Friday, March 06, 2009

A Redundant Post on Absolute vs. Relative Morality

But first I don’t want to talk about morality. Remove morality considerations from your mind. Put down your mental battle-gear; take a moment and reflect on something different.

I want to talk about colors.

Remember those watercolor paint tins? With the eight colors laid out in ovals—a very distinct Black and Blue and Red and Yellow and Green? And how you loved to be the first person to use one, and how you hated to get the tin that had been passed around and around where all the colors had mushed together into a putrid brown? No watercolor grass should ever be putrid brown/green.

Or the box of crayons. Sure you could be like 99% of the kids who obtained the Crayola 8-color box with colors like “Red” and “Yellow.” Then there was that fancy kid—you know who I mean—who brought the Big Box. The Granddaddy of them all. The 64-color version. (With the crayon sharpener built right into the box!) A tantalizing display of lambent rainbow splash, merging from the deep red to the pale red directly to deep orange and through pale yellow. Your eyes took it in, jealously reading “Raspberry Red” (not “Red”) or “Magenta Blue” (not “Blue”) and wondering what cruel fate left you with parents who could not understand “Brilliant Yellow ” beautifully depicted the nuance you were looking for so much better than plain old boring “Yellow.”

We grew up learning colors. “Red” means stop. “Green” means go. “Yellow” means—Don’t eat that snow! I say “Blue car” and you have a mental image of a certain color.

Now look at the following three images, and ask yourself these questions:

What color are the rocks?
What color is the doll’s outfit?
What color is the iPod?

The first thought through your head was “Dark Blue, Light Blue and Pink.” You didn’t have to contemplate or get a color wheel to match them up with designated swatches. Even if you were looking for a trick, or trying to be clever—your mind unbidden instantaneously responded with those colors.

Do you realize those answers—those almost instinctive reactions—are culturally determined? We think of pink as a very different color than Red. Your first thought was not “That iPod is light red.” Nope—you thought, “Pink.” Do you know the Chinese do not have a distinct word for “pink”? To them, pink is another shade of red. If you were Chinese, the first thought would have been “the iPod is light red.”

However, the Russians have two distinct words, and consider light blue as a completely different color than dark blue. They would have thought the baby’s outfit was the color goluboy and the rocks were siniy.

I don’t know about you, but this idea of light blue and dark blue as being two different colors seems peculiar to me. Can’t the Russians see they are both blue—just different shades of blue? Yet the Chinese person would consider me peculiar for not seeing pink is just a different shade of red.

Some cultures only have terms and consider two colors—dark and light. The Hanuno’o language (Philippines) only has four colors. English is considered to have 11 separate colors.

Our culture has affected how we view colors. How our minds automatically designate and pattern out into categories what we see. A Russian’s mind, without active thought, differentiates between two colors what an American mind would lump together as two different shades of the same color. The American mind differentiates red and pink; whereas the Chinese would lump them together.

Imagine we sat down people from a variety of cultures, gave them a long strip of paper with the full spectrum of colors (white to red to yellow to blue to black) and told them to mark out the colors. Where it changes from a shade of red to a totally new color.

Not surprisingly, the Americans would generally agree with their markings. Yet even within the Americans, due to our individuality, there would be slight differences. Where one person thought “yellow” had changed to “orange” would vary from person to person. Close, but not exact. The Russians would agree (generally) with the Russians. Cherokee Indians (generally) with Cherokee Indians and so on.

We can see how the culture, society and language have affected each person’s choice of colors. Where they would mark. And how what seems bizarre to one culture (“How can they only see four colors?”); may equally be seen as bizarre in our own (“How can they only see one blue?”)

O.K.—the big switch (like you didn’t see this coming.)

Morals are like colors.

I know; I know—morals are BIG and IMPORTANT and meaningful and how dare I compare the mundane with such a deep theological and philosophical concept as ethics. Why, there are books and sets of books and shelves of books, and sections of shelves of books, dedicated to the idea of morality. It must be far more significant than colors.

However, if you can keep in mind the idea of colors; you will better understand the relativist position.

First, we understand that individual consideration is overwhelmingly influenced by our own culture. If you got it about the colors (even for an instant) as to how other cultures can view what seems so obvious to you, in a very different light and it is so obvious to them—then you can equally understand how morals we are raised with can seem so obvious to us; yet not to other cultures.

In America, we have been raised and constantly infused with the notion slavery is wrong. We read about it in history class in elementary school. Our parents say it is wrong. Our teachers said it was wrong. Our classmates write essays on how it is wrong. Over and over we are bombarded with slavery being wrong, from every aspect in our life.

Is it any wonder we come to the moral conclusion (surprise, surprise) that slavery is wrong? The same way we are constantly besieged with the notion pink is a separate color from red and likewise our mind defaults to being firmly convinced of that fact?

Equally, in America, we focus on our economics. Get what you can, while you can. If I loan money at slightly higher interest than anyone else—hey, who’s to complain? The people borrowing from me have a choice to go elsewhere; perhaps they cannot because of credit problems or bankruptcy issues. That’s our choice in a “free market society,” right?

Yet what happens when we look to other cultures? To the Hebrews in the times of Tanakh, slavery was neither immoral nor moral. It just was. Sure, it could be practiced immorally, just like sex or eating could be immorally performed—but in and of itself (like sex and eating) it was not immoral. However, loaning money at usurious rates was considered reprehensible and completely immoral.

What is wrong (slavery) and right (high interest loans) to an American is the complete opposite to another culture. We choose different colors that seem correct to us because of the way we are raised.

Those morals that just seem right; those times an absolute or objective morals positions claims, “EVERYBODY agrees that _____ is immoral” are just ingrained feelings; an instinctual response from being raised a certain way. Just like “everybody” can see light blue is another shade of blue—not a separate color, right?

Second, there is no method to determine what the objective or absolute moral is.

Who determines what is “absolute blue”? Do you? What if, on this spectrum sheet of paper, you picked one blue, and the person next to you picked the shade to the right? Or two to the right? Who is correct? Or you both turn to the Hanuno’o who says, “There is no blue.” Or the Russian who says, “There are two blues”!

Is Murder wrong? Does shooting another soldier on a field of battle constitute murder? What if they are an unarmed medic? What if they are helping soldiers who will get back up and shoot at you? Is dropping a device that will release so much heat the very air itself will burn moral? But dropping one that releases a gas that kills slowly is immoral? Who drew that line?

Is lying wrong? What if it is to save a life? Or prevent hurt feelings?

There have been attempts to create an objective or absolute moral standard, both theistically and non-theistically. The problem remains, though, that it is a subjective, relativist culturally-impacted human that makes the final determination.

We may claim to use “reason” as the determination—but the question will remain: Who’s reason? Which person? Which time? Which culture? Or a theist may claim a God determines absolute morals, leaving us with similar questions: Which God? Which particular flavor of that God? You will note a common thread—a human. It is a human that tells me what reason to us; a human that tells me what a God is claiming.

And worse, we can see how that human presents an objective moral standard reflective of the culture in which they exist. Like saying, “God says this is absolute blue” when the Russian God determines two blues, the American God one blue, and the Hanuno’o God none at all.

One common attempt to avoid this issue is the claim that while we cannot know what, specifically, the absolute or objective moral standard is—that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. While technically true, this does not provide any help at all. Pragmatically it is worthless.

Continuing with our color analogy—what if I told you an alien on Persei-8 had determined what “absolute blue” was (or if there were none or more than one)? Yet we cannot talk to this alien, we cannot utilize this alien—we cannot learn what “absolute blue” is. We are left here, in this world, debating over the existence of colors. Perhaps it is nice to know the Alien from Persei-8 has all the answers for us; but without providing them to us, its still up to us to work out the color pattern.

Merely claiming absolute or objective moral values exist, without any ability to determine what they are, leaves us with nothing. It has been my experience the position never stops there. It is never satisfied with just “existence.” It always wants to take it a step further and say, “Now that they exist, what can we do to find them” while just conceding we cannot find them! Like agreeing the Alien has determined absolute blue, but leaving the Russian, American and Hanuno’o to debate over what, where and how many. Not surprisingly, the absolute moral position immediately attempts to impose its own cultural norm as the “standard” that certainly the alien must use.

If objective or absolute morals exist, they are only of use if we can determine what they are. To exist without verification, without proof, without method is an impotent position.

Thirdly, yes we impose our morals on others.

One of the silliest arguments from the absolute or objective moral camp is this notion that if objective morals do not exist, we cannot impose our morality on others. Posh and nonsense. This is a complete misunderstanding of terms. It is an attempt to win by definition; to define “morals” in such a way to prevail by default.

It is done thusly:

1. The only morals that can be imposed on others are objective or absolute morals.
2. You do not have an objective or absolute moral.
3. Therefore, pursuant to Statement 1, you cannot impose your morals on others.

The obvious question is in the first Statement: Can I impose a non-objective or non-absolute moral upon you? Sure—I know of no claim to an objective morality regarding bedtime; yet I am able to impose my subjective determination of 8:30 p.m. on my children. We impose relative moral standards all the time without thinking. Burp in public and you are shunned. Speed limits. Ordinance violations. Don’t call the next day, get an earful. We interact and communicate (both verbally and non-verbally) all the time attempting to impose our moral standard (regardless of whether it is considered absolute or not) on others. Simply stating, “you can’t” does not make it so.

Or the flip side, it can be phrased, “If morals are only your opinion, you can’t say the other person did anything wrong.” Why not? While I may not preface it with “It is my opinion…” I am still amazingly able to move my lips, make sounds and grammatically state, “You are wrong.” There remains a question of enforcement, of course. I can state it, but can I enforce it upon you?

Yet enforcement is an equal problem for all moral positions. You may claim a God objectively or absolutely determined homosexuality is immoral, yet you (JUST LIKE ME) work though your human interaction with human courts and human legislatures and human advertisements and human votes and human laws and humans enforcing those laws with human prosecutors, human police, human jailers and all human efforts in order to impose these morals. Absolute or not.

We also hear that relativists “act” as if there is an absolute or objective moral standard, thus proving it exists. This is not quite accurate. We treat morals as a standard, because it aids in communication.

Look, you and I may not agree on absolute Red. On our color spectrum sheet, I may have picked a shade far different than your own. Yet in discussing, we can each understand what “red” means. I can tell you, “Stop for the red light” and while we may not agree on absolute red—this does not mean you will disregard ALL reds!


You and I just thought of a particular shade of color. The chance of it being exact are minuscule. Yet through communication, we can start to compare and narrow down what green we are talking about. If I say, “Road sign green, not snot green” you begin to narrow it down. We can begin to understand and communicate.

Likewise, I can use the terms “good” or “immoral” or “better” and NOT need an absolute standard before understanding these terms. I can use “green” and give further examples, and amazingly enough, we understand each other.

In this discussion I see a great deal of misunderstanding. I see over and over the absolute or objective position attempting to utilize their definition of morals (“Only objective morals can be imposed on others”) and then claim relativists cannot impose morals on others since, by definition, non-objective morals are not “allowed” to be imposed. This fails to take into account how relativists define morals.

Like telling the Russians they can’t have two colors of blue, because, by definition, blue is only one color and those are two shades.

We don’t need “absolute red” to discuss red. To understand the difference between candy-apple red and burnt umber. We don’t hear people screaming “Since you don’t believe in absolute red, you can’t claim there is ANY red!” (Unless, perhaps, they had crayon-envy issues when they were younger.) We don’t need absolute colors to recognize the differences between greens and blues and grays. To recognize other cultures and other times may treat colors differently.

We don’t need absolutes to discuss this issue.

I am far more concerned with how you act than whether you believe morals are absolute or not. If you are a boorish pig, whether you think you are “absolutely” entitled to it or not—I will have little to do with you. What I AM concerned about is that we understand the other person’s position and attempt to interact with what it actually is.

Hopefully remembering how different people treat colors helps in that regard.


  1. We grew up learning colors. “Red” means stop. “Green” means go. “Yellow” means—Don’t eat that snow!


    I don't know if this colour analogy is all that great. In the colour scenario, you just have different cultures applying different words to what they see. Each culture has different words for what they see, and they categorize them differently, but are they really seeing something different?

    I think a better analogy for subjective morality is ice cream. We both acknowledge that there's ice cream out there, just like there's rape. But maybe you like ice cream, and I don't. You think ice cream is good. I think it's bad. Same with rape. But "ice cream is good" isn't something that's really true about the ice cream so much as it's true about the person making the claim. It's just another way of saying, "I like ice cream," or "Ice cream tastes good to me."

    So the question is What do we mean when we say "Rape is bad"? Are we merely reporting autobiography? Are we essentially saying that we don't like rape? Or are we talking about the act of rape itself? Is our statement that "Rape is bad," more like "There is ice cream," or is it more like, "Ice cream is good"?

    One of the silliest arguments from the absolute or objective moral camp is this notion that if objective morals do not exist, we cannot impose our morality on others.

    Well, of course anybody can push their own sense of morality on somebody else. But in the absense of objective moral values, it is not rationally correct to do so. Telling somebody else, "You ought not do that," is a false statement. If morals are subjective, nobody else is obligated to live consistently with anybody else's sense of morality. That's the point objectivists are making.

    Or the flip side, it can be phrased, “If morals are only your opinion, you can’t say the other person did anything wrong.” Why not? While I may not preface it with “It is my opinion…” I am still amazingly able to move my lips, make sounds and grammatically state, “You are wrong.” There remains a question of enforcement, of course.

    Good grief, Dagoods! Do you really think objectivists are denying your ability to move your lips and make the sound, "You are wrong"? Is that honestly what you think? Seriously, Dagoods, I want to know if that is honestly what you think. Nobody denies that you're capable of moving your lips to make the necessary sounds. They're saying that if morals are only your subjective preference or the collective preference of your culture, then they do not apply to others. If morals are relative, it isn't wrong for somebody else to do something just because you are personally opposed to it.

    In this discussion I see a great deal of misunderstanding.

    Amen to that! We finally agree on something.

  2. Sam,

    I prefer the color analogy to ice cream, as preference to ice cream is more capricious, but for the reasons you are concerned, it makes no difference.

    You are correct that the colors being seen are the same, regardless of how a culture categorizes them. We see the same hue and shade (assuming all of our monitors are calibrated exactly the same) and one culture says “The iPod is light” another says “The iPod is light red” and another says “The iPod is pink.” Same facts perceived; different interpretation.

    But are ice cream and morals that different? We taste the same mixed ratio of cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla with one person interpreting as “I like the flavor” and another saying “I do not.” We see the same action with one group interpreting the action as moral; another non-moral and another immoral. Same facts perceived (whether it is color, ice cream or action); different interpretations (different color, different preference, different moral interpretation.)

    You used an example of rape. Let’s run with it. We can take the same action and come up with a variety of interpretations, regardless whether you are an objective or subjective moralist. (I will use your terms through this response.)

    I have sexual intercourse with a 16-year-old. We can all agree with what that act entails. I don’t need to be more descriptive, thank you. But is that act “rape”? (We automatically associate “rape” with immorality.) Just like we see the same hue and shade—but may not all agree it is a separate color, as compared to a shade of a color.

    In some states (mine, for example), 16 is the age of consent, so if there was consent—this would not be rape. In other states, 18 is the age of consent, so this would be statutory rape, regardless of consent. In some states if it was with a male, it would be considered rape (depending on age, even) on others it would be not.

    Even forced sex is not the easiest answer. What if I am in a country where fathers order daughters to marry? She may not want to have sex with me, but “consents” through cultural coercion. Does that remove it from rape? Or take the Christian problem with Numbers 31. There we have the Hebrews forcing 32,000 virgin Midianites to marry them (or die) and have sex. Was that rape?

    You are left with an objective standard where you must constantly find possible exceptions where what I would consider rape—you must not. Curious.

    Same color? Same recipe? Same action? Very different interpretations. The analogy (in my opinion, which is not a surprise, since I made it) holds.

    Sam: Well, of course anybody can push their own sense of morality on somebody else. But in the absense of objective moral values, it is not rationally correct to do so.

    Wrong. Look, if you want to discuss with relativists…er…sorry…subjective moralists, you need to understand this point. You are correct in one sense that if morals are defined along the terms an objectivist states, then a subjectivist cannot rationally impose their morals on others.

    But we do not define morals the same way! If you force your definition as to what is morality, then any alternative view will not be rationally in line with your own. However, their own enforcement of morality MAY be in line with their definition of morality.

    Maybe I was too subtle with my point—objectivists and subjectivist disagree at a very base, root level. We disagree as to the definition of morality itself. And we are rationally consistent within our own definition, the same as you may be rationally consistent with your own. But to demand the other is not rational, because they are not consistent with your definition will never progress this conversation. Never.

    It is the same as demanding colors are defined along American terms, and then claiming the Russian is “inconsistent” for claiming light blue is a different color than dark blue. Or that the Chinese are “inconsistent” for claiming pink is a shade of red, rather than a different color than light red.

    We push our morality on others by different reasons. Since “There is an objective morality” does not work on us—we do not use it on others. We use empathy, reason, aversion, social contract, and a variety of other methods to impose it on others.

    Take a chapter from a common objectivist claim—that an objective moral is “we have to obey God.” (Note, for any lurkers, I am NOT claiming this is Sam’s position—I will let him state his own. This is just something I run across.) We take the situation of some of the atrocities of the Tanakh. The easiest being the Midianites of Numbers 31 or the Amalekites. We normally would say killing one-week-old babies, even in times of war, is wrong. Christians even understand the problem; otherwise they would not look for and find a variety of reasons to justify this atrocity.

    One of the justifications is that an exception to the morality “You don’t kill one-week old babies” is if God orders it. Since God is always moral (so the justification goes)—if He orders it, it must be moral.

    Now, under my relative, subjective morality—this is immoral. It is irrational to claim it “became” moral, simply because a human thinks a god ordered it. Yet in order to discuss with such a Christian, I must understand that, by their definition it is rational to claim such an action is moral. We are better off debating who has the correct definition, rather than argue who is being “rational.”

    Sam: Telling somebody else, "You ought not do that," is a false statement.

    Again, wrong. We should explode out the statements objectivists and subjectivists make:

    Objectivist: [In my opinion there is an objective standard that claims] you ought not do that.

    Subjectivist: [In my opinion there is a reason that claims] you ought not do that.

    Notice that, in conversing, we normally drop the section within the brackets for expedience sakes, yet it is there as a basis of our conversation. Secondly, notice that the italicized section is where we disagree in our basic definition of morality. Yet in both, we are making on opinionated section.

    Surely you have seen how non-theists claim Christians cannot use Mosaic law to justify homosexuality being immoral—they are doing the same thing. Saying, “You ought not do that” is a false statement since those Christians define morality differently. It doesn’t work on those Christians; why would we think it would work on subjectivists?

    If, in my opinion, killing one-week-old babies in times of war is immoral, it is rational, consistent and correct, for me to state “You ought not do that.”

    Sam: If morals are subjective, nobody else is obligated to live consistently with anybody else's sense of morality. That's the point objectivists are making.

    You are correct. If they are subjective, no one IS obligated to live with my set of morals. Er…so what? If there are objective, no one is obligated to live with that set of morals. I would think you agree, regardless of what system is in place, people violate morals all the time. Even their own.

    The question facing us both is how to determine morality and how to enforce it. I would further note the failure of objectivists to come up with a set of objective morals further impinges them more than us. If we don’t know that we are “obligated” to follow—what value is it to claim we are obligated to follow it? Here, I find the subjective realization of reality to be far more reasonable. To understand that others may NOT find the same set of colors we do, and learn how to interact with them. To understand others may not like the same ice cream flavors, and how to compensate. To understand there is no set of objective rules, and how to interact and improve our position from there.

    It is perhaps a bit hyperbolic to say objectivists don’t think we can frame the words. But not that much so.

    Sam: They're saying that if morals are only your subjective preference or the collective preference of your culture, then they do not apply to others. If morals are relative, it isn't wrong for somebody else to do something just because you are personally opposed to it.

    Wow. There is a lot to unpack in that statement. Some close to our position; some not so close. What do you mean by “apply”? How are morals “applied”? The collective preference of my culture is that you do not spit on the ground in public. Would you say there is an objective moral position on that? (I doubt it, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth.) Yet by ostracizing, shunning, even passing of laws, we can enforce and “apply” this moral to others.

    Further, it is wrong to ME for someone to do something I am personally opposed to. Yes, it may not be wrong on an objective standard but I don’t define morals on an objective standard!

    Yes, under your objective standard, simple preference would not qualify as saying something is immoral because I am opposed to it, but I don’t utilize the objective standard. This is why objectivists are unable to communicate with subjectivists—they continue to insist the conversation must be couched solely in terms of the definitions of objectivists, without consideration for the definitions of subjectivists.

    Like an American continuing to insist the Russian must recognize ONLY the American system of colors, and say, “Your preference of there to be two different colors between light and dark blue does not mean it must apply to others.”

    Now, if we want to converse who as the more correct definition of morality—THAT would be where the conversation should be held.

    Sam, we agree on quite a bit, it just seems internet conversations are easier to point out disagreements rather than agreements.

  3. What about Mary? Was she raped? Or was it child molestation?

  4. watever the opinions may be ..i enjoyed reading it :)