Posted on Jun 30, 2008 by Tom Gilson
There are two groups of people in the world: those who divide the world into two groups of people, and those who do not.
No, really, there are two groups of people in the world with respect to moral opinions: moral realists and moral relativists. Broadly speaking, moral realists believe that there are at least some moral values that are objective. Objective means (as William Lane Craig says) that these values would hold as valid or true even if nobody on earth agreed with them. Moral relativists, in contrast, generally hold that all moral values are generated or constructed out of persons’ or cultures’ beliefs. They may believe there is a certain kind of reality to moral values, that values are not arbitrary; but this reality is the product of individual or social beliefs, not some ultimate source beyond human culture.
The following is a True/False Quiz that anyone can take. Do you consider the following statements to be true or false?
1. (T/F) All moral values are entirely constructed or produced out of persons’ or cultures’ beliefs.
If you answered False, that’s it for you on this quiz. If you answered True, please continue:
2. (T/F) Let us assume that everybody in some cultural grouping G believes that some behavior B expresses a good and valid moral value. (It doesn’t really matter what B is.) For that culture, at that time and in those conditions, B is good.
3. (T/F) Another cultural group H may disagree with G on this, but nevertheless for G, B is still good; for cultures may validly hold different opinions on moral values. H‘s disagreement with G does not make B bad or wrong in itself, it only makes it bad or wrong for H.
4. (T/F) Suppose there is no group H that disagrees that B is good. Then everyone would be in group G (with respect to B), and would agree that B is good. For that time and in those conditions at least, B is therefore good for everybody. It is a universal good in the sense that it is universally shared by all persons then living, though not in the sense that its value comes from somewhere beyond the persons who have made it a value.
5. (T/F) In most cultures of the world, the Holocaust of WW II is regarded as having been a severe moral evil.
6. (T/F) If, however, Hitler had won the war, and if he (and his followers) had been able to exterminate or brainwash everyone who thought the Holocaust was evil, then the situation would be like that of (4), where every person in the world agreed that the Holocaust was morally good. (This example also follows one given by W.L. Craig.)
7. (T/F) In that case, the Holocaust would be correctly regarded by the remaining population as having been morally good.
Self-check: compare your answers to (4) and (7).
We’re not done yet, though…
8. (T/F) Some remaining persons (call them Group H again) may think it was morally evil to massacre and/or brainwash the dissenters. Those persons themselves (the members of Group H) could conceivably be brainwashed and/or killed by the others (Group G), so that every remaining person would then be a member of group G and would believe the following:
(a) To exterminate the Jews was a morally good goal.
(b) To kill and/or brainwash those who disagreed with (a) was morally good.
(c) To kill and/or brainwash those who dissented from (b) was also morally good.
9. (T/F) With no Group H, and with every person alive believing that 8(a), 8(b), and 8(c) were morally good, then those moral beliefs would indeed be universally good, taking “universal” as described in (4).
10 (T/F) In other words, relativism could coherently lead to a possible world, as philosophers term it, in which the Holocaust was morally good, and where brainwashing or killing off all possible dissent was also morally good–universally so, in fact. This moral good, as suggested in (9), would rest on a much stronger social foundation than, say, the current common Western belief that slavery is wrong. It would in fact be more clearly good than current beliefs that slavery is wrong.
Self-check: compare your answers to (9) and (10) with your answer to (4).
And that suggests the following final item in our short quiz:
11. (T/F) It would violate a solidly established universal moral norm, and would rightly be regarded as reprehensible, to suggest that is wrong to kill dissenters just for believing that persons ought to have the freedom of their beliefs.
From this you see one reason I am not a moral relativist.