Wednesday, December 19, 2007

That's not "relativism," it's sociopathy

Hell's Handmaiden has dipped into the reality stream and come up with a net full of three-legged tadpoles...

Honestly, it is the first round of freshman, mostly, college papers I’ve seen in years. The subject is relativism. ...

Of the papers I’ve seen so far easily one in ten contains assertions in support of ethical relativism. Some of them contain quite strong assertions in favor of it. What is even more bizarre is that most of these defenders of relativism defend individual relativism, not cultural, and most tow the same basic line– that we can’t decide who is right or wrong so we just act how we feel like and, effectively, settle things by force.

Gee, I wonder where they got that idea. The news, perhaps?

I'd love to quote some of these papers but that would be wrong. I’m not even going to identify the school or the class title or the section number… or even the damned state. But ya know what? If I did quote from these papers, these damned relativists would be telling me that I shouldn’t have done so– telling me that my decision was wrong.!


I’d love to walk into that class and tell them that I’d posted every single paper online, complete with sarcasm, ridicule and whatever other snark I can manage. It isn’t that I’d actually like to do it. I’d just like to tell them that I’d done it and then listen to the whines of “that’s just not right” and “that’s wrong, man” and “you violated this or that principle or something”. Then I’d explain that if in fact they are relativists– individual relativists– as they argued in their papers then I am justified in posting their papers online. I am justified for no other reason than simply that I felt like it was the right thing to do.

I think I can put my thumb on the issue here. And while I can blame them for being purblind idiots for falling into this particular ethical trap, it's not like there wasn't a path beaten for them by many people, presumably older and wiser, who clearly chose not to know better.

The issue is not so much the idea that "right and wrong" are relative to the individual, the culture and the situation. All of these things are quite correct, and if you don't pay attention to whether or not the situation alters cases, you can easily end up doing the worst possible thing for all the "right" reasons. So the importance of the concept itself cannot be sufficiently stressed. The problem is that there still is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad, a useful and useless that in all but a few (and pretty darned obvious) cases that is external to any individual metric of good and bad.

You must always consider the consequences of your actions in regard to others, because if those consequences affect others in a negative or harmful way, they will surely hold you to account, if they can. Nor does obscuring the connection between you and the consequence of your action serve to make unethical actions ethical. It merely means you are putting an ethical debt onto your line of Karmic Credit, so to speak.

Or if you prefer, you are tempting Murphy.

There are few better expressions of individualistic moral relativism than the Wiccan Rede; "An it harm none, do as ye will."

That's the trick, of course, and that's the nub of this fallacy; it's not a question of "relativism," it's the manifestly and clinically stupid idea that one has the inherent right to do anything one desires... and get away with it!

I've blogged about this many times from many different angles, so I can happilly choose between good and best. My comments policy contains my most succinct statement of my understanding of this issue.

One problem in our nation is that Democrats and other Liberals are still acting as if the current situation in the United States were a political issue, one that arose due to politics and one that can be addressed in that manner. I'm afraid Glenn believes that as well. It's not. It's about cheats, liars and outright traitors in office and in positions of influence who are willing to do and say anything to achieve their ends.

This attitude - supposedly expressed by Newt Gingrich, as told to Bill Clinton as "But if we didn't cheat, we couldn't win" is cancerous. If you have to cheat to win, you don't deserve it and you aren't qualified to have it. All around us we see the results of what happens when cheaters lie and steal their way into power. Aside from the ethics, aside from the illegalities, aside from whatever possibly treasonous and certainly contemptible alliances with offshore oil interests there may be - they have no qualifications other than a lifetime spent lying, cheating and stealing.

These qualities are fit only for ruling a fantasy-land of self-delusion. they not apply well to real situations with real concerns. For instance, while you can lie yourself into a war, you cannot cheat your way to a victorious resolution. You can say "we are winning' every day, but the truth will speak louder than you. You can assert that "things are getting better in New Orleans", but a quick email to anyone there will put the lie to it.

Republicans - and by this I specifically include most of all their basement dwelling, Pajamas Media funded cheerleaders - are like the barking dog chasing the car. We now see what happens when the fool dog catches it.

The whole point to relativistic moral visions is to minimize blowback more than legalistic approaches can, not to pretend that it does not exist and cannot occur to you!

Of course, if one discounts the importance of consequence that do not happen personally, dramatically and immediately, it's possible to evolve an ethic - such as realpolitik - which will lead to short term advantage at the price of long term, indirect consequences.

Situational ethics (a distinctly Christian expression of Consequentialism, which is in itself an evolution of Utilitarianism) is used by many persons who's basic ethos comes from Sunday School to determine whether or not a particular moral truism actually does apply in this particular case; I and other ethical thinkers observe that it's not a replacement for those truisms.

Truisms are truisms because they are mostly true, most of the time.

All of these various ethical philosophies state that it is the outcome of an action that matters, rather than the choice of a particular action, or the inherent virtue or lack in the person. I would argue further that consequences - the observable outcome of a particular choice - is all that we have to objectively determine how "good" or "bad" a particular set of assumptions and choices were.*

If you wish a Christian summation of that - there is the parable of the fig tree, which is as succinct a summation of this principle as can be imagined. According to the parable, it matters not at all whether the fig tree is beautiful or ugly - if it's fruit is bitter and useless, it should be cut down, because it's wasting both space, cultivation efforts and nutrients to produce nothing of value.

Christ Himself was arguably a Utilitarian ethicist.

However - and this is a rather LARGE "however" - Situational ethics, moral relativism, however you wish to refer the idea, and whatever particular flavor you prefer - work only when you apply them to the truism like the fine-tuning knob on an old TV.

The idea is to ensure that the basic principle is applied with accuracy to the situation - not to arbitrarily decide that a small difference amounts to a total distinction.

The basis for a legalistic approach to morality and ethics is as follows, that a rigid application of The Law will tend to produce more beautiful trees with sweeter fruit, on the whole, if the assumptions made by those who set the law in place were accurate.

Therefore, it's important to regularly examine and critique the assumptions made by those who set The Law in place, and to compare their predictions of outcome to actual, provable outcome.

EG: No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, etc. Clearly, the stated intents of a law do not always play out in practice, even given the assumption that the authority imposing the law was truthful in stating their intent.

Now, having said that, it should also be said that if you don't understand the intent of a moral or legal diktat, you probably should not try to futz about with it. But I've never had much patience with folks who blindly follow rules simply because they are posted on a wall. ANYone could have put them there, for whatever reason, not excluding the possibility of a practical joke.

So I've always felt it important to examine rules, laws, morals and ethical standards to see what the intended outcome is. This will reveal many cases where the intent is good, but the rule is stupid, or that the rule or law was created for malicious, bigoted or dishonest reasons, and such rules should only be followed as written if Massa is watching. :P

Any general guide to proper behavior has an obvious problem; first, that it's a general guide, and there will be some exceptional cases where applying the guide as if it were an inarguable rule will result in more harm than taking a different, possibly "immoral" course of action. That reality is often used as a reason to toss out all moral truisms as invalid - but that simply leaves one without anywhere to even start an ethical analysis or behave in a way that predictably results in "golden rule" standards of behavior.

Morals - valid, well tested, culturally appropriate morals - are ideally the best first approximation and hopefully the best reflexive choice, and the obvious the starting point to evaluating the best course of action whenever you have time to think about a choice in depth.

Simply stated, a "moral code" is a set of ethical equations that have been generalized within a cultural matrix over a wide assortment of individual cases over a span of time, so that in general one does not have to deeply consider every single choice of action.

But such a moral code must provably result in better outcomes than some other set of morals or competitive ethos. And when such a code even arguably, much less provably results in worse outcomes than none, from any reasonable standpoint, that "moral code" is unethical, and practicing it for oneself is immoral, much less attempting to impose it upon others as a cultural and legal standard.
*I reject any moral or ethical equasion that has a scope greater than that of a particular person that depends on supposed, faith-based consequences, such as "you'll go to hell" or "Eris hates personal organizers."

Choose that for yourself, if you must, if you think an arbitrary and unprovable consequence is more important than provable and direct consequences - but do not expect others to forgive or forget actions you take based on such unprovable assumptions.

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