Monday, April 28, 2008

Who are you to say that? Moral Relativism on the Run

One of my classes never ends without a student bringing up moral relativism. I've said before here that the conservatives are wrong about "tenured radicals". Students don't learn how to be relativistic liberals in the university because of liberals; they seem to come to the university already believing that there is no such thing as a universal morality. One student told me the other day he thinks morality is even "personal"--each person gets to decide what is right and wrong. ( I told him that he had just earned an F for the class. He asked why. I said just because. I asked him if he thought it was unfair of me to do that to him. He said yes. I asked him what fairness could possiblity mean in his world where every individual gets to make up what is right and wrong.)

Peter Singer offers evidence to suggest that not only is there something like a global human ethic, but that there is moral progress. Fewer and fewer people around the world today believe that inequality based on race or ethnicity is justified. Gender inequality is still more acceptable,but less so than it was a few decades ago.

It may be the case that people only say they believe in equality when they actually do not practice justice and fairness. Singer cautions us not to underestimate the power of shaming the hypocrite. Ideals matter and if we can work to make them part of our everyday language and expectations, then we are contributing to moral progress.

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At 11:36 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

I agree with you that moral relativism is incredibly problematic. In fact, while I still ascribe to some relativism, largely I've started to ascribe to universal morality, especially after reading Zizek, who argues that a universal ethics is even more necessary as our culture(s) become more and more insistent on moral relativism.

However, I am suspect of Singer's claims, and more so of the study he cites. Because people claim to value something does not mean that they do so at the level of action. As Zizek and others have pointed out, ideology is not what we believe but rather what we do. In fact, he argues, we are all cynics: we know what we do is wrong, but we do it anyway. We know it's wrong to be racist and sexist, but we do it anyway.

Perhaps pockets or even large pockets of the world are "better" than they used to be a half a century ago, but I don't feel I can trust a survey that asks opinions. This is especially true when we take into account Haney Lopez's claims that you've discussed before: People do not want to talk about racism, they see racism only when it's explicit, and we've privatized race and racism to the degree that very few seem to see it as an institutional problem.

Judith Butler has made wonderful analyses about who constitutes a human in our culture's eyes based on who we mourn. If we are selectively mourning, and not mourning the dead in Iraq and Palestine, are we (here "we" is problematic) really improving that much? If we aren't counting these folks as human, is our universal ethic really improving?

Of course, I've lived a short life, and I don't have the first hand experience of what race relations and international relations were like before 1990 (I was born in 1980), but I am suspect of claims of universal improvement — especially as our country dominates and controls globalization more and more.

At 12:45 AM , Anonymous galen said...

I think freshman relativists have a hard time keeping the issues of moral disagreement and moral relativism separate. Often times relativists invoke relativism to better explain why moral disagreements exist, but from what I've seen at OSU, for many moral disagreement just *is* moral relativism. Surveys like those cited by Singer seem to provide a reminder that there should be an inference in there somewhere (with such surveys weakening that inference).

On a related note, while humility is often beneficial, I think it would do ethicists good if they instilled in their intro students more ethical confidence. Sometimes it's okay--good, even--to say that someone has false beliefs about ethical matters.

At 1:29 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Michael: I agree that we are all hypocrites. As my good colleague and mentor Lani puts it, that's the human condition. But shame is a powerful moral tool. It may not be able to coerce everyone to be good all the time, but it seems better to have a moral ideal that people are not living up to than to not have the ideal at all. I tend to think human beings, in general, want to try to be good. In that sense, we need ideals to try to live up to. Perhaps the best that we as ethicists can do is to help us understand what those ideals are and what they mean, even if we can't get people to follow them. (and the concern about getting people to follow ideals is problematic too--being obsessed with people doing the right thing can lead to authoritarian tendencies. for when people don't do what you think is right, sometimes people want to use force to get them to do right)

Galen: I think you're right about sometimes having to tell people they're likely wrong. How do we do that? The fall back is usually "Who are you to say that?" In some classes, in which I've pointed out to someone that their ideas might not be warranted, I've been accused of being a bully. In others, students say they don't feel "safe" if they have their ideas questioned. Perhaps this is a problem of distance--people sometimes can't distance the discussion of ideas from what they hold dearly as part of who they are.

At 12:28 AM , Anonymous galen said...

I'm somewhat sympathetic towards those who don't yet feel "safe". But not really towards the "bullied". So I'm curious: at what point do you think non-majors need simply to experience reasons being required of them, regardless of how they might feel about it? I would like it to be from the start, but because I have no teaching experience, that may be unrealistic.

At 11:29 AM , Blogger Techmage said...

Is not judging moral progress on the aggregate of our expressed moral opinion stunning evidence supporting an underlying relativistic assumption?


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