Monday, January 1, 2007

Ask a Skeptic

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Anonymous said...

First, I would like to say great show and keep up the great work! Now to my question: What is a concise and logical way to defend against post-modernist relativity on cultural and moral grounds? I see and understand how you could refute relativity as far as modern medicine can provided better medical care for a person than a witch doctor but I find it difficult to refute on moral grounds.

Jeremy said...

Wow, good question. You aim strait for my weak spot. Im going to give you a more thoruogh answer in an upcomming post, but Im off to Detroit at the moment so I can only give you the 30 sec. version. To begin I must conced that There will always a relative componant to moral values…because our feelings, prefrences, desires are going to be different. But moral choices have tangible consequences in an objective world. This puts constraints on what is posible, and any credible moral system will have to work with and within those constraints. So we have, in my mind, a situation where there is a lot of free space to debate about moral issues, there is no single objective morality that can demand everyone's accent. But we are not forced into accepting a radical moral relativism either. There are many valid and reasonable interpretations of morality…but not all moral systems are as good (valid reasonable) as every other. For example…a moral system that demands the impossible would be irrational and so its not a contender. A moral system that is based on false ideas about the world or discarded notions of human psychology is a flawed moral system. So I cant tell you whats the best system of morality…I can only discuss what the merits and difficulties of different ideas are. But I can tell you whats not a good moral system. So while this is not sufficient to escape from relativism does show we are not in the postmodern situation where all meta-narratives are equally valid. Some opinions are better than others.
But Ill flesh that out in a post later when I have the time. In the meantime feel free to shoot back. Thanks again for your comment

Anonymous said...

What you are saying is there is a realm of limited moral relativity. An area which encases what can be considered morally appropriate, based on reason. However within this area there is room for debate. Two opposing sides could coexist and both have equally just grounds for their moral beliefs? How vast is this realm and is it possible to create a moral instrument, such as universal human rights, that cannot have merited opposition?

Jeremy said...

I think you more or less characterized my view fairly. I wouldn't say a "moral realm" because I don't think values are factual statements about the world. But this might be "just semantics." Thier are people, behaviors and consequences. Morality is a way of expressing what outcomes are to be preferred and what behaviors have the best chance of producing those outcomes. Reason and science should guide us to the full extent possible but even then, it cannot prove which outcome is best. Take for instance, the relationship between biology and medicine (I think George Smith uses this or a similar explainaton in Atheism: the case against God). Biology describes the way the world is but cannot say how the world should be. Medicine can. Medicine tells me I shouldnt smoke or loose hours of sleep each night (both of which I do). Why not. Because its unhealthy. Biology can offer no persciptive guidance to my lifestyle until I accept the moral posit "being healthy is a good thing, a goal worth striving twoards" I may decide I dont value my health as much as I do the transient pleasure of a cigarette. But should I decide to accept health as a value; then while that decision itself is relative, the best way to achieve that goal is not. Replacing smoking with chewing tobaco is not equal to replacing smoking with brisk walks or some other form of exercise. So the same can be said about morality as a whole. I may decide that happiness, and freedom from useless suffering might be a good goal to strive for, and then there is a lot to consider from psychology, sociology, medicine, economics etc. as to how this might be achieved by myself and society. But what about the sociopath who does not value happiness? Or the Masochist who revels in suffering. I'm helpless to prove to them otherwise. The most I can do is work within my ability to see that the law restricts those peoples ability to inflict suffering on others. Luckily most people do not fall into those two categories. As far as universal human rights are concerned...I draw encouragement from philosophers such as Owen Flanagan who looks at morality from an ecological standpoint. Like our natural enviorment, thier are optimal conditions for society-at least if our goal is happier and healthier people. And their are many observations that can find empirical support on what those conditions are. Similarly Ethicists like Peter Singer advocate for "welfare utilitarianism"-ways of maximizing happiness/minimizing suffering based on attention to our most basic biological, psychological, social needs. One can easily object by saying "but I prefer suffering, chaos and widespread discontent, why aren't those any better?" I can offer no objective reply, except to say that myself and a majority of human beings do not value those things and so do as you wish, but if you infringe on our lives we will resist. Fortunately, again not to many people advocate such a view. So I believe it is possible to shrink the subjective area of moral judgment down quite significantly. And as we continue to learn about the human species it is possible to pattern our moral values, ever more closely of of those discoveries. But I concede that the gap between "is" and "ought" is a large one indeed and even if we did know the exact conditions under which humanity would would not follow logically that this is an objectively preferred state of affairs. I think this is less of a problem than it may seem, since few would object to being happy, healthy and free. And besides it is no less of a problem for postmodern or religious ways of looking at ethics. Postmodernism cannot defend a commitment to any ethic. And even if their is a God who will send us to hell for disobedience...what if someone preferred hell? We could only be happy that they weren't in heaven.