Relative justice?

I’ve had a bit of fun making a comment or two on the Accountancy Age tax avoidance debate, mainly having a bit of a prod at Richard Murphy’s moralising over tax avoidance.

However, I was quite surprised to actually get a response from him. His words to me were “morality comes down to [just statements of opinion]”.

Now, this is almost a definition of moral relativism. That is a philosophical view that there is no objective measure of morality, just people’s opinions. I’ve always thought that it’s quite an existential and nihilistic view of morality. It embraces the idea that concepts of right and wrong can change over time and from culture to culture.

It tends to be popular with people who don’t want to discuss morality because it closes the door on any discussion as meaningless. So I would not expect someone who has stated that tax avoidance is morally unacceptable to use thus argument. This usually leaves the relativist powerless to argue on moral issues because they themselves only view their moral judgements as an opinion of similar value to others.

(Yonks ago in a moral theory tutorial one guy told the room he would happily kill us all if he could think of a practical reason to. We never bothered asking him his opinion again.)

If you want to go egotistical you could then throw in some arguments from Machiavelli or Nietzsche to excuse yourself from the moral limbo you have just created, but it’s fairly obviously hypocritical when you insist others observe your views.

Conversely, if you believe that objective morality can somehow transcend this through democratic means, you might find that you are also treading a dangerous path. Such philosophies lead easily into mob rule (or “ochlocracy”, my new favourite word).

Whatever is popular is right. I think we can all think of examples where this has not been what an objective observer might consider “moral”… Also from a purely epistemological view, truth has nothing to do with popularity. If you adopt the tripartite theory of knowledge moral truths don’t get some special bipartite theory of knowledge which allow them status as fact just so long as they are “justified beliefs”.

You may have noticed, I’m not a big fan of relativism. What I can’t believe though is that somebody who campaigns for “tax justice” actually has a relativistic outlook. Justice is quite an objective moral concept in my opinion. Relativism doesn’t really go there because who’s really to say what’s right? And it might change tomorrow anyway…

If you don’t believe in justice, what are you campaigning for when you campaign for something you believe to be moral?


About Ben Saunders

I'm a Chartered Tax Adviser and a freelance writer. This is my personal blog about, well, mainly taxation. I might put other stuff in. Who knows.
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3 Responses to Relative justice?

  1. Andrew Jackson says:

    The more interesting comment from Murphy, in my eyes is “someone has to decide where we draw the line”.

    It’s hard to reconcile that with “morals are a matter of opinion”. All I can think of is that he doesn’t really put much value on statements about morality as long as they can be used to support his position on where the line should be drawn.

    Which is a reasonably close definition of sophistry, of course 🙂

    • It certainly is an odd statement given he doesn’t like many people who stay within clear line drawn by the law.

      It’s almost as if he is suggesting he is that someone….

      • Andrew Jackson says:

        Quite 🙂 After all, when it comes to other people having opinions, they either agree with him, in which case he’s a good proxy for them, or they disagree in which case they’re wrong and so shouldn’t be counted.

        See his blog moderation policy, for example (which I recently fell foul of).

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