Can you tell up from down?

Secular morality is relative.

Therefore, there is no ultimate, absolute, universal right and wrong in secular morality.

Because of this, there is no reason for anyone to follow secular moral rules.

It amazes me how often I hear something like this line of reasoning trotted out as a defeater for secular morality. I have long seen that it’s a completely vacuous argument, but I haven’t been able to articulate the problem with it.

Now I think I have a nice illustration that can demonstrate why it fails.

Consider the concepts of “up” and “down”.

These are obviously very useful concepts. They are important directions when dealing with actions like standing, lifting, dropping, flying, etc. They also serve as anchors for other concepts like “above/below”, “top/bottom”, “upside-down”, and so on.

It is often very important for someone to be able to identify which direction is “up” and which direction is “down”. To pilots, for example, it is regularly a matter of life and death.

But “up” and “down” have a dirty little secret: they are relative. “Up”means “away from the centre of the Earth”.

But no, even this is too geocentric.* If you’re on Mars, “up” is “away from the centre of Mars”. And if you’re in space … well, it becomes muddier. Does an astronaut experiencing microgravity in orbit around the Earth consider “up” to be “away from the Earth”? What about if you were orbiting the Sun away from any planet? What about the Voyager probes, shooting away from the Sun in orbit around nothing (except, perhaps, the galactic core)?

You see, the concept of “up” is relative. Even if you’re just on Earth, “up” is a different physical direction for someone in Ghana than for someone in Siberia.

An obvious and necessary corrolary of this is that there is no ultimate, absolute, universal “up” or “down”.

So far, “up” and “down” are the same as “right” and “wrong” in a moral system with relative underpinnings (such as one that is based on the shared psychological underpinnings of human nature – ie, relative to the species): they work only within the local frame of reference.

So, is the idea of “up” basically meaningless? Does it have no bearing on individuals? Do we have any way of deciding whether one direction is objectively “up” in a given situation?

Of course, the answer is obvious. If I am in Edmonton, Canada, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Edmonton. If I am in Kumamoto, Japan, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Kumamoto.

Similarly, for many secular moral systems, even if there is a relative element in them, it is still relative to something concrete. For example, my current inclination is to base my moral reasoning on principles that I think most people would share, such as valuing individual freedom and preventing harm. So, although my moral system is relative to these human values, the reasoning works as long as I’m talking to people in the same location: that is, as long as the people I’m speaking to share these principles.

This is not proof that secular, relativist morality is superior to theistic alternatives. I don’t know if one can prove such a thing about moral systems (except in cases where a moral system is inconsistent with itself, of course – that is a mark against any set of ideas).

But I hope that the “up/down” analogy will help people understand the faults with the most common objection to relative systems of morality.


* It’s also very imprecise. Due to gravitational effects of mountains and other stuff, the gravitational pull at any particular point on the Earth’s surface isn’t necessarily straight toward the Earth’s centre.


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6 Responses to “Can you tell up from down?”

  1. ausomeawestin Says:

    Very interesting ideas about an argument that is pressed by theists more assuredly than they have any intellectual right to.

    As an atheist who thinks there is a reason to be moral, I’m a little worried by your defense of secular morality by accepting relativism.

    You said, “although my moral system is relative to these human values, the reasoning works as long as I’m talking to people in the same location: that is, as long as the people I’m speaking to share these principles”.

    The suggestion here seems to be that we have a reason to be moral, because we have a shared sense of morality in our society, such that we agree to the same general moral principles. But if we were transported to another society with very different moral values it would follow, on your view, that we would not have a reason to act morally anymore, if, as you claim, we have reason to be moral as long as we are speaking with people who share our principles. But even if we disagreed with their understanding of morality we would still have reason to be moral in general. So the normativity, or reason giving-ness of morality extends farther than our specific moral beliefs.

    As such, I wonder if accepting relativism will yield a satisfying answer for what reason we have to be moral, when prodded by the theist.

    It’s hard to know how to answer their question at all, but I think one thing we don’t want to do, as secular moralizers, is to say that “good” and “bad” are relative. I think we should understand them as synonymous with “oughtness” and “ought-not-ness”. In this way, when we say that an action is morally good, we are saying that we ought to do it, which is to voice the fact that we are motivated to do that action. Understanding good and bad in this way would be to borrow from some recent developments in semantics, particularly functionalist semantics, that hold that the meaning of a concept is the role it plays in the reasoning of an agent, and particularly with moral terms, the practical reasoning of what an agent has reason to do. On this understanding, moral terms are not relative, but there meaning is given by the inferential role they play in reasoning about action. This is one way to avoid the relativism that theists charge atheists with.

    Looking forward to reading more of your writing.


  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thanks for weighing in.

    As I see it, morality is basically an expression of internal values as they relate to actions. If that is the case, then morality is inescapably relative to those values. That’s simple enough (at least at my current stage of thinking about things).

    Where it gets difficult – for any moral system, I think, is when you try to talk other people into accepting your moral system (and, by extension, your values too).

    If I am right that morality is relative in this way, nothing is gained by trying to hide that fact. If I am wrong, then please show me how, because as you say relativism is uncomfortable and unpalatable.

    I don’t think you’re advocating deception. Perhaps another tack would be to say that morality depends on values, and then argue for why this set of values is more objectively defensible than that one.

    I am curious, both as an amateur philosopher and as a professional linguist (though not a semanticist), about this functional semantics you mention. Can you tell me more or point me to an overview of the approach?

  3. Timothy Mills Says:

    On re-reading my response, I feel like I wasn’t very focussed. Here is a somewhat more perspicuous presentation.

    I feel that there are two very different questions here.

    One is whether morality really is relative to something that can change – such as human nature, human culture, or an individual’s preferences. I think it is. I think that the nature of morality is that it derives from an individual’s values, which are built by a combination of human nature (changeable but essentially fixed over the timespans that are most relevant to moral discussions) human culture (more rapidly changeable) and individual predispositions (mostly fixed for a given person, I think, but with some scope for change under experience – and so partly open to education, persuasion, and manipulation).

    The other is how to most persuasively present our moral outlook. My main purpose here isn’t really persuasion, but exploration. However, it’s certainly important to choose words that get meaning across, and don’t block understanding with emotional kneejerks. It seems that using the term “relative”, however appropriate its denotation, unduly prejudices people against our system because of the connotations of the word. Perhaps using terms like “based on” or “derived from” rather than “relative to” would help. What’s important is not the symbol but the substance – not the word but the meaning.

    The above post obviously wasn’t meant to be a thoroughgoing defense of my secular moral perspective, but simply to dismantle one common line of attack used against secular moral systems.

  4. ausomeawestin Says:

    Very interesting. By “morality is basically an expression of internal values” do you mean that moral statements are truth-apt beliefs about value, or that moral statements express (shout) our desires? In other words, are moral statements propositional, or are they exclamations about what we think is desirable/valued to us? This distinction is important, because if morality is relative in the sense of depending on values, then we get very different conclusions about the possibility of objective moral facts if we think our moral statements are meant to fit the world (truth-apt route) or the world is meant to fit our moral statements (exclamatory route). That is, if morality depends on values that are dependent on the world, then there is some hope for uncovering objective moral truths, in situations of near-perfect knowledge. If morality depends on values that are our arbitrary desires then there does seem little hope for objectivity about morality.

    As for functionalist semantics, I’d recommend work by Gilbert Harman and Ned Block, and for functionalist semantics approaches to moral terms look to Ralph Wedgwood and David Enoch. I’d don’t normally explicitly plug my on blog, but I wrote an introduction to Wedgwood’s views on the matter, here:

    • Timothy Mills Says:

      This is all a line of tentative thinking on my part, and I’m grateful to have someone engaging and critiquing these ideas – thankyou!

      My impression is that morals are expressions of our (effectively arbitrary) desires. I agree that in this view, “objective” morality is something of a pipe dream.

      The best hope I’ve been able to dredge out of this in terms of building consensus on moral claims is that we can work for intersubjective agreement. That would involve some combination of science (for the physical facts on which moral claim often rely, such as whether vaccines prevent more harm than they cause), logic (because moral claims are logically connected to one another and to our values), and rhetoric (to persuade others to accept the values underpinning our moral positions).

      It may be less satisfying than the absolute objective morality claimed by certain religious types. But, so far as I can see, it is a better depiction of how morality works in human reasoning and how it really connects to the world around us.

      Also, because we share a common human nature and, to a lesser extent, common human cultural experiences, I think there is fair hope that we can achieve this agreement on many points of basic morality. So things are not at dark as they may seem.

      • ausomeawestin Says:

        It’s my pleasure, I enjoy discussing these things, particularly with thoughtful people, such as yourself.

        You said that we could work for intersubjective agreement by using logic. But it’s hard to imagine, at least for me, how we can account for the logic of moral arguments if moral statements are exclamations of desires. In other words, this seems like a valid argument:

        Stealing is wrong. If stealing is wrong, then it is wrong to pay your brother to steal for you. Thus, paying your brother to steal for you is wrong.

        But if moral statements are exclamations about desires then this isn’t actually a valid argument, because it reduces to:

        Boo stealing! If boo stealing then boo brother stealing. Thus, boo brother stealing.

        An exclamation doesn’t logically entail another exclamation. It’s hard to make the ‘moral statements express desires’ route fit with our experience of morality, being as it is a descriptive and truth-apt discourse that allows for arguments.

        I might be misunderstanding you, and you might mean that moral statements describe our desires, such that such discourse is truth-apt, and does allow for valid arguments. This would definitely entail relativism. But, for me at least, if we use all of the criteria you hope for (being informed by science, following logic, and rhetoric), and we gain intersubjective agreement, it would seem more likely that our moral statements have been guided by real properties, rather than it just being a coincidence that we all agreed to something that doesn’t truly exist, and thus, that some form of moral realism is true.

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