Is imprecise language responsible for moral relativism?

An example of theft. Someone took everything e...

X: Theft is immoral.

Y: It can’t be immoral to steal if you are starving?

X: If taking food when your starving isn’t immoral then it’s not theft because theft is immoral.

Y: I think that taking food for any reason is theft, but sometimes it’s moral and sometimes it’s not. It must be the case that morality is relative. Whether theft is wrong or not depends on the situation.

X: So we just disagree about what theft is. I say that if your actions are truly moral then your actions cannot be theft because the act of theft is always immoral. In this case, there must be more than just the physical act that warrants labeling the act as theft.  You submit that there is nothing more to theft than the physical action involved and therefore a hungry man taking food from a market – being physically no different than a rich man taking food from a baby – is only moral or immoral due to the situation in which the same exact physical action is occurring. Is it more likely that for theft to occur there must be some deeper mental process that isn’t necessarily visible to the casual observer?

Y: Perhaps.

X: If you see a man shoot another man, is it possible that you did not witness a murder?

Y: Yeah. He could have been killing him in self defense, which isn’t murder.

X: Even though there is no difference between shooting a gun in self defense and shooting a gun to murder someone from what can be witnessed. Both involve the same action.  They do obviously differ however. They differ in motive – which cannot be witnessed. Consider another situation. Is it immoral to punch someone in the face?

Y: It would be if you weren’t defending yourself.

X: The outward act of punching someone in the face looks the same whether it is aggression or self defense. The outward act of shooting someone looks the same whether it is aggression or self-defense. Why should we consider the outward act of stealing to be sufficient evidence that the act is aggression and not self-defense?  Obviously there is more to determining if something is moral or not than just what can be seen. There is an unseen factor that differentiates two otherwise similar actions. I contend that this unseen factor ( motive ) is critical to determining whether action is defensive or aggressive ( moral or immoral ). So my initial premise that theft is immoral is equivalent to saying, when taking something is motivated by aggression it is theft which is always immoral. To say theft is immoral is not to say that it is always immoral to take something.

There is no reason to jump to the conclusion that theft is sometimes a moral thing to do and as such morality must be relative just because you want it to be OK for the starving man to eat.

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2 thoughts on “Is imprecise language responsible for moral relativism?

  1. No this was the result of a long conversation in my head after talking about moral absolutism/relativism and extreme fringe cases where the non-aggression principle seems to break down. For instance…is it moral for a man who is alone and starving in the woods to steal food from a cabin that he comes across if not doing so would most likely lead to death? Or…is it moral for a person to break into a house who is being chased by a crazed killer without the owners permission? The non aggression principle, armed with the typical definition of aggression, says such action is illegitimate as it violates the owners property rights. People love to use these scenarios to claim that theft is moral in some cases and the non aggression principle is flawed. I contend it is the definition of aggression that may be flawed. I also subscribe to moral absolutism. I believe a more robust definition of aggression can make sense out of even the most difficult scenarios.

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