Debating Moral Relativists

Below is an excerpt from a discussion with a moral relativist.  His name has been changed to ” Moral Relativist.” The context was whether or not a God and or religion were necessary to morality:

Matthew Menking  –  The main problem with this entire discussion, although I did see Paul bring it up briefly, is that it seems to be a debate about various interpretations of various religions, rather than a discussion of whether or not there needs to be an objective truth behind the world to base an objective morality on. This, the real question, has been mostly lost in this debate.

Utilitarianism, (much referenced in this discussion although I didn’t see it so named) as the basis of morality, simply falls to the same problem. Who says what the “most good” is. The most good would certainly seem, for example, if 90% of the world were cannibalistic in tendency, for them to go ahead and eat the other 10%…for it is not some objective “is it right or wrong to eat other humans” but “doesn’t this cause the most pleasure for the most people” question that is being labeled as the basis of morals. J.S. Mills and his utilitarianist followers certainly hold sway over the secular world in moral theory, but it simply does not stand.

Fr. John Higgins  –  Just looking quickly over the posts here I have to agree with Matthew Menking. It’s simply a diatribe against the actions of humans and a deep misunderstanding of what other people truly think and believe. The idea that concepts held by people in other cultures and other times must be barbaric may be true. But the concepts and actions of people in our own time can be equally as barbaric, and given the efforts of science and technology, what used to take great effort and many years now can be done in the instant flash of a nuclear weapon. Who knows what “progress” might bring.

Moral Relativist  –  First off, +Matthew Menking’s cannibal example doesn’t work. No way a population could become 90% cannibalistic and still work as a “most good” for the most people scenario.

Secondly, I’d need to know that everyone believes in evolution (or at least the heredity of physical and behavioral traits) before human morality can be explained. If you don’t, there’s no point moving forward.

Also, do you guys believe objective morality given by God only applies to humans, or animals too?

Fr. John Higgins  –  Moral Relativist  … Evolution is obvious to those who take a moment to look at reality. We can know from our own experience that nearly everything evolves and can reason that other things have evolved, from rocks to plants and animals. And although I wouldn’t say that I believe IN evolution (it’s not part of my belief system), I believe that evolution has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. Still there are questions that the theory of evolution has not yet answered and may never be able to answer; such as “What is the origin of matter” or “Since evolution occurs over time, what exactly is time?” There is still much to explore. I trust we can all see that.

As for objective morality applying to animals, do you mean all animals or only those with a recognizable brain?

Moral Relativist  –  +Fr. John Higgins I’m worried we are going to have a problem of terms at some point. The evolution I’m refering to can’t be applied to rocks. 🙂 Let’s go with animals with brains. Mammals even.

Fr. John Higgins  –  At some point I’m going to have to learn how to post a reply properly.

Moral Relativist  ,

We are going to have problems with terms. You see, the very essence of communication is understanding what another human being means. Things evolve, whether we’re talking about the entire universe, the solar system, the earth or just living things like plants and animals. Can we apply the term “morality” or “morals” to any of it without running into problems? Probably not. What appears to be “moral” to one person might not be to another. Let’s take a couple of mammals, just for an example. A female bear and her cub are in the forest. A wolf approaches and very carefully eyes the cub. He isn’t thinking with the same rationality that a human has; he’s a wolf. We don’t know what kind of rational thought process a wolf has, if any, because we’ve never been wolves. But he is hungry and somehow he knows that. He also knows, in a wolf way, that a bear cub is food and that a large female bear is dangerous. Can that wolf make a moral decision or is the wolf going to act according to “feelings” (or instinct)? What would be the difference between the way a normal human being would act in the situation and the way the wolf would act in the situation?

Matthew Menking  –  Should a watch keep good time? If it does, is it a good watch? Is it morally a good watch? Well, a watch is made to keep time, and by keeping time, does as it ought to do. Here, what something out to do seems to follow from what it is. And we judge if it is good or not based on how closely is and ought coincide. But do we really say a watch is morally good if it keeps perfect time?

I think we have to make a distinction, when it comes to morality, on a principle of free will. A man who does what he ought to do is a good man; at least in that particular act what he does coincides with what a man ought to do. Is and ought match up. But he can be morally good for having done so, because he could have chosen otherwise, unlike the watch which does not choose to keep good time or not, but simply keeps good time or doesn’t, period.

Can the animate-inanimate distinction be what causes a man to be able to do moral good (or bad) and a watch to only do non-moral good and bad? If this is so, an amoeba is animate and yet not many would say that such and such amoeba is a good, decent, morally upright amoeba for choosing one action over another. So it is more than just “being alive” that makes a moral versus non-moral distinction possible. The problem is, what is this distinction? We can’t just make the claim that “monkeys and dogs” can be moral but “elephants and wasps” cannot. We need an actual distinction to set our boundaries.

Until recently, this distinction was recognized as the free will that man has due to his rational nature. Man, by definition, is “a rational animal,” with rational being the specific difference and animal being the genus. Only man, then, is rational, meaning he can reason (abstract universals from particulars, for example).

If we start from this premise, we can begin the discussion on whether or not:

1. An objective reality must stand being the moral rightness and wrongness of particular actions chosen by rational (aka free) persons

2. Whether or not this objective reality entails, by definition, the existence of a god

But if we do not start from this premise, we need to back up to whatever point we will agree on, and begin the discussion from there. Where do we stand?

Moral Relativist  –  +Fr. John Higgins I’ll get more specific then, do you believe in the scientific Theory of Evolution?

Humans have two sides of their morality. The first are conscious moral decisions. These are based on some perfectly human moral code that may or may not be in the Bible. The Golden Rule is the most popular. It’s unclear that animals make conscious moral decisions.

The second are the moral “feelings” (or instinct)” you mentioned a wolf might have. These are subconscious and don’t require thinking. I feel that this is what theists are referring to when they say God gave us morality, because it doesn’t have to be taught of rationalized. Would you agree?

Matthew Menking  –  Moral Relativist  . This is exactly the opposite of what we believe. Morality entails rational thought. Part of freedom is understanding the choices which are decided between. An animal is not morally culpable for the same thing a human would be for the very reason of its not being able to rationalize. It is my understanding, for example, that to do action X is wrong that makes it morally wrong if I do it.

Moral Relativist  –  Interesting study I heard about recently. Rats in cage 1 saw that rats in cage 2 where randomly shocked when the rats in the cage 1 used the food release mechanism. When the cage 1 rats noticed this, they used the food release much less often. They weren’t willing to starve, but tried to cause the least amount of pain to the cage 2 rats as possible.

Matthew Menking  –  That is interesting. Also interesting is that monkeys will stack boxes like stairs and light fires even. None of these occurrence, however, need be explained by the process of the animal having rational thought, and in fact are still best explained by other processes. No doubt, however, we can learn much from these studies about what it means for us to be animals, as well as about the animals themselves. I would agree with you if you said that too many theists, and a great majority being fundamentalist Christians, these days ignore such things out of a fear of losing their faith. Such a fear is, for one, simply unfounded.

As regarding your final statement about the rats, it is a speculative one: “They weren’t willing to starve, but tried to cause the least amount of pain to the cage 2 rats as possible.” The statement “tried to cause the least amount of pain to the cage 2 rats” is merely a hypothesis to the intent of the cage 1 rats. They may have simply seen “food attempts cause ‘rats’ pain” and only attempted to get food once hungry enough to overcome their own fear of themselves being shocked. I think its important to state this because, too often, the statements made as to “what” an animal did in an experiment are really speculations on “why” they did it. This is poor science.

Moral Relativist  –  +Matthew Menking “This is exactly the opposite of what we believe.” Who is the we, in this case?

Matthew Menking  –  Well, at least Father Higgins and I. At least the doctrine of the Catholic Church, to which we belong. Certainly I cannot speak for “all Christians” and certainly not “all theists.” Of course, this could be said in the agnostic and atheist camps as well. I cannot, I repeat, speak for all.

Faith and reason go together, and one must not be sacrificed for the other. We do not, therefore, deny what is true in any field, be it the empirical sciences, psychology, etc…

So the understanding I present here is both Catholic and Aristotelian, for example.

Fr. John Higgins  –  Moral Relativist  , I believe that the Scientific Theory of Evolution is a theory. It seems, from my limited experience, to rationally explain the existence and development of living beings. It does not, however, answer certain questions, like those I named above and assumes things to be “true” or “factual” without defining certain phenomena or even attempting to explain them. It, like all human theories, is incomplete. But it does seem to be useful as far as it’s limited capacity allows. (My examples above were that it does not attempt to explain or even examine the origin of matter or the concept of time, both on which it depends.

You assert that there moral “feelings” do not require thinking and are subconscious. How do you come to that conclusion? Perhaps your definition of “thinking” does not include all thought, but only rational thought? If that is true, we can eliminate a lot of what rational people call “thinking”. For example, the person who becomes angry at the thought of a woman being subjected to the death penalty might well argue that his or her “feeling” is quite rational. Any attempt to convince that person that they are not thinking and acting rationally might lead to more than an intellectual discussion, but a very strong and perhaps even violent retort. Again, we must always be careful in the use of terms.

“The second are the moral “feelings” (or instinct)” you mentioned a wolf might have. These are subconscious and don’t require thinking. I feel that this is what theists are referring to when they say God gave us morality, because it doesn’t have to be taught of rationalized. Would you agree?”

In a word, no. I would not agree at all. It might be quite normal for a teenage boy to “feel” that he should cheat on an exam in school or get into a fight with a boy over a girl. Most of us would agree that this is not moral behavior. Instincts are not “God given morality”.

Moral Relativist  –  +Fr. John Higgins Yes, the Theory of Evolution doesn’t tackle the origin of matter or the concept of time. Neither does gravity, and at least gravity is in the same field of those questions–physics. Evolution explains the diversity of biology.

Recent posts have thoroughly confused me so I’ll revert to the original question.

If you don’t practice a religion that has well defined moral teachings, how do you determine what is moral and what isn’t? Easy, by my own moral code, which is to treat others how I’d like to be treated and if there are no victims, it’s none of my business.

And as I said before…

I have a personal reason for every moral choice and they are often different for each choice. Give me a situation and I’ll tell you why I would behave the way I would. No one gave me a situation, offer stands.

Fr. John Higgins  –  Moral Relativist  … why would anyone question your personal moral choices?

Matthew Menking  –  I have a couple questions about your answers to how you should behave:

“Easy, by my own moral code”

Is it yours? How so? And why should mine be the same? If it shouldn’t be the same, I have an even bigger question: why would you have a code based on something you believe others should NOT do? How does this not conflict with “treating others as you would be treated”?

Which leads to “which is to treat others how I’d like to be treated.” What if I want to be treated differently than you want to be treated? Like I said earlier, but you didn’t like my cannibal example….let’s use a different one. What does this say about a Sadomasochist? Should they treat you like they want to be treated? If not, why are your morals (you called them “yours”) right and theirs wrong? Shouldn’t you treat people how THEY want to be treated?

“…and if there are no victims.” Well this one is bothersome too. How do we know there are “no victims”? We can see all the second and third order effects of our actions from here to eternity? And on top of that, know whether all those effects are to the liking or at least not the detriment of every various person’s own wants or needs? Is not anything made up of its parts, and thus, society of its particular people and people of their particular actions and dispositions?

My point is, following “our own” morality is meaningless when it comes down to it, apart from our “own morality” having a basis in objective reality. This is the basis of conscience, and the basis of natural law. “Do unto others” is a guide only because it must point to an objective reality that stands beneath it.

If it is argued that I am rejecting the teachings of my own Savior, I say they are being pulled out of context: Jesus Himself said “do unto others” but He also said to act as He acts, and that He is the Truth.

Fr. John Higgins  –  If each of us is left to his own moral code, and want to respect others’ moral codes as we have our own respected, then we are going to have to accept the moral codes of both the white supremacist and the jihadist, the Roman Pontif and the Westboro Baptists, the folks at Planned Parenthood and the owners of Drug Cartels, Mother Teresa and Ghandi and even Hitler and Stalin. I dare say that’s a tall order.

Moral Relativist  –  Sadomasochists, white supremacists and the like are a distinct minorities in the moral arena. Societies adapt the moral codes most used into a larger code usually called the law. Sadomasochists, white supremacists have morals that don’t comply with our law. If there were enough sadomasochists and white supremacists to gather together and form their own society I’d be happy for them as long as they didn’t oppose their morals on other societies or people within the society who don’t have the option to leave.

If you accept that all these groups you list have such opposing morals, how can you hold true to objective morals? There are obviously many who disagree–making morals subjective.

+Matthew Menking Give an example of a situation where you are not sure if there are victims or not, I may be able to shed light.

Matthew Menking  –  “There are obviously many who disagree–making morals subjective.”

There are many who disagree that the world is older than 6000 years, making the truth of the claim “the world is older than 6000 years” subjective. FALSE.

It means people err in regards to the truth. Not that the truth itself is somehow changed. Most 4 year old don’t know that 4^2 is 16. They may indeed believe it is not 16. This has nothing to do with the truth of the proposition 4 squared is 16.” The truth of the claim stands apart from the knowledge the people. Same applies with morality. If rape is wrong, its actually wrong for the habitual rapist, too. Its wrong for the mentally insane. Its wrong, not because of the person doing it, but because of the act done. The fact that one could find many people that think “action X” is OK does not make it so. Morality is not subjective because of the errors of the people…unless you are ok with the FACT that sometimes 4 squared is 13?

Fr. John Higgins  –  Moral Relativist  … ah, but there were white supremacists who imposed their will into law. Some of the remnants of that still exist in the United States today and are vehemently supported by a very large group of very powerful people, including many in the three branches of the Government of the United States.

Matthew Menking  –  Exactly, Father. The law in Germany at one point legalized throwing Jews into ovens and gas chambers. Therefore, it was morally right…at least in Germany.

Moral Relativist  –  +Matthew Menking That reasoning only works after you’ve already been convinced that morality is some kind of greater truth. You must convince me of that before those analogies make sense and at that point you won’t need those analogies.

Fr. John Higgins and Matthew Menking The early US and Germany had laws that, by today’s US standards, are immoral. By pointing out that moral standards change, you are just presenting more evidence against objective morality.

Fr. John Higgins  –  Moral Relativist… No, I am presenting evidence that subjective morality is really not morality at all but only convenience.

Matthew Menking  –  You said “you are just presenting more evidence against objective morality.” Again, this is wrong. In fact, it argues for objective morality. Just as scientific theories change the more we know about the objective world, (moving from Aristotelian to Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, for example) the moves in nations morals show they are moving from what is perceived to be a wrong morality towards one more in conformity to what actually is moral…and this means objective truth!

Moral Relativist  –  +Fr. John Higgins Well, you won’t see me in confession for disagreeing with you. 🙂 I’ve said my peace, hopefully it made sense, if not to you, than to other readers. I respect what you do as a fire captain and expect that what you do for the church comes from the best intentions.Thanks for the conversation.
Matthew Menking  –  Moral Relativist, please don’t take it as anything but good will when I say “God bless you.” While disagreeing with so much you have said, I respect your being a gentleman throughout the discussion. I wish all conversation and debates kept to these standards
2:01 PM
Moral Relativist  –  +Matthew MenkingNice chatting with you too. 🙂

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