Friday, April 20, 2007

Relativism vs Absolutism

[originally written June 7, 2006]

The original version of this brief followup to "What Moral Relativism Means to Me" came about because I ran across a set of blog postings that were valiantly trying to keep a discussion going, with multiple posts cross-linked across multiple blogs. The discussion was about moral relativism. Naturally the whole thing became very confused, but that’s not entirely due to the blog medium. Part of it is that academic philosophy itself has confused the issue of with a plethora of nomenclature about all possible permutations of moral philosophy. Yet there seems very little comment concerning what seems to me to be the central issue (noted in my original essay): that people have a certain agenda when they decry “moral relativism” and that agenda certainly looks like it’s designed to excuse a refusal to consider differing points of view.

While it’s usually dangerous to use scientific analogies in moral and ethical inquiries, I’m going to take the risk and use Special Relativity as an example. What’s interesting about Relativity in the scientific sense is that it is not at all in opposition to objectivity; Special Relativity is objectively testable and has passed every such test. Similarly, there is nothing in the idea of Moral Relativism that requires it to conflict with objective reality. It is true that someone’s subjective viewpoint of what is good or bad (for them) is central to moral relativism (or at least my version of it), but it is often pretty easy to objectively determine whether or not a particular event is good or bad for someone who isn’t you. Give a hungry man a meal: probably good. Hit him over the head with a hammer: probably bad. The fact that there are exceptions to both of these general rules only underscores my point.

What Special Relativity does is overthrow the ideas of Absolute Space and Absolute Time, or more technically, the idea that there is an Absolute Reference Frame. Other sorts of Absolutes are not absent from science, though there are often some interesting caveats. Absolute Zero, for example, is a perfectly respectable scientific concept, it just happens to be unattainable as a practical matter. Nothing wrong with that.

So I’m holding that “Moral Relativism” does not stand in opposition to whatever one would mean by “Objective Morality” (though I think that the only meaning the latter can have is that one would judge an action by its objective consequences, and not, for example, what one intended those consequences to be). Rather, “Relativism” would stand opposed to “Absolutism.”
That evens the odds, I think. I mean, how many followers would Ayn Rand have gotten if she’d called her philosophy, Absolutism?

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