Sunday, March 8, 2015

An Argument FOR Relativism In Morals

The recent article regarding the existence of moral fact, an article in the New York Times philosophy page, The Stone, claiming that relativism is now beginning to be instilled in grade schools and that college students are more morally relativistic than ever, has received a scathing rebuke from Slate columnist, Daniel Engber. Engber begins by slashing philosopher Justin McBrayer for not providing any empirical science in support of his claims. Rather, says Engber,
"So that’s the argument. And here’s an opinion: It’s total crap. If you subject McBrayer to the sort of claims-testing that is routinely taught to second-graders—i.e., if you assess it using evidence and observation—the essay falls apart. There’s no evidence that college students are any less morally resolute today than they were in years past. There’s no evidence that public school lesson plans are changing how we think (and besides, the Common Core hasn’t been around that long). There’s no evidence that moral relativism, McBrayer’s bugbear, causes “rampant cheating,” or indeed any other substantial harm. In fact—in fact—most of the evidence goes the other way.
So Engber is asserting that McBrayer's entire premise is not fact - actually empirical factoids - it is opinion. False opinion, according to Engber, at least at this point in the article. But is this denial, itself, fact? Or is it opinion? Engber chooses to produce some studies which refute McBrayer, but the first study is not released, and presumably is not peer reviewed, either, so empirically it is irrelevant. And it can be ignored in light of a subsequent study to which Engber refers us which does, in fact, refute his own position:
"For another recent study, conducted at UCLA, researchers presented students with relativistic and objectivist accounts of female genital mutilation, then asked them to roll a pair of dice and report the result in exchange for tickets to a raffle. (The higher the roll, the more chances they would have to win.) In the end, students who had been primed to think of morals as negotiable ended up reporting higher dice rolls—a clear sign that they were cheating. Other research, using standard questionnaires to assess people’s moral outlooks, has found that moral relativism correlates with willingness to switch price tags at a store, or to lie about a child’s age to get a kiddie price, or to copy software illegally.

McBrayer may be onto something: If you put relativist ideas into people’s heads, they do get a bit nihilistic, and in general, relativist worldviews are indeed associated with at least some minor misbehaviors."

[emphasis added]
Minor misbehaviors? That is a judgment which resonates relativistic, considering that all three examples are illegal, and are criminal behaviors, apparently lurking just below the surface without a moral fact to inhibit them. A worldview based in moral fact would not be so easily led into crime. Engber has presented a refutation of his own high volume attack.

Thus Engber tries now to recoup his position by placing irrelevancies in the path, hoping for some intellectual stumbling:
"But there’s another batch of research that complicates the story. The psychologists Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley have found that more objectivist moral thinkers tend to be more closed-minded. When confronted with a disagreement, they’re not inclined to understand the other person’s point of view. They’re less likely to say they’d want to have that person as a roommate, or to adjust their own opinions through discussion and debate. Goodwin and Darley even found that moral realists perform worse on certain kinds of logic puzzles that require thinking through alternative scenarios. (Here’s one—the five-block task.)

So moral relativism makes us more corrupt, but it also keeps us open-minded; moral objectivism keeps us on the straight and narrow, but it also breeds intolerance. Is one of these outcomes clearly better than the other?"
Here Engber is trying to justify moral relativism under a new moral presupposition: discrimination against immoral actions and immoral people is "intolerance" - clearly immoral in Enger's mind, but there only. All the features Enger decries are facets of the same failure, (except not understanding the other person's point of view, which is likely false, given that the other point of view is unknowable due to being relative): under relativism the holder's point of view is that whatever he decides is morally OK, is in FACT, morally OK. That is perfectly understood. And for those with actual fixed morals which are relatable to immutable facts, that opposite point of view is an indicator of untrustworthiness, and is not a feature of a person to which one wishes to be attached. Discrimination against such people is purely common sense, and is evil only to those people who don't believe in evil. And therein is Engber's intellectual and moral failure. Still, he calls in back-up:
"For a second opinion, I called my friend Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale who has worked on related questions. He thinks there’s no more reason to be fearful of moral relativism than there is to think that atheists are untrustworthy because nothing compels them to be good people. “I think there’s a lot of reason to be terrified,” he said, “not of the [relativistic] people who end up being miscreants, but of the people who are so full of conviction about whatever religious views they hold, and they’re absolutely convinced theirs is the only right way to think.” You know, like the types who might join ISIS."
First, there is no reason whatsoever to trust anyone whose morals are self-derived and instantly volatile. To do so would indicate irrationality on the part of the credulous naif.

Second, he has asserted a false analogy: Islam is itself highly relativist, allowing any sort of bad behavior based on the situation. Under jihad, any passion may be exercised, be it sexual lust, blood lust, the lust for power, the lust to own women and slaves. All are both prohibited and allowed under Islamic documents, thoughts and the very life of Muhammad. So this argument fails, and fails hard. Yet Engber charges on with more arguments consisting of relativism which actually exists in many minds, and then ends with this:
"Those data tell us, once again, that these questions don’t have simple answers. College freshmen may come off like fools, doubting every moral universal, but perhaps we ought to think of their displays as a form of practice. They’re learning how to weigh the evidence and challenge their beliefs. That’s a skill worth having, whether you’re an undergraduate or a writer for the New York Times."
Here's an actual skill suggestion for Engber and any relativist apologist: perform a disciplined, grounded, Aristotelian deduction which shows the truth which inheres in relativism. The mere concept that there is a truth of any sort, even relativism as the correct view of anything, proves the contrary: Some statements are objective truths and can be shown to be objective truth by virtue of their deduction and testing under Reductio Ad Absurdum. But that is known logic. Logic is not the essence of relativism nor that of its apologists, who rely on their emotional state to dictate moral responses. Relativism asserts that what is true is that which seems true to me, only here and only now and only for this case which presents itself. But if there are immutable truths by which to compare and judge the congruence of the present situation, then relativism is false, logically. And if there are moral deductions - and there are - then relativism is morally false as well.

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