Friday, 24 May 2013

Relative Criticism

Over the past few months, I sketched out a theoretical ethical structure based on the idea that a successful ethical structure will promote survival of those who use it.  Something I wrote in Morality as Playing Games could be (and in fact has already been) construed as saying that the ethical structure of another person cannot be challenged or criticised:

it is unreasonable to assess the morality of another person’s ethical structure

Yes, I did write this and I stand by it.  But please note the context in which I wrote the words, namely:

It seems that once the argument that ethical structures are inherently amoral has been accepted, it is unreasonable to assess the morality of another person’s ethical structure – which would be inherently amoral from their perspective.

Also note that later in the same article, I wrote:

An example might be useful here, since I appear to be straying very close to the form of moral and cultural relativism that is better labelled as “moral cowardice”.

This was not the first time that I have addressed concerns with moral relativism, having touched on it in The Problem with Sam.  However, after listening to a little discussion piece, “Moral Relativism”, I realise that it’s an issue of such import that it warrants further attention.

When discussing the problem with Sam, I wrote about how moral relativism is accused of being equivalent to moral nihilism which, at least in a pejorative sense, implies a belief that nothing is moral or immoral.  A stricter definition of moral nihilism refers to the lack of intrinsic morality.  This kinder perspective does not deny the possibility of an emergent morality, within the context of a society, but does deny the claim that morality is somehow inherent to the universe.

If one listens to conservatives such as Roger Scrunton, one gets the impression that those who subscribe to moral relativism have totally abandoned the idea of morality, as if there are only two choices: moral absolutism or nothing.   Apparently, the moral relativist makes a claim along the lines of “No-one else may judge me.  Only I may judge me.”

At the risk of appearing to agree with Scrunton, such a claim is patent nonsense – but not even the most intellectually feeble-minded moral relativist makes this claim.  What Scrunton is alluding to is some form of inwards-looking normative moral relativism, but the standard phrasing and I dare say the standard understanding is outwards-looking.  Moral relativism is not so much a question of what other people may and may not do with respect to me, but more about what I ought to do with respect to other people.  It’s an expression of a(n emergent) moral obligation to be tolerant, not a moral injunction against judging others at all. 

It would appear that Scrunton argues against a somewhat extreme, self-obsessed and rather conservative form of moral relativism – or at least moral relativism viewed darkly through a conservative lens.  It should be no surprise that he takes a dim view of moral relativism, since tolerance (2) is a liberal sort of concept.  Scrunton himself seems to prefer the term toleration.  Unfortunately, these two terms have merged to the extent Wikipedia’s entry on tolerance provides in its definition a link to toleration, even though the two words have quite distinct implications.

If I am characterised by tolerance, I am free from bigotry – I don’t look down on those who are different as being inferior or bad.  If on the other hand, I am characterised by toleration, I may be bigoted – I may see others as inferior or bad, but I put up with them.


Let us return to the ethical structure and the confusion about inviolability of the structure.  I do not wish to imply that you cannot make a moral judgment regarding other people, nor that one should not make such a moral judgment, even if they have a different ethical structure to yours.  All I am saying is that you cannot justify making a moral judgment on an ethical structure, your own or theirs.

In my argument, the whole point of an ethical structure is to make moral judgments on other people, and thereby assess whether they constitute a threat.  As an individual, therefore, it is rational to expect that you will be subject to the moral judgments of others.  In fact, it is rational to welcome those judgments.

If someone were to tell me that they did not want me to make moral judgements on them, my first inclination would be to ask myself why.  How would someone benefit by me not making a moral judgment on them?  Perhaps by evading my finely tuned threat detection mechanisms?  Equally, if other people make no moral judgments on me, how are they going to assess whether I am threat to them?  If no moral judgments are made, how can I signal to them that I am benign?  I could make my good intentions explicit by telling them that I am not a threat, but if they don’t make any assessment as to whether I am telling the truth then my declaration of good intent means nothing.

A sort of moral relativism is that is entirely rational exists in tier six, the lowest tier of the ethical structure that I recently discussed.  This layer involves conformance with a largely arbitrary set of societal standards and cultural mores, along with rules and laws which are derived from the upper tiers.  Some of these rules exist simply to be obeyed.  The more irrational such a rule is the better it functions, since obedience to an irrational rule is a better indicator of an inclination to conform than obedience to a rational rule.  For a good exposition on this sort of argument, I can heartily recommend Michael Shermer’s How We Believe.

An example of an irrational rule that indicates our inclination to conform is the wearing of a tie.  Ties are uncomfortable and, almost without exception, look rather stupid.  They can be positively dangerous, especially when using a shredder.  The only valid reason for wearing a tie is in order to send a signal that you conform (even if you have a tie in your uniform, you are still indicating an inclination to conform by wearing it – perhaps only to the extent that you are not expelled or sacked).  All societies and social groups have a range of such rules applying to not only what we wear, or how we cut our hair or colour our bodies, but also how we eat, what we eat, how we talk, how we sit, stand and walk, what we do on certain days of the week, who we have sex with and how, what animals we cultivate and which we have as pets and so on.

It is entirely reasonable to take a relativist stance on these “conformance rules” since they are arbitrary, even if they seem alien or odd to us.  However, when it comes to the five main moral injunctions, or tiers one to five, moral relativism is no longer a reasonable stance to take.

If it is ever unclear whether tolerance of an act is appropriate or not, I suggest asking yourself the following two questions:

Is any innocent party harmed by the act?

Is the act fair?

If an act is fair and no innocent party is harmed by an act, then I suggest that tolerance is warranted.  If an act is not fair, or it leads to actual harm, then I suggest that tolerance is not warranted.


By an “innocent party” I mean someone not involved in the act, meaning that consensual harm is excluded.  Consensual harm could be such things as involvement in a boxing match, being tattooed, pierced or ritually scarred, or engaging in sexual activity that is believed by some to condemn the participants to posthumous suffering or incorporates play which may be literally harmful (so long as such activity is consensual).

I don’t consider “being offended” as universally equivalent to “being harmed”.  In some instances offence may cross a line and thus constitute harm – an example being racial vilification.

In other instances, however, taking offence can be inappropriate – for example the offence one might feel when witness to the paucity of a builder’s vocabulary, especially in regard to adjectives but also adverbs, verbs, nouns and expletives.  (“#@&*! The #@&*ing little #@&*ers totally #@&*ing #@&*ed!  We’re #@&*ed!”).

You might be justified in feeling offended if the school principal spoke like that, unless he came from Australia (and more specifically Queensland), but that sort of language is usually expected from a tradesman.  You might even be somewhat disconcerted to hear one say “Oh my!  This irritating thing (the name for which I am temporarily unable to recall due to a sudden onset of incoherent rage) appears to be irrevocably impaired!  This is likely to have an adverse and maybe even devastating effect on our rather tight schedule and consequently on my finances as well as the economic viability of my company as a whole.  My distress at this situation is of such import that I am sorely tempted to abandon my endeavours and decamp forthwith, in my tastefully appointed and decal-adorned utility vehicle, with the intent of relocating with immediate effect to the nearest establishment providing alcoholic refreshment at a reasonable price.”  (For the Queenslanders among us, that last sentence can be roughly translated as “#@&* it, ’m’gar’n’th’pub.”)

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