Moral Relativism (and why I do not embrace it)

This is a post that was actually triggered by a piece (The Necessity of Combating Relativism) I discovered on the 90th Carnival of the Godless and further prodded by a recent comment over at the Atheist Ethicist. This label is one which, for some reason, has been directed at me various occasions in the near past.

Apparently, I am a “Moral Relativist/Subjectivist”. As an explanation of this label I will quote what was, in turn, quoted at me in the past before I was banned.

Moral subjectivism is that species of moral relativism that relativizes moral value to the individual subject.
In ethics, this amounts to saying that all moralities are equally good; in epistemology it implies that all beliefs, or belief systems, are equally true. Critics of relativism typically dismiss such views as incoherent since they imply the validity even of the view that relativism is false. They also charge that such views are pernicious since they undermine the enterprise of trying to improve our ways of thinking.
Perhaps because relativism is associated with such views, few philosophers are willing to describe themselves as relativists. Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.

1) They all assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, or meaning) is relative to some particular framework or standpoint (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, [a society], an era, a language, or a conceptual scheme).
2) They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.

– Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy.

What initially strikes me as peculiar is that this is a position that not only have I never espoused directly but I find myself actively disagreeing with. Specifically, while I do agree with the 1st point, I most certainly do not agree with the second.

Initially this whole characterization was assigned to me in, what I believed then, an attempt for ad hominem against me. I was labeled as such when arguing against the notion that you can have morality without more than one person and at some point I expressed my sentiment that all morality is subjective.

Now apparently this triggered an automatic reaction on behalf of my opponent who assumed I was espousing all sorts of ideas I do not. For example, I would never accept that all moral values are equal, nor that we should not criticize other cultures’ morality. Nevertheless, this is how I keep getting labeled as and I thought I’d clear the misconception a bit. Here are my current beliefs in morality.

Morality is subjective

What I mean when I say this is that, throughout the ages, people have held various beliefs of what is right and wrong. From what I have understood (and feel free to correct me on this), these values are the result of the current period and environment the society existed in. Ultimately, the values are the result of evolutionary advantage of one morality meme over another. One of my favorite examples to explain this is Slavery.

A Perspective on Slavery

You see, in the vast majority of the history of mankind, slavery has always been a reality. Since the early Egyptian history, to Classical Greece, to Romans, Dark Ages and finally the American Revolution, slavery was something that a sufficiently large amount of people accepted.The reason this moral value (slavery = good) was accepted, was solely based on competitive advantage of the society that espoused it.

In the days before industrialization, slaves were the only real source of cheap production. As a result, any society that accepted slavery, gained the means to faster production (Egyptians), ability to concentrate on other tasks (Spartans on Warfare) and/or better standard of living (Romans). Especially in the largely agricultural societies of the time, the ability to assign the menial labor to cheap assets meant that there was a distinct competitive advantage to be gained by utilizing slaves.

This does not mean that all societies used slaves. It only means that those societies that did, were fated to overcome or conquer the ones that did not. This is precisely what was happening in most of the world until the recent centuries (I would consider feuds and imperialism as a form of slavery.) and as luck would hold it, the people of that time, happened to write down their ideas on how slavery is right as a proof for future generations (see the Christian bible or the Hindu caste system.)

Slavery, like most forms of production had some disadvantage. Specifically, even though the cost was relatively low, it was very prone to abuse. This could lead to destabilizing situations for the society that used it, as is what happened with the Romans and the slave revolution or Spartacus. This kind of disadvantage was not enough however to overcome the significant benefit of slavery.

Abolishing and the morality of it all.

Now, most of us living in the modern society automatically consider slavery wrong. This includes me.  The reason we do this is because our upbringing distilled in most of us the notion of freedom as a higher moral value than most others. Thus, for us, owning the freedom of another person is deemed as one of the lowest situations.

But how did we reach this level from when slavery was considered acceptable by most? Once again, competitive advantage.

As I mentioned before, Slavery has some disadvantages that were not sufficient to overcome it’s advantages. However, even during the time of slavery, there were people that considered slavery to be immoral. If you want, you can see this in an evolutionary perspective. The competing organisms in this case, are the societies (or even the members of each society). The traits of the organism are the various memes in effect (Slavery, Warfare, Tolerance, Religion etc). The Environment is the technological level.

People in each society would have various ideas on slavery. If that meme (Abolishing Slavery) took hold, then the society’s paradigm would shift. You could see this as a mutation in the society as a whole which was then called to prove it’s competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, as history has shown, this trait was actually disadvantageous to the society that possessed it as it could not compete with the ones that still accepted slavery.

What was necessary for this trait to gain the competitive advantage was a change in the environment. This change was the Industrial Revolution. Once that happened, it served as the catalyst that allowed the abolition of slavery to take hold. Not because of any objective goodness but because the already existing mentality that freedom is good, coupled with the alternative way to have cheap production (industrialization) as well as the lower cost (no chance of social upheaval) gave the society that abolished slavery a competitive advantage over those who did not.

Tying it all together

It is my impression, that history has shown us that all moral values that we accept in the western society are the result of such processes. A merciless war of ideas where only the ones that were competitively superior could survive. I cannot bring myself to call this process objective for I truly do not see it as such.

The morality I have currently is subjective, not in the sense that I cannot consider anything right and wrong but in the sense that the morality memes most of us possess are the result of natural selection and not of objective truths.

How does that leave me however? Am I predestined to be a “moral subjectivist” and decry all morality as inconsequential and relative? To this I respond no. This is not what I believe.
I have my own morality that is based on personal experiences, beliefs and desires. I base this morality on my reasoning and can explain why I think my moral values are superior to others. I can have a discussion and attempt to convince or be convinced. Always based on reasoning.

I just cannot go one step further and call my personal reasoning as objective as it seems disingenuous. Morality values, in the end, can be rated as better or worse by the degree to which they lead to a better life for the individual and the society that espouses them. However, each individual is different in their desires so the same things will lead to different results.

The only thing we can do is be the example first as individuals and then as a society.

In the first step, this will lead first other people who see our life to follow our example in order to achieve the same level of happiness. They do not need to copy all of our values but even a few will be enough. Given enough people who do this, the paradigm of the society’s moral values will shift.

As a society, all we need to do is the same. A more successful society can only lead to other societies copying the moral memes that led to this success. And thus the world paradigm shifts.

What I believe is that all this can be done peacefully but not by “bending over” to other cultures. On the contrary, when an individual performs an immoral action by our perspective, it should be our duty to speak against them. When a society as a whole acts in an immoral fashion, then is should be our duty to speak against them and/or take measures to disentangle ourselves from them.

Not speaking against an immoral person (by our beliefs), because of some misguided desire to “respect his culture” is only hurting ourselves. Nor speaking out against a society or a culture because we want to proudly display how tolerant we are, will only lead us to be overtaken by the more aggressive memes out there.

This is, for example, the primary reason I speak against European “tolerance” against Islam. Not only is it not helping anyone, it is outright dangerous as the immoral behavior of Islam is given ground to fester and spread.


This has gotten quite long-winded so I think it is time for me to stop.

I hope I have sufficiently explained how I can consider morality as subjective but not be a “moral relativist” myself. I am, however, the first person who will agree that I can be mistaken – indeed, this is the main reason why I shy from calling my beliefs objective. There are many very interesting takes on morality that I am currently checking out, as Desire Utilitarianism. I can see the point but I am not actually convinced that they are objective rather than just superior to what we have.

If I am convinced, I will only help to spread that idea and thus help make this meme the accepted paradigm. Even then however, there is a case that we will fail. Even if DU is “superior” to most other moral systems, if the competitive advantage is not enough, it will be lost in the pages of history.

It has happened before.

10 thoughts on “Moral Relativism (and why I do not embrace it)”

  1. I don’t know that I can agree with you. I subscribe to the moral law. That is, the law touted by CS Lewis. Culture certainly plays a role but I think it is smaller than you suggest. Using your example of slavery, if it somehow materialized again, I bet we would have people buying and selling slaves within a few months. For those who do not follow the moral law, this is a small step away from our culture. Organizations such as XXX, have negative results because the people on board cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Due to scope, these consequences usually take longer to materialize, but is the result the same? You can find a ton of articles and books about business ethics about businesses “losing their way,” e.g., WorldCom, Tyco, Enron. You can also sign up for seminars where they preach to “do the right thing.” They paint the world in stark black and white. These resources ask one-dimensional ethical questions, such as, “Should you take kickbacks from suppliers?” For me, ethics in the workplace is varying shades of gray. You have to rely on moral law, that is, does it ‘feel’ wrong? It’s easy to say, “There is right, and there is wrong.” In my management book, Wingtips with Spurs, I address these issue in detail. All major corporations have their written code of conduct. Each one is pretty much just a copy of the others and is a major dust bunny. The next time you walk into someone’s office, ask to see the company code of conduct. Good luck on finding someone who will produce it within five minutes. The moral law is much easier to find and digest. It resides in each of us. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR

  2. PS, you do not need to provide a link to your site after every reply. it is already linked under your name at the start 😉

  3. Hi Michael

    this thinking involves questioning the universe we inhabit.

    And we have found that methodological naturalism has been the most successful way of doing this.

    They have thought and pondered on the issues. These issues contain a tremendous amount of mystery to which they have no answer. But then, neither does the scientific methods. While I maintain a great admiration and respect for science and believe they do their jobs extremely well, they can’t even tell me what constitutes most of the mass in the universe (dark matter) or most of the energy in the universe (dark energy). Does that mean that because science has these and other perplexing mysteries (particles anyone?) that I toss the whole field on the garbage heap.

    If it were not for science we would not even have these questions to ponder. Science welcomes and seeks mysteries, as something to uncover and understand. It is the questions that are important and not final answers. We have long learnt that these can be unreliable and indefensible -with often dire consequences that result when these are questioned.

    Indeed, I do not. Not any more than I would toss the feeling of a Creator or ‘higher power’ in the trash.

    These are not comparable challenges. We have also learnt how unreliable such “feelings” how culturally dependent they are. We know much about the universe by rejecting such approaches and choosing more reliable ones.

    Therefore, this higher power is what drives the moral law.

    That is just your subjective opinion where is the evidence?

    Like the laws of physics, we really cannot say where it comes from or why it seems to work so wonderfully.

    Again this is a false analogy. The Moral law can and has been broken it is nothing like the “Laws of Nature” which are purely descriptive and cannot be broken.

    Yet, like the laws of nature, there seems to be a mind behind it.

    Another false analogy. The laws of nature might seem to have a mind behind it according to you, but that again is just your subjective opinion.

    I know you are thinking that Moral Law is simplistic.

    No I think it is false.

    Maybe it is, but you must understand that moral law is not what we do but rather what we ought to do.

    Well duh otherwise it could not be “moral”.

    That is, the voice (you called it a gut feel) that tells us something is wrong.

    And sometimes this voice or gut feel is wrong itself. We cannot rely on such a feel to find truth.

    This does not change from century to century or even culture to culture.

    The feeling might be the same but what it responds to does change over time and culture, being itself responsive to social forces.

    Inside of you is a law that is pushing and tugging you in the direction to do what is right.

    If you rely only on this, you have no independent means to know it is, in fact, right. You really do not know.

    The next time you need a little extra cash, why not just take it from your local 7/11 at gunpoint? Because something tells you it is wrong – regardless of the written legal codes.

    Then why does this not work for the gunman who does hold up a 7/11?

    The next time you desire sex, why not just take it? Why ask for consent? Because the moral law tells you it is wrong.

    If all you have is the Moral Law, what if it does tell you to take it without consent? That is OK then, is it?

    It’s that sick, queasy feeling – the sparks going off in the brain.

    People used to have that feeling not so long ago over inter-racial marriage. Why has that changed?

    Even if no one was looking and you knew you could get away with it, you still would not commit these acts. Why? Moral law. A thinking man’s law.

    How is this a thinking mans law? This looks like an emotive reaction that we share wiht animals, emotions like disgust and so on. It specifically is not a thinking man’s law as you have described.

    One does not commit those acts, if one does not, because one does not want to, because one has the appropriate desires and aversions that stop one acting that way.

  4. Great post! You’ve been strawmanned and banned. That’s how you know you have the upper hand in that debate. 🙂

    I tend to agree with your remarks on subjective morality, though I would prefer to call it “intersubjective”–by analogy, interestingly enough, with the intersubjective nature of scientific inquiry. (Or at least, I think there is an intersubjective dimension to morality that is worth considering.) I have been involved in lengthy (and messy) discussion on this very topic here.

    What Michael Gooch is talking about above (“The Moral Law”) is the subject of current research in the fields of psychology and neurobiology (see the work of Marc Hauser, for instance), though it is not the kind of inquiry I imagine Gooch would like, insofar as it is exploring the possibility that certain of our moral intuitions (or even, as Hauser claims, a “moral grammar”) have an evolutionary basis. That is to say, it is possible that we are “hardwired” with the intuition that, say, murder is wrong, because this is a trait that may be helpful for survival and reproduction–and so it is a trait that has been selected for.

    This kind of morality is by no means a “thinking man’s law,” as Gooch claims; it is simply intuitive. Therefore there is a difference between having a moral intuition, and reasoning about it: there is a difference between having “that sick and queasy feeling” that murder is wrong, and accounting for why it is wrong. And claiming that murder is wrong because the “Moral Law” says its wrong, or because God says its wrong, or because “It’s written, that’s why!”–explains absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. It’s a blind alley. Moral absolutism is a blind alley.

  5. This is something I struggled with for a long time.

    I was very impressed with Paul Feyerabend’s take on the relativism of paradigms – not the crude caricature of his position but his genuine position as described in his books Against Method and particularly Science in Society.

    I think the author would agree with Feyerabend and myself that genuinely moral values are relative to the culture in which people are raised. So that, for example, if Nazism had achieved world domination, as in other cases history would have been written by the victors, and not only their morality but also their scientific ‘truths’ would have been as ‘taking for granted’ by the vast majority living under Nazism as it is taken for granted they were abhorrent and absurd respectively by mainstream Western Culture today.

    The clue to the modified objective or ‘moral (and scientific) objective position I eventually
    adopted, I found in the American school of humanistic psychologists. Carl Rogers, it’s founder, spoke about natural organic development being a process of organismic growth. Another famous humanistic psychologist said that, when comparing cultural paradigms or patterns of life, the question one could ask is, “which paradigm produces the most healthy, full development?”. Assuming that one prefers individuals to have the opportunity to actualise themselves, to become as close to ‘fully functioning’ (healthy in all respects, including physical, emotional, psychological and social health) including having a view of life and the universe that accords with scientific observations, constantly modified and progressing as they may be, by the process of falsification of hypotheses, assuming one prefers such a paradigm to one that enslaves, tortures, persecutes and commits genocide and other atrocities, and either insists on rigidly orthodox beliefs and practices that militate against self-actualisation by all or large sections of the population, and promulgates ‘scientific’ or other ideologies (an example might be the Nazi ‘ice and fire’ cosmology) that do not accord with valid and reliable empirical observations.

    Such a view, rooted in a view of what constitutes ‘health’ and ‘healthy development’ rooted in our own cultural paradigm, admittedly, a view of what it means to develop one’s self and one’s faculties as fully and freely as one can, and to understand the universe as empirically and objectively as we can, provides the basis for both a modified moral objectivism, and an objectivism about Truth. Gandhi, perhaps the most widely admired ethical example and practitioner of the twentieth century, about which US General McArthur said that, ‘if the human race is to survive, eventually all people will need to adopt Gandhi’s way’ was a moral absolutist. His absolute value he gave various names; Satyagraha(Truth Force or Soul Force), Ahimsa (non-violence), Peace and God, all of which he viewed as synonymous labels for his highest value. He was also a pragmatist, but having studied him carefully, although I am a great admirer of the relativist Saul Alinsky also, I disagree with the latter that Gandhi was a relativist like Alinsky, that he only advocated civil disobedience in situations where his party did not have the guns. Gandhi freely admits that he prefers brave violent resistance against evil to cowardly submission, but he believes that, where the moral character and will is present, non-violent resistance is objectively superior, morally, to violent resistance. Even against Hitler, where he could not have won over an implacable, ruthless enemy as he did the British, he advocated total non-cooperation. His advocacy of non-violence even in such hopeless situations was not based on a morality of ‘ends’, he did not believe or base his advocacy on any illusory belief that non-violence would have been more effective, or even at all effective, in resisting Nazism. He based it on an ethics of means, that is, he believed that non-violent means were objectively, ethically superior to violent methods, not only because he believed, as in the Indian concept of Karma, or cause and effect, that violent methods, which he characterised by their conscious *intent*, provoked further violence, as the causes of WWII can reasonably be said to be rooted in the harsh reparations and treatment of Germany after WWI, but also because he believed them to be ethically superior, when practiced bravely and resolutely, summed up by his statement that he was prepared to die for his cause, but not to kill for it.

    And so I would say that I believe in our generally accepted Western view of what it means for human beings to be physically and in every other way healthy and well developed, and to have a life in which they are free to learn about and choose a life path and occupy themselves, within limits which essentially involve not thereby trespassing on the similar freedoms or welfare of other people. And although I am aware I and that view are both products of my time and place, I am prepared to nail my colours to the mast and say that I believe our view is objectively truer than other major world views of the past and other world cultures. Another such radically different world view akin to Fascism was the State Soviet System of the USSR. The dramatic collapse of that cultural paradigm from within, occurring spontaneously as the people of those countries rebelled in a pretty much bloodless revolt and made it clear that they too value and prefer our Western Way, gives one hope that they oppressed and poor of other world cultures will eventually revolt in the same way. I find it significant that many of the most vocal critics of the West have no personal or practical experience of living under alternative regimes, or occupy extremely privileged positions in such regimes. And the generally poor, ordinary people of those cultures are generally poorly educated, indoctrinated, their media highly controlled, so that they believe and protest, essentially, simply what they have been told.
    This may appear to critics of the West as a naive and optimistic view, but I believe there is objective truth in it. Only those who have lived as ordinary, non-privileged members of different systems would really be in a position to judge, of course. The members of different cultures are amazingly adept at ignoring or attributing views or testimony and experience of others they find uncomfortable as propaganda. The holocaust is of course one such example, incredibly denied by anti-semitics, even today. I had a personal experience visiting a family with an English husband and Japanese wife who denied any atrocities on the part of the Japanese army during WWII. The most amusing thing about the situation was that both the attitudes of the wife and her daughter were reminiscent of stereotypical depictions of Japanese POW commandants! A lot of high pitched shouting and ordering around. The husband had obviously decided it was in his best interests to agree with his wife’s belief that all the stories of appalling treatment and atrocities brought back by Western Far East campaign veterans were propaganda. Another example of how objective truth, the supported and verifiable facts of history, may tend to support the objectivity of one world view over that of a different culture.

    1. A lengthy and interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to write it here.

      I generally find that I agree with your take on morality as I am not certain if “objective” morality is possible. It seems to me that morality is more close to science than we may think, in the sense that it requires a never ending process of improvement and does not deal with absolutes.

  6. The fact that science can get facts wrong and is willing to admit and correct that in light of new evidence is its power, not its weakness.

    Konstantine’s statement regarding the evolutionary advantage of baby protection is just simply wrong (with all due respect)

    This is not how evolution works. It does not mean that all species are ultimately guided to the same path of traits (that would actually bemore of an intelligent selection) but rather that each species follows a path based on the natural selection of its environment.

    It is obvious then, that it was an evolutionary advantage for humans to protect their babies in that way, but not for lions, hippos and whatnot.

    I realize that atheists cling to science as it seems to be the intellectual (therefore the thinking man) thing to do. Again, let us look at it objectively[…]

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. Science is not worthy because “it seems intellectual” but because, based on current knowledge, it is overwhelmingly correct.

    Theoretical Physics have not progressed, most probably because there is nothing to progress to except quantum physics (as well as any other factors that may be at play, like no funding due to low ROI prospects). Scientists are still discovering quantum physics (oh how I hate when people always bring this up as if it somehow proves science does not work).
    You have the impossible belief that science should have all the answer now like your religion does.
    Well, this is not the way it works, and especially because science takes its time, is because it also gets things right…unlike religion.

    However, for me, science does not answer or even attempt to answer the “Why” question.

    That is your own question, not a universal one. I and many others have no need for “Why”. I make my own “Why”s.

    I totally agree that some (certainly not all) of the ancient cultures seemed to suffer from a lack of following the Moral Law. If you want to cherry pick

    Cherry pick?! There has been NO culture that followed this moral law that your espouse.

    Where is the mighty Aztecs today? Where is the Roman Empire today? Totality disregarded or simply misplaced, the practice of not adhering to the Moral Law will catch up to you.

    Have you ever heard the phrase that “correlation is not causiation”? If not, you should look it up.

    That is okay because I can tell by their language that they are good people searching for answers and young in years.

    Please don’t patronize unless you want me to start calling you old and senile.

    Our current war in Iraq is simply a religious war. We can paint it with all kinds of colors and descriptors but it is an Islam vs. Judeo Christian war

    Horrid simplification. While religion plays a role (mainly to get the backing of fundamentalist fuckwits), Money and greed takes a far, far, far bigger blame.

    Maybe we have this “religion” thing all wrong and God is waiting for us to rectify it.

    How do you know? I might as well claim that we have this “religion” thing wrong and God is waiting for us to discard it.

    Not just reading and vomiting back what you read in science book or the web.

    If you really want us to talk and understand, don’t insult.

  7. Gosh, this is pretty interesting, I’m glad I decided to contribute. I’m generally not tempted by the kind of ‘knocking heads’ thing that us guys seem naturally inclined towards. Please bear in mind I’m not a professional Historian or Philosophy professor , athough I have studied the Philosophy of Science fairly extensively on two mulitdisciplinary BAs) and forgive any minor historical faux pas or inaccuracies. I think you’ll get my general gist.

    For many years I would have automatically put forward Cooperative Anarchism as described by Kropotkin in his book ‘Mutual Aid’ as my preferred political system. I mention this because I feel inclined to take a few paces backwards and do a slight meta-analysis of the mode of discourse going on here, whether it’s likely to be productive other than as a way of sharpening our mental saws – useful and enjoyable in itself. I’ve always felt that most political ‘debate’ is fairly useless and sterile because it generally consists of legal type arguments batted back and forth from entrenched positions, with recourse to rhetorical strategies we first find being used by the sophists, some of the first lawyers and politicians in training, depicted in Plato’s dialogues being questioned and confounded by Socrates in the market square of Athens. The sophists were of course relativists, Socrates a believer that Truth, Goodness and Beauty were objective Qualities, beliefs originating partly from Pythagoras, I think, and passed on to become the common sense view of the Anglo-American world via Plato and his Academy, the model for all our universities and other academic institutions.

    Relativism and allied views, of which Kant is perhaps the lynchpin, have always been more prevalent in Continental Europe. Kant’s insight that the mind is intimately and inevitably involved in each of our individual perceptions and constructions of the world; that ‘we can take our spectacles off, but we can’t take our minds off’, is pivotal. And yet I find myself believing it so because I believe it to be objectively true!

    We, and anyone else who cares to participate could go on debating whether there is any objective basis to ethics or any objective moral law forever. We could use every trick of argument or rhetorical strategy in the book; appeals to authority such as our age, qualifications, Science on one side and the great ethical world teachers on the other; but the likelihood is, I fear, that other than giving us a nice intellectual workout, we would each, if anything, become more entrenched in our own positions, since this is generally the effect of encountering opposition and responding by articulating one’s own position repeatedly.

    Yes, we could go on and on, and maybe it would be fun, but what would we learn, really? There are recent hypotheses in quantum theory that hold more promise of reconciling with relativity than string theory, which I view as something of a dead end. But until a better theory achieves significant empirical support it may look as if quantum theory is stalled.

    I was first clued in to this debate between the Socratic supporters and believers in objective truth and value and the relativists supported by the sophists and the extraordinarily powerful and ahead of his time thinker, Nietzsche, by reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Interestingly, Pirsig never mentions Nietzsche, perhaps for the same reason I avoided reading him for years, he had such a bad press after his sister prostituted and distorted his works to make them the philosophical foundation of Nazism, which Nietzsche himself would have abhorred.

    My mind was opened to Nietzsche’s profound thought and eloquence – he is the relativist, sophist and rhetorician par excellence – by a brilliant UK philosopher of religion, Don Cupitt, a former CofE vicar and former dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

    I’d certainly recommend reading Don’s books, beginning with the ‘Sea of Faith’, also a TV series, each chapter dealing with one or more profound thinker in this area, from Nietzsche to Jung to Wittgenstein. But even after reading his works, in 2000 I had what I can only describe as a ‘crisis of faith’, which was experiential, like a revolt from the subconscious. R.D. Laing writes about the therapeutic value of such crises, which are viewed by other psychiatrists as pathological, an ‘illness’, to be treated with drugs and suppressed or corrected. I have to say I’m with Laing all the way. My eldest son, now 19, had a similar crisis in 2007. He had been a convinced atheist, like most young people in the UK today, since I taught him about evolution and natural selection when he was eleven. He made the mistake of judging all spirituality and belief in ‘God’ as a useful concept, whatever you mean by it, as Wittgenstein said, by the generally simplistic and absurd belief systems of the believers he encountered, especially American fundies amongst the gaming community on the Internet, I have to say. In opposing their absurd and simplistic beliefs, he found himself increasingly defending atheism, and eventually began describing himself as one. I vividly remember a conversation we had when he was only eleven or so, when he had said, ‘I know you say that some people believe in God and some don’t, and that God is a Mystery, Dad, but I think He’s real.’ I had always tried to encourage my children to keep an open mind and not to indoctrinate them with closed or fixed viewpoints.

    I’m in the process of reading the book ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell, about the fact that our adaptive unconscious, which has access to many more sources of information than our little conscious, rational selves, which Carl Jung likened to a highlight on the shiny black billiard ball of our Unconscious, which he believed to connect like wells to some underground sea of knowledge, information and wisdom at the deepest levels – a view shared by R. W. Emerson and many other great spiritual and magical thinkers East and West, can and often does make accurate snap judgements within two seconds that are later confirmed consciously by months or even years of laborious experience.

    I have to say that, my own experience in 2000, my son’s ‘snap judgement’ as a boy, and his recent experience of what I can only describe as a ‘spiritual eruption’ from the subconscious all *seem* despite my conscious appreciation and sympathy with the relativists and rhetoricians – who are invariably atheists, too – powerful arguments, to be tending to make me believe that there is a Higher Power *of some kind*, and that this higher power or law, described in various spiritual philosophies and paradigms not only as God but as ‘Karma’, ‘the Tao’, ‘Brahman’, ‘Being’ (Heidegger) etc, is real. Pirsig, after spending most of his first book sympathising with the Sophists against Socrates, suggesting Socrates was simply a better sophist, in that he conned them into believing he was appealing to Objective Truth, Pirsig himself ends up plumping for an Objective Ground himself, calling it Quality. I think that was essentially an intuitive, ‘gut’ decision on his part, too.

    So I find myself more in sympathy with DBZero rationally, but more so with Michael at a fundamental, spiritual level. Not due to any superior rational argument – I actually think that DBZero and Nietsche have the edge there, which is why the orthodox ‘Sea of Faith’ has been in retreat, in the West at least, for over a hundred years.

    But as someone who has studied the philosophy of science and psychology at university level (sorry, that may be irrelevant, it was not meant to be an ‘appeal to authority’ as the point I am about to make is self-evident, I guess I was juts explaining where it came from so you take it seriously. So I guess it was a tiny bit appealing to authority, sorry. 🙁 ) I was very interested to read DBZero’s closing comment to me, which, unpacked, does in fact place you amongst the believers in Objective Reality, Objective Truth, and Objective Goodness or Ethical Value, DBZero, so in fact we are all on the same side. I’ll explain why.

    DBZer0 said:

    It seems to me that morality is more close to science than we may think, in the sense that it requires a never ending process of improvement and does not deal with absolutes.

    Yes! That is exactly my feeling, and accords with Robert Pirsig’s view, too. The process of improvement in our understanding and ability to deal with what we perceive to be the ‘External world’, by such advances as Einstein’s equations over Newton’s, verified by the light curvature of space experiment of someone whose name began with M I can’t quite remember, or the recent intriguing finding that when two electrons have been together, a change of direction of spin of one can be *instantaneously* mirrored by a similar change of spin in the other, all represent what I would call ‘absolute gains’ in our understanding and technological ability to predict and manipulate the collective Reality in which we all live and move and have our being. Yes, all of us, and all animals, including insects, sharks and rays, may experience and livei in radically different subjective worlds, but when we catch a shark or it takes a bite out of us, we are interacting in a collective Real World we share, Nietzche’s powerful, Matrix-like arguments, following Kant, that we can never know such a world exists outside of our own minds for sure, notwithstanding. He calls it ‘the apparent world’.

    Why do I believe in such an Objective foundational Reality, whether one calls it Quality like Pirsig, or Brahman, or The Tao, or God, or Being, or the ‘highest Being’ as I do, or simply Ultimate Reality, like the Buddhists.

    To this day, I’m going to be very very honest and say I’m not sure. It could be because, brought up and educated in Anglo-American culture where belief in an Objective, Collective world, has always been the common sense view, I am naturally inclined to reject the continental, relativist, nominalist view. We even say of anything we consider bullshit rhetoric and sophistry, ‘It’s all cant!’ (Kant) and where I come from in the English Midlands, ‘canting’ is slang for blowing hot air, just shooting the breeze.

    Also, the empirical methods of Science and Technology, while they have run into philosophical problems such that epistemology, the theory of Knowledge – the idea that we can make absolute gains in knowledge – has pretty much succumbed to the continental critique (post-structuralism) – see Charles Taylor’s (canadian philosphy professor) paper, ‘Overcoming Epistemology’ – do seem to be devastatingly effective and reliable for good or ill, witness such feats as splitting the atom, the creation of the Internet and landing men on the moon and returning them safely to earth, repeatedly.

    But DBZero, in his statement about morality being ‘close to science’ and requiring a ‘never ending process of improvement’ is actually siding as I find myself doing, and Charles Taylor and Pirsig also do, against the relativists and subjectivists and with the objectivists. It’s a nice distinction but an important one, but for those who may have studied the empirical and experimental methods of Science they will know that science never regards any finding or assertion as ‘proof’. Only Mathematics is capable of absolute proofs, and those occur in a .Q.E.D. type way within a closed series of logical rules such as Euclidian Geometry. They used to be considered an objective model of the spatial relations between things in the external world, but since the invention of non-Euclidian geometries all systems of mathematics have been acknowledged to be useful but invented formal systems similar to western and other systems of music.

    Scientists apply statistics to their experimental findings about the world, and if their methods show that there is less than a 1% or 5% likelihood they occurred by chance, they consider them more or less ‘significant’, i.e. provisionally true. But as DBZero suggests, there is room left for constant improvement, for previous results and puzzles like the current contradiction between the theories of Relativity and Quantum Physics, to be explained and made more accurate by further experiments and results.

    But how do we know that Einstein’s equations predicting the curvature of space are more ‘accurate’ than Newton’s linear equations, which were accepted as objectively true for hundreds of years? Because they accord with and are born out by experments designed to discriminate between the two theories – Got it! just popped into my head, Not just ‘M’ but two like Marilyn Monroe or Manson – the Michelson-Morley experiment verified that beams of light are curved by gravity, in the proximity of the Sun, so Space, and ultimately our Universe, is now accepted to be curved. Perhaps in a hundred years it will be further understood that those curves are actually Pretzel shaped, who knows?

    The central point I am making is that, in order to believe in any kind of progress in Science or Morality, that our views or the views of the human race can become more accurate or better in some way over time, necessarily supposes that there is a ‘Real World’ out there, even if we can never know it or grasp it in its entirety, or with absolute accuracy. What someone called the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ which our senses and brains were naturally selected to make such sense of that would most likely aid the survival and reproduction of our genes.

    Similarly with Morality, how do we know, or rather instinctively feel, that Jesus’s and Gandhi’s ethical examples and teachings as we know them, are superior to other, more callous and vengeful moralities? Bit of a puzzle, isn’t it? Of course our upbringing and cultural conditioning plays an inevitable part, and those raised and hard line indoctrinated in less forgiving and more violence prone moral teachings will naturally, generally, see and advocate their own views as more effective in terms of survival, athough they may not put it in those terms. One such view was Soviet Communism, which like Nazism, attempted to eradicate religion and belief in God.

    And yet Nazism, despite a head start in arms production, total ruthlessness and superior technology on its way to nuclear weapons, having already developed and demonstrated the delivery vehicle, the V2, was successfully resisted by a tiny, ill equipped nation. A similar thing happened when the tiny Athenian League escaped and eventually bested the enormous Persian Empire. Soviet Communism collapsed from within, people who’s urge for freedom and spirituality had been suppressed for 72 years revolting in a bloodless, continent-wide surge which sent the communist regimes of the russian satellite countries tumbling with the same domino effect the USSR had planned to conquer the world.

    Now whether you see that as a kind of karmic reaction on an international scale, or an upwelling of our human spiritual nature from what Jung called the Collective Unconscious, it was an undeniably magnificent thing to witness, if you espouse those values of freedom and goodness that most of us would, broadly agree upon. Martin Luther King Jnr, had he still been alive, would have cited it as a wonderful example of his belief that however many battles Evil wins, Good, backed by the Ultimate Power, will eventually win the War. Gandhi, I’m sure, believed the same.

    And without wanting or claiming to be able to dot the i’s or cross the ‘t’s of such a belief, that is why, on such evidence, and that of many other virtual seeming miracles and acts of heroism, unbelievable escapes, noble endeavours, and from reading and being inspired by the flower of the world’s greatest spiritual teachers, philosophers and sages, and from my own intuitive experiences and ‘gut’ feeling, my ‘blink’ perception, you might say, I do believe that there is some great power underlying all, to which we can align ourselves in the cause of progress towards greater and finer Good. It is true that institutional ‘religion’ from those who made Socrates drink Hemlock because they could not bear the light of his Truth, to the priests who conspired to crucify Jesus, are very often if anything an ‘anti-advertisement’ for what I would consider true, authentic spirituality. In Catholicism, some of the wisest and most innovative thinkers like Hans Kung and Matthew Fox have been alienated from the monolithic institution of the Church, while someone with a very dubious family and personal history under Nazism is elevated to the highest position. In the Church of England, an intelligent and socially conscious Bishop of Durham was suceeded by a conservative who was very quickly outed as having been convicted of loitering in public toilets, to the utter disgust of his flock, but stil l not dismissed from his ‘Palace’.

    Nietzsche, like most, identifies belief in God and Christ with institutional religion, for which he quite rightly, from my own personal experience when in need, also, has the utmost contempt. But Nietzsche too had his spiritual epiphany, his ‘Daybreak’, like Jacob Behmen, the Buddha and so many others before him, but due to his beliefs he simply did not view his own illumination as coming from a higher source. For him, the next evolutionary step, the ‘Superman’ was the highest value, and unfortunately this was siezed on in an attempt to hothouse force it’s arrival eugenically in the twentieth century, with the most barbaric and heinous consequences. It is tempting to believe that both Nietzsche and Hitler were punished for their hubris, their insistence that there was no power higher than Man and the God they believed he was becoming. Humility has been acknowledged as a high level spiritual quality almost universally in all spiritual traditions, and it was clearly something those two individuals, who both came to tragic ends, lacked.

    Well, I shall have to go have a bath, but I really enjoyed typing all that, just for my own amusement and sheer pleasure. Sometimes the best way to understand what we ourselves believe is to attempt to articulate it to others. I hope, articulating as I believe it does, a common ground between proponents on this thread, it will provide some food for thought, possibly even agreement. Our education and whole culture is so focused on teaching us that rational debate should be polarized, like a court of law or political chamber, that we often never encounter or experiment with other forms of communication. I myself like to see encounters like this as us all sitting round a Lake or Pool of Understanding, into which we all have the opportunity to toss our own insights, experiences, intuitions, thoughts and information. The collective pool of understanding which we can all see – in this case this thread – is enriched and grows as a result, and we can all learn and grow with no necessity for animosity or rhetorical tricks of arguments to attempt to persuade people to our entrenched position, which normally has the reverse effect.


    It’s been interesting. All or any responses welcome. Argue and disagree (or agree) of course, but it is interesting to make non-confrontational and reconciling contributions too, sometimes, to look for commonalities, as I have done here. Respect, another fairly universally valued ethical quality, is also desirable, and helps prevent dialogue (or multilogue -what should we call it?) descending into and wasting a lot of time on bickering and personal posturing and insults. Well that’s my view, anyway. 😉

    1. Wow 😮

      That's a long comment. Props for actually typing something so heavy in my little corner.

      However, you said:

      Well, I shall have to go have a bath, but I really enjoyed typing all that, just for my own amusement and sheer pleasure

      Judging by your content and willingness to write, I would suggest you actually start your own weblog and type such things there. It will give much more control and a greater audience.


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