The Science of Ethical Relativism?

If you’re looking to start an argument with a loved one, or a fight, moral relativism is an excellent way to start. Specifically the position that, because different people do have different ideas of what is and is not ethical, your loved one’s morals are not true. Nor are they any more valid than the morals of someone who thinks very differently. And in fact, all ethical positions are equally valid and deserving of respect.┬áThis position strikes many as not only absurd but insulting, which may lead them to strike you.

After all, just because someone thinks that they’re doing the right thing, that doesn’t make it so, right? A fanatic who kills random bystanders in order to make a point may think it’s the height of propriety, and others may agree with him, but they’re wrong. Right? There are some things that are just wrong, and a relativist position that such attitudes are as valid as any other is equally wrong. Right?

Well, we’re not going to get into all that here. What got us onto this was a report in Scientific American that you can scientifically determine whether or not someone is a relativist. That could be useful, if for no other reason than to avoid situations where someone gets punched in the nose.

The magazine reports that “a simple mental puzzle” can determine whether someone is a relativist, or “an absolutist who embraces only one ‘true’ answer to these weighty conundrums.” This is the result of a study by Geoffrey Goodwin an John Darley. You can take a sample question at the link, if you like, but it really just boils down to whether or not, in a situation with multiple possible outcomes, you think through those outcomes when arriving at your answer.

That’s really not terribly useful, unfortunately. It’s only a test of clear, orderly thinking. The kind of brains used by chess players, mechanics troubleshooting a system, computer programmers, and even the occasional lawyer. It’s sadly true that too few people do think so clearly, but plenty do. And plenty of them are moral absolutists. The ability to consider different possibilities and perspectives certainly goes well with relativism, but it is neither a prerequisite nor a cause nor a strong correlate.

Criminal law, of course, is the embodiment of absolutism. What is crime, but the codification of a society’s morality — a list of those acts that are so ethically wrong that they must be punished. It doesn’t matter if an individual or ethnic group within the society doesn’t share the codified morals — they may think it’s perfectly fine if not laudable to do a certain thing, but the law says otherwise and they’re going to be subject to it. And appearances to the contrary, many very smart people with clear logical minds are behind our criminal jurisprudence. They may have the ability to be relativists, but it’d be difficult to call them by that name.


Still, it’s fascinating that someone actually bothered to take a philosophical idea, and do science to it.

Originally, of course, philosophy was how we learned about the world — we thought about it and compared notes to see which ideas held up the best and made the most sense. But the scientific method has replaced philosophy. You have an idea about how the world works? Test it and see if you’re right. In recent decades, the science of the mind has gotten astonishingly good. Brain science is rapidly answering a heck of a lot of questions that used to be the sole province of philosophers. So philosophers have retreated to areas not easily testable, stuff that isn’t exactly science, but where ideas can still be floated and debated and explored. Stuff like morality, free will, etc. One thing that has been fairly constant, however, is that philosophers do not go into the lab. They do not construct double-blind experiments, perform regression analysis, or any of that. The only experiments they perform are thought experiments.

Until lately, however. Goodwin and Darley may not have constructed the best experiment, and they may not have drawn the most accurate conclusions from it, but the important thing is that they did it. They got out of their armchairs, and into the lab. And they’re not alone. A new wave of young philosophers is starting to apply modern cognitive science in attempts to figure out why people think what they think, and why they feel what they feel. This is progress, and it is excellent. The “sounds good to me” theories of the faculty lounge may start to be replaced with an understanding of how things actually are. Such a change would be as remarkable and important as was the realization that stuff is made of atoms.

To call this revolutionary would be no exaggeration. Doing science to philosophy may well result in knowledge that is uncomfortable, that may shake our understanding of human behavior, that may alter bedrock principles of society. People are people, and they’ll always do what they do, but this could be an inflection point in the evolution of what their society does, of what is and is not “civilized.”

Obviously, criminal law may be affected. An act that society wants to punish at the moment may, for some particular individual down the road, be something that we no longer want to punish. Just as penalties for children and the mentally retarded have evolved somewhat by a greater understanding of their ability to know or control what they’re doing, so we may see more defenses arise for others who, for one reason or another, are not culpable. We may see more actions as having been justified. We may see more as accidental or otherwise beyond one’s control. The philosophical purposes of punishment may have to be revisited, to balance greater understanding of why things happen against the interests of public safety. Defendants may see harsher treatment, too — being penalized or punished more for the mere risk that they pose, rather than for acts already committed. What kinds of punishments work, what doesn’t, what is cruel and unusual — all that could easily require re-evaluation.

No matter how rapid the scientific advances, though, the legal and policy advances won’t come fast. Even in these days of instantaneous worldwide communication, it still takes time for philosophies to evolve. First, the science has to do its work, and then it’ll likely take a generation or two for any new ideas to shake out and take root. Or longer.

And there will likely be a number of alternative and conflicting approaches to any new understanding of how the mind works. Some may even be more valid than others.

How does that strike you?

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