Moral Realism and Religious Freedom

My post the other day drew all sorts of ire from feminists who said I was "equating" women's sexual freedom with serial killing. This, of course, was nonsense: when you execute a reductio, you are not "equating" the absurd thing with your opponent's case at all. But what's more, my post had nothing to do with feminism or sexual freedom. Rather, I was struck by Carmon's claim that we each get to define our own morality. I thought this was a terrible mistake, and that there was, in fact, a much better way for her to put her own feminist claims.

While I was sipping my cappuccino today, I was thinking about all the distraction the feminist issue caused from what I was actually discussing, which was moral realism. So let's look at this issue again, and take up freedom of religion, instead.

Consider infant circumcision, something that is a standard practice in Judaism. Here are a range of things one might think about this:

1) The practice is, or at least for Jews is, morally required: it is commanded by the Torah, or by tradition, or something like that.
2) The practice, while not morally required, is morally permitted: no one has to be circumcised, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the practice.
3) The practice is morally wrong, but nevertheless, it is does not rise to the level or moral wrong that would require it to be outlawed.
4) The practice is morally wrong, and ought to be outlawed.
5) The goodness or badness of the practice is simply a matter of one's own, or one's groups, decision as to how one (or one's group) wants to "define" its own morality. Therefore, Jews should be able to perform circumcisions, just so long as they don't try to require them for anyone else.

My point has been that number five is not really a tenable choice, at least unless one wants to embrace moral nihilism. Here is the problem to which it leaves one open: The Aztecs thought it was a vital part of their religious practices that human sacrifices be performed regularly, using captured peoples and others as victims. What can the holder of view five say about this practice?

"Hey, you're forcing your morality on others"? Well, first of all, no the Aztecs weren't: they didn't require the victim to believe these sacrifices were good! And secondly, who is to say one cannot force one's morality on others? That would imply some sort of objective moral rule forbidding that.

"OK, fine, but practices like this thwart peaceful cooperation between people with different moral views." Fair enough: but who is to say that such cooperation is good? You're not trying to claim that their is something objectively better about cooperation than warfare and slaughter, are you? And if your point is merely that you prefer it, so what? The Aztecs did not. You like vanilla, they like chocolate.

No, I think most people want to say human sacrifice is wrong; not just they believe it is wrong, or it is wrong for us today, or wrong if you want cooperation. Just plain wrong.

See, the whole issue has nothing to do with feminism or women's rights at all. And note this: Bringing in the Aztec example had nothing to do with equating circumcision and human sacrifice. No, it was showing that a certain view of circumcision would imply that the same view be taken of human sacrifice, and you don't want that now, do you?


  1. I do not get why this is so hard to understand for some people. :/

    1. Lode, I suspect the reason is that many people equate moral realism with, "Well, then, the [Catholic Church / the Puritans / the mullahs / whoever] will simply dictate morality to the rest of us. But I actually think a belief in moral realism cuts the other way: we should be humble about our own ability to perceive these objective moral truths, and generally should resort to reason, and not force, if we really think we have objective moral truth on our side, because, if so, we ought to be able to bring others around to our view by argument.

  2. Here's the way I put it to my philosophy class last semester: If someone thinks 1) morals are subjective and 2) forcing other people to adopt your morality is wrong then, per the above, enforcing laws against murder against someone who thinks murder should be legal would be engaging in a performative contradiction. It is worth noting that #2 in the above is usually nothing but a rhetorical move to argue against a policy that might, say, oppress a religious minority in some way (I'd guess this is to avoid having to do the leg work a stronger argument requires).

    If you only believe #1, of course, you can at least still follow that road to where it leads, as you admit here, even if we have deep reservations against that road.


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