Relative Moralism
March 11, 2012

Via Lee McCracken, here’s a particularly pungent example of how right-wing moralists like to abuse the term “moral relativism.” Our author, Gene Callahan, thinks that this is an example of the moral relativist position:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

That’s Irin Carmon, writing in Salon, and making the perfectly reasonable point that women have better knowledge of their own sexual behavior than Rush Limbaugh, and are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform it to Limbaugh’s mouth-breathy demands. Callahan seems to think this is roughly analogous to arguing that serial killers are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform to the demands of God, society, or the criminal justice system. In other words, he reads Irin’s position as being, “Moral truth is whatever I, personally, want it to be.”

Evidently, Callahan only read the very last paragraph of Irin’s column, and, lacking any real context, filled in the gaps with the stupidest and least charitable reading of her position that he could concoct. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who read the rest of the column could characterize Irin’s position as anything but a moral realist position: women have a right to autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies, because they are full and equal persons to men in every respect. I suspect Callahan is doing all of this hand-waving about moral relativism either because he doesn’t have a counter-argument, or knows that the counter-argument is too ugly to say out loud.

Look, Ross Douthat and James Poulos have already tried similar stunts with at least a little more adroitness. It would be getting tiresome now, if it hadn’t always been tiresome. The popular moral stance among social liberals on this issue is a moral realist one; if you think that position is wrong, then state your case. But hiding behind cries of “moral relativism” and denying the moral urgency of your opponent’s argument is just another way of saying that you endorse existing hierarchies and inequalities for familiarity’s sake.

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Why Sam Harris’ Ethical Empiricism Is Wrong
January 12, 2011

Sam Harris
Image via Wikipedia

I an earlier post about the holes in empirical atheism, I briefly mentioned Sam Harris’ argument that science can answer moral questions. Since the post was already running sort of long, I dismissed Harris (pictured) rather quickly by linking to what I thought was a good takedown by philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci. Commenter Josef Johann replied:

Dissenter warning!

Harris only commits a category error if you think there is a divide between what science is about and what morality is about in the first place. Claiming there is a category error is just a repackaging of one’s first-order disagreement with Harris. It doesn’t contain the why.

Yes, you did link to Massimo at the end, and that would be fine if the issue weren’t contentious, but being that it is contentious I think that’s a rather weak way of backing up your post’s fundamental premise.

I’m not trying to be uncivil but I’m flabbergasted by this type of assertion-by-fiat argument, as if dogmatic repetition of the very position Harris is arguing against is sufficient to rebut him. It isn’t. The trick is to reply to Harris in a way that isn’tquestion begging.

Resorting to empiricism to resolve questions may appear to you to be “cheap and intellectually lazy.” But someone from my side could just as well say that this viewpoint reflects a lack of imagination with respect to the explanatory scope of empiricism. And it surely wouldn’t be the first time- history is replete with confident declarations that X is outside the scope of science (e.g. Newton’s claim that there may from time to time be divine intervention to stabilize the orbit of the planets, the belief the human brain couldn’t be produced by natural selection or any other evolutionary mechanism, a belief that was argued for in respected circles in the 20th century).

So we return to the question of whether Harris’ definition, or any other, captures all the different ways we use the word morality. If it can’t even be done inprinciple, well, that requires argument just like everything else. I argue in the affirmative, you argue in the negative, and we explain why. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but at least in the context of rebuttals to Sam Harris, all I see are assertions-by-fiat masquerading as arguments.

Also, a recent PhilPapers Poll shows most analytic philosophers are moral realists. It can mean many different things, but one of its meanings is that moral issues can be decided by factual matters, which the Cornell Realists certain seem to have thought. So Harris’ view isn’t as completely out of the mainstream as is, I think, commonly believed.

Maybe my dismissal was overly glib, but I don’t think I was arguing by “dogmatic fiat” or “assertion-by-fiat.” I was letting Professor Pigliucci do the arguing for me. But in the interest of trying to put Harris’ deeply flawed argument behind us once and for all, I’m happy to expand on why on the professor’s argument a bit.
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