Moral Relativism vs Moral Discussion

Author: Lernaean ,

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  • Lernaean
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    Lernaean
    For the sake of this discussion, suppose you are a moral relativist. That is, suppose you don't believe that any moral laws, known or unknown, are true, correct, objective, or whatever label you prefer. 

    With that in mind, I've had some trouble recently reconciling my moral relativism with my ability to discuss moral issues with other people. I have a personal moral code that I try to live by, but I fully believe that it entirely subjective and no more "correct" than anyone else's. I frequently hear other people talking about moral issues and their views on them, and I often find that I disagree with them. I want to have a conversation with them about it but I don't know how to properly do it.

    How is one supposed to have a meaningful discussion about right and wrong with someone else if you fundamentally don't believe right and wrong objectively exist? It feels like I am essentially saying, "You should believe in my moral rules because I want you to." One can make these arguments from a pragmatic or compassionate or whatever standpoint, but valuing those standpoints still seems entirely arbitrary. 

    Has anyone else struggled with this issue or otherwise see a way of dealing with it? I enjoy having moral discussions with others, but I don't like feeling like some sort of hypocrite or fraud.
  • keithprosser
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    I don't know how to properly do it.
    "I don't know how to do it properly."

    It's all a bit to me vague... Perhaps you could flesh out a typical example.

  • Lernaean
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    --> @keithprosser
    I will give a concrete example. 

    I dislike it when people litter, to a significant degree. When I see a friend litter, I want to tell them that they shouldn't litter. But when you use words like should and shouldn't, you're usually making an appeal to morality and this is where the trouble starts. 

    In my worldview, there are no absolute moral rules. Littering is neither objectively right or wrong -- it simply doesn't have an absolute moral designation. Thus, I find it very difficult to tell someone they shouldn't litter because I don't actually believe that they shouldn't in an objective sense. I may not personally like it, but I find it hard to actually utter the words, "It is wrong," because I think that's a lie.

    I don't know how to have conversations on moral issues without feeling hypocritical. I can talk about the pragmatics of littering all day long, but whether something is or isn't pragmatic does not suddenly give it moral value.

    Littering irritates me, but I'm not doing the world much of a disservice by not saying it's wrong. The real problem comes with more touchy issues. I despise racism, but how can I say that racists are "wrong"? People who murder, people who prey upon the weakness of others, bigots, those with vile prejudice -- all of these people feel like scum to me. But how can I look any of these people in the eye and say they are objectively bad people when I don't believe things are objectively bad?

    This is my problem. I don't know how to have a meaningful conversation about these issues if I can't even claim that there is someone who is absolutely in the wrong.

    I hope that clarifies things a little bit, the issue I'm having is more difficult to put into words than I initially thought.
  • EtrnlVw
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    --> @Lernaean
    I don't know if this helps, but I like to break things down to positive and negative and whether or not someone has been influenced or affected by either. In terms of the personal life of any one individual there is less of a matter of right and wrong, or positive and negative but when you add another party to the mix the dynamics change drastically because now the potential to effect someone is a reality, rather than just the self. So to make things simple, one can break things down to whether or not they are effecting someone in a positive way or a negative way. The same could be said for the individual and whether or not their choices impact themselves positively or negatively. There's a lot of grey area here though, and in this case things that are neither positive or negative are just neutral.
    This should be pretty easy to distinguish if something is going to have positive or negative effect or if something is just neutral, by the impact it may have on someone or something. Beliefs and the lack thereof really play no part in this, this is about actions, positive and negative (right and wrong) are only viable in our interactions and therefore it should be simple to know whether something is going to be good or bad for the self or for another person. But again, there is also the neutral grounds and moral "rules" fall in this category because they are just rules. Nothing counts until actions are taken and until someone or something (environment) has been impacted by it.

  • keithprosser
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    --> @Lernaean
    Littering is neither objectively right or wrong.
    Littering is objectively untidy and inefficient.  Your brain identifies literring as having negtive utility and passes that information into your consciousness as 'littering is wrong'.


  • TwoMan
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    --> @Lernaean
    Good and bad are objective only as they fit into a subjective moral standard.

    I look at morality this way - one creates a moral standard such as "striving for the most amount of well being and the least amount of suffering for everyone" (good) being at one end of a spectrum and "the most amount of suffering and least amount of well being for everyone" (bad) being at the other. That is a subjective moral standard that most people would probably agree with. Any action that anyone takes can objectively be determined to be more good or bad as it applies to that standard.

    It gets complicated when priorities are not in agreement.

    In the case of littering, it can be argued that an eyesore has been created, there are possible negative environmental effects, someone may be inconvenienced by having to clean up the litter, etc. That can objectively be shown to be "bad" based on the above subjective moral standard. The person littering, however may place far more importance on their own convenience, rejecting those points as trivial and objectively place that action on the good side of the standard. That is why we don't always agree on moral issues. We have different priorities which have more or less weight when measured against a predetermined standard.


  • Discipulus_Didicit
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    --> @Lernaean
    It feels like I am essentially saying, "You should believe in my moral rules because I want you to." One can make these arguments from a pragmatic or compassionate or whatever standpoint, but valuing those standpoints still seems entirely arbitrary.

    Empathy. It's a thing.

    Morality only exists when there are two or more independent actors.
  • keithprosser
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    --> @Lernaean
    People who murder, people who prey upon the weakness of others, bigots, those with vile prejudice -- all of these people feel like scum to me. But how can I look any of these people in the eye and say they are objectively bad people when I don't believe things are objectively bad?
    I think the probem is reduced if you avoid saying 'bad'.  If you run into a racist bigot you don't say he is bad or evil; instead you say he creates hatred and division.

  • mustardness
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    --> @Discipulus_Didicit
    Empathy. It's a thing. Morality only exists when there are two or more independent actors.
    Most simplistic example is, we see someone yawning and that visual makes us feel like yawning also.

    Morality is good because it is inherently associated with civilized.

    Civilization is good because it inherently means a finite,  integral,  lines-of-relationship network, that, aid in two more humans cooperating, to accomplish a task that is civil ergo morally acceptable to the largest, finite set of humans.

24 days later

  • Snoopy
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    --> @Lernaean
    If your goal is simply not to speak hypocritically, just be honest that you don't observe the truth, believe in it or what have you, and don't speak in terms of morality, because nothing is right or wrong.  For example, one can appeal to empathetic reason under moral relativism.

    Honestly, your words seem more like you are just lost, humbled, and kind than someone who doesn't believe in truth, and that's perfectly normal.  I don't believe we are talking about moral relativism if you are just acknowledging your limitations.
  • WyseGui
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    I think you need to find a basis for your morality. Without that it's more or less just common sense. IMO morals are basically rules or creed we adapt overtime for the betterment of society. So when I discuss the topic, I use that as my basis for right and wrong. I think morality can be objective in that sense.
  • Snoopy
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    --> @WyseGui
    *Ethics

  • WyseGui
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    --> @Snoopy
    I don't think there is any notable difference
  • Melcharaz
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    Well, i look at things from a theistic moral absolutism, basically what God says is right is right and what he says is wrong is wrong.  I honestly have no idea how to think in a moral relativistic manner.
  • secularmerlin
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    --> @Melcharaz
    what God says is right is right and what he says is wrong is wrong.
    How do we determine what any god(s) say about anything?

  • Melcharaz
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    --> @secularmerlin
    use the text, what the text doesn't refer or apply to, depend on the spirit.
  • nagisa3
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    --> @Melcharaz
    You believe in the Bible?

  • Melcharaz
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    --> @nagisa3
    yes
  • nagisa3
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    --> @Melcharaz
    Literally?
  • Melcharaz
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    --> @nagisa3
    Im not sure what you mean literally. I believe the Word of God is jesus christ himself and therefore true. 
  • nagisa3
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    --> @Melcharaz
    That the Bible as written is true is what i mean by literally
  • Melcharaz
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    --> @nagisa3
    I believe the original manuscripts to be flawless and inerrant, i believe that translations of the manuscripts to be truth, putting aside typos or problems with expressing the original language.
  • nagisa3
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    --> @Melcharaz
    Ok. Cool.
    Did God create Adam or animals first?

  • nagisa3
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    --> @Melcharaz
    If you look at Genesis, you'll find two accounts, one that has adam created first and one the animals. A commonly cited example of biblical contradiction. Some others:
    “… with God all things are possible.” — Matthew 19:26
    “…The LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” — Judges 1:19

    “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father…” — Ezekiel 18:20
    “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation…” — Exodus 20:5

    “Honor thy father and thy mother…”– Exodus 20:12
    “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. ” — Luke 14:26

    “…he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more. ” — Job 7:9
    “…the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth….” — John 5:28-29


    Long story short, either god changes her mind a lot, the bible is written incorrectly (none of these issues are translation problems), or whatever other interesting workaround. But the bible contradicts itself a lot. 

  • Melcharaz
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    --> @nagisa3
    According to the bible in genesis. God created fish and fowl of the air on the 5th day and then God made animals and man on the 6th day
    Genesis 1:23-27.