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I am reading a book about philosophical counseling (“Therapy for the Sane”) and finding it very interesting and educational. The one problem I have with it is that the author seems to assume the reader is not a moral relativist. Apart from briefly pointing out that there is a lack of logic in the idea that two contradictory beliefs can be true, the author does not seem to think the concept worthy of disproving. This is problematic for me because I am very much what the author terms a moral relativist.

“Therapy for the Sane” cover

Let’s examine what that means to me:

  1. Some people are more driven by logic than emotion, but all people are driven by emotion to some extent. The human being is not a purely logical animal. When we have a strong like or dislike due to our individual conditioning, the precise structure of our bodies – especially our brains – and the balance of chemicals in them, our knowledge, our culture, and the historical period in which we live, we often have the love or aversion first and then construct or subscribe to arguments explaining logically why that thing is good or bad.
  2. Few moral arguments are without logical counter-arguments (even deciding which arguments are clear issues, free from logical counterarguments, is subjective!). For example, you could argue that it is wrong to steal personal property that someone has worked hard and honestly to obtain, and there is logic there, but you could also logically argue that it is wrong for a particular person to be privileged with possessions when another person has far fewer and therefore the poorer person is justified in stealing from the richer. It depends on how much weight you give to each argument, and many people will conclude that whatever answer they tend toward, there are a few exceptions depending on how much of a basic need the items stolen are and how much discrepancy there is between the lifestyles of the two individuals involved. Drawing the line between right and wrong is going to be an extremely subjective matter. Therefore, I don’t subscribe to the argument which the author of this book seems to find self-evident, ie. that two beliefs such as “it is wrongest to steal” and “it is wrongest to own a lot when other people go without” cannot both be respected as valid opinions.
  3. It is slightly arrogant to believe that our own knowledge, conditioning, cultural context, circumstances and brains are inherently more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Subjectively we will feel very strongly about certain issues and it would be pointless and even harmful to ignore our own feelings and live in a state of perpetual amorality on a matter of principle. After all, if our beliefs are no more right than anyone else’s, they are no less right either. However, I find it useful to maintain a background level of humility about my beliefs and acknowledge that while they are important to me they are a product of my consciousness and not a measurable or “real” sign of anything external.
  4. In the same way that it is unlikely anyone is experiencing your dreams along with you, but the joy or suffering they create is real to you, our waking realities have the same subjective quality but this is not to say that they are not important and completely real. In fact, they are what constitutes life itself. The only difference is the greater extent to which others cannot share our dreams; most people have a basic level of consensus about what happens in waking life but all will disagree to some extent, especially on less provable issues such as which of two pieces of apparently true evidence should be given the most importance if they lead to differing moral conclusions.
  5. If one is a theist, then assuming they believe the above they will probably conclude that all people, without any input from god(s), are equally likely to be right or wrong because of our incomplete and subjective experience of existence. However, they will believe that there is ultimately a set of right answers and that omnipotent god(s) can know them.
  6. In contrast, an atheist like me sees no evidence to conclude that any consciousness which exists is omnipotent and without subjectivity, so there is no objective measure of right or wrong. Therefore, all people are not equally likely to be right or wrong but are in a very real sense equally right or wrong.
  7. People’s opinions and beliefs can sometimes be changed by presenting convincing evidence/knowledge/arguments that they had not previously been aware of. If you have a strong belief there is not necessarily any reason not to try and conscript other people into a similar world-view. If people can agree, or at least see the logic in the beliefs of others and respect them more, then people tend to get along better with each other. As stated above, just because one’s reality is unique to them does not make it unimportant and nor does it mean that different people’s realities cannot influence each other due to actions and communications.
  8. However, it is misguided to think that everybody can be persuaded to share important aspects of your reality- some people are just coming from too different a place. Hoping that everyone you meet will ever agree with you is probably setting yourself up for disappointment and believing that everyone who does not agree with you is shamefully ignorant or deluded is probably setting yourself up for a lot of anger or resentment.

~*~ Ash

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