Ethical Realism

March 18, 2010

Is Moral Realism Dangerous? (What about Relativism?)

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:42 am
Tags: , ,

Moral realism states that there are true moral statements that aren’t just a “matter of taste.” Some people think that moral realism encourages us to be oppressive, intolerant, and vengeful. Anti-realism (e.g. relativism) is supposedly much more “open minded” and encourages us to be tolerant of others. I disagree. I agree that certain forms of moral realism could lead to egregious forms of intolerance, but not all forms of moral realism. Although uneducated moral realist views can lead to problems, these problems can be avoided with careful philosophical consideration. Additionally, anti-realism itself could help people rationalize horrific actions.

I will discuss the following:

  1. Ways moral realism could be dangerous.
  2. Ways anti-realism can be dangerous.

Ways moral realism could be dangerous.

Moral realism could be considered to be harmful to society or individuals in the following ways:

  1. It rationalizes behavior that harms others.
  2. Moral realism leads to guilt.
  3. It encourages oppressive behavior.
  4. It encourages us to be closed minded.

I will consider each of these.

1. It rationalizes behavior that harms others.

It can (a) encourage us to demonize our enemies and (b) help us rationalize the idea that some people deserve punishment. There is a view that people are wholly responsible for their actions and their choice to do evil makes them evil. Such people can be “dehumanized” or “demonized” and are viewed as something that needs to be destroyed.

People who do evil are not always seen as being evil. Instead, we might merely think that they “deserve” punishment. It wouldn’t be fair to let criminals “get away with” their crimes. We should punish them to “get revenge” or “get even.”

My Objection: I am a moral realist, but I see no reason to agree that evil exists. I also disagree that some people “deserve” punishment. Although it is horrible to harm others, that doesn’t mean that the person harming others is evil. We don’t fully understand why some people are serial killers, but it seems likely that they are insane, incompetent, immature, or ignorant.

2. Moral realism leads to guilt.

When we harm others, we have a sense that things would have been better if we did otherwise. We can “regret” our action. We might also have a sense that we “owe” something to those we harm. If we broke a friend’s TV set, then we feel an obligation to pay for it. However, guilt is often supposed to be more than these feelings. To feel guilt is to emotionally punish ourselves as though we deserve pain. This means that “guilt” for some people is based on the idea that people can deserve punishment.

The negative emotions caused by guilt can help motivate us to do good, but it can also be debilitating. It can make us too depressed to be productive members of society.

My Objection: Although I am a moral realist, I am not convinced that “guilt” is an appropriate emotion. It might be based on strange beliefs based on an idea of “evil.” We can reject “guilt” for the same reason that we can reject that some people deserve punishment.

3. It encourages oppressive behavior.

Those who believe something is wrong tell others what to believe. They tell others not to have an abortion or to refrain from homosexual behavior. Additionally, they want to control the behavior of others by making abortion illegal and to ban same-sex marriages. Such behavior seems to be oppressive. To tell others what to think about morality is oppressive, and it’s oppressive to tell other people what to do.

Moral realism states that there are moral truths, so it could be true that abortion is wrong, and it can be true that homosexual behavior is immoral.

My Objection: The big problem is that arrogant people tell other people what to think about morality without any justification to back it up. If we know that abortion is wrong, then we will have to be able to persuade others through reason.

Moral realism doesn’t tell us that whatever we personally believe about morality is known for certain. Just the opposite. When two people disagree about a moral truth, only one person is correct. We would have to assess the evidence to decide which person is more likely right. It might even be possible that neither person has anything near certainty. We might not really be sure about whether or not abortion is wrong.

I must admit that when we find out that something is wrong, then we have a good reason to tell others. It seems perfectly understandable to tell someone that torturing babies is wrong. “Forcing our opinion” on others isn’t such a bad thing in that case. In fact, it doesn’t even seem oppressive to make torturing babies illegal. I think we should do whatever we can to protect babies from being tortured.

4. It encourages us to be closed minded.

If we think we know right and wrong, then no one will be able to convince us otherwise. If we think homosexuality is immoral, then we will just think we are right no matter what anyone says.

My Objection: I see no reason to agree to this. Moral realism gives us no more reason to be closed minded about right and wrong than scientific realism gives a scientist a reason to be closed minded about which sort of string theory is true. A scientist could think one sort of string theory is true, but obviously we need evidence to be sure.

It might be that some religious people who think whatever the bible says about morality is the absolute truth will be closed minded, but that is not a position that moral realist philosophers agree to.

Ways anti-realism can be dangerous.

Is anti-realism dangerous? I am not completely sure, but uneducated versions of anti-realism can obviously be dangerous. The main line of thought is, “Nothing really matters, so I can do whatever I want.” I will discuss two ways that unsophisticated forms of anti-realism can be harmful:

  1. It can’t tell us when tolerance is appropriate.
  2. It doesn’t give us a reason to be altruistic.

1. It can’t tell us when tolerance is appropriate.

Anti-realism can’t tell us when tolerance is appropriate. Why do anti-realists insist that banning gay marriage is oppressive, but banning baby torturing isn’t? We shouldn’t be tolerant of harmful behavior. That’s all moral realists need to claim. If an anti-realist wants us to believe that we should be tolerant of people harming others, then they have to agree to something absurd.

Anti-realists could argue that appropriate uses of tolerance is (a) determined by each culture, and/or (b) our instincts, and/or (c) whatever ideal rational people would agree to.

If each culture determines when we should be tolerant, then we would have to agree that torturing babies is justifiable in certain cultures. If our instincts determine when we should be tolerant, then flawed instincts could allow horrific crimes. If ideal rational people determine when we should be tolerant, then an anti-realist will end up being just as intolerant as moral realists. Anti-realists will decide to stop people from torturing babies and tell others that torturing babies is wrong, just like moral realists.

Moreover, although anti-realists can try to tell us when we “ought” to be tolerant, it isn’t clear what this “ought” consists in. A moral realist can say that we ought not torture babies because “so much is at stake.” Torturing babies brings about something that “really matters” (extreme pain). On the other hand an anti-realist can’t make such a claim. We might be able to identify what we “ought” to do, but it doesn’t “really matter.”

2. It doesn’t give us a reason to be altruistic.

If moral realism is true, then harming people is a terrible thing to do. It really matters. But if anti-realism is true, then harming people is just something many people don’t like. If anti-realism is true, I will have a good reason to put my own interests above the interests of others. For an anti-realist, my pleasure and pain is very real to me despite the fact that they “don’t really matter,” and the pleasure and pain of others doesn’t matter at all (unless they matter to me). If I could steal from others to benefit myself, then I might as well do so.

A common response is that it is part of human nature to care about other people, but this isn’t very satisfying for two reasons. One, we could train ourselves to care less about other people. Two, we are often tempted to serve our own interests rather than the interests of others, and “caring for others” doesn’t always stop us from making decisions that harm others. A CEO of a car company can make a decision to increase profits by refusing to make a car safer. Lives could be endangered because it would be less profitable to make the car safer. Such a CEO will either be compelled to make the car safer out of compassion for others, or she won’t. Anti-realism seems to require that the story ends there, but moral realism could have more to say. For example:

  • It might be possible for the CEO to make the right decision because other people’s lives “really matter.”
  • It might be possible for the CEO to develop a stronger sort of compassion to others.

An anti-realist can insist that we develop our sense of compassion, but I see no reason why I would want to do so. Compassion and empathy are pretty painful. I don’t want to feel bad when bad things happen to other people unless their lives “really matter.”

Conclusion

Although some sort of unreasonable form of moral realism could lead to unjustifiable intolerance, revenge, and oppression, it is not clear that all sorts of moral realism would lead to these problems. Additionally, anti-realism could lead to some problems as well. I have not argued that anti-realism is more dangerous than moral realism. Any uneducated view of moral realism or anti-realism could lead to problems, but it isn’t clear that an educated view of either position would lead to the same problems.

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