The Question of Relative Morality

Posted on August 17, 2010. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Religion, Social Justice |

This subject, I know, will be a giant headache to cover in detail but it is one I believe needs to be addressed in my ongoing discussion with Kate .  Morality is an area of conversation between atheists and theists where much misrepresentation and miscommunication takes place.  For a good reference on this subject on the internet, as well as a guide to how I would argue on morality if I were half this brilliant, I suggest reading posts on the subject at my friend Dan Finke’s philosophy blog, Camels With Hammers. Here are a few relevant posts from him.  I also hope that Dan will make a guest appearance to point out some of his other musings on the subject.

As I previously alluded, this is not going to be a one post discussion.  Morality is likely the most talked about subject in the world of philosophy, and I feel like a child among giants when I start to contemplate it.  With a hat tip to my own shortcomings,and knowing that for many of you this will be a TL;DR post, here are my thoughts.

Morality As An Unarguably Relative Construct

That Christians continue to harp on about how morality is relative to atheists and is more similar to a divine or natural law for the theist is evidence enough that this issue is misunderstood by at least one party involved.  My two cents on the subject is that morality is not a fixed principle.  If you know a lawyer or a judge you could surely hear stories that would break your heart of “black and white” laws being applied to the most middling of “gray” circumstances.  That is why our legal system is designed to allow “self-defense”, for example.

An abortion clinic bomber has a very different construct of morality or justice as your average Catholic, whose moral construct itself is quite different from a pro-choice feminist. To make an argument that any one of those people is by necessity correct is to imply that your particular moral construct is the only correct one. Though I certainly would argue that one of them is particularly reprehensible, I can see the moral argument for the other two.

Morality in a nutshell

All moral decisions can be accused of being moral or immoral based on the scope of how we weigh the benefits and consequences.  Each benefit, each consequence, each affected individual person or group is afforded a different yet quantifiable weight in a moral judgment.  How groups or individuals will judge the relative morality of any singular or set of decisions will therefor always be relative to the weight assigned to each variable.  To claim that there is a divine or natural law which tells you how much weight each involved party should be afforded is specious.

That societies require a religion to inform or mold this moral construct is ridiculous.  That in any moral circumstance, one would surely weigh not just their own interests, but that of their immediate family, their close friends, their community, or any other group that that person can be reasonably be expected to foresee being affected is certainly a given.  Some of these weights are selfish, some are selfless, some lie between.  Morality is the direct consequence of being a social species, and this holds true even among the “lesser” species.    That religion, as a pseudo-philosophical construct is very specifically concerned with morality is not surprising.  Religions of all stripes take rational moral constructs and pepper them with additional prohibitions and consequences that are hardly necessary for that moral principal to stand or fall on it own merit.  No religion coined the Golden Rule, for example.  It is a logical conclusion of a social species.  That religion redundantly carves it in stone this inevitable social construct is moot.

Every group of people, from Fundamental Christian to militant liberal is going to have their own concept of an ideal moral decision, yet one very rarely presents itself.

How To Best Understand Relative Morality

If we can think of any decision in terms of a Venn Diagram, where the interests of multiple parties are at stake, each decision no matter how simple will have both positive and negative repercussions.  How we weigh each parties stake is how we describe the possible choices as moral or immoral.  Where a religious moral construct differs from a secular one is in the simplifying of variables….sort of.   Here are two Venn Diagrams for a pet subject of mine, gay marriage, one from a simplified Christian view, the other from a simplified “Liberal” view.Very Simplified Venn Diagram Informing Moral Stand On Gay Marriage

In the example, this not only informs the persons morality paradigm on the issue of gay marriage, but also the way that person views the morality of opposing views.  The simplicity of the religious prism comes in that all the factors affecting the secular decision are filtered through the subjects perception of their religious instruction.  In the secularist’s Venn, those ideas lumped under “Bible” and “WWJD” in the religious Venn likely find themselves manifest in the “Cultural Views” circle. I don’t doubt that many other factors exist for both the Christian and the secularist, my point is just that by the expanding and contracting of weight to each concept involved, the religious viewpoint simplifies the decision.

In my example, weighing factors equally will always result in a more morally ambiguous decision for the party making that decision.  In contrast, the additional or retracted weight of factors informing others decisions will result in that decision being deemed less moral by third parties.  All weights counted by both the Christian and the secularist can be said to be subject to cognitive bias, the thinkers perception or understanding of the factors in consideration.  With so many factors in play, it is impossible to deduce that morality is anything but a relative construct; and anyone making any moral indictment is in some sense a relativist.  A fundamental Christian Relativist, you say?  How could that be?

Morality?:Guess which one the Bible's OK with

Even the bible understands the relativism of morality, Leviticus 25:39-55 sets out separate rules for the treatment of slaves/servants based on whether they are Israelites or aliens.  In doing this, God is clearly in agreement that some people’s interests get more weight than others, and to what degree their rights are weighted.  Obviously in God’s mind, the slave/servant owners interests are paramount, followed by the interests of a Jewish servant, followed by a non-Jewish slave. Yet a Christian today would likely not consider this moral judgment to be moral at all.  They have altered the weight afforded to biblical views and societal views/personal views to account for the moral detestability of  slavery in our modern culture.  By doing so, are they not becoming moral relativists?

Case Studies: Deja-Vu from University

To illustrate two cases where biblical morality can only bring us so far down the road of a strictly universal morality, I will pull from two areas where morality is in my mind quite ambiguous. The first is in cases of animal companionship.

The Curious Case of “Mittens”

Mittens is a cute and cuddly kitten, and his owner is dismayed when Mittens slips out the front door and is swiftly hit by a car.  His owner takes him to the vet, who tells him that Mittens is suffering terribly, but could survive to lead a life of constant but reduced pain if he has a $4000 surgery.  The other option is to euthanize poor Mittens and save him a lifetime of anguish.  What is the truly moral course in this situation?  Euthanasia? Surgery with reduced life quality? I bet I could find someone, admittedly not informed by the bible, who would argue that the very  first sentence of our story is immoral, as claiming ownership of an animal is wrong in and of itself.

So if we had no bible with which to inform our morality, which choice would be considered the most moral?  Even if we are lovers of animals, both euthanizing and treating the animal have their merits.   To claim that without a biblical moral supremacy the owner would always choose to just rename the kitten “Gimpy” and delight in it’s daily suffering is ridiculous.  Yet that is exactly the ad absurdum result of morality being only borne of the bible.

The answer to the moral question is that depending on which circle in the Venn diagram is afforded the most weight, each of these options is perfectly moral.  It doesn’t have to be fictional kittens though, we have ample evidence for moral relativism in the news today.

Battlefield Morality

One could strongly argue that a soldier in Afghanistan who shoots an unarmed enemy combatant who is going to die a slow and painful death is exercising a moral duty.  If the dying man is going to suffer immensely on the way to a treatment that he certainly has no chance of surviving to receive, what is the morally reasonable course of action?  This very question came before a military court here in Canada quite recently.  Our military laws do not allow for a defense of “mercy killing” even if the person injured begs to die.

Venn for A Morally Ambiguous Decision

So in both these cases, our Venn Diagram will look the same.  The circles may expand or contract in regards to the weight of each factor, and in fact the specifics of each factor will be relative to the way in which each person perceives these overarching factors.  One person may consider the statement “It is amoral to take animals as property” as one of the “Compassion” set, and yet another person may not consider this statement at all.  So for both ethical considerations above, the Venn Diagram will look roughly similar with the circles being expanded and contacted to the persons taste; yet the specifics of each circle may vary widely from person to person.

Is Morality a Religious Construct?  Or, Why It Is So Important That Religion Owns Morality.

Several studies on social species point to the fact that morality is a social rather than religious construct.  Unless one desires to insist that dogs and chimpanzees have a religion that we are unaware of, we should deduce that morality exists outside the confines of a religiously informed existence.

From Scientific American Mind (Marcch 2010), The Ethical Dog, by MARC BEKOFF and Jessica Pierce

Morality, as we define it in our book Wild Justice, is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. These behaviors, including altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness, are readily evident in the egalitarian way wolves and coyotes play with one another. Canids (animals in the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play, which teaches pups the rules of social engagement that allow their societies to succeed.

So dogs, a social species, exhibit traits that could be considered as a group to be “morality”.  The authors of that article are both scientists who have performed and analyzed studies on dog behavior.   If canids have a basic moral code within their pack system, then in the strict Christian view, they must also have a religion informing it.

What about our closer cousins, the chimpanzees?

From a peer reviewed paper,Psychological Realism, Morality, and Chimpanzees by David Harnden-Warwick, 1997.

The parsimonious consideration of research into food
sharing among chimpanzees suggests that the type of social regulation
found among our closest genetic relatives can best be
understood as a form of morality. Morality is here defined from a
naturalistic perspective as a system in which self-aware individuals
interact through socially prescribed, psychologically realistic rules
of conduct which provide these individuals with an awareness of
how one ought to behave. The empirical markers of morality
within chimpanzee communities and the traditional moral traits
to which they correspond are (1) self-awareness/agency; (2) calculated
reciprocity/obligation; (3) moralistic aggression/blame; and
(4) consolation/empathy.

Again, in social species it is apparent that a basic concept of altruism and morality is present.  So can we safely assume that morality in its simplest sense is common among all species that live in interdependent “tribal” societies?  Are there aberrations to the general moral rules within these groups? Most certainly.  Is poor moral behavior punished within these groups?   Absolutely.

If basic moral rules within tribal societies are therefor natural, then higher order moral decisions are just as easily a product of basic concepts expanded to higher order thinking; like taking my Venn diagram and expanding it from three circles to twenty, or adding many more considerations to each of the factors within the diagram.

The assertion that without religion humans are sociopathic animals is insincere then, as morality is a social construct, the evolutionary descendant of tribal animals.

Why then, would religion place so much interest in a divine moral law that can only be expressed as a religious concept?  I believe the answers are twofold.

If all the morality expressed in a religious context can be also expressed as an anthropogenic rule based on the intricacies of tribal life, then the bible loses yet more of its divinely inspired lustre.  Moral behaviors are not commonly noticeable among “lower species” and are therefor easily explained away as the constructs of a divine law that is not revealed to all species.  I argue that they are the result of higher order thinking and therefor are falsely correlated to divinity since we are the only species that at face value can be known to have either higher order thinking or a God concept.  It’s a simple bait and switch of terms, so instead of saying:

We are Moral because of our higher order thinking


Because of our higher order thinking early peoples had a need for a God concept

we say:

We are Moral because of a God concept.

The second reason is a bit more sinister.  Religion needs to offer a clear disincentive to thinking in the secular heuristic.  Religious people constantly cite evolutionary “survival of the fittest” imagery in an attempt to paint secularists as interested in reverting to base instinct and

The obvious result of too little religion...

abandoning higher thinking altogether.  Although the logical flaw of this argument has been laid bare time and time again, it continues to be cited by religious people as a positive case for religion.  I have asked many a Christian if they would live like an animal if they had no God, with answers of both yes and no.  I have mused that many Christians must be highly functioning sociopaths and perhaps I could make a similar correlation to the one they offer for morality.  If human morality is an evolutionary construct, then there is no basic moral difference between a religious and a secular person.  Both are moral individuals who just happen to make moral decisions differently.

Religion would like nothing more than to have its adherents believe that to leave religion is to leave morality behind.  They prey off of the fear that without their crutches man will walk on all fours.  This has not been the case for those of us who have left our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.  We are social creatures, not just capable but hardwired to consider moral questions in terms beyond our own immediate survival.  It is what makes us human, and God has nothing to do with it.

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2 Responses to “The Question of Relative Morality”

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It will take awhile to study this post, but from what I’ve read so far, here is my response. I believe there is some moral construct which is fixed, whether religion continues to exist or no…maybe not a “principle,” but some construct.

I do not believe that Hitler would have killed himself, had he been a moral relativist. The modern moral relativist would say that, relative to Hitler, exterminating persons whose race or religion you do not approve of is “right,” or “the right thing to do.” And they would go on to say that, relative to the U.S., it was “the wrong thing to do.”

Hitler killed himself because he “got caught.” Got caught doing what? Doing what he knew damned well was wrong!

The Ku Klux Klan is not comprised of individuals who, relatively speaking, believe that their methods are “right,” or “the right way of doing things.”

They know damned well that their methods were wrong, but as long as they were allowed “to get away with it,” they continued to commit what rational human beings refer to as heinous acts or criminal acts.

This does not mean that law has no “fixed ideal” which, even if we haven’t found the “ideal” yet, most rational person’s are always seeking that ideal…that “fixed ideal.”

Cannibals don’t eat people because it is “the right thing to do,” even if they live in a society where cannibalism is “okay” to do. Just like war. We didn’t bomb Japan in ’42 because it was “the right thing to do.” We did it because we were [idiots] afraid that it was the only viable alternative.

Now, you might say, “but what about extremists? Don’t they prove that morality is relative?”

NO THEY DO NOT. THEY PROVE THAT THERE IS A NORMAL CURVE AND THAT THERE ARE EXTREME [RARE] INSTANCES TO THE LEFT AND EXTREME [EXCEPTIONS] INSTANCES TO THE RIGHT. This does not in any way mean that morality is wholly relative. It just means that the larger mass of humanity which lies beneath the normal curve believes intuitively that x is right and y is wrong, regardless of whether or not there are a few outlying exceptions of those individuals who do not believe this way.


Say you are in a tough situation and need to make some tough choices. You may go for council from professionals and/or friends. Most of the tough moral dilemmas we face have several options. We do not usually choose the “best” option for us because according to our morality it is the “right thing to do,” but because we are in so much pain that we are FORCED INTO MAKING A CHOICE, which isn’t a “right or wrong” issue at all, but a decision to make a change that is going to have consequences that we are going to have to live with. We may say we made the right decision, but that does not water morality down to being importance based on our relative perspective, but rather because we know that ALL BUT THE EXcEPTIONS IN ALL SOCIETIES WOULD AGREE INTUITIVELY WITH ME THAT MY CHOICE WAS RIGHT, IF THEY WERE IN MY POSITION.

Oh, also…

What about the issues we aren’t sure about, don’t these prove that morality is just relative to the individual?

Let’s take homosexuality. First of all, people aren’t straight because “it’s the right thing.” People are straight—BECAUSE THEY ARE STRAIGHT. THAT IS JUST WHAT THEY ARE, WHO THEY ARE, HOW THEY WERE BORN/MADE.

Likewise, people aren’t gay because they believe it is “the right thing.” Rather, they are gay—BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT STRAIGHT, THAT IS JUST WHAT THEIR ORIENTATION IS, IT IS WHO THEY ARE, IT IS HOW THEY WERE BORN/MADE.

To say that the one is “right,” while the other is “wrong” is NONSENSE. I disagree wholescale with religion on this.

Now, because I DISAGREE, doesn’t this prove that morality is relative?

No. It proves that morality is incredibly complex, which makes it very, very, very controversial. Everyone has their own “two cents,” or theory.

Because morality is controversial DOES NOT MEAN THAT IT HAS NOTHING FIXED ABOUT IT, such as a fixed construct which says that the vast majority of human beings would do thus and such because only the rare exception of individuals in that same situation would do the opposite…and I mean in the exact same situation.

I may make people mad with this. But I think it is sad that a gay individual has to feel like, if they did have a choice, they’d rather be what their society prefers them to be, because we are all social creatures and we all like to be liked by our society…

but with homosexuality, you don’t get to choose. And if you aren’t gay, you just sit around talking about how, “they have a choice.”

This is just like the foolish civilians who sit around talking what the soldiers “ought to have done…or ought to be doing,” even though they aren’t putting their neck on the line or their foot onto the field and they have NO CLUE what it is to be anything but what they are: CIVILIANS! If you are an active duty soldier, you are no longer a civilian. If you aren’t an active duty soldier, then YOU AREN’T!!

So who are we civilians to be talking about what the soldiers “ought to be doing?”

Likewise, who is the straight person that he or she has the right to be saying what is or is not a choice for someone “else” different from them “selves?”

Does that make sense?

Also, it is not specious to assume that there is something divine behind morality…something which cares very much about man’s character and their actions. It’s just SUSPICIOUS, that’s all. I suspect it because morality is just plain weird!

Kate. [sorry I’ve not been around lately, school’s back in session again…]

I thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. As you may be aware, my time is split between a few different discussions at the moment so I apologize for the late reply.
I don’t agree that a “moral relativist” of any stripe would view Hitler favorably. I also think that his suicide was a direct result of trying to avoid capture and less due to moral culpability.

I don’t wish to reduce every decision we make to be a moral one. Yet I think you miss a concept in my examples. You assume when you say that a woman does not have an abortion because it is the “right thing to do” that there is a “right thing to do”. My whole point is that morality, both individually and as a group, is a large scope of conflicting ideas and possibilities. There is no “right thing to do” in relation to abortion because if there were a “right thing to do” it has since passed (ie. not getting pregnant) if there was ever a choice at all. It is easy to make moral choices when we reduce everything to black or white. But we all know from experience that there are countless shades of gray to most issues.
The absence of an objective moral truth is laid bare in the history of man and religion. Even those within the same religious sect do not agree on the morality of any given decision.
There are certainly cases where we can point to a decision made and call it immoral. Certainly some people have made decisions that are absent any moral justification. I argue that if you change a few facts in any story, even that of Hitler, you can make a decision seem by degrees more morally ambiguous then it was for that person; showing that even the most heinous actions can be subject to relative morality, even if it were not the case with the facts we have.

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