This is a followup to a previous question that suggests that skepticism leads inevitably to moral relativism. In this question, I'd like to look further down the slippery slope and think of the children! This argument is probably false, but I'd like to know where we ought to halt the slide: at what point does one step not lead to the next.

Two points to keep in mind before we start:

  • I have in mind Metaethical Moral Relativism, which I think most likely to be taught in schools. Descriptive relativism is not so interesting since it doesn't say how we ought to make ethical decisions and it's not clear how normative relativism is supposed to work.

  • I'm focusing on children and education because people who learn moral relativism after being exposed to some previous foundation for making ethical decisions are not handicapped in the way I describe. To put it another way, if it were possible to achieve a society in which only moral relativism is known, there will be no basis in that society for making ethical decisions.

Here are the steps:

  1. Children are taught that different cultures have different values and that no one culture (even our own) has any higher claim to knowing right from wrong. Right and wrong must be made in the context of a particular system of belief.

  2. Similarly, children are taught to not hold as true (in an absolute sense) any particular system of belief in addition to moral relativism. This includes systems they learn from other parts of society and at home. This is an important consequence of step one since different people bring different moral systems to the school and none can be elevated to absolute.

  3. Students learn that different spheres of society have different moral systems. In school, the principal and teachers make the rules. At home, the parents make the rules. If they have contact with the court system or a religious system or economic system, they learn that each has its own set of moral principles that are unique and relative to their own contexts.

  4. Therefore it is possible to manipulate the moral principles one is subject to by occupying particular spheres of society. It might be as simple as joining a religious organization that has a particularly commodious set of principles or it might be as complicated as establishing an organization formed around the desired moral system. (It seems that at least part of the driving force of forming street gangs is the ability to create a society with rules that fit the desires of its members.)

  5. From there, it's an easy step to discover that the smallest sphere of society is the individual. If we can control our own moral code by moving from one sphere to another, there's no particular objection to creating an individual moral code. And there's no reason our moral code ought to conform to any other standard. After all, no code has any claim to truth outside of it's context and we are able to create our individual context from scratch.

  6. Therefore every individual may do anything they want within their own moral system and no valid criticism may be lodged against them. Students of moral relativism are therefore immune to moral judgments and unable to make them.

I don't think Aristotle would have consented to even the first step. In Nicomachean Ethics, he asserts that having good moral training is a prerequisite for understanding ethics:

This is why in order to be a competent student of the Right and Just, and in short of the topics of Politics in general, the pupil is bound to have been well-trained in his habits. For the starting-point or first principle is the fact that a thing is so; if this be satisfactorily ascertained, there will be no need also to know the reason why it is so. And the man of good moral training knows first principles already, or can easily acquire them. As for the person who neither knows nor can learn, let him hear the words of Hesiod:

“Best is the man who can himself advise;
He too is good who hearkens to the wise;
But who, himself being witless, will not heed
Another's wisdom, is a fool indeed.

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    When you speak of children being "taught" X and Y, I'm confused by what you mean. No one I know was ever taught morality explicitly until the college level in some ethics course or an intro to philosophy primer course. If you had asked me what moral relativism was, I would have had no clue what you were talking about until at least freshman year of college. Is there some new national moral education initiative in America that I am unaware of, or you are implying that kids glean this information from culture in general as they grow?
    – stoicfury
    Dec 7, 2011 at 21:51
  • @stoicfury: The initial question was inspired by a particular article, which used an example from a Canadian high school class in which "several social-justice-type assemblies" taught moral relativism. C. S. Lewis points out a similar philosophy that masqueraded as an English primer. You don't need to take a philosophy class to learn moral relativism. Dec 7, 2011 at 22:20
  • @stoicfury: I should also point out that my son's school uses an (excellent) program to counteract bullying which is essentially a system of moral relativism. Even as a person who holds as true "a single, universal, absolute, foundationalist moral code" (to borrow from Michael Dorfman), I see a use for relative standards in multicultural settings such as schools. But notice the program also asserts that bullying is wrong in an absolute sense, which is important. Dec 7, 2011 at 22:34
  • Yeah, I feel like when I was growing up we were tacitly taught to respect others to some extent but that our views were the most reasonable. My schools must've been behind the curve! heh
    – stoicfury
    Dec 8, 2011 at 7:22
  • I would like to give an answer, but first I need to know if you think that being "unable to make moral judgments" implies "unable to act morally"?
    – DBK
    Mar 12, 2012 at 19:37

5 Answers 5


We stop the slide on step 1.

Children are taught that different cultures have different values and that no one culture (even our own) has any higher claim to knowing right from wrong. Right and wrong must be made in the context of a particular system of belief.

Actually, children aren't taught this. They are taught that different cultures have different values, and that it is important to be understanding and tolerant of those values, and that right and wrong is always made in the context of a particular system of belief. But, at the same time, they are also taught that there are some universally held values (such as those encoded in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights).

So, when it comes to matters of whether or not it is permissible to drink alcohol, or eat pork or beef, etc., it is prudent to defer to local customs. This does not mean, however, that we need to look the other way in cases of torture or genocide.


I want to flesh out this answer a bit more, as I coincidentally came across some passages in some unrelated work I was doing that seems germane to the point. The passages are in reference to skepticism and epistemology, but I think that the notions transfer (ceteris paribus) to the ethical domain in a straightforward fashion.

First, let us begin with a quote from Myles Burnyeat:

Nowadays, if a philosopher finds he cannot answer the philosophical question "What is time?" or "Is time real?," he applies for a research grant to work on the problem during next year's sabbatical. He does not suppose that the arrival of next year is actually in doubt... [In this way,] he insulates his ordinary first order judgments from the effects of his philosophizing. (Burnyeat 1997:92)

Burnyeat goes on to say:

So, we reach the idea that there are two ways of understanding a statement like 'The stove is warm,' the plain way and the philosophical way, and it is only the philosophical claim to an absolute knowledge that the skeptic wants to question. [However,] this skeptic has no historical reality. It is a construction of the modern philosophical imagination....[Skepticism] becomes the name of something internal to the philosopher's own thinking, his alter ego as it were, with whom he wrestles in a debate which is now a philosophical debate in the modern sense. (Burnyeat 1997:122)

Now, I would argue that the strong variant of MMR is precisely analogous to the skeptical position in this regard; you are not going to find people actually supporting this position, but rather, raising the position in order to argue against it. There are no actual proponents in the wild.

Now, this does not necessarily mean, however, that everyone is a moral absolutist. Here we need to be careful to distinguish between the various moral codes in play (i.e., is it permissible to murder, or drink alcohol on Sunday) and the various means of meta-ethical justification. All cultures agree that murder is bad, but there are a whole slew of ways that this dictum can be justified-- divine decree, the categorical imperative, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, etc. And, it is quite possible that for many people (and cultures) the justification is nothing more than so much hand-waving, and is merely accepted on pragmatic grounds, much as we accept that the stove is warm without grappling with Descartes's evil genius or solipsism or any of the other challenges to the philosophical claims of absolute knowledge. And it is this flexibility which allows the weak forms of moral relativism to flourish, whereby we defer to alternate moral codes (and justificatory schema) as long as a certain core of basic ethical strictures are maintained (roughly, again, we can point to the UN Charter on Human Rights as an example.)


Myles Burnyeat, "The Sceptic in His Place and Time", in Burnyeat and Frede, eds., The Original Sceptics: A Controversy, 1997 Indianapolis:Hacking

quoted in

Dan Arnold, Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion, 2005 New York: Columbia University Press, pp133-134

  • Why? There are a great many people (to judge from how they behave and encourage others to behave) who value principles such as group loyalty, purity, and honor over abstaining from torture or genocide. I think those people are corrupted and fools (to use Aristotle's terms), but that's because I'm committed to an absolute moral standard. Within moral relativism, why am I right and they are wrong? It's good that children are taught ethical standards, but that's not relativism. Dec 7, 2011 at 21:24
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    @JonEricson: But that's my point-- children are not taught any strong form of relativism. The analogy to skepticism (in the prior question) is a good one-- if we set the standard to "absolutely indubitable knowledge", we are forced to admit we don't really know anything-- but no one operates under that standard; in practice, we know a great deal of things. Similarly, there is no ethical system which has an indubitable foundation; however, this does not mean that there are not a number of meta-ethical systems which operate "well enough." Dec 7, 2011 at 21:34
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    To use another analogy: it is (famously) known that there are no absolute, cross-cultural standards for the definitions of colors-- and yet this does not mean that one can point to green and call it red. To suggest that one must choose between a single, universal, absolute, foundationalist moral code and a strong moral relativism where "anything goes" and there are no standards whatsoever is a false dilemma. Dec 7, 2011 at 21:35
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    Endorsing absolute moral relativism prevents you from being able to question anything that doesn't seem appropriate in your moral views. Someone who holds this position can't, for example, question the actions of Hitler (even though we might personally disagree with those actions). But we certainly do want justification for interfering in other people's lives and stopping things like mass genocide; that's why we tacitly teach kids that our moral viewpoint is the best (rather than teaching them that they're all "equal").
    – stoicfury
    Dec 7, 2011 at 21:48
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    @JonEricson: My point is that you're not going to find anyone teaching absolute moral relativism-- it's a theoretical position held by none, like solipsism. It's usually trotted out as a straw-man, by those refusing to understand that there are alternatives between "my way or the highway" and "anything goes." Dec 8, 2011 at 8:06

MMR taught in schools?

I must concur with Michael Dorfman's answer: Your claim that the first point (let alone the others!) is factually taught in schools is false. So here we go into a debate about matters of fact (not really sure how they can be settled here). I think that, at most, a descriptive relativism is taught, but this - as Paul Boghossian, a moral absolutist himself, has explained us1 - is completely compatible with an absolutist view and I concur with him.

So, to get to your item #1. Let's dissect it:

(i) Children are taught that different cultures have different values

This is probably taught because it is a plausibly true sociological fact. This is nothing but an expression of descriptive relativism.

(ii) and that no one culture (even our own) has any higher claim to knowing right from wrong.

This is ambiguous. You probably have in mind: "No one culture (even our own) should have any higher claims to knowing right from wrong". but this claim is definitely not taught in schools. (Again, we are back to a discussion about matters of facts.)

The important thing here is that (ii) cannot be derived from (i).

(iii) Right and wrong must be made in the context of a particular system of belief.

If this is to say that "Right and wrong can be only evaluated in the context of a particular system of belief", then (iii) is compatible with moral absolutism. It may be the case that it is taught, but I don't see how this adds to the claim that MMR is taught in schools.

Does MMR lead to moral apathy/amoral behavior?

There are two ways from here: I could go down the path of what I think is actually taught in schools and talk see what it implies philosophically and in regard to moral behavior. This is what Michael Dorfman has done, but you seem discontent with it, because you're interested in the strong relativist stuff. The other way to go is, then, to swith into an hypothetical mode: What would happen if our teachers were to teach en masse strong MMR? This question I would like to address, but in a more general manner.

My main counterclaim is that (lack of) moral sensitivity is orthogonal to both moral absolutism and relativism. That is: moral apathy/amoral behavior is compatible with both relativism and absolutism. Moral sensitivity/moral behavior is compatible with both relativism and absolutism.

It seems to me that the kind of moral apathy you describe is compatible with moral absolutism. If I believe that a certain behaviour is morally wrong according to some absolutely valid moral code, it is probable that I will condemn it no matter what, but I am not committed to respond with moral feelings to a morally wrong act. The problem is that you characterized the moral absolutism which you put forward as a cognitivist thesis, i.e. moral statements are true or false and thus are a kind of knowledge. Even with additional, more precise deontological principles at play, I don't see how moral knowledge can lead you to moral feeling. (Would a principle like "It is immoral not to respond with moral feelings to a morally despicable situation" actually lead to moral feelings?)

Take instead a strong form of moral relativism, with a non-cognitivst foundation, i.e. with an emotivist interpretation of moral utterances. It seems perfectly possible that a non-cognitivst moral relativist is not only able to have moral feelings (this is what she claims moral statements are expressions of, after all), but also to display moral outrage in front of the photograph mentioned in the article.

Here's a thoughtful account by a die-hard emotivist, Rudolf Carnap, from his Intellectual Autobiography (in the Schilpp volume):

At any rate, emotivism has been attacked as implying a cynical, immoral nihilism. There cannot, of course, be any question for one moment of any personal application of such charges; though it seems to be the rule in the history of western philosophy for those who depart from prevailing ethical theories to be branded as scoundrels. At worst, one could only say that the moral conduct of emotivists is inconsistent with the amorality of their philosophical standpoint. It is both practically and philosophically unwise to confuse the logical implications of a theory with its psychological consequences for action. But there is serious ground for doubting whether even the alleged logical implication of amorality actually holds. As Reichenbach has pointed out in some detail, "It is a misunderstanding of the nature of moral directives to conclude that if ethics is not objectively demonstrable everybody may do what he wants." […]

The view that recognition of the non-cognitive nature of value statements is either conducive to or symptomatic of a loss of interest in moral or political problems seems clearly refuted by my own experience. I have maintained the thesis for about thirty years. But throughout my life, from my childhood to the present day, I have always had an intense interest in moral problems, both those concerning the life of individuals and, since the First World War, those of politics. I have not been active in party politics, but I was always interested in political principles and I have never shied away from professing my point of view.

How (not) to explain moral apathy

Your question is motivated, as you stated, by this article. The implicit point made there is that the unquestionable moral apathy of these students comes from a moral-relativist background, such that the student are apathetic because they have a relativist background belief. I think that this is really - really - questionable. Indeed I think this isn't an inference to the best explanation, but to a bad one at best). Take the example of some kind of information which the teacher tries hard to get the student interested in. Would you argue that epistemic apathy on part of the student stems from a epistemic-relativist background belief? I do not. I think that whatever psychological analysis might explain this kind of epistemic apathy explains also the moral apathy.

(Relying on the self-explanations of the students who give some kind of handwaving relativist statement is like believing a student, who, having heard some commonsensical versions of epistemic skepticism or pessimistic metainduction, explains his disinterest in physics with "Why should I learn this stuff if it is unreliable/probably false anyway?" To make it explicit: I believe that both claims are post hoc rationalizations of a real state of apathy, not doubt, given in a situation where they are blamed for their apathetic behaviour and pressed to give a rational justification for it, which they don't really have at hand - and, I might add: how could they?)

1 See e.g. Boghossian's article The maze of moral relativism:

Most moral relativists say that moral right and wrong are to be relativized to a community’s “moral code.” According to some such codes, eating beef is permissible; according to others, it is an abomination and must never be allowed. The relativist proposal is that we must never talk simply about what’s right or wrong, but only about what’s “right or wrong relative to a particular moral code.” The trouble is that while “Eating beef is wrong” is clearly a normative statement, “Eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus” is just a descriptive remark that carries no normative import whatsoever. It’s just a way of characterizing what is claimed by a particular moral code, that of the Hindus. We can see this from the fact that anyone, regardless of their views about eating beef, can agree that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus.


How are absolute standards of morality learned?

By absolute standards, I mean that there are actions that we hold to be always wrong for every person in every situation. For instance, forcefully mutilating the body of another human is always wrong. There can be no cultural, situational, transcendent, religious1, familial, social, or any other type of justification for doing such a thing. Not only that, but I expect you to agree that it is an absolute wrong.

Thankfully, I see that we do agree. But where do those standards come from? To say it another way, how did the authors of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights know what ought to be included? C. S. Lewis makes a case in The Abolition of Man for a universal concept called Tao. It is not the case that we receive Tao fully-formed from birth the way we receive instincts. Nor is it the case that Tao is wholly learned. As Aristotle pointed out in the quotation included in the question, morality is a habit that must be trained.

Is MMR taught?

It's been pointed out to me that student are not actually taught MMR since nobody seriously believes it true. I will accept this as a given, though I come in contact with plenty of people who seem like they do believe MMR. But I don't think this is exactly Case Closed because:

  • What is taught is not always what is learned. I believe very strongly that it is never right to be rude to my wife.2 Naturally, I hold my son to that rule as well. So when I noticed that he was being rude to her, I assumed it was because he ignored what I had taught him. However, my wife pointed out that when he was rude, he used body language very much like what I use when I'm rude to her.3 In other words, he's not learned from what I tell him, but learned from the far more powerful teacher of what I do.

    To head off a possible counter-argument, we might have misdiagnosed the situation, but I hope nobody will argue that such a thing as a pupil learning from what their teacher does rather than says never occurs. It does and especially in the realm of moral behavior transfer [PDF].

  • "Knowledge is that which remains when what is learned is forgotten." Or so said my 6th grade teacher, Mr. King.4 By this I mean that we sometimes think that because we've taught something our students ought to know it. But that's not at all true. Consider advertisements for prescription medication: it's likely you remember the name of the product and the good feeling the ad communicated non-verbally better than you remember the list of side-effects and warnings presented in the "fine print". These ads clearly work by emphasizing one part of the message to the exclusion of the rest.

    Notice that Dr. Stephen L. Anderson, the author of original article, makes precisely this point. He doesn't say that anybody in the Ontario school system approves of abusive marriages that result in mutilation. Rather he says:

    That said, there are areas in which we have been quite directive. In anti-bullying campaigns, homosexual rights assemblies, multicultural fairs, social justice drives and women’s rights initiatives, we do not hesitate to preach, admonish or dictate because we feel so fervently committed to our ground. But it is clear that the message of women’s rights had been, in the case of Bibi Aisha, outshouted by the metamessage too often embedded in these programs—that there are no real standards, no certain moral truths, and no final ground to stand on; and that anyone who thinks there is, is simply naïve or a bigot. In this case, even the strong rhetoric of women’s rights could not survive the acid bath of universal tolerance.

Is moral relativism the problem?

It doesn't seem to me that relativism is the source of the problem and neither does Anderson:

I’m not saying that character education is itself destructive, just blandly ineffective. Yet there are some situations in which something benign becomes malignant through the expectations that are placed on it. Take, for example, when a person with cancer is given aplacebo. Or suppose a person trusts her weight to a hiking staff that has become damp-rotted inside. To rest too much on the performance of such things invites disaster.

Is morality a type of knowledge?

We are of course, interested in teaching morality, so in the sense that one person can have more information on the subject than another person, all types of morality are a form of knowledge. If you hold to any form of absolute moral standards, I just can't see how it could be argued that morality is anything besides the knowledge of right and wrong.5 I won't repeat Lewis' argument, but I will point out that even though morality is not knowledge in the scientific sense, it still can claim to be knowledge.

In fact, I have a great deal more confidence in my knowledge that mutilation is wrong than I do in scientific knowledge that I've learned. Part of the reason, to be sure, is because scientific knowledge often requires more explanation than moral knowledge. But the more important reason, it seems to me, is that I've had good teachers who have helped me to internalize moral truth. The scientific knowledge I trust most, Newtonian Physics, turns out to be an approximation. The Golden Rule, however, is certain. (Application turns out to be difficult, but not often for cognitive reasons.)

Is the apathy the true root of the problem?

DBK suggests that general apathy is at the root of the problem and not the failure to teach any absolute standards of morality. I find that breathtakingly presumptuous. I'd love to answer it, but the only evidence we have of the incident is Anderson's account.

But let's suppose that general apathy is the problem and emotivism is the solution. On what basis can we say that the students ought to feel one way about the photograph as opposed to the other? When I see a good revenge story (like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) I get a surge of pleasure from watching something I know is dead wrong. I do not indulge that emotion, since I know from my cognitive facilities that cold-blooded killing of another without a trial by jury is not morally acceptable.

More to the point, if students already have no emotional response to the photograph, why is that a problem under emotivism? It certainly "solves" the problem, but I doubt many people would be satisfied with the solution.

Perhaps I am a pigheaded ignoramus, but non-cognitive morality is pretty much a non-starter for me. I can't get past the feeling that it is solving a problem that I never and could never have.

Again, Lewis has much to say on this topic.


So far none of the answers to my question have bothered to address the meat of the strawman argument in the question. I lean toward it breaking down around steps #4 or #5.

1. I don't consider the Jewish practice of male circumcision to be mutilation.

2. I suppose yelling at my wife to save her life (or her dignity) might be considered "rude", but I think context matters. It's rude to push someone, but heroic to push someone out of the way of a speeding car. However, I'm far more likely to justify my unjustifiable rudeness than I am to be in a situation where I can be rightly rude, that I feel safer holding to the never be rude rule.

3. It's not as rare as I'd like it to be, sadly.

4. Ironically, I remember this quote cold as well as a number of other very specific things he taught me.

5. I won't speak for relative morality, but it seemed to me that one of the attractions of that approach is that we can apply empirical techniques to obtain knowledge of the standards. But other answers indicate that even that benefit is removed.

  • Regarding the absoluteness of "mutilation", the issue is the scope of the term. Generally, by its usage, "mutilation" refers to those body modifications which are considered unethical. Is it an absolute wrong to circumcise males? To pierce the ears of female infants? To separate conjoined twins? To remove a 6-th finger? To fix a cleft palatte? To remove webbing from the toes? These can all be considered mutilations, in that they alter that which nature has provided. Even bottle feeding is a form of weight-mutilation. The ethical absolute must be aware of circumstances.
    – Ron Maimon
    Apr 17, 2012 at 5:21
  • (I just deleted a bunch of comments I posted earlier in reply to your answer. Now I see that those comments that would have enabled extended discussion mode… Do you want me to write a second answer or should we just leave it at that? As I said in one of those comments, it is really interesting for me to discuss with a "moral absolutist" - I don't know many (non-secular) absolutists who enjoy a reasoned discussion :) )
    – DBK
    Apr 25, 2012 at 11:27
  • @DBK: Yeah, comments aren't the best place to hold that sort of dialog. A separate answer might be a better way to address this answer. (Could you come up with a new question for you to self-answer? That might even be better.) I do enjoy these interactions, but they are emotionally draining at times. I really encourage you to read the C. S. Lewis article I linked to. He really is my model for this whole issue. G. K. Chesterton has the additional advantage of being funny, if you are looking to read more. (Thanks for your thoughtfulness.) Apr 26, 2012 at 17:39

Jainism appears to build a philosophy around relativism around three principles:

Anekantavada - 'not of single attribute'

Syadvada - predicates should be conditioned

Nayavada - the theory of partial viewpoints

Their philosophy even manifests itself in a seven-valued logic. I would hesitate to call it simply an ethical philosophy as it appears to have metaphysical weight.

As this is a religous philosophy rather than a formal one, I would expect it to be part of every Jains education (but I can't be certain).

I suspect a Jain would disagree with the proposition in the question.

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    What are the seven values? Is there a source? It sounds like a fascinating philosophical position.
    – Ron Maimon
    Apr 17, 2012 at 1:48
  • @Ron: Theres a very brief discussion in iep.utm.edu/jain. Apr 17, 2012 at 4:33
  • Theres a brief discussion in iep.utm.edu/jain. There are a number of academic articles that go on to correlate Jain logic with western ones. I can't recommend any, as I haven't read any yet. Apr 17, 2012 at 4:36
  • Would you mind summarizing the relevant portion of philosophy of Jainism and explain on what basis it would disagree with the proposition? Is there any particular point where Jainism "jumps off the tracks"? Apr 17, 2012 at 15:49

First, I must state that a system of absolute morality is a religion which contains a view of what monotheistic religions call God. This is because an absolute morality is a decision making process, and a consistent decision making process always reflects the will of an entity, by the Von-Neumann Morgenstern definition of "consistency" and "will". This argument is detailed in in this answer

The issue with moral education is that God is central to the notion of ethical progress, and this has been understood in some form already in the metaphysical religious doctrines developed throughout the first millenium. These doctrines evolved from earlier purely superatural beliefs about the Gods, but rearranged those beliefs to fit a consistent absolute morality, which made for what we consider ethical progress.

The ethics we receive are therefore a product of millenia of studying the notion of God, and making reasoned and faithful assumptions on the properties of the ethics demanded of God. In order to have absolue ethics, we need such a framework. Therefore the basic premise here is that God has to be taught in schools in order to produce good children.

This idea is problematic, not because we don't agree that the values associated with God are important. It is problematic, because the notion of God has been attached to ideas that are downright false.

  • God is supernatural.
  • Miracles occur.
  • One only can only acquire knowledge of God through transcendent means.
  • One should suppress any opinion which does not agree with the socially received dogmas one's culture instills regarding God.

These doctrines have proven to be intolerant and bigoted to different metaphysical traditions that have a roughly commensurate claim to revealing the will of God, so that Christians get annoyed by Jewish theology, Jews get annoyed by Christian theology, both are annoyed by Muslim theology, which returns the favor, and all three are massively intolerant of Pagan theology. Buddhist theology is more concerned with meditative exploration, rather than the historical ethical God concept, and there is still a naturist system.

The enlightenment values of tolerance tell us that the ethical code instilled in an individual by an organ of the state, a state which has coercive power, should not make an individual choose one particular metaphysics over another. This is important to prevent suppression of free-thinking in science and philosophy, and this concern trumps the concern that children will grow up without ethics or guidance.

The only reasonable solution to this impasse nowadays is to ignore religious dogma altogether in education, and assume that individuals will fill in this gap by themselves at some point through their own growth and maturation. This is certainly more successful that the previous model of enforced Biblical religious education, which only succeeded in suppressing individual thought and expression.

But it is just not true that the only path to God is through transcendent spiritual experience (although I have to admit, it doesn't hurt). One can reason one's way to the notion of an ethical entity whose utility is maximized by individuals and collectives acting well, and which, over time, manifests rewards of competitive adventage to those individuals and collectives which act in the correct way.

This type of reasoning is not God-denying, but it is still just as atheistic regarding the supernatural and just as positivist regarding the metaphysical as any other rationalist philosophy. It just doesn't deny God as the source of universal ethics. It is possible that one can teach superrationality in schools, without stepping on the toes of any religious faith. This would transmit the core message, without prejudice between different metaphysics that different people hold.

I see nothing wrong with an individual constructing their own version of a superrational code of ethics, so long as it is compatible with other superrational systems, and recognizes these systems for what they are. I hope there is nothing wrong with this, because this is what I try to do, personally. It is better that there is diversity, since no existing tradition is complete, and none can claim absolute truth, so progress depends on individual ingenuity.

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    I'm sorry, but this simply does not address the question I asked. Certainly, the most common absolute systems of morality in our time center on a monotheistic God, but we certainly don't need the concept to have such as system. In fact, my question purposely avoided it, but used Aristotle's ethics as an example. Further, this answer does not discuss the concept of moral relativism, which lies at the heart of the question. Finally, I don't see this as a "philosophy" answer. It's just an opinion on...something. Apr 16, 2012 at 8:07
  • @JonEricson: I disagree that it is possible to have absolute morality without a notion of monotheistic ethical God. It is implicit in the notion. In order to be consistent, the preferences of the absolute morality, whatever they are, by definition, are the will of God, and there is no more to Gd than this. Perhaps I should use a different term than "God" since this term is loaded, but it is the correct term (the superrational utility function for games is what people who are religious mean by the term "the will of God"). You are not right.
    – Ron Maimon
    Apr 16, 2012 at 12:14
  • @Jon: I'm a little confused why you say 'absolute morality is often centred on a monotheistic God. Historically speaking the Christian community has had quite a number of interpretations. Surely these then have differing moral consequences? Apr 16, 2012 at 23:57
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    @Mozibur: My point is that ethical monotheism (which includes Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism) is only one place we find systems of absolute morality. There are plenty of other sources. The moral system of Christianity seems to be a hybrid of both absolute and relative ethics. Apr 17, 2012 at 0:18
  • @JonEricson: I think this is a misinterpretation of Christianity--- the contingency of ethics on circumstance and history, and Gregory of Nazanius's doctrine of gradual revelation, are not saying there isn't an answer to ethical questions, but that answer depends on general and specific circumstance, as always, and the ability to find this asnwer improves with time, as the holy spirit keeps doing stuff. A system of absolute ethics must have a preference for outcomes, and if it is not a utility, the morality has a Von-Neumann paradox--- it makes paradoxical decisions about certain situations.
    – Ron Maimon
    Apr 17, 2012 at 1:51

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