More on tax, relativism and morality

I had an interesting, if disjointed, discussion with Richard Murphy on his blog regarding what appears to be his insistence that moral values are all relative and subjective. Essentially, he denies that any moral absolutes are possible.

I find this an inconsistent approach given his opinions. The maxim “tax avoidance is immoral” would be an absolute.

A necessary deduction of this is that Richard should accept that tax avoidance is not necessarily immoral. That is, he must accept that tax avoidance can be moral. I’m sure he would qualify under exactly what circumstances it would be acceptable, of course, but that is a separate discussion.

As with most labels, it is quite easy to know what you yourself mean, but it is quite different to convey the exact meaning to another person.

There is a broad spectrum of relativistic positions and arguments in morality, and I believe Richard is making arguments at the extreme end of this spectrum by denying the ability for any objectivity whatsoever in morality.

At one end you have a broad position which allows for different moralities between cultures. At the other you have a meta-ethical position which denies the existence of moral truths amongst individuals altogether. This meta-ethical position borders on moral nihilism and it appears to me that only those at the borderline can tell any difference.

Relativism is contrasted with absolutism, which isn’t necessarily as extreme as it sounds. Absolutism  can be described as any position where an individual accepts there are moral absolutes, such as “rape is (always) wrong”. I pick such an example to illustrate that many people are moral absolutists and wouldn’t be considered extreme.

Of course, Kant, who was the focus of the discussion went further and argued that something more innocuous, lying, is always wrong, even in extreme circumstances. The example often given is the everyday situation where you are hiding somebody from an axe murderer who asks you where the person is.

I seem to recall that Kant was very hard-line on this and wouldn’t even allow caveats to be placed on moral rules. Which is something I do admire because I think it is not always possible to arrive at a perfectly moral outcome. There are no many win situations in life. Being ethical is often about making those judgements, which is where virtue ethics comes in.

Both relativism and absolutism have a place in morality, but I don’t think it is possible to adopt one outright. If you consider something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you can see multiple requirements for all humans, from the physiological up to the aspirational. Morality has to address all these different needs, though it is common to see discussions about morality played out at the lower end of the hierarchy.

It is a lot easier to discuss moral duties around the requirement of security than the need to self-actualise. I would argue that provided no needs further down the hierarchy are compromised, it is not moral to impede others’ higher needs.

And I think Aristotle would agree. This was another philosopher Richard quoted, though I’m not sure how he considered it relevant.

Aristotle argued that people had a moral duty to pursue excellence. It was not merely enough to not be immoral, but an individual must strive for excellence in order to achieve an overall state of excellence referred to as eudaimonia.

I also recall Aristotle’s criticism of (what he called) socialism being along the lines of denying people the ability for excellence such as generosity.

Now, the golden mean which Richard referred to is of relevance in terms of achieving excellence, but it refers to attributes of the individual, not actions.

But denying the absolute morality of certain actions certainly undermines Richard’s arguments on the morality of taxation. For starters, even mild relativism would acknowledge that tax avoidance may be considered to be morally acceptable in certain cultures.

I would actually argue that tax avoidance is morally acceptable in our culture. In fact, you could say it is morally required as part of our economic system. The number of tax reliefs and incentives for certain behaviours that are crammed into our tax system signals that individuals are expected to reduce their tax liabilities to achieve other moral outcomes.

But even if you don’t accept that, you have to accept that we cannot criticise somebody from another culture for applying a different standard of morality, unless you know it is culturally relevant. That makes me think of Richard’s criticism of Hossein Mehjoo for bringing the negligence case against his accountants. Without an understanding of Iranian culture, or without understanding what it is like to be a refugee, can we truly criticise him?

Also, is it possible to criticise other countries for their tax regimes, or even their transparency, if they have different values with regard to the balance of power between state and citizen?

So you can see there are questions to be answered if a person adopts mild relativism. But at the extreme end there are even more fundamental questions over whether you can criticise the morality of others within your culture. Where do relativists draw the line to say moral differences are acceptable?

Relativism is sometimes given the slogan “each to their own”. So what if your own is that tax avoidance is perfectly moral? Can I criticise you with any real moral weight?

Or is the statement “tax avoidance is immoral” coming from a relativist nothing more than “I don’t like tax avoidance”?


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.
This entry was posted in being pretentious, Rambling, Talking Tax, Trains of thought from a train. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to More on tax, relativism and morality

  1. The Thought Gang says:

    The answer to your final question is, I think, yes. I speak as someone with no grounding in the philosophy behind all of this, but who has nontheless, found his logic always leading to a relativist stance on morality (though I would say that because I find my logic leading to a relativist stance on all things.. and morality is a subset of all things).

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