Relativist Argument

Torin

Well-known member
We're all probably familiar with the moral relativists' argument from disagreement. We think murdering Jews is wrong. But the Nazis thought it was right. So - in effect, the moral relativist says - who is to say?

I'm wondering what you guys think about a similar argument for epistemic relativism. IOW, what would you make of this argument, or one like it: We think accepting beliefs that contradict each other is irrational. But a person could believe that accepting beliefs that contradict each other is rational (or even always rational). If they really, honestly believed that, even if they were insane to do so, what would really make us right and them wrong?

I don't accept this argument. I present as a potentially interesting topic for discussion. What do you make of it?
 

Komodo

Well-known member
We're all probably familiar with the moral relativists' argument from disagreement. We think murdering Jews is wrong. But the Nazis thought it was right. So - in effect, the moral relativist says - who is to say?

I'm wondering what you guys think about a similar argument for epistemic relativism. IOW, what would you make of this argument, or one like it: We think accepting beliefs that contradict each other is irrational. But a person could believe that accepting beliefs that contradict each other is rational (or even always rational). If they really, honestly believed that, even if they were insane to do so, what would really make us right and them wrong?

I don't accept this argument. I present as a potentially interesting topic for discussion. What do you make of it?
It's not as if there's some infallible algorithm for determining who is right and who is wrong. But there does have to be some limit to "what makes us right and them wrong" questions, in the sense that it's futile to pursue them indefinitely. If somebody could believe that the multiplication table is faulty, and that any attempt to prove its validity through rows and columns of marbles was invalid... well, at the end of the day, you just have to walk away, even if he's furiously insisting that you're a coward for failing to debate him.

There are things we believe to be true for more-or-less good reasons, and there are things we know to be true beyond reasonable doubt, but there's no such thing as something known to be true beyond any possibility of doubt. But an axiom like A=A, or "it's nonsense to say 'this is an apple, and this is not an apple, and I'm using exactly the same definition of 'apple' for both claims" maybe comes closer to "true beyond possibility of doubt" than pretty much anything else I can think of offhand. Or even if there is a sincere doubter, I'm perfectly comfortable saying that nothing good will come from a discussion with anybody who cheerfully disregards that axiom in practice.

Generally, I don't see the force of "who is to say?"-type questions in most contexts. At best, it's a rhetorical device meant to serve as a reminder of agreed-on areas of human fallibility: "you think we should respond with sanctions to this provocation? Well, who is to say that such a response won't be more disastrous than the provocation itself?" Or even "who is to say that their provocation wasn't a legitimate response to our provocation?" But if it's not a rhetorical question, the obvious answer is, "well, in this case, that's what I'm saying; that's my opinion and judgment." And hopefully, of course, I can produce more than an unsupported opinion. But no matter how many reasons I produce, it will always be possible to answer with "and who is to say that those reasons are good enough?" And at that point it's really an inane answer, no better than "Oh yeah?"

Shorter: discussions start with explicit and implicit areas of agreement; not just the axioms of reasoning, but things like "all things being equal, it's better to live in happiness than to die in misery." If anybody is minded to reject those, it's not possible to have a useful discussion.
 
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Komodo

Well-known member
@Torin
. . . But no matter how many reasons I produce, it will always be possible to answer with "and who is to say that those reasons are good enough?" And at that point it's really an inane answer, no better than "Oh yeah?"

Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carrol) wrote a short philosophical fantasy piece basically about this problem, or pseudo-problem, starring Achilles and the Tortoise. Suppose, the Tortoise says, we begin with this syllogism:

(A) Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
(B) The two sides of this Triangle are things that are equal to the same.
(Z) The two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.

But, the Tortoise asks Achilles, suppose I accept A and B, but still dispute Z? So Achilles suggests an additional premise:

(A) Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
(B) The two sides of this Triangle are things that are equal to the same.
(C) If things that are equal to the same are equal to each other, and if the two sides of the Triangle are equal to the same, it follows that the two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.
(Z) The two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.

But, the Tortoise says, suppose I accept P1, P2 and P3, but still dispute C? Achilles (not really being as swift as his reputation) then takes the irrevocable step towards infinite regress by proposing:

(A) Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
(B) The two sides of this Triangle are things that are equal to the same.
(C) If things that are equal to the same are equal to each other, and if the two sides of the Triangle are equal to the same, it follows that the two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.
(D) If (A) and (B) and (C), then the two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.
(Z) The two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.

And of course you know where it goes from there. (Dodgson of course makes Achilles and the Tortoise his characters as a kind of homage to Zeno's paradox about the impossibility of completing an infinite set of steps.)
 

Yakuda

Well-known member
We're all probably familiar with the moral relativists' argument from disagreement. We think murdering Jews is wrong. But the Nazis thought it was right. So - in effect, the moral relativist says - who is to say?

I'm wondering what you guys think about a similar argument for epistemic relativism. IOW, what would you make of this argument, or one like it: We think accepting beliefs that contradict each other is irrational. But a person could believe that accepting beliefs that contradict each other is rational (or even always rational). If they really, honestly believed that, even if they were insane to do so, what would really make us right and them wrong?

I don't accept this argument. I present as a potentially interesting topic for discussion. What do you make of it?
Well the way I see it killing is always wrong. People could find a reason to justify doing it but that doesn't make the act right. I can even agree there may be good reasons to act immorally but the act itsf remains immoral. That's how I see things.
 

Komodo

Well-known member
Well the way I see it killing is always wrong. People could find a reason to justify doing it but that doesn't make the act right. I can even agree there may be good reasons to act immorally but the act itsf remains immoral. That's how I see things.
"Relativism" has different definitions, but one definition is that relativists believe there are no such things as absolute and universal moral rules, that the morality of any action depends on particular circumstances. You seem to be saying you're not a relativist in that sense, that for you "killing is wrong" is an absolute and universal moral rule.

If we take you literally, though, that would imply you believed it was immoral to kill animals and plants. This is, as I understand it, the position of Jainists, but they're a small minority.

But maybe you meant "killing human beings is always wrong." But if we take that literally, that would imply you were a pacifist, who didn't believe in killing, even in self-defense.

If you're not a pacifist, then you are in fact saying that whether or not killing another human being is wrong does depend on circumstance: if someone is cutting in line in front of you, it's wrong to kill him, but if he's trying to kill you or a loved one, it isn't.

So most people are relativists in this sense -- believing that rules aren't absolute, they depend on circumstance -- even if they're not relativists in the sense of saying that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral action, only actions that are inside or outside of social consensus.
 
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Yakuda

Well-known member
"Relativism" has different definitions, but one definition is that relativists believe there are no such things as absolute and universal moral rules, that the morality of any action depends on particular circumstances. You seem to be saying you're not a relativist in that sense, that for you "killing is wrong" is an absolute and universal moral rule.

If we take you literally, though, that would imply you believed it was immoral to kill animals and plants. This is, as I understand it, the position of Jainists, but they're a small minority.

But maybe you meant "killing human beings is always wrong." But if we take that literally, that would imply you were a pacifist, who didn't believe in killing, even in self-defense.

If you're not a pacifist, then you are in fact saying that whether or not killing another human being is wrong does depend on circumstance: if someone is cutting in line in front of you, it's wrong to kill him, but if he's trying to kill you or a loved one, it isn't.

So most people are relativists in this sense -- believing that rules aren't absolute, they depend on circumstance -- even if they're not relativists in the sense of saying that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral action, only actions that are inside or outside of social consensus.
I'm not sure what people struggle with about this. It's rather simple. I care most about the killing of human beings. I don't care about "killing" plants and killing animal is not in the same universe with killing people. So please abandon that nonsense

As to killing it's always a moral wrong. Period. But that doesn't mean people dont and sometimes in unique circumstances should kill. Having a "good" reason to kill like self defense doesn't make the killing moral. How is this complicated. People do good things for bad reasons all the time. And they do bad things for good reasons. The morality of an act isn't based on whether or not you can justify it. I hope you can discern why.
 
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Yakuda

Well-known member
I'm not sure what people struggle with about this. It's rather simple. I care most about the killing of human beings. I don't care about "killing" plants and killing animal is not in the same universe with killing people. So please abandon that nonsense

As to killing it's always a moral wrong. Period. But that doesn't mean people dont kill and sometimes in unique circumstances should kill. Having a "good" reason to kill like self defense doesn't make the killing moral. How is this complicated. People do good things for bad reasons all the time. And they do bad things for good reasons. The morality of an act isn't based on whether or not you can justify it. I hope you can discern why.
 

Komodo

Well-known member
I'm not sure what people struggle with about this. It's rather simple. I care most about the killing of human beings. I don't care about "killing" plants and killing animal is not in the same universe with killing people. So please abandon that nonsense

As to killing it's always a moral wrong. Period. But that doesn't mean people dont and sometimes in unique circumstances should kill. Having a "good" reason to kill like self defense doesn't make the killing moral. How is this complicated. People do good things for bad reasons all the time. And they do bad things for good reasons. The morality of an act isn't based on whether or not you can justify it. I hope you can discern why.
The way I think about moral/immoral actions, to say that an action is immoral implies that it's an action which we should not take. So I wouldn't see the sense in claiming "killing that attacker in self-defense was immoral, but it was the right thing to do." Maybe this is just a semantic issue. I understand the claim that "it's an evil, but it's the lesser of two evils; the greater evil would be to let him kill everybody," but in that case I would say "choosing the lesser of two evils is the morally right response."
 

Yakuda

Well-known member
The way I think about moral/immoral actions, to say that an action is immoral implies that it's an action which we should not take. So I wouldn't see the sense in claiming "killing that attacker in self-defense was immoral, but it was the right thing to do." Maybe this is just a semantic issue. I understand the claim that "it's an evil, but it's the lesser of two evils; the greater evil would be to let him kill everybody," but in that case I would say "choosing the lesser of two evils is the morally right response."
I never said killing was the right thing to do. The morality of an action is inherent in the action. Slavery was immoral even when it was legal. "Should" people do it? No! Do people do it? Yes. People may be able to find "good" reasons to do but it remains immoral
 
We're all probably familiar with the moral relativists' argument from disagreement. We think murdering Jews is wrong. But the Nazis thought it was right. So - in effect, the moral relativist says - who is to say?

I'm wondering what you guys think about a similar argument for epistemic relativism. IOW, what would you make of this argument, or one like it: We think accepting beliefs that contradict each other is irrational. But a person could believe that accepting beliefs that contradict each other is rational (or even always rational). If they really, honestly believed that, even if they were insane to do so, what would really make us right and them wrong?

I don't accept this argument. I present as a potentially interesting topic for discussion. What do you make of it?
Affirming the supposed validity of accepting contradictories as equally valid is ipso facto the destruction and abandonment of reason, so cannot be rightly called rational. What makes it 'wrong' is simply the fact that it is a lie; more, it is a lie which will to one degree or another cause harm to our neighbor(s), thus also being wrong as a failure to fulfill the second-greatest commandment.

*Not really a New Member, have just been gone for a very, very long time :D
 

Yakuda

Well-known member
We're all probably familiar with the moral relativists' argument from disagreement. We think murdering Jews is wrong. But the Nazis thought it was right. So - in effect, the moral relativist says - who is to say?

I'm wondering what you guys think about a similar argument for epistemic relativism. IOW, what would you make of this argument, or one like it: We think accepting beliefs that contradict each other is irrational. But a person could believe that accepting beliefs that contradict each other is rational (or even always rational). If they really, honestly believed that, even if they were insane to do so, what would really make us right and them wrong?

I don't accept this argument. I present as a potentially interesting topic for discussion. What do you make of it?
I suggest that the "rightness" or "wrongness" of an act is separate from whether or not people think its right or wrong. IMO killing is wrong regardless of what people think. Can people justify doing it? Yes. Does that make it "right"? Not in my opinion. The Nazi's justified their killing that didnt make it "right".
 

Torin

Well-known member
I suggest that the "rightness" or "wrongness" of an act is separate from whether or not people think its right or wrong. IMO killing is wrong regardless of what people think. Can people justify doing it? Yes. Does that make it "right"? Not in my opinion. The Nazi's justified their killing that didnt make it "right".
There has to be some connection between what we think is moral and what is moral, though. If they were completely separate, then we could never know what was moral. We might be able to say, "there is a morality out there, we just can never know what it is." But what cold comfort that would be!
 

Yakuda

Well-known member
There has to be some connection between what we think is moral and what is moral, though. If they were completely separate, then we could never know what was moral. We might be able to say, "there is a morality out there, we just can never know what it is." But what cold comfort that would be!
Oh course we can know what's moral. Taking a life is immoral and having what you thinks is a good reason to take a life doesn't make it moral. Keep anorher person as a slave is immoral even when it was legal.
 
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