What's Wrong with Moral Relativism?

[Rick Marken (921201.1300)]

I invited a fellow named Tom Zentall to join csg-l. He wrote a friendly
review of my "Blind men" paper to Harnad (I still don't know if that
paper was accepted -- but I can guess) and I found out that he has done
research on "hyperactive kids" -- his theory being that they are (in PCT
terms) trying to control a perception called "stimulation" at an
unusually high level and their "hyperactivity" is just the observable effort
to control that perception. Anyway, I hope he joins; always nice to have
"real" psychologists (or whatever) examining PCT.


Now. To the title story.

On the way home from work last week I was listening to a piece on the
news and a very bright sounding person was being interviewed about
something (forgot what) but at one point he felt it necessary to say some-
thing like "this is not moral relativism or anything". The fellow was
talking about some pretty liberal stuff (hey, it was Public Radio) so it
stuck me that this "moral relativism" thing is something that is fairly
equally despised by right and left -- ie. just my kind of stuff. So it got
me to thinking about moral relativism in PCT terms.

The first thing I ask myself was "what is a moral"? It seems to me
that morals (from a PCT perspective) are a kind of perceptual variable. The
word probably refers to several different types of variable -- program (rule),
principle and even system concept. But let's just consider "lower order"
perceptual variables -- rules. One moral "rule" variable was mentioned
honesty. Different levels of honesty can be perceived in our relationships;
we can act to produce different levels of the honesty perception in our own
ships. Honesty is a controllable perceptual variable; a particular setting of
variable would probably be referred to as a "moral"; "Thou shalt not steal",
"honesty is the best policy" are phrases that refer to states of a rule which
can be
seen in the behavior of people as a particular level of honesty. In this
moral relativism simply refers to the fact that one CAN (not should) control
perception of honesty at different levels. "Relativism" also implies that
the variability of this variable is relative to "other things" -- in PCT these
"other things" are what make the reference for a perception vary, viz.
level references and 2) disturbances to the corresponding higher level con-
trolled perception. The higher level controlled perception, in this case,
might be a
principle, like "justice" (also a variable - but let's assume a fixed
reference for
the perception of a certain level of the "justice" perception). If the higher
reference is fixed, then the only thing that can cause variation in the
reference for
"honesty" is a disturbance to the perception of the justice principle. A
to the perception of justice might be learning that Mr. X made you broke by
swindling you. If the opportunity presented itself to you, you might be
to steal back the money from Mr. X -- temporarily controlling your honesty at
lower than usual level to keep up the perception of justice in the world (of
you might not if other principles would be violated by doing that).

The point is that moral relativism simply recognizes a fact about human
at higher levels of control; it's not a matter of whether people should or
should not
be this way; it is whether they ARE this way -- ie. are they control systems?
we start thinking about control of higher order variables like this (and,
studying it too) we will see how PCT takes us beyond morality (Thus Spake
Zarathustra -- I bet ol' Nieztche would have liked PCT) to functionality;
behaving by rule to behaving with grace (Zen behavior?) --ie. being in


Richard S. Marken US Mail: 10459 Holman Ave
The Aerospace Corporation Los Angeles, CA 90024