Moral relativism

C. George Boeree
August, 2011


What we call good and bad are emotional responses we experience, judgements we make, and complex combinations of these.

There are situations that cause us pain and other forms of distress, to which we respond with fear, anxiety, disgust, and terror. We respond to others in those situations with similar feelings, and we label those responses sympathy, empathy, or compassion. These responses are founded on instinct, bred into us because they aided in our survival and ability to reproduce. They began as nurturant tendencies towards close relatives, especially offspring. Learning may extend these feelings to other situations and individuals, such as when we feel disgust at an act of injustice or compassion for an animal.

A second origin of our notions of good and bad lies in rational self-interest: If I don't hurt you, you will be less likely to hurt me. This extends to less direct forms of hurt: If I don't steal from you, perhaps I won't need to waste my time guarding my belongings; and so on. This can piggy-back on our instinct for compassion, so that I don't hurt you so you won't hurt my loved ones.

We teach our children principles we have learned from experience. Over time, these principles become a part of the culture, and continue to be transmitted whether reinforced by experience or not. They become codified as law, and a society may develop a justice system with lists of crimes and appropriate punishments.

Note that these principles, no longer formed from experience, may actually become counterproductive. And "justice" may come to involve acts which are actually counter to the more fundamental principles it is derived from, acts such as the use of excommunication, torture, or the death penalty.

It is in our rational self-interest to contain the actions of others by systems of justice - especially when some groups within our society become inordinately powerful. The weak must work collectively to protect themselves from the strong. They must even protect themselves from other collectives similar to themselves. This is the foundation of such things as sovereignty, democracy, and civil rights.

Morality, rather than being based on universals or absolutes of right and wrong, handed down from God or built into the very structure of reality as karma, is something that has and continues to evolve. If you look at the history of moral philosophy, systems of justice, and theories of government, you can see the slow movement towards compassion generalized to everyone, even despite the all-to-frequent back-sliding into greed and violence. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

What is refered to as the naturalistic fallacy ("you can't draw a moral ought from a natural is") is itself fallacious: "ought" derives neatly from syllogisms that begin with a principle, even if that principle is naturalistic. So, for example, if a creature has the desire to live, then avoiding imminent danger is what it ought to do. If a creature has nurturant instincts, then anything done to promote the welfare of its infants is what it ought to do. That the principle is relative to the creature and its circumstances is irrelevant. No one is claiming that the creature "ought" to desire to live or "ought" to have one instinct or another - only that, given those desires or instincts, an "ought" (in fact, many "oughts") is the logical consequence.

I've always been impressed by the "morality" of animals. Why do animals behave as morally as they do? They certainly haven't articulated any moral codes or principles. I doubt they comprehend the idea of "universals". But they behave in a manner consistent with their own best interests (and, quite commonly, the interests of their offspring and other relations). Although they may hunt, kill, and devour other creatures, they usually do so with what we refer to as "innocence", that is to say, without evil intent, without any desire to cause suffering. They do what needs to be done.

We are animals, too, and fairly sophisticated ones at that. With our big brains, our capacity for communication, and our ability to transmit our experiences beyond our valley and life-time, we can refine "doing what needs to be done" into something that serves our needs better and better.

It is obvious to most of us that certain tendencies in our cultures serve our needs better: diplomacy rather than war; distribution of wealth rather than hoarding; care for children, the elderly, the sick, the needy; freedom of thought, expression, and action (to the extent that those freedoms do not infringe upon the freedoms of others); and so forth. Compassion, and, consequentially morality, is a profoundly "selfish" thing.

© 2012, C. George Boeree