Friday, April 29, 2005


The World's Most Dangerous Idea (Part 2)

I now turn to the truly interesting and important part of this discussion… Why moral relativism is either a self-refuting theory or the world’s most dangerous idea.

First though, I want to address the specific commentary from Dave and Gaunilo. I did not mean to insinuate that the only code of moral truth is found in the Bible. Actually, basic guiding principles against lying and killing and in support of patriotism and “the Golden Rule” exist in a nearly all ethical systems, world religions, and cultures. This is consistent with a belief in a natural law.

Also, I am not repudiating the need to appeal to one’s own conscience. However, the fact that we should appeal to our own conscience and reasoning does not preclude the existence of a universal moral code. For instance, if Jeffrey Dahmar’s morality allowed him to cannibalize his neighbor, we should be able to unequivocally assert that his actions were wrong and should be condemned. If there exists no universal code of morality, then we have no grounds to say his “morality” is any less than ours.

A moral relativist could, in turn, argue that he is not an individual relativist, but a cultural relativist and our culture does not condone Dahmar’s actions. Fair enough. But the foundations of this philosophy deteriorate as well under scrutiny. For there can be no ethical “progress” in a society if morality is no more than a reflection of people’s tastes, preferences, and origins.

Can anybody reasonably deny that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was an example of true moral progress? Yet, if we follow cultural relativism to its logical end, there can be no such thing as moral improvement. After all, what basis do we have to use as inspiration for improvement? If there is no universal standard by which to measure, there is no greater good to which we should aspire.

Now we move on to a favorite topic of everyone on the left – tolerance. Firstly, in my own defense (though I can’t speak for all conservatives), I have never alleged that liberals themselves have no moral code or principles. Rather, I have suggested that most liberals deny the existence of any objective moral code.

Also, my recognition that there exists such a thing as universal truth does not mean I am telling anyone what to do. One is a belief. The other is an order or instruction. It’s a leap to jump from one to the other and label me intolerant on the basis of merely espousing a belief.

Now, more to the point, what does relative morality have to say in regard to tolerance? The proposition that we ought to tolerate the views of others insinuates an underlying universal code of morality. An aspiration toward tolerance presupposes that there is something inherently good about being tolerant and open-minded. But if there is no objective standard, a core belief of liberalism is diluted and is, in fact, rendered to be without substance.

I will even take it a step further and assert that moral relativism can promote close-mindedness. If there is no moral truth to be discovered outside of one’s own logic and reasoning, what can be gained by engaging in dialogue with others? Why bother even listening to other people? What’s to be gained? Look inside and you will find all you need to know according to the slippery slope of a worldview that is relative morality.

G.K. Chesterton says it well in Orthodoxy:
The new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never really be a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.

Are you disgusted by the genocide going on in Darfur? Did the world's failure to stop the disaster in Rwanda in '94 sicken you? Well, I'm afraid relativism is of no help here. There can be no basis for denunciation of such acts... After all, who are we to say our moral philosophies and practices are better than theirs? I don't think we need such "humility" in the face of human rights atrocities.

Where's the outrage? It began to dissipate around the same time relativism began to rear its ugly head. Societies can only be held accountable for their moral failings if there exists a standard by which to measure.

UPDATE: Since this is a theme that I feel warrants further elaboration, I want to provide links to some others on the topic:

Neil at the Ethical Werewolf elaborates upon the types of contradictions that abound for those that espouse relativism. He also provides a good rationale for why it is important to be informed on the matter:
Our views on the nature of moral concepts have big consequences for the theory of what's right and wrong. So we'd do well to clarify them and make sure they're what they ought to be.

Jeannine at Sharing Life makes a good case for remaining grounded in truth and avoiding altering our beliefs to fit the ever-changing whims of the culture:
The truth that God has revealed to us cannot be given up. This is not understandable to a world that believes in relativism, to which the concept of an absolute truth is absolutely alien.

Sean, a student at Harvard, expounds upon the deteriorating moral situation and break down of common sense from the vantagepoint of one trapped inside the confines of what he deems the “dictatorship of relativism”.

Doug Powell also takes his best effort at debunking the premises of moral relativism here. (Hat tip: JPE)

From a different perspective, JPE suggests that relativism is a scapegoat that diverts us from addressing the real issue which could better be characterized as "moral particularism". According to him, I am merely a pawn in money making game called the “relativism industry”. Makes me feel like some sort of lobbyist…

Hey bigfella. The Infidel in Exile has responded to your post on Relativism.
I'm glad you decided to join the dialogue. Eventually, I'm hoping someone who actually agrees with me is going to join in!

Anway, you'll see I commented extensively on your post.
Yes, I've posted a new post on your comments.
I wasn't defending relativism at all; in fact, elsewhere I've noted that it's incoherent and indefensible. What I was doing was noting that people frequently confuse moral relativism with simple disagreement over moral matters (and this is the point Dave Rattigan was making).

For whatever reason, the term 'moral relativism' has become a proxy for 'wrong.'
JPE, Thanks for the clarification. After following the thread back to your intro on the subject, it made more sense. I see where you're going with this and it is an accurate distinction, at least in some cases.

I wonder, though, if the nuance becomes so involved that most people either stop understanding or caring. Would it be more appropriate (and accurate) to couch the debate as objectivism ve. subjectivism?
I'm not too familiar with the term subjectivism - would it be the idea that we all have access to moral truths through conscience? Or is it another moniker for relativism? The way the infidel uses the term, for example, I don't see how it's different from relativism.

Really, it looks to me like the problem more often comes down to simple moral disagreement, rather than a metaethical disagreement over what we mean when we say that x is wrong.

Your comment about nuance is very well-taken. There does seem to be a lot of slippage, in practice if not in theory, between particularism and relativism. People don't care enough to sharply delineate whether they're talking ethics or metaethics, which results in all kinds of chicanery. In other words, it's common to hear people say "I wouldn't do that, but if that person thinks it's fine, so be it." Is that a metaethical statement about what we mean when we say something is morally fine, or is it an ethical statement that the other's activity is objectively morally acceptable? It's often not clear. The upshot of that is that you get defenses of relativism that aren't really about relativism at all, and you get attacks on relativism that aren't about relativism at all.

So that's a very good point.
For more on the objectivism/subjectivism dichotomy, take a look at this post by Jeremy Pierce. The following quote, in particular, may answer your question as to the nature of subjectivism, which would imply that it is not the same as relativism:

"The subjectivist...does believe there are moral truths, but they are only true within a perspective, because those statements are more to do with the person than with some objective subject matter that the person connects up with when making such claims."

JPE, your hypothetical questions are very interesting. It is not clear at all that defendents or proponents of various forms of morality are really even espousing the belief systems they are advocating. This is particularly true with relativism, which seems to be a very slippery concept.
My response can be found here:
You may have misunderstood my post. It was primarily arguing that the meta-ethical claim that ethical truths are relative is not itself an ethical truth, and therefore relativism isn't self-refuting. It wasn't about objectivism or subjectivism, and the quote you give doesn't seem to me to be about what you're talking about.

Subjectivists who believe that moral truths are dependent on facts about the person (e.g. what they believe) are relativists, because what's morally true is relative to the person. Subjectivists who believe there is no moral truth or falsity (e.g. emotivists) aren't relativists. They don't believe in moral truths, so moral truths aren't relative to the person or culture.

Most objectivists aren't relativists, but some are. Those who think morality depends on what your culture believes are objectivists, because there are objective facts about what your culture believes (though I think there will be problems figuring out which culture someone belongs to and which belief is dominant in that culture). Those who think we should evaluate sets of rules according to whether they're good for everyone in a culture believe there are objective facts about which rules will lead to the best outcome for that culture, but what's best for one culture may not be what's best for another, and you get relativism.

I don't think most liberals are relativists, because I think hardly anyone is a relativist. It's an extremely rare view. Some people think they're relativists but then realize they're not once they see its consequences. I've met one non-philosopher in my entire life who truly is a relativist once all the consequences of the view were made clear (although even there I wasn't sure if he got it). Most liberals believe in a different set of objectively moral claims from the set conservatives believe in, but even there the differences are very close at root. The real differences are how different people take the same premises and develop different rules because of differences about empirical facts (e.g. whether affirmative action is harmful to those it's intended to help) or non-ethical philosophical truths (e.g. whether a fetus is a person).
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