January 17, 2006

Can I Lie or What?

Something occurred to me recently that I had never thought of before: If you are a full-blown relativist, then you cannot affirm that there is such a thing as a lie. You see, "lying" is intentionally hiding or twisting the truth. But if there is no such thing as truth (as epistemological relativists believe), then the "lie" is just as valid as what some might consider the "truth." Truth must exist in order to say that someone is out of compliance with it.

Now, in my experience, very few relativists want to claim that truth does not exist across the board. They generally have no stomach to defend relativism for mundane truths, such as the shape of the earth or the make and model of their cars; they are much more interested in disputing the murky areas of religious and moral claims. And since you may say "all religions are true" or "there are no absolute rights and wrongs," and not suffer the consequences in the next breath (like denying on-coming traffic), you may imagine yourself to be wise.

However, if you insist on maintaining that there are no rights and wrongs — goods and evils — then even if you can define a "lie" as some particular state of affairs, you can't then claim that there is something "bad" about it.

For example, let us say that it is a "fact" that your money is in my pocket. If I then tell you, "I have your money," let us say that I have told a "toon." But if I say, "I don't have your money," let's say I've told a "slurm."

Now, if there is no such thing as evil, then that means that a toon and a slurm have equal moral standing. Indeed, they have no moral status at all, they are value-neutral. To say that a slurm is "bad" is to impose an external, objective concept upon it; it is to say that it does not measure up to some fixed and virtuous standard of behavior.

Of course, the relativist is certainly free to assign a private value or hold a preference regarding toons and slurms. She can say, "I don't like slurms" or, "being on the receiving end of slurms causes me inconvenience," but she can't call me "bad" if I enjoy telling her slurms. In fact, what if I said that I like to slurm relativists because they are all slurming slurmers? Would I be lying? Would I be wrong?

The moral objectivist (or moral realist) can say, "You betcha, even the relativist deserves our honesty and respect." But for the relativist there is no "wrong" answer here. Her conscience is freed to tell the truth or to lie as sentiment and circumstance warrants. Even if relativism were somehow "true," you can see why its broad acceptance would be cause for concern.



At 1/18/2006 7:45 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Not only that, but moral relativism is demanded by Naturalism.

So our new friend dagoods cannot say that I'm 'bad' to steal his car. He can only say that I was out of conformance with the law.

Yet, why was that law against theft enacted anyway? I'm sure it was enacted under the pretense that it was 'wrong' to do.

Hence, he's in a philosophical quandry especially in light of his profession as a lawyer.

At 1/19/2006 6:06 PM, Blogger SWMNT said...

How many full blown relativists do you know?

If you gather a large, diverse group of people together, you can come to a general agreement about what is right, what is wrong, and what can be considered "evil."

And: What is the opposite of relativism, and are there problems with that stance as well?

At 1/20/2006 12:45 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

I know none personally because a full-blown relativist is known by the term 'psychopath'. That's sort of my point. There are people who hold to moral relativism intellectually and then operate counter to it (try stealing their car). Or they hold to a philosophy that demands moral relativism by logical conclusion, yet they deny it thereby being inconsistent (such as naturalism).

If you gather a bunch together as you suggest you would find large general agreement. This bolsters our point against relativism. In spite of what people claim to believe they cannot get past their moral intuitions.

The opposite of relativism...the term escapes me..perhaps a 'moral particularist'? or 'moral objectivist'.

No, there are no problems with this that I see. Well, except for the issue of how to discern the 'objective' morality of certain gray areas. But to note difficulties in determining some moral principle is not really an issue with the question of whether there are moral principles.

Atheists (such as Dagoods) might object that the concept of an objective morality is meaningless in the absence of a transcendent moral lawmaker. And since he belives the non-existence of God is proven, he would then point out that moral objectivism is defeated.
This objection fails though, because the moral law-giver could be a non-personal thing such as gravity.

At 1/20/2006 1:25 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Jeff, that covers a lot of what I would say. Just a few additions:

I don't know any thoroughgoing relativists, but I do know many people who assume the position, or imply it by things they say, or who claim to reject moral realism (its opposite). This philosophy is also taught either directly or in an implicit way in most colleges (though I hear indications that it is going out of fashion), so it is something we feel to be worth engaging.

If one embraces it, he can't even have a meaningful dialog on ethical issues, since coming to some agreement and finding the "best" solution implies that there is a "good" and "true" that we are striving to attain, hard as that may be at times. But if morality is a fiction, then it hardly seems worth the sweat to attempt to reach beyond your own primal desires to seek the "good." Relativism is the root of rhetoric and sophistry.

It's good that you can see right up front (SWMNT) that there is "general agreement" among people about many aspects of morality. As Jeff points out, this is an observation that goes in favor of moral realism (or objectivism). For this reason, relativists are very keen to focus on those areas of disagreement across cultures in order to make their case. There may certainly be areas of complexity and confusion where disagreement can be found (just as in science and the humanities), but for morality to be objective, we really only have to find one principle that holds across time and cultures in order to defeat relativism. To the relativist, I would suggest "tolerance" as that principle, since they are usually quite adamant about championing this virtue. Unfortunately, they've redefined it to mean something other than its classical definition.

At 1/22/2006 12:10 AM, Anonymous straight-white-married-non-theist said...

I recently took a required course on ethics at the univeristy I attend. The author of the text book we used suggested relativism was OK for looking at a society, say, anthropologically, but not so good as an ethical system.

I wish I remembered more and could write more cogently about it. Maybe I'll dig out the book!

I'm curious about your statement, Paul, about the principle of "tolerance" being redefined.

At 1/22/2006 5:01 AM, Blogger roman said...

It seems to me that relativism is a way to justify "pushing the envelope" on established (tried and true) acceptable human behavior. The concepts of truth and morality have been bandied about by many philosophers over the years. Some even state that truth cannot be established due to the absence of absolute references. OK, so established consensus over time is not a good enough indicator anymore and because of this relativist ideal for unconditional references, we're supposed to steer clear of making judgements as to what is right and what is wrong.
It is this "all or nothing" idealism in philosophical thought that I find very unsettling.

At 1/22/2006 6:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...

SWMNT, sounds like that author actually holds to relativism in some form (i.e., he won't make absolute moral judgments, especially against other cultures), but he realizes that we can't live out the philosophy so we must pretend that morality is objective to keep the public order and to give teeth to the law. I think a philosophy that offers no advantage in practice can only tenuously be thought of as true.

Tolerance is the balm slathered over all this postmodern uncertainty. As long as this word is properly defined, then Christians can ally themselves with postmoderns. In our modern age it appears to mean a respect for differing beliefs and practices, even to the extreme of taking them all to be of equal worth and truth. A more historical definition is to respect and behave civilly toward those with differing views. Don't you first have to disagree with someone before you can "tolerate" them? And tolerance should not preclude the idea of debate. The classical definition makes the person the focus of toleration, whereas the new definition makes the ideas the focus. I like this quote regarding tolerance: "Be elitist regarding ideas; be egalitarian regarding people."

Roman, you are right in pointing out one of the failures of relativism: the inability to make value judgments, which we must do. I don't think dichotomies are invalid in philosophy though. There are many places where either/or distinctions are demanded, but there are other places where they are surely not. Relativism/objectivism seems to be one of those places where it is warranted. Perhaps you can make a case that there are some places where objective principles hold and some where we are free to be subjective (like what flavor of ice cream we think is "good"), but the relativist's position is that there are no objective principles. Typically, the relativist is working from a metaphysical model that does not support the idea of transcendent, external constructs like morality. So, to admit any principles undermines their system. On the side of moral realism, there may be situations where it is difficult to determine what is "right" in the ultimate sense, but this does not negate the idea that right and wrong exists and is worth grasping for.


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