Day 8 – Free Association

Now that I’m back online, I need to get back into my habit of writing.

Even before my little break, my stats on this site were in the basement, leading me to believe that “Free Association” is not the best title for a post. I guess that makes sense. I write about so many different things people might very well look a the title before deciding if it’s something that interests them. I’m never sure how I feel about “stats,” though. This blog is just a hobby. I think we’re all vaguely aware (meaning people with a blog) that if we shade our writing a little this way or a little that way we might have more readers. However, I started this blog for myself. It’s interesting to think how it would be different if I was hoping somehow to segue into a writing career. Would I look at my most popular posts and try to write more like that?

I’m surprised, in retrospect, that I haven’t written about sex more. Believe it or not, I have a lot to say on that subject!

Politics. Right now, I feel like I just want to keep my head down until everything blows over. Still, I’m not worried about the election itself so much as I’m terribly worried about the aftermath.

I mentioned a few months ago an article by David Frum explaining why Donal Trump had gained traction. Of course, for even trying to understand he was accused of supporting Trump and in his subsequent articles he’s stopped even trying to understand, or at least trying to explain that understanding to other Republicans who clearly don’t want to listen.

I sometimes think that I have a strange view of politics because I have a strange view of human nature. Now, I call my view “strange” not because I think it’s wrong, just because I don’t see it reflected in the usual discussions about politics and society.

It is often said that political theories are based on notions of human nature. The simplistic way of putting it is that the left thinks human beings are inherently good and the right thinks human beings are inherently bad. Off the top of my head, that sounds like it corresponds to different notions of child rearing, one that thinks children need encouragement to explore and do what they want and another that thinks children need discipline and instruction. I think most people in fact fall in the middle. Phrasing it that way makes it seem as if the two points of view are mutually exclusive, and for some people they are. However, when I look at reality, most people are, as I said, in the middle. Kids need discipline and instruction sometimes and need encouragement to explore at other times. Different children might need them in different degrees. One might be tempted at that point to say that the center is “non-ideological,” however I don’t think that’s true.

Ideologies are useful because we are constantly confronted with situations in which we cannot know from past experience what will be the best path to take. When confronted with a new situation, we take what we know of the world and, from that, try to extrapolate what the best course of action will be. To do that, we try to determine what our options are and make an educated guess about what outcome each option might yield. That educated guess is based on how we think the world works, in short, on our ideology. For instance, people on the religious right who say that allowing marriages to be contracted between people of the same sex will lead to bestiality really believe that a belief in a deity with consequences in the afterlife is necessary for people to behave in what they consider a moral manner.

Giving that as an example, it is easy to see the divide that I described a minute ago as “simplistic.” The compliment on the left to the religious right point of view is that expanding the definition of marriage won’t lead to other, unpalatable, expansions. Why do they think that? Because not enough people are immoral enough to want bestiality to be legal. It hinges on the notion that people are, at least mostly, good.

I have a problem with both these positions largely because I don’t believe that an objective morality exists. That might on the surface look as if I am embracing moral relativism, but I am not. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.  It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.

The very short summary gives two reasons for moral relativism:

A common, albeit negative, reason for embracing moral relativism is simply the perceived untenability of moral objectivism: every attempt to establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles runs up against formidable objections.  A more positive argument sometimes advanced in defense of moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance since it encourages us to understand other cultures on their own terms.

I tend to agree with the first position, that it thus far has proved impossible to “establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles.” The second part, regarding tolerance is something I don’t especially agree with. I don’t agree that “tolerance” is a virtue in and of itself without reference to a particular situation. Secondly, it would imply that “tolerance” itself is a universal value. I’m not sure who the “us” is in the phrase “it encourages us.”

The summary of the critics of moral relativism is as follows:

Critics claim that relativists typically exaggerate the degree of diversity among cultures since superficial differences often mask underlying shared agreements.  In fact, some say that  there is a core set of universal values that any human culture must endorse if it is to flourish.  Moral relativists are also accused of inconsistently claiming that there are no universal moral norms while appealing to a principle of tolerance as a universal norm.  In the eyes of many critics, though, the most serious objection to moral relativism is that it implies the pernicious consequence that “anything goes”: slavery is just according to the norms of a slave society; sexist practices are right according to the values of a sexist culture. Without some sort of non-relative standard to appeal to, the critics argue, we have no basis for critical moral appraisals of our own culture’s conventions, or for judging one society to be better than another.  Naturally, most moral relativists typically reject the assumption that such judgments require a non-relativistic foundation.

Regarding the criticisms (as summarized here): I am insufficiently familiar with anthropology to know if the first statement it true, if the differences among cultures truly are substantial or not. I tend to agree quite a bit with the second statement and, if I get into this subject again, I will develop this idea further. I’ve already mentioned the third. The last part, however, is something I disagree with substantially. In short, I reject some aspects of both moral relativism and moral objectivism.

Now, here we are at one hour later, so I will happily stop. This is something I tend to mull over a lot in my head while going about other things, so I will probably come back to it again.

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4 comments
  1. I think you should come back to it sooner.

    • fojap said:

      If I keep this up my stats may be saying that I had exactly one visitor. 🙂

      • Nah, your stats will go up. You will have book people tell you how their gods have dictated the morals

      • fojap said:

        Stats aren’t everything. Peace of mind might be nice. I’ll settle for peace and quiet.

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