Morality and the Human Condition, #5–Moral Relativism, & Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality.
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality
III.1 Moral Relativism
III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality
III.3 Moral Skepticism
III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism
IV. Morality and Religion
IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory
IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?
IV.3 Religion and Morality
V. Three Classical Moral Theories
V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
V.2 Millian Utilitarianism
V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism
V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles
V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas
V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics
V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section
VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation
VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism
VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd
VII.3 Camus and Affirmation
VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity
VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity
VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?
VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom
VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers
VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics
VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains sections III.1 and III.2.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality
In the Bible’s Book of Revelation, there were said to be Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Death, Famine, War, and Conquest —
and not dissimilarly, there are three classical challenges to the standard conception of morality:
(i) moral relativism,
(ii) moral skepticism, and
(iii) psychological and moral egoism.
Let’s now look critically at each of these in turn.
III.1 Moral Relativism
The basic idea behind moral relativism was crisply expressed by the most famous of the ancient Greek Sophists, Protagoras, who asserted in a treatise no doubt ironically entitled “Truth,” that
[the human being] is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are and of the things that are not that they are not.
Moral relativism, in turn, divides into two basic kinds:
(i) individual relativism, and
(ii) cultural, aka communitarian, relativism.
The thesis of individual relativism says that there is no such thing as universal objective moral truth and that whatever an individual believes is morally right or wrong, truly is morally right or wrong.
What is truth?, you ask.
For the purposes of this short course, by “truth” I mean the following:
A statement (judgment, belief, proposition, meaningful sentence, etc.) is true if and only if what it states (means, says, etc.) is actually the case.
So, e.g., the statement,
“Sweetpea the cat is looking at Bob Hanna from her cat-cave”
is true if and only if it’s actually the case that Sweetpea the cat is looking at me from her cat-cave, as per the picture after the fourth sentence directly below.
Moreover, notice that universality and objectivity are distinct — although still mutually consistent — notions.
Universality means that a fact, truth, or value holds in all relevant sets of circumstances.
And objectivity means that a fact, truth, or value can be known by any rational thinker whatsoever, and does not depend on any particular individuals or what they believe or feel.
E.g., it’s objectively true, as per this picture, that Sweetpea the cat is looking at me from her cat-cave:
Correspondingly, universality and objectivity are mutually logically independent notions.
On the one hand, a perfectly objective truth might nevertheless still be dependent on highly contextual factors — e.g., the statement about Sweetpea and me — and so not be universal.
And on the other hand, an absolutely universal truth might nevertheless still depend on particular individuals and what they’re believing or feeling — e.g., the statement,
“It’s absolutely true of everyone and of everything they believe, feel, or say — including Donald Trump in particular and whatever he’s believing, feeling, or saying right now (e.g., “FAKE NEWS!” “SAD!,” “The New York Times is an enemy of the American people!,” “ANOTHER WITCH-HUNT!,” etc., etc.) — that whatever they believe, feel, or say is not always both true and false.”
and so not be objective.
In any case, by contrast to individual relativism, the thesis of cultural/communitarian relativism says
(i) that there are no such things as absolutely universal objective moral principles,
(ii) that none of the many different culturally-/community- specific moral codes (including ours) has any special moral status because all of them are morally equivalent,
(iii) that each culture’s/community’s moral codes are incommensurable with all the others and can be inconsistent with any of the others, and
(iv) that the moral beliefs of each culture/community strictly determine what is morally right for that culture/community, and/or morally wrong for that culture or community.
Correspondingly, the primary argument for the truth of moral relativism, whether individual relativism or cultural/communitarian relativism, runs as follows:
(1) As a matter of empirical fact, different people have different and often conflicting moral beliefs about moral principles, and different cultures/communities have different and sometimes conflicting moral beliefs about moral principles.
(2) Therefore, there are no absolutely universal and objective moral principles.
(3) Therefore, there are and can be only either individually relative or culturally-/community-relative moral principles, each of which is morally equivalent with all of the others, incommensurable with all of the others, possibly inconsistent with any of the others, and true or false just because that individual or culture/community believes that it is true or false.
(4) Therefore, moral relativism is true.
Step (1) is of course true.
But obviously, step (2) does not follow as a logical consequence from step (1).
It’s quite true that from the fact that two or more different beliefs about X are mutually logically inconsistent, it does indeed follow that at least one of the beliefs must be false, because they cannot all be true.
Nevertheless, from the fact of two or more different beliefs about X, some of which are mutually logically inconsistent, precisely nothing follows about the nature of X.
Belief in proposition P does not itself entail the truth of P: the fact that P is not entailed by the mere fact of someone’s belief that P, nor is it entailed by the mere fact that a great many people believe that P.
Correspondingly, a belief in the denial of proposition P does not itself entail the falsity of P: the fact that not-P is not entailed by the mere fact of someone’s belief that not-P, nor is it entailed by the mere fact that a great many people believe that not-P.
So even given the truth of step (1), there could still be absolutely universal objective moral principles.
Moreover, even if there were no absolutely universal objective moral principles, still it would not follow that there are only individually relative or culturally-/community- relative moral principles.
That is because even if there were no absolutely universal objective moral principles, there could still be objective moral principles
(i) that held for a great many contexts, individuals, and cultures/communities, even if not strictly speaking holding for absolutely all contexts, individuals, and cultures or communities, and
(ii) that in addition could hold for any context, individual, or culture/community whatsoever, provided that certain favorable background conditions obtain, and hence they would hold “other things being equal,” aka ceteris paribus.
Here we can think, e.g., of the two moral principles “It’s impermissible to kill innocent people” and “It’s impermissible to tell lies constantly.”
There are obviously contexts in which these principles might not hold.
E.g., “It’s impermissible to kill innocent people” would fail when it’s morally permissible to kill one innocent person in order to save five innocent others, as in the case of The Bystander at the Switch, i.e., case 1 of The Trolley Problem.
And “It’s impermissible to tell lies constantly” would fail for someone’s lying constantly when they’re operating as an undercover agent in a morally warranted war against an evil enemy.
But on the whole, and other things being equal, these moral principles certainly do seem to be objectively valid: that is, they certainly do seem to hold for a great many contexts, individuals, and cultures/communities.
I’ll call such non-absolutely universal, yet still objectively valid, and genuinely although restrictedly universal — other things being equal, aka ceteris paribus — moral principles, fairly universal and objective moral principles.
Given the possibility of fairly universal and objective moral principles, the truth of moral relativism obviously doesn’t follow from steps (1) and (2).
Furthermore, there’s a classical and obvious problem with both individual and also cultural/communitarian moral relativism, having to do with truth and logical consistency.
If relativism were true, then if person A or culture/community C1 believes that principle P is true, then P is true.
But if person B or culture/community C2 also believes that principle P is false, then P is false.
So according to individual or cultural/communitarian relativism, principle P could be both true and false.
Indeed, according to individual or cultural/communitarian relativism, every moral principle could be both true and false.
But that’s absurd and unintelligible, precisely because it violates the logical Principle of Non-Contradiction in its logically thinnest and at the same time absolutely unrevisable version, Minimal Non-Contradiction:
Accept as truths in any language or logical system only those statements which do not entail that it and all other statements in any or all languages or logical systems are both true and false.[i]
So moral relativism is false.
Nowadays, it’s a standard response of the relativist to claim that for them, the words ‘true’ and ‘false’ mean true for them and false for them, and not anything objective.
But it wouldn’t even be correct for the individual relativist or cultural/communitarian relativist to hold that a given moral principle is true or false for them, just in virtue of the fact that they believe it.
This is because belief does not, in and of itself, itself entail truth, whether truth about the larger world, truth about oneself, or truth about one’s own culture/community.
All that can be validly concluded from the fact that a given individual or culture/community believes a certain principle, is that this individual or this culture/community indeed believes this principle.
It doesn’t follow that the principle itself is true, whether for them or anyone else.
So the thesis,
Subject S believes that P, but since the proposition P is other than just the claim “S believes that P,” then P can be false
is a logically or conceptually necessary truth about the notions of belief and truth.
Now the next move in the contemporary debate about moral relativism is for the relativist to try to define the meaning of the word ‘truth’ in terms of individual or cultural/communitarian belief — say, as warranted assertibility, or whatever.
But any such move, although it may suffice for playing interesting dialectical games in professional academic philosophy, runs directly into the self-evident contrary fact that any version of the argument
(1) X believes that P and P is not just the claim “X believes that P.”
(2) Therefore, P is true.
is a fallacious argument.
Or in other words, on no even remotely plausible construal of the meanings of ‘believes’ and ‘true’, does believes logically or conceptually entail true.
OK: so far I’ve argued that moral relativism — whether individual relativism or cultural/communitarian relativism — is false.
But cultural/communitarian relativism also has three unacceptably bad consequences
First, if cultural/communitarian relativism were true, then we could never legitimately assert that the customs of other cultures are morally inferior to our own.
Second, if cultural/communitarian relativism were true, then we could always decide whether actions or intentions are right or wrong just by consulting the moral standards of our own culture.
And third, if cultural/communitarian relativism were true, then the highly plausible thesis that there’s at least some moral progress over human history could not be correct.
At the same time, however, there are still two things we can learn from cultural/communitarian relativism, even if it’s false and also has some unacceptably bad consequences.
First, we shouldn’t be dogmatic about our society’s moral beliefs.
That is, we shouldn’t assume that all of our society’s moral beliefs are based on some absolute rational standard: some of them might be — in fact, some of them very probably are — mere moral prejudices.
Second, we shouldn’t be dogmatic about our own personal moral beliefs.
That is, we should not assume that any of our personal moral beliefs is correct just because it is based on our society’s moral beliefs: some of them might be — in fact some of them very probably are — the result of sociocultural conditioning imposed by groups of people with important vested interests in the effectiveness of that conditioning, aka hegemonic ideology, and reflect mere moral prejudices.
III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality
At this point, it’s helpful to formulate, explicitly, eight absolutely universal and objective logical principles of human rationality that I’ve been implicitly using so far, and that we’ll continue to use throughout this short course.
(P1) An argument in the logical sense is a set of statements or sentences such that one of the statements or sentences (the conclusion) is held to follow logically from the others (the premises).
(P2) A conclusion follows logically from a set of premises if and only if there is no possible set of circumstances such that all the premises are true and the conclusion is false.
(P3) An argument is valid if and only if its conclusion follows logically from its premises; otherwise the argument is invalid, because there is at least one possible set of circumstances in which all the premises are true and the conclusion is false.
(P4) An argument that is taken to be valid, or put forward as valid, when in fact it is invalid, is a fallacy.
(P5) If a conclusion follows logically from its premises, and the premises are all true, then then the conclusion must also be true.
(P6) An argument is sound if and only if it is valid and all its premises are true.
(P7) Contradictions are statements or sentences of the form, “Both S and not-S,” contradictions are necessarily false (i.e., false in every possible set of circumstances), and it is self-contradictory for any statement or sentence to be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect.
(P8) Any two statements or sentences are mutually consistent if and only if they are not contradictory and it is logically possible for both to be true, and a statement or sentence is self-consistent if and only if it is not self-contradictory.
Now we’re logically well-equipped to gird up our philosophical loins and take on the second of the three challenges to the standard conception of morality: moral skepticism.
[i] See R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), ch. 7; and R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 5.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 380
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