September 7, 2006KR BlogEthics

Relativism is Boring

This book, if reviewed by someone other than Richard Rorty, could have potentially started a very interesting conversation. Unfortunately, relativists are more famous than virtue ethicists, if only because they are prone to saying more ridiculous things; Rorty himself pulls the Nazi card in the first sentence of the review. He’s getting lazy in his old age.

To be fair, I’ve not read the book, although it’s now on my reading list. But the problem with the review, the way I understand it, is that the book argues we’re inclined toward a moral impulse. Rorty’s response is not that we aren’t inclined towards morality, only that morality can be abused. this is incoherent, and hardly a refutation of the notion we might be hardwired for some kind of morality. It’s akin to trying to refute the proposed “God center” of our brain by saying that people have different ideas of God, and thus because the manifestation of religion is not uniform, there is no such center of the brain (rather than trying to refute the “God center” by studying nuns).
All Hauser says in the quotation Rorty scornfully cites is that we’re inclined towards morality. Not that morality is necessarily right. That we are inclined towards it, and that nuture shapes the sort of morality we get. Hauser proposes studying possible moral systems and finding a good one. This is nonthreatening to everyone who isn’t a relativist–because finding a good moral system requires judging moral systems against each other, and determining which is better and which is worse. It would be interesting to see what criteria we would use to judge moral systems, but that’s entirely beside the point.

Rorty suggests erroneously that “evolution had to carve out a new, specialized organ just to generate the extra emotional intensity that differentiates guilt from chagrin.” Even if we don’t accept the idea that a “morality center” is a side-effect of some other evolutionary process–that is, a happy accident–we might notice that other species with highly developed brains have acts that approach what we consider morality. Elephants, for example, stay with the dying and mourn the dead.

What Hauser is suggesting sounds close to virtue ethics–the pursuit of morality not as a set of rules, but as a way of living a good life. If morality is, in fact, the pursuit of the good life, then it makes sense that human beings would be hard-wired for it: the good life would maximize our capacities for everything, survival included, and could potentially help us attract a good mate and pass our genes on. It would have been interesting to see what a virtue ethicist like Martha Nussbaum would have made of this book. Too bad The New York Times trotted out the same tired relativism in response–especially since that doctrine, even in Rorty’s sophisticated version, doesn’t hold water. Even Plato knew that.