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Challenge Match: adjensen vs sheepslayer247: Moral absolutism vs. Moral relativism

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posted on Dec, 31 2012 @ 01:20 PM
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I'd like to thank my opponent, sheepslayer247 for accepting my debate challenge, and the ATS Debate Forum for hosting.

 

Morality -- that "Jiminy Cricket" in all of us, which helps us discern, even without consciously thinking about it, right from wrong. It is that gnawing in the gut when we know we are in the wrong, that sense of outrage when we hear of injustice, that longing for a world where love reigns and war, crime and poverty are unknown.

But is morality fundamental to us, as living, thinking creatures? Does some inherent sense of right and wrong exist as a foundation of the universe? Or is it merely some human construct, imposed on society in a vain effort to control, direct and survive? That is the question that we debate today.

At the start, though, I need to diffuse one point of contention, which can tend to unnecessarily "gum up" the argument, which is the erroneous assumption that, for there to be absolute morality, there needs to be a god to impose it. Many atheists shy away from the logical assumption that absolute morality exists, simply because they don't believe in God, but the two are not necessarily connected. If the God of the Bible exists, yes, absolute morality exists, but the converse is not true -- if absolute morality exists, it doesn't mean that God (any god) exists.

Here, for example, is an article on Think Atheist which supports a non-deity based absolute morality -- there are plenty of arguments against it, of course, but the point is that absolute morality need not be predicated on the divine. In fact, the counter argument, that moral relativism is a system of necessity, is only valid if one takes the extremist position that humans are simply self-aware animals, and all human thought, emotion and activity is simply involuntary chemical, electrical and physical reactions. Believe that one human being cannot really love another, that this is simply a selfish embrace of some chemical receptor in the brain? Well, in that case, it's easy to say that all things are relative.

Finally, it may be noted that these two systems may be co-existent, because moral relativism may be imposed on a group of people, even though absolute morality is an underlying principal. So demonstrating the existence of moral relativism in any particular instance is not evidence of the absence of absolute morality. With this in mind, the question becomes one of whether moral relativism is consistent with what we observe morality in the human condition to be.

 


Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.

-- St. Augustine of Hippo (354AD - 430AD)

While the notion of absolute morality didn't begin with Augustine, rather predating him by centuries -- the earliest philosophical debates were on issues such as absolute morality -- he really hits it on the head with that short sentence. Democracy, it is said, is three wolves and a sheep sitting around, deciding what to have for supper and moral relativism is much the same thing -- and if everyone engages in an activity that is wrong, that doesn't make it right.

 

To that end, let's look at a moral absolute that we hold near and dear to our hearts in the United States.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

-- The United States Declaration of Independence

In this text lies the heart of what our nation was founded upon. Thomas Jefferson, though he was not a Christian, held very strongly to the belief of absolute morality, as evidenced in these words. Why is it so important that our rights come from an absolute source? Because only that which grants rights can rightfully take them away -- if your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness came from the king, then the king could take them away at his own discretion. When establishing principles that the United States would be founded upon, it was critical that those fundamental rights come from something which was supra-human, so that no human, no king, no government could take them away.

We can see the conflict between this absolutism that our rights are founded upon, and the relativism that some impose, in one of the most divisive issues of our time -- abortion. Because the rights of the living are fundamental and not open to debate, the deprivation of those rights to the aborted is accomplished by redefining what "life" is. And, oddly enough, that re-definition is based on human subjectivity.

Consider -- it is legal to abort a baby up to a certain time if one so desires, because it is not a life. However, in most states, a person may be charged with manslaughter if they cause harm to a woman that results in the involuntary abortion/miscarriage of her baby, during the same time period when it may be legally aborted. In other words, the definition of life, and the assignation of those fundamental rights, depends on whether said life is desired or not. This is the horrible essence of moral relativism -- morality is whatever we make it to be, and where is the truth and justice in that?

 

Socratic question: It is commonly held that the citizens of Sparta, circa 400BC, practiced infanticide - killing newborns who were deformed in some fashion that made them unfit for military service. We no longer do such things, generally holding all life to be precious, "deformed" or not. Is our society today more moral than Sparta, less moral, or equally moral?




posted on Jan, 2 2013 @ 01:38 PM
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Thanks to ATS, the readers and my opponent for engaging in this debate!

Enjoy...

Is morality absolute? Does each man grow to learn their own version of morality or is it a trait entrenched into the depths of our very own existence? These questions have been asked by many but it seems that the answers, just like morality itself, is at the whim of personal opinion and perspective.

Let me be direct and say that morality is subjective and completely relative. Each individual's definition of what is moral or not is dependent on several factors; none of which are rooted in the genetic makeup of Man, nor is morality pre-programmed into the physiological or psychological construct of what it means to be human.

Let's use an example from my opponent's post to illustrate just how morality is relative.



We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

-- The United States Declaration of Independence


Do you have the right to life? Even though the Constitution apparently grants every individual the right to exist, do we not argue amongst ourselves as to what can be defined as "life".

Does a fetus = life? The answer is relative to the person answering. If morality was absolute, their would be no need to debate the issue of abortion. We would already know the answer, yet even under the constitution there is no "absolute" protection of life.

If a man is convicted of a heinous crime, why do we allow states within the Union to practice the death penalty? If morality is absolute and the constitution grants us the right to life, how can we morally justify the murder of another individual?

Fact is, we can't! If morality was absolute, then it would be equally applicable in any situation, without deviation and would not be subject to interpretation based on the situation at hand. But we, as humans, use morality as a crutch to justify our own personal beliefs.

To further illustrate this, let's look at more examples we can relate to.

Imagine you are confronted by a criminal in your home. Not only has he decided to steal you prized collection of Bo Jackson memorabilia, but he has your children at gunpoint and has made it clear that he intends to pull the trigger. You have a loaded pistol within hands reach and can easily take him out with one pull of the trigger. Do you let your children die, because your sense of morality is entrenched into your very existence, or do you grab the gun and save your family?

Which action is moral? In certain situations, is morality immoral or the immoral moral? Perhaps it is within the eye of the beholder and subject to the situation at hand. As you can see, morality is up to the interpretation of the individual and each individual's standards of morality is not applicable to anyone else.



"In other words, the definition of life, and the assignation of those fundamental rights, depends on whether said life is desired or not. This is the horrible essence of moral relativism -- morality is whatever we make it to be, and where is the truth and justice in that?"


I can agree with my opponents assertion. Moral relativism is not ideal, but it is the reality in which we live. Morality's application is beholdent to situational interpretation, or "whatever we make it to be". In a perfect world, morality would be universally agreed upon, universally applicable and issues such as abortion and the death penalty would be moot. Unfortunately, since morality is relative, we continue to battle between different interpretations of what is moral or not.

As we continue this debate, I hope to touch on how morality is affected by the environments in which we learn right and wrong, how culture applies to morality and how morality is simply an artificial construct of the human intellect.

Thanks for reading and I now give the floor back to adjensen.



posted on Jan, 4 2013 @ 10:47 AM
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Before we begin, I need to ask my opponent to answer the Socratic Question I posed at the end of my last post. Forum rules dictate that such questions be answered in the post which follows their asking.

 

The problem with Sheepslayer's perspective is spelled out clearly in his response, to wit:


Let me be direct and say that morality is subjective and completely relative.

If morality is subjective, that is, subject to the whims of interpretation, then there is really no such thing as morality. No good, no bad, no right, no wrong -- there is only opinion.

Absolute morality, after all, is not merely the fact that some actions are inherently right or wrong, it is the sense that there is an ultimate right and wrong. Absolute morality gives one the tools of persuasion, both the subtle and the direct, whereas moral relativism reduces right and wrong to mere talking points, the perspective of the individual, the society, the age.

 

Let's have a look at some of the statements of a moral relativist, Sam Harris. Harris is well known as one of the "Four Horsemen of the New Atheists", and the author of a number of books, including 2010's The Moral Landscape. But what sort of morality does the moral relativist landscape hold?


I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror.

-- "In Defense of Torture"

Harris argues that, oh, let's say water boarding or pulling out someone's fingernails, is not merely morally acceptable, it is an ethical necessity under some circumstances. Never mind that this person may not know what you think they do, or that they'll never tell you, even if you torture them -- it is incumbent that torture be used.

In the analysis of the statement "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," while it may be morally just to die for the needs of others, it is murderously repugnant to kill for the needs of others. Sometimes it might be the only thing to do, and it might be "best" in those circumstances, but like torture, such circumstances don't make it right.


Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.

-- "The End of Faith"

The danger of this view is not someone's belief, but the moral deviancy that says it is right to kill someone for their thoughts. Note that Harris is not saying "kill them for their actions," he is saying "kill them just because they think something you don't agree with."


If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.

-- "The Temple of Reason"

Here we see the utter bankruptcy of the moral relativist. Harris dislikes religion so much that he thinks it moral to eliminate it from the face of the earth, despite the vast amounts of good that it does (through charitable giving, if nothing else,) and pass up the opportunity to eliminate rape -- an intrinsic evil that does no good for anyone, drives thousands to suicide and causes misery for countless others.

Are these moral views? Absolute morality says most definitely not -- it is never right to torture, to kill someone for their beliefs, or to claim that the proliferation of rape is acceptable in order to rid the world of religion. However, the moral relativist cannot make the same claim -- he may say "I disagree with Sam Harris" or "I find these views repugnant", but he has no moral argument against them, because morality is subjective, a matter of opinion, and if Harris finds enough weak-minded people to agree with him, these views may be your new moral landscape.

 

Absolute morality provides us with a compass, an innate sense of right and wrong. It tells us, inherently, that torture, murder and rape are simply wrong, and to claim that they are not merely acceptable, but necessary, is repugnant. We do not live in a society that always respects absolute right and wrong, likely never have, and quite possibly never will, but that doesn't mean that absolutes such as these do not exist.

They are the proper roadmap to a legitimate "moral landscape", not the derived, rationalized and epically bankrupt landscape of the moral relativist, who is willing to sell anything and everything down the river for his own self-satisfied view of right and wrong.

 

I'll conclude with another Socratic Question, which I will ask be answered in the next post, along with the one from the previous statement:

Socratic Question: In the past 50 years, the US has seen significant changes in the rights of its citizens - civil rights, abortion and conception rights, gay rights, etc. Is the US becoming more moral, less moral or has there been no change?



posted on Jan, 4 2013 @ 10:18 PM
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I must apologize to my opponent for not being up to date on all of the debate rules and procedures. Let me address both questions.



Socratic question: It is commonly held that the citizens of Sparta, circa 400BC, practiced infanticide - killing newborns who were deformed in some fashion that made them unfit for military service. We no longer do such things, generally holding all life to be precious, "deformed" or not. Is our society today more moral than Sparta, less moral, or equally moral?

Socratic Question: In the past 50 years, the US has seen significant changes in the rights of its citizens - civil rights, abortion and conception rights, gay rights, etc. Is the US becoming more moral, less moral or has there been no change?


The answer is….there is no answer. By taking a position on whether both examples are more, less or equally as moral, I would be contradicting myself by admitting that there is a set standard for morality in which these examples could be measured. But since morality is not absolute and is dependent upon personal interpretation, I cannot answer these questions within the parameters set by my opponent.

In other words, they are trick questions.



If morality is subjective, that is, subject to the whims of interpretation, then there is really no such thing as morality. No good, no bad, no right, no wrong -- there is only opinion.


This is not entirely true. Morality and “right and wrong” do exist. But what is considered “moral” is based on the current cultural, political and religious environments within our society as well as the individual application and interpretation by each and every one of us. To say that morality is relative does not mean it doesn't exist. But it is important to note that opinion plays a major role in how the individual forms their personal definition of morality.

Sam Harris



I'm glad that my opponent brought this to our attention. I think we can all agree that the description of Sam Harris and his beliefs are outrageous and goes against what is acceptable, for the most part, in our society. But it is fallacy to think that just because Sam Harris has extreme views and that he is a moral relativist, that all people that think morality is relative share his ideological views.

As an example, since Catholic priests believe morality is absolute, but have stained their reputation because of unsavory actions I will not name, can we therefore conclude that all absolutists believe and act just as certain priests have?

No, I think not.

All too often we attempt to pigeon-hole many aspects of our life into two different camps of ideology or belief, such as politics and religion, but we fail to see that there is numerous people that lay in the grey area between.

This is actually a great example of how morality is all about perception, with varying degrees, applications and exceptions. Is it not possible to believe that morality is relative and to also believe that abortion (as an example) is morally wrong? Do all relativists have to adhere to the beliefs of Sam Harris. Conversely, do all absolutists have to believe in a religion-based ideology of morality?

Of course not and to posit such is silly.

In closing I would like to pose a few questions to my opponent.

I think we can agree that lying is "morally" wrong within our current paradigm. Now if morality is fundamental, above reproach, instilled into the deepest part of human existence and "innate' (as you stated), then why is it that part of raising a child is teaching them that lying is wrong? Why must we teach that which you claim to be much deeper than a learned trait? Shouldn't the children already have this most basic moral ingrained into them?

Why do many absolutists believe that lying is morally acceptable under certain circumstances if it serves a greater purpose?

Don't these examples alone prove that morality is situational, learned and subject to human interpretation as to when and how morality can be applied?

Thanks for keeping me on my toes, adjensen! Your turn........



posted on Jan, 5 2013 @ 04:25 PM
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In other words, they are trick questions.

Let me assure my esteemed opponent that I don't really ask "trick" questions -- the answer, from the viewpoint of absolute morality, is that our society today is more moral than Sparta, which practiced infanticide, or the earlier phases of the US, which suppressed the rights of selected classes of citizens. From the aspect of moral relativism, on the other hand, the answer is that all are the same -- we are as moral as the Spartans who killed their children because, while we no longer do such, the Spartans thought that they were moral in their behaviour, so they were.

This spells out two fundamental shortcomings of moral relativism: first, it leaves one with no argument against any other society or view of morality, because all are valid. The Spartans? Moral. The Nazis? Moral. Cannibals? Serial killers? Rapists? If they think that they are moral, who are we to judge? Literally, because the moral relativist has no means to judge morality.

For example, let's chart out our three times, as a moral absolutist sees it:



At either end, we see the extremes of human behaviour -- absolute good, and utter evil. We can plot our various points, and through this analysis, we can see that we have been progressing towards "good" -- it is better to have an equal opportunity society and it is better to love your children than it is to kill them. But the moral relativist has no such "good" and "bad" to be moving towards or away from.

And what, then, of the persuasive arguments that can be made in the absence of these polar opposites? We are left with the "Sam Harrises" of the world, for whom the ends justify the means, and who would gleefully kill 1/2 the world, minus one person, to save 1/2 the world, plus one person, because that is a rationale conclusion of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

 

One of the deeper ironies of the anti-religion/moral relativist position is that it undercuts many of their arguments against the church. For example, let's look at the Spanish Inquisition, in which the Roman Catholic church persecuted and killed about 5,000 people in the Middle Ages. How often is this issue dredged up by those who are against the church? Constantly would not be an understatement.

However, there is a problem -- whatever their justification might have been, the church at the time believed that its actions were proper and moral. For the moral absolutist, we can look at this behaviour and say it was wrong, if not downright evil. But the moral relativist? Nope, the church's actions were moral and right, because for the society of that time and place, it was viewed as such.


why is it that part of raising a child is teaching them that lying is wrong? Why must we teach that which you claim to be much deeper than a learned trait? Shouldn't the children already have this most basic moral ingrained into them?

Children are generally inherently honest, and only lie under select circumstances, two of which can be dismissed -- when they lie at the behest of a coaching adult, and when they "lie" by providing a response to a question that they don't know the answer to. Apart from that, a child will usually only lie when they know that they are wrong about something else (like raiding the cookie jar) and opt to save their own skins -- they know it's wrong, it's just the lesser of two evils.


Why do many absolutists believe that lying is morally acceptable under certain circumstances if it serves a greater purpose?

As with the "kid in the cookie jar", this needs to be dispelled of a misnomer. While certain immoral actions may be necessary, it doesn't uncut the underlying wrongness of them -- lying about your wife's pants not making her backside look big may be beneficial for your health, but it's still lying, and it's still wrong.

 

Socratic Question: Slavery in the 1700s, by moral relativist standards, was moral, because it benefited society economically. If it were demonstrable that slavery, today, would benefit all of society economically, at the expense of a small group's liberty, what would be your argument against it being reinstated?

 

To conclude this debate, we have seen that absolute morality provides us with the knowledge not simply that there is a "right" and "wrong" in our reality, but that they never change. Unlike moral relativism, which claims that "right is whatever the prevailing view happens to be", moral absolutism allows us to view the behaviours of another age, like infanticide, genocide and slavery, as being not merely wrong today, but wrong always.

Thanks, as always, to Sheepslayer for an interesting and challenging debate, and to the ATS Debate Forum for hosting, supporting and judging.



posted on Jan, 5 2013 @ 09:46 PM
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From the aspect of moral relativism, on the other hand, the answer is that all are the same -- we are as moral as the Spartans who killed their children because, while we no longer do such, the Spartans thought that they were moral in their behaviour, so they were.


I believe my opponent may have some misconceptions about moral relativism. It is not impossible for a relativist to believe that, for example, the Spartans were "immoral" in their actions and also believe that morality is subject to the culture and interpretation of the people within that specific society. A relativist does not necessarily have to believe that just because the people of a particular society believed their actions to be moral.....that they were, in fact, right in their actions.

One could say that we are "more moral" today than the Spartans were or that we are "more moral" than those in 1950's America, but that assessment in and of itself is an opinion based on the moral measurements derived from within our current state of accepted morality.

What my opponent has illustrated is not that morality is absolute, fundamental and unchanging. Instead they have provided us with an example of how morality is fluid, changing over time to reflect the accepted norms of the people within the society. My opponents example actually shows us that morality can evolve and change .....contradicting what it means to be absolute.

Let's move on.



Children are generally inherently honest, and only lie under select circumstances


In my opinion, this is the final nail in the coffin. What my opponent has stated is that children will lie depending on the situation and circumstances. That is in direct contrast of the argument that morality is absolute and has been exactly what I have tried to impart throughout this debate.



Socratic Question: Slavery in the 1700s, by moral relativist standards, was moral, because it benefited society economically. If it were demonstrable that slavery, today, would benefit all of society economically, at the expense of a small group's liberty, what would be your argument against it being reinstated?


It is fallacy to say that there is any "moral relativist standard". If a relativist posits that morality is dependent upon the interpretation and application of the individual within a certain environment, we cannot therefore say that there is one set standard accepted by all relativists.

A relativist could easily take a stance against the reinstatement of slavery because of two reasons:

1. It violates the individual rights we are granted in the founding documents of our country.
2. It is morally wrong!

That's right. It is morally wrong.

Due to the way I was raised, the culture in which I live and other environmental factors, I can say that enslaving another human being is morally wrong. At the same time, other individuals, absolutist and relativist alike, will have a different take on the issue. Some will agree, others will disagree. It all depends on personal belief, interpretation and the core ethics they were taught throughout their lives.

In closing, let me say that morality is in the eye of the beholder. Each and every person is allowed the freedom to decide what is moral or immoral within their particular environment and circumstances. In different situations, such as a "Robin Hood" scenario, each of us will come to a conclusion on what is or is not moral based on our particular relation to the situation and what is acceptable in their own eyes.

Therefore, morality is not absolute. In reality it is relative to the individual.

Thanks to adjensen for a great debate topic and for fighting the good fight! I'm sure we have both educated and entertained the readers. Also a thanks to the judges and ATS. Couldn't have done it without ya!



posted on Jan, 16 2013 @ 05:10 AM
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Judgments:




Here we find a debate about an age old topic, and I found the discussion to be thorough and well thought out by both contestants. One opponent had a slightly stronger argument, so let me do a quick summary of the rounds before I announce my decision.

Adjensen: In round one, was wise enough to preclude the need for a supernatural deity in order for morality to exist. It would have been painful to read a debate on morality hinging it about religion, so it was a delightful deviation from the norm. His inclusion of using abortion, which a relativistic moral decision, however, does not help his position. In round two, he does well to refine his definition of absolute morality, but then spends most of his response describing morally relative views, with the hopes that the absurdity will strengthen his position. This statement,

We do not live in a society that always respects absolute right and wrong, likely never have, and quite possibly never will...
should have been re-enforced by examples of societies that do, or at least a period in time that did, and barring that, I was left to wonder if adjensen was just having an off day. In round three, he presents a nice chart, but extrapolating further information from it, he would seem to indicate a trend in society which is inherently progressing towards a higher degree of morality in the future, with the end result perhaps being a moral "Utopia". It would have been nice to see some supporting information. However, he does a perfect conclusion to his somewhat meandering viewpoint by stating that his absolute morals do not change. They are there, immutable, and do not change.

Sheepslayer247: In round one, positions himself well by stating that that morality is not genetic nor programmed into our psychology. He provides several good examples of how flexible morality is, yet errs slightly by stating that he agrees with his opponent. He errs again by ignoring his opponent's Socratic Question. In round two, he redeems his second err, somewhat cleverly, by not falling into the possible trap that adjensen had laid for him. He continues to advance his position by stating the degrees of varying morality, and counters the "extreme views of morality" argument nicely by stating that most people don't reside on either side of the morality scale, but in the "gray area" in-between. In round three, while closing, he does finally address his opponent's original Socratic Question, out of harm's way, a clever move, and goes even further to advance his position, stating

how morality is fluid, changing over time to reflect the accepted norms of the people within the society
.

Both opponents had great arguments, but sheepslayer247 was much more focused in his responses, and stayed closer to defending his position per the debate topic. For that, the debate goes to sheepslayer247.







"Therefore, morality is not absolute. In reality it is relative to the individual".

This is the line that absolutely made the debate tip in my opinion, both fighters did an excellent job with their points, neither was off or distracted by the other, but....

That one line, just made the whole argument fall to:

Sheepslayer..

adjensen, you did a great job as usual, but sometimes, it's one little thing that tips it..


Sheepslayer wins the Debate.






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