Moral Relativism?

I’ve been working on this paper all week. It’s not finished yet, but I’m posting it now anyway.


edited: the PDF link is the finial revision of this article.

What Is Your Answer 

Farmer Ben has only ducks and cows. He can’t remember how many of each he has, but he doesn’t need to remember because he knows he has 22 animals and that 22 is also his age. He also knows that the animals have a total of 56 legs, because 56 is also his father’s age. Assuming that each animal has all legs intact and no extra limbs, how many of each animal does Farmer Ben have?

Crossing the River with Dogs: Problem Solving for College Students, Ken Johnson, Ted Herr, Judy Kysh, p. 17

I gave this question to 20 different people on a piece of 8.5×11 paper and asked them to solve it. At the top of the paper I wrote: What is your answer to the following question? 

I intentionally asked “What is your answer” rather than”What is the answer.” I was interested in the different ways that people would solve this problem, but I was even more interested to see how often people would talk about if they got the problem right and how many would be interested in knowing if their answer was the answer. 

We have a natural desire to seek out truth, to know what is true. We also have a tendency to find data that validates our truth as the truth. It feels satisfying to feel that our answer is the answer.

True to Me 

I was first introduced to Dylan Marron through his TED Talk: How I Turn Negative Online Comments Into Positive Offline Conversations. He emphasized that “Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs.” Through his podcast, Conversations With People That Hate Me, he is seeking to create better conversations between two people who have differing views. 

Dylan Marron, who focuses on social justice issues, receives a lot of negative messages online. In his podcast, he calls some of the individuals who posted negative messages towards him asks them one simple question: why? Why did you say want you said? 

The following is a conversation with Dylan Marron and Josh, who posted some negative comments about being gay on Dylan’s Facebook page.

Josh: I believe that being gay is a sin. Homosexuality is an abomination. I try my best to follow what the Bible says. In my mind, I think that being gay is a choice. I don’t mean to offend you. 

Dylan Marron: I don’t feel offended only because I know that I didn’t choose this and it’s helpful to just hear what you believe even if it’s in direct opposition to what I know to be true for me

When I engage in conversations and consider and try to understand another’s point of view, or religious belief, or values that are different from mine, it leaves me pondering this question: Do we create our own truth? Is it possible that something can be true for me and not true for someone else? Is it possible for something to be morally wrong for someone but morally permissible for someone else? Can something be unjust for someone and just someone else? Can something be morally right and morally wrong just depending on the person? Do we create our own truth? Or is truth absolute? Is morality relative?

The philosophy of moral relativism, which holds that each person is free to choose for himself what is right and wrong erodes character and society.  The belief that there is no absolute right and wrong, that all truth is man-made and that man can define morality one way today and another way tomorrow is wrong. 

Mustn’t They Differ About The Same Things

In Plato’s writing “Euthyphro”, a conversation between Euthyphro and Socrates, Socrates leads the discussion to moral relativism. 

Euthyphro is defending his position to prosecute his dad for manslaughter feeling that this is the pious thing to do, and defends his actions by using the example of Zeus who “put his father in bonds for wrongfully gobbling up his children.” He explains that if Zeus, who is the “best and most righteous of the gods,” saw it just to put his father in bonds than is he, Euthyphro, is also acting with moral justice by putting his father in bonds for manslaughter. 

Socrates is set on asking one question:

Socrates: Tell me, then, what do you say that the holy is? And the unholy?

Socrates: You see, my friend, you didn’t instruct me properly when I asked my earlier question: I asked what the holy might be?

Socrates:  And again, Euthyphro, the gods quarrel and have their differences, and there is mutual hostility amongst them. Well, on what matters do their differences produce hostility and anger? What sorts of questions would make us angry and hostile towards one another? 

Consider my suggestion, that they are questions of what is just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable, good and bad. Aren’t those the matters on which our disagreement and our inability to reach a satisfactory decision occasionally make enemies of us, of you and me, and of people in general?”

Socrates: And what about the gods, Euthyphro? If they really do differ, mustn’t they differ about those same things? 

Socrates: Then, by your account, noble Euthyphro, different gods also regard different things as just, or as honorable and dishonorable, good and bad; because unless they differed on those matters, they wouldn’t quarrel, would they? 

Socrates: Hence, as regards your present action in punishing your father, Euthyphro, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if you were thereby doing something agreeable to Zeus but odious to Cronus and Uranus, or pleasing to Hephaestus but odious to Hera; and likewise for any other gods who may differ from one another on the matter. 

Plato challenges the idea of moral relativism by exposing the irregularity that the Gods differ as to what is just and unjust. He’s asking, “Should not your Gods, who you suggest are omniscient beings, agree on matters of what is true?  Yet the fact that they quarrel exposes the reality of their differing views as to what is just and what is unjust. How is it that the Gods can have different views on what is just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable, good and bad?”

Holy Because It Is Loved or Loved Because It Is Holy

Socrates asks this compelling question: “Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved?”  Do we love it because it appeals to our lower desires? Or do we love it because it is in alignment with higher desires? Do we love it because it allows us to justify our indulgences? Or do we love it because of its moral goodness? But is it not our desires that draw us to love the holy and also our desires that lead us to call holy that which we love? 

Jeremy Bentham argued that not all desires are of equal value and quality. Desires span the spectrum of moral value. Higher desires are more closely in alignment with moral goodness and that which is just, while lower desires are in opposition to things that are just. 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a psychotherapist, defines higher desires as “desires that emerge out of strength, integrity, courage, faith, determination, and a desire to create goodness in your life. The more honestly you see yourself the more able you are to see your higher desires and create goodness. Higher desires are an expression of your honest ideals and yearnings.” 

Desire is the source of energy and power in your actions. It’s the engine of your evaluation as who a  person becomes. 

Measuring Morality

The skills to measure that which is just and unjust, to see the truth from err, and to discern the morally permissible from the morally wrong takes time and experience to develop. The ability to understand truth is heavily influenced by: 1- The ability to express and define your own views and to show why your views are legitimate.  2- The ability to understand another view especially when it pressures and challenges your own views and beliefs. 3- The ability and willingness to self-confront and to see yourself and your views honestly. 

The first time I heard the phrase “Generous Orthodoxy” was in a podcast by Malcom Gladwell, where he said: 

The phrase, ‘generous orthodoxy’ comes from a theologian named Hans Frei. It’s an oxymoron, of course. To be orthodox is to be committed to tradition (or an idea). To be generous, as Frei defines it, is to be open to change.

Because orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness.

And generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.

Generous Orthodoxy pushes you to look more deeply at the things you believe in. It pushes you to look at the traditions around you and to ask yourself if what you believe is the most right thing or if there is something more right. It pushes you to think about why you do what you do and believe what you believe? This is an important part of our understanding of truth. To have our beliefs pressured to the point that we must look at them deeper and closer and evaluate the legitimacy of our views. 

Generou Orthodoxy also pushes you to think about, consider, and understand the views of others. The genuine willingness to understand another view that conflicts with your own view, will increase your ability to see the difference between that which is morally good and that which is not. 

When someone disagrees with, diminishes, or challenges our views or beliefs, it throws us off balance. It can feel like a personal attack and put us on the defense. In an interview with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a licensed psychotherapist, she explained that “it’s easy to be threatened by change and to want to call it evil. Our first instinct to something that is foreign or with something we don’t know is that it must be bad. It’s just in our DNA to do that. And I think it is really important to be very cautious to write something or someone off before we give it a thoughtful integrity based response.”

“People generally quarrel because they cannot argue.” G. K. Chesterton

Discussing differing views is challenging especially when our own views are being challenged. But these conversations are extremely valuable. That is when they are thoughtful debates or arguments and not “quarrels” or simply attacks on views and individuals. 

In her Ted Talk, How To Disagree Productively, Julia Dhar stated, “My mission in life is to help us disagree productively. To find ways to bring truth to light, to bring new ideas to life…debate requires that we engage with the conflicting idea, directly, respectfully, face to face…the thing that debate allows us to do as human beings is open ourselves, really open ourselves up to the possibility that we might be wrong…

When your views are under pressure it pushes you to think more deeply about your own beliefs and even question them, and it can be tempting to retreat from this discomfort. But this discomfort, when faced with integrity and love, has the power to refine your character and deepen your understanding of truth.

We have to open ourselves to the possibility that we might be wrong and the willingness to hear another side. “Neuroscientist and psychologist Mark Leary at Duke University and his colleagues have found that people who are able to practice what those researchers call intellectual humility are more capable of evaluating a broad range of evidence, are more objective when they do so, and become less defensive when confronted with conflicting evidence.” This openness is key to coming to know truth. The ability to face yourself and be honest with yourself and your views is essential to coming to know truth. 

October 4, 2019

Time writing this paper: 6 hours and 30 minutes

Total time writing on this blog: 36 hours

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