(Update 12/31/07: This blog entry presents a philosophical position on ethics. If you landed here because you desire really to become a better person, I suggest you try this blog entry instead.)
Is it possible to become a better person: more moral, more ethical? Undoubtedly yes, if we know what “a better person” means. I believe we can make a credible case, however, that under moral relativism it doesn’t actually have a usable definition.
That’s not to say (not at all!) that moral relativists cannot become better persons. But they cannot do it under their own terms of morality. They can become better in ways that borrow from other views of morality, including Christian theism. We can all grow and mature and learn, and most of us do. I submit, however, that these are meaningless concepts under ethical relativism.
I ask my relativist readers and friends to stay with me now while I develop some definitions and explanations. I recognize that what I’ve said to start with here may raise objections right off the bat. So I’ll re-emphasize what I’ve already said: I believe you can and do grow and develop ethically. That’s not the question at issue.
What I purpose to show here is that your intuition or knowledge of your personal growth is logically at odds with your philosophy. It is so much at odds that if your philosophy were correct, then your belief that you are growing ethically could not be true. Under relativism, your ethical position is no higher or better now than when you were five years old, and so is mine.
Moral Relativism and Moral Realism
Moral relativism is, broadly speaking, the belief that there is no transcendent, fixed anchor point for right and wrong. Right and wrong are up to individuals, societies, or cultures to decide for themselves; and as they change, right and wrong can change with them. What is actually, truly, right in one place or for one person can be actually, truly wrong for another culture.
Let’s set this against the familiar concept that tastes and customs are locally determined. Tibetans eat everything with their fingers (no forks, spoons, or chopsticks). In Japan (I’ve been told by travelers who have been there) a good belch after a meal sends a welcome message that you really enjoyed the food. Those things things are right in those places, but socially unacceptable in places where the cultural heritage is European. There’s nothing controversial there.
Moral relativism says that just as belching or eating with one’s fingers may either be right or wrong, depending on context, so any other human choice may be right or wrong, depending on context. If a tribal culture believes sacrificing children to the “gods” is right, then in their tribe it is. If we believe it’s wrong here, then it is wrong here. It’s all a matter of context.
The Christian theist position, by contrast, is moral realism: moral principles exist independently of human beliefs or opinions. There are at least some things that are actually right or wrong, and would be right or wrong even if every human had the wrong opinion. If every person and every culture thought that sacrificing children to the “gods” was right, it would still be wrong anyway. For Christians, real morality is grounded in the character of God.
I use “ethical” and “moral” interchangeably (synonymously) in this article.
A Sense of Direction
I see my children, ages 12 and 16, growing ethically year by year. When they were very young they only thought of their own needs, and they were quite demanding about them. Now they quite often put others’ concerns first. They have a way to go yet, to be sure, but I’m confident they’ll continue to mature.
Growing and maturing are directional terms. Physical growth is in the direction of larger, heavier, etc. Mental growth is in the direction of having more knowledge, more capacity to process ideas, etc. Maturity is not just about getting older, but about moving in a direction considered to be more wise, knowledgeable, and so on.
When we speak of moral growth or maturation, we automatically think directionally. We think of a person moving toward being guided by better principles, holding to a better standard, thinking and living more in conformity to some higher ethic.
The Personal View
Now consider yourself: can you become a better person, morally? The relativist position says that what is right for you is what you have decided is right for you. You have the privilege to determine right and wrong for yourself, and presumably you have done so. You’ve defined right and wrong for yourself. It’s hard on that basis to see how you can be more right than you already are, if where you are now is right.
There is no direction for you to move; there is no “bigger” or “larger” (using physical analogies); there is no “ethically wiser” for you to move toward. In order for “ethically wiser” to exist, there must be something existing that is actually more or less wise. Wise is not equivalent to learned. It’s at least arguable that professors like Peter Singer or Ward Churchill, although quite learned, are not examples of ethical wisdom; or at least if they are, then wisdom becomes another directionless word, so we cannot use it to provide our needed sense of direction for moral growth.
So what does moral growth mean under relativism? Let’s consider some possibilities. Certainly it must involve moral change, an alteration of attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors. That’s a minimum.
Now, there’s one form of change that’s worth considering as an example of real growth under relativism, which is resolving personal inconsistencies. If I believe it’s right to sacrifice children to the “gods,” for the sake of next year’s harvest, and yet I also believe that every child’s life is of more value or worth than any crop could be, then I have an inconsistency to resolve. One of those beliefs ought to give way to the other, if not for moral reasons then at least for logical ones. (Let’s set aside for now whether our presumed duty to be logically consistent is a moral duty. That’s at least a possibility, and if so, it muddies these waters considerably, and it certainly doesn’t help the relativist position! My point here does not require us to resolve that, though.)
Which of those two beliefs–the child is more important than the crop, or vice-versa–should we set aside, for the sake of logical consistency? Taken individually it’s hard to see which one, by itself, is more logical than the other. We can’t easily settle the question by appealing to logic. The relativist will probably choose the one that she thinks is more morally compelling. That’s the position one commenter here has taken. He agrees that ethics are like matters of taste, in that each person can have his or her own opinion on every point. There are some matters, however, for which he is willing to sacrifice. That difference is, to him, what defines some opinions as matters of morality rather than of mere taste or custom.
So let’s camp there a moment. “Morally compelling” is either a directional term (there’s something I believe is really, actually more moral, so I find myself compelled to assent to it) or something else. That something else could be a gut feeling, it could be the customs of one’s social group, it could even be whatever gives the person a sense of permission to do what she wanted to do anyway. (I suspect there’s a lot of that going on in moral relativism.)
But in the case of our child sacrifice example, either position seems to be of equivalent value or worth. Either could be morally compelling. If one chooses the crops and kills the child, that could certainly be as moral (on relativism) as deciding to save the child and risk the crops. You couldn’t say that one who decides in midlife that he ought to save the child has grown morally, because there’s no directionality there. There’s no “higher” there to grow toward.
What, though, if he comes to understand there’s no relationship after all between such acts of sacrifice and the success of his crops; that child sacrifice doesn’t actually help anything? He might change his practice, but that’s not moral growth. It’s not a better, more ethical weighting of child vs. harvest. It puts the question aside entirely; it makes it irrelevant.
The Challenge to Relativists
Let’s bring this into a modern context with an actual current controversy. I could bring up many issues; embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is as good as any. One side of this debate says that harvesting human embryos is a kind of child sacrifice, killing helpless innocents for the sake of older, more responsible persons. The other side says it’s not correct to regard embryos in that way. There is no moral reference point, on relativism, that makes one of those positions more right or wrong than the other.
Suppose we have a long debate and you convince me that ESCR is good, and should be heavily funded and pursued. Have I experienced moral growth? I’ve changed, in this hypothetical case. But am I morally better than I was? How could we say that I was, since we don’t know what “morally better” means? Let’s suppose again that you convince me that homosexual practice is a morally neutral matter, and that practicing homosexual relationships can be as moral as heterosexual marriage relationships. Again, for me that would be a (large) change in my moral opinion, but in what way have I become morally better for having changed? What does “better” mean in that context?
My challenge to relativists is for you to define “morally better” in a way that actually makes moral growth a coherent principle within your system of thought.
You might say that you’re willing to give up any conception of moral improvement in order to save your moral relativism. Let me then ask you, are you more ethically mature now than when you were five years old? Are you less self-centered now than you were then, and if so, would you consider that a generally positive change or a neutral one? Another way of asking the question: suppose you were as self-centered today as you were as a five-year-old. Would you consider that acceptable? If you saw some 35-year old with the self-centeredness of a five-year-old, would you not consider that a case of arrested development?
But don’t get careless with invoking the word “maturity” here. It might just mean older. And be cautious also about introducing moral growth theories like, “learning that it’s good to do what promotes the greater happiness,” or “learning to avoid what harms others.” Those are either very dangerously close to moral realism, or else they are simply ways to generalize the statement of a position that still needs defending. If growing older leads one to adopt one moral theory in preference to another, what makes one moral theory better than another?
It’s up to you, relativist friends, to show how any of this actually means morally better. I don’t know how you can do that from within a coherent moral relativist framework. I welcome your responses to explain it. I am quite sure you have grown morally over your years of life, but I believe it takes moral realism for that actually to make sense.