Thursday, December 18, 2014

Who's afraid of moral relativism? I'm afraid of moral absolutism.

I keep hearing about the dangers of moral relativism, but what about the dangers of moral absolutism?

Accusations of moral relativism were made against the pilot of the Philosophical Ethics program delivered to primary schools by Primary Ethics. It is usually Christians who make this accusation. Even Christopher Pyne recently stated, as reported by The Australian 16/10/14

“When something is wrong it should be called for what it is,” he said. “The danger often in the West is this idea that as all voices need to be heard somehow they might all have some kind of moral equivalence.”

Miranda Devine wrote this about Kevin Donnelly in the Daily Telegraph 05/02/2014 when it was announced he was to review the new Australian Curriculum.

“Clear-thinking Donnelly is the perfect choice. An unabashed critic of moral relativism, he wants education to be about "objectivity and truth". He believes students should understand the foundations of Western civilisation and Australia's Judeo-Christian heritage. He thinks academic rigour and phonics and even - shock, horror - rote learning might be a good thing. He is against the fashion of students "constructing" their own knowledge.”

It came as no surprise when Donnelly announced that the curriculum should focus more on Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage (whatever that means - That we should teach the Ten Commandments? Is Judeo-Christian code for anti-Islamic, anti-atheist, or does it signal non anti-Semitic? That our Judeo-Christian heritage begins in the Middle East? That Judaism has been superseded by Christianity or that Judaism and Christianity are equally valued? ) Before beginning the review he was reported as attacking the curriculum for “uncritically promoting diversity” and undervaluing western civilisation.

Multiculturalism is connected to liberal values, such as ideas of freedom, tolerance and equal respect. It means we embrace pluralism in a democratic society. Multiculturalism isn’t about cultural relativism (the idea that everyone’s culture is of equal value), but it is about protecting people’s rights to identify as a part of a cultural group, to practice their culture and that the state should not impose a religion or culture on people. People can live as they choose so long as their choice does not impinge on the freedom of others. It is the way to go if we want a peaceful society. The option is colonisation, and assimilation, which is discriminatory, divisive and usually racist.

In the world of education it seems an appreciation of multiculturalism, tolerance, and respect for diversity has collapsed into ideas about student-led learning and constructivism. The constructivist model for learning does value what the student brings, and does appreciate that all students bring a set of tools and skills and knowledges to the classroom, even though they may not be the ones most valued by white western culture. It’s important for teachers to know where students are at before they can be taken somewhere else. The idea is that people’s learning builds upon what they already know, and yes, people can attribute meaning. Everybody does construct their own knowledge. That doesn’t mean they deny facts and evidence.

People who believe that morality is objective, that is, it is factually true (usually because they believe it comes form an ancient text), seem to apply that to knowledge. They fear morality being subjective, even culturally or historically subjective. People who believe morality can be subjective don't necessarily apply this idea to knowledge. Principles of mathematics and science are still true no matter what a person believes about morality. 

The accusation about moral relativism made by some Christians is that ‘anything goes’ because life has no meaning for people who don’t follow their ancient text. For some Christians, this ancient text provides a moral compass (even though this text is compiled, translated, interpreted). The same is true for people of other faiths who look to an ancient text. Lots of people of religious faith believe they know right from wrong because their book tells them so. They are moral absolutists. Never mind the circumstances that aren’t, and couldn’t have been, covered by their ancient texts, or the reasons those texts were written which might not be applicable in modern society. Never mind the very concerning idea that people are good because they are told to be and they fear they are being watched and will endure punishment for transgressions.

There is no evidence that people of one faith or another are any more moral than people of none. There are people who do good and who don’t, and they are pretty evenly spread across belief systems. I’d go so far as to suggest people who engage in moral reasoning are more moral because they aren’t motivated by fear of punishment.

I’m not exactly sure what people mean by moral relativism and why so many people warn against it. It seems to be a way of enforcing a religious divide and protecting their position of moral absolutism (which I’ve never heard discussed sensibly). I’ve heard moral absolutists say things like, ‘what if one culture thought it was OK to eat babies? We know that is wrong because the bible tells us’. Well, we all think it is wrong to eat babies, but for other reasons.

There are other ways of working out a system of moral reasoning, ethics, or moral philosophy. There is a long history of considering what it is to lead a good life, and how to determine the right course of action. Virtue ethics is based on the writings of Aristotle, and focuses on having a virtuous character. Being virtuous will lead to happiness. Kant talked about the universal law - what if everyone else was doing it? What would that look like? He is concerned with motive, not outcome. However, he was concerned with valuing every person’s right to human dignity. His ideas informed the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Deontologists consider the role of duty - duty to family, the social group, to country, to following the rules. Personally happiness is not a factor. Consequentialists judge according to the consequences of an action. Utilitarians consider what is the greatest good, or greatest happiness, for the greater number of people. This idea was developed by Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. They assume that people are moral and of equal value. From this point one can argue for equal rights, separation of church and state, and freedom of expression. Others might consider moral reasoning on the basis of sentience (that people have the capacity for reason, and can feel pain). There is also Buddhist ethics, which focuses on compassion. All follow logical reasoning. All will apply evidence to their arguments. For Absolutists there is absolute right and wrong, usually ascribed to God (which makes them religious fundamentalists) or patriotism.  

Lets look at who tries to impose their will on others. Lets look at who refuses to examine another person’s point of view. Lets look at who cannot consider the possibility of being wrong. Lets look at who threatens violence at those who disagree, whether it be by killing them, or condemnation to burn forever in the fiery pits of hell.

It isn’t people who apply moral reasoning. It isn’t people who value human rights.

Which brings me to this: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Dunning and Kruger, psychologists at Cornell university in 1999, conducted experiments on the disconnect between perceived and actual competence. People of low ability rated themselves highly, because they didn’t know enough to know they were incompetent. People with high competence rated themselves lower than their ability, because they were so competent they thought everybody else must be the same or better. David Dunning said, ‘If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. […] the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.’ Others have expressed similar sentiments over the years, including (and this is from Wikipedia)  ‘Confucius ("Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"), Socrates (“I know that I  know nothing”), Bertrand Russell ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"), and Charles Darwin, ("ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") and Shakespeare, who wrote in As You Like It "The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole" (V.i)).

I’m thinking moral absolutists suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. What other explanation is there?

1 comment:

Linda said...

Once again you have nailed it. But how to expand narrow minds? Perhaps the answer is for the intelligent to ignore their self-doubt and speak up more often. And stop worrying about being fair and giving both sides of the story! Apparently the right are better at speaking up and writing letters and that's key to their grip on power.