A few years ago I met a girl at a party, and we hit it off pretty well. She was an anthropology student, and I had just finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, so we were talking about how history intersects anthropology. Basically it was a night full of nerd foreplay. For a number of reasons that aren’t germane to the story, we ended up not dating, but stayed in contact anyway. One night we were talking and the discussion somehow turned to a debate on moral relativism vs. absolutism with me taking the ‘absolute’ side. The conversation went something like this (shortened for clarity):
Her: But what right do we have to go into another culture and tell them their beliefs are wrong?
Me: We interact and trade with those cultures. We are invested both in their economies and their populations, and so what affects them affects us. We have every right to express objections to things like government-sanctioned rape and female genital mutilation.
Her: But those are by our standards of right and wrong. They don’t necessarily see it as wrong.
Me: Okay, give me a circumstance in which rape could possibly be justifiable. Where any reasonable moral code could permit something like that to happen.
Her: See, this is why things never worked out between us!
I was stunned (mostly because that had nothing to do with the reason she had told me it wouldn’t work out). What I thought was a lively debate about two opposing positions on morality was, in her mind, a bitter personal fight. I had mistaken her spirited defense of her position for a deep level of interest in the topic. However, what she saw was me saying “your beliefs are stupid, and you are stupid by extension.” This couldn’t be further from the truth; at the time I thought she was actually reasonably smart (although that impression changed as I got to know her better). It was then that I realized something that is key to being able to have actual discussion and debate about issues.
We need to stop thinking of our ideas as reflections of ourselves.
Here’s what I mean by that. Cara (the girl) failed to separate criticism of her position from criticism of her as a person. As a result, when I expressed my position that refuted her position, I wasn’t so much saying that moral relativism was wrong, I was saying that she was wrong. But not just wrong about the topic, but a generally wrong person. The more I argued, and the more counter-examples I provided, the more insulted she became. Because I was unaware of this, I just kept going on in my debate (if I was interested in sparing her feelings, I would have taken the cop-out position that we’d just have to “agree to disagree”).
Now there were a whole host of other reasons I’m sure that Cara wasn’t exactly thrilled with me. We were talking online, and tone is very difficult to convey. I also tend to be a bit of an asshole, which is great when picking up girls at the bar, but not exactly endearing when having a debate. But the thing I took away was the idea that with many people it’s not possible to separate their ideas from their sense of self-worth. The Catch-22 of this whole thing is that one is often very reluctant to be rigorously critical of their self-concept, which then retards their ability to make good decisions about their closely-held ideals.
As an illustrative example, suppose my self-worth is tied into the idea that I am a popular person. It’s important for me to be well-liked by others and to fit in with the group. When I have to make a decision, the first thing I think of is whether or not those around me will approve. This isn’t necessarily a negative self-concept – fitting in with others is important to societal cohesion (imagine a world where nobody cared at all about others… deodorant sales would plummet). However, if I am not self-critical about this trait, I’m likely to be highly susceptible to peer pressure, both positive and negative. If I don’t say “well it’s good to be well-liked, but I’ve got to watch out for myself as well”, I’m probably going to go along with the crowd – possibly to a Justin Beiber concert. Furthermore, when someone says to me “hey man, Justin Beiber sucks. Why the hell are you wasting your money?”, I’m likely not going to be too receptive to that argument. Even though the idea of Justin Beiber might be completely neutral in my life, an attack on my decision to go to the show is an attack on my entire self-concept.
If, however, I am able to separate concert attendance from my most important sense of self-worth, I will be more able to dispassionately assess the idea. “Maybe I don’t have to pay $95 to see a mini Jonas Brother clone. My friends are important, but surely they won’t disown me for this one thing.” It also allows me to be more open to the idea that maybe doing what is important to others is important, but so is not going broke. Maybe sometimes I need to balance the wishes of others against my own needs.
This is a hyperbolic example, clearly. Self-worth is a much more complex psychological phenomenon than I’m able to illustrate here, but I hope the point remains clear. Ideas are good and useful things to have. However, some ideas are bad ideas – some ideas make you vulnerable to things that can hurt you. In Cara’s case, her idea that all morality is relative made her unwilling to accept the fact that things can be wrong, forcing her to argue on behalf of rapists. Nobody likes to lose an argument, obviously. The difference is how you react to being wrong. If you’re able to shrug it off and say “you know, this might be a better way of looking at it, and I have a lot to think about”, you’re more likely to walk away from losing an argument having learned something. If your reaction to losing is “if I lose this argument, it means that I am a bad or unfit person”, you’ll twist and turn and set up any number of cognitive dissonances to block yourself from even the possibility of learning.
I’m often wrong. I try to be wrong at least 3 times before I brush my teeth in the morning. It’s important to personal development to make mistakes and to learn from them. One of the most useful things about putting my ideas out there for everyone to see is that at various times, people disagree with me. Most of the people who read these are personal friends. I am lucky to have some very smart friends. If a smart person disagrees with me, my eyes light up. If they disagree and I can prevail upon them why my ideas are correct, then aside from the ego boost of winning an argument, I’ve got some supportive evidence that I might be on to something good. If they convince me that I’m wrong (i.e. I lose an argument), then I’ve learned something useful and it gives me an opportunity to reflect, refine my good ideas, and throw out the bad ones. It’s win-win for me: no matter the outcome of an argument, I become a better person.
There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma where Rufus (played by Chris Rock) says to Bethany (the main character):
“I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.”
If we’re able to separate our ideas from how we see ourselves as people, it allows us to abandon bad ideas more easily. If, however, abandoning an idea also means abandoning our sense of self, any attack on that belief is going to be extremely emotionally jarring, and we’ll resist it at all costs. The first step towards making progress in any discussion of competing ideas is to make the debate about the idea, not the person.
So you are saying that she was offended by your criticisms and that’s why she said things never worked out? I don’t know if there’s more to it, but going off that statement alone I would think she said that because it is very hard to date someone with completely opposite views. Too much frustration and “what the heck is wrong with this person?” moments lol
I suppose, but we’re not talking about ‘completely opposite views’. This was one discussion of an ethical dichotomy that really had nothing to do with anything. It was a personal shot at me because her back was against the wall – nothing we had discussed up until then was about our non-relationship.
“Okay, give me a circumstance in which rape could possibly be justifiable. Where any reasonable moral code could permit something like that to happen.”
Maybe the society in which it was condoned…
Do you not understand relativism..?
Pretty bad counterargument, maybe she was annoyed at your lack of rational argument.
The point I was making is that there is never a reasonable justification. Saying “well that’s what they do in their culture” is not a justification, it’s a cop-out. There needs to be a reason why it’s okay to rape someone, and cultural norms are not sufficient grounds for causing severe physical and emotional harm.
I understand relativism (and the limits of relativism) quite well, actually. Do you understand ethics?
Thanks for your comment.
John Allen says
Well spoken. I often have felt this way, but haven’t put it as succinctly as you.
Perhaps it is also because I agree with your “rape” statement – you are making a value judgement on a set of concrete terms. For rape to be okay with all of society, it would include the act being okay with the victim. Which would then preclude it from being rape.
Your argument was clear and concise, and I’m glad you were able to put it into terms of thinking of arguments as extension of one’s self.
I have a feeling you’ve just helped ease a few disputes between me and my wife.
Daniel Schealler says
I’ve long considered that one of the strengths of investing in the ‘skeptic’ label is that changing your mind when you’re proven wrong feels good, which makes it an easy thing to do.
But it’s worth remembering that for people who don’t have that investment, it’s a very hard thing to acknowledge when they’re wrong. Despite what western culture might seem to say about geeks and nerds, intelligence is still a high-status attribute. This is compounded by the fact that people associate ‘intelligence’ with ‘being right’.
This isn’t true, of course.
Intelligent people are better at making up excuses to justify their own false beliefs than unintelligent people. It follows that intelligence doesn’t necessarily give someone any protection against false belief. Therefore, to argue that a person’s beliefs are false does not imply an argument that that person is unintelligent. Far from it.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it’s perceived.
In high-school, I did very well. People would tell me I was very intelligent. But I’ve come to doubt that. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly intelligent. However, I have frequently been very interested in certain subjects. Being interested is a very different barrel of fish to be shooting at than being intelligent.
I’ve been thinking that this could be a good re-branding project for skepticism. To try and distance ourselves from the label of ‘intelligent’ and replace it with the label of ‘interested’.
Now if only I could conspire to go back in time and tell my younger self that as well as working at being interested, I would spend some time being interesting, my life so far might have turned out to be a bit more fun. ^_^
Hahaha, it would certainly be a feather in my cap if I was able to ameliorate marital strife. It’s all well and good for me to say that you should separate ideas from personal feelings, but I sadly have no advice on how to accomplish that. I’d imagine, however, that the first step is to be aware that when you get angry during an argument, you might be getting caught up. I’m sure I’m not nearly as good at keeping the two things separate as I’d like to think, but I keep trying.
Thanks for your comment.
That’s a great point – being intelligent doesn’t necessarily make you smart, nor does having an incorrect position mean you’re stupid. I actually wrote a post about that issue (and a followup) a few months ago. It’s not my best work, but it’s perhaps a jumping off point for discussion about where the lines between “smart”, “intelligent”, “intellectual” and “wise” are. It smacks of Forrest Gump-ism (stupid is as stupid does).
Actually, I don’t think you are taking relativism quite far enough. You are trying to apply relativism to a definition without accounting for the fact that relativism presumes that this definition will be change. It is actually quite easy to imagine a society in which the act that you call “rape” is not wrong. Clearly the act of forced sex could be sanctioned by some imaginary society, if that society chooses to define such action as acceptable.
Your rhetorical question regarding ethics suggests that you do not understand relativity at all. Under a relativist model “ethics”, in the sense in which you are trying to use the word, has no meaning. “Ethics” will be just as relative as the acceptableness of the act of forced sex.
I can create a society where all women are taught from birth that forced sex is reasonable. Within this society, “rape” will not be wrong. It is only your vantage point outside the society that lets you ascribe the rape definition to what is happening inside.
You’re confusing the concepts of ‘acceptable’ and ‘right’. It might be perfectly acceptable to rape, but that does not make it right. We then have to turn to some external standard to establish ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. There are several philosophers who have done just that, and I suggest you read them (or do what I do, and talk with someone who has read them).
Rape is not wrong simply on my say-so. It violates the autonomy of an individual and takes away their right to life and liberty. These ‘rights’ are not simply rights because I say so, they are rights because they are in agreement with the long-term survival of a society and of maximum human happiness (the external standard). Societies that do not value these things do not survive.
Also, it’s not imaginary. There are sanctioned ‘correctional’ rapes happening every day in South Africa.
James B. says
You have drawn an awful lot of conclusions without any explicit information as to how you came to these conclusions.
You throw around good, bad, right, wrong as though those words mean something in a logical argument.
I would argue for Immoralism;
There are no absolute morals
I’ll justify rape for you (from a nietzsche perspective)
Some sexual deviant is drunk and horny… so he rapes this girl.
He receives the satisfaction he desires
and the girl is forever scarred.
According to Nietzsche, the purpose of life is art and beauty, but to have those you need suffering and pain. The more suffering inflicted, the more beautiful the art of life.
Now, I don’t fully understand a lot of Nietzsche, yet. It’s just a perspective that I’ve been opened up to, maybe once I understand it I’ll accept it and build upon it… or maybe I’ll find something that doesn’t quite work.
Either way, I’m still using my own ideals to mold and sculpt my person.
Basically, you are what you think.
Positing that “We need to stop thinking of our ideas as reflections of ourselves” is silly.
Our ideas and how we convey them are reflections of ourselves. Not to mention that all you ever see is a reflection of yourself in people and their ideas. You like and dislike people based on what you like and dislike about yourself.
Look up Psychological Projection (if you don’t know about it already), it’ll make my argument more clear.
Just off the top, I’d like to address the myth that rape is about a sexual deviant being horny. Rape is very seldom about sex, and more about control. That’s not a criticism of your points, I just want to correct a pervasive misunderstanding about the psychology of rape.
I would ask Mr. Nietzsche to demonstrate both a) that suffering necessarily leads to more beautiful art (by some agreed-upon standard of beauty, which is a toughie in itself), and b) that it is not possible to produce beauty without inflicting willful suffering on others.
Of course that’s not the subject of this post. I’m not interested in turning this into a debate about moral relativism – it was simply a personal anecdote to introduce the idea; Cara and I could have been arguing about kittens. For a decent explanation of the value of establishing objective moral frameworks, you can either watch Sam Harris’s discussion at TED or a much more explicit description by Brian Lynchehaun.
I’m not sure you’re understanding the phenomenon of psychological projection correctly – it refers to taking psychological characteristics from yourself and applying them to other people, regardless of whether or not such application is warranted. However, again, that’s not relevant to the post.
The point I am trying to make is that if you are not able to separate your ideas from your sense of self-worth, then progressive debate and the refinement of ideas becomes impossible. If you are able to say “I am not a bad person for being wrong, it’s simply that this particular idea needs work” then you are far more likely to make progress in the discussion. If you conflate someone saying “I disagree with that idea” to “I hate you” then you’re going to miss a lot of potentially good ideas.
I would take your point further and suggest that you aren’t your emotions either. As Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said: “The mind must learn that beyond the moving mind there is the background of awareness which does not change.” Until one understands that neither thoughts nor emotions are part of the self, they will be bound by them.
Another thing you might want to look at is the “self worth” concept you have used. By using worth you place a subjective value upon the self which i think is an incorrect assumption. By placing subject value on the self, it gives the individual the opportunity to reassess that value as and when they see fit and i think this is inappropriate. It would be prudent to refine your argument to a “sense of self” and leave it as a concept that is unchange.
Thanks for your comment. I would definitely agree that one’s emotions do not define him/her entirely – the self is a product of the experiences, of genetics, of subjective mental states and perceptions – an incredibly complicated mosaic of influences.
I am unsure what you mean when you say “place a subjective value on the self”. Would you mind explaining that concept a bit more? It seems that you are suggesting that there is a concrete and unchanging “self” that exists in some form. The psychological literature would strongly disagree with that assertion; indeed, there is compelling evidence to suggest that not only does your self-concept change over time, but that it can be remarkably plastic depending on the situation.
I am unsure if I am misunderstanding the point you are making, and would appreciate it if you were willing to take the time and expand on it a bit more.