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I've been thinking hard about how I would describe my moral position, from a philosophical point of view. Since I do not agree with moral relativism or with moral absolutism (perhaps better called "moral realism"), I think I found a position that allows us to eat our cake and have it too. Moral quasi-realism is a pragmatic position, and that's why I like it. I also admire contemporary philosopher and humanist Simon Blackburn, and he came up with quasi-realism was a meta-ethical position, so I confess to being partial to anything Blackburn comes up with.

 

Moral realism maintains there are moral facts, and that they exist because of an objective reality about the world, and that moral truth is independent of subjective opinions. For example "lying for personal gain is wrong", and "my dog Lola has a tan and white coat" are equivalent in their truth and they are objective, not dependent on context or subjective opinion. I honestly cannot subscribe to this view, because morality has to have a subjective and context-dependent base, or it would not be adaptive, plus we would never be able to change the norms about what is moral throughout time and society, and we clearly not only do that all the time, but it is also beneficial because it allows for moral "progress". I view moral realism or absolutism as more of a religious attitude. In fact, religious people who think morality comes from god, are moral realists, moral absolutists, what is morally wrong is morally wrong. Period. It can never become morally permissible. For example, homosexuality is wring because it says so in the Bible; therefore, homosexually can never be morally neutral, or morally permissible, etc. A dangerous inflexible attitude in my mind.

 

So why am I not a moral relativist? Moral relativism maintains that there are no moral truths, it is all dependent on the societal context, and therefore one morality is equivalent to another. In other words, moral judgments are not universal, but are instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a given society. It sounds reasonable, and it is correct from an observational point of view: different cultures do have different moral standards. However, that does not mean one cannot criticize or strive to change the moral values of other cultures, like moral relativists advocate. I am not a moral relativist because I cannot bring myself to accept that forcing a 12 year old little girl to marry against her will, and to allow her tyrannical husband to beat her up if she's disobedient, is just as morally acceptable as protecting the rights of children to grow up and choose for themselves. But I do agree there are no objective moral truths, irrespective of circumstances, so what am I to do?

 

Now on to moral quasi-realism: there are no moral truths, but because of the emotional charge that moral sentences have in people, it is as if they were true, for practical purposes. For example, if I saw somebody hurting a puppy, and I heard the puppy cry out in pain, I will have an immediate emotional reaction to that behavior and see it as morally wrong; the same thing happens if I read the ethical proposition "hurting defenseless animals is morally wrong", I have an emotional reaction to it and it acquires the value of a moral truth. It is a pragmatic attitude. I feel the same as I do regarding "free will"; perhaps there is no free will at all, perhaps neuroscience will show definitively that it does not exist, that we make decisions before we are even aware that we made them. But for all practical purposes we feel as if we had free will, therefore free will exists for practical purposes, because we act as if it existed, including when we punish others for their actions.

 

I write an awful lot and i haven't said much about Simon Blackburn. Here are example of what he said that I really like:

 

"Human beings need to behave well in this world, and not any other. We stand on our own feet, and our feet are human feet"

 

Or this (emphasis added by me):

 

Should we respect other people's religious faith? Respect is a very difficult word. It sounds reasonable but it's horribly ambiguous. It can span everything from toleration to admiration.When a criminal demands respect, they don't just demand tolerance but subservience. When religious groups demand respect, what starts off as a demand for tolerance can rapidly end up as a demand to take over your life. Do you respect my gardening? I might expect you to tolerate it, but you have no duty to admire it. I don't see that religion is particularly bad, but at certain historical moments it is very dangerous and this is one of them. There is a risk that we will undermine the West, that we will go back to the religious wars of the 17th century. The only reason Christians are not still burning each other is because the secular state stopped them.

 

Who can disagree with that? I like Blackburn's non-nonsense approach to writing. Very clear, concise, not holding back either. Not surprising that quasi-realism would come out of a thinker like him. Check out this excellent newspaper article, a few years old, of why religion needs to be kept out of politics; below is a little excerpt:

 

Religion can distort people's moral sensibilities as much as it can inform them. The unimportant becomes important, the important becomes unimportant, as we're seeing with gay adoption and gay bishops. Curiously enough, most of the social problems we have now are not addressed by religion. Both right and left claim equal Christian pedigree. Religions have far more to do with stoning homosexuals than with social welfare provision or affordable housing.

 

I'm attaching here some pdfs with interviews of Professor Blackburn, and a couple of articles he wrote on quasi-realism and why this is different than fictionalism, and the Voltaire Lecture he gave in 2001, very interesting what he says about September 11, 2001.

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I disagree that to be a relativist means you accept morals that differ from yours and do not try to foster change. Can you not be a moral relativist and also wish to change what you see in a culture as being immoral. Does relativism mean no interference?

 

Maybe I'm not using the right definition. I thought relativism was the acceptance of another culture's values that may not coincide with your own, I did not know that it also includes the acceptance of that culture's immorality. Can I be a relativist and accept a muslim's way of life, yet still abhor the promotion of child suicide bombers. Is relativism an either/or proposition, with no room for disagreement?

 

I guess relativism is a term that I've been supporting for the possible reason that religion hates the term.

You can be a relativist and still try to change something from another culture if it threatens you, for example, at least according to Jesse Prinz, a proponent of moral relativism (see this discussion I posted on him in this group here):

 

Allegation: Relativism entails that we have no way to criticize Hitler.

Response: First of all, Hitler’s actions were partially based on false beliefs, rather than values (‘scientific’ racism, moral absolutism, the likelihood of world domination). Second, the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.

 

Here is what Prinz has to say about changing moral values of other cultures or interference:

Allegation: Relativism doesn’t allow moral progress.

Response: In one sense this is correct; moral values do not become more true. But they can become better by other criteria. For example, some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability. If moral relativism is true, morality can be regarded as a tool, and we can think about what we’d like that tool to do for us and revise morality
accordingly.

 

Many people may say that Prinz is no "real" moral relativist, then. Moral relativism is always used in a pejorative sense so perhaps it needs another name.

I agree that pissing off the religious by using a term they hate is a worthy and satisfying endeavor, though :-))

It gets interesting by the day. I started reading Pigluicci he talks of a third way which I find as interesting as the position advanced here by Blackburn

I'm a big fan of third ways myself.

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