Pitch-Perfect Morality

I’ve experienced an epiphany of sorts. I am a moral non-cognitivist. Most would consider me to be a moral subjectivist or relativist. There’s a distinction, but to the public at large, it doesn’t much matter. In fact, we are all at the mercy of the cognitive deficits of the societies we find ourselves in, each culture having its own deficits. I find it difficult not to come across as an elitist in the space, especially as uninformed and otherwise misinformed most are in this space.

It’s one thing to have an academic disagreement. It’s quite another to have an academic argument with kindergartners—armchair spectators in highchairs and booster seats. Anyway, enough of the ad hominem. I’ve had my say and my fill.

All morality is constructed. Full stop. The basis is the survival and propagation of the society, though societies are dynamic organisms with different goals and purposes, so these foundations may differ. In some cases, they are strikingly similar.

All morality is constructed. Full stop.

It makes sense that most have an element of ‘thou shalt not kill’ with an exception for ‘unless they undermine the culture’. This also allows for ‘killing in order to defend the culture’, even if the people defended aren’t all in sync as to what they are defending.

So where does relative pitch come into play? you ask yourself.

Sound, hence musical tones, manifests as frequency (and amplitude, which I’ll ignore). It is common to establish an A pitch as 440 Hz (440 cycles per second), also known as A440 or A4. Whilst there have been and are other standard pitches, A440 is considered to be the standard concert tone for Western music and has been adopted in other regions. I won’t bore the listener with nuance around A332 and A442 centres, as it’s unimportant to the focus.

Whatever the centre, some people have perfect pitch and others have absolute pitch. Some people are tone deaf, and I suppose that to be a perfect metaphor for some people in society, but that’s also an analogy for another day.

A person with perfect pitch not only has the vocabulary of music stored in memory, but they can retrieve it on a whim. I’ve encountered several people with perfect pitch, and it seems inevitable to engage in parlour games. With piano at hand, it’s easy to play unseen chords and have the absolutist bark back F#min6/9 or some such. Even more amusing is the result of tossing a shoe at an object to hear what note the clang might correlate with. That stool was a B-flat.

I thought I was wrong once before, but I was mistaken.

Whilst a person with absolute pitch can pick notes out of the air, a person with relative pitch doesn’t have an anchor. In either case, a listener can tell you that the interval between an A4 and an E4 is a perfect fifth, the person with relative pitch can’t name the notes without guidance. Of course, once the listener is clued in that the first note is an A4, relative maths does the rest of the heavy lifting, so they, then be able to tell you that the note a perfect fifth above is an E4.

It’s important to know the vocabulary are rules as well. For example, many of us can recognise the interval at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—da-da-da-DA…! We can hear it in our heads as we consider it. But we don’t know that the first three shorter notes are G and that the longer final note is E♭.

Thanks for the music lesson, but you’re asking, ‘How does this connect to morality?’

Unlike music, morality has nothing analogous to absolute pitch. Moreover, different cultures have different reference pitches. And some cultures with the same reference pitch are playing in different keys. The challenge is that whether or not the dominant culture has absolute pitch, it still presumes it is the tonal centre. And if it’s tuned to A432, you’d better be too; otherwise, there will be dissonance.

Referencing the Venn diagram, one can see the primary culture, C0 occupying the most space and acting as a centre of gravity. There are subcultures, some with more and less in common with the primary culture.

C1 has much in common with C0, but the majority of ideals are not shared. It remains to be seen whether these differences are material. For example, the difference may be preferences about food or clothing, perhaps which holy days to recognise to whether to recognise any at all. In practice, these cultures could very well coexist with little conflict.

Similarly, C2, may be able to coexist with either of both with little friction. Of course, the difference may be significant. Perhaps, one difference is their view on abortion or female circumcision. Clearly, these are dancing to a different tune.

Perhaps, C3 is some indigenous society. C3 has nothing in common with C0 or C2, only sharing some ideals with C1. I don’t feel this would be possible in reality because I can’t imagine a culture having opposing perspectives, even if only on the position of not killing other ‘innocent’ humans without cause. The range of causes may differ, but the core value would still be shared.

My point is that the primary culture will assume that its position is absolute, even if just from having enough mass to force the matter. And this is the difference. It doesn’t matter whether their morality is absolute. If you don’t comply—especially in matters they consider to be morally important—, you will be punished. In the case of C3, C1 may tolerate whatever the two are in common, but if C3 attempts to interact with C0, this tolerance is unlikely.

Perhaps, C3 clubs baby seals, eats dogs, or some other such hot-button activity. In their native territory, this may go unnoticed, but if they relocate to the territory of the primary culture, this will not likely go unchallenged.

If you are someone like me who feels that all morality is fabricated out of thin air—even the morality I happen to agree with in principle and in practice—, there is still friction just to suggest that their morality is a constructed social fiction. It seems that many if not most people want to believe in the notion of ‘inalienable rights’ and God-given morality or some sense of cosmic moral order. People like Jordan Peterson believe this as do his followers. This creates contention with others, like myself, who fundamentally disagree and who ask for just a modicum of evidence of their claim. You will comply or you will be chided and marginalised.

Of course, I could be wrong. I thought I was wrong once before, but I was mistaken.

Cultural Relativity

That culture is a social construct is by now a meme. Those who disagree with the notion believe there is some objective measure—who disagree with the notion of cultural relativism—, almost invariable to their own belief systems. My goal is not to convince them otherwise. I’m sure their teacups are full. However, I’ve recently become aware of some data I find interesting. These data consider dimensional pairs of data. For example, do parents of certain cultures foster the message of imagination or hard work.

Hard Work vs Imagination

The caveat here is that no culture is monolithic. In practice, no two people are precisely redundant. People are effectively snowflakes—not the pejorative sort. Just insomuch that even identical twins are not, in fact, identical. What we are examining are generalised stereotypes. For example, the United States finds hard work over-indexing imagination. This comes as no surprise to anyone who takes even a cursory view will note that both political persuasions buy into and propagate this mythos. On the Right, imagination is something that can be explored. In fact, it needs to be propagated if only to buy into supported narratives. Imagination is over-indexed in Left-leaning countries. On the Left, a little more latitude is afforded, but in the end, someone needs to pay for the Volvos and Teslas. Given that the Left basically doesn’t exist in the professional politics of the US, imagination is more lip service than manifest.

Imagination need not apply. Britain, Australia, and Canada are more balanced, but they still favour hard work over imagination. Interesting to me is that the Nordic / Scandanavian countries push imagination more than their peers. I’ve never ‘imagined’ them to be imaginative. Perhaps it’s more an absence of Calvinism. Perhaps I’m judging. The piece suggests that Anime is evidence of Japan’s imagination. Firstly, this feels like a stretch. Secondly, this doesn’t resonate with my experience living in Japan. Perhaps I’m just conflating cultural obsequiousness.

Independence vs Obedience

Another pairing is independence versus obedience. Whilst I focus on the UK, US, and Canada, you may find represented your own country or culture of interest. Across these dimensions, the US, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand all favour independence over obedience, though I find this a strange dichotomy. Fundamental attribution bias is evident in full force and effect.

I just came across a meme that lauded the Japanese for fostering independence, but cultural obedience is a given. Honour, shame, and shunning are ubiquitous in Japanese, so I’m not sure how this manifests. Cognitive dissonance is strong here. I’m having a difficult time reconciling. Perhaps I need to evaluate the semantics.

Independence versus Obedience

Unselfishness vs Religious Faith

I debated including this dimensional paring. First, it’s an odd dichotomy. Are we trying to claim that the religious are selfish or that unselfish people are areligious? No matter. Let’s keep going.

Unselfishness versus Religious Faith

I suppose this just shows that one can compare anything on a graph and someone can read something into it—like a Rorschach test or tea leaves. Here the US rides the fence. Great Britain and France self-assess as promoting selflessness, and Bangladesh is off the charts with its need for faith. Well, clearly not off the charts because it’s literally on the chart, but it’s trying.

Anyhoo, I feel I need to investigate the raw data and evaluate more parings. For now, I think it’s safe to say that cultural preferences are all over the map. And, even though these preferences have no objective centre, I can admit to having preferences of my own. On these dimensions, I favour imaginative, selfless independence, but that’s just me. Where do you stand?

All Claims Are Equal

One of the most prominent strawman attacks of postmodernism and of relativism more generally is the statement countering the claim that all claims are equal.

I know of no one outside those attacking the claim believe this. I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate why the attack is preposterous — a culinary case and a socio-political case.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Visit a recipe site, and search for macaroni cheese recipes. You’ll get hundreds if not thousands of recipes. Are they all equal? No. It depends on your tastes and preferences…even your audience. There are variations in the type of pasta, the type or types of cheese, whether to add additional ingredients, whether to prepare on the range or baked in the oven, and so on.

For your children, a prêt-à-manger out of the box preparation as opposed to the Gruyère and truffles verion you’re reserving for your next soirée.

Is there a best recipe? No. There are only preferences.

Is there an objectively best recipe? No. There are only preferences.

Can I create any recipe? No. Read on.

And they called it macaroni…

To have a recipe qualify as mac & cheese, there are at least to requirements for inclusion into the domain: Macaroni (or any pasta product or substitute) and cheese (ditto but with cheese products). I’m only pretty sure that no one countering that relativists claim that everything is equal is also arguing that one can make mac & cheese with, say, tacks and bricks. So, one has to question either the intelligence or the integrity of someone assuming someone else would defend this argument. Context matters. And just the choice of a contextual boundary is subjective (and relative).

Good Enough for the Government?

This works for recipes, but what about for government? Obviously Democracy is the best possible form of government because reasons, duh. And people. And agency. And other words I can imagine and associate in my defence.

As with mac & cheese, we need a defined purpose. The problem is that there are not only different purposes, there are different actors, each with their own needs and desires.

At no time is anyone arguing that public policy created by a council of gerbils is the same as that of people or or some artificial intelligence, just as no one is proposing that we throw mac & cheese against a wall in the manner or reading entrails to arrive at a meaningful end. Though, to be fair, given some policy choices I’ve seen, I might have voted for the mac & cheese method.

So, what are you trying to say?

By now a reader should have disavowed the notion that relativists do not recognise domain boundaries. It could be very legitimate for a non-relativist (objectivist?) to call something out as having improper domain boundaries, whether over-specified, under-specified, or just mis-specified, but that’s not the same claim.

A person may justifiably make the claim that such a such is not valid because it does not account for some other absent cohort. Perhaps it leaves out the dead or the unborn, or the animals, or the broader biosphere, if only by proxy. This is not to say that this would be easy or convenient, but it is certainly rational.

Most implemented government systems not only privilege humans over everything else, it virtually excludes everything else. But this is not the main point, which is that if a place and people have a functioning form of government, whether it is better or worse is up to the participants to decide, and there is not likely to be a consensus view. It should always be expected that there will be detractors for any number of reasons. There may be large contingencies of detractors. It could easily be that a government is divided into two worldviews, as in the United States, Canada, and the UK — each side claiming that they’ve got the solution, each side denying relativism in order to defend their version of truth.

Spheres of Justice

I’ve recently happened upon Michael Walzer, and it turns out I agree with much of what he has written about in the realm of political philosophy. Although he published, Spheres of Justice in 1983, he may be more famous for Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations. I am more interested in the former, and this work integrates well with Benedict Anderson‘s Imagined Communities.

In the realm of philosophy, it’s no mystery to those who know me that I am a Subjectivist, but I still need to operate in this physical socio-political domain, which is what attracts me to political philosophy.

I like to make an analogy relative to religious belief. Philosophically, I consider myself to be an igtheist, which is to say that I don’t really care about god or gods or ‘the universe’ or some metaphysical superpower in the abstract, but practically speaking, I am an atheist. The reason being that the non-existence of gods is irrelevant in a world where people behave as if there is one and create moral positions and form legal systems based on this premise, thus infecting these systems, so one needs to be an active atheist in order to disinfect the systems and extricate religion from it. Without getting too far off track, I am not saying that religious belief has had no benefit to ‘human progress’, but the price we pay is too high. The cost-benefit calculus is not favourable.

Walzer and Anderson both understand the constructed nature of political identity, whether self, family, community, state, nation, all of humanity, or beyond. It’s all relative. Some modern political philosophers like Rawls and Nozick try to rise above the inherent relativity in this constructionist view, but after all the trying, their attempts are weak tea, as their solutions are also constructed.

In the end, politics and perhaps all of perceived reality are social constructs, whose major survival mechanism is rhetoric. The more convincing the argument, the better. In fact, the reason I have adopted this worldview is only that the rhetorical narrative resonates with me better than some other. Ditto if you concur, and ditto if another narrative resonates for you, whether Christianity, Pastafarian, a starchild, or a nihilist.


Given this, it makes me wonder how other people choose the rhetoric they have rather than my (obviously superior) version.


EDIT: After I wrote this, I happened upon a short(ish) video promoting veganism and commenting on the construction of culture, so I am adding it. James Wildman


Rhetoric and nothing more

Morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are employed, and a person will either accept or reject the claim contingent to an emotional response based on prior experiences. This is Ayer’s Emotivist position—or even that of George Berkeley. There is no moral truth, and any moral truths are nothing more than an individual’s or group of individuals’ acceptance of a given claim. Rhetoric is used to sway the claim.

Logic is employed but only after having been filtered through the experience through the emotion and through the rhetoric. Accepting some particular truth claim does not make it true; neither does rejecting a truth claim make it false.

I’d like to expound upon this, but for now, I’ll create this placeholder.

Fast-forward, and I’ve returned. Still, I feel that morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Perhaps I’m even more convinced—and this extends into jurisprudence and politics. I’ve rather latched onto Foucault’s or Geuss’ sense of power or Adorno’s socially necessary illusion that is ideology by way of Marx.

Talking about power, Geuss says, “you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position”.

« One cannot treat “power” as if it referred to a single, uniform substance or relation wherever it was found. It makes sense to distinguish a variety of qualitatively distinct kinds of powers. There are strictly coercive powers you may have by virtue of being physically stronger than me, and persuasive powers by virtue of being convinced of the moral rightness of your case; or you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position. »

I tend to think of myself as a proponent of the Hegelian dialectic, but even this is in a rather small-t teleology manner instead of a capital-T flavour, so I feel that although history moves in somewhat of human-guided direction, there is no reason to believe it’s objectively better than any number of other possible directions, though one might be able to gain consensus regarding improvement along several dimensions. Even this will not be unanimous.

[To be continued…]


So What?

Morality is a human construct. More specifically, it is a normative construct of language. It is used as a tool to maintain power and promote normalcy, but so what?

People are indoctrinated with this normative perspective, but accept it as some self-evident truth. But there is no absolute truth. This, too, is a contextual function of language.

Since the dawn of civilisation—and perhaps longer—, humans have been constructing moral codes of behaviour. From attributing moral origins to supernatural gods, they’ve attempted to move to a secular humanist vantage, ascribing these powers attributed to nature, but this is little more than a metaphysical euphemism in order to appear to be more scientific as a result of Enlightenment.

Clinging to absolute morality is like clinging to religion and gods.

As Marx said, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’ Clinging to a sense of absolute morality is not much different to clinging onto religion and gods. There’s a sense of security. It’s comforting and weaved into the fabric of most societies.

Still, so what? As long as the masses prefer to believe that morals somehow exist in the wild, and people, being story-lovers, are exploited by persuasive storytellers, we are resigned to this situation.