Is Morality Relative?

Today I thought I’d question the very core of morality.

Bob Proctor’s presentation on the Science of Getting Rich is available on Google Video (Hat Tip to Lyman Reed).

One of the things he said struck me as highly controversial. At one point he said, “There is no right and wrong, there is only your perspective of what is right and wrong” and I thought… I bet he lost a lot of people right there… that’s what many people on the right would call moral relativism… the idea that there isn’t absolute right and wrong – only personal or cultural perspective.

Then I thought… wait a minute… this isn’t some Left/Right, Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat, or Christian/Atheist debate.

For example, ask a Sierra Club member if it is wrong to pour toxic waste into a river. I’d guess they’d say yes. I would too. Ask an anti-war protestor if they think it is wrong to incinerate people with nuclear weapons. I’d guess they’d say yes. I would too.

So what does Bob Proctor mean?

Does he really mean it isn’t inherently wrong to poison our rivers or incinerate people?

Does he mean that it could be the right thing to do from a certain perspective?

I don’t think so… but…

People have done things like this…right? They must have had some justification…right?

Then I rewound the video and listened very closely to what Bob said…

He said there is no right and wrong there is only that which works – that which produces the desired results. Right and wrong is a perspective.

Ahh! Then it hit me. Bob isn’t saying that Hitler’s belief that non-German’s were subhuman and needed to wiped off the face of the Earth was right. He is saying Hitler believed he was absolutely right and so did many of his followers and that is why our point of view of right and wrong is relative.

Believing you are right does not make you right – it is only your perspective.

So how do we know what is right and wrong? We have to ask questions…

What kind of a world do we wish to create? How do we want to live from this day forward? What are we doing right now? What is working? What isn’t? What has worked in the past? What hasn’t?

This isn’t a debate about religion so don’t try to turn it into one.

We’ve seen people do heinous things in the name of God (The Spanish Inquisition and Extreme Islam). We also have seen people do heinous things in the name of Atheism (Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot – actually some say Pol Pot was a Buddhist). But they all had one thing in common… they believed they were absolutely right.

Get it? Consider the possibility that you might be wrong. Think it through.

So I ask a few simple questions…

What is your perspective? Are you getting the results you desire? Be honest with yourself? What are the actual results of your actions?

Are your beliefs… right now… helping you create the world you want your children and grandchildren to inherit?

34 thoughts on “Is Morality Relative?”

  1. Morality is absolutely relative 🙂

    A friend of mine was telling me yesterday about her experience as an inmate couselor in the prison system. She did it for 10 years before administrative burnout. She said it didn’t take her very long to get very objective about the inmates and life in general.

    She said she realized that “they all made the best choice they thought they could make in the moment.”

    Our perspective as an observer is very different as someone in the situation. Even more different, when you consider the different roles.

    A good question is whether or not you could hold the space to understand (not condone) each perspective and still be True to who You are?

    In Spirit,

  2. Nneka,

    I’m not so sure morality is relative. But I do understand what you and Bob Proctor are saying.

    I’ve also spent many years associated with the criminal mindset. And yes many of them do believe they made the best choice in their situation. But some of them are just plain selfish greedy bastards and they know damn well they are hurting other people for fun and excitement.

    But here’s the deal… If morality was truly relative, then wouldn’t that mean that it is wrong to make moral value judgments about people who kill their wives and daughters because they fail to obey the man of the house?

    I have a real hard time with this concept…

    I tend to believe that the results of some actions are so clearly destructive that they are clearly wrong for everyone. But one must come to that conclusion one’s self because only you can control you.

    Does 1+1+1+1 = 5? You could say so… you could call it relative… but if you are standing at the store trying to buy a 5 dollar item with 4 one dollar bills, I don’t think you’ll be happy with the results. The results will clearly send the message that 1+1+1+1 is not relative it in fact equals 4.

    Does that make sense?

  3. Morality is little more than an ascribed-to set of best practices, which makes it relative by definition. Morality is a projection of our deepest desires as well as our darkest fears. We most often choose our morality by adopting someone else’s either for fear of being shunned if we do not or because we desperately desire to be like someone. This sort of moral assimilation is best seen in very young children. How do they learn not to physically abuse other children when they are angry? Because we reinforce them positively when they do not use violence and negatively when they do. We are not born with morality, we choose it over-and-over-and-over during the course of our lives.

    I believe that my morality is wrong. It is wrong right now. There are scenarios in life that I have never considered which do not fit into the neat, orderly box which my morality defines. As such, I have no choice but to reconsider and adapt my morality when those situations arise and require action (or inaction) on my part.

    Because of our metaphysical connection to other human beings, virtually all of us have a component of our morality which considers the well-being of others. However, this is often the most glaring deficiency of our morality because we are acting on a set of beliefs that we project from our own imperfect and highly-tailored filter of accepted “best practices”.

    I learned long ago that my morality is driven by guidelines and not absolutes. My morality abhors causing pain for others unless the long-term net gain is more positive than the short-term pain caused. My morality does not accept equivocations. My morality requires me to leave a person’s mind, heart, soul or purse better than I found it, if allowed. My morality demands that I feel deeply but act simply. Those are a few of my guidelines.

    One of the most freeing moments of my life was when I realized that not only was my “morality” not fixed by someone else’s dogma but was, and would always be, fluid. Thus I enjoy the challenge of always being tested by fate to watch, learn and grow.

  4. Steve, I agree with you. We live in a overly complicated world. The most confused out of touch person I ever met was my philosophy professor in college, who as a master of terminologies, could argue and prove any point. Simple things like morality cannot be discussed using all these different points of view; we wouldn’t be talking about morality at that point. I don’t care who you are, what your race is, what your sexual preference is or what your religion is because morality is none of these things. Good is good, bad is bad.
    killing people is bad, being a truly good heartfelt person is good. All religions have their takes on morality. This world can never follow one religion. As Intelligent human beings, we should know and understand that morality is as organic and natural as life itself. It is pure and simple. Anything more, it is not morality, it becomes opinion. Anyone that would argue against my point needs to uncloud their understanding. This is a very important issue. If we all truly understood morality, like I do, this world would require no police, no armies and humankind could join as one people and be intelligently self governing. Being unclear and misunderstanding morality is what keeps humankind living foolishly as greedy, opinionated animals. Thank you. Steve. This post cuts to the truth which is what my blog exists for. The term “relative” is too loosely applied to everything allowing us to argue points that are in a word, pointless:)

  5. I want to turn what Nneka said around. Morality is relatively absolute. Any morality man develops is created to allow us to live in a relatively harmonious state. In other words, it isn’t even religious. It’s political. Religious trappings give morality more force because of the increased emotional demands of religion over politics.

    Take killing. Is it wrong to kill another man? Society says sometimes yes, sometimes no. Generally killing humans for selfish reasons is frowned on, with good reason. But killing for altruistic reasons or in war time is okay. Is it wrong to kill another mammal? We’re more divided there. Is it wrong to kill a plant? Even fewer people say yes. Is it wrong to kill a microbe? We couldn’t live without doing so. Already here moral relativism is alive and well.

    It seems that if morality were absolutely absolute, it would be the same in all times, places, and cultures. This is obviously not the case.

    Arithmetic is a model that seems to explain some of the ways the world works. Like all models though, it is based on a set of assumptions that are axiomatic – not to be questioned.

    But to be effective and happy in your life, you do have to have a set of rules of behavior and live by them. As Chris says, these can shift as you mature. I hope my beliefs are creating a world that I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in.

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  7. I love all of your comments…

    Let me say this another way…

    I know it seems some things are relative from the 5,000 foot level. Like Rick’s description of killing. But when you take a very detailed and specific case, it is full of nuance. Nuance is what challenges this idea of relative morality for me.

    I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I’m not sure about any of this… I’m trying to gain understanding.

    When I see a video of a crowd of men stoning a teenage girl for falling in love, I can’t help but believe that what they are doing is absolutely wrong even if the men believe they are right. I find it impossible to believe there is anything relative about an act like that.

  8. Is it relative because it morality comes from our beliefs and all beliefs are subjective? Is that it? So morality is personal?

  9. Yes! Morality is intensely personal, just as enlightenment and delusion are personal. Culture ( correlated and enforced by laws built to reflect that culture ) is a loose definition of the most popular of moral components.

    You choose not to participate in a culture where teenage girls are stoned for falling in love. Me too. However, there are those that would not agree. Is that because they are evil? Perhaps. Is it because they are ignorant? More likely. Is it because they are fearful? More likely still. Is it because they are righteously indignant ( blindly arrogant )? Probably.

    I may consider myself “enlightened” because I do not participate in such activities, but consider for a moment…would those rock throwers consider me ignorant for not understanding the full implications of love? Very likely. I choose to shun their culture and congregate with those who are more like minded.

    That freedom ( to choose to seek and mingle with the like-minded ) is our most precious asset.

  10. Sidenote: I’ve subscribed to comments. Some come in my email. Some don’t. Now a comment came in my email but hasn’t shown up on the blog yet. Weird.

    Re the video of a girl being stoned, I agree that it is absolutely wrong. And it would be, for us. But you and I come from the same background. The relativity is shown in that the men believe they are right and the girl’s were wrong. Different culture. We wouldn’t want to live in it, or have our culture be that way. It’s symptomatic of a type of slavery where women are the property of men.

    Take something closer to home. Homosexuality (male or female) and abortion. Right or wrong? Homosexuality happens in other species. “Spontaneous” abortions happen. So they can’t be right or wrong in and of themselves can they?

    Or the criminals you mentioned. Most look at what they do as wrong, even though they do it. If you think it’s wrong, it is. That’s what frightening about true sociopaths and why society can’t tolerate them. They have absolutely no sense or right or wrong and are guided only by pleasure-pain principles that revolve only around themselves.

    In your comment that hasn’t shown up, you question whether since morality comes from beliefs, and all beliefs are subjective, then is morality subjective. This sounds reasonable, while it begs of question of the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, something I’ve been tussling with to write a post about.

    As I said earlier, moral codes seem to be designed to allow us to live together in relative peace and harmony. Situations like Iraq, much of the third world, and the inner cities show this isn’t easy to achieve. Since all people are generally the same, most moral codes will have basic features in common. But they still seemed shaped by the culture in which they developed. The more homogenous the culture, the more agreement about what is right. What type of morality is best isn’t an easy issue. Living up to the one we have is even harder.

  11. Steve, I say this as someone who grew up in another country. The things that are televised are viewed from our perspective. Stoning a girl because she is in love is abhorous in our eyes because we don’t see the punishment fitting the crime. However, that culture may just be trying to uphold their standard of chastity and purity which they value above life itself.

    Please note I’m not saying that I agree with it. I am just saying that people view the world from their perspective. What you hold as a moral standard is immoral in other countries and cultures, and vice versa.

    Morality is truer to the analogy of language, than it is to mathematics. It needs context to be true.

    In Spirit,

  12. Nneka,

    I understand, and I know you don’t agree with the actions of those men…

    But there is a part of me…
    A part I can’t control…
    A part beyond my conscious intellect that feels sick when someone is murdered over love…

    A part of me that knows it is wrong. At the very core of what I am.

  13. While there are plenty of grey areas in life, I think Bob Proctor is absolutely wrong. You made reference to Hitler. Auschwitz was a moral horror, but it certainly got the job done, produced the ‘desired result’. It was in fact scarily efficient at doing so.

    ‘What works’ should NEVER be our only consideration. Some ways of doing business ARE wrong, no matter how much of the desired result they produce. The ‘profit over people’ outlook has exacerbated political, economic and environmental problems the world wide and the fact that it’s accepted in some cultures doesn’t prove the relativist argument. Sometimes it’s just evidence of an absence of hope or power to make change.

  14. I’m not sure what video we’re talking about (re: the stoning) and I’m not keen to find out so forgive me for making assumptions.

    Steve, I think your sense of sickness over the premature ending of someone’s life is completely natural. Beyond issues of evolutionary or sociological utility, I suspect that it is a wound on a spiritual level.

    I think you will find that people within that same society feel as you do and are already working to put an end to it. But in situations of poverty, life is very cheap. Even today, preteen girls are being sold by their own families to prostitution houses. It makes an interesting contrast to girls being stoned for their lack of chastity.

    I think there is a morality of the heart and morality of the head and while the heart is absolute, the head is not. The heart feels the pain of a wasted life, the head makes a judgement about whether the perpetrators are good or evil. It is in the latter where we must be careful for it would be too easy to label people as evil and dehumanise them.

    I can vaguely recall some study which showed that when there was a lack of resources, there was more likely to be a harsh, patriarchal culture and in a situation of an abundance of resources, matriarchal cultures were more likely. All of us, with the resources and leisure to sit in front of a computer with internet and make comments are the lucky few who have never been put in a situation of having to decide between selling our daughter and having the rest of the family starve to death. Or stoning our daughter to death to uphold draconian laws which were the only vanguard against complete anarchy.

    And ultimately, that is what context really means. Not “this culture treats women as property – maybe that is right for them” but understanding the nuances of why and what even worse choice they are trying to decide against.

    As imperialistic as it sounds, I do think us lucky few have a responsibility to use our abundance of resources to at least try and make changes. But it must be done in the spirit of respect because we do not know more and we are not better, we are merely luckier and have led a more cushioned life.

  15. Wow… great post and comments. I’ve struggled with this one myself. I may not have the intellectual prowess or debating skills, but I know this.:

    Murder is wrong, even under the guise of “punishment”. I don’t care what your culture says or what you think your god tells you.

    Many things are relative… some aren’t. There’s a great piece of dialouge from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (and I’ll have to paraphrase it here):

    “There are no absolutes.”
    “Isn’t that statement an absolute?”

    Thanks for writing this, Steve, and thanks for all of the thoughtful comments.

  16. I often find that those who like to say there’s no difference between right and wrong and that it’s all a matter of perspective are trying to get away with something they know deep down – if they would only admit it to themselves – is wrong.

  17. Hi Steve, I get what you are saying. When I think of morality, I think of social norms and rules that are made in the context of a culture.

    What you are describing, I call Truth. That, I feel is absolute because it is so regardless of context.

    I was having a problem with semantics. I hear you loud and clear.

    In Spirit,

  18. The may sound too American centric… but this is one of the beliefs I hold today about morality and remember I reserve the right to change my beliefs at any time.

    I agree with this statement as it is written:

    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.

    I actually believe this statement applies to all people everywhere on Earth not just in North America.

    That doesn’t mean I believe we have a right to run around the globe enforcing at the point of gun. To do that is to violate the spirit of the belief.

    But it does mean I believe that if a girl is murdered in the park behind my house or in the deserts of southwest Asia – the geography doesn’t matter – the beliefs of the majority do not matter – her human rights were violated just the same.

    The core problem with this belief is…
    For it to work in North America or any other place on the planet. Everyone must respect one another’s fundamental unalienable rights. How can one expect to have one’s own right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness respected if one is actively destroying someone else’s life, liberty, or happiness. So in that respect it is subjective and relative.

  19. Nneka,

    You know what I love about blogging? and especially about the people that read and comment on this blog?

    We can discuss complex controversial ideas in a meaningful intelligent way. We may not agree, but we get to know each other better and we gain a better understanding of reality. Many of our social problems come down to a lack of listening and understanding one another.

    I used to listen to talk radio – liberal, conservative, libertarian, sports, etc. What a shitty format for building understanding of a subject. But this… blogging… this is the bomb.

    I love it. I can’t believe I didn’t take it up years ago.

    Mark Silver mentioned his mastermind group recently, I’m beginning to think all you folks are my mastermind. Universal intelligence… speaking to me… one voice at a time.

  20. I couldn’t agree with you more about the blogging, Steve, and about talk radio. The only time I listen to it anymore is when I want to get stirred up. Blogging though, that’s a whole ‘nother story. The stimulation is one of the reasons I hang around here. It really helps to clarify thinking. Not that many problems will actually be solved on a blog, any more than they are in a corner pub. :)I do wish the studies Maxine talks about would be able to tell us why the Western countries with the most abundant resources the world has ever seen have patriarchal cultures.

  21. “I’m beginning to think all you folks are my mastermind.”

    You know, there’s something to that, Steve. I’ve tried to start a mastermind group near my home but there are either too few like-minded people or there are too few opportunities for us all to take time out of our packed lives to meet consistently. Blogging and commenting provides an excellent forum for appropriate discussion.

    Perhaps we should start “Blogmasters” to rival Toastmasters!

    Thanks for being this week’s “facilitator” by starting the topic.

  22. Kant wrote that morality rises from duty as opposed to an actual sense of right and wrong. Meaning that if you do an action, it is morally right by the virtue of its motivation and not by the actual act itself. In this sense you can say there are no moral absolutes as each motivation is relative and subjective. The concept of morality itself is conceptual relativism.

  23. I agree that believing what is right is only our perspective. We can’t generalize the view of the majority because there are other people who believe different things.

  24. I’m so glad I caught up with this thread, Steve. I was out of town, and then it was my birthday, and I finally jumped in.

    I, too, disagree with Bob Proctor, even when I listen closely. When he says “there is no right and wrong there is only that which works – that which produces the desired results. Right and wrong is a perspective.” He stops short- because “desired results” is a perspective as well. And “that which works” is a perspective.

    When I look at the world’s religions (hold on, I’m not turning this into a religious debate.. 🙂 ), I see remarkably similar conclusions about what’s right and wrong. Stealing is wrong. Killing is wrong. Defending yourself tends to be okay.

    And, atheists seem to agree with many of the ideas of right and wrong as well- although there may be disagreement about where the principles come from.

    When we get into the details- the nuances, as you mentioned Steve- that’s when our minds/cultures/judgements/excuses/etc come in (I’m not equating culture with excuses- just make a laundry list).

    I bet if you took each of those men, and had them sit with their hearts and emotions for a long enough time, on their own, away from any cultural imperatives or peer pressure- I’m wondering if they would come to the same conclusion about the stoning.

    Most horrific things are justified with reasons. Most acts of love are not justified with reasons- they just feel good. We don’t tend to justify, excuse, or explain when we do something good.

    It’s when we do something wrong, that suddenly we need to show some sacred text, or pages of judicial precedents, or explanations of “I was following orders.”

    To me, that’s proof enough that right and wrong are not relative.

  25. This has definitely gotten me thinking- thanks again!

    Another thought I had, along the lines of the excuse/no excuse thoght, was that actions that are ‘bad’ seem to be in categories. For instance, the stoning, was along the lines of “anyone who does X gets stoned” so the men felt ‘right’ or justified.

    However, with ‘good’ acts, there isn’t the same sort of category set up. It’s true that when people do things like get married, or have birthdays, or what have you, there tend to be parties and gifts involved, but I would say that when I see someone do a ‘good’ act, there isn’t any category it falls into, or any justification or conscious reasoning that’s involved. It just feels ‘right.’

    And, it tends to be on a much more individual level- a heart connection to another individual. Whether I make dinner for my wife, or she gives me a back rub, or I buy a friend dinner, or I see someone on the side of the road with a flat tire and stop to help.

    There’s no category there. There’s no reason or justification. I just do it or not. And it feels good in my heart.

    Wondering what folks thing of this.

  26. It is absolutely useless to define “morality” based on what you feel. As has been pointed out above, people can feel differently about an act. Even in extreme cases such as the death penalty, you will have the same people who are pleased that a pedophile murderer is put to death in the U.S. will be horrified by the young girl being stoned to death in Afghanistan. In both cases, the punishment is merely a reflection of the laws of that people, and will appeared justified to those who ascribe to those laws.

    Philosphy has killed many trees over these issues, but I think without a broad view of science all discussion is useless. Why? Because chimpanzees are capable of what we would describe as compassion. Bonobos are rather sexually loose by our standards but their experience of sex (for enjoyment even over and above the need for procreation) is very close to our own. It is hotly debated whether these can be described as “emotions” (personally, I don’t see why not, but IANAScientist) but the fact remains that matters we may call “moral issues” might be hardwired biological reactions. So then, can they even be called “morals”?

    Back to how you feel: if you feel good being good to people, and feel horrible when seeing an injustice done, and argue about “truth to power”, these are all shadows of biological, chemical impulses that are eons old. It could be that the primate who tries to help an injured bird is just transfering a species-level survival instinct to help another primate onto a bird. Is that any different than what we are doing? If so, I don’t think that demeans us, but rather simply gives background to a basic impulse that our species has elevated to high morality (or spirituality, what-have-you).

    I have no answers, but I think it is important to bring the biological sciences into a discussion like this because of the implications given to our definitions and meanings of things like morality, ethics, compassion, and love.


  27. That’s a good point. Most of the time, we are not open to discussions because of our beliefs, especially if we share the same beliefs. But if we think about it and consider other people’s beliefs, we can make a better decision with their opinions.

  28. In one of the comments someone wrote that you can’t change the world more than in any corner pub. My take on this is, if there is a good blog out there, that people like to read and come back to, then the articles on this blog will have an impact on some of the readers. They might go out and act differently because of something they read. Because of their changed behavior someone else might change too, sort of as a chain reaction. While these seem to be small changes, I believe it creates a different dynamic. Who says we have to change the world… we can start small, right?

  29. When I was vacationing in China with my Chinese friend, his Dad told me (Ironically he is an old respected Chinese man), “The only thing that matter’s is the results. Results are the only thing that count.” These are his own words really (it kind of goes against many philosophies even some aspects of Chinese philosophy), but when I thought about them they made complete sense. It’s an ultimate axiom. Very few exist that I’ve known of. the only one i can think of off the top of my head is “Do not do unto others, as you would not have them do unto you.” Confucius said that. =).
    Well anyways what I’m getting at is that the results of whatever you do are the only thing that are going to end up mattering in the end. Who you helped. who you hurt. at what cost? at what gain? that’s the whole thing behind there is no right or wrong. There is no right or wrong way to do something. There are only ways that give you the results you desire and ways that don’t give you the results you desire.

  30. I happened to read this discussion on morality today when I was trying to find the difference between absolute and relative morality.
    I just want to make one comment on Fred’s statement on “Results are the only thing that count”. True, but in my view what matters is how do you calculate these results. If you look at short term results then you are immoral and if you look for long term results then you are more moral. Try this rule anywhere you want. It will work.

  31. When someone tries to tell me that they don’t believe in relative morality (or moral relativism) I usually ask them how many times they have exceeded the speed limit while driving. Doesn’t matter if it was accidental or not (such as you accidentally went 36 in a 35 mph zone. You broke the law, that was immoral. If they say, well the road dipped right there, I say, is there a sign that says it was OK to go 36 because there was a dip there? Or is your morality relative? How many times has anyone reading this told a white lie? “How did you like the cake?” “Oh, it was yummy!” they say, because they don’t want to “offend” the cook. That’s a lie. How is that “ABSOLUTE MORALITY” working for you now, butthead??

  32. When considers his/her morality to be fluid, as some have described here, it is the same as shooting all of the arrows and then painting bullseyes around the places the arrows struck. Moral relativism is a fallacy.

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