Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

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mettafuture
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Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by mettafuture »

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines moral relativism as follows:
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.
Bhikkhu Bodhi has given a contrasting view that could be categorized as a form of moral absolutism.
By assigning value and spiritual ideals to private subjectivity, the materialistic world view ... threatens to undermine any secure objective foundation for morality. The result is the widespread moral degeneration that we witness today. To counter this tendency, I do not think mere moral exhortation is sufficient. If morality is to function as an efficient guide to conduct, it cannot be propounded as a self-justifying scheme but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system which grounds morality in a transpersonal order. Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.
Do you see yourself (or the Buddha's teachings) as morally relativistic, morally absolutist, or something else? Do you try to avoid criticizing particular ideas or actions even if you don't personally condone them? Or do you feel that it’s necessary to criticize particular ideas or actions to mitigate social degeneration?
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Pseudobabble
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by Pseudobabble »

Something else, which is kamma. Intentions and actions which are 'bad' from one position can be 'good' from another. Assuming that we agree on the presupposition that the goal is to reach Nibbana, and that drinking hinders progress toward that goal, consuming a small quantity of alcohol is 'bad' from the position of someone who drinks none, whereas it is 'good' from the perspective of one who drinks too much.

Good and bad only make sense as valuations in relation to a goal or purpose.

What differentiates this from relativism is that the laws of kamma operate the same way for everyone, so there is an invariance that cuts across all actions performed by all people. It is not the case that what is good for me is not good for you, though it may be good for each of us in different degrees.
Last edited by Pseudobabble on Thu May 09, 2019 4:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception...such are fabrications...such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.'" - Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta


'Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.' - Genesis 3:19

'Some fart freely, some try to hide and silence it. Which one is correct?' - Saegnapha
budo
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by budo »

There is a sutta that goes like this:

I do not like bad things happening to me, so I will not do bad things to other people.

No one likes to be murdered, attacked, stolen from, misrepresented and lied to and about, cheated on, gossiped on, etc..
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by Sam Vara »

mettafuture wrote: Thu May 09, 2019 3:58 pm
Do you see yourself (or the Buddha's teachings) as morally relativistic, morally absolutist, or something else? Do you try to avoid criticizing particular ideas or actions even if you don't personally condone them? Or do you feel that it’s necessary to criticize particular ideas or actions to mitigate social degeneration?
I (currently!) see the teachings as being a middle way between the metaphysical claim that there is objective right and wrong written into the fabric of the universe; and the chaos of individualistic relativism. As a species, we are so constituted as to find some of our actions productive of pain and unhappiness; and others productive of happiness. A few days ago I linked to an article by Pannobhasa Bhikkhu which contained a really clear and memorable outline of this type of ethical standpoint:
what it all boils down to is this: doing what raises consciousness decreases unhappiness and is “good” or “moral” or “skillful,” and doing what lowers our level of consciousness decreases our level of happiness and is “bad” or “immoral” or “unskillful.” It’s not a matter of the decree of a God that one must love one’s neighbor or avoid certain kinds of meat, but rather the level of consciousness that accompanies one's actions that determines morality.

Some actions naturally have a raising or lowering effect on the quality of our mind, possibly as a mere side effect of being human. Lying or stealing or beating someone up, for example, are very difficult to accomplish with a calm, expanded mind, and tend to reduce the level of one’s consciousness. According to Buddhist ethics it is a practical impossibility to murder one’s own mother without some very extreme negative mental states that will have lingering, habitual effects in future, vulgarly referred to as “bad karma.” Just as a person with a troubled mind is more likely to have bad dreams at night, so a person with such a mind is more likely to create a bad waking reality also, subconsciously or subliminally. The quality of your mind determines the quality of your world, your reality.
http://politicallyincorrectdharma.blogs ... m.html

I think that the point about an external God setting standards of good and bad, etc., also applies to arguments about the existence of naturalistic uncreated objective standards; the idea we sometimes hear along the lines that "the universe just happens to be that way...", etc. It does, but only at the level of our species.

As for criticising what we do not condone, there appears to be very little call for it. Condoning something seems to involve an already existent negative judgement, and for me the point is to decide when it is worth mentally developing that negativity, or allowing it to become manifested in verbal or physical activity. Most of the world is usually doing something which isn't helping me all that much, but criticising it rarely seems to help. It just stirs things up. There are interesting issues around admonishing (strange word!) which is when we think an intervention is required in order to benefit someone else; and criticising others when they threaten my little chunk of householder's happiness. The former I do quite a lot with my children, but I am probably quite poor at it under other circumstances. The latter gets us into politics, which I am interested in but also repelled by. Luckily I don't have to do too much of it, because I am currently in a relatively peaceful situation where I am comfortably well off and not the target of other people's ill will.
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by cappuccino »

hell would answer the question

along with heaven & earth
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by dharmacorps »

Very important subject, thanks for bringing it up. It seems to me moral relativism is the order of the day-- particularly where I live (Northern Cal), there seems to be no room for bringing up morality whatsoever without making people uncomfortable (could also just be me!). I think the reason that we are in the place we are is because our culture and society is emerging from a system that is close to moral absolutism of the Judeo Christian type which had angles to it which were very damaging and hurtful to people because of the moral judgement (e.g. you will go to hell/god will punish you). The Buddha of course rejected both extremes repeatedly. But it does scare me that there seems to be little room to explore morality in the modern world.
Odd to say it, but I find it quite easy to get along with anyone of any kind of religious background because there is a certain general framework where virtue is valued, and find common ground (with the exception of fanatics/fundementalists), but moral relativists are hard.
To me it is clear that actions, as other people have described, can be evaluated in terms of kamma-- do these lead to your long term welfare and happiness? When you frame these things in this way, morality and virtue can be agreed upon even by the most vociferous moral relativists. At least, I've had some success in discussions at dinner parties. Sometimes, if you are outed as a Buddhist, people will ask you questions, so prepare to have good answers brothers and sisters!
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by binocular »

mettafuture wrote: Thu May 09, 2019 3:58 pmDo you see yourself (or the Buddha's teachings) as morally relativistic, morally absolutist, or something else?
For all practical intents and purposes, almost all Buddhists that I know are moral absolutists.

Personally, I don't know what to think of the Buddha's teachings in regard to the nature of the morality espoused there. To me, they seem to be so private and so action-oriented that the issue of the moral nature of the teachings never really comes up. I mean, it seems to me that when acting in line with the teachings in the suttas, one would not even come near to thinking about morality in the abstract, because one would be busy with other things.
Do you try to avoid criticizing particular ideas or actions even if you don't personally condone them? Or do you feel that it’s necessary to criticize particular ideas or actions to mitigate social degeneration?
For one, it's not clear that such criticism actually accomplishes anything much, other than creating bad blood. It's not clear whether it can mitigate social degeneration. As far as I know, studies of the development of moral reasoning in humans indicate that abstract discussions about moral problems generally seem to have little influence on people's moral reasoning.

For two, any criticism is inevitably inbedded into some particular social situation, and as such, this particular social situation will determine to a lesser or greater extent what can be said and how it will be understood by the other party. There is no such thing as "pure criticial thinking", not even in college classes where they teach critical thinking.
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by retrofuturist »

Greetings,
mettafuture wrote: Thu May 09, 2019 3:58 pm Do you see yourself (or the Buddha's teachings) as morally relativistic, morally absolutist, or something else? Do you try to avoid criticizing particular ideas or actions even if you don't personally condone them? Or do you feel that it’s necessary to criticize particular ideas or actions to mitigate social degeneration?
The Buddha's morality is absolutist vis-a-vis the cetana (intention) underlying actions, because they are either kusala (wholesome/skillful) or akusala (unwholesome/unskillful). No amount of evaluation or critique changes that natural law, described in the commentaries as kamma-niyama.

The outward manifestation of actions are relative to intention. For example, intentionally stepping on a snail is different to accidentally stepping on a snail from a moral perspective, even if the physical action and consequences for the snail are literally the same.

That's the thrust of morality in the Buddha's teaching. When you deviate from that into discussion of politics more broadly, you are getting into a space of discussing the operations of various social, governmental and economic structures and their respective pros and cons. In the context of the Dhamma, these thought structures are mental constructions. The underlying intention behind the arising of the thought, and how that mind-object is regarded will determine whether it is kusala or akusala, for the individual. Many people handle social, economic and political constructs with great attachment and aversion, and that is an akusala manner in which to grasp them. If they cannot be handled without attachment or aversion, it would be preferable not to conceive of them at all.

As the moral component always originates from individual intention, searching for it externally in the realm of non-sentient objectified concepts and systems is a misguided and potentially vexing exercise in conceptual proliferation.

Metta,
Paul. :)
"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"It is natural that one who knows and sees things as they really are is disenchanted and dispassionate." (AN 10.2)

"Overcome the liar by truth." (Dhp 223)
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Re: Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

Post by Pseudobabble »

retrofuturist wrote: Thu May 09, 2019 8:43 pm Greetings,
mettafuture wrote: Thu May 09, 2019 3:58 pm Do you see yourself (or the Buddha's teachings) as morally relativistic, morally absolutist, or something else? Do you try to avoid criticizing particular ideas or actions even if you don't personally condone them? Or do you feel that it’s necessary to criticize particular ideas or actions to mitigate social degeneration?
The Buddha's morality is absolutist vis-a-vis the cetana (intention) underlying actions, because they are either kusala (wholesome/skillful) or akusala (unwholesome/unskillful). No amount of evaluation or critique changes that natural law, described in the commentaries as kamma-niyama.

The outward manifestation of actions are relative to intention. For example, intentionally stepping on a snail is different to accidentally stepping on a snail from a moral perspective, even if the physical action and consequences for the snail are literally the same.

That's the thrust of morality in the Buddha's teaching. When you deviate from that into discussion of politics more broadly, you are getting into a space of discussing the operations of various social, governmental and economic structures and their respective pros and cons. In the context of the Dhamma, these thought structures are mental constructions. The underlying intention behind the arising of the thought, and how that mind-object is regarded will determine whether it is kusala or akusala, for the individual. Many people handle social, economic and political constructs with great attachment and aversion, and that is an akusala manner in which to grasp them. If they cannot be handled without attachment or aversion, it would be preferable not to conceive of them at all.

As the moral component always originates from individual intention, searching for it externally in the realm of non-sentient objectified concepts and systems is a misguided and potentially vexing exercise in conceptual proliferation.

Metta,
Paul. :)
:goodpost:

Much clearer than I put it.
"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception...such are fabrications...such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.'" - Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta


'Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.' - Genesis 3:19

'Some fart freely, some try to hide and silence it. Which one is correct?' - Saegnapha
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