Moral relativism and tolerance

By Hendrik van der Breggen

(The Carillon, January 15, 2009)

Moral relativism and tolerance

Tolerance is good and intolerance is bad—and if you don’t accept moral relativism, you’re promoting intolerance.

The above view is all too prevalent, it seems to me, and deserves some critical engagement.

First, let’s get clear on moral relativism (hereafter relativism). Relativism is the theory in ethics that whether an action is right (or wrong) depends essentially on—is relative to—either an individual’s feelings (“if it feels right, it’s right for you”) or culture (“my culture says it’s right, so it’s right”).

To be sure, relativism seems at first glance to promote an attitude of tolerance between people who have different moral views: “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.”

Relativism, however, has some terribly serious problems—problems that tend to get ignored.

For example, proponents of relativism usually ignore the fact that if relativism is accepted, then individuals and/or societies that are blatantly intolerant of our moral views must be tolerated.

On the one hand, if we accept the if-it-feels-right-it’s-right-for-you version of relativism, then we would have to tolerate the Paul Bernardo/ Karla Homolka rape-murders, Ted Bundy’s serial killings, plus Jeffrey Dahmer’s molestations and cannibalizations.

After all: Paul’s, Karla’s, Ted’s, and Jeffrey’s actions felt right for them.

On the other hand, if we accept the my-culture-says-it’s-right-so-it’s-right version of relativism, then we would have to tolerate murderous, genocidal regimes such as Hitler’s Germany, Idi Amin’s Uganda, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Moreover, we would have to tolerate cultural practices such as apartheid, suttee (the burning of a live widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), and clitoridectomy (the excision of a woman’s clitoris so she will not be distracted from her family duties).

Not a pretty picture.

On a more mundane level, defenders of relativism also usually ignore the everyday fact that we are all (rightly) intolerant of at least some things.

For examples: College and university students are intolerant of professors who give failing grades for excellent work; all educators are (or should be) intolerant of student ignorance and cheating on exams; car owners are intolerant of car theft; surgeons are intolerant of cancer; etc.

Clearly, tolerance is not always a good thing, and intolerance is not always a bad thing.

Regent College professor John Stackhouse summarizes the point nicely: “So, we’re all intolerant of some things, and we’re all tolerant of others. The question is not ‘Tolerance or intolerance?’ It’s ‘Tolerance of what? To what end? …And for what reasons?'”

Rejecting moral relativism, then, is to take a first step toward accepting tolerance properly understood.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

P.S. The following is from serial killer Ted Bundy (the fellow in the photo above):

“Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.”

Ted Bundy, cited in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 3rd edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 1999), 31-32.

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