Assessing Moral Relativism, continued

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 28, 2010

Assessing Moral Relativism, continued

A presently popular view of ethics is moral relativism. According to moral relativism, there are no moral principles or values objectively real and applicable to everyone; rather, what’s right/wrong and good/bad essentially depends on individual preference or culture, and this varies from person to person or group to group.

Moral relativism seems tolerant (“you do your thing and I’ll do mine”), but is it reasonable to believe? We should think not.

First, let’s get clear on moral relativism by looking at it in its group or cultural form; let’s call it cultural relativism (CR for short). (Last time we looked at individual/subjective relativism.)

According to CR, ethics essentially depend on one’s culture or tribe. That is, CR says action X is right or good if culture says X is right or good, and X is wrong or bad if culture says X is wrong or bad. Action X may be right in one culture but wrong in another. Our culture may hold that apartheid is wrong, but another culture may be okay with apartheid, because of a difference in the history of interracial relations.

On CR, then, morality is wholly a matter of cultural invention, i.e., social construction, to cope with historical circumstances, and because such circumstances vary from group to group, so do the constructed moralities. Thus, we shouldn’t impose our culture’s moral values on others, and others shouldn’t push theirs on us.

CR sounds good, but is it sound? To show that CR is not sound (i.e., is not reasonable to believe), let’s assume, temporarily for argument’s sake, that CR is true. If the logical consequences of CR’s assumed truth are false or otherwise deeply problematic, then it follows logically that CR is false or otherwise deeply problematic, or both. (This argument strategy is known as reductio ad absurdum or the absurd consequences move.)

If CR is true, then six problems result.

1. CR ends up giving support to obviously evil regimes and evil cultural practices. On CR it becomes impossible to criticize the Nazis. If Nazi culture says that genocide is right, then, for Nazi Germany, genocide is right. In other words, if CR is true, then we cannot condemn the following: the Jewish Holocaust, Stalin’s murder of millions, human trafficking in Asia and eastern Europe, torture of political prisoners in Afghanistan, the Hindu practice of Suttee (cremation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), the African practice of clitoridectomy (wholly or partially removing a woman’s clitoris so she will not be distracted from her family duties), Chinese foot binding (so women’s feet remain tiny and pretty, albeit crippled).

Moreover, if CR is true, then we cannot condemn atrocities committed by Christians in the Crusades and in the Spanish Inquisition. It was just their culture, after all. But we think—we know—that we can and should condemn such regimes and practices.

2. If CR is true, then internal cultural reform is disabled. On CR what the culture says is right is right, so it’s not possible for one’s culture to be mistaken let alone reformed. Yes, one can critique acts according to cultural standards, but it’s not possible to criticize one’s own cultural standards. The result: moral quietism—no prophets or independently-minded moral reformers could arise to preach a social justice hitherto unknown.

But, obviously, they do arise. Examples: Old Testament prophets, Jesus, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, etc. In other words, the existence of cultural reformers is a fact, and this fact counts against CR.

3. CR self-refutes. If CR is true, it allows for the possibility of a society having a non-relative or absolute morality. That is, on CR a society could hold that CR is false, and CR would say that this morality is true. So, if CR is true, then CR also is not true. This is a serious logical problem.

4. CR has a practical problem. According to CR, what the culture says is right is right. But the question arises: Which culture? The one you’re born into or the one you presently occupy? I asked this question when I visited a university in Russia a few years ago: What should I do, since I was born in Venezuela, grew up in a Dutch family, became a Canadian as a teen, teach at a Christian college, study at a secular university, and yet I was spending some time in Russia?

And what about the Arab-American father who kills his daughter in accordance to Arab custom, because she refuses to marry the man the family had arranged for her to marry? American culture says this is wrong, but the father’s Arab culture says this is right. Which culture should be followed? These questions throw a wrench into the practice of CR.

5. CR does not provide a satisfactory answer to yet another important question, specifically: Why obey the tribe’s rules? Tribe’s answer: Because the tribe says. But it makes good sense to ask: Why? Significantly, any non-question-begging answers (i.e., any answers other than “culture says its rules are right because culture says its rules are right”) lead us to reasons other than mere accordance to what culture says. But this means that culture is no longer the fundamental ground for ethics.

If we are told to follow culture because, say, human life has intrinsic worth, then intrinsic worth of human life is what’s most important, not culture. But this means ethics are not essentially dependent on culture, and so any good reason for CR actually counts against CR. This nuttiness counts against CR too.

6. CR, if true, is useless in conflict resolution. CR says, “You’re right because your culture says you’re right.” But saying this to a bully-nation and a bullied-nation—that is, saying this to Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Netherlands, or to a Holocaust-denying nuclear-armed Ahmadinejad-ist Iran and its Jewish targets—is a recipe for disaster. Morality is usually thought to be useful in social conflict. CR, however, simply stares blankly and shrugs its shoulders.

In view of these problems which arise logically from CR, it’s reasonable to conclude that cultural moral relativism is flawed—logically, factually, and morally—and so should be rejected.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.

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