Time to Think. 6. Moral Relativism

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Morality without God. Relativism.

What kind of moral person would different moral viewpoints produce? Mother Theresa is an example of a good moral system or viewpoint and Hitler of a bad moral viewpoint. Everyone strives to be moral, hopefully. When accused of an immoral action, one would almost always offer reasons to defend the action and seldom denies the immoral principle underlying the action. ‘What you have said is a lie’ And one will defend the reason for the lie or deny that it was a lie though never the principle that to lie is immoral. We all have a deep sense of what is right, what is moral. But what are the implications and consequences if there is no objective moral standard, no transcended standard outside of us, no God? If an opinion exists that a blatant lie or blatant dishonesty, is sometimes bad and sometimes good?

What are the kinds of people one would expect moral relativism would produce? Both relativism and subjectivism claim that there is no universal truth or objective truth. In relativism, morality or truth exists in relation to culture, traditions, and society, while in subjectivism, morality or truth is subjective and personal. According to these views, things are true only in respect to the individual or set of individuals who holds them. Truth is relative to the subject. When we accept that ‘what is right for me is not necessarily right for you’ it would mean that people who don’t really care about others’ moral viewpoint as what is right for ‘me’ is what is important. It would produce people whose society marches to beat of each individual’s own drum, making one’s own moral rules. A sociopath is a person with no conscience, he freely changes his moral values – this is the fully expressed relativist. If it is all relative and if the decision that something is morally right or wrong depends on variables, on people, ideas, societies, all that change over time, we might find ourselves in a difficult situation, that no principles can be laid down or taught. We will find that we are in changing situations all the time and that morality becomes such a dynamically changing entity that it will crumble to nothing but individual taste i.e. Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, cannibalism.

There are three types of moral relativism that attempt to justify relativism.

  1. “Society does relativism”e., cultural relativism or descriptive relativism

The claim: We used to think morality was objective, but that was before we encountered other cultures and their moral practices. Now we see that people do in fact differ morally across cultures. So, morality is just a function of culture.

Response: Even if this observation is true, then it still does not follow that no one is objectively correct. It is not so clear that there is such a wide diversity of morals. Instead, it could be a difference over the facts, not the values. Example: abortion. Pro-life and pro-choice both hold to value that we should not take the lives of innocent human persons. But they differ over who counts as a person. Some of the apparent differences between cultures are the differences in the facts as they see it. Observation only, is not a sound conclusion for relativism. It tells us about the culture and not about morality.

  1. “Society says relativism”

Claim: You ought to do what society says. You ought to do what your society says you should do. Right and wrong are society-directed. And cultural ideas are equally valid.

Replies: But then there can’t be an immoral society – each society has its own values, and you cannot critique another society from the outside – by what standard can you critique another society? And one cannot critique one’s own society. And by definition, there cannot be immoral laws, again by what standard? The example of the Nuremberg Trial and how the Nazis appealed to this idea – that there are no overarching moral truths by which we can judge another culture. They were following orders, what their societal structure demanded, but the international tribunal did not accept it. The Nazis were immoral. But on ‘society says relativism’ view, we could not have judged the Nazis. Yet, what they did was clearly immoral. Corrie Ten Boom would have been immoral, too, for going against the laws of her society at the time (i.e., when under Nazi rule). Yet, that conclusion is wildly counterintuitive. ‘Society says relativism’ reduces morality to what the law says and not to what is moral. Furthermore, you cannot critique your own society. If this type of relativism were true, then it would be immoral to go against your own society. And there cannot be any moral reformers, who by definition would be immoral going against society. Yet, this too seems clearly mistaken. There are by definition no immoral laws, it reduces what is moral to what is legal.

  1. “I say relativism”

This is individual ethical relativism. What is right for one person might not be right for another, the most radical form of relativism. Also known as subjectivism. But moral truths are known directly and immediately – you don’t come to a conclusion, you know it. Examples: murder is wrong, torturing babies for fun is wrong, etc. These are clear-cut examples of moral truths, and the burden of proof should be on the relativist who denies them.

There are seven fatal flaws in relativism. a. If morality is relative, then relativists can never say something is wrong i.e., in itself. They cannot claim something is intrinsically or objectively wrong for all people. b. Relativists cannot complain about the problem of evil. To be consistent, evil must be relative to individuals. c. Relativists cannot place blame or accept praise. We praise people like Mother Theresa for doing truly good things, not simply if she did what we happen to like. But on relativism, there is no objective goodness or badness. Praising or blaming another is to make a moral judgment. But, on this view, there is nothing for which to praise or blame another. Relativists cannot claim anything as unfair or unjust. These concepts are normative, too, and presuppose a universal standard. But they make no sense if morality is relative to individuals. e. Relativists cannot improve their own morality. Example of bowling: you can improve your bowling when you have a standard against which you can measure your performance. But here, there is no such standard, if relativism is true. Individuals can change their morality, but that does not solve this problem. f. Relativists cannot have meaningful moral discussions. – if you cannot improve your morality. If there is no such thing as a common good, then such discussions (e.g., in politics) are meaningless. g. Relativists cannot promote the obligation to be tolerant. Tolerance makes sense only if it is an objective moral truth. If there are no interpersonal moral obligations, then there is no basis to promote the virtue of tolerance.

The Consequence of Practicing Moral Relativism is a world in which nothing is wrong, evil or good for all people, nothing is worthy of praise or blame, there is no accountability, no meaningful moral discourse or improvement, a world with no moral tolerance. Nobody can live this way and nobody really does! But relativism is the most pervasive viewpoint. People can talk this way but cannot live it. One sees what peoples’ real moral intuitions are when their guard is not up. Example: The relativist cannot complain of injustice, but they do, ‘that’s not fair, that is my seat, I was here first.’ If people were to speak up against injustice, they deny relativism. But if they don’t speak up about injustice, then they deny their humanity.

But the relativist might still say you shouldn’t force your morality upon me. He is then, in fact, using morality to say this – his own moral standpoint. ‘Everyone should decide their own right/wrong – so I decide you are wrong! Reply: “Why not?” They will in turn push their morality upon you. The relativist cannot accept this in practice because they are human beings – if you speak against injustice, you deny relativism and if they don’t speak out, they deny their humanity.

If one would take his cellphone and walk away, he would immediately object which forces the relativist to see that she/he really holds to an objective standard. We do not want people to be relativists towards us. We want them to be virtues – show high moral standards. People often are relativists naively, or unreflectively. When they are wronged, they quickly become moral absolutists.

If relativism is true that none of the following prima facie bindings can always be true under ordinary circumstances: it is wrong to kill innocent people for no reason, or to torture people for fun, or to rape, that one should do justice and treat people equally, or obey just laws.

Relativism commits two fallacies. 1. Conventional ethical relativism cannot account for moral reformers, who stood up against culture. E.g., Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But in reality we think that they were doing right in their actions. 2. Relativism cannot account for moral progress. We tend to think that we have improved morally over time (e.g., we no longer permit slavery). But, if relativism is true, then we cannot get closer to getting better, as there is no such thing as better.

Relativism fails. It makes no sense and cannot overcome reality. Objective morals exist, but what is a moral law then? The moral law is not, e.g., something testable by science. But moral laws exist and implicate an objective moral lawgiver. See my talk on morality.

Credit to Greg Koukl, Biola University, California.

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