Check out Moral Relativism Magazine


Our close blog-buddy DuWayne Brayton has been published in a philosophy publication covering morality called Moral Relativism Magazine. I can only assume the purpose of the publication is to retake a label that the evangelical crowd has turned into a slur, considering that moral relativism is far more nuanced than “we should do whatever we want because all morals are relative”. DuWayne sent along a preview copy of the article, so I could pimp his writing, and I figure there’s no harm in giving you a sample of the first two paragraphs so you can gauge whether you’re interested in the full thing.

A mere fifty years ago it was generally accepted that people who had different colored skin getting married was so immoral it was illegal in most states in the U.S. Even today, the few states allow same sex couples to marry and such marriages aren’t recognized by the U.S. federal government. Less than fifty years ago people who engaged in homosexual sex could be imprisoned in several U.S. states. In Kenya, Uganda and Nairobi homosexuality can still be cause for imprisonment, in some cases inducing a life sentence. Homosexuality is a capital crime in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Nigeria. Most people in most cultures worldwide consider monogamy the default assumption for romantic relationships. Even many atheists find polyamorous relationships morally ambiguous at best.

Yet there has been miscegenation since people of different colors have been in contact with one another. Homosexuality would not be illegal or otherwise frowned upon if it had not existed for all of history in a myriad of cultures. Polygamy and polyamory, not to mention the assumption of cheating have been accepted in innumerable cultures throughout history. All of these also occur and have occurred in cultures that generally consider them immoral. While it can be argued that every culture has ethical frameworks, parts of which are considered moral axioms to the majority of individuals within that culture, it is absurd to assume that everyone in a given culture accepts all of that framework as moral truth.

The full magazine is $8 per issue, which is good considering it’s a relatively (heh) new and self-published startup providing actual physical copies for each issue, operating primarily through Lulu. The best part is, it’s a paid gig for DuWayne, and the more people buy this magazine and support their efforts, the more likely it will stick around to provide a revenue stream for DuWayne and other philosophers like him. If you’ve got the change and are interested in this sort of thing, it might be worth your while to support these folks.

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    In her book The Virus That Ate Cannibals, Carol Efron described how the Fore tribe of New Guinea would hold funeral feasts in which the deceased were ritually cannibalized. This caused the transmission of kuru (spongiform encephalopathy) among the feasters. When the local authorities were trying to convince the Fore not to hold cannibalistic funerals, many of the Fore objected. They held it was immoral not to honor granddad by eating him.

    Morality really is relative.

  2. Natalie says

    I’ve seen the argument made, though, that are some ethical imperatives that seem to be somewhat hard-wired, and present in the vast majority of human beings. Like leaving aside people with certain kinds of neurological or psychological atypicalities (like sociopathy, for instance), we all possess some level of instincts towards compassion, empathy, and a sense of “the greater good”. I wonder whether it would be worth separating basic ethics and morals (which could be tied to those “golden rules”, and occur on a near-universal basis, like the prohibition against premeditated murder for personal gain), and cultural mores, like tenets about sexuality, gender, race, cannibalism, identity, clothing and body modification, belief systems, ritual, etc. Those seem more about mediating human instincts in particular ways (like our sexualities, our in-group/out-group tribalist tendencies, our tendency towards spritual belief) rather than simply codifying natural trends towards compassion and empathy. But I honestly don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about, and am kind of just thinking out loud. :p

  3. says

    Natalie: I’ve seen the argument made, though, that are some ethical imperatives that seem to be somewhat hard-wired, and present in the vast majority of human beings.

    It’s a great demo of the power of evolution. Imagine two islands, both identical in every way except one: the inhabitants of one island are programmed to avoid murdering each other, while the inhabitants of another lack any such programming. Which one is more likely to survive, in the long run?

    Establishing such a rule isn’t hard, either. Sexual species already need some way to find a mate, rewarding us with good vibes, social species need some way to identify competitors to your mate, and no multi-cellular organism I know of has more than two sexes. All you need to do is splash a little of those good feelings towards weak competitors, and bingo: instant morality!

    But I honestly don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about, and am kind of just thinking out loud.

    You know more than you think. The central tenant of Utilitarianism, the most popular moral theory at the moment, is to maximize overall “happiness,” for some definition of that word; in comparison, evolution maximizes fitness for an environment. Note there’s an overlap between the two; organisms that are a perfect fit for their environment have nothing to complain about, and are thus “happy.”

    The tricky question is: how much overlap is there?

    HJ Hornbeck

  4. Natalie says

    Yeah, I know there’s an evolutionary component to compassion and empathy, and that those are necessary in a social species.

    What interests me though, is that… like… some of our morality is about encouraging some of our “innate” instincts (empathy, compassion, love, altruism, etc.), while some of our morality is about mediating our instincts (sexuality, gender, tribalism, etc.)

    I think that vague distinction I’m trying to draw is based around that. The ethics that are based on encouraging certain innate human instincts like compassion seem to be almost culturally universal (though there are obviously certain socio-cultural circumstances in which the social pressure is towards their suppression… high risk finance, for instance). But the moral systems, which I’m calling “cultural mores”, that are built around mediating human instinct or drives are FAR more varied from culture to culture, to the extent that certain practices or taboos can actually be inverted from one culture to another. This category is stuff like morality and law surrounding sexuality and gender, identity, clothing, body modification, food, ritual, health, spiritual belief and so on.

    There’s obviously overlap, and these two categories I’m describing aren’t necessarily very strictly delineated, but there seems to be enough difference in how they operate that I wonder whether we could benefit from treating them as discrete, differentiated concepts. Like sort of pressing that the one category isn’t really fair to regard in a relativistic manner, which the latter MUST be regarded as culturally and situationally relative.

    By the way…

    no multi-cellular organism I know of has more than two sexes

    Ummm… humans?

  5. says

    There’s obviously overlap, and these two categories I’m describing aren’t necessarily very strictly delineated, but there seems to be enough difference in how they operate that I wonder whether we could benefit from treating them as discrete, differentiated concepts. Like sort of pressing that the one category isn’t really fair to regard in a relativistic manner, which the latter MUST be regarded as culturally and situationally relative.

    You can still fit both into an evolutionary framework. Is there a morality of online music sharing burned into our genes? No, there hasn’t been enough time for evolution to kick in, and the effect on survival is so slight there’s good reason to suspect it never will. The second category could fall into the same camp, meaning any genetic push will either be a side effect of other interactions or the result of drift, if there is one at all. Hence, we have no clear or even majority ruling, leaving the final choice up to whim and cultural evolution.

    Ummm… humans?

    Ack! Sorry, but I was raised in a bubble and until the last five years viewed gender as a gradient between “male” and “female,” so my wording isn’t as clear on this issues as it should be.

    For “sex” as in gender, I totally agree: asexuals and those who don’t view themselves as men or women make a good case for having at least three genders.

    For “sex” as in genes and chromosomes, however, I haven’t seen the evidence. Klinefelter’s syndrome (XXY) and XYY syndrome aren’t hereditary, and I can’t find any sex-chromosome “anomalies” which are. If you can come up with a counter-example, hey, I’ll gladly change my mind!

    Although, if our gender is primarily determined by our genes…. shit. I’m gonna have to meditate on that one. :P

    HJ Hornbeck

  6. Natalie says

    As for the first point:

    How can you fit cultural mores, that vary between cultures, such as prescriptive taboos for sexuality (“Thou shalt not buttsecks, etc.”), into an evolutionary framework? There hasn’t been NEARLY enough time, for instance, for contemporary western society to have “evolved” a new morality that is relatively accepting of homosexuality, so it seems fairly obvious that this is a cultural issue, and whatever evolutionary mechanism may be involved does not directly dictate the final moral code, since said code can vary incredibly widely.

    And for tangential issue:

    Asexuality is an issue of orientation. It’s unrelated to sex / gender.

    I think you’re thinking of genderqueer, androgyne and bi-gendered identities.

    Why would you think sex is all about genes and chromosomes?

    Sex, as distinct from gender, is about biological traits: genitals, breasts, body-hair, skin, fat distribution, hormones, breasts, etc. But chromosomes have VERY VERY little role in human sexual differentiation, and are probably one of the least relevant distinctions.

    I’m also not sure how heredity has much to do with the issue. But I believe there is absolutely some kind of underlying neurological or phsyiological mechanism that triggers variation in sexual orientation and gender identity, and intersex conditions are CERTAINLY a byproduct of physiological mechanisms. And ALL physiological thingies that happen are a byproduct, in some way, of our genes. So the human species is genetically structured in such a way that non-binary variation inevitably occurs in sexual orientation, gender identity and physical sex… possibly gender expression, too (but that’s obviously a lot more socially and culturally mediated).

    Point being, in human beings, both sex AND gender occur in a very very wide variety of iterations, and CERTAINLY can’t be reduced to two.

  7. says

    Natalie –

    I would argue that it is silly to try to peg down moral axioms as universal or nearly universal. Vague and unquantifiable notions of “the greater good” are difficult to peg down into a coherent and consistent framework. That isn’t to say they aren’t important, they are. And trying to ultimately tie them into a coherent system with more specific axioms is going to break down.

    Take your example of premeditated murder for personal gain. Not only is this not even close to universal, it is arguably remarkably common. It wasn’t all that long ago in our history when manufacturers routinely put children into exceedingly dangerous positions – where they knew it was as likely, if not more likely than not, that the children they put in there would die. And there are cultures where it is more overt than that. They aren’t nice, aren’t pretty, but they exist and are legitimately following a coherent and consistent moral frame. We can’t just dismiss them as an insignificant minority or a passel of sociopaths. They are, in many cases, the makers of history.

    I think it’s silly to pretend that values are, or can be, universal. Not to mention pointless. I think a framework of universal human rights is absolutely critical. But it should not, cannot be called morality. Call it morality and it becomes relatively static. Worse, when we let morality guide us to a framework of universal human rights, there are going to be those who are needlessly left out in the dark because legislated morality will always oppress part of any population – for example, for merely being gay, female, or of a minority religion.

    HJ Hornbeck –

    The central tenant of Utilitarianism, the most popular moral theory at the moment, is to maximize overall “happiness,” for some definition of that word; in comparison, evolution maximizes fitness for an environment. Note there’s an overlap between the two; organisms that are a perfect fit for their environment have nothing to complain about, and are thus “happy.”

    It’s popular to be sure, but also seriously flawed. It actually codifies the bogeyman most people are up in arms about when they denigrate what they believe moral relativism actually is. In essence, we’re admonished to accept as right and good, behaviors that are brutish and vile, merely because it best maximizes the happiness/pleasure of a given group in a given environment. While I, as an openly moral relativist can accept people who do bad things as being basically decent, I can also condemn their actions and their morality as wrong.

    I also think this displays an understanding of evolution that is simplistic to the point of not being descriptive of evolution at all. Indeed we have a term for species that are a “perfect fit for their environment;” either young, or extinct. The advantage our protohuman ancestors had over their hominid competitors, was that they were never wholly suited to their environments – because their environments were constantly changing.

    And the idea that we engage in empathy and compassion as a matter of course is absolutely absurd. The way of empathy and compassion is inconsistent and largely based on the culture withing which it exists.

  8. says

    Gah! For someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, Natalie, you know quite a bit!

    How can you fit cultural mores, that vary between cultures, such as prescriptive taboos for sexuality (“Thou shalt not buttsecks, etc.”), into an evolutionary framework?

    Evolution only pushes what works to promote survival. Murder doesn’t, in general, and so an evolutionary approach predicts a general taboo on murder, though with some wriggle room for exceptions. You share many genes with your siblings, so helping them survive can indirectly help your genes carry on. Thus we should expect some form of altruism to result, as well as strategies that sacrifice potential offspring in favor of helping your siblings, provided such strategies are the exception rather than the norm. And thus, why murder, altruism, and homosexuality are near-universal across species.

    But if there’s negligible-to-no survival value in something, evolution does not take place and cannot accidentally create a cross-species rule. Thus we should expect no universal consensus, and perhaps not even a consensus within a species itself. This prediction is on shakier ground (the specific mechanics of evolution can narrow potential variation, and genetic drift can force consensus within a species, as can cultural evolution for non-genetic behavior), but overall it seems to be borne out.

    The prohibition on gay sex is an interesting corner case. We developed the concept of “purity” in response to disease; sick or decaying animals, and their byproducts, are best avoided if you want to stay healthy. Unfortunately, this sense is not very precise (one study found that Christians reading “The God Delusion” found a sweet drink to taste more sour, unless they washed their hands first!), and so can be misapplied. This conflicts with homosexuality, but almost exclusively for the male-male case. Hence we should expect lesbian sex to have fewer taboos than male-male sex, which is sorta true. Even in the Middle East, where homosexuality is severely punished, some forms of male-male sex are given a pass because they’re considered “pure.”

    It’s a horrible system, but remember: evolution doesn’t push ideal solutions, only those that work.

    I’ll cover your comments on sex-verses-gender later, probably this evening. Sorry!

    HJ Hornbeck

  9. says

    I am obligated to caution everyone here to not mistake evolutionary nudges for “evolution caused X behaviour”. The latter is too far into magical thinking and, dare I say it, Evo Psych (horrors!).

  10. Natalie says

    DuWayne-

    But your counter example isn’t premeditated murder for personal gain.

    It’s negligently putting someone at risk of harm for collective capital gain.

    Just as reprehensible to our contemporary sense of ethics, yes, but it’s within the framework of things-that-people-can-justify-to-themselves, and “the greater good” was likely used as one of those justifications. “For the good of Acme Incorporated!”

    But if one person took one of those kids, killed him directly, then stole his wallet, well… that has never been regarded as acceptable in ANY cultural situation.

    While the final form that our drives towards empathy and compassion may shift, and there have ALWAYS been cases where those drives either fail or are subverted, they are universally present and claiming that basic human empathy is a relativistic cultural construct seems to be some strong overreaching, from where I’m sitting.

    Also I didn’t recommend a prescriptive “universal morality”. I was simply recommending that we develop a framework for discussing the difference between basic drives of empathy / compassion, and cultural mores and taboos that widely vary from time and place to time and place.

  11. Natalie says

    (oh, and though what, exactly, “the greater good” IS is extremely inconsistent, our desire to serve it is pretty consistent)

  12. says

    Natalie –

    I would argue that there isn’t any significant difference between putting a person in a situation where you know it is more likely than not that it will kill them for personal gain and shooting them in the head for personal gain. It’s just that at one time the former was socially acceptable and in some places still is. That it once was socially acceptable is exactly my point. The social mores of the time allowed people to put other people, including children, in unnecessary and extreme danger for personal gain. While you might not see that as murder for personal gain, I do.

    At the same time there were people who believed the worker health and safety situation was absolutely immoral. They didn’t accept the social mores of their time as being valid, any more than you or I would. Likewise, there are those who would like to see us regress back to that sort of existence and many who accept that others still suffer in similar situations to put consumer goods into our closets and other parts of our homes. Hell, I buy shit that I know was made through exploitative practices I believe are immoral. I don’t really have a choice.

    While the final form that our drives towards empathy and compassion may shift, and there have ALWAYS been cases where those drives either fail or are subverted, they are universally present and claiming that basic human empathy is a relativistic cultural construct seems to be some strong overreaching, from where I’m sitting.

    I’m not sure why it would seem so overreaching. It is precisely because the form is largely driven by culture, that I would argue it is a relativistic cultural construct. I’m not saying that there is some semblance of compassion in most people. When we’re talking about a species with as extreme a parental time commitment, compassion for one’s offspring is an absolute necessity. But if that is what we’re going to call morality, then we’re going to have to imbue thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of non-human animals – both current and extinct with a moral compass.

    I don’t like the idea of equating morality with instinct. That would make the concept of morality even more useless than those who want to assert socially inspired moral truths. Likewise, saying that fostering the greater good, however that might be interpreted, as being a moral absolute is absurd when you have to keep breaking down what the greater good actually means. You start running into the “I know it when I see it” territory that is overrun by postmodernist nutjobs who eschew science and reason as a useful way of viewing the world.

    But lets assume it is absolutely universal and can be considered morality. Why would we want to create a separate framework with which to discuss it? How is it not relevant, given that how people interpret and act for or against the greater good is not only variable, but often results in harm for some group or another?

    Corporations are arguably acting for the greater good, ie. their stockholders. How are their actions not relevant to a discussion of the more variable aspects of moral frames? Corporations lobbied for the laws that brought us our current economic debacle and very purposefully decimated a substantial portion of our economy, because they could essentially bet against it and make fucking incredible profits doing so. So they committed what I would consider a criminal, repugnant and immoral series of actions in the name of the greater good.

    Wars, for that matter, are fought for the greater good.

    How can we separate anything from anything in the discussion of morality? I’m not trying to be a dick about it, I am just curious where you think we can actually draw the line. We’ve already noted that we have a profound disagreement on what constitutes murder. Not harming children isn’t universal. Parental bonds? I would argue they fall outside the purview of morality.

    I just don’t see what can be separated from what. These are all variable to a strong enough degree that the nature of their variability makes them relevant.

    And please don’t think I am trying to knock you out of the conversation. I am most certainly not. I write about morality because I think it’s an important topic and not only want others to think about it, I want to think about it from as many directions as possible. I want to be challenged, because in being so challenged I am forced to understand it better – to become more coherent in my thinking on the topic. It is just that I am something of a baseline asshole and am not always aware of just how rude I might be sounding.

  13. Natalie says

    Okay, well… just to clarify a couple things…

    – I don’t think we have a universal morality

    – I DEFINITELY don’t think morality is purely instinct

    What I am saying is that there are certain underlying constants of compassion and empathy, and a constant impulse most people have in which they are willing to make personal sacrifices towards a “greater good” (whatever that may be).

    I think that many of the morals we build are based on those impulses, while others are built around mediating other impulses.

    Note that I’m saying some morals are built AROUND the instincts of compassion and empathy, not that we have any kind of “moral instinct”, or that the morals and the compassion are the same thing.

    What I see as interesting here, and what I’m trying to point out, is the tension that seems to exist between some moral structures being designed around encouraging certain human drives while others are designed around mediating, sublimating, structuring or suppressing other drives.

    I am definitely NOT taking a “we evolved our morality!” stance, or a “there’s an underlying universal moral law!” stance. I find both of those positions ultimately indefensible.

    But I also think it’s dangerous and, as said, overreaching, to simply discount the fact that there are certain things that relate to morality that are constant amongst disparate cultures throughout history.

    At the VERY least, we can say that no human culture has ever existed that had no ethics whatsoever.

    Relativism is a balancing act. Acknowledging the influence of a given subject position, or the ways that not everything we assume to be a “truth” is always a consistent truth, are extremely important. But at the same time, we need to be careful to not discount the existence of an underlying framework, a ground, a bedrock reality we’re standing atop. And that exists in terms of human ethics, albeit in a very amorphous form and one that would require a pretty lengthy discussion to properly articulate, but it’s there… just as with most things. Few things are ever purely relative… it’s just as rare as finding things that are purely empirical.

  14. says

    Natalie: Why would you think sex is all about genes and chromosomes?

    Sex, as distinct from gender, is about biological traits: genitals, breasts, body-hair, skin, fat distribution, hormones, breasts, etc. But chromosomes have VERY VERY little role in human sexual differentiation, and are probably one of the least relevant distinctions.

    Ah, I think our differences are in the definitions. I’m taking a hard-line biological view and defining “sex” as chromosome distribution within fertile organisms. That’s fairly useless when it comes to classifying human beings, but terribly useful if all you have in front of you is a genetic sequence. It hints at the possible variation you can expect within the gender(s) of that organism.

    “Gender” is where I’m dumping everything else, including gene expression and environmental factors. That makes it a very messy, complicated category, but there’s something poetic about that. I have a minor nitpick over your dismissal of chromosomes, though; while it’s possible to have an XX male or an XY female, that only happens because a single gene that is ordinarily exclusive to the Y (which scientists have amusingly dubbed “SRY”) has jumped ship or broken down.

    I should stress there’s nothing wrong with your definitions. We’re just coming at them from different perspectives, so we’ve adjusted the boundaries between “sex” and “gender” differently, Hence, all the confusion!

    HJ Hornbeck

  15. says

    Woo hoo, so many awesome posts to comment on!

    DuWayne: I think it’s silly to pretend that values are, or can be, universal. Not to mention pointless. I think a framework of universal human rights is absolutely critical. But it should not, cannot be called morality.

    I don’t agree. We don’t worry about harming rocks, because they aren’t conscious. We rarely worry about fish, because we think they’re barely conscious; grant them a human level of consciousness, and a lot of people will quickly switch opinions!

    This provides a universal value: protect conscious life, in proportion to the level of consciousness. By definition, that’s also a moral, and can be used to build a moral framework. In fact, it already has been countless times; any system that invokes a “rational agent,” from Divine Command to the Original Position, is implicitly valuing consciousness.

    HJ Hornbeck

  16. Natalie says

    Actually, HJ, the SRY gene breakdown is NOT the only circumstance in which chromosomes end up not being determinant of human sex.

    Basically the Y chromosome has one function and one function only. It turns gonads into testes. The rest is junk DNA.

    All cells (other than gonads), whether XX or XY, carry the potential to express as either sex. It is hormones that trigger which genetic potentials end up being expressed in the cells and tissues, and therefore what physiological sex the individual presents as.

    Once the gonads have become testes, a wash of androgenic hormones dictates that a developing fetus becomes male. But in the event that the fetus (due to mutations in hormonal receptors) is immune to androgenic hormones, for instance, the Y chromosome ends up being meaningless and the infant is born phenotypically indistinguishable from any other female.

    For more detail:

    http://skepchick.org/2011/12/bilaterally-gynandromorphic-chickens-and-why-im-not-scientifically-male/

    When discussing animals, in basic biology, it makes sense to classify male as “produces motive gametes- sperm” and female as “produces non-motive gametes- ova”. But in discussing human beings that particular distinction becomes inadequate very quickly. Therefore the most useful definitions, and the ones adopted in most discussions of gender theory, are sex = physiological characteristics (genitals, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, chromosomes, etc.) and gender = neurological, psychological, social and cultural characteristics (gender identity, gender expression, “masculinity” / “femininity”, gender presentation, interpersonal / social / cultural role,etc.)

    In humans there are two “necessary” sexes/genders… able / fertile hetero-compatible (willing to mate with opposite sex) males and able / fertile hetero-compatible females. But all the incredibly beautifully diverse variations that occur in every facet of sex, gender and orientation are just as much a part of the human species and how human gender and sexuality operate.

  17. says

    Natalie –

    I think we’re actually swinging right past each other now. I would assert that morality itself is essentially universal.

    But I also think it’s dangerous and, as said, overreaching, to simply discount the fact that there are certain things that relate to morality that are constant amongst disparate cultures throughout history.

    I’m not discounting the idea, I just don’t really see the importance. If their manifestation were interculturally consistent, I would find them to be more important. That isn’t to say I dismiss them entirely. Morality is interesting and important to me and they are a part of what our moral frames are based on. I just don’t think they’re as important as environmental influences on morality.

    What I see when I look at what we can probably consider instinctive, is the influence of culture on their manifestations. There are not only innumerable manifestations, the variations can be huge as well. For example, there are huge differences in where empathy and compassion are focused, from culture to culture. In some cultures children are almost universally cared for and loved by members of that culture – regardless of parentage. In other cultures parents perceive the children of others as competition against their own and would be ambivalent at best, to the plight of the children of other members of their culture. They might even find some satisfaction in the plight of such children.

    My point is, the influence of culture has a profound effect on the nature of what we assume to be universal instinctual responses. That lends me to believe that culture is one of the most, if not the most critical factor in the question of morality. Indeed I don’t actually stop there. While there is some question, I think it is safe to assert that most of human behavior is so profoundly influenced by environment – culture especially, that my interest in the influence of genetics on behavior is very narrowly focused on neuropathology (I am working towards a career in neuropsychology and intercultural communication with an interest in research science involving the same).

    HJ –

    This provides a universal value: protect conscious life, in proportion to the level of consciousness. By definition, that’s also a moral, and can be used to build a moral framework.

    Bullshit. Humans have disrespected sapience from time immemorial, much less sentience. Protect conscious life my ass. Genocide was a matter of course for much of human history and still exists today. Protecting children isn’t even close to universal. Throughout human history people who aren’t part of a given individuals immediate group (type/size of group might vary) aren’t as important as the inanimate objects said individual possesses.

    Sure, it is absolutely a moral axiom that can (and I think should) be a part of anyone’s moral frame. But it is hardly universal. Indeed it is all too uncommon a consideration in cultures throughout human history and is still too uncommon today.

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