Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Absolutism, Relativism, and an overlooked third. Or: Shorter posts!

"Stabbing people is wrong." Broadly, there are three ways of accounting what this means:
  1. The traditional Platonic account: 'that stabbing is wrong is a bald fact of the universe, deriving from some existent platonic goodness.'
  2. The modern relativist account: 'the belief that stabbing is wrong is an idiosyncratic cultural artifact. It's 'wrong' in western culture, but that is all we can say.'
  3. The utilitarian/enlightenment account: 'stabbing is wrong because what it means for something to be wrong is for it to be harmful to the welfare of some conscious being, and stabbing hurts the stabbed.'
The Platonic account seems to be the account most amenable to human intuition; and in various guises (e.g. the will of a deity) it is the historically dominant account. But it unacceptably excuses itself from argument. It flatly states that some-thing or another is right or wrong while, more than merely failing to justify the claim, declaring that there is no reason for this state of affairs. Things simply, inexplicably, unarguably, are right or wrong.

This doesn't cause much trouble when someone claims that murder is capital-double-u Wrong. But when someone claims homosexuality is wrong we'd like to know what reasons they have for that claim, so that we can argue with them and try to convince them otherwise. Platonism is not compatible with argument, or moral progress. If something is right or wrong as a bald, inexplicable fact, no amount of arguing is going to change that, and it remains right or wrong (resp.) regardless of its effects on the world. (Ironically [in the colloquial and not linguistic/literary sense], there is strong sense in which Platonism is the most capricious of all the here outlined views, but now is not the time for that)

Relativism is a curious backlash to Platonism, it's what you get when you throw out Platonism and then give up on the problem. The relativist holds that what is right and what is wrong is merely a matter of opinion (whether cultural, consensus, or individual). This too discards the possibility of reasoned moral argument. The problems for, and refutations of, relativism should be obvious even if not familiar and I promised to keep this short.

The enlightenment account differs from the preceding two in that it is possible to give, and ask for, reasons why something is right or wrong. If someone claims homosexuality is wrong, I can ask them who it hurts. Similarly we can agree that serving someone a glass of cyanide laced water to drink is wrong, because it's a poison and will kill them. Yet we can conceive that there could be some alien world for whose inhabitants cyanide-water is a most refreshing beverage. It would not be wrong to offer such an alien a glass of cyanide-water. More controversially we can imagine cases of consented euthanasia in which it would be moral to give someone cyanide-water, poisoning them. 

Yet in all cases it seems wrong to poison an unconsenting individual. I posit that this is a universal, objective moral truth. It is superficially similar to Platonic morals, but distinguished by having reasons for being so. It is true, and true in all cases, because in all cases unconsented poisoning is harmful. That unconsented poisoning is wrong, is true in all cases, but it is not an unsupported (and unsupportable) feature of the universe. Rather it is a fact about properties of material things inside the universe: the properties which are common to  conscious beings.

Thus we distinguish the bald Platonist absolute fact of the world: "unconsented poisoning is wrong", from the equally universal, supported, fact about the world: "unconsented poisoning is wrong, because this is what it does, and this is what we mean by wrong".

I centred this post around morals, but my purpose is to begin to explain the under-recognized, subtle, general distinction between Platonic universals, or Absolutes, and material universals, or just plain: universals. This distinction applies to biology, ontology, epistemology, philosophy of math, and aesthetics, among other disciplines.

There is no elan vitale but there are properties which are shared by all things alive.


  1. I agree (of course), but I think there is a more nuanced, more insidious version of the relativist viewpoint, which tries to steal the strength from the utilitarian version.

    It goes:

    Because moral value judgements are just that--human judgements, and because, after all, no two humans can ever share (or at least be sure that they share) a frame of reference, the belief in "preserving the welfare of conscious beings" will mean something different (and probably conflicting) for each person, and who am I to say that what I consider 'welfare' is even meaningfully comparable to what you consider 'welfare'? And what about the frame of reference of what we call unconscious beings?

    (If the above seems ridiculous, I agree, but all of it came up in some point in my literary theory seminar last year.)

  2. To clarify this relativism further, it results in denying the possibility of a moral 'good' that extends beyond individual preference, or is coherent for any group (larger than one) of individuals.