Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My Response to Relativism

Due to increasing public pressure (i.e. from Rubicunt et al.) I have decided to very briefly post my responses in skeletal form to the article on Relativism. I think the following could serve as guideposts for your own attempt (if you so fancy doing) at fleshing out a full and coherent argument against Relativism as a philosophy. First off, notice how the author, Dr. Partridge sticks to a very narrow definition of “moral” in his presumably comprehensive defense of relativism as the most progressively moral philosophy. "Moral", according to the author, is defined as the actual conduct or the “practice”. This is his first disastrous mistake. Morals are not merely actions or practices. Morals are primarily guiding principles that we depend upon in helping us assess a situation or certain actions. An act can be a moral act. But it is moral not intrinsically (like religious people believe charity is). It becomes a moral act because it remains consistent with a moral principle that endorses that act in the course of our human assessments. Calling “acts” or “situations” moral is akin to calling it virtuous or beneficial or advantageous – it is purely a semantic usage. The actual concept of “morality” refers to the ethical realm of principles – the abstract guideposts that dictate whether or not a certain act based upon a certain principle will in fact be virtuous or in violation. Thus, relativism argues that since morals are acts and situations, it can never be objective because behavior and situations change over time. Hence, there are certain "good" acts and there are certain "evil" acts. However, the difference is in the mistaken premise of accepting what the concept of “moral” refers to. The question you must ask is, how can I know if my act is "good" or if the situation is "evil"? The question then necessitates an anwer that requires guiding principles. Morals are those guiding principles that are based in objective reality, not on whim or intrinsicism. Relativism is intellectually vapid precisely because it gives no philosophical foundations to any allegedly moral or immoral judgements. For a relativist, nothing can be defended as being either good or bad. Their functioning premise is that, "there are no aboslute truths" - and yet they ascribe to that premise the very thing they are attempting to deny, i.e. it is an absolute truth that there are no abolute truths. If the foundational premise itself is mired in vicious circularity, then what legitimacy can there be for any relativist arguments based on such a premise!? Anyway, moving on. Then pretty much for the rest of the article, the author goes around debunking so-called “absolutist” commandments and thereby “proving” that morality is relativistic. The big problem here is he uses “absolutist” commandments that are based on lousy and false ideology like religion, dogmatism, intrinsicism, etc. For example, he uses the commandment of the “Sabbath” day and the commandment against “idolatory” – well, ofcourse they are wrong! They are religious beliefs! They have no basis in objective reality. Abortion – if I accept that abortion is not immoral then his argument simply falls. Same thing with euthanasia. He talks about how the Catholic Church denounces divorce; that divorce is an objective immorality. Well, what if one believes that divorce is not immoral at all? He tries to debunk arguments that merely carry the label of “absolutism” or “objective morals” – clearly his examples from religion and whims are anything but that. In one example, he cites an idiot who claims that God absolutely forbids lying, who then later gets stumped trying to get out of a hypothetical scenario of an ethical conflict. Clearly, what the author debunks then is not the concept of objective morals, but that of basing morality in God and religion. Then somewhere towards the middle or end of this poor work of argumentation is a challenge! Dr. Partridge asks the reader to “state an ethical rule for which it is impossible to imagine some particular emergency that would morally require you violate it”. If the reader can’t, then he is a moral relativist. My response to that is two-fold: first, the more simpler response is that a human being is primarily differentiated from other species as a rational being, and hence rationality is a virtue, and hence choosing to use one’s faculty of reason is always a moral and virtuous act. Intentionally and willfully refusing to use your mind and capacity to think in the face of any given situation is an immorality regardless of the situation. In willfully refusing to use your mind, you are desiring to be less than human. There does not exist any situation that would flip the princple of morality on its head here and require that irrationality, nonsense, and whim be the morally virtuous act. The second part of my response is a little more complicated. This response attacks the author’s question itself. If the author claims that there can always be a conceivable emergency that would require you to violate any given moral principle, then the author has clearly lost all sense of what gives rise to morals and morality. By the very definition of morals, there needs to be out of necessary logic, a range of choices and options of behaviors open to a volitional and free being. Morality is the principle that guides you to choose one action over another – presuming there are choices. Morality also presumes that you have the capacity to choose willfully – coerced choices are a contradiction of concepts. If you are forced to pick a form of action – that is not your choice. If you have not chosen your actions, you cannot bear responsibility for the virtue or the vice/evil of that action. [On a side note, this is where the insanity plea comes from – you legal people reading this. Insanity is the loss in capacity to make sentient choices. Instinctual, psychological and behavioral disorders trump one’s capacity to make moral assessments. Hence, severely retarded people for example, cannot be legally punished if they go burn someone’s house. Their caretakers could be punished, however. Same principle applies with very young children and infants.] Anyway, my point is this: an act is virtuous only if it is willfully chosen, based on some moral principle that competed with opposing choices, and was chosen by someone who is free and able to make those choices and perform those actions. Emergency situations, by definition, lack one or all of those above requirements. An emergency situation, for example is like a man pointing a gun to my head demanding that I kill my sister. In this case, my freedom and volition is robbed. I am incapacitated to make a moral choice. I can make a choice – but whatever that ends up being, I cannot be held morally responsible for it because I had a gun to my head. Emergency situations break down all moral and ethical concepts. Another example, if I am required without any other choice to give all my money to the first beggar on the street – then my act is not virtuous or moral or charitable, because I had no choice in the matter. This is the micro-scale example of socialism and communism. In this example, morality is sucked out of the situation because no competing choices are given to me. I have to give my money to the beggar – I am not permitted to do anything else with my money. My “giving” then is not virtuous – it is the only act I am permitted to perform. So, my response to Dr. Partridge's challenge is that discussions of morality have no business in contexts of emergencies. Emergency situations do nothing to invalidate the objectivity of morals - they are in a wholly different category of their own.

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