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On theistic objections to moral relativity

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9/11/2014 9:59:57 PM
Posted: 3 years ago
(note: i am not accusing all theists on this site of having this position)

it has been my experience (surfing these forums) that whenever an atheist has a subjective or relativistic view of morality, and makes a claim that something is 'immoral' a theist will say that they are wrong. i often see comments like "how can you say anything is wrong if there is no objective morality?" and "isn't it hypocritical for atheists to believe x is immoral?"

i find this view rather inappropriate, and perhaps reflecting a misunderstanding of the absolute-relative, objective-subjective and contingency-necessity distinctions. i will delineate my understanding of those distinctions and then explain why i think a moral relativism/ethical subjectivism implies neither moral isolationism nor moral nihilism.

subjective- dependent upon the perspectives of a person or group
objective - not dependant upon the perspectives of a person or group
contingent - it is possible that it could be otherwise
necessary - it is not possible that it could be otherwise

absolute: to me this is perhaps the most important distinction. in its most fundamental sense, something is absolute if it is not relative. that means it cannot be subjective (since something being subjective means for it to be relative to the individual or group) nor can it be contingent (as for something to be contingent it must be dependent upon (and thus relative to) some set of circumstances, it is possible for it not to be the case). absolute also means without change (as to change is to be relative with respect to time) it is also said that it something absolute must also be universal and not particular, but i shall not be addressing that distinction.

relative: as absolute is the negation of relativity so is relativity the negation of absolute. nothing may be both simultaneously, and this distinction is so all encompassing that nothing may be neither. unlike the limitations of absoluteness, relativity is open to all of the other distinctions. something may be objectively the case, but only so due to some non-subjective relation. Subjectivity is a subset of relativity, as to be subjective is to be relative to individual or group. contingency is similarly a subset of relativity. necessity on the other hand, is a curious one. for something to be necessary means that it "cannot not" be the case, but that does not imply (as one might be inclined to believe) the negation of relativity, for it is possible that something may be 'relatively necessary'. an example would be mathematical systems 'it is necessary that 2+2 = 4, given the peano axioms' but we do not have to assume the peano axioms. thus one might say the 'necessity' of the truth of 2+2 = 4 is contingent (in the colloquial sense of the word) upon whether or not we assume the peano axioms.

now onto moral relativism/ethical subjectivism.

the token theists of which i speak seem to want to polarize (whether knowingly or unknowingly) moral theories into two major groups. moral objectivism based on some kind of divine command theory and moral nihilism (or at least moral isolationism). for those who do not know, moral nihilism is the position that there are no 'inherent' moral truths, be they absolute, universal, relative or particular. the term 'moral isolationism' is (in my experience) not often used. i do not know who coined it exactly, but i believe it was Mary Midgley in her essay 'trying out one's new sword' (a good read which i recommend to all) put simply, moral isolationism is the view that, since morality is subjective, it is wrong to criticize other people's moral systems or to make moral distinctions.

now to my eyes, there are three major camps of moral views, each of which have many sub groups. they are moral objectivism, ethical subjectivism, and moral nihilism. underneath moral objectivism is divine command theory, though it is notable that people like sam harris might say that there are objectivism secular ethical systems as well (i, as a relativist/subjectivist disagree with both harris and the divine command theorists). underneath ethical subjectivism there are two major groups that can be said to further split, the isolationists and the non-isolationist. and then there is nihilism under which may or may not be moral skepticism. (skepticism of any type is hard to classify, and i'm wary of giving it, its own group).

i am what you might call a moral relativist and non-isolationist. i believe that there exists (in reality) many moral systems. i am not convinced that any one of them is the 'true' or 'correct' system. however, i do think that certain systems are better than others. i believe that i am allowed to do that. now the theist may interject 'isn't that hypocritical?' or 'how can you 'know for sure' that they are better'. well i would say to such a theist that they are reading more into what i say that what is there. i never said that one moral system is 'objectively better' than another. in fact, i would argue that there is no such thing as 'objective betterness'. i say that it is 'necessarily the case' that no such thing exists. things like 'morality' and 'betterness' result from evaluation. but evaluation is necessarily a personal (and thus subjective) act. so nothing can be 'objectively moral' because there is no such thing as an 'objective moral evaluation'.

this particular type of theist may then ask 'why are you allowed to say other things are more moral than others'. i would then say that i have a system that allows me to do that. they may then ask 'what allows you to create such a system' i would respond that if i did not, then i would not be able to make coherent evaluations of other systems. the theist may interject here saying that i am being tautological or circular. i respond only, 'what's wrong with that?'. There is this contention that if there is no objective morals, then there are no morals, but this is blatantly false. to say this is (to my mind) to imply that 'subjective truth' does not exist. if thats the case, then sentences like 'i like icecream' cannot be true. they must necessarily be false. however, that they have truth is apparent to the one making the claim. thus moral nihilism is (to me) absurd.

still this type of theist may not be satisfied. 'why do you make moral judgements' or 'isn't it wrong to make moral judgements'. this is what moral isolationists say. however, moral isolationism is (to my mind) self contradictory. if i say that 'it is always wrong to evaluate other moral systems' for such and such a reason, regardless of the reason, i am stating an objective moral fact. thus moral isolationism crumbles. a well informed moral relativist must (as i see it) allow themselves to have moral opinions and allow themselves to express those opinions. of course, i may make an admittedly relativistic rule that i am not allowed to judge other moral systems, but there is nothing about moral relativism that necessitates that i have that rule. in fact, i might say that it is necessary, according to moral relativism, that there exist moral systems (or the potential of moral systems) that both do and don't have that rule.

so i think i have explained that moral relativism neither implies moral nihilism (in fact, i think moral nihilism is hoey) nor moral isolationism.

now i have made something of a 'straw thiest', though i have made it explicit that i understand not all theists have this position, i acknowledge that the questions i've provided for myself are ultimately limited and cannot be perfectly substituted with a real conversation with someone who believes i am incorrect. this is why i invite those with differing opinions to talk with me in this forum. i think it would be easier for me to express my viewpoint (and better comprehend others viewpoint) if i do so. ill be sure to respond as soon as i can.