Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Chomsky explains why nobody is a moral relativist (openculture.com)
174 points by gslin 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 435 comments



I think that the thing that most people don't realize about ethics is the meta-ethical problem that axioms are by definition arbitrary.

When we really think about the fact that all of our ethical theories are based on arbitrary axioms, suddenly the teeth to ethics have a deep, serious problem.

The only argument we have at that point is that the axioms "feel" correct, and I have no problem with this basis, I consider myself someone with strong ethical viewpoints. However, when the foundation of ethics is based on feel, then there are serious problems, because it stands to reason that folks who have a different feel are entirely justified in their ethical standards (assuming good-faith and good reasoning).

At that point, we have the problem that almost every ethical theory (I would argue the concept of ethics), must be universalizable. That is, if something is wrong for me, it should be wrong for someone else in my position (not necessarily everyone). This is completely impossible when ethics are ultimately based on feel.

Now, Chompsky here is basically saying, come on, we have innate instinctual ethical views. I generally agree with him, but it ultimately doesn't matter. If ethical theory is simply instinctual, the same meta-ethical problem exists, it's just that the founding axiom that most folks will have is that the "normal" ethical view is the "correct" view... it's a fine axiom, we needn't argue about it, but it's still arbitrary, and effectively amounts to might makes right.


He’s not saying we have instinctual ethical views. He’s saying we have a biologically determined interpretive framework we use to evaluate ethical questions.

This is what he was talking about when he said we make a leap from scattered data to specific conclusions, and we all do this in a similar way. We all just have different data. However when we have very similar data, such as living in a particular culture, we mostly come to the same conclusions. The interpretive framework sets that reference frame for human ethics.

The comparison to visual systems is apt. Intelligent spiders would have a different biologically determined ethical interpretive framework in the same way that they would have a different visual system.

Within the range set by our biology there is a considerable degree of arbitrariness, for sure. He spells this out clearly at the beginning. He’s not arguing there is no relativism. He’s arguing against the absolute unlimited relativism espoused by Foucault because that’s what he was asked about.


>He’s not saying we have instinctual ethical views. He’s saying we have a biologically determined interpretive framework we use to evaluate ethical questions.

I thought this was entirely obvious to everyone until I read GP’s to comment.

We act in a way that keeps the majority of us alive and reproducing. We have done OK at that so as a society, we keep doing it that way.

Sure, ok, that’s “relative”, but also obvious and doesn’t invalidate the idea that we know which things are good/ethical beyond how they feel.


The concept of a 'biologically determined interpretive framework' doesn't seem all that determined to me. The variation in our individual moral compasses and the existence of intercultural moral divides indicate that this framework is as vague and inconsistent as it can be.

Using empathy or feelings as a basis raises the question of whose sensitivity we should calibrate it on. We are not moral relativists because the concept of morality itself is built on the idea of distinguishing right from wrong. We believe that what we are doing is right.

In the future, there might be a carbon-neutral vegan society, and they will view us through their newly derived ethical compass, much like how we perceive morality when we look back at our recent history.

If this biological source had any consistency, why did people do monstrous things while believing they are on the right? Would you have had your current moral compass if you lived in another society/another time that you look back at now with horror? Can you find a single human ethic that all societies from any time can agree on?


>The concept of a 'biologically determined interpretive framework' doesn't seem all that determined to me. The variation in our individual moral compasses and the existence of intercultural moral divides indicate that this framework is as vague and inconsistent as it can be.

Is it limitlessly inconsistent as Foucault claimed?

>In the future, there might be a carbon-neutral vegan society, and they will view us through their newly derived ethical compass, much like how we perceive morality when we look back at our recent history.

That is correct, and Chomsky raised almost that identical example. As I said he's not arguing for no moral relativism, just that there are some biologically imposed limits.

>Can you find a single human ethic that all societies from any time can agree on?

You're missing the forest for the trees that are blocking your view. The very fact that individual societies do have consensus moral frameworks demonstrates that individual moral frameworks are not unlimited by constraints such as environment and culture. This is why he says relativism is incoherent. The fact that it accepts that cultural moral frameworks exist, and that there are reasons for that, kills this hard form of extreme relativism stone dead. After all if human ethics were truly unconstrained, how can cultural norms exist?

It is true that individuals can vary greatly, most people are not psychopaths but some are. Most do not experience extreme abuse as children that warps their perspective, but some do. Even so, these individuals have their ethical frameworks very largely determined by factors outside their control. A psychopath can't choose not to suffer from psychopathy, an abuse victim cannot just choose not to be warped by that abuse. They do of course have autonomy within a range, and it's not the same range as most of us, but it's still a range.


instinctual -> biologically determined

views -> interpretive framework/evaluation system


> when we have very similar data, such as living in a particular culture, we mostly come to the same conclusions

That's not my take from the interview, but in any case this is provably false. People living in a given "culture" don't come to the same conclusions: they come to different conclusions -- usually opposite ones.

Politics wouldn't exist otherwise. Or most wars, which are almost always between neighbors sharing more or less the same "culture" but having values so different they're willing to die to defend them.


I mean if you recursively generate 'opposite' conclusions you still only end up with 2 different conclusions?


How about "similar enough?" People, particular people who've never lived in another culture overemphasize differences within their own culture between themselves and others in their own culture. They often overestimate similarities between themselves and other cultures.


I didn’t say the same, I said mostly the same.

Cultures consist of a consensus. When the consensus shifts, the culture shifts. Politics operates within an agreed framework at any given time.

At the time of the founding of the USA some people had misgivings about slave owning, but even some of them still owned slaves. 100 years later there was a civil war over it. Today in the US slavery is almost universally maligned and only exists as a covert criminal activity.

Was there a diversity of opinion at the time of the revolutionary war, and is there now? Sure. Was there a consensus then and now? I don’t see how you can argue otherwise.


At the time of the civil war there was no country-wide consensus on the question of slavery, obviously.

Today, on that specific question, there seems to be a consensus (although one can argue it's largely a legal consensus: the song "Rich men north of Richmond" is choke-full of dog whistles advocating for a return to the good old times of pre-civil war in the South, and its runaway success shows it resonates with many people).

But there are a lot of other ethical topics where there is zero consensus, in the US, today. Guns, abortion, immigration, to name a few.


>At the time of the civil war there was no country-wide consensus on the question of slavery, obviously.

There was a consensus in the South. There was a consensus in the North. It's the existence of consensus at all that is the problem for Foucault's unconstrained relativism.

The very fact that individual societies do have consensus moral frameworks demonstrates that individual moral frameworks are not unlimited by constraints such as environment and culture. This is why he says relativism is incoherent. The fact that it accepts that cultural moral frameworks exist, and that there are reasons for that, kills this hard form of extreme relativism stone dead. After all if human ethics were truly unconstrained, how can cultural norms exist?

It is true that individuals can vary greatly, most people are not psychopaths but some are. Most do not experience extreme abuse as children that warps their perspective, but some do. Even so, these individuals have their ethical frameworks very largely determined by factors outside their control. A psychopath can't choose not to suffer from psychopathy, an abuse victim cannot just choose not to be warped by that abuse. They do of course have autonomy within a range, and it's not the same range as most of us, but it's still a range and these ranges are set somehow.


If we consider that a person is a data point with its own properties (family, wealth, education, upbringing environment,...); the idea of a universal framework that handles these properties for ethics is still valid.


Axioms are only arbitrary in terms of the logical system they are involved in. If they conflict with other axioms, one of them has to go. So the choice of axioms isn't totally arbitrary, even at the level of logic.

When it's time to take an idealized theory and use it to make predictions about the real world, we first have to check that the axioms match our sense data. If they don't, it's not an applicable theory. That removes another degree of arbitrariness when putting any theory into practice.

"Feeling" good or bad is the bedrock of morality. From the vantage point of the human mind, our entire experience is colored with judgement. e.g. This is net good, that is net bad, etc. There are interesting questions to ask about how that evolved, or why it presents itself in consciousness, but it is first and foremost just a fact about the human experience.

That isn't arbitrary. A human cannot will their experience to stop containing judgements.

So yes, many people have come up with many theories about morality, ethics, and meta-ethics, but we can and should discard any of them that don't have their axioms satisfied by ground truth.


You're assuming a logical system, but these "axioms" aren't like math, trying to find a contradiction is itself a moral judgement.

So you're just arguing in circles. None of the grounding in reality is actually connected to moral judgements in the sense of proving them wrong or right.


I would say math has the same problem. Math is based on a bunch of axioms.

Here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompletenes...


>Axioms are only arbitrary in terms of the logical system they are involved in. If they conflict with other axioms, one of them has to go. So the choice of axioms isn't totally arbitrary, even at the level of logic.

We aren't logic systems, and neither are systems of ethics. People change their minds and are self-contradictory. Things vary from time to time. Kantian style ethics are a rareity and are almost a caricature people critique to make a point or argument in parable.


I think you’re confusing epistemic problems for metaphysical problems. It’s quite plausible that any axioms we come up with are merely ‘based on feel', but there can be a truth ‘based on feel’ ultimately inaccessible to us except ‘[by] feel’. That inaccessibility does not make the underlying truth arbitrary; it merely makes our attempts to work it out arbitrary.


There is no truth coming from "feel". Our brain chemicals are designed in a way that suits evolution best, not to mention that there is absolutely no consistence in these feelings on an individual level (to a smaller degree) and on the the temporal and cultural level.

What you are saying assumes that brain chemical reactions have an ability to hint at some sort of truth. The idea itself sounds closer in nature to religious arguments. And I think if this was indicating a truth of some sorts, the differences morals doesnt sell this idea to me personally.


Far from being completely impossible, subjective ethics are entirely more consistent than the alternative. The important thing about analyzing ethical systems is to find axioms that you actually believe. An unanalyzed moral system tends to have false axioms: things that the speaker says are fundamental tenets, but on further analysis simply don't stand muster.

For example, the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is anything but an axiom. All but the most unreasonable followers will be able to produce some circumstance where killing is moral. That's not an axiom, that's a guideline.

So why find one's axioms? Ultimately, the entire study of ethics boils down to one simple question: "What ought I do?". When faced with a dilemma, what should I choose? With the understanding of your beliefs, you can make a reasoned decision, consistent with your broader choices. If you exist in a society, then you will inevitably be forced to react to the actions of others, which, in of itself, is a forced action on your part. If you don't have some framework with which to judge the actions of others, then your ethical framework is utterly incomplete.


> For example, the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is anything but an axiom. All but the most unreasonable followers will be able to produce some circumstance where killing is moral. That's not an axiom, that's a guideline.

So can you give an example of an actual "moral axiom"


Kant's categorical imperative is a decent attempt at one.

Also (closely related)- "do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

They both have holes and edge cases though.


> "do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

This one doesn't just have edge cases, it has a hole large enough to float an aircraft carrier through it. My grandparents (all deceased at this point) did not want to be treated in the same way I want(ed) to be treated.

The much less absurd version is: "treat other people the way they would like to be treated". Still edge cases, but the holes are much smaller.


Doesn’t work on the context of mental illness.


It breaks down when dealing with anybody who selfishly wants more than they deserve. A child stamps his feet and demands the biggest piece of cake, should you give it to him? Treating people the way they want to be treated rewards greed and selfishness.

On the other hand, treating other people the way you wish to be treated is self-moderating. If I am greedy, the golden rule commands me to be generous to others. If I encounter somebody who's greedy, the golden rule only obliges me to give them whatever I would think myself entitled to.

The golden rule can't make everybody happy, and isn't supposed to. If there is some delta between the way your grandparents expect to be treated and the way you want to be treated, so be it. I don't think this is a reasonable objection to the golden rule.


I think you meant to reply to my comment, rather than a comment on that.

When it comes to materialistic "treating", sure I agree. But in the realm of emotion and psychology, I stand by what I said: treats others as they wish to be treated (to the extent possible).


> But in the realm of emotion and psychology, I stand by what I said: treats others as they wish to be treated (to the extent possible).

How do you deal with narcissists, who feel entitled to praise and adoration beyond what they can reasonably be entitled? Do you humor them to the extent possible? And if you don't humor narcissists like that, what is your process for determining what is or isn't reasonable? Probably, that process involves you imagining yourself in their shoes and thinking about what you might reasonably feel entitled to in their position, e.g. applying the golden rule.


"Thou shalt not kill" is a mistranslation.

The commandment is "Thou shalt not murder".


It’s actually better translated ‘though shall not murder’ for the modern reader.


> better translated ‘though shall not murder’ for the modern reader

Which cleverly punts the problem to the language centre of the brain, which gets to decide whether a particular killing was a good kill (execution, enemy combatant) or bad (murder).


It does for a reader, but reading wasn’t common ~4K years ago when it was written. These are communal truths verified through generations of dialog and discussion.


> does for a reader, but reading wasn’t common ~4K years ago when it was written

The point is murder is defined as bad killing. That doesn’t help us define what “bad” means. (Or whether a particular killing is bad.) It leaves it to context. Depending on your perspective, that’s either useless or savvy.


Yeah, which is a totally different epistemological view than the OP's, where ethics is basically math.


To put out two examples: Abortion and Guns are very hot topics where people with otherwise similar ethics some on the opposite side and refuse to understand how anyone could take the other position because whichever side they are on is so obviously correct.

Please think about the above next time topics like those come up. Once you take a moment to understand the different axioms someone puts higher in priority the better you can understand what is going on. And that there is no universal means you cannot call the someone who takes a different stance things like stupid, unreasonable or wrong (they might be - but not in relation to this topic). Maybe the world will learn to get along a little better if more people will try to understand each other. (I'm not holding my breath)


In my undergraduate engineering ethics class, our professor (who had an engineering and legal background) pointed this out in one of the first lectures and said “this is the first reason why I am not going to pretend to teach you ethics in this course. The second reason is that, even if there was clear set of ethics to follow, I am not going to pretend that this mandatory class will convince an unethical person to be ethical. What I will teach you is that decisions have consequences, and many of those consequences are bad for more than one party.”


Well, since i shed the shackles of religion and am diametrically opposed to simply following leaders, i had to find my own definition of ethically correct behaviour.

The question i ask myself: "Is my action beneficial to mankind and nature as a whole?"


That question is not resolvable in any meaningful way. You can justify anything with a rationalization


Yeah, especially if you mix in long termism :)


I share your vector

However the point/problem is that our position has exactly the same epistemic grounding as to what is “right” as “my philosophy is to Kill all but 10 humans” does.


>> Is my action beneficial to mankind and nature as a whole

You're going to have to make choices between those two.

Mankind has destroyed how many other species now?


So, you'll imminently lead a mob to kill executives of companies that majorly contribute to climate change?


Many people have kept slaves, even beating them to death - and still answered yes to your question. Many criminals in prison will tell you their victim deserved whatever.

I don't know how to define morality, but yours is not helpful.


Everyone that has ever that has done terrible things has likely asked themselves the same question. And that is a problem.


What is beneficial can be debated, as can how to weight the pros and cons of any action. Still, it is a good question to ask!


> all of our ethical theories are based on arbitrary axioms

But they aren't. Morality -- like all animal behavior -- is grounded in evolution.


Morality is set around cultural norms not animal behavior.


But cultural norms -- indeed, culture itself -- is grounded in evolution.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation


Culture has social conventions that are not based at all around survival of the fittest, fashion and language for one are different between cultures. I do not see how they maximize survival, if anything they create needless competition.


You don't understand how evolution works. You need to read "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins.


Only partly, there is still a large degree of arbitrariness based on the social environment within the biologically constrained bounds


Sure, all behavior exhibits variation within evolutionary constraints. But it is still not the case that "all of our ethical theories are based on arbitrary axioms". That is no more true than that the weather is "based on arbitrary axioms".


> axioms are by definition arbitrary.

That is very reductive view of what constitutes most axioms.

Merriam-Websters has:[1]

>2: an established rule or principle or a self-evident truth

Etymonline has:[2]

>"statement of self-evident truth," late 15c., from French axiome, from Latin axioma, from Greek axioma "authority," literally "that which is thought worthy or fit,"...

So, no, not arbitrary at all. Which particular axioms do you find arbitrary? Is game theory arbitrary?

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/axiom

[2] https://www.etymonline.com/word/axiom


> So, no, not arbitrary at all.

Nothing you say conflicts with being arbitrary. Axioms are arbitrarily self-evident—they are "arbitrary" because they are the result of some person's judgement, not somehow produced with some other processes, and they are self-evident because they provide the basis for reasoning and cannot be contradicted within reasoning parameterized by the axioms.


Even in math, axioms are kinda arbitrary. They are mostly defined because they can be used to prove stuff that are perhaps useful, in this sense, they aren't arbitrary. But there are infinite sets of axioms out there for the same branch of math, which makes them rather arbitrary.

https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/327201/are-there-in...


chosen, yes, but -not- arbitrary. Axiom are chosen very carefully at the foundation based on all the upper knoweledge, based on these axioms -all- above must be proved (under Goedel blessing), not -some- stuff.

Change axiom and you end with -another- math.


What OP likely intended is that our Western axioms, such as considering human life as the most important value, may be arbitrary because there are other cultures where it holds a lower position in the hierarchy of values.

In Western cultures, the belief in the intrinsic value and sanctity of human life is often considered a foundational and self-evident moral principle. It underlies many ethical and legal frameworks, including principles related to human rights, the value of individual lives, and the importance of protecting life.

An axiom, in this context, is a fundamental and self-evident belief or principle that serves as a basis for other beliefs and actions within a particular culture or belief system.


By axiom OP meant "assumed truth on which we base all of our other deductions" not "a self-evident truth"


Yea a lot of game theory is built on the arbitrary axioms like that people will follow a given strategy with given information, or that there’s common knowledge. In reality people don’t necessarily follow the axioms of the theory.


Some axioms are more useful than others, though. For example, Peano axioms can be used to formalize parts of math which we use to make models of physics which enable engineering that makes all sorts of technology. Many others can't get to that point.


Sure, but usefulness is itself an arbitrary criterium.


Only in the weakest sense where one can emit other noises from their mouth instead. That criteria is an outgrowth from our drive to fulfill our own material needs, without which one does not do philosophy or anything else, which in turn are dictated by the natural world we live in. And none of that is something where you can just plug in so many other ideas or axioms and get a similar result.

Those and similar axioms were used to develop science & technology that provides our ability to even have this conversation. Whereas if you give someone a Foucault book and ask them to make similar practical use of it, perhaps they might keep warm for a night.


There are few thought experiments which would force you to a 'better' behaviour.

You don't know for example, if death is real or not (deah not real -> afterlife) which could bring up a few scenarios like you currently are supervised if you are 'good' enough.

Or the old idea of hell vs sky.

The best bet for you is always to be 'good' weird thing is people don't get it. The same issue with people getting asked if we should increase taxes for the rich people and they say no because they think they are affected by this.

Or a sentence someone once said: Don't teach kids playing footbal to win, teach them to play so that others want to play with them.


Please see my comment here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37696482

(I mention how it's possible to define a notion of universality of ethics, and why!)


Say the truth for once. I’m so sick of all the people thinking their standpoints are ultimately based on anything other than just that they “feel” they are correct.

The only exception I know of is the case for religious morality. It comes directly from God, so the believer only needs to believe in one axiom, that the scripture and the prophet is really from God, as opposed to many axioms, “feels”, and source-of-truths a non-believer may have.


> axioms are by definition arbitrary

sorry, the axioms of Euclidean Geometry are not arbitrary. They are axioms by the definition of axioms, but not by the definition of arbitrary.


I’m a bit overwhelmed with the pushback on this point. The fact that axioms are, again, by definition arbitrary, should be anything but controversial.

The axioms of Euclidean geometry are very obviously arbitrary, in that, we can create other forms of geometries should we choose to. The fact that we are attempting, with Euclidean geometry, to create a model of the phenomena we experience is good and useful, but that does not change the fact that we could create a geometry of any other fashion, to map to any other phenomena we could imagine.

If we found that all minds feel the same with regard to an ethical mapping we created (I see this as Chomsky’s point) then we have effectively created a physics of ethics. The problem is that it is quite obvious that this is not the world we live in. In fact, if it were, I would hardly think we would have much disagreement about anything of moral substance.

Thus, we are living in a world where two people measure the same geometric line, and find two different results, form two different axioms to model their measurements, and then try to enforce their measurements with threats of violence.

Again, I consider myself a fairly ethical person, I have an moral theory, I just don’t pretend that my theory can be universalizable, and don’t think that moral judgments, in a philosophical sense, have much foundation. The reason I fight for what I fight for is that I feel that doing what we can to help each other is the way we should live. I just know there are plenty of people who will inherently disagree, and there is little way to reason with them.

I’m not a moral relativist in that sense, I just refuse to pretend that I can create an ethical theory in any moral sense beyond what makes good sense to me.


a million monkeys on typewriters typing arbitrarily will ultimately type out every known work of literature. But the known works of literature were not created arbitrarily.


You're confusing arbitrary with random. We have chosen the axioms of Euclidean geometry because they are useful, but we could very easily chose different axioms and derive a different geometric system. We didn't choose the Euclidean axioms randomly, but they weren't an a priori given either.


The complete sentence is "same meta-ethical problem exists as a possibility" but from all possibilities only a portion have any chance to be adjusted to reality. Hence, a natural selection of all theoretical ideas comes into place and excludes most of them (the ones that diverge the reality tests).


> Now, Chompsky here is basically saying

Heh, reminds me of how once I knew someone who named their dog Chompsky after Noam Chomsky


> the founding axiom that most folks will have is that the "normal" ethical view is the "correct" view.

I half-see your point here, and there are many other points to be made about ethics (which I still think Nietzsche does best) but I feel like you're brushing away Chomsky's argument. He looks at morality like language. It's just that normal does indeed have an apparently wide range, which according to his theory is actually quite limited. I like this idea. Similar to the limits of reason itself; from one perspective the human condition limits us to a frustratingly small territory of what is thinkable at all. Morality is narrow because humans are alike. This is a claim about the human condition itself, not about the moral majority.

The only real exception i can think of is psychopaths, but I think that they do live up to their name.


For further reading, see Kant’s Categorical Imperative.


Whatever raises survivability and QOL is ethical. Though there is a feeling/emotion when dealing with QOL, it is measurable.


This is really silly and largely a result of our Western desire to turn everything into an impartial science when the experience of life is anything but.

Ethics are not arbitrary. If you do violence to me, that causes me suffering. If you have sex with my husband or my wife without my consent, that's gonna cause me suffering. Both of these things are also highly likely to cause you suffering because most people who are not sociopaths do not enjoy the direct experience of causing someone suffering and suffer guilt for bad actions.

The cycle of suffering is universal to all living things. There's absolutely nothing arbitrary about it.

Don't do things that are shitty to other people does not need a postmodern deconstruction to be understood.


Well those are very simple scenarios, but very quickly you get to a place where things are not so clear. For example, as soon as you need to compare two sufferings, you find trouble: is it ethical to kill before being killed? is it the same to have your neighbour suffer vs. someone whose suffering is far away and you don't perceive? It it better to have a child suffer, an adult, or an old man? Two people suffering less vs. one people more? Future people vs. current people? What's the relationship of not being alive / not being born / dying, to the avoidance of suffering?

Different people have different ethical opinions, so it is not so clear cut.


You're wrapping yourself up in mental games here, exactly what I was criticizing. The majority of people the vast majority of time are not encountering trolley problems. Start with the basics of not choosing to inflict what is harmful to others you encounter in your life.


As an example, surely you are aware about the ongoing discussions about whether abortion is ethical? Do you think people are just playing mental games for fun when they discuss that? Do you really think that it is not two different ethical systems clashing?


No I don't think people are playing mental games for fun. I think debates like these are not centered on the individual and their own responsibility to their and another's suffering.

In the case of abortion it's still the case that the mother is engaged in her own inquiry of harm. Notice how I've not brought myself into the picture.

That doesn't mean it can't be a complex inquiry but it is still her own inquiry and it is firmly rooted in suffering.


You have completely ignored the babies suffering here.

Until you can recognize in cases of abortion there are two parties with different interests we cannot make progress. (we probably cannot even after understanding that, but maybe we can be civil)


But basing your ethics on suffering rather than say some other model of virtue is arbitrary.


It's not arbitrary because suffering is universal and unwanted by those who experience it.


But that doesn’t make it a universal basis for ethics.


If you can come up with a better basis than that experienced by all living organisms, the floor is open for you to make your pitch.


> Both of these things are also highly likely to cause you suffering because most people who are not sociopaths do not enjoy the direct experience of causing someone suffering and suffer guilt for bad actions.

Why would someone having sex with your wife cause them suffering?


From all the gunshot wounds?


It's weird to hear Foucault described as "amoral" when he himself claimed to be a moralist [1].

What is meant by moral relativism in this case I think is merely that morals do not come to us handed down by God or Nature as Chomsky claims, but are a constant choice made by people over a potentially infinite range. But to assert that the morals don't come from God is not to say that morals are not valuable or worth having.

As Foucault puts it, "What is good, is something that comes through innovation. The good does not exist, like that, in an atemporal sky, with people who would be like the Astrologers of the Good, whose job is to determine what is the favorable nature of the stars. The good is defined by us, it is practiced, it is invented. And this is a collective work."

1. http://www.critical-theory.com/read-me-foucault-interview-in...


> What is meant by moral relativism in this case I think is merely that morals do not come to us handed down by God or Nature as Chomsky claims, but are a constant choice made by people over a potentially infinite range.

I didn't get the sense he's saying morals are handed down by nature, rather that the potential range is not infinite.

E.g., consider that research where the primate gets angry and starts rejecting its boring food pellets-- and in fact throwing them at its handler (!)-- because the other primate is consistently receiving all the delicious grapes. We humans surely share and exhibit some similar social behavior. That truth doesn't determine exactly how a culture will conceptualize and enforce a sense of morality. But it does mean some theoretical moral systems just won't work in practice. E.g., history hasn't left us with examples of well-fed kings with no king's guards during famines.

So if you're a radical whose theories rely on humans asblank slates on which infinite moral systems may be applied (after the revolution, probably), you're going to have a bad time in the real world.

Digression: I have no idea how this truism fits in with Chomsky's political ideas about anarcho-syndicalism.


But what you are saying is just that the “range” of morality is handed down by nature. And the idea that this range is “naturally” limited is too often used, as it is in your comment, to make an argument from nature’s authority in favor of certain applications of power that may or may not be good for people. What I think relativism does is restore accountability to the individual and the society for moral decisions, rather than appealing to natural or theological authorities to absolve people and institutions of responsibility for their choices.


> But what you are saying is just that the “range” of morality is handed down by nature.

Yes, but for the generous interpretation of what I wrote.

E.g., you can't build a moral system that requires cordoning children off in individual stalls (one child per stall, no direct contact with other humans), feeds and virtually teaches them the rules of the society, then when they reach the age of 18 and pass a test get released into the wild to socialize with other humans for the first time. What we know about child development tells us that this system will be an utter failure.

If you can imagine accepting at least some version of that paragraph as supported by the scientific evidence for how humans socialize, then you agree there are some hard limits on what kind of moral systems humans can thrive under.

If you don't accept there are any limits whatsoever, then you fall into self-contradiction and incoherence which AFAICT is all Chomsky is pointing out.

Edit: clarification. I don't think it's necessary to use the "most generous" interpretation of what I wrote, just a stock generous one.


His shots at Foucault and other philosophers always struck me as being some poorly justified dislike of them. Sometimes, that's all it is deep down.


Lenin claimed to be the most moral because he had just one moral value: the good of the Party.

One can claim to be moral while being amoral, and Lenin is the perfect example.


I don't think Lenin ever made such claims, Marxists generally reject moral justifications of socialism because they view them as idealist.


Well, after raping countless boys in N. Africa and helping introduce HIV in the continent, I'd say he's IMmoral.

EDIT Add citation: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/4/16/reckoning-with-...


Foucault was working in Tunisia from 1966-1968. HIV is thought to have spread to NYC in '71, and SF in '75 which is where Foucault probably was infected. AIDS was first clinically described in '81, and Foucault died in 1984 from AIDS.


I admire Chomsky but I'm afraid this particular argument isn't very convincing. He merely asserts his position but does nothing (substantial) to defend his position. In what way is moral relativism a logical contradiction?

   "...even if you’re the most extreme cultural relativist, you are presupposing universal moral values. Those can be discovered.”
That's not true at all. I don't presuppose universal moral values. And if I do, they can still be compatible with a relativistic description. (e.g. I can say they're relative to my current understanding, or relative to our collective shared understanding).

And as a linguist, he himself should know best that language usage here matters. What do we mean by "discovered" or "universal moral values" anyway. Clear all that up first before trying to eliminate moral relativism with a broad brush.


It's a logical contradiction in a simple way:

If you assert that 'moral relativism is true' that itself would be a relative claim which would undermine the assertion as a universal position.

Further, you end up in a position of equivalence of all claims and generate major contradictions.

I will go out on a limb on the universal moral values claim and I think again it's pretty simple:

The existence of even the most basic objective truth, such as 1+1=2 would imply by its existence a frame of reference by which all claims can be evaluated against. This constrains the scope of relative claims, as you pointed out, but also implies an actual truth or set of standards with which you can evaluate anything.

It's not clear what universal moral values looks like, like Epicurean pleasure/pain or maybe it stems from thermodynamics, or even just mathematics itself, but it is possible that it could be discovered.


>If you assert that 'moral relativism is true' that itself would be a relative claim

Would it? If we define "moral absolutism" as "the position that there exist moral statements that are true independently of any observers" then we could define the position of "moral relativism" as its logical negation: "there don't exist moral statements that are true independently of any observers". Is that sentence itself a moral statement? Why? To me it reads like a statement about reality, not about what is moral or immoral.

>It's not clear what universal moral values looks like

Universal moral values are not the same as absolute moral values, though. For example, let's suppose that "murder is wrong" is a universal moral value. That just tells you that every human agrees on that, but we're still working off a subjective, biased system, because every human you could ask will evaluate this moral question using their human brain. And if you could ask every living thing in the universe, you would still have the bias of matter-based life. How could you tell a universal moral value is basic enough that it's independent of any subjective point of view? The only truths I can imagine that could meet those requirements would have to be really abstract, like 1+1=2 as you say.


> he only truths I can imagine that could meet those requirements would have to be really abstract, like 1+1=2

And that is not even universally or absolutely true, 1+1=2 is a set of symbols that need to be interpreted by someone for them to have meaning, it’s a concept made up by people

Hence, 1+1=2 is just as relative as anything else we express through language


"1+1=2" as a string of symbols is open to interpretation, however, both you and I understand the idea that that string of symbols is conveying, and that idea is true objectively.


It’s just an agreement that has been pretty much forced on anyone that has a basic school education

I can choose to disagree and doesn’t matter what you do I can assign a different meaning to it

No ideas are objective truth, and objective truth is something that can’t even be tested


>I can assign a different meaning to it

I don't even understand what that means. Ideas don't have meaning, they are meaning. What does it mean to assign a different meaning to the idea represented as "1+1=2"?

>No ideas are objective truth

No. Mathematical truths are objectively true. Even if addition itself is false in the universe, in the sense that in some cases you can put one real thing next to another and get other than two real things next to each other as a result, that 1+1=2 is true objectively. It would just mean that the universe is based on an axiomatic system that is more lax than our own.


You can believe whatever you want, assign any meaning you want

I can say that 1+1=2 means it’s lunchtime on the moon

I can also say that 1+1=11

I can’t force you (nor anyone else), to accept or agree with those meanings, but I can definitely assign any meaning I want

No ideas, nor meaning, nor formulas, nor math are objective truth

Just the fact that I can disagree with you right now means there isn’t an objective truth. If there was, then we wouldn’t even be able to disagree

And the universe is not based on any axiomatic anything, maybe your models of the universe are, but those models are just a subjective approximation to whatever the reality of the universe is, which we all perceive and experience differently in a subjective manner


>I can say that 1+1=2 means it’s lunchtime on the moon

You're still confusing the symbols with the meaning.

>Just the fact that I can disagree with you right now means there isn’t an objective truth. If there was, then we wouldn’t even be able to disagree

Please explain how objective truth existing would prevent people from disagreeing with each other.

>And the universe is not based on any axiomatic anything, maybe your models of the universe are, but those models are just a subjective approximation to whatever the reality of the universe is

Yes, that's more or less what I said. However, those models contain objectively true statements with regards to themselves. According to the theory of relativity no object can go faster than light, correct? A sandwich is an object, correct? Then it's objectively true that according to the theory of relativity a sandwich can't go faster than light. It doesn't matter whether sandwiches actually are capable of going faster than light, that the theory of relativity states (indirectly) that sandwiches can't go faster than light is an objective truth.


If I write "water is wet", I'm referring to the matter known as water, not the symbols that make up the English word "water".

Likewise, in this conversation, 1+1=2 is saying that if you take the idea represented by the symbol 1 and then add it to itself, the result is the idea represented by the symbol 2.

The ideas behind words and the words themselves are not equivalent.


"1 + 1 = 2" has a commonly understood meaning that implies a system of axioms and theorems and whatnot so as to be an objectively true statement in that context. You're not being asked to interpret what someone means by "1 + 1 = 2"; you're being asked to examine that string of characters in the context of a specific system that you clearly understand.


Sounds like a pretty piss poor attempt at an absolute by someone who aspires to the label “sophomoric” in the most asinine and juvenile sense.


>both you and I understand the idea that that string of symbols is conveying

Until the moment we have to take each other to court, then suddenly two different trials with two different juries comes out with conflicting answers.


Yeah, I like to lie too.


What are you on about?


> Hence, 1+1=2 is just as relative as anything else we express through language

The symbols are relative, the semantics are not.


Well, I can disagree with that, so what can you do then?

If you can’t force everyone to agree on the same semantics, you can’t have absolute semantics

Of course you are free to believe whatever you want, including absolute semantics, but that is your own personal subjective opinion (even if popular or accepted in the mainstream)


I don't know what "absolute semantics" means. If you mean "objective semantics", then yes that's already objective. If you mean "universal semantics", well there's rarely universal agreement on anything, so I'm not sure why I should find the existence of a few contrarians persuasive.


So you are essentially saying that you can keep your own ideas of “objective semantics” because you can dismiss people who disagree with you

Which means you have a subjective definition of the meaning of “objective semantics”

Objective doesn’t exist

Everyone can assign their own meaning and not agree on what something means

We are doing it right now on this thread

You might say that there is an objective reality or truth regardless of whatever anyone else says, but you can’t prove that

Your whole life experience is subjective, and you can never detach from it, you (nor anyone) can ever have an objective experience of anything

You believing that there is some sort of objective anything is just your own subjective belief


There are objective truths in the world. Or, to be more precise, there are objective truth's in each person's "world", their sense of reality. "1 + 1 = 2" is objectively true given a certain system of axioms and theorems that are generally understood. Yes, you need to include that context to be objective, but that doesn't make it invalid. Another objective fact that I can confidently say is that I can think. Does that mean I know I'm not living in a simulation? Of course not, but some way or another, my perception of the world includes my thoughts. I can't prove to you that I think, because Hacker News might just be glitching and sending this reply to you (or maybe it's the simulation overseers, ha!), but I know that I think. How? Because I think. Why? I don't know and I don't care that much.

> You might say that there is an objective reality or truth regardless of whatever anyone else says, but you can’t prove that

I get what you mean here, and I agree, but it's untrue that "1 + 1 = 2" can't be objectively true. It can, as long as certain semantics are applied. A sufficiently smart alien that understands what we mean by "1", "+", "=", "2", the set of integers, what a field is, and so on can only reasonably conclude the same. It also isn't objectively true that there are no objective truths in the sense of "racism bad". We can't know if it's objectively true, but given the context of, well, the world, maybe it is an objective truth. Not that it matters, since we can't know, but still. Although you could argue that those statements shouldn't be considered statements anymore.


So for the first point about 'moral relativism is true' yes it's a meta-ethical statement, but at the same time, logically, you're affirming the set 'moral relativism'.

And the second point, I would argue that 'universal moral values' arise from 'absolute moral values', whatever that might be, if it's even possible to know it.

I also don't think that moral relativism is a logical negation of moral absolutism, more like an opposing view.


But my point is that the existence of universal moral values do not prove the existence of absolute moral values, because universal moral values can also arise in the absence of absolute moral values (or it would have to be demonstrated that they can't). That every moral agent agrees that murder is wrong does not prove that murder is wrong independently of any point of view.


Yes, there are physical facts, most moral relativists are physical realists.

But that is also exactly where the moral relativism originates. You _do_ have physical laws, you _do not_ have moral laws. You can _test_ physical laws, you _can not test_ moral laws.

Once you axiomatically ordain some set of rules as "moral truths" or some measure of "moral truth" then the physical apparatus comes in, and you get to use it. But you have to pick the framework of morality first!


> But that is also exactly where the moral relativism originates. You _do_ have physical laws, you _do not_ have moral laws. You can _test_ physical laws, you _can not test_ moral laws.

First, this assumes a very specific kind of moral realism, but does not describe all forms of moral realism. Second, we do just fine testing mathematical laws by checking for consistency without any tests of the sort you're describing.

Finally, these sorts of arguments against moral realism have been discussed for decades, so I'll simply leave this here for people to assess:

A Proof of the Objectivity of Morals - Bambrough (1969), https://www.dropbox.com/s/p9v7qt23p21gfci/Proof%20of%20the%2...


>Second, we do just fine testing mathematical laws by checking for consistency without any tests of the sort you're describing.

So is there some axiomatic system that can elucidate moral truths, such as the wrongness of stealing, from first principles?

>A Proof of the Objectivity of Morals - Bambrough (1969)

Quickly skimmed through it, but: awful, just awful. I challenge Bambrough to prove to me that I have two hands.


> So is there some axiomatic system that can elucidate moral truths, such as the wrongness of stealing, from first principles?

Read Kant.

> Quickly skimmed through it, but: awful, just awful. I challenge Bambrough to prove to me that I have two hands.

Clearly you missed the entire thrust of the argument, and Moore's before it.


Ironically I talked about Kant with my son 2 days ago. He literally couldn't get through the first sentence without disagreeing. Kant argues that the only thing that is good in itself is good will. However it is trivial to find ways in which good will leads to bad things, and therefore having good will is not necessarily good at all!

From my son's perspective, the argument did not improve from there.

So people who disagree with you are not necessarily going to be convinced by an appeal to Kant.


>Read Kant.

Nah. And either way following such a reasoning would just tell you whether a statement meets a condition defined by an arbitrarily chosen axiomatic system. Whether someone chooses to call that moral or not is still subjective. Look, I can do it right now:

bool is_moral(string s){ return false; }


Math is also composed of arbitrarily chosen axiomatic systems, and yet math is still objective. I'm afraid such trivial arguments aren't much challenge to moral realism, which you'd know if you actually bothered to read anything about it.


Let's see if I can achieve the same tone that you just did.

Math cannot be proven to be objective. Therefore a trivial appeal to the objectiveness of math don't make your case. You'd know this if you actually bothered to read anything about it. I suggest that you start with Gödel.

Seriously, no matter how much you might know about the topic, this is not how you make an argument that convinces anyone else.


Yes, but math just seeks to find truths that are internally consistent. is_moral("not murdering people") is objectively true in the exact same sense that mathematical truths are true. Yet this tells us nothing at all about whether not murdering people is moral.


In this sense subjective opinions can be said to be objective to some extent: subjective opinion is brain configuration, and the latter is objective. But moral realists probably mean something else.


It's a strange claim that Kant somehow helps with realism. He sees reality as unintelligible noumena, that's agnosticism at best, absurdism at worst.


Appealing to mathematics is the least useful, because there is no objective mathematics. There is true logic, either, for that matter. Logic is a tool to talk about the physical world, not the other way around.

These sorts of arguments definitely have been talked to death. So has the existence of god, yet people still believe in Santa.


>It's not clear what universal moral values looks like, like Epicurean pleasure/pain or maybe it stems from thermodynamics, or even just mathematics itself, but it is possible that it could be discovered.

So if you want to take thermodynamic morals for a spin, the answer is complete chaos.

In the case of humanity we are just a waveform, a state, running from low entropy to high entropy. The only outcome of any open universe long term thermodynamic equation in itself is entropy maximization.

Mathematics seems like another dead end here. Mathematics is both incomplete and paradoxical. My assumption is any mathematical system that attempts to answer morality questions will quickly fall foul of Russel's Paradox.

And as of so far no one has any proofs that morals/morality is a reduceable problem. If morals are NP hard, then it is not a problem with findable solution, one could exist, but finding it would be random chance. And for example said morality solution could have hash conflicts, any reducible answer could be one many potential random answers.


>If you assert that 'moral relativism is true' that itself would be a relative claim

no it wouldn't because meta-ethical statements express objectives claims about moral values, they are not themselves normative or moral claims.

It is equivalent to pointing out that everyone is a relativist in regards to their favorite flavor of ice cream. That statement is itself verifiably true or false.


>That statement is itself verifiably true or false.

Is it verifiably true without spending more entropy than exist in the visible universe to answer the question, because really affects if the answer if verifiably true or not.


> The existence of even the most basic objective truth, such as 1+1=2

You might be surprised that even this is a relatively (sorry) controversial view. Many (most?) practicing mathematicians do not hold it.

Even if it were, then you get the is-ought gap -- the existence of objective / analytic / verifiable / what have you facts doesn't obviously imply anything about moral "facts".


1+1=2 (standard arithmetic)

1+1=10 (base 2 arithmetic)

1+1=11 (base 1 arithmetic)

1+1=11 (string concatenation)

1+1=true (+ often is used for AND in boolean arithmetic)

1+1=0 (mod 2 arithmetic)

Those are just what I think of in 3 minutes. I know there are others that I can't remember at the moment, and I'm sure there are even more that I've never encountered in my math studies.


> If you assert that 'moral relativism is true' that itself would be a relative claim which would undermine the assertion as a universal position.

Moral relativism means that everyone views the world through the lens of their own experiences. And my statement about moral relativism is also, as you point out, viewed through the lens of my own experiences (with that particular topic). But the second statement does not undermine the first one, instead it sort of "recurses" over it.


> It's not clear what universal moral values looks like, like Epicurean pleasure/pain or maybe it stems from thermodynamics, or even just mathematics itself, but it is possible that it could be discovered.

I strongly suspect they come from game theory, although they look more like statistical mechanics in that they govern the bulk behavior of societies and individuals will have widely varying personal moralities (serial killers) just like atoms have widely varying individual velocities. There will also be some society-to-society variation. Plus the game theoretical concerns have probably changed over time (Genghis Khan's army raping and murdering 11% of the world population probably represents an early peak in the selfish strategies of following a powerful leader and subjugating others). And those forces will have shaped our biological evolution and neural wiring as well.


It's funny, I read "universal" and think about the universe. Would an alien intelligence recognize our morals? Even Star Trek pushed this limit with races like Klingons that honor a good death that earthlings find abhorrent.

Here's a though experiment, if I blew up the entire planet and left no trace of the existence of humans, did I violate anyone's ethics if there's no one around to be upset? In theory I destroyed ethics too.


I think the point is that if you're a moral relativist across the range of morals encountered in human societies you're hardly a moral relativist at all because from the space of all possible moral positions you've accepted as equally valid the tiny subset that have organically originated from the extreme restraints of human culture. It's far rarer to see moral relativists for example who think the moral positions of serial killers and humanitarians are equally valid, but even that range is small across the landscape of all possible moral positions.


Moral relativists don't believe that all positions are equally valid, my position is the most valid obviously. They believe moral positions are subjective.


He is attacking extreme relativists who claim all morals are based on culture and culture alone

The fact that all human cultures have notions that can be described as morals, that are biological in nature and connected to physical sensations (disgust, anger, etc) presupposes a universal system.

That universal system can’t be completely siloed from affecting the morals themselves. By virtue of having the same biological underlining there should be some connecting thread between all human morals


Sounds like Chomsky thinks moral relativists don't believe in any sort of morality.


Asserting a position is like choosing an axiom, you don’t have to defend it, you are just laying your cards out.


I think what Chomsky is saying here "rhymes" with his theory of Universal Grammar (UG).

The UG belief is that there are a finite set of "primitives" of language, and all human languages have grammar syntax that are the permutations of those primitives. This is actually pretty clearly the case for programming languages -- primitives like addition/subtraction, methods, objects, etc. -- are chosen by language developers in different doses, and we group languages together based on these grammatical syntax choices (e.g. functional family of languages, declarative/imperative languages).

It sounds like Chomsky is claiming morals work the same way; there are a finite set of things that humans find reprehensible or good. Per that, certain cultures at certain times may have different permutations of what they group into the 'reprehensible bucket,' but the set of choices is constrained.


Even if you admit the hypothesis, that there is a finite set of _expressible_ moral statements. That does not impose a universality to a particular selection.

Just like there is not one-true-programming language, regardless of there being a finite number of them, there is not one-true-moral truth.

You could say "well just combine _all_ the programming languages!" and you will have almost everyone hating it (except perhaps you yourself), just like with moral codes.


Eh, this sounds like they are trying to say that the halting problem is reducible.

Simple finite components can generate infinite, non-halting answers.


"Moral" is a problematic word with religious baggage. If you exclude the words "right", "wrong", and "ethical" from the debate, you make things easier as well.

If you simply use the word "strategy" instead, most heated arguments vanish. Yes, there are foundational social strategies that exist in every successful human culture. It's pretty easy to account for why that is the case, and no reason to oppose the idea that such commonalities exist. And looking at the other side of the argument, "strategic relativism" isn't that inflammatory either, of course you'll find unique and situationally inspired strategies too.


If you refuse to engage with a challenging concept and instead talk about something else entirely, you make things easier. Go figure.

Strategy helps us decide which actions will help us reach a goal. It does not tell us what that goal should be. It has practically nothing to do with morality. Human societies adopt different means but they also work towards different ends.


The only goal is self-preservation. It's universal. All individual "moral" decisions are based on this one goal.


This is trivially debunked. People regularly sacrifice themselves because they think it is right. You could say soldiers fight to protect their kin, but people sacrifice even out of devotion to ideas like truth and honor. There are people who refuse to kill animals, even ones as distantly related to us as octopuses, because they think it's wrong. There are people who vow celibacy out of religious obligation, like the Shakers who abstained themselves out of existence. These things cannot be easily explained in your framework.

It can't be disputed that morality is partly instinctive. There are those who argue persuasively that morality is largely self-deception, with our alleged values being just a way of rationalizing our instincts. I think you have something of a point. Still, your simplistic version is just plain wrong.


It's not a challenging concept, it's a mistaken distinction. Using those specific words, just confuses the issue with ancient religious dogma.


This, exactly. I think most people don't even realize why they feel something is right or wrong or what it even means for something to be "moral"

At our core, everything we feel is based off self-preservation -- for ourselves, offspring, family, mates. Instinctually, the concept of what is "morally right" comes down to "what strategy will ensure my self-preservation best".

Most humans are smart enough to realize that a strategy made up of a lot of win/lose confrontations is unlikely to end well in the long run. Ergo, morality is simply the current best strategy for individual self-preservation given the current state of human knowledge.


I'm not sure I understand the point being made. Chomsky seems to be saying that since we learn the prevalent morality of our culture through sparse data there must be an underlying universal morality. But how does that allow for the fact that different cultures do have different moral codes and that those do change over time?


I think his point is not that there is an absolute moral landscape or that moral relativism can't exist in abstract. But that morals are so deeply held, that they shape your being and understanding of reality. So on a day to day basis you would feel revolted against something that appears to be immoral in another culture despite being able to logically pare out that it is okay in their system of morality.


Ah, I see. So you can understand why another culture holds a particular moral position but you still _feel_ it to be immoral yourself. That makes sense. But how does that tie to the sparse data and acquisition of morality?


I don’t think it’s that radical in a sense but trying to argue it is.

When you think about it though, we kind of know that e.g. the founders of the U.S. had some sort of guilty conscience going on with regards to slavery. So we have folks like Washington freeing the slaves in his will, which of course his wife walked back on, and he probably had an idea that she might do that too.

And yet people are able to jump through mental hoops to justify it anyway. We tell ourselves, well it was okay during their time. They probably said the same thing to themselves too. One day I’m sure our ancestors will curse us for bringing about the environmental disaster that was the end of days.


> we kind of know that e.g. the founders of the U.S. had some sort of guilty conscience going on with regards to slavery

From where did that secret sense of guilt come?

Maybe there was no sense of guilt at all and it was all performative, cynically done for the sake of his reputation. But perhaps the arguments from contemporary abolitionists were secretly eating away at him from the inside, inspiring a real sense of guilt. I think that is congruent with the theory that some small kernel of universal morality exists in all humans capable of feeling empathy, derived from that innate empathy instinct. People can be conditioned to ignore it, and this explains much of the variability in human morality across cultures. A slave owner can ignore that part of his mind that empathizes with the slaves because ignoring it is socially and financially convenient. Some can be needled and prodded into acknowledging it, while many go their entire lives with this empathy buried and ignored. But however ignored, that kernel of universal morality still exists in them. It's universal to humans because we're all the same species of social ape evolved to have instincts which facilitate social cooperation, particularly empathy. This morality is universal in the sense that all humans have the theoretical ability to access it within themselves, but actually doing so obviously isn't universal.

(Actual psychopaths, if such people even exist, may be the exception. If they truly lack the ability to empathize they would be unable to tap into this otherwise universal morality. Furthermore, the empathy instinct is not as perfect as might be wished; in almost all people empathy is felt more strongly for people who are close (socially and geographically.) Less empathy is felt for people who are distant or "other". Innate empathy has limits, and therefore universal morality is woefully flawed and incomplete.)


Heh, yea, trying to use the internal feeling of guilt as a basis is a path to complete failure in my eyes.

This overlaps with the quest for AI we have and Chinese Room arguments. We can't even argue that people have the same sense of guilt. Is guilt in some people performative for social gains? Do other people feel guilty on things that at least to me make no sense?


I don't argue that people all have the same sense of guilt. Demonstrably they don't. Some people refused to own slaves; some people owned slaves but then released them, while other people owned slaves and never showed any sense of guilt.

What I say is that everybody (excepting the possibility of true psychopaths) has empathy available to them but many people suppress it. It's a universal ability, but not universally put into practice.

> a path to complete failure in my eyes.

And I dispute complete failure. Humanity does not behave perfectly morally, so if that's your expectation then we've failed and always will fail. But most people do have the capacity to behave morally most of the time, and people are guided in this primarily by their internal sense of right and wrong (informed by their innate social instincts.) This system doesn't work perfectly but it's very far from a complete failure.


Seems very close to his argument about the innateness of language structures. I can rephrase your question replacing moral* with language:

> Chomsky seems to be saying that since we learn the prevalent language of our culture through sparse data there must be an underlying universal language structure. But how does that allow for the fact that different languages do have different grammars and that those do change over time?


Which, again, is a poor argument in that Chomsky never demonstrates his central conceit: Is there a poverty of the stimulus? Here's a review of a book that makes the case that children need, and use, plenty of stimulus to learn new linguistic constructions:

https://zompist.wordpress.com/2008/05/06/so-much-for-chomsky...

> It’s been noticed that children rarely learn a new pattern that’s demonstrated in front of them, which has been taken as meaning that they don’t imitate adult speech. But now we see that they don’t do it because a single instance isn’t enough data for them. They don’t venture to use a new construction till they’ve heard it many times and know how to use it.

> A nice confirmation of this: children learning inflectional languages don’t learn the six person/number combinations at the same rate. They first master the ones with the highest frequency in adult speech– e.g. 1st person singular, rather than 3rd person plural. Again, they’re learning by imitation, and it takes a huge amount of repetition for them to learn something. They also seem to learn each verb paradigm separately– it takes a long time before they start generalizing.


Possibly the article is poorly written? It doesn't seem to make sense. Either Chomsky is saying something quite academic or the article hasn't captured the point.


It can be seen in an individual. A boy is raised in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. He works on a farm, speaks Copala Triqui and no Spanish. Then when he's 14 his family moves to east Los Angeles.

As he adjusts to his new situation, his behavior changes. The moral code of rural Oaxaca is different them that of east LA. His moral code changes. Perhaps he always gave a great amount of help when needed to neighbors in rural Oaxaca, but stops doing that as much. This changes. In Oaxaca, he did not steal from his friends, nor does he in LA. This does not change.

It's obvious even in US culture. Two students go to Harvard, one goes into engineering, one diplomacy. What group are the moral traits of candor, frankness and directness valued? What group are the moral values of politeness and courteousness valued? Morality can be relative, depending on the situation. But for some situations it is not, the more universal things.


I don't think it's obvious that those traits, e.g. not stealing, are universal or part of some fundamental moral grammar. It just means they're common and widespread.


Not stealing, but as I said, stealing from one's friends. Most cultures frown on that.


Take the idea of a post-singularity culture. To an individual in this society (if the idea of individualism still existed) have a moral framework anywhere near ours?

What is stealing if I can push a button and said object can be easily duplicated?

Does pain exist if I can turn if off an the level of my brain? Is death horrible if I can reconstitute myself from a backup?

The idea of a universal set of morals, and that humanity could even come close to finding them at our point in development is just not something I believe in happening. We are enslaved to our emotions and bound to our physical meat.


I can easily imagine a culture where it's only OK to steal from friends. Because a friend would "obviously" be happy for you to have it, but it's not OK to steal from anyone else.

Like how it's OK to prank a friend, but not a stranger - but the friend doesn't actually want to be pranked (i.e. the friend does not want to be stolen from).


> I can easily imagine a culture where it's only OK to steal from friends.

It is easy to imagine contexts in which taking something from your friend is morally permissible, because in that context you know the other person won't mind that you've done so. But because they don't mind, it's no longer stealing. Taking becomes stealing when you should reasonably expect the other person to feel hurt by the taking. Hurtfully taking things from your friends is universally immoral in all cultures, but different cultures have different expectations and standards for what kind of taking causes hurt feelings.


If you had to qualify it with "most", then it isn't universal. Moreover, I don't think morality is what applies only to your friends.


Well the qualifier could be the writer’s way of stating that he or she lacks knowledge of every society. After a brief search I can find no society that approved of stealing from peers.


in a commune there is no concept of "stealing" because there is no private property


In communes without private property, there is generally still personal property. Taking somebody's personal property is theft if you had reason to believe their feelings would be hurt by the taking.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_property#Personal_ver...

Even communal property may be stolen if there are any sort of expectations about one person having temporary exclusive use of that item. Maybe you and I live in a cult compound where literally everything is communally owned, even the cult robes on our backs. Now suppose that when you step into the shower, I take the robe you were wearing, the clean robe you were planning to wear, and all the communally owned towels as well. I have violated your reasonable expectation to have temporary use of those communal items. I have therefore stolen from you. Maybe our cult has a different word for it, but fundamentally I have stolen from you because I've deprived you of something you had a reasonable expectation to possess.


People from which it's okay to steal aren't peers.


“good artists borrow, great artists steal.” - Pablo Picasso

“You believe stealing is wrong, but if your family was starving and could not afford bread, wouldn’t you say it’s okay to steal a loaf to feed them?” - A.J. Darkholme

etc.

The basis of a morality may start with a simple set of propositions. Life ensures that the unknown unknowns that you encounter morphs them into an ever-evolving ruleset.


I think you described manners rather than morals.


I think he’s proposing a universal moral grammar, or something to that effect. I’m not sure it’s particularly convincing but I can’t say I take a particular side on this.


I think he's making two slightly related points.

1) That while it's possible to talk about moral relativism in the abstract, nobody in their own life is a complete moral relativist, which is to say that they will have _some_ moral system that they live their life by, even if they completely recognize the arbitrariness of it.

2) Moral systems have large degrees of freedom, but they _are_ constrained, and he thinks some of those constraints might be innate. For example, while all forms of violence can be approved of in some society, it's always _conditional_. You could _imagine_ a moral system where arbitrary extreme violence against anyone and anything including yourself and your family would be perfectly moral, but you won't see that in any real society. There are always some conditions under which violence is acceptable.


> He identifies “a tendency to move from the uncontroversial concept of moral relativism” — that, say, certain cultures at certain times hold certain moral values, and other cultures at other times hold other ones — “to a concept that is, in fact, incoherent, and that is to say that moral values can range indefinitely,” tethered to no objective basis.

The existence of a tether is what he’s focused on here, it seems to me.


Regardless of whether there exists any underlying universal morality, why would shifts along cultural and/or time axises preclude it?


Here's my take on the problem.

Say there's are a pair of cultures, each celebrating a celestial event like Equinox or Solstice. In culture A, the tradition is that at solstice you should wear red shirts. Suppose they're not extreme about it, but they may look at you concerned or disappointed that you're not respecting their tradition for wearing a red shirt on that day. In culture B, the tradition is to wear a blue shirt instead.

If you go to culture B (from culture A), and wear a red shirt at the day, people will find it strange and be disappointed.

Does that mean one of those cultures is right in an absolute sense, and the other is wrong? I think at least in a "good enough" sense, maybe not. I think in many cases it comes down to non-unique solutions -- more than one culture can be good. Either case may be fine.

However, I think we can with progress in philosophy, science, etc.. critique cultures as a whole: we can try to define what is good. Not only that, but I think in the sense of what is good, then yes: I think we should converge on common, more or less universal principles. Within the same principles, a universe of cultures can exist; furthermore, variety itself is arguably part of goodness. If everything is the same, then we might be missing out in serious ways, both in immediately practical terms of different viewpoints fostering new innovations (if everyone thinks exactly the same... everyone has mostly the same ideas), and also in a cultural, aesthetic sense of life being more interesting with more than one 'cultural way', so to speak. Yet cultures should mostly agree on common universal principles (at least in some 'assymptotic', aspirational sense -- principles should be agreed more and more, and disagreements ought to become more minor).

You may observe 'Ok, but those principles are just the product of the culture you started with!'. I think that's somewhat fair. But I think universal principles are kind of 'natural' in a certain sense -- I think there is a unique set of principles that is capable of unifying concepts like science, truth, morality, sustainability, art, culture -- as far as reason can go. If you look at mathematics, it is universally agreed whether a statement should be true or not. And we don't expect a different culture to find it differently. It's really surprising, I think, that reason should be able to tell anything about culture, but, although it's in some senses extremely difficult (specially if you're thinking of proving anything practical/concrete, like whether an art piece is beautiful or not), those things should all be accessible to reason. This is in no small part because the processes that happen in our own minds can be studied -- and the study of mental processes is in the end what can provide a great unification of all sciences and arts (although in practice like I said it's too difficult in the near term). We can understand the nature of happiness, unhappiness, beauty, motivation, and so on, in a very solid way, in the same way we can study the behaviors of particles, control systems, processors, materials, knots, and so on (there are some important details to this study that are too long for this discussion[1]).

(I think both Chomsky and Focault would probably agree on this point eventually)

That's not to say you can't have cultures that refuse all that, potentially until they 'die'. It's also not to say you couldn't have some weird culture that does mathematics in a different way and they try to persistently live with grave inconsistencies. This would make their mathematics fragile, and probably far less useful -- the point where we call it 'totally unreasonable, pointless'. But it doesn't seem impossible that they could be totally unreasonable. This seems to undermine the notion of universality. If universality doesn't mean all cultures share the values, not even that all cultures would converge or even agree on those values, what could it mean? I think universality only means (in the context of ethics) that a culture with a sufficient set of tools/principles, procedures and systems do eventually converge on common principles. It's basically a basin of attraction of principles (and practices), that needs a minimal set for bootstrapping.

So what is this minimal set? And critically, do we even have it?

I think it can be summarized as consistency, or truth. By requiring that language be logically consistent, and enforcing the notion of truth (across reason[2], individual and collective decision-making), plus of course being sentient beings ourselves (that allow us to recognize and understand truths related to sentience, which I think are at the root of all that matters[3]), we get science, we become able to talk with each other reasonably, we become able to agree, we become able to investigate, etc.. By demanding that ethical principles have some (and eventually rigorous) consistency, we can get to moral truths: if my (literal) brother and my neighbors are both human beings, why should I only help my brother and not my neighbor? How am I fundamentally different from others that I should be more important? (egotism), etc.. What makes it hard, fundamentally, is that sometimes those demands come into conflict with our instincts, or even major aspects of our society, so we can dangerously veer off this path.

I think we have it, and another name for it might be Enlightenment, both in the sense of western culture, and eastern cultures (e.g. in buddhism). Are we enlightened yet? :)

(I would say we're mostly on the path to enlightenment, although we haven't yet been able to discover and agree on some principles and truths that are very important to our lives -- we are on the path but still far from the ideals)

This is such a beautiful and important notion to me, I think it might be worth it to call this God (i.e. this enlightenement, this path to truth/science/everything that is good that can be known) -- with capital G, and why not worship and protect this notion.

[1] The difference is that you need sentient beings and our experiences of ourselves to be able to understand truths about sentience. In a way we are, and have to be, both subject and scientist, and this is a little different from strict views of science.

[2] I've talked so much about reason/truth that I think I should mention intuition too. Intuition is the practical means of thought. Intuition can be thought as large leaps of logic that may be uncertain and/or non-trivial. Most of our language statements don't actually follow from one another immediately in the sense of logic, instead they tend to jump many steps at once, or we even make propositions that are unproven (in mathematics we tend to use intuitive leaps to find proofs and then fill in the gaps with formal statements). Many things in life are actually not so important that we need to prove an ideal solution, usually good enough is enough. Still, this process and language itself relies on the infrastructure of logic, truth and consistency to work; and in many cases, involving important decisions, we can reduce uncertainty and improve decisions by refining our steps, and giving more solid arguments (approaching truth with greater confidence).

[3] Just to be clear, I'm far from proposing we become naive logical machines. Those would probably be both ineffective, and neglect taking into account the experience of being itself. Even fantasy is important in this sense, but I think we should be careful to keep fantasy separate from reality as much as reasonable (phenomena like 'Santa Claus' and psychological quirks notwithstanding). Fantasy is good and reasonable in a way! Same goes for things like arts, games, sports, leisure. Should be made from self-sustainable good feelings.


The main question of the second essay is the ethnocentrism often criticized in my anthropological perspective. Those who protest against "Western ethnocentrism" willingly imagine that they owe nothing to the West since they vehemently attack it. In reality, their perspective is the most Western that has ever existed, more typically Western than that of their opponents.

The revolt against ethnocentrism is an invention of the West, nonexistent elsewhere. Its first great literary success is the famous essay by Montaigne on "The Cannibals," which is already over four hundred years old. The author's anti-Western rhetoric, not always in good faith, is the starting point of a long war against only one ethnocentrism, of course, that of the West itself. This endeavor produces its most beautiful masterpieces in the 18th century and resurfaces, more virulent than ever, after the Second World War.

What characterizes the most recent phase is the abandonment of the elegance and humor of the great ancestors, in favor of very 20th-century neologisms, such as the word "ethnocentrism" itself. The rococo trinkets of the Enlightenment era are covered with a slightly thick veneer. Where Montesquieu said, "How can one be Persian?" our contemporaries roar "against Western ethnocentrism." The essence of the debate has hardly changed.

"This debate is, moreover, legitimate. Western culture is ethnocentric too, it is obvious, as ethnocentric as all the others and in a more brutally effective way, of course, because of its power. It is not a matter of denying this, but why not also recognize an irrefutable historical evidence at the same time? Unlike all other cultures, which have always been straightforwardly and unapologetically ethnocentric, we Westerners are always simultaneously ourselves and our own enemy. We are the supreme Majesty and the opposition to His Majesty. We condemn what we are, or believe to be, with often ineffective fervor, but at least we try. What is happening today is another example of the passion for self-criticism, which only exists among beings touched by Judeo-Christian civilization."

Excerpt from "The One by Whom Scandal Comes" by René Girard


That doesn't sound like Irish culture at all. Or Hebridean. Or Icelandic.

By Western, does he perhaps mean "almost Western but then a little bit East, and not all the cultures obviously" or something?


I’m not educated in philosophy, except my interest in natural philosophy, so I may be completely confused here.

My sense is that morals are based on values that were instilled in humans in the evolutionary milieu. Half a million years of living as bands of Hunter gatherers. But these values are not completely consistent. For example, we think that stealing from others is wrong, but we also think that not sharing is wrong. These are rules of thumb that evolved in Hunter gatherer societies.

So we have inconsistent values, and which values are most preeminent differ depending on what society we are in.

On top of this are sex roles and sexual morality that were developed because of the needs of agricultural societies, which were very different than what was needed to survive as Hunter gatherers.

So there are a wide variety of moralities that individuals can settle on as they try to make sense of all these contradictory impulses.


I don't believe morals have much to do with an inheritance of values, mostly because mankind, from civilization to civilization, has largely kept the same set of basic morality regardless of where they are or what religion they possess.

Sure, some things change, but theft, murder, lying, etc... they're pretty universally seen as wrong. And in the instances where they AREN'T seen as inherently wrong, it's usually a class-based stance that still sets them apart. Even if you steal from other groups, don't steal from OUR group.

Even if you wiped away all knowledge but the very basics on survival, these would come back in short order as societal hierarchies are redeveloped.


> mankind, from civilization to civilization, has largely kept the same set of basic morality regardless of where they are or what religion they possess

> murder ... pretty universally seen as wrong

I have no idea how you could be even passingly familiar with societies like the Mongols or Aztecs and believe this to be true.


Religions require people to do stupid and harmful things all the time. They are extant to proper morality. People weren't just wandering around those societies and murdering other people in the same group without justification or punishment.


It's interestingly how you silently show that 'group' classification of humans allows any person to do any action they want to another person as long as they can find a means of putting them in a particular group.


I didn't "silently" do shit.

I explicitly pointed it out because it's been a part of human history since humans had a history. Declaring something exists is not the same as justifying that they've done it. We have Memorial Day to honor people who died to go overseas and kill people, and Veterans Day to honor the people who didn't die to go overseas and kill people. Would I consider that to be a gap in morality? Sure, but it exists AND it's not specific to the United States either.


I find it troublesome to listen to the person who claims that Russia is fighting in Ukraine in a more humane way than the US in their wars

[https://civilek.info/en/2023/04/30/noam-chomsky-russia-fight...]


Come on, Choamsky is the ultimate "america bad" man. He practically invented it.

"America bad" people are also "Russia not so bad" people. These are highly valuable people for Russia propaganda, of course. They're literal useful idiots.


Seriously. I am actually quite a fan of Chomsky, but he is reflexively America bad. You always always have to take what he says with the massive pillar of salt that his default position on everything geopolitics/IA related is "America Bad".


Out of interest, why would you be a fan of a person who is that flawed? Don't you think that their other stuff could also have shortcuts and dishonesty in there?


I do not think there has been anybody ever who doesn't take such shortcuts in their thinking. (that includes me!) As such it isn't a useful criteria for deciding if I should be a fan. Some people do it a lot more than others, and so I will eventually stop listening to those people as I realize I cannot stand it, but it isn't an automatic deal breaker to see it.


A lot of academics are. It’s incredibly stupid and shows a blind spot.

Not really relevant to this tho, it’s a question of philosophy. His naïveté in foreign policy isn’t really relevant


I'm definitely "America bad", and have observed the Russian government as absolute trash. I am far from alone on this viewpoint.


Is he a moral relativist?


He is definitely not a "moral absolutist" in that he can avoid his own biases and habits. That too is a non-existent kind of individual / moral system that no one really is.


He’s right on that though. I lived through desert storm and the invasion of Iraq. The US targeted our civilian infrastructures in the first two weeks of the war. Virtually we had no electricity for nearly 5 years until the “food for oil” was agreed in 95. I have worked on the Haditha documentary for Nick Broomfield, you can watch it to witness the brutality of the US. Russia is bad, but when compared to the US, pretty much a saint.


> I lived through desert storm

Oh you’re talking about the First Gulf War started by Iraq invading and conquering Kuwait and the bombing campaign freed Kuwait as an independent country, destroyed Iraq’s civilian massacring Scud missiles, and left Iraq intact?


There is also the Iran–Iraq War with 1-2 million casualties. That's also on Iraq.


> Chomsky explained that he was not only referring to the fact that Russia is fighting in Ukraine in a more humane way than the US in Iraq: "I am not only referring to this, it is obvious." UN inspectors had to be withdrawn as soon as the invasion of Iraq began, he says, "because the attack was so severe and extreme ... This is the American and British style of war." Chomsky adds: “Let's look at the victims. I only know the official numbers… the official UN numbers are about 8,000 civilian casualties [in Ukraine]. How many civilian casualties were there when the US and Britain invaded Iraq?”

The implications here are clear what he meant. Everything else in that headline is spin. This feels exaggerated IMO


He’s wrong and full of shit. America is responsible for like 5% of the civilian casualties in Iraq, Russia’s killed like 500,000 people, and they rape everyone they can see.

Moral relativism with geopolitics is cheap pseudo-intellectual play. America may not be perfect but we are definitely the good guys compared to Russia or China


Regardless of whether it's true or not, the fact that this is what he has to say about this invasion is what I find troublesome. Is it so hard to condemn it? Sounds like a diversion, to get away with not condemning it. But he doesn't have to choose, it's just bad faith. How long will we hear "but, what about Hiroshima?" any time a dictator goes for a land grab?


Maybe this is because you are ignorant to the extent of American war crimes?


> Maybe this is because you are ignorant to the extent of American war crimes?

I think you may be ignorant to the extent and type of crimes that Russia is committing in Ukraine.

>> “There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes," he added. "In the cases we have investigated, the age of victims of sexual and gendered-based violence ranged from 4 to 82 years."


US has been responsible for similar and worse at a much larger scale, even just in my lifetime. All war is a crime, and the US is always at war.


Of course if one is to learn about war crime denialism, who better to learn from than Cambodian genocide denialist Noam Chomsky?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodian_genocide_denial#Chom...

Here we have a person denying eyewitness testimony of Genocide. Surely we all have to learn from such a great individual



I didn't know this. I'm in shock right now. I already knew that "America bad" was a blind spot for him, but this is another level.


Such as?


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_war_crimes

Or just a top 5:

- Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

- Battle of Okinawa (and just the habit of American soldiers on Okinawa to rape and kill the locals in general)

- No Gun Ri massacre, Korea

- The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam

- My Lai massacre, Vietnam (really, most of the Vietnam War and Korea. Americans really do like killing Asians in the most violent and horrible ways it seems.)

- Haditha, Iraq (and arguably the entire Iraq war, which was waged under false pretenses to redirect American bloodlust after 9/11 towards the neocons' existing goals to "democratize" the Middle East and distract the public from Saudi involvement in the attacks.)

- Abu Ghraib as a runner up just because stacking pyramids of naked, tortured prisoners of war is just kind of banal compared to everything else.

Now does any of this mean other countries also don't commit war crimes? No. But the US has arguably committed more war crimes than any other country, going back to the continent-wide genocide against the natives. Is this because the US is more evil than all other countries? Subjectively, yes, but I would argue that the US as a nuclear superpower simply has no external limit on its capacity to commit war crimes and therefore commits the most simply because it can get away with it. If other countries were in America's shoes, they would probably be committing war crimes just as often.


Grasping at straws using the A-bomb and Battle of Okinawa as examples. The carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia would have been better.


I don't think either is grasping at straws, but fine. It's a sizeable list however you choose to sort it.


It's not a war crime, but slavery and the genocide of Native Americans was not super great either. Doesn't count if you do it within your own borders!

Outside of strictly defined "war crimes", we have a very long history of interventionism, imperialism, support of coups, installation and support of dictators, overthrow of governments, military actions with foreign nations to install our own form of government / economy / morality. We've destabilized whole regions and nations, birthed massive terrorist organizations, overthrown countries, annexed territories and sovereign nations, and we continue to invade any nation that doesn't have nukes with our special forces (or to support foreign special forces) to attack targets of value.

Stalin was a mass-murdering fuckhead, for sure. But the USSR's actions look a whole lot like the New Imperialism every other major nation has been practicing since the 19th century. Putin is a new Stalin, for sure. But in the time between Stalin and now, we, the USA, have pulled wayyyyy more heinous shit on the world than Russia has.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_imperialism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_United_States_for... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_and_state-sponso... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targeted_killing#Use_by_the_Un... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_interventions_by_the_U... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Cyclone


Resorting to ad hominem is not a good look either.


Do you dispute his claim, or do you simply find it distressing? It appears to be an accurate one, so I'm curious to hear a contrary take here.


i dispute it because fundamentally the entire notion of some war being fought in a noble way relative to another is heinous. as though there are good wars which aren't so bad and the soldiers behave themselves. chomsky perpetuating the harmful myth of comparative "goodness" of wars alone is enough to indict his capacity for real thought and compassion, however in the context of the life he's lived and his personality, it goes a little deeper than that. he's using this fantasy of there being "worse wars" as a vessel of reactionary rhetoric. he has taken the worst thing man does and appropriated suffering as leverage for academic blustering. he's far from unique in this aspect, but that's not the point, now is it? this level of soulless disregard for the horrors of reality and willful naivete in an effort to maintain appearances of trite political dogmas is certainly precluded from having any kind of meaningful opinion on morality or ethics, full stop. it's an indication that he simply lacks the intellectual capacity along certain dimensions to even come to grips with the fundamentals.


Do you propose to not oppose evil with force?


Though this topic's domain is beside what I wrote; what is on the other end of said force does not matter. The moral burden is not alleviated because it stands in contrast of goodness from the same action. To kill is to kill. To enact terror through rape, pillaging and demolition cannot be washed away. They exist simultaneously to any hypothetical goodness and the two of them taken together cannot be reduced to a single value.

A life of no evil cannot be perpetuated from will alone. It can be lived, and possibly perpetuated in extremely narrow likelihoods, but not through force of will. If you would like to complain that this suggests it is unfair if you are to survive in this world, yes. Though I wouldn't call it unfair. Consider this, if it's a function of luck, it is truly the most fair thing of all. Far more than if it were simply left up to will, which gives a discriminatory advantage to those with better skills of utilizing and applying their will.


But everything is grey. If you can't compare goodness then you can't make any choice, because you can't find greater good.


You simply need to accept that through your actions, you will not just be performing good things. You can certainly pursue a higher good, however if done carelessly this entails higher evils shifting into lock-step behind you.

I like to think of it like a system of feedback loops. A naive pursuit of lofty moral heights naturally creates a vacuum in its wake, where whorls of moral lows collect and aggregate. The reverse also holds true. Should we accept evil being done because it will spawn a great good to balance things out? Paying the cost up front. I find the idea no more absurd than the supposedly logical inverse. Perhaps the ultimate good was not to fight a war, but to recognize its increase in likelihood and defend against evil's manifestation in the first place in a less reactionary way. Failing to do this, we are left with a moral debt to pay. Playing games of gods and devils so to speak, it's like a finger trap puzzle. The more you struggle, the tighter you become bound.


This is only one of the outrages claims he made with regards to russia's war in Ukraine. He no longer has any credibility as far as I am concerned.


All culture is a lie which only persists in the re-telling.

For example - there is no such thing as "Europe", unless enough people get together and agree that this thing that doesn't really exist, does exist and shall be named "Europe". "Europe" isn't a physical element, it isn't a naturally occurring substance - it is instead a human cultural construct which only persists for as long as the word continues to be used as intended.

Chomsky, who I think understands this very basic principle very well, nevertheless seems to dance around this fact because its not very savory - it implies that all human life is fiction - and nobody gets paid large sums to make that observation by those cultures inclined to make their own lies persist longer than others - even if its true.

"Perhaps we do have the freedom to speak, think, and act however we wish — but that very freedom, if Chomsky is correct, emerges only within strict, absolute, wholly un-relative natural boundaries."

Essentially, our freedom is expressed as the ability to choose which cultures to perpetuate and which to deny persistence, by simply ceasing to perpetuate the lie that is that thing, in the first place.

Yes, all human experience is a fiction. It may not be obvious now, but I would wager it'll be obvious to every single one of us, one of these days, right in the last seconds of our own lives, when our own individual fallacies cease to persist... if only there were a way for Chomsky to confirm this, when his time comes.


I think you're mistaking an arbitrary or relative concept with a lie. Culture is relative and amorphous, but it's not a lie. It shapes our worldview and it's a framework we can apply to our understanding. Just because it is not the unified worldview as everyone has doesn't make it false.


From the perspective of the natural world, all culture is a lie that humans tell themselves in order to create something that doesn't exist.

We conjure these things into existence by telling ourselves - and hurting those who don't agree - that the thing is real, even if it isn't.

>Just because it is not the unified worldview as everyone has doesn't make it false.

This is demonstrably incorrect: Just ask a Russian to explain American foreign policy. More Americans than Russians believing such lies do not make them true - they just add the force of human attention to the fallacy, which helps it persist in light of other forces of human attention ..

>arbitrary

Lies are arbitrarily persisted as a result of the _decisions_ of human beings, which don't have any force, weight or energy other than what we say they have, and that force, weight and energy only persists for as long as we, humans, say it shall - and not a moment longer!

"Gold is real. Europe is not."

Shelley was onto something ... the fiction of Ozymandias is one lie from which we all will learn, whether we like it or not.


My favourite ice cream is vanilla. My wife thinks I like chocolate. Is my preference a lie?


Depends which one of you persists longer: you or your wife.


There’s a class of truths whose source is our belief in them, i.e. they are true, because we believe they are true. E.g. in most countries there is right-hand traffic, which is true based on people’s belief that it’s true. Of course it’s written down in law, but the only reason this law has this much power is because people believe in it. Similarly Europe exists, because people believe it exists. But none of those things are lies. They’re no less true than the fact that water boils at 100°C. In case of traffic you may even check the full power of human belief by driving in the other lane. ;)

(There was some clever Latin/Greek epistemological name for it, but I’ve forgotten it.)


> All culture is a lie which only persists in the re-telling.

This seems wrong. It's not a lie to give something a name. Why not say "All culture is a truth which only persists in the re-telling", given it is true we call Europe Europe?


Europe doesn't exist anywhere in the world except in the fallacious minds of human beings.

Gold exists. The sun exists. Gravity exists. Elephants exist.

Europe does not.

We cannot conjure up gold just by saying "gold shall exist!" - we can, however, lie to ourselves and say "Europe exists!", and - as long as the human mind is around to perpetuate it, this lie will persist.

Gravity doesn't need the human mind to making it work. Neither does fission. These things exist in the universe whether humans like it or not.

The moment humans are unable to perpetuate the fallacy of "Europe", it ceases to exist entirely.

>Its not a lie to give something a name.

Yes actually, it is. You are not your name. Your name persists only as long as others help you make it persist.

This is not true of the ground under your feet or the air you breathe or water you need to survive.

America is a fiction that only persists for as long as there are human beings around to say "that fiction exists and we shall refer to it as America and in so doing, make this thing that doesn't exist, a reality which persists - but only for as long as we state it does".

And therein lies Chomskys' dilemma: he cannot tell his audience that one culture is less of a lie than another, because: they are all lies. They don't really exist, except as human constructs - and these are arbitrary, requiring a decision - an ability which we humans, by all reading of the natural laws of the universe, shouldn't really have...


Well no, gold does not exist. Gold as we know it is a concept created by humans according to your argument, we call it 'gold' and define what is 'gold' purely by our own cultural experiences. There's nothing stopping us from calling lead gold and gold lead other than our own cultural experience.

If you want to take the idea that human culture is a lie and nothing exists, then empirical reality as we know it does not exist. The concept of 1 + 1 = 2 isn't based in reality but rather something humans made up.


This is a much better take, and elegantly expressed by that flip.

Going further: Europe is a dynamical system that is stable enough relative to human experience to have a name. The feedback loop that maintains the system that is Europe includes human behavior, which includes thoughts and speech.

Chemical elements are also dynamical systems, held together without humans in the loop. Everything we have a name for is like this. The truth and reality of helium and Europe is the same at this level of description.

A problem with this level of description is that it is kind of overpowered: if everything can be considered a dynamical system, then we aren't saying much about the differences between things. Analogously, it's true that evolution explains biology. But there's still a useful science of biology - we don't just point to living things and say 'evolution made that' and call it a day.

Hence while I'm pretty confident about the dynamical systems stance being fundamental, there's plenty of room to slice things up further with other concepts. They just need to bottom out successfully into dynamics. Evolution does this, for example. Can morality bottom out this way? Perhaps the theory of iterated games is a connection?


What do you mean by "doesn't really exist" or "fiction" though? We use words to describe things and there is always some abstraction involved (when you say "this is a rock", by rock you mean a complex combination of other substances that I do not describe, but have these general characteristics).

When talking about cultures, cultures are represented by the people and their actions and both the people and the actions do very much "exist". Describing it "exactly" seems something impossible (same way you don't include in the definition of the word rock how many molecules it must have).

So if your point is "language is fuzzy", sure. But saying "culture is a lie" seems just beyond reasonable fuzziness. The definition of culture implies a lot of summarization which in my opinion excludes an exact definition.


The word you're looking for is ideology.

https://bigthink.com/the-present/slavoj-zizek-ideology/


Agree. probably morality is deep rooted by evolution, is basic for -survival-, even today, is a necessary tool to build social structures where we can live better. skepticism is shallow, can express only in a more limited contingency, and in small doses serve to build deeper knoveledge, and maybe a deeper morality.

Different cultures appear to differ at surface levels, having different habits forged by different local environments, but being stables (or slow changing/adapting) this set of ideas/knoweledges reveal a wide similarity at deep level: this deep level is not relative, is just on top of levels like dna, cells, anatomy, is the ability to develop knowlewdge, can be the language, the walking, the relation is a group..

relativism is shallow in the big perspective of evolution, a deep relativist probably is an extinct one. But today extintion come from the opposite direction, not nature but ourselves.. but this is another story.


I disagree. Moral relativism is very much a thing. But it's just a muddled matter.

To me, "moral relativism" just means the recognition that different societies had and have different moral ideas, and that even within a single society rules are murky and fluid, and often outright undefined.

Pretty much any moral rule you can name has been proudly broken. Eg, torture? Take Abu Ghraib for instance. Not only was it done, but it was done proudly, with selfies taken for remembering the "good times" later.

I find that on the long term the discussion tends to coalesce towards children. Well, in most wars out there children suffered from it. Even in WWII, you can bet that there was an American or Russian bomb that killed a German child, and you won't find a lot of either feeling all that conflicted about their actions. The atomic bombs are a tad controversial, but still find plenty proponents of that the horrific slow deaths they inflicted on quite a few people (including children) were in the end for the greater good.

So far I think about the closest to an effective "objective moral rule" I've heard is that it's immoral to torture children for fun. But when I think of it that's almost a tautology -- It works out to "It's immoral to cause harm without a good reason", more or less.

Or, if the objection here is that a given individual finds their own code as rigid and unyielding, I don't think that's really true either. Amazing horrors are committed by soldiers in wars even well outside of their own direct duty, and moral compromises of all sorts have been made for the sake of diplomacy.


> To me, "moral relativism" just means the recognition that different societies had and have different moral ideas, and that even within a single society rules are murky and fluid, and often outright undefined.

That’s just a sociological trick. You redefine X to mean “what people think X is” and come to “profound” conclusions. That’s like saying that the laws of the universe has changed when Einstein invented relativity.

Moral relativism is, for example, when you think that being a slave owner in 1800 in the US wouldn’t be bad but being a slave owner in 2023 in the US is bad because of specific cultural background that is different then and now. It’s not about people disagreeing on what constitutes bad actions or conditions per se. Everyone understands that people disagree on stuff. It doesn’t make one a moral relativist in any useful notion of that word.


> That’s just a sociological trick. You redefine X to mean “what people think X is” and come to “profound” conclusions. That’s like saying that the laws of the universe has changed when Einstein invented relativity.

That's exactly what you get under "objective" morality though. Everyone agrees "murder" is bad. Not everyone agrees on what "murder" means exactly. You don't have to try very hard to find people apparently just itching to kill a home invader in righteously retributive justice, or announcing the desire of going to the border to shoot trespassers.

> Moral relativism is, for example, when you think that being a slave owner in 1800 in the US wouldn’t be bad but being a slave owner in 2023 in the US is bad because of specific cultural background that is different then and now.

In a lot of circumstances, yes, that's indeed how the world truly works. Morality indeed can change over time, for instance using a lot of water on watering your lawn has very different moral scores depending on whether there's a drought going on or not. So it was perfectly moral 3 years ago and now it suddenly isn't.

Regarding slavery, you have to recognize that international deals involve quite a lot of interaction with countries where people have far less rights than we do -- and this is one of the underlying reasons why we buy stuff from them.


> That's exactly what you get under "objective" morality though. Everyone agrees "murder" is bad. Not everyone agrees on what "murder" means exactly.

I don’t see how it is exactly what you get. It doesn’t matter what everyone agrees or disagrees on. The point of moral objectivism is that doesn’t matter what people think morality is in general just like it doesn’t matter what you think about the laws of physics—they are still out there.

To oversimplify it:

Moral objectivism: laws of morality ~ laws of physics: something that exists regardless of what you think about it

Moral relativism: laws of morality ~ rules of football: it is good or bad to do something only by nature of social conventions and views

Using lots of water to grow cannabis instead of crops during a drought is bad because it could be allocated more efficiently to feed the poor — moral objectivism

Using lots of water to grow cannabis instead of crops during a drought may be good or bad depending on whether people around you care about the poor — moral relativism


It's worth clarifying the somewhat ambiguous subject and object of your moral relativism example.

"Bob using lots of water to grow cannabis instead of crops during a drought may be good or bad depending on whether people around Bob care about the poor — moral relativism

Because there is confusingly similar, yet orthogonal concept, ethical subjectivism, which argues that ethical statements can be universally either true or false, but that the truth value of such statements is tied to one's subjective reality. Whereas moral relativism says that the moral nature of one's actions should be judged by the moral culture they are acting within, ethical subjectivism concludes they should be judged by the ethics of the person doing the judging.

This avoids the key pitfall of moral relativism: "One should be judged on the basis of the moral culture they are embedded in" is, in of itself, a universal claim.


Rules of football all the way, yeah.

By this analogy, rules of Monopoly. Everyone knows the game, but everyone seems to have slightly different house rules for it.


>Pretty much any moral rule you can name has been proudly broken. Eg, torture? >Take Abu Ghraib for instance. Not only was it done, but it was done proudly, with >selfies taken for remembering the "good times" later"

Sure, can happen, but THIS was recognized as a CRIME by the -culture- we have, and some individuals forget/broken/ignored! And a decadent society/culture can be flooed with this also, and loose the capacity to condems this.

I don't mix single fact/events with the main argument, the organized/ritual/specific use of the -force- is universal in quite al cultures, is buiding some kind of order in the chaos, the uncontrolled violence is a crime in quite same every culture, because is disrupting the order.


Recognizing that different cultures have different morals isn't moral relativism; that is simple observation. One must also believe that more than one set of morals can be right or that no one is right or wrong.


> One must also believe that more than one set of morals can be right or that no one is right or wrong.

Exactly. There is no universal right or wrong, it's all relative based on hierarchical system of values in every society.


Morality is a mechanism that helps with following some rules within a society without spending excess resources on enforcing them. It evolved in small groups (in comparison to the size of societies today).

If you accept this view on what morality is then it's pretty obvious there ought be some universal rules as human groups have a lot in common and some rules universally help with survival of a group. "Don't kill your peers" is one example. "Don't take their property without their consent or some process" is another although it can only arise in groups advanced enough to come up with the concept of property. Then there is a whole set of rules related to sex and reproduction which are again pretty universally needed for the group survival but can be established in various way - there more than one solution giving a chance for group's survival unlike in "don't kill your peers" case.

I am yet to meet a fundamental moral relativist who claims we can adopt any rules we please but a position that there are many set of rules that arised to help with the purpose of group's survival is both common and imo obviously correct. There is in fact an underlying mechanism for moral rules (group survival) which those rules stem from in one way or another. There might be better or worse set of rules and they might be different depending on environment a given group exists in. "Don't kill your peers" is going to be there but "Don't kill the weakest members of the group so the resources can be saved" not necessarily so.

It seems to me that Chomsky is arguing against a very narrow and strict definition of moral relativism here or I am not getting his point.


> He draws a natural comparison between this process and that of language acquisition, which also depends on “having a rich built-in array of constraints that allow the leap from scattered data to whatever it is that you acquire. That’s virtually logic.” And so, “even if you’re the most extreme cultural relativist, you are presupposing universal moral values. Those can be discovered.”

I'm not saying Chomsky's conclusions are wrong, but I don't see any evidence for them in this article. It seems predicated on the above: drawing a "natural" comparison between acquiring language and acquiring moral values, but there's no basis stated for that comparison. What's "natural" about it? They may be similar processes but how are we assuming that out of hand?

Chomsky is a linguist & honestly this seems like a protection of realities within his own primary field of knowledge, onto separate fields, with scant justification of the similarities.

Again, the fields - and processes - may well be comparable, but nowhere does this seem to be interrogated.


I've read that Chomsky can be pretty nasty to his debate opponents, but he's amazingly congenial in this video. It really makes me wish I could spend hours and hours chatting with him.

I've run across a handful of philosophers: Chomsky, Peter Kreeft, etc. who can stay really chill during a debate. It's seems like a superpower for keeping discussions productive.


His debate opponents seem to be pretty nasty with him and come out the gate swinging. Why blame him for doing the same?


For me, it's because you expect a mature discussion when it's philosophy and not some immature US-News shouting contest.


Philosophers can be pretty vicious.


He's very dismissive and disrespectful to anyone who isn't fawning over him. If you interview him and interlace praise and admiration for him, yes he's gonna be congenial.


Dismissive and disrespectful to people who are dismissive and disrespectful of him... what a monster.


Have you watched any of these debates? In all that I have seen him participate in the other party was gracious and patient, assuming good faith even when there was little evidence of such, generally far more polite than I could manage.


I havent seen any debates where he wasnt equally polite.

I'm familiar with tone policing as a concept though, and Im not surprised it has been applied to Chomsky.


Not being a sycophant is not the same as being dismissive and disrespectful.


Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: