Realist Relativism: A hopeful creed

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Photo above: Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel

Morality is important. Everyone’s got to have a code. For much of my life I was, consciously or not, a proponent of a kind of virtue-based, naturalistic realism. Upon exposure to several new ideas and arguments, I have found moral relativism to be undeniable. Moral relativism receives a lot of flak from the mainstream, since it is often used by unscrupulous folk as an excuse to do what they want; however, there is logical space for a realism applied through a relativist lens which I think solves the problems of both schools of thought. I will illustrate what I mean at the end of this article by offering a realist relativist’s answers to the three questions which define an ethical theory: 1) Can moral statements be truth — apt? 2) What are the truth-makers? 3) How do we know them? The answers should be clear to the reader by the end of the article anyway.

Defining Our Parameters

Moral realism is the view that moral judgments can be objectively true, and that the truth or falsity of such judgments is largely independent of our moral opinions or attitudes. The realist would say that when we make moral judgments, we are reacting to a property of the world around us, but not of us. The primary point of contention against moral realism is that none of the realists were able to point toward what that property might be. Moral realists were right to separate morality from culture and society, but they were wrong to be unable to propose an objective moral principle that was able to stand up to criticism.

On the other hand, moral relativism as the view that “the truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions or practices of a group of persons” Gilbert Harman, the vanguard of moral relativism, defines it another way, as the view that there are many different possible moralities, and that there is no objective way of determining which morality is the correct one.

So now morality itself needs a definition; a hairy prospect, to be sure. In fact, morality is such a difficult concept to nail down that there isn’t a single philosopher I’ve read or heard of who has successfully offered a solid definition of the term. This does us no good, so for the purpose of my argument, let us define a morality as a set of moral principles which a person or group of persons may or may not feel committed to. The principles that make up an individual’s morality are a direct result of the experiences that that individual has lived. In this way, no two individuals could possibly have the same morality, since no two individuals could possibly live numerically same experiences.

Women are still burned as witches in some places. This witch burning took place recently in Papua, New Guinea. Can burning people accused of being witches be morally justified if the local populace believes it is righteous? (Google Photos)
Women are still burned as witches in some places. This witch burning took place recently in Papua, New Guinea. Can burning people accused of being witches be morally justified if the local populace believes it is righteous?
(Google Photos)

The difference in experience necessitates a difference in perspective, which implies a different frame of reference, or morality. This is why moral relativism is wrong to place an emphasis on groups, because moral questions are always questions about the correct action to take in a specific situation, so they can only be answered on an individual basis. Since each individual member of a group necessarily has a different moral frame of reference than another member of the same group, a group morality is nothing more than the sum of the individuals’ frames of reference, which will necessarily conflict.

The Conflict of Ideologies – Resolved

It would seem, on first examination, that realism and relativism are opposed, the one espousing hard, objective moral facts, the other defining itself in rejection of absolutism. The conflict hinges on objectivity: if relativism says that there is no objective way to determine which morality is the correct one, how can there be an objective moral fact or principle, like what is demanded by realism? The conflict is a semantic one. Realists are speaking of objectivity in terms of a descriptive “fact of the matter” which can prescribe the right action in a given situation. Relativists only wish to eliminate the idea that one morality can be determined to be better, or more accurate, than another.

To put it another way, realism only requires an objectivity that separates human cultural attitudes from moral inquiry, while relativism’s firmament is on the relative equality of value of each moral frame of reference in its ability to determine the correct action in a given situation. So, where is the harmony between the two? It is this: the objective moral fact of the matter is that an action is right when it is conducive to the overall survivability of the species.

This saves relativism because it means that the answer to any moral question would hinge entirely on the individual circumstances, making the truth relative to each moral framework and situation; however, there is an objective benchmark, separate from humanity, to determine whether or not the answer is right, saving realism. It necessitates the creation of a new ethical theory because although it saves both, it is neither realism nor relativism, nor an apologetic version of either.

It is not realism, because there is no generally applicable principle or admonishment that will prescribe wrongness or rightness to any set of circumstances; and it is not relativism because it removes the need for a culturally instituted ethic. In other words, the locus of relativity is on the individual situation, not a particular group’s ideologies. This interpretation of relativism is sometimes called agent relativism, but that is complicated by other factors that it is simpler not to get into.

I place moral justification in the hands of species prosperity because of the biological imperative. An individual’s duty, from a biological perspective, is to survive long enough to reproduce. Since an individual has a greater chance of survival if they belong to an altruistic group, it would stand that the group has a greater chance of survival the more expansive the gene pool is, because a diverse gene pool is more adaptable to new circumstances. We can then expand the biological imperative to imply that the greater goal of the individual is to account for the survivability of the whole group, which in this case, is a whole species.

Quandaries Within Quandaries

There is a greater reason why I say the truth-maker is overall flourishing, though I am leery to use that particular phrasing because it implies synonymy with happiness or luxury and Aristotelian virtue ethics, but I’m using ‘flourishing’ in an exclusively biological sense, as in a species is flourishing when it is in a good position to survive and adapt to a disaster. I should also say that I do not seek to prescribe and moralize, only to describe how we already moralize as a result of the necessary aspects of morality.

Every moral quandary has two basic sides: to do a particular act, or not to do it. There may be sub-choices, but those will be part of a dichotomy as well, and the argument stands. For an example, I’ll use abortion; I am aware that this particular subject is a far more complex issue than the scope of this article can cover, but it is an apt instance. The two sides of the abortion debate are whether we should allow people to have abortions (pro-choice) or whether we should not allow them to (pro-life).

The people in the pro-choice camp feel that abortions may be necessary in saving the life of the mother or that the value of the life of the potential child doesn’t amount to the value of the mother’s life and liberty. Connected to this is the argument which pointed out that crime rates dropped significantly during the 18 years after Roe v. Wade, because the mothers who didn’t want a child in the first place were able to abort instead of being forced to raise a child in an environment where it isn’t wanted, which tends to result in a higher chance of getting involved in crime.

All aspects of this side of the debate center on the belief that allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy and continue her life as she planned is better for her, and since it has no negative effect on the general population, this results in an aggregate gain in the species flourishing. This side is complicated in terms of the question “when exactly does life begin?” but no matter where the lifeline is drawn, it still implies that abortions are okay before that.

There was a recent debate about whether pop star Lady Gaga is an appropriate role model for young girls; the same charge leveled at young performers for decades. (YouTube)
There was a recent debate about whether pop star Lady Gaga is an appropriate role model for young girls; the same charge leveled at young performers for decades.

The other, pro-life, side of the debate is connected in its belief that life begins at conception. There’s a secular side and a religious side. The secular side would say that since a zygote contains human DNA that is different than the mother’s, it constitutes a separate human organism, and is no longer her body. The religious side is either falling along dogmatic lines, or interpreting the will of their deity to place equal value on life generally, making the mother no more important than the fetus, and if the mother has a right to live, so does the fetus.

All of the pro-life arguments are assuming one important thing: that the fetus in question has the potential to grow into a human being that could do enormous good in the world, whichever conception that thinker has of the good; and that it is bad for the species as a whole to deny an expansion of the population of the species, and therefore its diversity, as no two humans are genetically exact. To put that in other words, the pro-life side of the debate feels that abortions don’t contribute to the biological flourishing of the human race, in fact, they hinder it.

Realist relativism would take the view that this isn’t the whole picture, because even though both sides of a moral quandary may be aiming toward the same thing, neither side is right in a general sense. There are so many ancillary issues folded into each debate that in any real situation, either side could be right. If someone were using abortion in lieu of cheap and efficient birth control, then that would be an immoral act in the eyes of realist relativism because the individual in question is misappropriating the limited resources of the species, putting other people in a more difficult position, survivability-wise.

In an instance where a doctor somehow found that in the event of childbirth it would be impossible for either the mother or the child to survive, it would seem that the best thing for the species would be to abort the fetus no matter how far along it was. It would be a waste of human resources to let the mother die, and there isn’t even the potential gain of the child’s life to balance out that loss.

The only position that would have a problem with this is the religious one, because no one has a right to challenge the will of the deity. I can’t argue against that; in the context of a religious worldview, that position makes complete sense, and is even an inevitable product of faith. That particular objection aside, it seems that even with an objective moral principle the answers to the questions applied to it change depending on the circumstances, necessitating a relativist stance, as well as deep epistemic humility, since there are always many factors which we are ignorant of in every situation.

One of the most controversial songs and videos made in recent years was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” featuring Pharrell Williams and semi-nude models Emily Ratajkowski, Elle Evans and Jessi M'Bengue. Is it misogynistic and does it promote rape culture? (Vevo)
One of the most controversial songs and videos made in recent years was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” featuring Pharrell Williams and semi-nude models Emily Ratajkowski, Elle Evans and Jessi M’Bengue. Is it misogynistic and does it promote rape culture?

Sexism, Capitalism, and Extinction, oh my!

If we apply similar reasoning to other moral quandaries, like homicide or theft, we see that all sides of moral debate reduce to a perception about what is good for the species as a whole. Let’s look at an issue that is a bit more difficult to see both sides of: the sexism debate. Feminists feel that to treat both sexes as having no difference of any consequence is to improve the species as a whole by amounting to a 100% increase in the population drawn upon for scientific, technological, and political advancement. Misogynists, by which I mean proponents of patriarchy, some of whom may in fact like or even be women, believe that keeping an institutional separation between the genders makes things more efficient by placing people where they’re inclined to go anyway. A kind of sexual virtue may be involved as well, since preventing the sexes from fraternizing also prevents disastrous sexual relationships and potentially unwanted children by forcing a distance during the time between sexual and emotional maturity.

We know now that neither sex is naturally inclined toward anything generally (not all men are good at fulfilling traditionally “male” roles, not all women are good at fulfilling traditional “female” roles); and even if they were, enough people are inclined against being told what to do that the efficiency and sexual virtue factors are reduced, if they ever existed. If the circumstances were different and our species was actually differentiated in a significant and necessary way along sexual lines, then the right answer in the questions of separation and equality may change.

An objection to this mode of reasoning is that it is entirely possible that the reasons for misogyny and slavery and imperialism aren’t that their agents perceive themselves as being in service to the flourishing of the species, it could be that the root of the Taliban’s beliefs and policies about women are simply that they believe females are tainted animals only fit for breeding. I do not believe that is the case because it paints the worst possible picture, and is a position not worth dignifying with an argument. It is the responsible thing to read a person or group’s moral stances in the most charitable way. Realist relativism’s principle is conducive to that.

An objection to the biological moral principle is that there are people out there who would say that what is better for the human species is not the best moral good. This position seems to fall into two camps, nihilists, whom I will argue against later on, and those who would cite the disastrous effects of acts done in the name of human flourishing: oil spills, restructuring of the environment leading to dried water tables and extinct species, wars and genocides, slavery, corporate personhood, rampant pollution, etc. My response is that the institutions behind these effects are not actually conducive to our species’ survivability and adaptability because if they continue unfettered, the effects of those things would result in the extinction or near-extinction of our race, which in this context could be a morally good thing for other species.

Aliens Exist?

This brings us to a challenge to the position realist relativism might hold in the realist school. Someone might ask how human flourishing is in any way independent from human society and ideology, since the two seem to be linked; I would agree that society and ideology seem to supervene on a state of species flourishing which allows that species to grow without restraint, but as the objector in the previous paragraph pointed out, society and ideology grow into separate things which serve their own ends, often contrary to survival.

When the first “Harry Potter” movie was released in 2001 it was denounced by some religious groups as a promotion of witchcraft and promoting anti-God sentiments. (YouTube)
When the first “Harry Potter” movie was released in 2001 it was denounced by some religious groups as a promotion of witchcraft and promoting anti-God sentiments.

However, human flourishing is not the truth-maker in realist relativism, after all, it is possible that there could be an alien species out there in the universe, separate from humanity. Indeed, it is highly likely. Our own planet contains other species, so we know humanity isn’t alone as sentient life. We also know of the existence of many thousands of other planets that have the necessary conditions for sustaining life, and we know of nothing that would keep life from developing on at least one of those planets. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that another species could exist with moral agency, and that the truth or falsity of such a species’ moral judgments would have nothing to do with humanity.

It would seem that the actions and ideas which that particular species would place value in would be reflections of the kinds of principles which they perceive as being conducive to their overall survivability and adaptability.

It may then follow that the moral attitudes of this alien species would have exceptions depending on the circumstances of the individual, necessitating relativism, or if their society develops in a pattern resembling humanity, their ideologies may get used as an authoritarian tool over their populations, replacing ethics with power. So the truth-maker must be the principle that moral truth hinges on an individual’s duty to species, which changes relative to each situation an individual is in.

This even holds in the instance of a species with a radically different psychology than ours. Imagine a species with a hive mind, by which I mean that the psychology of the individual organism emphasizes an objective relationship to the collective, such that there is no identity to speak of. Such a society would experience universal distress and pain upon an individual organism asserting its identity separate from the collective.

This would reduce the species’ overall ability to respond to natural events, so this would be a situation where general adherence to the absolute ideology of the collective is the morally right thing to do, for a member of that species. I do not have the imagination to conceive of the sort of ideology that such a society might hold, but it seems logically impossible that it wouldn’t fit the truth-maker of realist relativism because for that to be, the species would have to be consciously attempting to prevent their own propagation.

I realize that I am skirting dangerously close to the clouds, speculating about alien civilizations. Allow me to bring the argument back to Earth by citing the example of the praying mantis, a creature that is unable to successfully reproduce itself without the female partially eating the male. Outside of that particular framework, cannibalizing a sexual mate would seem awkward at best and atrocious at worst. Within that framework, it would be an atrocious act to not cannibalize a mate, since that non-action creates an obstacle to the biological imperative.

Why Relativism?

Another possible objection to realist relativism is expressed best through the argument from disagreement. It goes like this: There is much moral disagreement that seems irresolvable no matter how much we discuss and reason the issue. The best explanation for this is that we fundamentally disagree. We disagree this strongly because our moral frameworks have similar or equal value, therefore, moral relativism is true.

A noncognitivist might say that the best explanation for our moral disagreement is that when we say moral statements we are expressing an emotion or an attitude, and so our stances would change according how we feel, not according to a reasoned framework. This particular view offers a poor explanation because even though when people argue about morality they do sometimes express emotion, that doesn’t explain the consistency of disagreement. If the noncognitivist were right, peoples’ stances on abortion or genocide would change with their mood, and that simply isn’t the case.

The nihilist would reject the very idea of morality. They would explain our disagreement as being arbitrary and meaningless. But what would the nihilist regard as meaningful? They would say that nothing is meaningful, that all of existence has no value. But if that were the case, why do they not take their own life?

Killing is condemned in nearly every social and religious norm, so can war every be morally justified? (YouTube)
Killing is condemned in nearly every social and religious norm, so can war every be morally justified?

They don’t take their own life because there is something that makes them want to continue living, such as the survival instinct or a family or art or politics or money, but then, wouldn’t that mean that that thing holds value to the nihilist in question? If something holds value, then other things must hold value relative to that thing, meaning that everything in the world has value; the nihilist is operating under the delusion that existence is nothingness, and so they have nothing to offer in a moral debate.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Realist relativism’s answer to the argument from disagreement is that in every discussion we are arguing about how best for our species to survive, and since the answer to that question changes such that any act in the right time and place can be the correct course of action, relativism is true. It is not only a possible stance, but one which provides answers and saves the phenomenon, where 1) Moral statements are truth-apt, and some of them are true, 2) The truth-maker is the biological imperative to survive and adapt in the face of natural events, and 3) We know this is the truth-maker because it is the only thing that is necessarily universal to all possible consciousness that might have some kind of moral agency.

It is an ultimately hopeful creed, because we can learn what the correct action is through reason and situational awareness. Realist relativism removes moral responsibility from the shoulders of governments and churches, and places it squarely in the hands of the individual, making them complicit for their own choices, and making the imperative to grow as an individual by achieving wisdom and empathy far more important than completing the rat race for wealth and power.