Home > Criticism of moral relativism, emotivism and scientism

Criticism of moral relativism, emotivism and scientism

First, I want to make the distinction between emotivism/prescriptionism(which I shall refer to as simply emotivism) or moral/ethical relativism (which I shall refer to as ethical relativism) or scientism/social darwinism (which I go back and forth for some reason) and what I shall call here “ignorancism†. There is a very big difference between saying “I don’t know the truth about this matter, and I don’t think these people over here know either†and saying “I don’t think any proposition is true†. Likewise there is a very big difference between saying “I don’t know what I should do in this situation, and I don’t think those over there know either†or “I don’t think we can ever know precisely†and saying “there is nothing anyone should ever do over anything else†. Likewise there is a big difference between saying “our genes and culture have developed to promote traits that continue the survival of the species†and “I think continuing the species is valuable, that life has intrinsic worth†. Most relativists and emotivists and scientismists that I encounter are simply reacting to absolutists that they strongly disagree with. So, before continuing, I implore those that characterize themselves as relativists or emotivists or scientismists (social Darwinists) to think deeply whether their position is reactionary or genuine, and if they aren’t sure to research the subjects.

I would also like to make it clear that “what one should do is relative to one’s situation†is not an affirmation of relativism. Most absolutists would agree with this as well; the decisions that I make very much depend on the situations in which I am making them, and I’d be surprised if someone found an absolutist that disagrees. Also “there’s an exception to every rule†is also not an affirmation of relativism. For instance, I have no problem as an absolutist saying “stealing may be good in some situations (for instance, justifiable war or justifiable taxes)†or “killing someone might be necessary†(though I don’t agree there is an exception to every rule, which would clearly have exceptions if it wasn’t the case).

Those that make definitive lists characterizing “types of actions†as right or wrong rather than intentions I call naïve absolutists, and I generally disagree with at least the philosophy they use to generate or assert the rules, and their application or interpretation of them. Despite this, I am still an absolutist as I assert “one should search for some truth in all situations†, though I am not arguing in favour of this theory in this piece, it serves as an example of an absolute ethical theory that only asserts the validity of a principle, and makes no absolute assertions about any specific conduct (I am sure that the “good life†and good decisions would lead to as much truth as possible, but I am uncertain which specific actions would accomplish such). However, to serve as a counter example that these theories I’m criticizing will have to overcome on top of all the direct criticism I levy, I will be arguing in favour of a weaker absolute theory I shall call “non-contradictionism†(NC).

Non-contradictivism is the assertion that I, and everyone else, should at least try to avoid contradiction in our ideas and actions, and at the least attempt to resolve contradiction when found. Non-contradictionism might lead to a pluralism of equally acceptable theories (my position when I started studying philosophy), and furthermore one may argue that one can only be choose between the acceptable theories by appeal to emotions (an non-contradictionism emotivism); or, NC might lead to a more precise theory (my position after I failed to defeat the search for some truth principle).

However, NC emotivism is not to be confused with emotivism. In NC emotivism “I shouldn’t have contradictory ideas or act in a contradictory manner†is not simply the assertion of a preference. The NC emotivist actually believes that it is better to avoid contradiction (that there is some intrinsic goodness to it). NC emotivism should also not be confused with emotivism with the preference of NC (I happen to like acting coherently today, I might change my mind tomorrow, and I certainly won’t suggest that anyone who likes contradicting themselves is better off avoiding doing so). However, my criticism goes deeper. Some of the following questions and criticisms I suspect are resolvable but I have not seen any satisfactory resoluton to, while others I believe are genuinely not resolvable. The first I put to show that these theories are in no way simple, and to work at all would be incredibly complex, while the latter I put to show that the theories don’t work at all.

Emotivism is the theory that all “should†statements are simply the assertions of preferences or emotions.

1. First, how does the emotivist avoid stating “I should do what I prefer†. Most emotivists I have encountered believe they are justified in following their preferences, not that it is simply a preference to follow preferences. But if it just a preference to follow preferences, is it intellectually honest to argue in favour of the theory, or just a preference?

2. Furthermore, statements like “I should walk out the door if I want to exit the room†seem to be using “should†to assert something that isn’t a preference. Emotivism can clearly accept there is this non emotive sense of the word, but it becomes more difficult to say that “everyone who uses ‘should’ without a conditional context is simply expressing emotion†. I see no necessary change in the meaning of ‘should’ if I state for some reason unequivocally “I should walk out the door†.

3. How is an emotivist theory to function, if preferences and emotions are doubted? For instance, how do I know following my preferences now, won’t exclude greater preferences in the future? Likewise, how do I know that I won’t live to regret in the future my following of my preferences now? If preferences are fundamentally arbitrary, it seems answering these questions are impossible. For the theory to work I would have to predict my future states of mind. Likewise, how am I to choose between preferences that contradict each other?

4. If it is possible to uncover “immutable preferences†how does one know they are immutable, where do these immutable preferences come from, how do they exist, why are they immutable? What guaranty is there that these immutable preferences aren’t contradictory, what would one do if they are?

5. How do emotivists defeat non-contradictivism?

Ethical relativism is in my esteem a hopelessly incoherent, which is of course why it developed into emotivism. As can be seen the problem of arbitrariness in ethical relativism can be solved by simply saying “I happen to have emotions that tell me what to do, and I do it even though these emotions aren’t justifiable in anyway†.

6. How does ethical relativism avoid supporting my opinion that ethical relativism is incorrect? Why aren’t I justified in this assertion? If I am, how is the ethical relativist who asserts that I am justified in asserting ethical relativism is incorrect, justified in arguing against my assertion?

7. How does ethical relativism avoid arbitrariness? Or is ethical relativism fundamentally arbitrary? As in everything is justified according to ethical relativism? If ethical relativism isn’t arbitrary, and I actually should follow the ideas of my culture, how is this an ethically relative statement, and not an absolute ethical statement “follow the ideas of your culture†? If ethical relativism is just the assertion of arbitrariness then what point does arguing it have, or of holding that it is true at all? Does the ethical relativist really assert that smashing my head into the desk, then cutting off some of my fingers, followed by running screaming wildly in the streets without regard for traffic, finished with sowing my foot to my head and eventually dying of dehydration (but not after shooting as many people as I can), would be just as ethical or good as finishing this paper, putting it on the internet for review and criticism, and thinking as honestly as I can about the responses? If ethical relativism is not asserting randomness how does one determine what one’s culture is? How does one determine which of one’s cultural ideas to follow if they contradict somewhere? What does one do if one encounters a situation of which one’s culture has no comment (why couldn’t such reasoning be employed for all decisions)?

Scientism or social Darwinism is also hopelessly incoherent. As far as I have seen it is generally a reaction to religions the scientismist dislikes.

8. How does one go from “is†statements to “should†statements (has anyone answered Hume)? If the body of scientific knowledge only contains observations and no ethical assertions of any kind, how is an ethics derived? ( And observations about ethical statements are not an ethical assertion, by ethical assertion I mean an observation that asserts something is ethical). More specifically, to be based on science all relevant “what should I do†questions must be resolvable by an experiment or some other set of observations and experiment and obersvation alone. Experiment and observations might give an idea as to what the consequence of various actions would probably be, but no experiment I have ever witnessed resolves which consequences should be striven for, what actions should be carried out, what things I can observe have value.

9. Stating that humans are genetically and culturally inclined to promote the survival of their society, is not an assertion that one should actually carry out this inclination. Certainly the inclination is not necessary, as many people actively attempt to destroy society. Faced with the choice of pursuing my genetic and cultural inclination or pursuing something else, how can I resolve one over the other with science? Statements like “pursuing one’s nature is good†or “promoting the survival of the species is good†are all not scientifically justifiable claims.

10. What does scientism suggest when we encounter a problem the species has not encountered before? Odds are there is no genetic inclination to solve the problem. Do we use our intellect (an idea which does not seem to be a genetic or cultural trait) to try to understand the problem (which might even be caused by previous traits that are no longer applicable) and try to act in a way that allows the species to continue? Or do we simply have confidence that some future generation will develop the trait to solve the problem? Again, what scientific basis is there to care about what happens to the species one way or another?

11. In general, statements such as “I think continuing to live and continuing the species is valuable†is not justifiable based on any known scientific experiment. Though I agree with this statement, I have other reasoning. Is there scientific experiments that also justify the statement? If so, where? And if not, does the social Darwinist still justify biology based “moralism†?

12. In general social Darwinism is based on an implicit assumption of what is good, then states we have evolved to be somewhat good, and then jumps to the conclusion “I should be good†. Not only is an implicit assumption of what is good have no scientific grounds, but it is intellectually dishonest to use implicit assumptions one has not justified to take advantage of the “general intuition of good†that exists. The conclusion “I should be good†is completely unjustified in social Darwinism.

13. Even if a scientismic theory avoided all this previous criticism how does the theory deal with the question of whether to be normal or a permutation. Evolution involves normals and random permutations, normals follow already developed traits, whereas random permutations follow new traits (usually well over 99 percent being useless to the individual and to the species in general). As both are intrinsic to evolution, how does one decide based on evolutionary social Darwinism or some other scientific theory whether to strike out on a random path, be it onion ice cream or a new form of rape, murder and self mutilation, or to follow the conventions developed by the species and culture?


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