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Humanist morality
Posted: 24 May 2007 01:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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mckenzievmd - 24 May 2007 12:03 PM

I don’t see how any system of values can originate outside of opinion, so in some sense it is subjective.

Well, biological fitness would be a counterexample to that claim. It is not a matter of opinion (or not essentially a matter of opinion) that X might or might not be more biologically fit than Y. And fitness can be the basis for a system of values ... indeed, biologically, fitness itself is a value.

As I do believe that human notions of ethics come from selective pressures on our ancestors, I believe that one very fruitful place to look for objective bases of our ethics is in such notions as fitness. (Although that said, I do not believe that fitness literally grounds ethics).

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Posted: 24 May 2007 01:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Well, I think we’re saying much the same thing in different ways, looking at different levels of the phenomenon. I would say our ethics comes ultimately from our needs and desires, the inherent nature of our brains and how they work, and the requirements of our social system. Needs and desires are, of course, the proximate expression of the ultimate driving force that makes us what we are, the evolutionary processes that have shaped us. Needs and desires are how the brain manifests selective imperatives and drives action. Our social environment is both an adaptation and a selective force in itself. So in this sense, biological fitness can be said to underly ethics at quite a remove, and mediated by our subjective feelings and opinions. But when most people (perhaps not philosophers?) talk about objective vs subjective morality, they seem to be talking about whether specific values and standards come from what we think and feel or from some independant source (usually God). They then make the usual unjustified extensions I criticised above in saying that if they come from what we think and feel they must be arbitrary and whimsical. I do think moral standards and moral reasoning arise from how we feel about things, from our opinions, and that this makes them variable depending on the factors that affect our feelings, our needs, and our desires. However, you are right in that these feelings and desires are, of course, the mechanism by which we have been adapted to our selective environment. So morals are ultimately opinions, but as I keep emphasizing these opinions are constrained by their source, namely a biology that has derived from a specific selective natural history. So in a sense we are saying much the same thing.

I am leary, though, of making anything we might label “biological fitness” a deliberate or conscious basis for ethics. I once read an article from the excessive fringes of sociobiology arguing that rape could be explained as a backup reproductive strategy for “marginal males” unable to gain access to mates in more mainstream, accepted ways. Apart from the specific flaws with this thesis (e.g. rape is rarely results in actual reproduction), it makes the mistake of conflating what may be right in terms of biological fitness and what is right morally. At least, I think this is a mistake. Our feelings of empathy and compassion may stem from the exingencies of our sociality as a species, which is an adaptation to the environment, but these feelings can lead us to standards of behavior that don’t conform to strict notions of fitness, in terms of increasing the frequency of genotypes. As Dawkins says about religion, I think correctly, that it may in some ways be a side-effect of a mechanism that has adaptive value even though it manifests in ways that may not actually be adaptive, so I say much of our morality and ethics may be a spillover or side-effect of behavioral systems that are in general adaptive but may lead to specific behaviors that are not “right” in strict fitness terms but may be “right” in moral terms. So the link between evolution and ethics is real, but it is complex and indirect, so I would only say it underlies ethics in complex and indirect ways, and I don’t think it’s a great deliberate, “objective” foundation for a system of ethics.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 02:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Right, well, the rape case and many others are what led me to say that I don’t believe that biological fitness grounds ethics. (To be fair to the authors of that oft-maligned paper, they made precisely the same point. It is also a fallacy to say that because something is morally objectionable, it cannot have been selected for).

The problem many people have with moral relativism is that it makes moral judgment into a species of taste or fashion. So, now it is fashionable to believe that slavery is wrong, that discriminating against people due to race, sex, sexual orientation, etc., is wrong, that being an atheist is OK ... and before it wasn’t fashionable.

That really isn’t what got the enlightenment started, IMO. When we say that moslem women are being discriminated against in Saudi Arabia, we don’t simply mean that that opinion is a sort of fashion among westerners and not among Saudi moslems. We mean something rather stronger.

Now, you may well say that your variety of moral relativism allows you to capture something of the “stronger” claim that I suggest we are making. But I am not at all clear that this is possible, if one is honestly sticking to moral relativism. A moral relativist must say that in the final analysis every moral system is equally right or wrong for the people who follow that system. Our system is right for us, the Saudi’s is right for them. And there is really nothing deeper that can be said about it. But then why the moral outrage on our part? All it is is a species of taste, no different in its type than the difference of opinions between those who like vanilla and those who like chocolate ice cream.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 02:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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A moral relativist must say that in the final analysis every moral system is equally right or wrong for the people who follow that system

I still see this as an extreme extension of the concept, not the fundamental concept itself. So maybe I’ll call myself a “weak” moral relativist in that I believe all right or wrong judgments are ultimately based on how we feel about things (opinions, though with a stronger affective connotation). And how we feel is shaped by biology (which makes moral standards frequently very similar across cultures), by our memetic environment (which explains differences to some extent), and by individual variation (which explains the rest of the differences). There is nothing in the world outside the human mind that has any relevance for ethics, beyond the influences out there that have shaped the human mind (i.e. selective influences).

I presume you would not fall into the camp that says every moral question, or even most moral questions, has only one right answer, that it is based on something so independant and objective all normal humans would agree on it, and that deviations from that answer are either pathological or willful evil and are unacceptable. I see this as the essence of moral abolutism, though it may be merely and extreme extension of the concept and not the fundamental conept itself. So would that make you a “weak” moral absolutist, one who would say morality is not founded on as trivial a basis as fashion or taste, but it is also not an absolute set of answers to all questions that exists somewhere in the external world waiting for us to decode it?

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Posted: 24 May 2007 02:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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mckenzievmd - 24 May 2007 02:30 PM

I still see this as an extreme extension of the concept, not the fundamental concept itself. So maybe I’ll call myself a “weak” moral relativist in that I believe all right or wrong judgments are ultimately based on how we feel about things (opinions, though with a stronger affective connotation). And how we feel is shaped by biology (which makes moral standards frequently very similar across cultures), by our memetic environment (which explains differences to some extent), and by individual variation (which explains the rest of the differences). There is nothing in the world outside the human mind that has any relevance for ethics, beyond the influences out there that have shaped the human mind (i.e. selective influences).

Well, all that you have said is actually consistent with either being a relativist or being an objectivist ... really what you’re talking about is moral epistemology. That is, you’re talking about how we come to opinions about moral matters. And of course you are right that we do this by our feelings, our biology and our ‘memetic environment’.

But what I want to do is to distinguish epistemology from metaphysics here. The epistemology we agree about.

The metaphysics, however, gets to the crucial distinction between the relativist and the objectivist. The relativist will say that there is nothing more to ethics than opinion—it has no deeper ground. In that sense, ethics is on all fours with other things that are based on nothing more than opinion. What subjects are based on nothing more than opinion? Well, subjects like fashion and taste. If we know that I like chocolate and you like vanilla, we also know that there isn’t any deeper “fact of the matter” as to which of us is “objectively right” about which is better. It’s simply a matter of taste. Or of fashion.

So based on what you’ve said here, I’m actually not clear on whether you’re really a moral relativist or not.

mckenzievmd - 24 May 2007 02:30 PM

I presume you would not fall into the camp that says every moral question, or even most moral questions, has only one right answer, that it is based on something so independant and objective all normal humans would agree on it, and that deviations from that answer are either pathological or willful evil and are unacceptable.

No, actually, I wouldn’t say that.

“Every moral question has one right answer”:  As I said above, no objectivist needs to claim such a thing. I am an objectivist about planets, but not every question about planets has one right answer. For example, the question “Is X a planet?” might not have one right answer, because the question is vague and there are intermediates that sort of are and sort of aren’t planets. It might be the same way with many ethical questions. (Like the ethical dilemmas that people love to discuss).

“All moral questions are based on something so independent and objective that all normal humans would agree on it.”: This isn’t true of physics or biology, so why think it would have to be true of ethics? FWIW, I do think that creationists are “normal humans”, they aren’t pathological, they are just terribly misinformed. (Or, as one might say, they are scientifically illiterate). The same is true of people who stone adulterers to death.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 03:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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I guess ultimately I am a relativist in that I think all moral matters hinge upon what we feel about things. That is, there is nothing outside of how we feel that makes something intrinsically right or wrong. Now, you call this opinion, which is a weak word with the connotations of superficiality and little emotional content. I think ther basic process by which we decide matters of taset and matters of ethics are fundamentally the same. If how we think and feel about something isn’t the foundation for the moral qualities of that thing, than what is? Again, the religious would locate the intrinsical moral content in God’s opinion. You keep implying that principles of ethics, like MIll’s or Kant’s, or that “biological fitness” could potentially be the source of the intrinsic moral or amoral nature of actions, and I’ve answered above why these specific examples don’t seem to work for me. So I still can’t see where morality comes from except how people think and feel about things. What is the “fact of the matter” apart from peoples feelings about what is important/right/wrong?

Now I do think there is a continum of feeling and significance. Nobody thinks spilling a glass of milk and accidentally cutting off their foot are equivalent, though they are both the same in terms of the processes that lead to the results. Similarly, I don’t think matters of taste and of moral reasoning are equivialent in significance just because they arise from similar processes. I think making that equivalence is setting up a strawman for relativism.

And of course I understood that you would not agree with the extreme position of absolutism I stated. The point of making the statemenbts was to illustrate that one can extend the fundamental principle that ethics are independant of opinons or feelings to a ridiculous extreme just as I feel most opponents of relativism extend it’s basic idea to extremes. We obviously agree that some thbings are more improtant than others. But when does a matter of taste become a matter of morality? I would argue that culturally relative perspectives are involved in defining this fuzzy line. What you wear is considered, excpet for the extreme of wearing nothing, laregly a matter of taste in much of America. However, in many Islamic countries, it is considered a matter of morality. The distinction is not so easy as your examples about vanilla and chocolate imply, and I think the reason is that the same basic processes are involved in making judgments ineither case. The difference is the signficiance and the consequences.

Finally, I question the relevance of your examples about planets. Planets are objects in the universe that we agree (though from other threads clearly not everyone agrees) an objective existence apart from humans. Whether something is a planet or not is just a matter of how we label it, it doesn’t touch on the fundamental nature of the thing. But morality and ethics are processes that only exist within and because of the human mind, so they have no objective existence of their own, no fundamental nature or “fact of the matter” outside of the definitions we create. When I posit an extreme position of objectivism, what I am saying is that I don’t think relativism means that all judgements are equivalent, only that morality and ethics are simply judgements people make, they have to objective existence, and the epistemology of how they are created we agree on. Objectivism seems to me to require that something apart from human opinions (and again, I emphasize I think we coulr replace that word with feelings, beliefs, values, etc and still mean the same thing in this context) exist on which moral judgements and intrinsic moral properties be based, and I’m not convinced such a thing exists.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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mckenzievmd - 24 May 2007 03:12 PM

But morality and ethics are processes that only exist within and because of the human mind, so they have no objective existence of their own, no fundamental nature or “fact of the matter” outside of the definitions we create.

Well, this is what is under consideration; it hasn’t been concluded yet.

Firstly, we both seem to agree that in fact ethical judgments exist outside of the human mind, in that other animals share certain of our moral intuitions. So we can’t say that they’re simply some feature of human society, the way skirt lengths or bell-bottom pants are.

Secondly, such judgments are not essentially linguistic either. (Otherwise non-linguistic animals couldn’t share them).  So ethical judgments don’t depend upon definitions, which are linguistic items.

Clearly, since humans have language and written history, we have much more complex and nuanced opinions about ethical matters than other animals would. That’s where the ‘memetics’ come in, and where Dawkins says that ethics is to a large extent a matter of argument and experiment, as we find what works and what does not.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 04:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Yes, having worked with chimpanzees and other primates for years I am convinced their moral intuitions or judgements are extremely rudimentary but certainly present and on a continuum with ours. DeWaal, of course, provides the best examples, but I also think he has a bit of an axe to grind with respect to the fundamentally benign nature of humans and primates socially, so I think he stretches the observatons and draws conclusions not entirely warranted from them. Still, moral judgements are entirely in the mind, IMHO, though whether only humans have minds sufficient to call them such with regard to moral reasoning is open to question. Any similarity between the ethical intuition of humans and other sentients, whether primates on Earth or much more sophisticated intelligences that might happen to exist elsewhere in the universe, still only reflects the similarity of evolutionary pressures and processes that formed the minds in question. Such congruities don’t necessarily constitute proof of the objectivity of the specific moral principles held in common. Anyweay, I agree with Dawkins’ conclusion you cite. Ethical systems have to be construction by rational argument and experimentation, with some effort at scientific analysis of outcomes, based on whatever fundamental principles the people in a given society can agree upon. The relativity of these principles, and the even greater variability in the final systems arrived at, doesn’t invalidate the method. I would argue there is nothing else to base ethical systems on since the supernatural is ruled out and since I see intuiting fundamental moral principles from observing nature to be highly suspect, subjective, and open to the danger of simply finding what you went looking for. Anyway, thanks as always for sharing your encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy.  It’s an area of severe deficits in my own education, so debating with you is tremendously helpful in clarifying my intuitive understanding and jettisoning that which turns out to be nonsense.  cheese

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Posted: 25 May 2007 10:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Mriana - 23 May 2007 11:21 PM

If you think they will read it, have them read this article:  http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/schick_18_4.html  It’s called:  Is Morality a Matter of Taste?
Why Professional Ethicists Think That Morality Is Not Purely “Subjective”
by Theodore Schick, Jr.

Well, they weren’t being very open-minded while I was trying to explain my point of view to them, which is why I finally threw up by hands and came over here!

They claim, of course, the “absolute” morality is the only way to go.  To which I replied that morality is only ever absolute in the sense that some authority figure will decree “The following laws are handed down by God and are NOT to be questioned!”, which is sort of begging the question.  What really had me puzzled was their claim that “most atheist philosphers” agree with them.  They would occasionally quote Nietzche (as if we’re all supposed to worship him as a Saint or something).  Once they quoted a “Dr. Pigliucci” in a debate with William Lane Craig as saying that human beings were machines (as if this were the final nail in the atheist coffin!).  I pointed out that the statement had no context; what did he MEAN by it?  But they just ignored me and went on.

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Posted: 25 May 2007 10:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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I wonder where they get their own opinions about morality. Do they get them from the Bible? Then I assume they are in favor of stoning adulterers to death, etc.

As so many other people have pointed out before me, simply saying that morality comes from god solves absolutely nothing. First, as I said before, Plato showed that this doesn’t make any sense. Second, how do we know what god believes? If we go by the Bible, we end up embracing clearly immoral conduct.

What modern day readers of the Bible do is to interpret away the stuff they don’t like. They use their own pre-theoretic intuitions about morality to decide what parts of the Bible are to be read literally and which are not. Well, a non-Christian has the same general sort of pre-theoretic intuitions about morality. The Bible here isn’t doing any real work. So it’s just hand-waving.

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Posted: 06 June 2007 12:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Here’s another article I found on this subject.  Not sure if it will help you or if you still need it, but it’s by Dan Barker:

http://www.ffrf.org/about/bybarker/goodness.php

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Posted: 02 March 2011 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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mckenzievmd, yes, but what I call wide-reflective subjectisim, that of Thomas Hobbes and the redoubtable David Hume, underpins paradoxically objective morality, which I call covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism.
    Thanks for this thread to which I have more to add.
                        Yes, Doug., as we both agree with Sam Harris about that fitness or health. That makes for objective morality.
 
                          No to absolute morality and yes to contextual, provisional humanism!
             
                          http://www.skepticgriggsy.blogspot.com
                         
                          http:/www.skepticgriggsy.wordpress.com                         http://carneades.aimoo.com
                                                                                      http:// http://www.rationalistgriggsy.blogspot.com
                          http://www.democritus’posterous.posterous.com
                          http://inquiringlynn.posterous.com
                         
                          http://www.naturalistgriggsy.blogspot.com
                        I’ve othe blogs at those portals! Sweet retirement!

[ Edited: 12 April 2011 05:56 PM by Carneades Thales Strato of Ga. [griggsy ] ]
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Posted: 12 April 2011 11:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Hiya guys, late to the party but here is my 2 pennies worth

I like both Mriana’s linked articles (this is the direct link to the second one). The first is better at directly addressing the weakness of theists positions and the latter at developing a more natural humaist ethics. Still the first will do for that too and is not far from the currently popular and controversial Carrier-Harris type of objective ethics. Check the Harris-Craig debate for Harris’ self-evidence arguments over the worst possible suffering.

I do think that, whilst Brennen is somehwhat correct about some of the first link’s self-evidence argument at the end, he was overly critical, the whole point was that the author presented criteria which did not rely on biased self-evidence and showed the problems with the various popular theories. The author is, I believe, a moral realist of the non-reductive naturalistic kind. Still he did not even attempt to develop that in the paper, only to identify some barrier conditions, and such conditions could easily be made consistent with Brennen’s weak moral relativism (indeed that is why I think he makes it “weak”!), if Brennen so chose.

I do think that a humanist ethics is better founded on the approaches of both Occam and Doug, and this is quite consistent with where ethics is at in the 21st century. In ethics, there are many moral realists of various stripes and very few moral subjectivists and even fewer moral relativists. Indeed the huge majority of non-theist philosophers support moral realism. Further one can arrive at an objective normative ethics, of a similar and convergent kind from a wide variety of different meta-ethical ontologies, both realist e.g. reductive and non-reductive naturalism, and irrealist e.g. error theory, fictionalism, contractualism, contractarianism or universal prescriptivism. Whether a theory is realist or irrealist, subjective or objective is a matter of where the line is drawn and it is not fixed. The only useful classifier I think is that subjective means a matter of opinion (human, alien or god). Most interesting work, whatever its ontology is on the objective side of that line, but theistic-based ethics remains firmly subjective in that sense.

Advocatus, all you need to do is show that their ethics is actually subjective and relative so that if they do believe in objective moral values it is incoherent to be based on the opinion of a God, or their opinion of which is the correct God, their opinion of what that God commands, their opinion as to which is the correct book etc. ad nauseum. Theistic-based ethics is more subjective and relative that secular versions and suffers the further disadvantage of denying this and asserting an unwarranted objectivity. (and this is only one line of criticism I am sure you can up wiht the others). All they have in defence is equivocation - switching from an idiosyncratic definition of “objective” as being independent of “human” opinion versus being “really” wrong that is independent of (any) opinion and special pleading - to fallaciously exclude their god’s opinion from what is usually understood as a subjective theory.

I would add that, IMHO, It is not up to you to defend a particular moral theory, although you can if you like. Apart from a few whacky Vox Day supporters who bite the bullet on Euthyphro, theirs is not even a candidate to qualify as an objective theory. As Doug notes, this was fatally demolished nearly 25000 years ago in the Euthyphro. My point about not defending a theory is that no amount of them criticising yours could rehabilitate theirs and it is a mistake to let them think otherwise.

I have not addressed the Brennen vs Doug debate but might later if I have the time (“Please don’t” I can predict Brennen thinking! wink )

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Posted: 12 April 2011 04:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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By objective,I mean open to all people,independent of religions, as is science, and like science, debatable and provisional. We ever have to refine extend our evolved moral sense to make that planetary ethic,advocated by Paul Kurtz. It is contextual: the context determines which principles we use,overriding others., such as saving lives trumps telling lies should some criminals demand to know where such and such are!
  By wide-reflective subjectivism, I mean our judgments override our mere whims and tastes. So, we should favour rights for the LGBTI people [ The I is for adult consensual sex.],no matter any one’s distaste for any of their practices.
  ” The Golden Rule is not a substantive moral rule from which we can deduce specific moral duties,;it is a formal rule that requires impartiality.Its substantive moral content that requires impartiality.Its substantive moral content is provided by our preferences : not as Lewis would have us believe, in the sense of whatever we happen to like or dislike ,but in the very different sense of our judgments of approval and disapproval -judgments that are often at odds with what we personally like or dislike and based on the insight that as a rational being,I cannot reasonably ask people to treat me in certain ways unless I am willing to treat them in the same ways. Such judgments are subjective in the sense that that they originate in the feelings of the people making them. But they are also objective in two important ways:first, they are universal and apply to everyone;second, they are based on the principles of equity and equality of treatment. So from the fact that moral judgments are subjective it follows neither that they vary from person to person nor that they are just ’ private ideas’ in people’s mind,” John Beversluis^ *
  So, I find that as these judgments override the mere whims, and do those two matters, that paradoxically, subjectivism can underpin objective morality. Or at least is no bugbear for humanists!
  Even simple subjectivism in the minds of quite moral people can justify itself as Beversluis notes abot Michale Ruse.
And as Keith Parsons* notes:” So even if morality is not intrinsic to reality, but is created by humans,it is sufficiently valid among all humans, that’s a sufficiently strong sense of objectivity to motivate and give humans a reason to behave in a moral manner.”
  ^ John Beversluis ” C.S.Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion.”
  * Both Parsons and Beversluis have pretty much quit the philosophy of religion, finding that theists just [ in my words”] put old garbage into new trash bins that we ever dispose.”
So, humanist morality is better for humans,other animals and the environment than the whimsical subjectivism of the writers who just made up religious morality!

Is Advocatus back? I got reinstalled @ Purple Planet, Advocatus!

[ Edited: 12 April 2011 04:45 PM by Carneades Thales Strato of Ga. [griggsy ] ]
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[size=6][/“size][color=redLife is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning>” Inquiring Lynn
      ” God is in a worse condition than the Scarecrow, who had a body to which a mind could enter whilst He has neither. He is that married bachelor. No wonder he is ineffable. ” Ignostic Morgan
” Religion is mythinformation.” An Englishlman.
  ” Fr. Griggs rests in his Socratic ignorance and humble naturalism.” Griggsy[/color]

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Posted: 12 April 2011 11:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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mckenzievmd - 24 May 2007 12:12 AM

While I’m not a fan of extreme cultural relativism, I think many of the arguments against it are crude, as is this one. Opponents of relativism often argue that acknowledging that different cultures have different moral beliefs, and that asserting the superiority of one’s own cultural belief system as obvious is self-interested and not based on reason or evidence but on ethnocentrism, is equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as morality and then positing the end of the world if the idea of relativism were to take hold. They then almost invariably suggest as an alternative a system of making moral judgements that yields as its results the value system they already hold.

The “almost invariably” is a weasel phrase. The fact is that not everyone does do this and so it does not follow that the reason they suggest this is because it fits their own pre-conceived notions of the good. I certainly have changed my moral views in the light of my study of ethics and, in particular, the application of what I regard as the best working hypothesis for moral realism and normativity, which I renamed desirism (the same changes might have occurred using other hypotheses, but that is how it, in fact, happened). As Dr. Johnson would say “I refute it thus!”. Your point can be dismissed as it is just a hastily generalised ad hominem.

Second although you do not like that your moral relativism that leads to normative relativism, everything you say supports this conclusion. You do reject it but, AFAIAA, I have not seen you make an argument that rejects it, you just don’t like it…. but you cannot invoke your likes and dislikes a this level of discourse, that is within meta-ethics.

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