Moral Relativism

I commented on a blog post yesterday and the author responded to me with:

“Thanks for exposing your moral relativism.”

For the purpose of this post, it’s not really important what that post was about; based on a quick perusal of other writing by the same author, however, I feel safe in assigning a pejorative tone to the remark.

This surprised me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on why, so I did what any thoughtful person might do: I questioned my assumptions and did a little research. It turns out that like most pure philosophical discussions, splitting hairs over what moral relativism actually is gets boring in a hurry. I’ve been slogging my way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy for two or three years now and believe you me, philosophy in the abstract is some semantic, boring shit.

A hat tip is in order to Dr. Robert Noggle, whose analysis of Moral Relativism is near the top of the Google results, but here’s a link anyway:

Dr. Noggle is (or was) an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, so I’m going to believe him when he says that moral relativism is “the claim that every society’s (or every individual’s) moral beliefs ARE TRUE.  Everyone agrees that moral beliefs differ.  What moral relativism says is that all of these differing moral beliefs ARE TRUE.”

Now this is clearly poppycock, and if Dr. Noggle is correct, a moral relativist is a pretty confused person. Beliefs are subjective; truth is objective and otherwise known as fact. You have many factual (verified) beliefs, but unverified beliefs cannot be truth. I don’t have two hands because I believe I have two hands, I just have two hands. You may believe I have only one hand, since you’ve never met me and it is entirely possible that I am an amputee. But your belief is unverified and also incorrect. We cannot both be right.

So there’s one way the snarky reply surprised me, because I was trying to point out that two people could use the same prejudices to achieve very different results. That’s only half of the story, though.

I don’t think the author/snarker assigned the Noggle definition to “moral relativism”. Again, based on other writings, I think the meaning was more along the lines of

“You don’t believe in moral absolutes; you believe in adjusting morals relative to context (and are therefore a bad/idiotic/mean/satanic/etc. person worthy of only disgust.)

And here’s the rub: I agree with that statement (not including the parenthetical.) I don’t see a problem at all. In fact, I submit that someone who applies moral reasoning to questions is a more highly-developed human consciousness than someone who relies on moral absolutes. Dr. Noggle again:

“To do this is to accept that your own moral opinions might be wrong, and it is also to accept that some answers to moral questions might be better than others.  There may even be correct and incorrect answers to moral questions.”

The last bit is a little hard for me to swallow… again, “correct and incorrect” imply fact and truth and mathematics and certainty and such.

Morals, after all, focus on what we should do, which is different than truth. Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend with a gun; that is a fact which even he does not dispute. His girlfriend is verifiably dead, also a fact. We come very close to assigning truth when we say “he should not have done that”, but morality changes into judgment when it’s in the past tense, right? So Oscar’s argument is “I thought there was an intruder and I thought I should kill him, because it was morally right to do so.” And we can argue about that moral position a lot, because it is not a fact, it is an opinion.

But back to moral absolutism versus moral reasoning. It seems to me that moral absolutists are way more scary than moral reasoners. The Taliban, Al-Qaida, and Westboro Baptist Church are all pretty convinced of the absolute correctness of their morals, and they range from obnoxious to deadly in their levels of asshattery.

Moral reasoners realize that there is sometimes a choice of only bad options, and they make choices based on the expected outcomes of their action. Sometimes their experience will lead them to a choice which others believe is bad, but people rarely act outside of their interests and the moral reasoner will usually believe they’ve made the best choice possible. I’m thinking here of the woman who gets an abortion, or the court that hands down a death penalty, or the president who sends people to war.

Most moral absolutists I have met have been young, and children make the best moral absolutists of all. Maybe that’s the basis for my opinion that moral reasoners have more evolved thinking… but hey, I could be wrong.


About ernestwhile

I live in New York City. I built a world of Lego bricks, colorful and simple and foreign. I've been picking it apart ever since.
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5 Responses to Moral Relativism

  1. criticofchristianity says:

    Absolutism is an excuse not to think. But relativism can get messy. No system is flawless, but I think you’re right: moral relativism (reasoning) is the much more sensible position.

  2. jayne says:

    “What moral relativism says is that all of these differing moral beliefs ARE TRUE.” That is only poppycock if you are not a absolute believer within one of those societies. no? Watch “What the Bleep Do You Know” – the part where they explain different perceptions about the basketball bouncing… drink a bottle of wine beforehand, and apply your thoughts to it. Take 4 advil and a large glass of water before dreaming.

  3. I have a few clarifications for you so that you don’t have dig through all that dry material to figure it out. I got my BA in philosophy and I am quite fond of ethical theory.

    1) Moral relativism only applies to moral beliefs, which are beliefs about what one ought or ought not do. That means you cannot challenge on an empirical basis. Moral relativism cannot make an empirical claim such as whether you have two hands or not. Though one can utilize empirical evidence to base moral judgements.
    2) Many non-relativistic ethical theories utilize context in order to make moral judgements. Just because context is considered does not necessitate one is a moral relativist.
    3) You are correct in questioning the existence of moral truth. There is plenty of debate in ethics as to whether or not moral truth can exist. Though it is common in ethical writing to speak about ‘truth’ of morals, the comments were not out of place. Philosopher’s like to try and argue a theory and show it is ‘better’ than other theories so they like to talk about them as though they are true.
    But when it comes down to it most people simply assume their own morality is true.
    4) Youth and children tend to be absolutists because they have developed to the point of greater moral reasoning. If you are interested you should check out Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and don’t worry it isn’t as dry because he is a psychologist not a philosopher.

    I hope that helps clarify some of what you read. In the future if you want to look up something in philosophy the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good place to start.

  4. ernestwhile says:

    Thanks, that was a very informative and thoughtful comment.
    I agree with your points. Just this: “But when it comes down to it most people simply assume their own morality is true” had me scratching my head a bit. Doesn’t truth imply a test that comes out positive every time? A moral position such as “no killing” can quickly slip on a number of fronts, including euthanasia, capital punishment, and Osama bin Laden. Certainly I possess the ability to choose a path of least harm/most good, but I don’t think there are many areas where I can profess moral truth.

    • “But when it comes down to it most people simply assume their own morality is true”

      What I meant by this was that people tend to assume their own version of ethics is better than others. Yes some may revise here and there. But functionally they act as though their morality is the correct one and make their decisions accordingly. Few walk around constantly questioning whether or not they are doing the right thing.

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