Are Some Actions Just Plain Wrong?


Have you ever heard of something called reductio ad absurdum? If you haven't, this is what it means:

Reductio ad absurdum is a mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable. It is a style of reasoning that has been employed throughout the history of mathematics and philosophy from classical antiquity onwards. (EIP)

If you can't parse out the meaning from what I shared above, I'll try to explain it in easier terms. Basically, if you make a statement that you're attempting to pass off as the truth, a tactic you can use to persuade is to show the absurdity of denying your claim. Here are two examples from Wikipedia:

1. The Earth cannot be flat; otherwise, we would find people falling off the edge.

2. There is no smallest positive rational number because, if there were, then it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.

Mind you, there are many examples for these types of statements. These two are just rather good ones. And as you can see, whoever made them up has demonstrated the absurdity of rejecting the initial claim. If the world was flat, yes, we'd have some serious problems. And if there was ever a "smallest" number, then why not simply divide that in half? You can divide everything in half, right? The fact that the response was sufficiently absurd or ridiculous makes the entire statement a reductio ad absurdum. In my opinion, this is an excellent form of argument. One that's tough to counter. And if the argument is made thoroughly enough, the counter has been justified as false. That's the beauty of it.

Here's another great example:

You are in trouble for skipping school, but you tell your father, "All of my friends were going!"

He says, "Well, if all of your friends were going to jump off of a bridge, would you do that, too?"

In this example, the son made a claim and the father countered that his argument, if accepted, would lead to absurd consequences. Above, the son's position wasn't logical and the father merely pointed that out, thus proving the son's argument to be false. Let's say a mother and a son were to come across a flower garden that included a sign that said, "Please don't pick the flowers." What if the son said he wanted to pick just one flower. How should the mother respond to the son to show him that his position isn't tenable? That's right. She should say, "What if everyone picked just one flower? Soon there would be no more flowers."

Philosophy is full of arguments such as this and many of its theories can be argued against quite effectively if thought is put into those arguments. In this post, I'd like to discuss some of the absurdities of moral relativism. If you read through this post, you'll see a few arguments already fleshed out. Pointing out that each culture can justifiably claim its own set of morality isn't an easy position to defend. There's always one horror or another to exploit to make the relativist look silly.

Before I go any further though, I'll ask the question: Are some things just plain wrong across all cultures? I know some out there would say that each and every culture does things for its own reasons and we may not understand those reasons, therefore, we have no business interfering. But what if something was so outrageous that it simply wasn't able to be defended? Would objective morality finally exist? What would it take to admit that something is objectively moral? I know some people have a tough time with this, but how about genocide? Is exterminating millions of people ever justified? What if a culture thought it was moral to, say, pull every last hair from a kitten's body and then throw the kitten down a 1,000 foot well as some sort of sacrifice? I know this is an extreme example, but would something like that be justifiably moral a culture? And if so, would the rest of us have to look the other way? There are some pretty weird cultures out there that engage in some outrageous sacrifices. I'm willing to say that some of them are flat out wrong.

If you think about moral relativism for a moment, you'll realize that it states that simply because some cultures engage in an obviously wrong activity, then that activity must be moral. As if the mere action has deemed it so. How about suttee? Is that ever right? I'm willing to say that the majority of the world today has agreed that suttee is morally wrong. Along with genocide, infanticide, and slavery. By definition, moral relativists must agree that cultures that engage in these types of activities are justified for doing so, strictly based on the fact that they're a culture into themselves. And furthermore, because moral relativists deny objective morality in its entirety, there are no standards by which to hold any culture accountable anyway. They've sort of boxed themselves in. Although, I'm willing to wager that they've come up with some very creative arguments to support their positions. How about something like this:

"We needed to engage in genocide. There were too many people alive and those people were destroying the planet."

It really depends on a particular group's priorities and views on the world. They don't feel that humans have the same value as other people might. And who's to say they're wrong? We thin populations of deer and do all we can to get rid of mice and rats. Just ask a farmer who has a rodent problem near his grain bins. He'll tell you that he'd do practically anything to deal with the issue. Who's to say that humans aren't taking a similar toll on the world at large? And who's to say that a human is more valuable than a mouse? We as humans do some pretty terrible things to rodents. Perhaps we shouldn't take a holier than thou position when it comes to ourselves. I can imagine that being a relativist argument.

Throughout time, moral relativists have had difficulties maintaining their positions when it comes to arguments like these. And in doing so, they've made concessions. They've attempted to circumvent their stringent positions for the greater good. They've agreed that some actions are harmful to humanity as a whole and they've condemned those actions. The problem with this is that by agreeing that the greater good is a universal and moral cause, they've undermined their own relativistic position and have agreed that the greater good is a universal objective moralistic one. As you can see, they've shot themselves in the foot here. They essentially agreed that some moral positions are better or more just than others. They've acknowledged that there are at least a few universal standards by which we should live and in doing so, have led themselves down the path or objectivity, rather than relativity.
Are Some Actions Just Plain Wrong? was posted on 08-27-2020 by LukeLewis in the Philosophy Forum.