Moral Relativism and the Concrete Universal

by Chris Horner

Photograph taken by author

There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them.[1] Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is  – what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view that  moral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society. Read more »

Politics and the Beautiful Soul

by Christopher Horner

If you want to deserve Hell, you need only stay in bed. The world is iniquity; if you accept it, you are an accomplice, if you change it you are an executioner. —Jean-Paul Sartre

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capitals work for it by condemning and abusing each other. —Mark Fisher

Hell is other people —Jean Paul Sartre

Politics is difficult. Doing politics, that is. The boring meetings, the leafleting, the marching in the wind and rain (if you can leave your house), the arguments, the confrontations and the blank incomprehension, the ad hominem attacks and much more. But the largest problem by far is other people. Some are the unconvinced, some are the apathetic and then there are the hostile, those you are opposing. More problematic, though, can be those who are supposed to be on your side. They can be difficult to endure. How many of them would you want to meet if you had the choice? Too often, in my experience, it is only a few, as the sheer hard work of trying to arrive at something like a collective will wears everyone out and tries everyone’s patience. Not all politics is like that of course:  there can be the sense of comradeship from working with others one wouldn’t otherwise get to know. The experience of making a difference and working for a meaningful goal can be a wonderful thing.

This is hard to sustain though, when we experience defeat and frustration. The bitter moment in which one realises that for now (for how long?) the other side has the day. This has been a recent and bitter experience for the UK  Labour Party supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, and of the many in the USA who marched and canvassed for Bernie Sanders in 2020, only to see him him stopped in the primaries. And quite apart from one’s official enemies, there have been real battles within those parties. With failure comes the temptation to have done, to walk away, either into inaction or in order find another, and inevitably smaller, group of like-minded activists. This latter has been a reliable feature of left politics for as long as anyone can remember: an addiction to splitting.  After all, if the others aren’t part of the solution, they must be part of the problem, right? Read more »

What’s so bad about smugness?

by Emrys Westacott

Elaine: “I hate smugness. Don’t you hate smugness?

Cabdriver, “Smugness is not a good quality.”

So goes a popular snippet from Seinfeld. In a 2014 article in The Guardian titled “Smug: The most toxic insult of them all?” Mark Hooper opined that “there can be few more damning labels in modern Britain than ‘smug.'” And CBS journalist Will Rahn declared, in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, that “modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing [is] its unbearable smugness.”

But what is smugness? What, exactly, do people find objectionable about it? And is it really such a terrible moral failing, worthy of being described as “unbearable”?

What is smugness?

For an immediate graphic example of smugness, just look at a picture of Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson smirking in front of 10 Downing Street. For a less stomach-churning way of getting an initial handle on the concept, consider a few concrete instances. Here are four:

  • Someone on a very high income says, “Yes, I am well compensated, but I like to think I’ve earned it, and that I’m worth it. As a general rule, I think it’s fair to assume that pay reflects merit.”
  • A parent whose children have been admitted to prestigious universities, talking to one whose child is at a less selective college, says, “It’s nice to know that one’s kids will be taught by real experts in the field, and that their classmates will be at their intellectual level.”
  • A punter who has won $500 at the race track backing a rank outside can’t help smirking at the crestfallen faces of his friends who all backed the favorite.
  • A couple regularly preen themselves on their healthy and ecologically responsible eating habits.

Smugness is not arrogance. Arrogant people typically display a sense of their own importance and superiority with little subtlety: they strut; they are dogmatic; they are dismissive of others. Smugness shares with arrogance a high degree of self-satisfaction and a sense of some kind of superiority over others, but it typically manifests itself quietly and indirectly, without brashness. Muhammad Ali, who called himself “The Greatest,” was undeniably sure about his own superiority as a boxer, and he was called many things–arrogant, loud-mouthed, lippy–but I don’t recall anyone describing him as smug. Read more »

Is unpunctuality a moral failing?

Imgresby Emrys Westacott

We all know people who are routinely late. We may even be one of them. These people aren't necessarily late for everything. They usually manage to catch their trains or planes, get to a concert before it begins, and make it to their job interviews on time. But if it's a matter of rendezvousing for coffee, not holding up dinner, or being packed for a trip by the prearranged departure time, they are systematically hopeless.

Surprisingly, English doesn't seem to have a noun for this kind of person akin to words like “slob” or “scruff” or “lazybones.” The term “latecomer” won't do since it denotes one who is late for a specific event, not one who regularly keeps other waiting. So for the sake of convenience, let's label these people “unpunctuals.”

On several occasions I have heard amusing little speeches given about such individuals, at birthday parties, anniversaries, and graduation celebrations. The spirit is always the same: the subject of the toast/roast is a lovely person in many, many ways but he/she has a unique (although, in truth, it obviously isn't unique) sense of time. A familiar consequence of this has been that the unpunctual's nearest and dearest have spent a goodly proportion of their earthly existence hanging around wondering when the unpunctual will show up/be ready/finish a task etc..

This charitableness toward the unpunctual is interesting. We are less ready to laugh at other little failings which inconvenience us. Imagine a similar speech about someone who regularly borrows money and doesn't pay it back. Or who routinely fails to pick up their share of the tab at a restaurant. Or who insists on inflicting loud music on us when we are trying to concentrate or are suffering from a migraine. In such cases, the humour would be more barbed, the implicit criticism more pointed.

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Do our moral beliefs need to be consistent?

by Emrys Westacott

We generally think it desirable for our moral and political opinions to be logically consistent. We view inconsistency as a failing. Why?

I'm not talking here about consistency between a person's beliefs and their actions. Failing to practice what we preach is the sort of inconsistency we call hypocrisy, and it's easy to see why we disapprove of that. Hypocrites are less trustworthy and predictable than people whose actions accord with their stated opinions. Nor am I talking about remaining consistent over time, never altering or abandoning one's earlier convictions. That's the sort of “foolish consistency” that Emerson ridiculed as “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I'm talking about logical consistency between beliefs. Why do we care about this? Exposing inconsistency is a standard move in many an ethical argument. Take the debate about abortion, for instance. A standard argument for viewing abortion as immoral is that it is essentially no different from infanticide, which, as it is the premeditated killing of an innocent human being, meets the definition of murder. Note the form of the argument: if you think murder is wrong, then, to be consistent, you should think infanticide is wrong, in which case, to be consistent, you should think that abortion is wrong. On the other side, a common justification for permitting abortion rests on the idea that a woman has property rights over her own body. Essentially, the argument runs: if you agree that a woman's body is her own property, then consistency requires you to accept that she can do with it as she pleases, and if you agree that the fetus is a part of her body, then consistency requires you to accept that she can do as she pleases with the fetus.

Or take Peter Singer's well-known argument for why all of us who can afford to should give more to help the needy. We all agree it would be wrong to not save someone from drowning just because we didn't want to ruin our shoes. Well, Singer argues, if we think that, then we should also accept that we have a duty to save human lives if we can do so by making similar minor sacrifices–and many of us can do this by donating our disposable income to charity. Whether these lives are close by or far away is irrelevant. Again, the underlying strategy here is an appeal to consistency. If you think x, then you ought, for the sake of consistency, to think y. Many other arguments about moral matters take this form.

But why do we value consistency? In science and in our everyday beliefs about the way things are, there is a straightforward answer. Inconsistent beliefs, taken together, form a contradiction: a proposition that has the form “p and not p.” We assume that reality does not contain contradictions (an assumption first articulated by Parmenides). So we infer that an inconsistent set of beliefs cannot possibly be an accurate description of the way things are.

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Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

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Tripping Over the Bulges: What Really Matters Morally

by Tauriq Moosa

How should we tackle things we believe are wrong and should be illegal, when it seems their very status of being ‘illegal’ gives rise to the problems we oppose. It’s not drugs per se that bothers us, but the violence and destruction that can arise. It’s not sex itself that’s a problem, it’s how we consider sex and apply it to policy decisions. But using our emotions and knee-jerk reactions and letting it simmer within policies can have disastrous effects for us.

I’ve written before that I don’t quite understand the so-called inherent moral problem of necrophilia. Sure, the deceased’s loved ones might be upset, offended and so on. But aside from these interests, what else should we be concerned about? Health reasons, you say? Well, that’s a problem even for living and consensual partners in sex acts, given STD’s, trust, promiscuity and so on. What makes necrophilia particularly a problem?

The main thing about acts of necrophilia, it seems to me, is revulsion. What makes it particularly potent is the combination of ‘sex’ with death. Sex, for many people, is fraught with moral problems – but, as I’ve briefly highlighted above with necrophilia – it’s not particular to sex with dead bodies or sex with live bodies. Both are apparently problematic. It’s how people consider sex in general.

I don’t quite understand why sex should be considered morally problematic in itself. It is not. Just as driving a car is not problematic in itself: Sure, we can kill others and ourselves, and usually we have partners involved, but that doesn’t mean driving a car is automatically morally problematic. Sex offers pleasure and pain, like most of life. I think that many people are still caught up in absolute right and wrong ways to conduct themselves in and toward sex, instead of realising that like most human actions, sexual relations are dynamic and varied. The ways we approach sex more often has terrible consequences than the results of consensual sex between rational persons.

Consider recently a story in the M&G about prosecuting 12- to 16-year-olds engaged in consensual sex acts.

Recently, children's rights activists were outraged when it emerged that National Prosecution Authority head Menzi Simelane had used the Act to authorise the prosecution of at least two groups of children between the ages of 12 and 16 for having consensual sex — six learners from Mavalani High School in Limpopo and three pupils from Johannesburg.

Simelane did withdraw the charges, but compelled the children to complete something called a “diversion programme”. The problem is the Sexual Offences Act which “makes it illegal for any person to engage in ‘consensual sexual penetration’ with children between the ages of 12 and 16.” It has excellent justification of course: “This Act was designed to address the sexual abuse of children [my emphasis]” – but many of you will no doubt see the arising problem: “But in effect also makes it illegal for youngsters of those ages to have sex.”

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Removing the Blades from Hume’s Guillotine

by Tauriq Moosa

David-Hume-Scotland-17111776-289536 Hume’s Guillotine: “One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. This thesis, which comes from a famous passage in Hume's Treatise [says]: there is a class of statements of fact which is logically distinct from a class of statements of value. No set of statements of fact by themselves entails any statement of value. Put in more contemporary terminology, no set of descriptive statements can entail an evaluative statement without the addition of at least one evaluative premise. To believe otherwise is to commit what has been called the naturalistic fallacy.”

– John Searle, ‘How to Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”’, The Philosophical Review, 1964

Beware, people. This is a long piece. Even I’m uncertain about it. Here we go then.


Major ethicists like Immanuel Kant and indeed – to an extent – Thomas Aquinas sought to establish a rational basis for deriving moral considerations. Why rationality above other justifications? Consider: one and one is two. This is a statement that appears to hold true regardless of the state of the world, whether we’re dreaming or awake (as Descartes famously pointed out in his Meditations), whether we’re in pain, and so on. However there is an implicit assumption being made here, too: that if we do agree that one and one is two, we who agree to this statement are rational agents; that is, beings who accept the constraints and rules of logic and rationality.

This appears to only beg the question: Why should anyone accept that one and one is two? (This problem so vexed the young Bertrand Russell, that he nearly mentally destroyed himself as an adult trying to establish conclusively that one and one is two.) As Sam Harris has said, how do you convince a person not interested in rationality to use rationality? As soon as you start making rational arguments, you’ve already lost.

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Mob Morality: The Dangers of Repugnance as Moral Authority

by Tauriq Moosa

Clip_image004 What is it about topics like incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism that urges us to pick up pitchforks and torches? A more important question, however, is whether these topics automatically or necessarily should elicit outrage enough for us to target those who perform these acts. I think not.

Considering the purely descriptive side, there has been some interesting but controversial research into our moral psychology and intuitions.

Jonathan Haidt famously provided the following example in a study.

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Haidt, in an interview, explained the responses of subjects reaching ‘moral dumbfounding’:

People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

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