Ethics Gradient

lisekit has a discussion on novels, religion and relativism in religion. She says that, where religion is concerned, she doesn’t like to say that anyone’s views are more or less valuable than anyone else’s. This set me thinking about the idea of relativism in general (which lisekit isn’t advocating, lest I accuse her of it, as she mentions respect and tolerance as moral virtues).

I seem to have been brainwashed by Neal Stephenson into believing that strict relativism is undesirable because it does not work. If you cannot say one thing is better than another, the only sin left is hypocrisy (and, perhaps, intolerance 🙂 In a sense I’m a relativist, since I don’t believe in absolutes imposed by a deity, but in another sense, that of refusing to say that one thing is better than another, I am not. In morality, say, I advocate things which I believe will lead to a society which I hope will be a good one for myself and people I care for. In religion, I would like to see well-reasoned disagreement between people who do think their viewpoint is the right one but are prepared to learn from others. Better that than the pop-culture spirituality which accepts everything that feels good (poor Greg Egan’s disgust for that sort of thing in Silver Fire makes me think he’s forgotten what G.K. Chesterton said happens to people who stop believing in God). Stephenson again:


The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you’ve got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things–who populate major law firms and corporate boards–understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don’t raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.
In the Beginning was the Command Line

(The rest of Stephenson’s essay is a huge digression on technology and culture, seen through the lens of the Windows/Unix clash: it’s well worth reading if you’ve an hour to spare).

I suppose I’m back to morality as enlightened self-interest again: the reason these people are inculcating their children in their particular culture is because those cultures work, and they want their children to be happy, fulfilled and all that stuff. There are cultures which don’t, and I’ll gladly preach the superiority of those which work over those which don’t, as it’s in my own interest to do so.

15 thoughts on “Ethics Gradient”

  1. I suppose I’m back to morality as enlightened self-interest again: the reason these people are inculating their children in their particular culture is because those cultures work, and they want their children to be happy, fulfilled and all that stuff.

    Yeah, that makes sese to me. Fluffity-lah.

    I think the relativism only came into the discussion latterly – it began as one about tolerance. And it specifically began as an idea about how some people seem to be prepared to show tolerance and cultural sensitivity towards more foreign systems of tradition and belief – my suggestion was that people feel they absolutely don’t understand and can’t offer an op[inion – but appear to feel happy offering opinions left, right and right-of centre on religion at home in the (perhaps mistaken) belief that they understand this better.

    Of course, then someone showed up on the thread to denounce all belief, which I is different to the case I had in mind, and I suppose shows a certain degree of internal consistency, but I don’t think is a particularly engaging way to deal with other people.

    And, as I commented at the very end, I’m not comfortable hierarchising one set of beliefs over another, although I accept that there are people who do.

  2. I believe we should be tolerant of other peoples beliefs in the sense of not trying to forcibly change them (perhaps unless those beliefs lead to actions which have a strong negative effect on others [although I’m not sure about this]).

    Toleration does not prevent us from trying to debate / argue with / convert those people to our own particular beliefs and way of thinking however. If we believe we have the truth and someone else does not then (depending on the scale of consequence of them not being ‘right’ in our view) if we really care about them we should try to debate / argue with / convert them.

    Of course there are two sides to this – I know of (Christian) people who try to convert people in part because they care about them and don’t want them to burn in hell but also because their church / denomination / cu has put a lot of social pressure on them to ‘be evangelistic’; this I think is a bit of a shame.

    I’m still hopefully that there is a truth out there which can be discovered, something that we can be certain of.

    1. I believe we should be tolerant of other peoples beliefs in the sense of not trying to forcibly change them ….

      Toleration does not prevent us from trying to
      convert those people to our own particular beliefs

      I don’t quite understand the distinction between the two. (Alright, I understand that you think there is a difference in force, or level, but in a very basic way, I don’t see a distinction.)

      1. Dictionary.com: Tolerate

        1. To allow without prohibiting or opposing; permit.
        2. To recognize and respect (the rights, beliefs, or practices of others).
        3. To put up with; endure.

        So we tolerate someones belief by not prohibiting them from having (/exercising) those beliefs.

        Dictionary.com: Convert
        “…To persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief: convert pagans to Christianity; was converted to pacifism by the war.
        Conversion/persuasion/etc is where we act to try to change those beliefs.

        They have quite different meanings.

        1. Could it not be said, that an attempt to change or convert beliefs, is in itself an attempt to prohibit or oppose the existing belief? (You don’t wanna believe like that….!)

            1. [shrugs] I don’t think I agree that they are. If the latter case seeks to exclude a former belief, then it opposes it and, by extension, prohibits it.

              1. The latter seeks to change ones belief not to exclude it or oppose it. There is no prohibition in wishing to change someones beliefs. Prohibition is imposed on someone whereas conversion is chosen.

              2. It would be an awful shame if it were considered wrong to discuss / debate someones belief with them on the grounds that it was an intolerant thing to do. At the very least it would be deny someone the freedom of expression/speech, at the very worst one would be unable to warn someone about something bad that might be happening to them now or in the future (or conversely unable to tell them about something better they could have now or in the future).

                1. There’s discussion, and there’s prosletysing in any form. As I remarked on my own journal, I have no problem at all with discussing and even disagreeing, with respect; this does not, to my mind, amount to a conversion attempt. It may be that you have a broader definition of “conversion” than the one that is currently in my mind. The word, to me, connotes something quite one-sided, rather than the notion of a respectful discussion.

                  Just out of interest, who is being converted and to what belief here?

                  1. Dictionary.com: Proselytize

                    1. To induce someone to convert to one’s own religious faith.
                    2. To induce someone to join one’s own political party or to espouse one’s doctrine.

                    Dictionary.com: Induce

                    1. To lead or move, as to a course of action, by influence or persuasion. See Synonyms at persuade.
                    2. To bring about or stimulate the occurrence of; cause: a drug used to induce labor.
                    3. To infer by inductive reasoning.

                    Dictionary.com: Discussion

                    1. Consideration of a subject by a group; an earnest conversation.
                    2. A formal discourse on a topic; an exposition.

                    There’s discussion, and there’s prosletysing in any form.
                    Proselytizing is by definition an attempt to persuade or influence someone to change their point of view to your own. Of course this can be achieved either through debate or more forceful means (which I would not advocate at all). One of the main methods of persuading someone to come around to your point of view is through debate – tell them what you believe and why you think that is true (or more true) than what they believe on that subject. It is their decision whether they agree or not.

                    As I remarked on my own journal, I have no problem at all with discussing and even disagreeing, with respect; this does not, to my mind, amount to a conversion attempt.
                    The difference is whether you intend to change the other persons view point in that discussion. If I were to intend to enter a debate for the purpose of changing someones point of view that is by definition an attempt at conversion, if however I were to enter a debate purely for the purpose of investigating the issue together then that would not be an attempt at conversion. I think its fair to say that in most situations one does not sit on either of the extremes, there is a mixture of both.

                    It may be that you have a broader definition of “conversion” than the one that is currently in my mind. The word, to me, connotes something quite one-sided, rather than the notion of a respectful discussion.
                    As I said above I think conversion can be very one sided in terms of choice (for instance ‘forced conversion’ through violence etc) but in the context in which I meant it (i.e. in modern english society) it is not. By definition an attempt at conversion has to be ‘one sided’ as you intend to change someones point of view. It is however their choice as to whether or not they change that point of view.

                    It is also worth noting that one can believe that the belief that a person holds is not true yet tolerate (allow without prohibiting or opposing)their belief and respect (avoid violation of or interference with) the person.

                    Just out of interest, who is being converted and to what belief here?
                    While replying to Paul I didn’t say that anyone was being converted to any belief.

                    Some people act to convert because of love and care for their fellow man, some because they are forced or coerced into doing so. Some acts of conversion are open to be rejected, others are not. The former I applaud, the latter I despise.

  3. You can rationalise the whole ‘better than’ thing by remembering that “better than” has to be for a purpouse.

    Word is better than LaTex for quickly knocking up a letter.
    LaTex is better than Word for producing properly formatted large documents.

    I am better than my friend Ed at maths.

    But I’m not better than anyone in a general sense, because the phrase doesn’t make any sense.

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