Now, with the context set in place with my last post (Part 1), let’s look closer at the question: What justifies the use of violence when two parties cannot reach a peaceful resolution? I am asking this whether it is two people disputing a parking space, or two countries considering war against the other. Most people clearly believe the use of violence is justified in some cases and not in others. How do we determine whether it is justified or not?
I think the relativist has the greater difficulty justifying the use of violence than the objectivist. Most rational (which assumes quite a bit, I know—what does it mean to be “rational”?) people, in the west, do not believe violence is justified if it involves one’s personal, private, subjective, relative opinions or thoughts about things. For instance, we would never consider violence justified if we learned a fellow hit another fellow on the head because he disagreed with him over which wine was best to pair with steak. And yet, when it comes to values and morality, the relativist tells us they are really in the same category of one’s personal, private, subjective, relative opinions and preferences. The only difference is we “feel” emotionally stronger about one over the other. Now, why is that? Why should I feel emotionally stronger about one (I don’t like to see theft) over another (a wine preference)?
Is it the harm factor? If someone disagrees with my wine preferences, no harm is done. However, if someone steals from me, I am harmed. This bothers me. The problem here is that “Do no harm” or “Do unto others” then becomes more than a personal preference, but something I think the other person should observe as well. It is only when we think the other person should respect my “do no harm” ideal that we feel justified in using violence either to protect ourselves, another innocent party, or imposing our values on others (ironically by harming them) because they do not share those values. In other words, it becomes extremely difficult to predicate one’s view of morality upon a relative basis. We are almost forced to consider some values as objective and universal, therefore expecting others to respect them, and respect them to the point, if they do not—we feel violence against them is justified. We would never do this, have this expectation of respect or sharing, if we were only talking about our personal subjective preferences we thought true, good, or better, but only relative to us. The bottom line is that the harm factor becomes a universal bar and cannot be invoked by the moral relativist.
We simply do not feel violence is justified if someone does not share our personal, private, subjective, and relative preferences and choices. Thus, to claim morality and ethics falls into that same category (which the relativist must), but that violence is now justified if other people do not share my values in some area, doesn’t seem to be a logical progression in my mind. If they are personal, private, and relative, like one’s wine preferences, then why is violence justified just because we have moved from wine choices to choices of whether or not to steal from someone? If the other person feels, relative to them, that their “theft” is the better and “good” choice for their community (perhaps a gang) or family (perhaps they feel they are “stealing” back what should be theirs), then how are the choices here any different than those of the wine preferences?
I don’t think the relativist has any good responses to these conundrums. I think it may be one of the reasons we do not see civilizations or cultures build their morality/ethics upon a relativist view of such things. We simply do not see this historically or even presently. The relativist has no precedent for a greater community, culture, or civilization taking his view of morality/ethics. This should give any true relativist pause. If one’s view of ethics (that they are relative) has never been adopted by a notable community or civilization (even if one thinks such is what is “really” going on—that objectivity is just a mask for power), why is that? What does that tell us?
And we must not think that moving from two individuals to a community changes anything. Is there a fundamental difference between a state and a criminal gang or organization? We do not believe the violence used by criminals to be justified. We do however believe states, under certain circumstances, are justified in using violence. Why is that? Why is it “immoral” to take the law into our own hands? The “criminal” doesn’t see it that way. Is it relative to each then? Again, is there a fundamental difference between a state and a criminal organization?
For the moral relativist, there is no fundamental difference between a “lawful”, so-called, state and a criminal gang or between private personal morality and that which is shared. The fact it is shared changes nothing about its relativity. Whoever ended up in the position to call the “other” person a criminal is now the “law-abiding” party. How they ended up in that position the relativist normally sees as a function of power or advantages of some sort the losing side did not have.
Again, this all leads me to the conclusion that if one believes morality to be intrinsically relative, subjective, personal, and private—then any dispute resolution, if no peaceful resolution could be reached, reduces to power. The appeal can never be to a correct, truthful, right, or better morality (a true good) as there is none, there is such only relative to me and even then I am saying nothing more than: “This is what I/we want.” As was noted in this essay, when we stopped believing in witches, we did not then think we could each still believe in our own personal and subjective witch, relative to each. If no witch exists, then they don’t exist for anyone. For the relativist, we name our desires and actions either moral or immoral, because we can, not because we ought to or should. If over time a certain conception of ethics exists, it is because of power or the accidents and vagaries of history, it isn’t because one group, in one moment of history, found the true “good”. There is no such thing, just like there are no witches. If the exact opposite conception of ethics were in place, it would make no difference as to finding an actual “good” just like a witch relative to us (my witch) doesn’t escape the fact witches don’t exist to begin with.
Now, how is it any different if one believes in an objective referent to morality? The difference is fundamental and significant (as Nietzsche understood). If a state believes their laws find their final referent in either a tradition (Judeo-Christian for instance) or abstract principle (Nature and nature’s God), then one is not asking another person to abide by the first person’s personal, private, subjective, and relative preferences, but by something outside all those categories, something we expect each person to abide by, not because of a more powerful “because I say so”, but because this other “God” “Nature” or some universal principle compels us. And because we think that source so compelling, so “right” “good” or “true”, we will ask you to abide by such under threat of violence and the use of power, even taking into consideration the possibility we may not understand completely or interpret this objective source correctly, just like we know a judge can mistakenly interpret a law. We would never abandon the rule of law simply because we knew judges sometimes will interpret laws incorrectly or unethically.
We would never consider violence if we thought we were only enforcing our own private, personal, subjective, and relative preferences. Such would be the opposite of fairness or justice. An objective referent allows us to temper our unhealthy emotional responses/desires (anger and revenge), biases, and prejudices (completely? of course not, such is impossible, but this allows us to minimize them or keep them in check) and such is the best environment for fairness and keeping power in check, from becoming a bully. This is a significant difference from a relativist view.
Another very simple way to see this is comparing a legal court based action predicated upon written laws and mob based actions predicated upon immediate emotions. Is there a difference? For the relativist, there is no fundamental difference between the two. A law was first just a private, subjective, relative emotion/view of things that was shared by enough people, over time, who at some point had the power to write it down and enforce it as the “law”. A mob then, is just that same function and process in real time, before whatever action they take can be written down and called the “law”. It is the same process, just shorten. We see this in revolutions. A mob (and let’s assume this mob is the majority in the community—there is consensus) may begin to drag those in power from their homes and hang them in the streets (these people were given a chance to consent but would not and in the mob’s mind, had been harming others and would not change—thus the mob meets all of Bernard’s criteria). The mob soon becomes the “legitimate” government, writes and passes laws which makes “criminals” of those originally dragged from their homes and executed and are used now to then round up any who escaped the “mob” violence to now face the “state”, “lawful”, violence or imprisonment, show-trial, and execution. For the relativist, there is no fundamental difference here between the “legitimate” government and the original mob—they are just different moments in time.
For the objectivist, there is a huge difference between the two but the difference lies entirely with the question of whether or not an objective referent truly exists and its nature/content. “If” it does, then the court of law is not simply expressing its will or expressing the fact it has the power to call its will “law”, but actually exercising justice, regardless of its personal preferences or emotions. The mob is not exercising justice, but simply enforcing its private, relative, subjective will, thus the reduction to power.
Now, perhaps the mob was appealing to an objective referent. Would such make their actions ethical? Of course not. We still need to know something about the content of the referent—not just that its objective. But such doesn’t change the fact there are two different things happening depending upon the relative or objective nature of the values under discussion, regardless of whether it is a state or rioting mob. Remember, no one is arguing an objectivist view is always moral. Objectivist views differ all the time. That is completely irrelevant to what is being asked here—a complete diversion. Can one see a difference, a fundamental one, between the court of law and the mob or not?
Here is the critical point. If we take the view of the *moral relativist as he looks upon two states, or groups, or two persons, where all attempts at a peaceful resolution have failed, or even where one side has attacked the other—no matter what either side believes about their ethics, whether they believe them to be objective or relative, and no matter what form the ethics take (insert any model you wish), he does not see the outcome as having anything to do with one side’s ethics being better, more true, more ethical, than the other’s because such is impossible to say—they are only those things from each side’s perspective—they are relative to each. In fact, those terms, like the term “witch” describe things that don’t exist for either side. They are place-holder terms for: This is what we desire. Thus, the outcome reduces to power alone. An objectivist on the other hand, no matter the outcome, can say that either the good has prevailed, or the good has lost (not sides, mind you). The relativist can only say this is the “good” now. Why? Because they (those who prevailed) say it is. Ironically, this is exactly what I have heard both Burk and Bernard say: Because it just “is” or we say so. That is an appeal to power.
Now, one may disagree with the objectivist, but if we take his view for a moment, there is a clear difference. Remember, I am not asking who is right here or taking the truthful view. I am asking is there a difference between the two. I’m asking if violence is justified in either case. I think violence is only justified if an objective referent is appealed to (we can then possibly dispute the referent, but at least the first test is met) not when the appeal is to- because we say so, or it just “is” moral because we think so.
So, one can disagree with either side here, but I think the logic remains and is correct “if” we take the “ifs” to each side seriously. In other words, “if” morality is relative and subjective, (which is a derivative result of the prior belief there is no God, gods, platonic, or transcendental space) then this is what is happening (reduction to power). Conversely, “if” morality has an ultimate objective referent, this is what is happening (no reduction—a true “good” or justice is at issue and appealed to). That has been my point all along and where the discussion should focus. We are speaking to the ramifications of each vision of morality, not to which is true (something we can never know with certainty, only hold by faith), nor to the trivial, irrelevant, point that violence occurs either way. We are asking, given that neither can be proven in any final sense, in any empirical, scientific sense, given that each is held by faith (whether the relativist or objectivist), which world would we rather live in? Which would we rather pursue and strive to inhabit, in other words, to live as “if” this vision or understanding of morality was true or the path we should seek? Do we want to live in a world where there is no fundamental difference between a criminal gang and a state? Do we want to live in a world where if the Nazis or ISIS “win” then their vision of morality becomes the “truth”, the “good”, the “ethical” and decent way to live, even if the ways of living were the exact opposite prior to the “win”? Those are the questions here.
Again, “if” there is an objective referent to morality (God for instance), then the resolution of differences does not reduce to power, but to an appeal to an actual objective “good” or “truth”. “If” there is no objective referent to morality, if like witches, “good” does not exist, and such is relative to each party (as descriptive only), then the resolution of differences does reduce to power. Any responses to this post will need to address these “ifs”. I’m not interested right now in anyone’s personal views; I’m asking them to assume the “ifs” and then respond.
If the comments do not address the point of the post and these “ifs”, or if they go to points already covered in the post, I will simply respond: See post. Sorry, but I’m not going to re-write the post in the comment section. Please take directly from the post that to which you are responding or commenting.
I will finish up this series on ethics with a post that asks what the difference is between legality and justice, because that question is bound up in this conversation regarding ethics, power, and violence.
*Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons. See here. (Also see the New York Times essay for the relativist I am describing)
To be even more specific, the Stanford link goes on to note with more clarity the relativist I am speaking of:
“Moral skepticism says that we are never justified in accepting or rejecting moral judgments. Other views—variously called moral non-cognitivism, expressivism, anti-realism, nihilism, etc.—contend that moral judgments lack truth-value, at least beyond the truth-value implied by the minimalist claim that to assert that S is true is simply to assert S (a related view, the error theory, claims that moral judgments are always false).”
Thus, hardly a straw-man—but a recognized view from the literature. Anyone care to address these views? Because these are the only ones I am concerned with at the moment, not any alternatives.
The Stanford link notes that MMR is often distinguished from these views, but leaves open the question as to whether those who try and do so are successful. Such is still debated and I am asserting they end up not being fundamentally any different, especially as to the reduction to power. Putting that aside, the bottom line is that this is the relativist I am speaking of and it will do no good to bring up some other type.
MMR is different from descriptive moral relativism, which is all Bernard has really been putting forth. He makes the minimalist claim noted above: “that to assert S is true is simply to assert S”. The same mistake is noted in the New York Times essay:
“The trouble is that while “Eating beef is wrong” is clearly a normative statement, “Eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus” is just a descriptive remark that carries no normative import whatsoever. It’s just a way of characterizing what is claimed by a particular moral code, that of the Hindus. We can see this from the fact that anyone, regardless of their views about eating beef, can agree that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus.”
Thus, every example offered by Bernard, whether regarding euthanasia or rape (insert S anywhere you like) fell under this same problem. These examples are disputed by no one. They address nothing of import to the questions being asked here, because all they do is describe. It would be like asking someone about love and them looking up the word in the dictionary.
Of course the huge difficulty for Bernard, and any agnostic, is that they cannot adopt the MMR view. MMR assumes there is no God or universal/absolute objective referent to ground any moral values. To those questions, an agnostic must remain silent or reply, “I don’t know.”