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This is a talk I gave on May 1 at the Skylands Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Hackettstown, New Jersey

Moral Relativity
Antony Van der Mude

About five years ago I decided to sit down and write some of my thoughts on philosophy. The initial impetus was that I, having an interest in religion in general had been surprised about the criticisms of moral relativism that one hears. About that time I even saw an article in Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism, criticizing Moral Relativism and stating that even for atheists, moral values must be absolute values. So I suppose that Theodore Schick's article "Is Morality a Matter of Taste?" was the proximate cause for this work. In the intervening years I have been working on a short book on morality and philosophy. It will be ten chapters long; I am finishing up chapter nine and have written notes for the final chapter. This is the first public presentation I have given on this work.

Many of you have probably heard the objections. Moral subjectivism says that whatever a person believes to be moral is moral for that person and we have no right to object to that person's beliefs if sincerely held. Moral relativism says that the moral codes of different societies and beliefs carry equal weight and each one is right for that society or group. These critiques have recently come to prominence again because they are a major concern of Pope Benedict XVI. Moral absolutism means that the morality of the Roman Catholic Church is the morality that is best for all - none of this relativism will do.

I wanted to address these objections because I felt that it was an important issue around which to collect my thoughts on philosophy. I am not unique in this. Many great philosophies are built around morality. One famous example is Spinoza's Ethics. This is the heart and soul of his philosophy. Most religions have ethics as a major emphasis. Islam has the principle of equality, Buddhism stresses nonviolence and Judaism has the Ten Commandments.

As someone who has studied physics and mathematics and works as a software engineer, I tend to look at the world in a technical way. This underpins the way I look at religion and ethics. As you will see, I do not reduce life to a computer program of a mathematical equation, though. Instead, I will use the world of the hard sciences as a source of metaphors to illustrate my belief structure.

Before I go further, let's talk about terms. To put it simply, morality is "what is the good" and ethics is "how do I practice it". In my exposition of morality I will take these definitions as axiomatic. That is, no matter what morality you choose, morality, is the search for the good. The question is, "good for whom?" and "how do you measure it?” For some people, what is the good is defined by a God, for others a society, for others the individual. There are even ecological ethics where the standard is what is good for Gaia. But what is moral must be good for someone or something - some entity that the good is good for. There is also some sense of an actor; someone capable of choosing right and wrong, else there would be no ethics. These actors do not necessarily have to be people, although most discussion of morality limits the concept of a moral actor to be a human being. I don't necessarily agree with this limitation. I can well consider other mammals such as dogs and cats to have limited moral choices. Recently there have been articles in the science news that claim that colonies of bacteria make rudimentary moral choices depending on the environment. Of course others object to this; they feel that for all the other creatures we know of, their behavior does not rise to the level of moral choice. This distinction is not essential to what follows. Take your stand and interpret the rest of this talk in light of your beliefs on this issue.

So I am defining morality as a search for the good. In a sense this is utilitarianism, a form of morality in which some objective function is being maximized - "the greatest good for the greatest number". This philosophy was pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, and in a sense it does fit what I am trying to say, with reservations. The first reservation is that Bentham and most other utilitarians define their function in terms of pleasure and pain. I don't do that. I would claim that if you are a fundamental Christian, focused on salvation and determined to follow the teachings of Jesus, or the Taoist just as determined to go with the flow, you have some sort of definition of the good and you are bound to maximize it. I will not define the good in a way that establishes one function as a standard and excludes the others - not quite.

So let's get to the heart of the matter. Is morality relative or absolute? And here I will bring in my first and most important metaphor from the world of the hard sciences - the concept in physics of classical relativity.

Relativity precedes Einstein. Actually it is the heart of the theoretical revolution of Copernicus and Galileo. Consider: except for the occasional far-out thinker, people had basically considered the Earth as the center of the Universe. It was a fixed absolute. Although by 1632, the year Galileo published the "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems", intellectual thought had progressed from the point where Mount Olympus was the center of the universe to where Earth as a whole was. But still astronomy was based on an absolute view of the universe. Although Galileo and Copernicus overthrew that center, replacing the Earth by the Sun as the center, it was only a generation or two later that Newton did away with absolutism entirely. The Sun may be what we rotate around, but it was no more the center of the Universe than the Earth was.

But this turns the universe into some amorphous place where anything was possible? No, it was the start of modern science and engineering. We kept our standards: a meter is still one-millionth the distance from Paris to the North Pole. It was just that the universe did not center itself around that pole. Morality is like this. Consider life as a voyage through unknown seas. We still have a moral compass, but it points us relative to some place "out there". The Christian's moral compass is pointed towards God. The Taoist is pointed to the flow of the Tao. But each compass is used to help steer the individual to safe water, away from the rocks that can wreck a life. Each religion gives us a moral map of these shoals. With classical relativity, we realized that there are many projections of the world onto this a flat map and we can all steer a safe course using our own compass and map.

Does that mean there is no right and wrong? Of course not. Genocide is a far away from the good as the Earth is from the Moon. Each of us views the Moon from a slightly different perspective. But it is far beyond the Pale. On the other hand, the question of slavery has changed as we have moved from primitive societies to industrial ones. In the Old Testament, God nods with approval as inferior races are enslaved. In the New Testament, St Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters. But from our perspective, slavery has no good in it. The good is relative to time and circumstance.

Relativity means you determine the point of origin from which to measure the good. It should be appropriate for the measurement. Just as I do not measure a trip to the grocery store by the distance from me to the Moon and the store to the Moon, so I do not measure my contributions to charity relative to my eschatology (theology of the end of the world). That is, unless I truly believe the world is about to end. Choose the correct coordinates.

But still there is the question of how to determine the good. Although this measurement is relative to each person, the standard is absolute. Einstein is associated with the term relativity because he was able to recast the equations of physics in terms of an absolute metric - the speed of light. Morality has a similar standard, as simple and ubiquitous as the speed of light. This standard derives from the capacity for empathy and the need to determine what is the best for each person.

In Special Relativity, the speed of light is an absolute standard. It is also an unreachable limit for any matter. The moral standard is what is the greatest good for each individual. This is a relative measurement - it is unique to each individual and can even change for that person as they grow and change. It is also very hard to determine - it is not a simple measurement of pleasure or pain. To borrow a term from mathematical physics, what is good is a point in an n-dimensional vector space, the dimensions being all of the aspects of that entity for which their good can be defined.

The application of this moral standard to each person is well known in almost all religions and moral codes. It is called the Golden Rule. As Jesus expressed it, you shall "love your neighbor as yourself". The only way to do this is to put yourself in that person's shoes. This means that the Golden Rule defines a profoundly relative moral code. It just cannot be defined in a blindly absolute manner. It also shows how different societies can be compared in terms of their moral code. One society is better than another if its people are better at maximizing the good of their people, however that is defined. This makes the determination more sophisticated than a simple absolute comparison, though. It is much easier for an observer to compare the moral standard of two other societies against each other than relative to the morality of the observer. But for the observer to compare themselves against another society, there must be a third reference point to compare against. This can be a distant point such as the vision of an ideal society, or a point in the past from which the two moralities diverged, but a comparison can only be made relative to a third point.

Let us consider three implications of moral relativity. First, a relative morality demands moderation in all affairs. There being no absolute standards for all entities, there is no fixed way to maximize some action or quality over everyone. Therefore, there is a relative tradeoff between the values in the vector of the good. An example is the tradeoff between freedom and justice. A society with absolute freedom has no justice. Alternatively, a perfect justice would enslave everyone to the demands of equality. The best you can do is to maximize the tradeoff between the two so as the get the most of both.

The next point is that there is justice in the world, but only of an approximate, relative kind. It is generally true that if you do good to the people around you, it is often reciprocated. It also happens the other way around, too - evil is often answered by evil. But this sense of justice as reciprocity, is only approximate. Rich, selfish people can die in their beds having a long and happy life, and the innocent poor can suffer through no sin of their own. But the good we do around us does come back in an attenuated form, so that a good person does end up making their world in which they live a better place. To use another concept from science, there is some sort of approximate conservation law at work. This means that the world is not necessarily good or bad, but there is a set point at which society operates. To move away from that set point requires effort on the part of many people to make society measurably better or worse. So if an individual works to make the world a better place, they may make a difference in their own neighborhood, but this will die out unless others come to carry on.

The third point is the idea of free will. Normally, free will is considered in absolute terms. Most people believe we have free will; some don't. But for almost every one it is a yes or no answer. Those who believe we have no free will believe that the world is determined, so we have no true choice. Those who believe in free will believe that it is God-given, or that there is some indeterminacy in the world that makes the possibility of predicting human choice impossible. I think both views are mistaken. To me, free will is a quality ascribed to an observed entity by an observer and is relative to the entity doing the observing. To an omniscient God, we humans have no free will. But if one human observes another human, assuming both of them are essentially normal, we see that the other human acts as if they have free will. Looking at a dog, though, we know enough of how they operate to deny them the quality of free will, believing instead that they are driven by their instincts. But, at the risk of anthropomorphizing dogs, when dogs live together in a pack, they seem to relate to one another as if each member of the pack has free will, even though they may not have the same level of introspection that we do. So free will is relative.

The last part of this talk is on how to arrive at a set of workable moral laws. Many religions rely on their sacred books to give them the moral laws to live by. The Ten Commandments come to mind as an example, followed by the Sermon on the Mount and the Koran. That is way the Abrahamic Religions are often known as the People of the Book. But as a person who has studied logic at a very deep level, I have come to know the limits of logic, and consider it suspect as the predominant way of arriving at moral standards. This analysis gets into very arcane realms, including considerations of the Gödel incompleteness theorem, immune sets and computational learning theory. Suffice it to say that any holy book is in effect an axiom set, and modern logic shows us that every axiom set is incomplete. This all stems from the paradox of the Liar. The original goes as follows: "Epimenides, the Cretan, says: "All Cretans are liars". Since he is a Cretan, this itself is a lie. Actually, this does not lead to a paradox unless we reformulate it. Gödel formalized Eubulides' Paradox: "This sentence is false." Assume it true. Then the sentence is false. Which means it is true. But that means it is false, and so on. Where this gets interesting in morality is when you make a moral statement that is given in the negative. For example, a person who claims to know the will of God is a sinner because they are guilty of pride and hubris. But a person who does not know the will of God is a sinner because they are ignorant of righteousness. As another example, someone who acts as a ward of a mentally incompetent person is given power over that person to protect them. But in this country, one of the fundamental protections we have is to do as we please, so granting that ward the power also violates that person's protections.

So the incompleteness of logic means that we cannot arriving at a moral code through pure logic. Instead I advocate the use of statistics to arrive at a workable ethics. What does this mean? First, it grants limited applicability to situations that occur too seldom. These are sometimes known as "lifeboat examples", the type of situations that begin with, "well would it be moral if there were a bunch of people on an ocean liner and the ship went down and they were stuck in a lifeboat and..." The most famous lifeboat of recent times is the Petrie dish of in vitro fertilization and cloning. You cannot build a morality on extrapolation from hypothetical situations alone without the statistics to back it up. For example, is doctor-assisted suicide moral or immoral? Well, let's look at the experience in Holland and Oregon before we jump to conclusions.

This approach has its own set of problems, though. The psychologist Keith Stanovich has aptly described the human ability at statistics as "the Achilles’ heel of human cognition". That is because people are just not good at reasoning statistically. We have a natural tendency to rely on anecdotal evidence - the sort of counter-example of "I know a person who...". I used to hear this about seat belts before the law made them mandatory - "I know a person that who got in an accident and was thrown from the car before it burst into flames. If they were wearing their seatbelt, they would have died." Statistics tend to be too abstract - the average person needs concrete examples. Another problem is that people have a tendency to overfit data. Sometimes things happen for purely random reasons, but people tend to try to explain randomness away. For example, in a psychology experiment, people were asked to predict whether light A or light B would come on first. The experiment was set up so that light A came on first randomly 70% of the time. Now most people this study chose light A 70% of the time. This gives a success rate of .7*.7 + .3*.3 = 55%, a little better than half. If instead they chose light A 100% percent of the time, and just accepted the randomness, they were correct 70% of the time. Statistics has its own set of paradoxes.

In conclusion, a morality based on statistics is a moral relativity. If what is right is based on the statistics for a population, you have a morality relative to that society, based on what is the best for that population. It may lead to unpalatable conclusions, though. For example, when welfare was replaced by workfare during the Clinton administration, many on the left predicted that the reduction of welfare would lead to disaster for the poor. There has, though, been no convincing evidence to back up either side. Although by the start of the first Bush Administration, there was a marked decline in welfare rolls, this could be as easily attributed to an expanding economy as to workfare. A statistical approach to moral decision making is not a quick way to acheiving a just society. But when conclusions are evenutally reached, they have a depth of understanding that makes the morality robustly adaptable to change.