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I need to read this article and digest it in more detail, but I'll note that my (Christian) wife has a very simple approach to moral absolutism: she asks God, and God (being omnipresent and personal) replies. God is omniscient and omnipotent (by definition), so replies in language that she is certain to understand.

It's kinda hard to argue with that form of absolutism.

Ahoy, captain! Nice opening salvo!
Looking forward to this campaign!

If I was playing Devil's advocate, I might say this smacks of a utopian idealist's (or even an idealogue's) version of an emergent utility-maximising algorithm for a fully connected stigmergic system. I'm couching this in computer science terms deliberately here, to point out the artificiality of hoping that all parts of the system will act as specified when any of those parts are human.
Actually, since I'm not intending to play Devil's advocate, I must say that I've had similar ideas in the areas of diplomacy and economics. Unfortunately, so far (and I haven't worked on this very much) I come up against the problem that a cosmopolitan system for solving any inter-relational issues seems to require absolute arbitration. Its like Hobbes said - Bellum omnium contra omnes. For economics & diplomacy this might actually work, except that it would leave people without the essential human need of expression of free will.
I think I wrote more on this over here. On the subject of ethics, I know I wrote on compatibility of cultural ethics here.

I think those will be the most significant contributions I get to make, the next six or seven weeks are chock a block. My timing sucks more than my philosophy of ethics!

Peter: your wife is an amazing person, but even her Joan of Arc-like relationship with God only allows her to maintain an absolute moral position within her own frame of reference. It is clear that God is not asking her to force this position further afield - I suggest that God would have no reason to do so.

If I understood her correctly, your wife believes that it is the presence of Jesus in heaven which allows God to understand humans, and humans to understand God - he is the intermediary that allows for this communication. In other words, direct communication with God is not wholly possible (and why should it be - how can any human grasp something infinite and beyond understanding?)

This scenario does not guarantee that the absolute position she is afforded in her relationship with God is the same as other absolute positions that other individuals are afforded in their relationship with God. Perhaps, as I suggest here, God's plan requires diversity...

Relative ethics does not mean that people cannot hold absolute positions, it simply means that we should recognise the scope of those absolute positions.

Extend my best wishes to your wife - I'm glad I had the chance to meet her before life swept me away from that continent!


Avast, translucy, no salvos here! This is a ship of peace! ;) Glad to have you on the crew.


zenBen: Even if you're going to be swept up with busy work for the next two months, I suspect this campaign will run for six months or more - there will be plenty of time for you to contribute, I'm sure. Play at your own pace! :)

I do not believe absolute arbitration is required - dialogue in itself is sufficient to produce peaceful stable states (eventually). The goal of cosmopolitanism is not consensus, remember, just a place (a doubtless chaotic place) where we can all live together.

As for market philosophies, this is necessarily outside our scope and closer to political philosophy, so I must pass. As for the compatibility of cross-cultural ethics, you seem to agree that there is sufficient commonality for this to be viable, hence I must take you as in support of the premise of this post. :)


On the whole, a quieter response than I expected. I was hoping, I think, for some opinion from the a priori camp... Perhaps it will come in time.

Very well, I guess we shall proceed to some definition of ethics, then. I am certain we are not done with this particularly topic, however - it shall doubtless see debate at some point in the future. :)

My best wishes to you all!

zenBen, Chris,

IMHO a discussion on the issues of "perfect arbitration" or "much improved (if not perfect )interpersonal / intercultural understanding" is getting ahead of itself.

None of the propositions or conclusions you Chris, have put forward on this blog (on religion, metaphysics, science, etc, as a foundaton for your ethical stance) seem to be even close let alone a major part of mainstream belief systems in the west.

On the contrary, as discussed last year here, the mutual divide in the triangle of "the religious dogmatists", "the anti-religious dogmatists aka the so-called scientific rationalists", and the majority of "the dis-oriented or dis-interested" runs so deep that they would have a hard time understanding at all the thrust of your argument.

So how can the insight into the issue of "cultural, metapysical nd consequentially ethical relativism" (if that is the adequate term) be brought to the masses?

"So how can the insight into the issue of "cultural, metapysical nd consequentially ethical relativism" (if that is the adequate term) be brought to the masses?"

Via absolute arbitration!
No, wait, that would be a case of the messenger killing the message.

Well although I hope to change the world, I don't expect it to happen anytime soon. :)

From reading Charles Taylor it sounds as if the younger generation right now already has an intuitive grasp of the social relativity issue, and indeed the problem may not be introducing this idea at all...

For me, if I can fashion an idea with merit, and word it such that all comers, regardless of religion or culture, can read it without vehemently over-reacting, then we are closer to being able to sit around the hypothetical table and hammer out an agreement.

That I am overly idealistic in this regard can be taken as read. :)

Best wishes!

zenBen, Chris,

I guess my point is that "epistemological clarification" has to precede "ethical arbitration".

I don't think anybody here on this blog is "overly xyz" - this blog seems to have a soothing effect on its readers :) I guess I would just put more emphasis on the epistemological skepticism you seem to find in Hume's writings as well. The whole world view that is implicated in words like "arbitration" or "democratic society" cannot be taken as absolute and in fact today is not understood or practiced well in societies that claim to be built on these principles.

Young people in their teens and twenties may indeed have an intuitive access to the practice (rather than to any well founded theory) of "ethical pluralism" - but the question remains whether their ability to communicate and "arbitrate" extends beyond the confines defined by the codes & standards of globalized western culture, currently more and more identified with an all encompassing market place. (But heck, efficient arbitration is the genuine feature of a working market place so maybe everything gonna be alright in the coming global uber-mart?)

Speaking of Taylor I wonder whether you have considered Richard Rorty, esp. "Contingency, Irony, Solidarity"?

translucy: your concerns regarding the abilities of the younger generation to see beyond their own cultural background are doubtless well founded; still I think there are ways to play this game to our mutual advantage. I'm content to work on the abstract problems and have faith that discussion of this kind gradually filters into the social system as a whole. Perhaps this is merely mindless optimism! :)

I haven't read any Rorty, no, and after a recent 'book binge' in a local store my wife has cut me off from buying any new books until I've read the ones I have! :) I should read Dewey before Rorty, anyway, and I have a Dewey in my current pile.

Best wishes!

Are all ethical principles relative in your view?
Are there no ethical principles which transcend all human cultures, principles which hard-wired into our very human nature?
-Principles, which if they are broken cause guilt feelings in most offenders and outrage in those who observe the breaking of those principles?
Something like: "Thou shalt not kill" (innocent people)
Yes, this principle is daily broken all over the world thousands of times, and often is the killing rationalized in some way (as a form of self-defence with occasional collateral damage or the innocent are made to look guilty and their death is called a "just punishment")
But in spite of the rationalizations the principle per se still stands.

Or the principle of respecting human dignity.
"dignity" at first seems like just a word that can be interpreted in many ways.
But then outside of all semantics, when the people of all human cultures all over the world, when they looked at the images of the Abu Grhaib prisoner abuse, they knew with certainty that this was a violation of human dignity, no question about it.

Some Americans might have justified the abuse as a necessary measure to fight the insurgency, but they still knew, that what was done to these people was principally ethically wrong.

If there are points practically all human beings all over the planet agree, that this or that behavior is just plain wrong, then wouldn´t it mean that their are indeed a few points of universal human ethics?

Notsylvia: this is a great question!

Although much of what I trace here in Relative Ethics is foundational to my moral philosophy, I have come to realise that the name "Relative Ethics" is all too easily misunderstood, suggesting an absence of common ground. But my position is rich in common ground - the point of Relative Ethics is to show that different ethical *justifications* don't change the common ethical values, which are in fact more widespread than it currently taken. It is a non-foundationalist position (i.e. lacking in absolute foundations) but it is not simply moral relativism.

Moving forward, I am favouring the term "an ecology of ethics" as an alternative to Relative Ethics (this term being inspired by Alain Badiou's "ethic of truths"). The idea is that different moral philosophies can co-exist precisely because there is common ground between them, and while the differences may foster some conflicts, this doesn't destroy the basis for co-operation entirely - it just creates certain problematic areas.

Regarding some of your examples, following the philosophy of Julius Kovesi (briefly discussed in this piece "Moral Ideas", your moral conclusions are embedded in your statements to some degree: to "kill innocents" = "murder", a term in language which is what Kovesi calls a "complete moral notion" i.e. the language itself embeds a moral judgement. People may disagree whether such-and-such an act is or is not murder, but it difficult to argue that "murder is right".

"Dignity" is harder, though; the same kind of argument probably will not secure the moral case in this regard. Prisoners of any kind suffer reduced dignity - many people feel that this is acceptable punishment. There is thus a large grey area in the intersection between the legal concept of punishment and the moral concept of dignity.

In respect to Abu Ghraib, what we can see is that the guards had taken the prisoners to be outside of that group that were taken to be worthy of respect - a shocking betrayal of the values of (so-called) Universal Human Rights that the United States had been key in establishing in the first place. For me, the issue is rendered scandalous not by the issue of dignity (which is not to say it this is not relevant to the subject), but by the breaking of the promises the US agreed to in founding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They failed to live up to their own values. A sad day for that great nation...

So in answer to your question, I would have to say that there are not really any ethical principles so deeply committed to our biology that they can be taken as universal because humans are capable of marking people out as Enemies and justifying practically unlimited violations against such people.

But this doesn't mean that there aren't moral principles that approach universality - but it is a qualified, non-foundationalist kind of universality, one that is never wholly secure from loss or abuse. For this reason, it is important for people committed to values of any kind to work towards the fostering of those values in their own community.

Thanks for the question!

thank you for your answer
I like the idea of an ethical "common ground". This would be the place from which cooperation between different cultures and traditions are possible.

But I believe the minimum requirement for reaching this common ground is that I accept that the other person, no matter to what tradition he or she belongs to, is of the same fundamental value as I myself.

Reaching an understanding with someone who believes that your life has no or barely any value is pretty hard, I think.
On the other hand, the Christian attitude of loving one´s enemy and blessing those who curse you, might change the attitude of the enemy eventually. For most Christians (including me), however, to follow this commandment is very hard.

As for biologically based ethics:
My own experiences with small children and stories I heard from others suggest that there is a biological altruism that predates reason and social teaching:
For instance:
three tiny children look at the sparks of a cold fire band that hangs on Christmas tree. The older children, a boy and a girl two and three years old are terrified by it and they see that the sparks fall on their one year old brother who sits close to the tree. Realizing that the grown-ups in the room aren´t doing anything, the boy and the girl come closer to the tree in spite of their fear, they grab their little brother and drag him away from the perceived danger.

Or this story where the danger isn´t just perceived but quite real:
Two little boys, two and three year old brothers, are rescued by Social Services. The boys are severely undernourished and the younger one has a large burn-wound on his arm. The boys are separated and put in different foster homes. (One foster family are friends of mine).
But whenever the boys are allowed to see each other, the same things happens every time. When there is food on the table, the older boy grabs some food and starts feeding his little brother before he even puts one morsel of food in his own mouth.

My friends had learned from Social Services that the mother of the boys had many times left them alone locked up in a room with some food, while she had left the house for days.
What must have happened is, that the older brother who was himself barely more than a toddler must have realized that his little brother was too small to reach the food or to feed himself. And though the older boy must himself been quite hungry, he still fed his little brother first.

Unless you believe that this behavior was a result of a miraculous divine intervention, there is no other explanation than a biological altruism instinct, an instinct that told the child that the survival of his brother was more important than his own wellbeing. For if the older brother had started to eat first until he had stilled his hunger, there might have been not enough food left for his little brother to survive.

Both brothers b.t.w. when they were picked up by Social Services were then diagnosed as retarded. Neither could speak understandable language, while they had developed their own form of language to communicate with each other. While the younger boy after being put in foster-care was able to learn ordinary German pretty well, the older one hadn´t learned it by age six when I moved away and lost contact with the foster family.

I think that a basic form of altruism is a God-given instinct and survival-tool. And our reasoning capacity, which starts to grow in us no earlier than at about age four, is a kind of manual over-ride that allows us to justify doing thing which we feel in the pit of our stomach to be wrong and refraining from doing other things which we feel in the deepest recesses of our hearts we should do.

As for the Abu Ghraib guards:
From what I read I don´t think they were just a few bad apples who hated their enemies.
They were actually ordered "to rough the prisoners up" for interrogation. And they seemed to have acted according a CIA play-book, a torture manual, which states that psychological torture works better than physical to break a person, and that in some cultures, where nudity is a taboo, the use of nudity and sexual humiliation "works especially well". Other methods were the denigration of a persons faith and the symbols of faith he holds sacred (besmearing pages of the Koran and flashing them down the toilet, as has been done systematically in Guantanomo).

The guards themselves, rather than being bad apples, seem to me to have been far more the "victims" of Hannah Arend´s "banality of evil". They have adapted to a culture of violence and abuse. And while they were inside that culture they were blind to the realization of evil.
From an outside perspective, however, the evil is quite clear to most everybody. And the soldiers after they get out and leave that culture behind and having to adapt to normal life again, can see the evil as well.

Many war-veterans have a really hard time to come to grips with what they have done or witnessed while they were still inside. That´s why so many veterans end up as homeless alcoholics or drug-addicts.

Notsylvia: thank you for continuing our discussion, and for your detailed anecdotes.

I do not deny that there is a biological foundation to morality to some degree - but this extends beyond just humans, and into animals. This is what Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce have called "wild justice". But this is less than what is required for a fully developed ethical system. For more on this, take a look at the Pentenary special serial, especially parts 5-7.

The problem I have with your claim that a minimum requirement for common ground is recognizing that another person has the same fundamental value as yourself is that it's not clear what this entails. For instance, (as you comment in another post) there are people who believe that you do not extend this value to homosexuals. I'm sure you would argue against this claim, but the point I'm making is that the scope of the claim of equal fundamental value is difficult to disentangle.

However, I do ascribe to something similar in terms of Kant's concept of mutual respect. I would say more, but it will take me a while to work through your other comment! :)

Best wishes!

You are right, my point of "equal value" needs clarification.

In case of the homosexual issue, it means, that although I disagree with my brother´s life-style choices, I do not see him as a person of lesser fundamental human value than myself. (He´s been living in a gay relationship for nearly 2o years now. I thought first this meant a monogamous relationship until he told me that he thinks monogamy and total fidelity is unfeasible and not good for heterosexual marriages either. Later I found out that my brother´s attitude to monogamy and fidelity is very typical for the whole gay community.
To be fair there are many things my brother does a lot better than I do. For instance does he take a lot better care of our mother. And this counts for God quite a lot, I think)

The fundamental value of a person as human being, his right to life and respect of dignity does not disappear if he or she makes a few wrong choices.
God, who knows us and created us, will eventually judge us. But we should not say that one person has more value and right to live than another.

I´ve seen, heard and felt the consequences of a belief system, that denies human value to outsiders with my own eyes, ears and skin. I was horrified and thought this kind of thinking and behavior is an anachronism, it can´t be true in this day and age, but it was.
And I tell you later more about it.

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