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Beheading Ethical Subjectivism/Relativism: ISIS

by Brandon Edward-Schuth

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There seems to be a commonly held view that individuals and/or societies determine what is considered right and wrong – end of story. We can hear allusions to this, like when people say, “Well, it’s their opinion that…” or, “I believe it’s wrong to….” Yes, we can see throughout history that different people and cultures do indeed have different morals, but are there moral “right and wrong” facts that transcend these different groups’ beliefs? The recent, brutal actions of ISIS, the extreme Islamic group that has been very active in parts of the Middle East, display a good example of how ethical subjectivism and ethical relativism crumble in self-contradiction, thereby suggesting objective morality. Recently, ISIS beheaded innocent people, which they did because they felt it was morally good to do. The US and most other countries are appalled at ISIS’s atrocities. Are we to concede, given the relativist or subjectivist position, that ISIS’s actions weren’t wrong and we shouldn’t punish it accordingly or that what ISIS did was morally wrong and subjectivism/relativism is self-contradicting? If the latter, do we therefore hold that morality has an objective nature? I argue that the subjectivist and the relativist fall into a dilemma between these two options.

I’ll begin firstly with some definitions of ethical terms, followed by an explanation of ISIS and its violence. Finally, I will connect them both to argue that ethical subjectivism/relativism leads to the fatal ISIS Ethical Dilemma. Also, the intention of this article is not ISIS but moral relativism/subjectivism and that the ISIS Ethical Dilemma is not really about ISIS but about how we should judge its actions. I do not make the argument that the actions committed by ISIS are right for them, instead I argue against those ethical positions as they are flawed, morally wrong, and incorrect.

Ethical Definitions

In the field of ethics, subjectivism and relativism are opposed to the notion of objectivism. Take a look at how I have defined them and observe their similarities and differences:

  • Subjectivism: Moral truths are strictly confined to individual experience.
  • Relativism: Moral truths are completely determined by the collective of individuals.
  • Objectivism: Moral truths are independent of individual’s beliefs or opinions.

Notice that subjectivism and relativism are very similar but are from different perspectives (the former on an individual level, the latter on the sum of individuals groups, cultures, societies, etc.).

What is also necessary here is the law of non-contradiction. In logic, it can’t be the case that something is both true and false. We can represent (as in math) two opposing points with letters, e.g., A (true) and ~A (not true). This could be about many things such as capitalism is morally right (A) and not right (~A). From this, we arrive at a contradiction between the two opposites of A and ~A. But one must be true, while the other is false or at best a belief or opinion. Note that the law of non-contradiction doesn’t claim why one is true but that one must be false.

Bringing this back to ethical subjectivism and ethical relativism, both of these positions entail circumstances where two different persons or groups have opposing moral beliefs but suggest that each in their own way is morally correct. Two different people that have opposing ethical claims on gun control are both morally correct if we take the position of ethical subjectivism. Two different cultures that have opposing ethical claims about how women should dress are morally correct from the position of ethical relativism. But, due to the law of non-contradiction, it isn’t logically possible for both to be correct! To reiterate, you can have two opposing belief, but not two opposing moral facts. It is, therefore, objectivism that isn’t logically contradicting. Were subjectivism or relativism still be considered, let us examine the recent actions of ISIS and see what conclusions we arrive at.

ISIS

The radical Islamic ISIS had recently shook the world by its video-taping the gruesome beheadings of two American journalists and a UK humanitarian worker – we will presume that ISIS’s actions reflect what it feels is morally right.

We can represent ISIS’s claim that beheading people is morally good as the letter B. Not beheading people as morally good is represented as ~B (not B). The former is held by ISIS, and the latter is held by many others. Using the defined terms mentioned earlier, how does the subjectivist and the relativist stand in regards to this ISIS Ethical Dilemma of B and ~B?

Ethical Subjectivism/Relativism and the ISIS Ethical Dilemma

Subjectivists must claim that a members of ISIS who hold the position B are entirely correct morally, while the United States President, who more than certainly holds position ~B, is correct as well. This, obviously, is a contradiction, and the law of non-contradiction states that this can’t be. It can be the case that these individual members have different beliefs regarding beheadings, but that isn’t the focus here; we are concerned with moral truth – fact. Also, again note that this doesn’t suggest which position is correct only that at least one cannot be true.

Relativists must claim that ISIS members who hold position B are entirely correct, while the USA, that assumingly holds position ~B, is correct as well. Again, this leads to the same contradiction we observed in subjectivism. This is the ISIS Ethical Dilemma that the subjectivist/relativist faces: Agree that ISIS’s actions were morally right for ISIS (implying issues of non-punishment) or disagree and give up the non-objectivist position and adopt moral objectivism (though not necessarily implying what it is).

Conclusion

If it can’t be the case that what is more than just moral belief isn’t relative, it must be that it is external to us like logic or math. Perhaps we will never discover objective morality, forever being wrong in our attempts, though as not to say that we would drop morality altogether. Or perhaps ethical nihilism is the case, but that’s for another discussion. Regardless, I must again remind readers that the intention of this article is not ISIS but moral relativism/subjectivism, and that the ISIS Ethical Dilemma is not really about ISIS but about how we should judge its actions. I do not make the argument that the actions committed by ISIS are right for them, instead I argue against those ethical positions as they are flawed, morally wrong, and incorrect.

There are many other arguments against all three positions, however, to present them all would take more than a single blog post. My aim was not to give a single philosophic K.O. punch but to bring light to one of many objections to a defense that I hear some people make outside (and even inside!) academia quite commonly. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed this post, I look forward to posting more every other week. Also, I would consider requests regarding topics.

Here’s some wisdom until next time:
Adopt an attitude of care towards that which can be destroyed.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Beheading Ethical Subjectivism/Relativism: ISIS”

  1. Raúl on October 4th, 2014 3:59 pm

    Hello.

    Are there any connections between this relativism and those called Cultural Studies?

    Thanks.

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