Saturday, April 23, 2005

The relativism industry I: Moral objectivity & facts

As I was trawling through right-wing Christian sites, I came across this post about abortion. It's a well-written description of how people may rationalize the decision to have an abortion. Here's the part that caught my eye:

In our current “dictatorship of moral relativism,” it is entirely possible to convince ourselves that obvious fallacies such as this can be true.....Thinking in this manner creates complete anarchy in the psyche. If there are no absolutes, then I cannot find my way.

The majority of the post is oriented toward rationalization, which is a different beast from relativism altogether. The author discusses rationalization as a mode of thinking wherein the agent tries to blur clear black and white lines. In doing so, the agent makes the decision a hard choice, with the result that the agent is able to grant her/himself a greater margin of error. If it's a hard choice, the agent can't be blamed for making what turns out to be the wrong case.

This doesn't really have anything to do relativism. Instead, it turns on "situational ethics," or "moral particularism," which, roughly, is the idea that moral principles aren't useful. There is a wrong or a right decision in any given situation, but we can't discover which action is right simply by recourse to moral principles. For example, we all probably agree murder is wrong. What about self-defense? Well, there's an exception to the principle in that case. And as we keep going through different scenarios, we start seeing that there are so many exceptions that the principle, by itself, isn't determinative of the correct answer. When every case is an exception, it's hard to see how a principle even exists, or if it does, how it is useful. That's the gist of it (a full defense of this philosophy is outside the purview of this post, by the way).

As should be clear, it isn't relativism: moral particularism presupposes that there is a right action in any given situation, and the rightness of the action is wholly independent of the agent. By contrast, relativism is the thesis that the rightness of an action or principle hinges on the belief of the agent. It's the direct opposite of moral particularism, then, in that the truth of morality is agent-dependent.

As moral particularism highlights, many moral arguments turn on factual disputes. Abortion is the clearest example of this. The moral acceptability of abortion turns on the personhood of the fetus.

In the comments to that post, grannygrump writes: "the whole idea of declaring that some human beings are not "persons" is moral relativism in action. It's saying that each person can choose which other human beings constitute "persons" or not...." If this were an accurate depiction of the pro-choice position, it'd be correct, but it isn't an accurate depiction. The truth of the proposition that a fetus isn't a person is independent of the agent that believes it. In other words, I don't get to "choose" whether a fetus is a person, no more than I get to choose whether Rome is in Italy. The disagreement is factual.

Strangely, not even the recognition that many disputes are factual, rather than moral, stops the "relativism industry" (a term I'll use to designate the organizations and individuals that keep droning on about the evils of relativism) from claiming that factual disputes are actually part and parcel of relativism:
An interesting feature of Cultural Relativism is that it seems to indicate that the moral disagreements between cultures are not actually moral disagreements, but are disagreements of fact. Again, let’s take the issue of abortion. The Pro-Life position argues that it is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. The Pro-Choice position actually agrees with the Pro-Life position on this essential point.

From the foregoing, we can take a stab at one way the relativism industry defines relativism: relativism is disagreement over relevant factual issues when both sides agree that the moral principle at issue is objectively true.

Maybe there's a way that isn't totally incoherent, but I don't see one.