral issue has been reached, what is always evident is that the nature of the conflict lies in competing instincts. An authoritarian regime first serves to provide security to the ruling elite, and the regime is inevitably sold to the populace on the grounds that regime brings enhance security to the society. If the subjugated populace comes to believe that the society is more secure with more personal freedom, the regime is doomed. That's the nature most of the dissent with respect to the UN declaration.

Acknowledgment of human rights threatens authoritarian regimes, so they don't approve. That does not prove that the citizens of those countries have rejected human rights. Pro's assertion that "not every society in the world shared the same views on human rights." The society does not get to vote at the UN. Only Dear Leader gets to vote. Perhaps, Dear Leader could win a free election, but only if information to the people is controlled so as to maintain the illusion that security requires an authoritarian regime.

2. I had trouble understanding Pro's point about Africa. Pro argues that "moral universalism" causes war and strife, and attempts to use an example of war due to cultural change in Africa to prove the point. The error in Pro's reasoning is that having a universal moral standard does not imply that one must impose that standard on anyone else, so there is no inevitability in a standard causing strife by the imposition. Even if one is thoroughly convinced that, say, free speech is a universal right, there does not follow from that any obligation to fight a war to impose free speech on a country that does not have free speech. That is because initiating a war drains the lives and resources of the country that believes in free speech, and there is no necessary obligation for self-sacrifice in a universal moral code. This was recognized by the American Founders, for example, who while recognizing rights as self-evident also advised against foreign entanglements.

In addition, I have maintained throughout that the rights that are evident from the nature of mankind are a relative few: the rights to seek security, freedom, and a few others. Those who understand the universality of a moral code are not obliged to mistakenly claim that it applies to the intricacies of how governments are organized.

If one does not believe in a universal moral code, the lack of belief does not prevent wars or strife. In fact, a failure to introspect about the nature of mankind and the rights of man is more likely to lead to strife than having great concern with those rights.

3. Pro reiterates, "I made this argument before, and I'll make it again: the only thing that distinguishes us from our other animal brethren is reason." Pro is wrong in that assertion. Reason is completely subservient to instinctual motivation. If man were purely reasonable, he would do absolutely nothing. He would have no motivation to protect his community or his family or himself. He would not want security or prosperity or happiness. He would not want to be free or to understand the world around him. He would not even want to survive. All of the desires derive from instinct.

Reference to other species proves that instincts depend upon how a species is constituted. It is easy to imagine humans still having reasoning ability, but being driven by instincts more akin to bears (anti-social) or caribou (completely tribal). Pro is thus wrong that the only distinguishing characteristic is reasoning ability. Reasoning ability in man is used to recognize a moral code that is consistent with man's nature, a nature that has both self-centered and social instincts. Thus, for example, a right to self-defense is recognized virtually universally among societies as a consequence of the instinct for individual self-preservation. The logic of the moral code so derived is transcendental because the genetics that encode human nature change too slowly to see on the scale of civilizations.

The complex social/anti-social nature of humankind means that moral conflicts will arise, and that the resolution of those conflicts are often controversial. Nonetheless, the basic morality is clear and over time more issues have been resolved. Slavery has been found to be properly classified as immoral as society has better understood the nature of man.

Returning to earlier points in the debate, Pro has made no specific response to my enumerated arguments 1, 3, 4, and 6, but argued generally about the subjects as I rebutted above.

Pro made no rebuttal at all to points 2 (that murder was misdefined by Pro to support a false argument), 5 (that societies are converging on universal moral principles, not diverging as Pro claimed), 7 (that a right to self-defense is universally asserted), 8 (that moral standards are principles, not implementation mechanisms), 9 (that Pro is implying universal standards in giving examples she judges to be good and bad), and 10 (that a lack of a universal standard implies one cannot argue logically and passionately about what is right; Pro denied the argument but gave no counter argument). All the enumerate arguments had been raised earlier in the debate.

So where do we stand with respect to the assertion of "self-evident truths" that all men are created equal and have "unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" Pro mainly argues that because there is no universal agreement on how those unalienable rights ought to be achieved through a detailed moral code, that those rights do not flow self-evidently from the nature of man. I argue that conflicts over the implementation invariably reassert the fundamental rights, and that moreover social evolution is producing a converging understanding of the rights that are derived from the nature of mankind. Pro has ignored many of my arguments in favor of merely restating contrary conclusions.

The resolution is negated.
Debate Round No. 3
78 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by alto2osu 6 years ago
alto2osu
The thought experiment you lay out below may be useful for an exploration of other philosophical pursuits, but it essentially skips over the actual point of contention in this debate, and the one that has been rehashed in the comments thus far. Note that, in your thought experiment, you make two critical flaws. First of all, you assume that it is objectively moral to save children at all. I would disagree with that entirely. While I would agree that saving those children is ethically obligatory, I would have to object to your characterization of it as objective based on assertion alone. I would, of course, do this using all of the rationale I've already used (essentially, that said ethical obligation was arrived at relatively). Second of all, you even assume that saving two children over one will be a default objective preference (barring what you basically characterized as extenuating circumstances). However, a deontologist would have a pretty big problem with that.

Hence, your thought experiment fails to prove any sort of objective standards because all you do is assert that they exist, but don't tell us your methodology for determining what's objective. It doesn't even address the origin of such codes, which is what's at stake in the debate.
Posted by dtclark2188 6 years ago
dtclark2188
Just one small point: It is entirely possible for ethics and normative judgments in general to be relative, yet objective. For example, in a non-ethical scenario, say a preference of drinks, I happen to be an avid beer fan. Because of my love of beer, and dark beer in particular, it would be the right decision for me to order a guiness or another dark beer. Perhaps, however, we change the circumstances of the situation such as my preference for beer. Let us suppose that I prefer red wine with dinner. Then the right decision would be for me to order a wine.
Let us examine this meta-normative principle and apply it to an ethical scenario. Let us suppose that on the right, there are two drowning children and on the left there is one drowning child, and you, a person on the shore, has time to save only one set of children. The morally correct choice can be affected by relevant considerations. Let us suppose that the child on the left is your child. This may or may not be an overriding factor, but it certainly is worth considering when determining the ethically correct action. Let us suppose that a fully rational person who's child is drowning is ethically required to save one set of children, and is ethically permitted to save his own child, whereas a person who is fully rational yet has no children is ethically required to save the set of two drowning children. The point is, it is often the case that an ethical action is changed from person to person based on their circumstances, but once the circumstances are established any person in circumstance x is morally required to act a certain way.
In relation to this debate, hopefully this conceptual analysis opens a new avenue. Clearly, there is some principle that determines what circumstances are relevant to determining an ethical action, but we at least conceptually think of first order ethical judgments as relativistic yet objective.
Posted by alto2osu 6 years ago
alto2osu
When did I say that I don't know from whence morality is derived? I simply find the variables too many to list. In my opinion, morality is primarily derived from temporary circumstances arising primarily from environmental/evolutionary constraints, as well as our ability to rationalize those constraints. While I don't doubt that we have an instinctual need to survive, for example, I am not willing to claim that all human beings would fulfill this need in the same way. Morality has to be divorced from instinct in this discussion because instincts and rational actions are not the same thing.

As for the "asserting rights universally" bit, I still think you are missing the point of a relativist standpoint, as well as of the debate itself. Relativism is an origins theory. If human populations, via reason or logic or circumstance or what have you, evolve a rights structure that is so similar between populations that it might as well be universal, then so be it. I don't object. I do, however, object to the notion that those rights came from anywhere but a process of evolution (i.e. that they've changed). Basically, relativism removes a justification for hegemonic colonization of cultures. Granted, your brand of universalism is a much more logical version than, say, manifest destiny, but universalism still contains the problem of determining whose rights structure is to be universally preferred, whereas relativism at least allows for the weighing and comparison of structures between cultures, because there *is* a possibility of having conflicting rights that don't polarize one as better than another, or one as good and one as bad.

There are some typos in the last portion of your response that puzzle me. Clarify?
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
RoyLatham
If morality is not determined by majority opinion than I see only two choices: 1. absolute logic prevails to determine morality, as with the rules of arithmetic, 2. morality is determined by the nature of the human species. You suggest that morality comes "from somewhere else." The notion that is comes from absolute logic is disproved by the moral rules that apply to different species, or to thought experiments in which the nature of different species occurs in intelligent beings. How could it be more obvious an that morality related to interaction with society onl applies to social creatures? You are only left with religious or quasi-religious explanations. Saying morality is relative, you don't know from where it derives, and yet you are willing to assert it universally make no sense.
Posted by alto2osu 6 years ago
alto2osu
That, again, assumes that under a relativistic viewpoint, one is forced to advocate that democracy is the only way in which one can establish ethical principles, and that human beings, as a cognitively advanced species, cannot come to like conclusions about what is or is not right for the species independently. The nature of the debate is not so much whether or not relativism justifies atrocities. It is how we came to the knowledge or the belief, that oppressive societies are bad (for example). The relativist doesn't attempt to justify all manner of horrific action. I explained that throughout the debate. As a relativist, I can support the tenets of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, for example, and I can criticize countries that choose not to follow it. I would simply assert that such rights come from somewhere other than a universally recognized human nature or transcendental force that exists outside of like experiences. What you are suggesting, Roy, is that all relativists operate under the assumption that tyranny of the majority is an acceptable acid test for determining what is just or right, which isn't the case. Democratic decisions can lead to determinations of right and wrong, but as history has illustrated, they don't always.

Like, you are basically missing the point of the original debate, and of relativism in general, which seeks to explain where ethics came from.

Lastly, though, I would say that a relativist would have no problem, assuming he or she believed in the rightness (temporally) of the right to life or not to be oppressed or whatnot, to intrude on situations such as those in Afghanistan. Just because the right to life has been established relativistically does not mean that we don't have an obligation to then protect that right. Granted, there are probably some hardcore relativists that would say violations of widely established rights and ethical principles are acceptable, but they don't have to.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
RoyLatham
An expert on Afghanistan recently said, "The Afgan are willing to die for the right to right their wives and subjugate women." Some percentage of women agree, so they have a majority in favor of a repressive society. Therefore the they have established an ethically sound principle under relativism, and as such there are no grounds for complaint. It is only rationally disputed by pointing to the nature of humans not to want to be tortured and oppressed.
Posted by alto2osu 6 years ago
alto2osu
Just saying that relativism is meta-ethically bankrupt doesn't really do the job. Relativism is merely one branch of meta-ethics, and it does, in fact, answer the question you pose. A relativist would answer that question by saying that something is good or bad, right or wrong, because people say that it is after coming to a cognitive conclusion about it based on a number of culturally or geographically relative factors. How does being a relativist negate the possibility of being able to establish ethically sound principles and behaviors?

Furthermore, being a legalist means I'm bound by statutes, a constitution, etc., not by a social contract. The two are, for the most part, mutually exclusive in that one does not have to make formal laws, technically, in order to meet the terms of a given social contract (depending on which social contract theory one is advocating). I do believe in social contract theory, but not necessarily legalism. In fact, I think it would be awfully silly, as a moral relativist, for me to endorse the following of temporal societal laws as constantly or universally right. On the other hand, I can rationalize my way to certain contractual rights without violating my original advocacy.

It's summer, so bring it on :) Rather, gimme like a week or two to settle. Still checking out-- not quite done teaching yet :P
Posted by J.Kenyon 6 years ago
J.Kenyon
1 - Moral relativism is meta-ethically bankrupt. That doesn't answer the basic question of why he *shouldn't* shoot you.

2 - Only if you're a legalist.

Also: You, me. Debate on vouchers. Soon.
Posted by alto2osu 6 years ago
alto2osu
Haha. Ahahaha. Ahahahahahahahahahaahahaah! Oh ho ho ho! Hahahahahahahaah! Oh ho ho. Ha. Ha haha. *snort* OMG, Jesusrules. Thanks for the laugh. This week hasn't been going so well, and I really appreciate that.

But, respond to your idiocy:

1. Clearly we can have moral standards without having a universal one. Where's your warrant that says this is true?

2. Being from the US, you and I have both acquiesced to the social contract, and all of the legal constraints that come with giving up our natural right to seek our own justice against those who wrong us. Hence, you shooting me would (duh) be a violation of the ethical code currently being enforced within the country's borders. Hence, your action would be "immoral," per se, as it violates some pretty clearly established societal codes of conduct. You basically just asserted that you and I live in an anarchical state, when we clearly don't.

Now, if we were both in, like, Iran, and I was your wife, and we belonged to an extremist wing of the Islamic religion (and I mean extreme), you would be perfectly justified in executing me for what we would consider here to be nefarious reasons. You could, in fact, come and shoot me.

So, nice try, champ. It was a real funny read.
Posted by Jesusrules 6 years ago
Jesusrules
Hey alto2osu, since you believe there is no universal moral standard, I'm going to shoot you soon. You can't justify that without a moral standard so in you eyes it is okay. If you say it is wrong you contradict your belief.
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