Saturday, September 22, 2007

Todd Friel is a moral relativist and he doesn't even know it.

The WOTM crew is fond of speaking in terms of moral absolutes.  The whole "Good Person Test" is, of course, rife with them.  Occasionally, Mr. Friel will find himself witnessing to someone who disputes this claim.  He has some very clever ways of tripping them up, and he usually succeeds in making the mark look foolish.  But that's not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that the critics are right.  There are no moral absolutes.  There is no action a human being can commit that is intrinsically wrong in all possible contexts.  The moral value of an action is determined by its context.  For example, nearly all of us, regardless of faith or lack thereof, would agree that killing people is morally wrong...  Most of the time.  However, we would likely also agree that killing a person might be morally justified (or even morally imperative) in some rare cases.  We may quibble over exactly where the line is, but we agree that the line exists:  Killing people is usually morally wrong, but sometimes it's not.  The morality of the act is determined by the context in which it is committed.  This is true for all possible human actions.

Recently, while broadcasting from the Minnesota State Fair...

We interupt this blog entry for a trip down memory lane.  My first encounter with Mr. Friel was at the Minnesota State Fair in 2005.  Ah, those were the days.  Todd, if you're reading this -- and I know you are -- I was the guy who wanted to pretend Darth Vader was real on the grounds that he's a much cooler fictional character than God.  You also commented on my t-shirt, which read "Talk nerdy to me."  We now return you to your previously scheduled post.

...Mr. Friel witnessed to a young man who argued a similar case.  Todd, however, successfully tripped him by citing rape as an action that is intrinsically wrong in all contexts.  The young man, unfortunately, was unable to respond adequately.  Mr. Friel ended up looking right, and his victim ended up looking foolish.

But as we know, appearances can be deceiving.  Our young, anonymous friend was right, he just didn't know how to enunciate it.  Here's the response he was unsuccessfully floundering for:

Yes, rape is morally wrong in all possible cases.  However, it is still a matter of contextual morality rather than absolute morality because the concept of rape has contextual elements built right into it.  Strip the contextual factors from the concept of rape, and you're left with sex.  Now, it's a near-certainty that secularists and theists would quibble a whole lot about where the line between moral and immoral sex lies, but again, we can agree that there is a line.  Sex performed in a forced or nonconsensual context falls on the "morally wrong" side of that line.  But just like with killing people, it's the context that makes it wrong.

Now, I know some theist is going to come along and smugly ask about where atheists get their morality from in the first place.  And yes, there is an answer to that.  But it's a topic for another day.


AnathemaUnbound said...

Actually... my comment is rather simple:

Is always wrong to burn a baby (or child) with cigarettes (or any flame honestly) purposefully?

BoxerShorts said...


You've included contextual factors in your hypothetical example. If we remove those factors, we're left with "is it always wrong to intentionally injuries on a human being?" The age of the person and the manner of the injuries are matters of context. Thus, the answer to the question then becomes no: It is not wrong in all cases to inflict injuries upon human beings.

But even if we don't strip the action of its contextual elements, the answer is still no. What if the child is bleeding profusely, and cauterizing the wound is the only means you have available to seal it?

henwli said...

Todd believes that killing people in a war can is totally justified (if you're on the right side?). How is this not moral relativism?

Religious beliefs are great for building contextual elements around different acts to justify them. Many people this year have been injured or killed because someone has thought that they have been "possessed by demons". I believe a bruise on your arm is a satanic metastasis and therefore I feel obliged to save you by tearing off your limb. If more appear call me and I'll give you a hand!

WotM is shelving out these building blocks of oddball acts and thoughts through uncritical propagation of ideas like "demons take over people".

BoxerShorts said...

It always cracks my up when theists say "moral relativism" like it's a bad thing, considering that everyone (with the possible exception of psychopaths) practices it every day. A system of morality that does not take context into account would be a poor one, not to mention completely unworkable.