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A Primer to Moral Relativism

May 21, 2013 Leave a comment

This is really just a writing exercise, although I suspect it will come in handy sometime in the future, when I actually have to use this explanation for someone else. In the meantime, here’s a simple primer to moral relativism~

What Is Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism is an umbrella philosophy consisting of several schools of thought relating to the moral sciences. As its name implies, moral relativism compares moral systems against each other, using the differences in moral systems to ascertain the true nature of morality itself. It is not exclusively an atheistic concept (and, indeed, moral relativism has been debated in ancient Greece and India, both of which were religious hotbeds), but as most modern religious belief systems tie morality closely to their deities, moral relativism today does not mesh very well with religious beliefs.

There are three main schools to moral relativism:

  • Descriptive: Descriptive moral relativism is the least extensive school of moral relativism, and simply states that people disagree on what constitutes as moral behavior. It is the “safest” stance to take, and is generally an accepted idea in anthropology, suggesting that different societies have developed moral systems in different ways.
  • Meta-ethical: Meta-ethical moral relativism posits the idea that morality itself is a subjective human construct based on our own collective biases, experiences, and preferences, and that as morality is simply a subjective and untestable observation of a social system, no moral system is inherently “better” or “worse” by nature than another moral system. Needless to say, all meta-ethical moral relativists are descriptive moral relativists, although not all descriptive moral relativists are meta-ethical moral relativists.
  • Normative: Normative moral relativism is the most extreme main school of moral relativism. Taking the viewpoint of meta-ethical moral relativism, it also subscribes to the belief that all moral systems are equally valid, and that it is necessary for everyone to tolerate each others’ moral systems.

As I am a meta-ethical moral relativist, we will be exploring this school of thought more extensively than the others.

What Is Meta-Ethical Relativism?

Allow me to pose a scenario, which I understand will be difficult for some to grasp, but please bear with me for a moment.

Imagine, if you will, that the atheists are right, that there is no god or gods or afterlife, and we simply cease to exist after we die. Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow, all of us – every single human to exist – dies. The “how” is irrelevant; what matters is that there are no longer any sapient lifeforms on the planet. (We are, of course, currently excluding the possibility of sapient alien life.) In other words, tomorrow, there will be a complete lack of intelligence capable of understanding morality, and therefore morality will cease to exist.

Meta-ethical relativism basically states that all morality is an anthropic subjective social concept that fails to qualify as a “universal truth”; morality only exists because we are capable of considering it, and that if we are gone, then morality itself will also not exist. The laws of reality are considered universal truths, things like the laws of gravity, mass, light. They follow very specific rules, and will not change no matter how we wish it so. However, meta-ethical relativism suggests that morality can easily change, that we basically invent morality for our own purposes, and that insinuating that one moral system is inherently better than another is no more sensible a statement than “vanilla ice cream is inherently better than chocolate ice cream”.

As an example, let us take a look at natural rights, otherwise known as “inalienable rights”. Wikipedia defines them as “not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable”. But, of course, natural rights are not actually universal. After all, for thousands of years in human history, slavery and the oppression of women existed globally, violating the natural right of equality. (If anything, legal equality is a relatively recent phenomenon in the mainstream, seeing how the United States did not actually outlaw slavery until 1865, ten thousand years after the first prehistoric evidence of slavery.) Inalienable rights are only applicable if society considers them inalienable and wishes to enforce them; when society fails to achieve either of these conditions, or if society itself does not exist, then natural rights are only so many meaningless words.

Therefore, it is generally understood amongst meta-ethical moral relativists that morality is an ever-changing barometer of mankind’s current ethical biases and considerations. It is not a universal truth, simply a reflection of what society considers proper right at any given time. As William Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As the very idea of “right” or “wrong” is subjective and varies from person-to-person with no objective standard by which to measure them by, different systems of morality are not inherently better or worse than another, but simply in the eye of the beholder.

What Are Some Misconceptions About Meta-Ethical Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism – like most ideologies – is an umbrella ideology, meaning it consists of many belief systems loosely related to each other. Meta-ethical moral relativism agrees with its sister ideologies that people disagree on what constitutes as moral behavior, but that is largely where similarities end.

Moral relativists are not immoral (as immorality would imply moral absolutism) or even amoral. The vast majority of moral relativists have their own moral systems that they follow, their own belief of right or wrong. However, meta-ethical moral relativists are very aware that their moral beliefs are subjective, based upon their own biases and experiences, and that their moral systems are not moral truths, merely items that they have accepted as valid for them. The concept is not dissimilar to preferences for flavors of ice cream; there is no objective standard that says vanilla ice cream is inherently better than chocolate ice cream, but I prefer the former over the latter.

Moral relativists are as different as they come. Their beliefs range from utilitarian ethics to deontological ethics, and they occupy the entirety of the political spectrum (although in recent history, moral relativists have generally tended to be more left-wing than right-wing, especially due to the right-wings close association with religious fundamentalism, which is generally a moral absolutist institute).

Meta-ethical moral relativists are also not normative moral relativists, in that the former does not prescribe that all behavior must be tolerated. That all moral systems fail to qualify as moral truths does not mean everyone – including moral relativists themselves – have their individual moral systems, and may act in a way in which they believe they are “righting wrongs”. Although Shakespeare notes that only the capacity to think gives any credence to the idea of “right” or “wrong”, it does not change that intelligent life believes in the “rightness” or “wrongness” of certain things, and they may act in accordance to their moral systems. For example, I am a meta-ethical moral relativist, but although I recognize that equality is not a universal truth and not inherently “right”, I personally believe that it is desirable and moral, and will therefore oppose inequality.

Meta-ethical moral relativists do not inherently belittle morality, they simply do not subscribe to moral absolutism. They do not insinuate that morality is useless to them; rather, most meta-ethical moral relativists see morality as a useful tool to advance civilization and society. They simply recognize that everyone has a different opinion on what is right or wrong, and that an objective standard by which to measure them against each other does not exist.

Conclusion

Moral relativism is a particularly useful mindset in understanding differing moral systems across different civilizations and cultures. It is, in its way, a humbling experience, a recognition that what you consider to be right may not be a universal truth, but simply a biased perception of how you believe humans ought to behave. It counters the belief that your belief system has the exclusive monopoly on truth, and allows for people to be open-minded in the acceptance of new ideas. It doesn’t mean moral relativists are incapable of being “moral” (of course, this insinuates there is any one definition for “moral”), it simply means we do not automatically assume everyone else is inherently “wrong”.

Taking Time to Compliment Someone

March 14, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s a somewhat chilly afternoon in one of the cities I happen to be visiting in 2010. I’m standing in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts stall at a metro station, looking at the array of donuts behind the glass, trying to decide what I want to get. Secretly, as the clerk behind the counter smiles politely and awaits my order, I’m also trying to decide how much time I should be secretly looking at the clerk.

The clerk is pretty. Not stunningly drop-dead gorgeous or fashion model beautiful. Pretty, kind of a compromise between Beautiful and her younger cousin Cute. I have little doubt that much of the effect is the result of the careful and precise application of cosmetics, which I myself am not a big fan of and take great pains in avoiding. At any rate, as I tell her what donut I’d like, she begins to pluck it out from behind the glass and into a paper bag, affording me a few seconds to look at her hair. I really like her hair. It’s long and straight and neat, all nice and even, like a curtain of silk. It’s really pretty. A little rueful at the slight natural curl in my hair, I wonder how long it’d take for me to grow out my hair to her length, and how much effort it’d take to straight it out like she had managed. It’d likely burn a hole in my wallet.

A weight sinks in my stomach as I try to gather the determination and courage to do something that I wouldn’t otherwise do. I wonder what would go faster: The clerk telling me the price of my purchase and my fishing into my wallet to complete this transaction, or the completion of my courage-accumulating. Read more…

Categories: Slice of Life, Writing

Applying for a Master’s

December 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Some time ago, someone put into my head the idea that I should try for a Master’s in international studies.

Precisely how this happened is unimportant and probably a mystery. It’s probably best left this way, given I cannot even quite remember when this happened. Logically, this happened sometime after I graduated with a Bachelor’s in December 2010, and sometime before now. One would think, anyways. Given how paradoxically my memory works, though, I wouldn’t be so sure. I genuinely think that my memory actually conspires with the time-space continuum to alter reality and ensure nothing I remember is actually when they logically seemed. If this theory holds water, then it wouldn’t be surprising if someone put the idea that I should try for a Master’s in international studies in a timeframe outside the time-space continuum, because it isn’t as if time-space can flip me a larger finger than “I chose not to exist during a pivotal event of your life”. (At some point in my head, I expect hear an old man inexplicably shout, “Ysi, you can’t do that, you’ll create a time paradox~”)

But, yes, someone put into my head the idea that I should try for a Master’s in international studies. Some time after this, my contract with the county government ended alongside October 2012, freeing me of obligations and allowing me to focus on an application process for a university located in a region of the world that speaks a language I’m not actually entirely fluent in. Read more…

Categories: Slice of Life, Writing

Ysionris’ Influence Map

August 4, 2012 Leave a comment

First off, an admission: I cheated. For-Orian’s “Influence Map” meme was largely meant for artists, and while I do make the occasional sketch (something I haven’t done in a very long while), I have largely repurposed this influence map to show my influences on storytelling and writing instead. Hopefully, I won’t be crucified for it.

Now, onto the show.

Ysionris' Influence Map Read more…

Mass Effect 3: A Crucible in More Ways Than One

April 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Taking a shot at writing a Mass Effect 3 crackfic. Also here on FanFiction.Net. Please read and review. In both places. X3

*****

Mass Effect 3 – A Crucible in More Ways Than One (Ver 0.98)
By Ysionris Gavotte

When history looks back at the human side of the Reaper War, it will remember Admiral Steven Hackett as the least important corner of the heroic trinity of leadership comprised of himself, Admiral David Anderson, and Commander Shepard.

This downplaying of his contributions to the war has little to do with any perception that he didn’t do enough in the fight against the Reaper, and is almost certainly an unfair assessment. Still, Anderson had the distinction of leading a human resistance on a Reaper-infested Earth for weeks until help arrived, even when communications worldwide were cut, and Shepard went on an epic galaxy-wide quest to garner the support of all races across the galaxy while doing battle with Cerberus and saving the Councilors. Again.

Plus they were both – in the best traditions of martyrs everywhere – kind of dead.

All of them suffered under adversity. Adversity brought people together, helped them overlook hate, grudges. But there was only so much adversity could accomplish; nowhere was this more obvious in the galaxy – not on Earth, not on the Normandy – than in an undisclosed location where the fleets built the Crucible in secret. It was a hard lesson Hackett was about to learn. Even a common goal under pressure could not overcome the power of culture, individuality, zaniness, absurdity, pyjaks, ryncol, and krogan. And ryncol.

The difficult part was not completing the project. The Reaper invasion brought plenty of motivation for that.

The difficult part was getting out of this project sane. Read more…

Categories: Gaming, Writing