Thursday, January 24, 2013

Relative Absolutism

I knew I was skating carelessly on thin ice over some important problems in yesterday's post, but I allowed myself to feel rushed.  Besides, they weren't central to the topic of the post, and I knew I could address them separately when I was ready.

Today I got e-mail from a regular reader who questioned me about some of the matters I'd slighted, so I'll try to answer him.  I don't think I have any final answers on these issues, though: like most of my posts, this is a first draft, an exploration of ideas rather than a final disposition of them.

My correspondent wrote:
I fear how far this can be taken.  In Saudi culture, the oppression of (“protection of”, they would say) women is MORAL.  Murdering gays is MORAL. By your non-system, outsiders, westerners would have no grounds to critique this.
First, I don't think I was positing a non-system in the post; or a system either.  I hadn't gotten that far.  I was criticizing Penn Jillette's apparent moral subjectivism -- if it feels good to Penn Jillette, do it -- not offering a better way to settle moral questions.

Second, Saudi culture has no grounds for oppressing women or murdering gays either.  When I said that there is no absolute morality, I meant it, so I don't recognize Saudi culture's absolutism and I don't have to be uncritical about it.

A word about "grounds" in this context.  I think it was in one of Mary Midgley's books that I first encountered the idea that having grounds or a foundation for an argument is a metaphor based in pre-Copernican cosmology: the earth is the unmoving, immovable center of the universe, and if you are anchored in the earth, your system is securely founded and will stand against the Devil and his relativist minions.  This is one reason why even a sun-centric cosmology, let alone the vast uncentered relativistic universe that succeeded it, was so unnerving to many people, including scientists: it induced a feeling of vertigo, literal and metaphorical.  (Which is why some scientists are trying to find absolute directions in the universe to this day.)  There is no absolute up or down in the universe either, any more than there is an absolute right or wrong.  When I mention this to some other non-theistic types, they tend to get angry.  They declare that "grounds" and "foundations" are metaphors, you're not supposed to take them literally.  On one hand they're factually mistaken -- "grounds" and "foundations" used to be meant quite literally -- and on the other hand they're evading the problem, because if they are metaphors, what do they mean, and what are they metaphors for? I suspect the metaphor allows many people to feel more sure of themselves than they have warrant (another metaphor) to be.

So there's a hidden assumption in my reader's objection: if you don't have some absolute grounds for your beliefs, you can't critique someone else's beliefs: the only way to oppose one absolutism is with another absolutism.  But of course you can.  One way is to compare their principles to their practice, or to try to show how their principles contradict each other.  Or you can argue that their principles are wrong, by trying to find principles that you agree on and going from there.  Your critique, and your attempt at persuasion, might fail, but so might an attempt to convert your opponent to another moral system.

I suspect there is another hidden assumption at work here: that change in moral and ethical values over time has come because human beings abandoned "false" morality as they came to discern "true," absolute morality.  To believe this, I'd have to see reason to believe that there was such a "true" morality, and I'd want to know how one tells the true from the false.  To many people it's just as apparent that people have progressively fallen away from "true" morality as they understand it, after all.  But I see this mainly as the imposition of a linear progression on history, rather than as anything that follows from it.

I'm not the first person to notice that most of history's worst atrocities (as they appear to me) were committed by absolutists, not by relativists.  That makes sense, since absolutists are more likely to have the moral confidence necessary to sacrifice other people's lives.  Relativists, it seems to me, should be more tentative about imposing final solutions. I have noticed that absolutists quickly become relativists when they encounter pressure from outside: they want other people to compromise their morality, but refuse to do it themselves.  At the very least they demand "respect" for their inhumane values and practices -- a respect they feel equally entitled to withhold from others.

In the case of the hijab, for instance, I have seen plenty of Islamic criticism of non-Muslim women's immodesty and indeed libertinism for not covering their heads.  That head-covering has not been a universal Muslim custom in all times and places escapes these critics.  But they certainly feel entitled to attack non-Muslim customs without feeling that they are interfering in another culture's values.  There's a popular derisive quip in multiculturalist circles about "white women protecting brown women from brown men"; it cuts both ways, but no one seems to notice that.

I don't see that the only alternative to moral absolutism is total nonjudgmental "relativism."  I suspect that "relativist" is in practice an epithet, not an argument -- much like "pacifist" or "isolationist."  It's a common tactic to accuse one's opponents of a total lack of values or norms when they challenge one's particular stance, and this is a diversion, not an argument.  I'm not arguing a middle ground, I'm arguing a third or fourth or other alternative.

While it's true that there is no absolute up or down in the universe, we can and do speak meaningfully speak of "up" or "down" on earth.  It wouldn't be immoral if the sun went nova and blasted all life from the earth, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't matter to us.  I don't need to believe that my life matters to the universe to resist death for as long as I can.  But many people disagree: they want to believe that a robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage, and that it's impossible for them to have morality if they don't believe that the universe cares as much about their every hangnail and tummyache as they do.  If they were right, then maybe earthquakes are caused by sodomy after all.  And if you run overtime on your parking meter, Nature kills a kitten.

I wrote in the previous post:
Luckily, we don't need an absolute morality.  A lack of absolutes apparently scares many atheists as much as it scares many theists, however, and "relativism" is an equally harsh epithet in both camps.  I think that it doesn't matter whether the universe cares what we do: what matters is that we, as human beings, care.  Even if there was a god, its interests would not be ours.  (Theists have always been aware of that -- Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi; His ways are not our ways -- but they try to evade its significance.  Scientific non-theists know the same about Nature and Evolution, but still figure Nature is up there in the stands rooting for us if we show the right spirit.)  Human morality has to be decided at the human level.  There's no certain way to decide what is right and what is wrong.  Human beings construct right and wrong over time, and since human beings are fallible, some skepticism about even the most important values is necessary.  There's no impartial outsider to adjudicate the conflicts; we have to do it ourselves; the buck stops here.
I don't think I posited an absolute relativism there.  Yet people like my reader -- and he's far from alone -- tend to assume that if someone denies the validity of absolute morality, the only alternative is no morality at all: "I agree with you…but I think it leads to a nihilism that is challenging to address."  That simply doesn't follow, any more than it follows that without an absolute up or down we are going to fall up when we trip on the sidewalk.  (You don't know, it could happen!)  I don't see how the denial of moral absolutes "leads to a nihilism" of any kind.  "Nihilism" isn't rooted in the universe any more than absolute morality is.

Nietzsche derided what he called the "slave morality" of Christianity, and spoke of a transvaluation of values.  But for all that he was a four-eyed sissy with a nervous tummy who lived safely in a highly regular European society, commonly considered the height of civilization.  I doubt he'd have lasted five minutes in, say, the slums of New York.  I don't think a genuinely "nihilistic" society made up of bold warrior individuals would last for long either.

It might be that for many, even most people, there's a powerful psychological need to try to connect their values to the universe.  I see this not only in morality and ethics, but in standards of personal beauty and artistic merit.  People want to believe not only that they think that a given movie star is gorgeous, but that the person possesses an objective, absolute gorgeousness independent of individual taste; or they want to believe that Shakespeare and Beethoven are objectively excellent, independent of taste and cultural difference.  The great poet will occupy a favored place in Heaven.  The deification of heroes, artists, and beauties in Greek antiquity might be a manifestation of this belief.  There's no reason I know of to agree with either belief, and none to think that it matters.  That people still cling fiercely to the metaphor of foundations of knowledge indicates that the metaphor possesses a strong psychological appeal, even though it is factually false.  If we really can't think or judge without these illusions, so be it, but we should at least acknowledge them as a limitation in our ability to think clearly, and not as a merit of the illusions themselves.

My reader also argued:
Plus, your non-system assumes monolithic CULTURES.  Rebels within Saudi Arabia, for example, would have little grounds on which to oppose oppression, would they?
Not only didn't I posit a non-system, I didn't say or assume anything about "monolithic CULTURES."  But those rebels wouldn't need "grounds," since the dominant culture has no grounds either.  I consider the fact that cultures aren't monolithic to be favorable to my position.  If all Saudis, male and female, agreed that women need to be "protected," change would be impossible.  But no culture has that kind of unanimity.  And no system is completely free of contradiction -- certainly not a system of values.

How did the West abolish slavery, for example?  The abolitionists couldn't point to the Bible, which regulated slavery but accepted it as part of the social landscape.  Apologists for slavery could appeal to Biblical authority, so abolitionists had to come up with new arguments.  Many of them weren't very good, and they were hampered by many white abolitionists' inability to recognize blacks as fully human beings.  Yet slavery was abolished, in most cases nonviolently.  In the US, which used a horrifying Civil War to do the job, blacks were pushed back into servitude as soon as formal slavery was abolished, and racism persists to this day.  No one really had solid ground on which to stand, except the slaveowners who could point to Scripture.  Yet change happened, unevenly, very painfully, and it's still in process.

I keep thinking in this connection, of Bob Jones University's final abolition of its policy against interracial dating among its students.  For decades the administration insisted that they had what they (if not the worldly) considered good Biblical reasons against the practice.  But when the change came, they admitted that they didn't really know why they had clung to the policy for so long. They couldn't find a Biblical reason for it, not anymore.

The same applies to women's status, or to gays.  Many of the arguments on all sides are groundless.  I don't know of any grounded reasons why homosexuality should have equal status with heterosexuality, but then I don't need any.  I don't consider the Bible an authority; while I don't lightly dismiss longstanding public attitudes, I also don't consider them above criticism.  I can't overthrow them in one move, but I can chip away at them.  Arguments against homosexuality are mostly pretty bad; the best I've seen start from assumptions about maleness and femaleness, and the proper role of sex in human life, but they are assumptions; start from other assumptions, and you get different results.  But many of the arguments for the acceptance of homosexuality are no better.  A popular one in my youth was that homosexuality was so common, according to Kinsey; but it made assumptions about what "homosexuality" was, and even worse, assumed that what is common, even prevalent, is therefore good.  Racism is at least as common as sex between males, but racists don't get much traction if they try to argue that racism is good because most whites are racist -- especially as they realize that whites are no longer as overwhelming a majority in America as they used to be.  Gays have had to disregard the prevalence of antigay prejudice, so numbers alone aren't an argument.  Why have antigay bigotry and homophobia diminished in the US and some other countries in the past fifty years?  No one knows, but I doubt it was because of a careful, reasoned debate.

I've argued that the debate on same-sex marriage has been incoherent and badly-reasoned on both sides.  Again, I don't think grounds have much to do with it.  But the advocates of same-sex marriage aren't arguing for moral nihilism, despite the claims of some of their opponents.  The debate isn't rationally grounded, but it's not free-floating either.  The answer lies not somewhere in between, but somewhere else.