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Chapter 2 - Moral Relativity

People sometimes use the phrase "moral compass". The metaphor is quite apt. Ethical choices oft-times have to be made in light of the individual's unique goals, looking ahead to the ultimate end and not being deterred by what is around the immediate area.

The metaphor can be extended to imagine leading a moral life as sailing a ship. Living well is like setting a course and sticking to it, using that compass heading to prevent being blown off course by local wind or adrift with the current. If fate should cause the ship to go off course, reference to the charts and to the compass allows the ship to be corrected and the course reset. It happens to some of us that the goals change, or the realization occurs that it is not possible or very hard to reach the goal that was originally selected. Then the course changes, the compass reset and the individual heads off in another direction.

A ship in deep water is affected by wind and current, but other dangers arise close to shore. In that case the ship must be guided by a careful observation of what is immediately under the keel, with reference to the charts supplied by those who have been through there before. Each ship is at a different place, so the shoals are different for each. But the principle of sailing in shallow water is the same - make sure the water is deep enough for the ship to go through.

The metaphor illustrates how living ethically has often thought of, but like any metaphor it has its limits. One problem with the sailing metaphor is that it is built on a belief in moral absolutism. The compass is aligned to an absolute magnetic pole that guides each sailor no matter what the course of their individual life is. If a person gets into trouble the way a ship runs against the shoals, then the person has gone in the direction of immorality. The shoals are fixed and absolute in some continuum of human misbehavior and an immoral action that brings that person to that place is directed away from the moral center. This would also equate the nautical chart to the sacred writings of a religion. The chart lays out the areas of danger to the person and warns against those actions that lead to those areas.

Religious teachings in the Judeo-Christian tradition tend to be like this. Activities such as lying, thievery or murder are expressly forbidden to all. Religious teachers set these laws out as absolute pronouncements from an all-powerful God that are meant to be followed by all and ignored at their peril. If the consequences of this wrong-doing does not come back to haunt the transgressor later, then certainly the penalty will be paid in the afterlife.

Moral absolutism is not limited to religions with a sacred book promulgated by a deity. Ayn Rand and her Objectivism defined a moral code that it is claimed can be defined axiomatically and can be applied through a rigorous application of logic. In her ethics, all actions that are life-sustaining are good and those that are not are evil. She particularly singles out altruism with its concept of sacrifice as denying life and thus being contrary to the positive virtue of rational selfishness. There is a clear demarcation between good and bad based on the recognition of objective human needs such that anyone who rationally analyzes the situation will come to the same conclusion. Her moral imperative is to "judge and be judged" - not to stand by and let actions that sacrifice life to go unanswered.

Other atheists and even some secular humanists consider moral absolutes to be a self-evident fact of existence. Subjectivism and Cultural Relativism do not lead to workable moralities, they claim, because there is no way to judge an action immoral if the person or culture believes it to be so. Although it is admitted that different cultures differ on the morality of certain actions, this does not mean that they differ on morality per se. They may differ instead on the facts that lead to making a judgment. For example, different groups of people differ on the morality of abortion. The difference between the groups is not necessarily exemplifying a difference in the underlying moral standard that questions if murder is wrong. Instead, what they differ on is the factual question of whether abortion is murder or not. The standards themselves may be "self-evidently" true. This means that a moral standard such as "unnecessary suffering is wrong" should be self-evident. If someone believes that it is wrong, the burden of proof is on the disbeliever to find a counter-example.

An influential description of absolute morality came from C. S. Lewis. In "Mere Christianity", Lewis begins by pointing out that with most quarrels about right and wrong both sides accept the same standards of behavior. This standard is not rejected by either side, implying that it is universal. Those who deny the existence of an absolute moral law eventually get caught in an inconsistency.

Lewis suggests that one objection to the concept of an absolute moral law is that it is just an instinct, a type of herd instinct. But if two instincts are in conflict, the thing that judges between the two cannot be just another instinct itself. This higher law shows itself most strongly when it is called upon to suppress the stronger of two instincts and encourage the weaker. Also, if morality were an instinct, there should be some one impulse that we could call good. But every instinct is correct to follow in some cases and wrong to follow in others. Every instinct will eventually lead someone astray if followed at all costs.

A second objection is that morals are arbitrary social conventions. Although some social conventions are arbitrary, other social conventions can be absolute truths, the same way that the laws of arithmetic are absolute truths. Moral laws are in this second category. Since we can see changes in morality in time, changes for the better, we must be judging different moralities against an absolute standard that is greater than the moralities being compared. The fact that different societies differ in their moral standards demonstrates the presence of an absolute moral standard. The presence of a real New York allows two people to judge which of their impressions of New York to be truer. He argued that Christianity is judged to be preferable to the morality of Nazism by almost anyone because there is an ideal system that dictates those things that ought to take place.

Also, Lewis goes on, although there are moral differences between societies, the differences are minor. Although witches were put to death three centuries ago and are not now, both societies would agree that people who surrender to the forces of evil and do harm to others in bad ways should be morally condemned, even executed. The difference between then and now is a matter of fact, not of moral principle.

This argument for universality is mentioned by other thinkers. For instance, not only do we believe it morally wrong for the Nazis to perform medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners, we think everyone should think it was wrong, including the Nazis themselves. This implies that certain actions are objectively good and others are objectively bad. If we were truly relativists then we would be willing to say that certain actions are acceptable under certain situations.

Before going further, I would like to make a distinction between two different forms of the absolute that arise out of the notion of absolute morality. The first type of absolute is that of an absolute origin for morality. This is an ideal position, from which all other standards are an imperfect deviation,

The second absolute is an absolute measure or standard. This absolute allows us to take two situations and compare them. An absolute standard is the measure by which we say that one situation is better than another or is the ethically the same. The standard is absolute in that our measure does not vary if in the two situations we change those features that are irrelevant to well-being. That is, abstracting the relevant issues in each situation, the situations will remain in relatively the same relationship if they are changed only by altering morally irrelevant conditions. For example, if it is agreed that buying a coat from a person with dollars is better than stealing the coat and paying nothing, this relationship still holds if it were a pair of shoes being paid for in rubles. This standard allows an observer to measure the degree of good or bad in a person or action by measuring the change in well-being brought about by that action.

Most everyone agrees that this second absolute exists; otherwise there would be no common basis for discussing morality of any kind. This does not mean that we do not measure the differences each in our own way. It is possible for each of us to judge the degree of goodness or badness differently. What is absolute is the agreement that if one situation is better than another, this relative ordering will not change with irrelevant changes.

Although the proponents of absolute morality can find problems with moral relativism, this does not mean that moral absolutism is free from problems itself. The first and most basic is the inability to pick an absolute center with unanimity. Beginning with the recognition of the great amount that is universal in the common experiences among all humans, it is possible to limit the bounds in which the absolute origin can be found. That is, the existence of common human instincts, while imperfect, does point out the general location of such a moral origin, if it exists.

But we cannot claim to fix this absolute center with absolute certainty without denying the fact of human fallibility. Although there could be an absolute moral center such as a moral code promulgated by a personal God, we cannot speak with certainty from that viewpoint without arrogance, usurping God. And there are many such viewpoints in the world that claim to be the moral origin. Christianity is certainly preferable to Nazism. But which is preferable - Christianity or Islam?

Actually, it is possible to leave open the question of whether or not an absolute exists. Even if there is no absolute center, the fact that people share a common biological basis means that they may act as if the illusion of absolute coordinates were a fact. These absolute coordinates can be thought of as a sort of averaging over everybody's essential well-being.

But given this approximate center for human behavior, what is moral for human society may not be moral for intelligent bears or an intelligent anthill. If it can be shown that other biological systems have the freedom to act in terms of their welfare, the moral laws for these systems could be radically different from ours.

A second problem for moral absolutism arises when moral differences are dismissed as differences in fact instead of in moral principle. To say that the two sides on the abortion issue agree on the moral principles but differ on the fact of when life begins raises self-evident moral truths to become abstract quasi-logical axioms, that need facts for their instantiation. But is the start of life a fact? I would claim that both sides of the issue actually agree on the basic biological facts of fetal development; what they disagree on is a definition. And it could be argued that the definitions of certain situations form a basic part of one's moral code, different from the basic principles or morality. That is, both sides on the abortion argument agree on the same set of objective facts of biology, but their moral codes define that beginning of life differently.

Even granted the possibility of an absolute moral center, I am going to make the case for moral relativity as the simplest explanation of how moral judgments are defined and applied. To illustrate this, I am going to use the concept of relativity from physics as a metaphor.

There are three important types of relativity in physics: Classical relativity, Special relativity and General relativity. I am going to discuss Classical Relativity here, in particular the implications of the Copernican Revolution.

This story is one of the most well-known in physics. The way it is usually told, it begins with the observation back in antiquity that there are a number of heavenly bodies and planets that wander through the sky against the background of the fixed stars. They are the Sun, the Moon, and Mercury, Venus, Mars Jupiter and Saturn. They are known to remain in a bounded region of the sky centered on the ecliptic plane. It was believed that the planets were attached each to a sphere centered on the Earth. These embedded concentric spheres imparted motion to each other, making the planets move in a circular motion around the earth. The stars and the Milky Way were fixed to an outmost sphere that was the furthest distance away.

The problem with this model is that the planets also exhibited a change in brightness at certain places in their orbits. Also, to make things worse, they were sometimes observed to move backwards in their orbits. This retrograde motion could not be explained with this simple model. Note that the fixed stars did not exhibit either of these behaviors. Except for the unusual events such as a nova, they remained the same, locked in a simple orbit that changed hardly at all year after year.

Around 150 BC, Ptolemy developed a more complicated system that would account for these discrepancies. The Ptolemaic system of describing the motions of the planets attached each planet to a circle called an epicycle, which was embedded, in the corresponding sphere, the deferents. Now, at the same time the deferents uniformly rotated around the Earth, the epicycle rotated around its center at a different rate of rotation. At different times during the rotation of the epicycle the planet would appear a little brighter or dimmer. Also, during the return motion of the epicycle, the motion would be greater than the motion of the deferents and the planet would appear from the Earth to move backwards.

This was not enough to completely explain the observed motion, though. A closer approximation could be reached by one of two ways: embedding other epicycles in the epicycles, or by offsetting the epicycle in the deferents, so the center of the epicycle was now not the center around which the epicycle rotated.

This geocentric notion of the universe was replaced by the heliocentric universe pioneered by Copernicus in 1543. In this model the planets rotate in circles around the Sun. The Earth itself becomes one of these planets, with the Moon rotating around the Earth.

It is important to note that the Copernican system is better than the Ptolemaic system not because the Copernican system is right and the Ptolemaic system wrong, but because the Copernican system is simpler than the Ptolemaic system. Actually, the Copernican system as originally conceived - as circular orbits- still requires a system of epicycles to be consistent with observation. Both systems, given an infinite number of epicycles on epicycles, each one much smaller than the last, in the limit reduces to the elliptical orbits that the planets actually move in. But the Copernican system, especially with the introduction of elliptical orbits has the simplest and more elegant explanation.

Another important concept is that this new way of viewing planetary motion gave rise to classical relativity. The Earth-centric system as conceived by the ancients postulated that the heavens existed in an ideal condition away from the imperfection of Earth. Newton's laws of motion established a calculus of motion applicable both to the heavens and the Earth, such that calculations of relative motion were shown to be the same regardless of the choice of origin.

In classical relativity, the calculations of position and motion of different objects can be computed relative to any arbitrary origin. Given three objects A, B and C, the location of C as seen from B is the same as the position of the C as seen from A minus the position of B as seen from A. Now if all three of these objects are in motion relative to each other, the calculation of the motion of C relative to B is simply the difference of the motion of C relative to A minus the motion of B relative to A. A necessary precondition for relativistic calculations to be valid is that the measures of distance and time duration are absolute regardless of which origin is chosen to make the calculations.

This calculation of relative motion can be extended to calculations about the dynamics and forces of objects with mass, as long as the origin and the method of calculating distance and time defines an inertial frame of reference. An inertial frame of reference is one in which Newton's First Law of Motion holds. That is, given an object that is moving (or not) in an inertial frame of reference, if nothing comes along to interfere with that motion, the object will maintain that motion for all time.

It is possible to define a non-inertial frame of reference. For example, we could define our frame of reference to be centered on a rocket ship that is moving away from the earth at a constant acceleration. How this happens is not important - it could be scooping up the fuel to do this from interstellar space. By using this rocket as a frame of reference means that any object moving with a constant velocity appears to be accelerating away from the rocket ship. Using this frame of reference, basic techniques of measuring relative motion are rendered invalid. Attempting to make calculations about the motion of other bodies as if it were an inertial frame of reference would lead to inconsistencies.

The embrace of a relativistic framework does not in itself deny the existence of an absolute origin to the universe. For all we know, the universe could truly have a center based, for example, on the midpoint of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England, and all motion of physical bodies is around that point in some complicated dance. For a more reasonable example, if all of the galaxies in the universe had a spherical distribution, where the bulk of the mass fell within a certain radius, and all of these galaxies were rotating around the center of that spherical distribution, then there would be an absolute center for the universe.

I will show that moral relativity works because it is a cleaner explanation of moral action. That is to say, using an inappropriate absolute frame of reference leads to the explanatory equivalent of epicycles to explain the same phenomenon that can be described in a simpler manner by a more appropriate choice of a moral center. Even if there is an absolute moral framework, if this moral center is sufficiently different from the context of the observers, participants and society in which the particular situation occurs, then it is better to abandon that moral absolute in this case and use the relative moral framework appropriate for that situation.

What evidence is there for preferring moral relativity? The first is lack of a definitive majority of people agreeing on a single moral standard. Although there are many things in common with most moral systems, they differ significantly in the details, such as moral codes delimiting appropriate family structures, or the importance and degree of truthfulness required to be considered honest. Although from the similarities between human moral systems we could infer a moral absolute, no individual or group can claim to know this center to any degree of certainty without being challenged by the majority of people.

The argument for the existence of an absolute moral center is challenged by the existence of a significant number of major moral codes in the world represented by the major religions, and by the fact that these religions invariably fracture into different sects each of which begin to move their moral codes away from the center of that religion. The attempt to claim a moral absolute in spite of this fracturing ends up having problems of a nature similar to the epicyclical hypothesis. I will show this with two of these attempts to claim moral absoluteness that I discussed earlier.

The first attempt to show that despite the existence of sects there still is a moral center was based on a claim that these groups differ not in their moral principles but in differences of fact. If that were the major cause of the differences, then sects would arise due to these differences of fact, holding their principles the same. Under this interpretation, for example, the split between Sunni and Shiite Moslems is simply one of a difference between them on question of the existence of the hidden imam. This can be stated as if it is a difference in fact, but this difference also accompanies a number of differences in belief that magnifies the differences in practice between the two groups above and beyond the fact of the existence of such a person.

There have been a number of Christian groups that have formed on the basis of a difference in fact, such as the historical claims of the Mormons or the claim of the Christian Scientist that health problems are matters of the spirit. But each of these splits is also accompanied by changes in moral principles and practice not explained only as differences in fact.

But granted that some of these differences arise from factual disagreements, there are just as many splits caused by a reinterpretation of basic moral sources, such as those Christians who consider the Bible to be a spiritual truth but not necessarily a factual record, or those who "speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent." Thus ascribing a factual difference to moral differences is insufficient to account for sectarian differences. A relative interpretation that postulates group fragmentation as a difference in moral judgments relative to a precursor group explains things better.

The second attempt to show that there is a moral center was C. S. Lewis's claim that the existence of different moral codes shows that there is a moral absolute which is revealed through the process of comparing them: "If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something - some Real Morality - for them to be true about." This argument conflates the two concepts of a moral absolutes - that of a moral center and that of a moral standard.

Most people consider their own moral codes to be either the best or close to the best. That is, they consider themselves to be able to identify the moral center as being close to their beliefs, even though they admit to not being there themselves. Therefore the comparison of Christianity to be better than Nazism will hold for a Christian just because of this relativization of the individual moral viewpoint to the moral center of the prevailing moral code. If most everybody shares what is basically a similar moral code and shares a moral standard, then for most people the Christian morality will look better than the Nazis - except to a Nazi. By the time a Nazi decides that the Nazi moral code is less true than the Christian code, they have already shifted their moral center away from Nazism.

It is certainly possible that the relative coherence of moral codes for different religions does seem to imply the possibility of a moral center, but this is not absolutely proved. One problem is that the moral codes are lumped together into major religions and philosophies with a few outliers, instead of being a uniformly varying whole. It is as if instead of us all living on this Earth with an easily determinable center, we were all living on an agglomerated collection of separate rocks kind of floating around together. When each person who believes in a moral absolute is asked to pick the center, they pick the center of the particular chunk they are a part of: the Christian defines the center as Christianity, the Buddhist as Buddhism and so on. But it could just as easily be that if there were a true moral center, it would be some sort of average over all moral traditions - a center that lies outside of any one religion as currently practiced. In any case, the attempt to compute such a moral center would be difficult, if not impossible, and certainly contentious. It would be better not to even bother, since a moral relativism fits the facts better and is more practical.

This choice of the moral center as the religion of the person making the choice is the standard simplifying assumption of relativistic reasoning - it is easier to make sense of and make decisions about a situation if we choose ourselves as the center. This is termed the reference point of the observer. Choosing oneself as the center is more of a simplifying assumption rather than a claim that the observer is at the absolute center. For example, a Baptist could function very well morally, thinking in terms of Baptist concepts of right and wrong even though God were a Methodist. In fact, since people are fallible, the claim that a person's moral code is centered on the moral absolute is guaranteed to be wrong in some respect.

Another sign that morality is relative is that most past attempts to derive an absolute morality has only come up with a morality that is applicable only to humans. That is to say, attempts to identify the moral center have failed because these moral centers are not universal for all entities - they have no way of handling non human morality. Human morality cannot be uniformly applied to other animals even if limited to the more intelligent mammals who bear some behavioral relationship to us.

A comparison of other mammals shows differences in sexual mores, wars with other groups, ownership of property, territorial disputes, infanticide, population and resource pressures and other things. If they had a moral code, the code would be different according to the behaviors. In many of these aspects, higher mammals show limited free will, but free will nonetheless. They are capable of choosing an appropriate number of mates, whether to fight or take flight, whether to claim territory or surrender it, to take care of or kill infants and react cooperatively or in competition. They are driven mostly by instinct but the details are subject to individual and collective will. These moral codes cannot be integrated into a generally accepted core of human moral beliefs and have much of substance left.

The remainder of this chapter will discuss the implications of moral relativism. Besides dispelling some misconceptions, we will show how relativism allows us to see morality as it works in the real world, instead of having the inconvenient details buried by the attempt to fit actual morality to some perfect moral absolute.

I have been discussing morality as being measured from a center, either absolute or relative. This origin measures some space that represents entities and their actions. What does it look like? Of the two metaphors used in this chapter, the image of a sailing vessel and that of the motions of the planets, the first metaphor is probably closer to the image of a moral space. Considering all estimations of the well-being of an entity as a single value of being well-off or poor and considering time as the second dimension, the moral space becomes a two dimensional chart divided into two regions; the well half of the chart and the poor half. There is a boundary line between them that some moralities consider clean-cut. In practice this boundary line is a gray area - a stripe of varying thickness running between the two regions. Although the boundary is usually thought of as drawn between good and bad, that determination is a secondary consequence of the well-being of the entity. To decide if an action is good or bad, we must first determine whether as a consequence of this action the entities involved are better or worse off than before.

Entities are represented as a line going up the chart in time. Some timelines veer from the well-off to the poor-off region and back, but some timelines can be seen to be mostly in one or the other region. Moral actions are events that move these entities in one direction or another. They represent forces that interact with the entities. Given some moral act, if in general the entities affected by the action are taking directions that are toward the poor side, the action is bad; otherwise it is good.

In this, the simplest way of imagining the moral space, the boundary separating well from ill goes straight up the center of the chart, with the origin, whether an absolute center true for every valid chart, or a center that is relative for different ways of calculating well-being, would be located at some defined time but centered in the middle of the gray area. The region of well-being then would have positive values relative to the center, the poor region would be negative. God, being thought of as an infinite good or an infinite state of well-being, would be the infinity off one edge of the chart.

The difference between an absolute morality and a relative one can be seen in the changes of the entity lines. In an absolute morality, every chart would have the same trajectories for the entities, the only possible differences perhaps being when time is presumed to start and how to assign a number to well or poor. So different charts would start at different times and appear thicker or thinner, but that's all. The charts can be shifted or expanded to make them fit.

On the other hand, a relative chart would have the same regions for well or poor, and the same straight line going up the center, but every chart would show different time lines for the entities depending on how well or ill is measured for each action at that time for that entity. The remeasuring of the well-being of an entity does not change the boundary between good and bad; it moves the position of the entity.

Ayn Rand's Objectivism, since it equates the good with being enhancing to life tends to look like the two dimensional chart. But there are many dimensions to well-being, some of which cannot have a number assigned to them. For example, a person's financial worth can be considered one numeric measure of that person's well-being, but their medical health cannot be reduced to a number, or even a vector of numbers. To have a more realistic portrayal of the moral space, we need to go to multiple dimensions. In this case, the regions on the chart become some sort of volume of space, and the line separating good from bad becomes a complex surface. The only requirement is that given any two points, one in the region of well-being and the other in the poor region, the difference to go from ill to well must be positive in at least one dimension.

In a multi-dimensional space, some of the dimensions are qualitative, not quantitative. This means that it is difficult to get a measure on a single entity for a single event in time. Even granting the existence of an absolute standard of measurement (as opposed to an absolute origin) it is hard to pinpoint exactly where something is in terms of its well-being. That means that even for an absolute moral standard of measurement, a measure cannot be reliably made on a single event alone. Except for the most egregious outliers, any single event is independent of morality. A moral standard can best compare between two events, especially those who differ in some qualitative feature. It is difficult to discuss morality of a single situation, but much easier to discuss differences. An example is to point out that for both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion viewpoints, a live birth is preferable to an abortion. The two sides may differ on the moral outcome of these two actions, but they will both agree on the relative difference between them.

So we have a moral space that is comprised of a number of different dimensions by which we measure well-being. Actions we term good or bad are seen to be forces that move the position of the entities around in the space. Unlike physical forces, good or bad actions do not usually act to gradually change the well-being of the entities involved. An action typically takes an entity from one point of well-being to another point located at the same time, but some distance away depending on the loss or gain of well-being and which dimensions changed. Also, unlike physical trajectories of objects like billiard balls, the entities do not have to be touching to interact. So a single moral act can make a number of entities dispersed through the moral space act in quite different ways.

The moral judgment of an act as good or bad is then a two-stage process. First, the entities affected by the action must be identified and a determination must be made as to how each entity's well-being was changed. Second, these individual measurements must be combined to make an overall determination. Just as a multi-dimensional determination of well-being must have at least one dimension positive to say that the entity is better off, there must be at least one entity whose welfare is improved to judge an action as good.

If an action could be considered to act on a single symbolic entity that represents the cumulative well-being of all the entities involved in a moral act, then good and bad can be drawn and measured in the moral space as well or ill for that representative entity. Given this composite position both before and as a consequence of the action, well or ill is the line drawn between the two positions, with a good act being one with a positive direction from beginning state to consequence and bad as negative. The line does not even have to be in the gray area to determine this; goodness makes the world relatively better, and badness makes it relatively worse.

Most moral codes do not handle all of the complexities that real life is able to manifest itself. Instead, we usually consider only changes in the one dimension of our measure of well-being that has had the greatest effect from an action. This single measure is used to determine whose lot has improved or gotten worse. We also tend to focus on the entity that had the greatest change and base our measure of good or bad on whether the person most affected did better or worse. In this judgment, we are usually quicker to focus on loss than gain, probably because our normal expectation is that in most human interactions, both parties come out the better. Therefore, any loss in well-being is the exception and is indicative of an act that is not good.

Thus, if there are two people, one who buys a loaf of bread from the other, we tend to view that transaction as good because they have both received in value something that to them was better than what they gave up, so they both shifted slightly to the better side. On the other hand, if the loaf was stolen, we judge the action as bad because one person lost, even though the other gained. Even if the person stole from someone who has an abundance of bread and used that stolen loaf to feed a starving child (which means that the decrease in well-being for the one with abundance was more than offset by the increase in good) this action is at best condoned, but never thought of as virtuous.

One advantage of looking at morality in this way is to show how the moral viewpoints of different moral origins are affected by perspective. Like the perspective of real objects in space, two moralities that are close together have the most pronounced disputes with actions whose effects are in the same range as the differences between the moralities. Where one Protestant denomination would disagree strongly with another about whether salvation occurs at the moment of confession of sins or at the moment of baptism, both would view with equal distain the emphasis of the Buddhist on the elimination of suffering without regard to salvation at all. At the time of the Protestant reformation, it was accepted that to burn an apostate at the stake was the lesser evil, compared to the alternative of letting this heresy continue to be promulgated, thereby putting countless souls at stake. To a Buddhist, practicing the ways of non-violence even to the point of vegetarianism, this would be seen as just another killing. But all would agree that the actions of Genghis Khan and the Mongols were beyond the pale.

Instead of having greater differences between moralities at greater degrees of good and bad, then, we tend to have the differences more pronounced at the range of difference similar to the differences in origin. These differences can even appear to change an action from good to bad in the same way the planets move in retrograde motion, but only for actions whose moral codes measure these actions near to the gray area between right and wrong. When actions are far away from the center, then like the fixed stars, the motion is viewed as the same for all. Different Protestant faiths may differ on the moment of salvation, but once this is passed, the length of the lifespan of the saved is not an issue. Therefore both would consider a cure for cancer as a good because the resulting change in lifespan only affects when, not if the person will be saved. But for a morality that views overpopulation as the fundamental problem and a Malthusian collapse as the ultimate ill, such as cure may not be considered an unalloyed good, but just another pressure placed on an overburdened Earth.

It has been claimed that, with a relative morality, one can admit the possibility that for any action no matter how reprehensible, a moral code can be constructed that will admit it as a virtuous act. This is looking at each event in isolation, not relative to the goodness or badness of other events. Of course, if a relative morality is unbounded in its choice of origin, this is possible. The fact that a shift of perspective is possible is given as an argument that a relative morality leads to inconsistencies because of course no true morality would admit to a whole range of reprehensible actions that could be allowable in some moral relativity.

This is no more a refutation of moral relativity than the equivalent astronomical observation that given any three points, it is possible for a mass to pass through these three points in an orbit around the sun. The fact that there is a whole region of points far from the ecliptic plane where no planet or asteroid passes does not make classical relativity absurd.

The problem goes away because the selection of the relative origin only serves to give an arbitrary name to a particular event. But this does not change the relationship between this event and all the other events in the moral space. In comparing two events, we can still judge one event to be more or less bad than another, even if we have arbitrarily defined genocide as a virtue. This affects the utility of our definition of virtue, not the way in which we run our lives. By comparison to the other possible choices we can make we can still steer ourselves to be more and more good, regardless of what value is assigned.

As for the argument that this means that anything is acceptable under a morally relative framework, I will point out that this is in effect claiming that for any two given situations, there is at least one choice of a relative origin where the relative location of the two situations is reversed. This is as false as claiming that under a relative interpretation of celestial motion, there is a viewpoint from which the Moon can be determined to be over the North Pole, or the distance of Mars from the Sun is less than the distance from the Sun to the Earth.

The choice of an appropriate origin in a relative morality makes a big difference in how easy it is to make moral judgments. The choice of origin can be a choice of focus - it can be individual, group, society, culture, mankind or Gaia. Once this gross level is decided on, a finer distinction can be made. For instance, different Protestant denominations could value differently a particular exchange between two people. This is a matter of context. The first choice is an 'order of magnitude' choice. Choosing the origin in this case scales the measurement of the moral standard so that the important features of the actions of interest become visible.

The choice of origin should be reasonably close to the types of entities involved. It would be hard to resolve a moral problem between two members of two similar Baptist groups, if taken from the perspective of the moral obligations of countries. Similarly, it makes no sense to judge the moral actions of the United States with the same criterion you would use to judge your neighbor next door, unless you could find a meaningful translation of the actions of the body politic into the actions of the person. Things such as killing or stealing do translate, but a quality that applies only to groups such as political cohesiveness would not make much sense to consider in terms of a single individual.

The choice of origin as a reference point can be relative to one of the entities involved but this does not mean that any one of the entities has an equal right to be considered or that each entity's origin is valid. To go back to the metaphor of classical relativity, choosing some moral codes are like choosing a non-inertial frame of reference. Using this frame of reference leads to difficulty in analyzing the well-being of others who do not share the same frame of reference, and may even lead to inconsistencies that show that the choice of this origin to be invalid. A classic case of this is the choice of a moral frame of reference to be a person who considers themself to be privileged in ways that no other person is. That would lead them to consider any action good which increases their well-being regardless of the effect on others. This person may certainly be making moral determinations, and in their perspective the determinations could be internally consistent, but their conclusions would not translate into any other frame of reference without inconsistencies, Such a person will have to do without the freely given cooperation of other people; no moral consensus can be reached that includes that person's limited viewpoint.

One of the questions to ask is whether the choice of origin allows us to make valid and consistent determinations of the well-being of all of the entities involved in the situation. As a further example, consider making moral judgments from the standpoint of the Nazi government. If there were nobody but Nazis in the world it would be impossible to declare this frame of reference invalid. But there are more than Nazis in the world. Using this frame of reference to measure the well-being of other people and other governments leads to inaccurate or inconsistent results according to the absolute measure of well-being. This is not just a matter of taste. For some group to hold a Nazi viewpoint of morality requires holding logically inconsistent propositions that lead others to conclude the morality to be flawed, such as the believed superiority of a given race despite the inability to objectively prove such superiority or to even be able to define who is a member of that race or not.

The use of a morally relative framework is required when moral practice is not limited to be within a particular society with a generally accepted moral tradition, such as when two or more disparate traditions interact. When two different religious traditions have a dialog, they start from a basis of ecumenism that takes the beliefs in common between them and ignores the differences. The unilateral imposition of some aspect of a moral standard is not greeted with acceptance by the society being imposed on; this is even the case for a weaker society that has to accept the imposition. These types of dialogs typically result in an agreement of a limited nature, covering only the practices that are in common between the two cultures. If there was a single absolute moral standard it could be argued that each of the cultures, both being correct but only seeing part of the truth, would be combined by adding together the practices that each alone has instead of subtracting off the differences.

One of the biggest problems with trying to use an absolute frame of reference for morality is the problem of time. An absolute origin as it is usually conceived, implies that the moral code is unchanging. But in actuality, as time goes by, moral codes change and they often change in similar ways. This shows that moral codes stay comparatively the same relative to a moving frame of reference.

Let's give a pair of examples comparing Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In the case of slavery, this was an accepted part of society in all three religions. In Christianity, the religion even urged the slaves to obey their masters. In Islam, masters were admonished to treat their slaves fairly. By the Industrial Revolution slavery began to be abolished entirely and currently slavery is found in only a handful of the most backward societies. Despite the permissiveness of the religions, as time went on the societies imposed more and more prohibitions on the practice. It may be that the belief in an absolute moral code made it difficult for groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention to give up the idea that slavery was acceptable.

In the case of adultery, in the Jewish tradition, it is punished by stoning. Christianity, coming later than Judaism, eliminated the practice, since the Gospels indicated that adultery was grounds for divorce. Although Islam reinstituted the practice, in the more advanced Islamic countries, society eventually eliminated it.

In both of these examples, claims that the moral code is absolutely fixed in time are contradicted by the actual practice of the adherents of the religion. Later religions supplanted the older teachings with more relevant practices, and they themselves changed in step with the advancement in the societies that came in time. Even supposedly fixed and unmoving moralities are seen to shift in time, as if they have an inherent moral force pulling them towards a greater possible well-being.

Some of the changes in ethics have led to moral precepts covering situations that were not even foreseen by the original religions because they involve technologies that weren't even invented at the time. An example of this change through novelty is the condemnation that parents would receive if their children were not vaccinated for infectious diseases if the vaccine were available and an epidemic were raging. Although there are moral admonitions for parents to take care of their children, the definition of care is extended as technology opens other possibilities.

Stealing property is a crime prohibited in practically all moral codes. This is another case where the moral code changes as the definition of property expands. In the modern world, such thefts as those of air rights and stolen data have no precedent in the original moral codes and must be specified by analogy to the older moral code, abstracting principles that seem to be generally applicable out of more concrete injunctions in the original laws.

More recently, the development of birth control has created profound changes in the morality of sex. These changes are taking place in similar ways in the ethical practices of different cultures as the changes in technology are introduced.

Although Judaism, Christianity and Islam usually make a claim that their moralities are absolute in the sense that their moral codes are fixed at the time of their revelations, there are some moralities that do not have this limitation. One of the most important in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is that of the Baha'i faith. They believe in a concept of successive revelation where the moral code is fixed for an age by one of a successive number of prophets. Each of these revelations extends and perfects the moral understanding of the previous age in step with the increased understanding of the people and their capability to receive these revelations. This admits that each moral code is an approximation to an ideal, in effect pulling a current relative moral center closer to the absolute moral center that only God can comprehend.

So, despite the claims that only an absolute morality is workable, we can see that morality in actual fact is relative. We have an illusion of an absolute only when moral choices are limited in time to the present and to a particular homogeneous group. When trying to make moral decisions where nontrivial differences are involved, we need to choose a relative moral framework in which the well-being of the entities involved are easily represented. This does not mean that we average the frame of references together to come up with a composite, something not even possible if one is to judge the effect of a given set of actions on the well-being of an individual, group or country. The test of having an adequate choice of a moral center is three-fold. First, it must be valid in its conclusions; it cannot allow for inconsistencies that lead to contradictory evaluations. Second, the choice of a framework must allow for the distinctions that are drawn to be visible. This requires a choice of a framework close enough to the entities involved so that their differences are visible but not exaggerated out of proportion. Finally, the choice should be one that simplifies the judgments and simplifies the comparisons of relative well-being. If the conceptual equivalent of epicycles is required to be introduced to make the theoretical framework match reality to the accuracy required to make a decision, then the choice of framework is impractical.

We used the metaphor of classical relativity to illustrate how morality is actually judged in a relative manner. The metaphor worked even though real space is different from a space of moral actions, because some of the principles governing the two are the same. That is, in both spaces we are making an assumption that there is some universal principle at work that is underlying our attempts to measure events in these spaces. The concepts of universality and measurement are general principles, not just in physics. These ideas, when first recognized as basic conceptual principles, led to the spread of the scientific method to the study of many fields.

Of course, every metaphor has its limits. Universality means that two events are relatively the same if the changes between the two events are not relevant to measuring the effect. That is, the example of buying versus stealing is invariant if the relative distinctions are preserved between buying, stealing and the moral codes under whose judgments the comparisons are made. But in classical relativity, events are invariant under both translational and rotational transformations. That is, if the events differ by moving from one point to another, then the events do not vary in their effect, and if the direction of action is rotated, this also means that they do not vary. Although it is possible to translate a moral action from one region to another and still have its moral judgment remain the same in the same moral framework, there is no analogue to rotation. Rotation works in real space because there is no special distinction between the three dimensions of space. But it is not possible to equate moral dimensions, such as those of health, freedom, happiness and knowledge, for example.

To repeat, the necessity of making judgments in a relative moral framework does not deny the existence of an absolute moral center. But regardless of relative or absolute origin, there must exist an absolute moral standard that allows for comparisons to be drawn between the different reference frames, or there can be no way to have a discourse. The characteristics of the moral standard form the topic of the next chapter.