Where Relativism Leads: Focusing the Question

Following dozens of interactions here on the topic of moral relativism, it’s time to try to focus our discussions toward a more productive point.

Moral realists (by way of review) believe that there are at least some moral principles that hold universally, objectively, and absolutely; they would obtain even if no human accepted them. These ultimate moral principles are grounded in God, at least in the view of realists who have been involved in discussion here. (Whether moral realism actually entails belief in God has not been much discussed here; we’ve all assumed the two beliefs are connected.)

Moral relativism is just the belief that there are no such absolute moral principles; that all morality without exception is based on some contingent circumstance (a circumstance that could be otherwise); that such circumstances typically involve some person or group of persons holding to particular moral principles; and that for every moral principle held by any person or group, it is at least conceivable that a contrary principle could be held by another person or group with equal justification.

Those are the terms in dispute. I don’t think, though, that we’ve been clear about what the question is. For one thing, theists commenting here (including myself) have been accused of misunderstanding or misinterpreting relativism. My intention here is to state the relativist position as clearly and fairly as I can. The most common misunderstandings mentioned here have been:

  • Realists think relativism means there is no morality; that if you can’t say absolute morality, you can’t speak of any morality. In fact relativism does not deny morality, just its objective or transcendent basis.
  • Realists think relativists have no basis at all for their moral preferences, while in fact relativists’ moral beliefs are strongly conditioned by culture and biology.

For the health of the debate we moral realists ought to be careful not to fall into either error.

Recognizing the Right Question
There is yet another sense in which we have been misdirecting our debate. The relativists have been taking the realists as trying to prove logical inconsistencies within relativism. That is, it seems to me the position the relativists are defending is, “Our position cannot be shown to be incoherent on its own terms.” I’m sure I’ve contributed to this impression, along with other realists in the discussion. Let me clear the air on this: If that is our quest, we lose. I don’t think there’s a way to show that relativism as a system of thought is internally inconsistent or self-defeating. If there is, I haven’t come across it.

Here, instead, is how I view the question: forget whether the logical conclusions of relativism are rationally incoherent. Let’s just consider what they actually are. We cannot prove with unassailable logic that realism is correct and relativism is incorrect, but we can show where relativism leads. Relativists can do the same with respect to realism, for that is a welcome kind of interaction. And then each person must make his or her choice.

Charlie, by the way, did an excellent job of trying to draw out “ordinary seeker’s” implications in a dialogue, sprinkled in among a discussion thread, beginning here. Medicine Man’s “hopeless hypotheses” idea, which I linked to and commented on here, was about essentially the same thing. It’s not whether relativism, viewed dispassionately as a set of propositions, is necessarily self-destructive. It’s about whether humans can live with it.

Absurdities Within Relativism
I suggest that the relativists have conceded four points that argue against it being something we ought to accept.

1. Where moral differences exist, there is no standard for persuasion: only power decides. The power principle is uncontested:

Yes, I agree about the definition change to the extent that absolute morality disappears, and all that’s left is 1) within an accepted moral code, people say “A is moral” or “B is not moral,” but 2) when looked at from an incompatible culture, or better, from above both cultures, what is right is defined by those with power (the relativistic Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules”), However, that doesn’t mean that people don’t feel like things are right and wrong, which is why the words are used as if absolutes, even by relativists, but, strictly speaking (or, from the vantage of being above two competing systems), it does come down to a matter of power as to which system will prevail, or, better, seem to be absolute from within one culture.

If that turns your stomach, I sympathize, but an argument from personal revulsion is not rational.

An argument from personal revulsion is not logically binding, but neither is it necessarily irrational. Given that a principle of power has led to horrific atrocities throughout history, it makes very good sense to question its ethical adequacy.

2. Relativism can lead to absurd moral conclusions. This goes back to a discussion from a while ago:

I think the Holocaust was wrong. From my culture’s morality, from many cultures’ morality, but not from Hitler’s.

Also here:

I reject that approach and that does mean that I give up the ability to say that in their own times and places, slavery, suttee, and child sacrifice were wrong.

3. No society is more moral than any other; no culture is more (or less) moral than it was 10, 50, or 1000 years ago. (South Africa after apartheid is no more moral than South Africa during apartheid.) This is because moral improvement under relativism is defined in terms of increased conformity to existing standards, whether they be internal standards or group standards. The standards themselves are measured according to no other standards. That means that no change in those actual standards could mean moral improvement, it could only mean change.

This was the subject of lengthy discussion here, and while there is no bald, clear statement from relativists agreeing with this, I cannot find anything they wrote that refutes it. I find rebuttals in that thread; but all of them have to do with standardless standards, for example, core values or core principles. Though core values involves only the individual, it serves to illustrate the larger societal point: If the person’s core is the standard, and the core changes, it cannot be improvement (nor can it be degrading), for the core has no up or down direction to move in a moral sense.

The argument scales upward, to reach the conclusion I highlight here in point 3: If the culture rather than the inner person’s core is taken as the standard, then the same critique applies. The culture can change but it can not change in any moral direction. It cannot degrade, it cannot improve; it cannot be better or worse than it was, and it cannot be better or worse than another culture.

4. Relativists are bound to live in contradiction, existentially if not logically. I’ll quote myself here:

1. If you think you can affirm what I suggested Paul affirm at the end of [this comment], then you can probably continue to think that relativism is coherent.

2. But for the sake of logical and lexical consistency, you ought not to use the word “wrong” or “right” around any other person without explaining that to you, “right” could in some circumstances encompass being killed because you wear glasses. Your hearers will be very misled otherwise.

3. If you ever hear yourself thinking that someone did something wrong to you, you owe it to yourself for the sake of consistency to bear in mind that this is just your own conception and the other person’s is as valid as yours.

4. If you ever think about moral improvement or betterment, in regard to yourself, another person, or another culture, logical consistency forces you to recognize it is just change, not improvement. South Africa’s racial policies in 2008 are different than in 1960, but in both those years they were what they were, which by any standard except for some outsiders’ feelings were just fine.

If you can affirm those things, then I know I will not convince you moral relativism is not logically incoherent. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing about it, since I’m sure there are readers lurking out there who wear glasses, or have friends or family members who wear glasses, and don’t think that’s such a good reason to justify being killed along with millions of their countrymen…

So to reiterate, the question is not whether relativism is logically coherent. I haven’t had much to say about moral realism in this blog post, and I’m aware that gap needs filling. We need also to remember that we have a larger evidence base to work from: evidence for or against God works for or against moral realism. But if we were to consider just the ethical considerations, we could still stand relativism up against realism and compare the two. Given their logical consequences, which makes the more sense? I submit to you that the four moral absurdities I’ve detailed here count very strongly against relativism.