Moral Relativism

Written on October 30, 2010. Written by .

Humans are hedonization machines. According to the heirarchy of value, all values stem from the pleasure and pain of experience, and these values are our only fundamental guide to action. However, this is not always evident because we often act based on principle or investment. But if you think back to when that principle was established or about the future benefit of the investment, you will probably realize that the principle or investment was justified on hedonistic grounds. Even people who live a life of sacrifice are almost certainly hedonizing in some form. Either they enjoy the consequences of the sacrifice or are working under the assumption that they will be hedonically repaid in an “afterlife”.

Just because people are hedonizing, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing it effectively. Assumptions like the existence of an “afterlife” can destroy the efficiency of the hedonic process. Furthermore, irrationality or lack of thought can induce computation errors that degrade efficiency. However, even if they are ineffective, individuals with these traits are presumably acting according to what they think or feel to be hedonism.

I wouldn’t claim that every action ever made was hedonic because I could never prove that, but I think it is reasonable to assume that almost all actions are hedonic, meaning that the individual decided (consciously, on principle, emotionally, or otherwise) that it was the best course of action at the time based on all expected pleasure and pain in the present and future.

A question that has arisen a few times is: “If everyone is already hedonizing, then what is the point in stating the moral maxim: maximize expected subjective life quality?” The answer is that there is a big difference in the effectiveness of rational conscious hedonism and irrational or unthinking hedonism. The maxim could also be expressed as “Accept reality and the nature of your existence by openly accepting that you are hedonistic so that you can apply rational conscious thought to your hedonization and make it more effective.” Because even though one is hedonizing, if they can’t admit it to themselves, they won’t be able to put much conscious thought into it.

Now if we accept the premise that people are inevitably hedonistic, what can we say about conventional morality? Morality is about classifying actions of humans as right or wrong. The first issue is that we need precise definitions for right and wrong. And already we are esssentially dead in our tracks from an objective point of view. To define these terms, we need a standard of value based on some context. Objectivity means context-independence, so as soon as a context is adopted, objectivity is lost. This brings us to moral relativism, which means that there is no objective morality and any moral system is relative to the context it is framed in.

But this isn’t really saying all that much. It’s just saying that you can’t have morals in a vacuum. I think the only way you could disagree with that is if you believe a god wrote morals into the fabric of the cosmos. What most people are concerned with is morality in a societal context, which certainly exists. Societal morality can be viewed as the extrinsic side of an intrinsic-extrinsic dichotomy. Intrinsic morality is about saying what a person should do if they want to hedonize effectively, whereas extrinsic morality is about how people should act if the primary standard of value is benefit to society. Both of these contexts have important applications.

An extrinsic morality consists of a set of rules that say: under the conditions X, you should/shouldn’t do Y (for the sake of society). These rules can be seen as truths within the context, so even though they are not globally objective, they are not completely subjective either. In fact, the definition of objectivity itself is context-dependent, so in the societal context, the moral laws could be considered objectively true extrinsic morals.

It seems that the conventional moralist would be quite pleased with this. However, there is an additional problem that often arises, known as Hume’s is-ought problem. The fallacy that Hume noticed was that people would do something like prove that obeying a certain law is best for society and then make the logical jump to something like people ought to obey the law. Logically, the only way to go from a truth (“is”) to an imperitive (“ought”) is to provide an objective that the imperitive is designed to meet. Truths alone do not have objectives. So even if we have a clearly defined extrinsic morality, there is no direct way to assert that people ought to obey it.

Pragmatically, if the objective is not agreed upon, the “ought” will have no influence. If you present the moral “If you want to benefit society, you should do X,” to a hedonic machine like a human, the implicit response is “I only care about society to the extent that it benefits me, so it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice more than society is giving me.” The precondition of the moral is not satisfied, and it is dismissed. Intrinsic morality, on the other hand, does have a natural objective: to improve hedonic efficiency. So if you present the moral “If you want to maximize your hedonic efficiency, you should do X,” to a human, the precondition is satisfied and the rule may be adopted.

However, some might argue that even if it isn’t pragmatic, there is still a valid “ought” stemming from an extrinsic morality. But consider two cases: (1) the action was properly decided according to rational hedonism or (2) the action was a result of some sort of mistake such as calculational error or lack of thought. This is really a spectrum, not a hard line, but both cases give the same result so it doesn’t matter. In the first case, saying that the person ought to have done anything else is equivalent to saying the person should not have acted hedonically, which is impossible by our premise. And in case (2), saying the person should have acted differently is equivalent to saying they shouldn’t have made a mistake, which is absurd because the person wasn’t trying to make a mistake, so if the mistake weren’t inevitable, it wouldn’t have occurred. This may be counter-intuitive due to the way we use “should” in common speach, but it can be clarified by considering the decision process more carefully. Imagine you make a mistake by forgetting something and you hear someone tell you, “You should have remembered!” Philosophically, even if the memory is in your brain, it doesn’t have any effect unless there is something that causes you to remember it. Without such a cause, remembrance is impossible. The issue of whether you should have made more of an effort to store the memory in the first place is a separate act that may fall under case (1) or (2). Saying “You should have remembered!” is philosophically absurd, but serves the purpose of encouraging more caution in the future.

So essentially, “ought” is only meaningful in intrinsic morality or within contexts that have specifically agreed-upon objectives, which are really just subcontexts of intrinsic morality. However, that doesn’t mean that extrinsic morality is meaningless. As stated before, extrinsic morality does contain context-based truths that can be used to guide organizations interested in societal progress. Generally, governments focus on the extrinsic method of manipulating incentive structures, whereas religions focus on the intrinsic method of manipulating people’s hedonization algorithm. Religions are special in that they attempt to directly justify an extrinsic morality with an intrinsic approach. In other words, they attempt to convince you that what is in your best interest is a set of morals that is actually designed for society’s best interest. Although this prescriptive philosophy is logically absurd, it is effectively not that far off considering how much intrinsic and extrinsic morality overlap in a stable prosperous society with effective law enforcement. But such logical distortion is unnecessary if not dangerous. By following the intrinsic moral maxim: maximize expected subjective life quality, you will automatically be acting in accordance with extrinsic morality almost all the time.

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