How I live as a moral relativist

I was surprised at how much I identified with this NY Times opinion column on morality. The author is Joel Marks, a bioethicist and emeritus professor of philosophy. In the essay, Marks describes how he came to realize that morality was not objective, and how this realization affected his actions and interactions with others.

A quick summary of Marks’ thought process goes like this (though you should read the whole thing if you find this summary isn’t enough for you):

A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset.

But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

Hume said something similar. Though my thought process was not quite the same as Marks’ or Hume’s, I do agree that morality, like beauty, is subjective, and moral rules do not actually exist.

The problematic thing once realizing this is… what do I do now? What is the basis for choosing a “moral” action over an “immoral” one? And if I want to convince another person not to commit an action that I find offensive (Marks gives the example of [tossing] male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry) how could I do so? I can no longer say “don’t do it because it’s wrong.

My own answer to this problem was to focus on what I want to do in situations that have a so-called “moral” valence. How do I feel about things like lying, stealing, or injuring others? In examining my feelings, I find that I generally want to treat people well. I like being honest, and not hurting people, and not taking their things. I don’t treat people well because it’s a moral rule, I do it because I want to. Others’ happiness makes me happy, and their suffering makes me sad. I think most people are similar.

What struck me about Marks’ essay was how similar his answers were to mine. For starters, he too focuses on desires:

It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.

For Marks, animal agricultural elicits the same feeling that any of us would experience if an innocent person were being tortured or detained in squalid conditions. It is an empathic response to the suffering of other conscious creatures. Naturally, we want it the suffering to stop. Again, rules do not dictate this experience for us. It is simply there, and we act upon it.

How, then, do we get others to act with us? My answer has been to teach others what I know. Humans naturally respond to the suffering of others. The key is to teach people about what others are going through, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. When they do that, their actions naturally incline toward greater empathy and consideration.

Marks says much the same:

…to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

Indeed. Good does not come from forcing people to do what you say, or what you think they ought to do. It is better to be convince them*. (This is why I object so strongly to religious morality, in which people are not convinced or entreated, but simply told what to do. This has nothing to do with morality, and amounts to merely following orders.)

So I take it as good news that two people who agree about the non-existence of morality can come to similar conclusions about where to go from there. I think society will be better if we move away from moralistic thinking, and instead focus on showing others why we care about the things we care about.


*This isn’t to say, by the way, that we should not put dangerous people in jail. But we do this not because they have broken some moral law, but because we cannot allow them to threaten others’ safety or freedoms.



Filed under Humanism, Morality

7 responses to “How I live as a moral relativist

  1. Not so fast. The problem with the line of argument is the false dichotomy: that if morality isn’t objective then it must be purely subjective (and no different from any other personal tastes or sentiments). The fascinating thing about morality is that it occupies a space between the two. It isn’t objective because it doesn’t refer to facts about the world (the way “I drive a Toyota” does). But it also isn’t subjective because we can influence the way others think about moral issues. This makes morality qualitatively different from personal tastes or sentiments, such as “Van Gogh’s art is more beautiful than Monet’s.” Debating that topic is pointless because we can’t influence the personal tastes of others. But debating, studying, reading about, and discussing moral issues can and does influence the way people think about those issues. That is precisely why Marks shifted from moral language to “conveying information” – he’s not abandoning morality because it doesn’t exist, all he’s doing is shifting from an authoritative account of morality to an appeal to the underlying reasons why somethings are right or wrong. The important point is that those reasons aren’t amoral. On the contrary, they reflect core moral values: environmental devastation is bad, animal suffering is bad, etc.. There would be no point in him doing so if he truly was a moral relativist (or more accurately a subjectivist). He would simply have to shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, what you feel is right is right for you and what I feel is right is right for me.”

    • Thanks for your comment, jmbreslin. I think that Marks’ does espouse exactly the kind of moral relativism/subjectivism that you’re saying he doesn’t. For starters, he says that he used to believe it was wrong to massacre people in death camps. But now, he says this is not wrong. Or good. Or anything in-between. “The entire set of moral attributions is out the window.” This is exactly what you would say if moral rules did not exist.

      Second, your last sentence (“Well, what you feel is right is right for you and what I feel is right is right for me.”) is a paraphrase of Marks himself. Marks’ refers to his moral qualms as “personal preferences,” and writes: “I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.” He acknowledges that people have feelings contrary to his own, and that he “cannot count on either God or morality” to win the argument. This is meta-ethical moral relativism to a tee.

      As for your other points about morality being somewhere between objectivity and subjectivity, I can only respond using my own thoughts. I think it’s quite a mundane occurence for our personal tastes and aesthetic preferences to be influenced by others. I have learned much about movies from reading Roger Ebert’s reviews. That learning has influenced the way I experience and appreciate them. To give another example, learning about music has greatly influenced my experience of it. Truck driver’s gear changes (key changes) now seem boring and trite to me, whereas once they were exciting. Predictable chord changes have similarly become blasé. Some of these things I have learned about on my own, but the point is that someone could have undertaken to teach me about these things, and they would have affected my opinions about movies and music as a result. Learning more about something, including another person’s experiences, almost always changes how you approach it. This holds for our aesthetic preferences, as well as our moral feelings. The fact is that all of these preferences and feelings still exist only in our heads.

  2. Hmm, I can accept there may be some examples where tastes or preferences are influenced by others but I think that the vast majority of cases involve some other aspect of your cognition being influenced rather than your actual taste or sentiment. Reading movie reviews may affect your appreciation of the movie (the movie was good/bad for these reasons) but not likely your actual sentiment (that movie was enjoyable; I liked that movie). It would seem quite odd to say, “I didn’t like that movie when I saw it but after reading several positive reviews I now like it.” Let’s take art as another example. I experience a sense of beauty when I look at a Van Gogh painting that I don’t experience when I look at a Dali painting. Nothing anybody ever says or writes will change that sentiment. I may gain a new appreciation for Dali’s art (for example, if I learn that he painted them all while standing on his head with one eye closed) but I still won’t feel the sense of beauty when I look at them. I will still like Van Gogh’s art better. Perhaps the best example is actual taste. Nobody can ever convince you to like a food if you don’t like the taste of it (though you may force yourself to eat it because you learn that it’s good for you).

    Here’s the thing though. If at any point in time you (or Marks) feels the desire to try to convince someone that they should or shouldn’t be doing something, you’re engaging in a moral dialogue – regardless of what we decide to call it. It’s really irrelevant whether Marks says to someone, “Animal agriculture is morally wrong,” or, “I don’t like animal agriculture and you shouldn’t do it or it shouldn’t occur.” The bottom line is there are reasons why he thinks certain things shouldn’t be done and that is, at its most fundamental, a moral stance.

    • I still don’t quite agree with you about our experience of art, but I’ll leave that alone for now. My question is, how is what you describe regarding art any different from “morals”? If a person doesn’t enjoy the happiness of others, how could any amount of convincing change that? If, as neuroscientific evidence seems to indicate, sociopaths are incapable of empathizing with others, how could any argument or education change that fact? It’s no different from forcing yourself to like broccoli.

      Regarding your second paragraph… I’m not sure what to say. On the one hand it seems you are arguing semantics, and semantics is not my primary concern. On the other hand it seems your argument goes a bit deeper, for when you say:

      It’s really irrelevant whether Marks says to someone, “Animal agriculture is morally wrong,” or, “I don’t like animal agriculture and you shouldn’t do it or it shouldn’t occur.”

      …I think this is not quite right. The first statement is false. Statements about moral wrongness almost always suppose that there is a moral fact to the matter, and that certain things are simply “wrong,” and wrong things are things we should not do. But this simply isn’t true – there are no “shoulds” in the natural world.

      The second statement, or at least the first half of it, is different. “I don’t like animal agriculture” is a perfectly legitimate claim, and in the case of Joel Marks we know it to be true. The difference between this statement and the first is *incredibly* relevant – it’s the point of this whole discussion, really. The first statement tries to convince by imposing a universal conscience on everyone. The second statement says only what the speaker’s conscience is. The speaker would then try to appeal to the other person’s own conscience by educating them about the relevant topic.

      So the two really are very different. And the last bit that you wrote, “…and you shouldn’t do it or it shouldn’t occur,” is not language that I would use, and I doubt that Marks would use it either. The whole point of the argument is that you cannot “should” people into things. It isn’t rationally justifiable (and half the time it doesn’t even work anyway). If a person comes to care about the same issue you do, no “shoulds” will be necessary.

  3. So there may be a philosophical difference, it’s just a difference that has no practical significance. If I’m engaged in a discussion with someone about a moral issue, what can influence their views on the subject are the underlying reasons I provide. My point is it doesn’t matter practically whether I dress up those reasons with “shoulds” or “oughts” or “this is what my conscience is” or whatever. You’re still trying to accomplish the goal of trying to convince someone to think differently about an issue.

    • Is the difference between saying something that’s true and saying something that’s false really just a “philosophical difference”?!

      Let me ask you this: are the arguments you’ve used in this discussion things that you actually believe are true? Or are you just saying anything to try to convince me to take your side? If it’s the latter (which I don’t think it is), then you’re trying to change my thoughts/actions irrespective of the argument. You aren’t trying to convince me, you’re trying to bullshit me (again, I don’t actually think you’re doing this). I think the difference between the two is quite significant. One is honest and rational. The other isn’t.

      • What I’m saying is that when I’m discussing a moral issue with someone I will provide reasons that I find convincing and that I hope the other person will find convincing too. Neither of us really care whether those reasons refer to objective facts about the world, or are expressions of sentiment. What matters is whether the reasons I provide are good enough to convince the other person. Obviously I believe in the arguments I’m making – I don’t go through life as manipulative devil’s advocate – but it really doesn’t matter. I could be providing good, convincing reasons I don’t actually agree with myself (like being assigned to argue a position you don’t support in a debate).

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