Assessing Moral Relativism

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By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 14, 2010

Assessing Moral Relativism

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 individualistic form; let’s call it individual relativism (IR for short). (Next time we’ll look at the cultural or group version, a.k.a. cultural relativism.)

According to IR, ethics are merely a matter of individual preference. That is, IR says action X is right or good if I like X, and X is wrong or bad if I don’t like X. Depending on our feelings, action X may be right for you but wrong for me. You may not like abortion, but I may be okay with abortion, if my feelings are not as troubled by it as yours are. Morality, then, is basically a matter of taste, and tastes vary. I shouldn’t impose my tastes on others, and others shouldn’t push their tastes on me.

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

If IR is true, then six problems result.

Problem 1: Intra-personal criticism is lost. If IR is true, whatever we feel is right is right. In other words, on IR we can never be wrong morally and we cannot criticize ourselves (all we can be is true to our feelings). This is not a knock-down argument against IR, but it serves as a red flag against IR, because our pre-theoretic experience of morality is that we sometimes make moral mistakes, in spite of our feelings.

Problem 2: Inter-personal criticism is lost. If IR is true, then we cannot criticize others. On IR we can’t truly morally condemn the behaviour of, say, Robert Picton (the British Columbia pig farmer who murdered as many as dozens of women) and Josef Fritzl (the Austrian man who locked his daughter in his basement for 24 years and raped her repeatedly, fathering as many as seven children, three of whom were also locked up in the basement). After all, Picton probably liked killing the women and Fritzl probably liked raping and wielding power over his daughter.

On IR, the feelings of these men justified their actions. In other words, according to IR: Who are we to judge them? I have my feelings; they have theirs. I like chocolate ice cream; Picton and Fritzl like strawberry ice cream. Sure, if I had the power to stop them, I would; but then, on IR, I’m just reinforcing my taste with power, so might makes right. It turns out that Picton and Fritzl were the more powerful in their situations, so, on IR, they were still right. Surely, though, this is morally wrong—and we know it to be a fact.

Problem 3: IR has a practical problem: it seems psychologically impossible to practice. For example, for IR to work I should be able to believe that it’s wrong, say, for me to torture my sons for fun, but okay for others to do so if they want to. But I simply cannot believe this. This is a serious practical/psychological problem for IR. (Interestingly, if somebody can practice IR, then what IR upholds as a moral model is the psychopath. That is, someone like the Joker in the Batman film The Dark Knight would be our moral model. This seems wrong, plain and simple.)

Problem 4: IR self-refutes. If IR is true, it allows for the possibility of an individual having a non-relative or absolute morality. That is, on IR an individual could feel that IR is false, and IR would say that this morality is true. So, if IR is true, then IR also is not true. This is a serious logical problem.

Problem 5: IR proponents tend to be inconsistent in the face of IR’s (alleged) truth. If, say, we were to abuse the proponent of IR, the abused proponent would probably say that the abuse is wrong—truly wrong—i.e., actually wrong for all, not just for him/herself. A person may mouth IR, but when I steal his iPod, he will probably say that’s truly wrong. A student may mouth IR but when I give her an F for actually excellent school work, she will probably say that’s truly unfair. This counts against IR. (Interestingly, if the IR proponent is okay with others abusing him/her, then the moral ideal/model that IR upholds is the masochist. Surely, this is weird, and also counts against IR.)

Problem 6: IR, if true, is useless in conflict resolution. Saying “You’re right if you feel you’re right” to a bully and the bullied, or to the abortionist doctor and the person who kills abortionist doctors, is a recipe for disaster. Morality is usually thought to be useful in social conflict. IR, however, simply stares blankly and shrugs its shoulders.

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

For additional reading: Assessing Moral Relativism, continued

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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