A Defense of Moral Relativism
A Defense of Moral Relativism
The following was motivated by a conversation I had with Liberallies and Slyrr.
I’ll preface this by saying that my thoughts on and understanding of the topic of morals and ethics is a pedestrian one and my presentation here is admittedly simplistic. So I’ll go ahead and apologize ahead of time to any who might read this that have a deeper understanding of this topic than I.
Objective versus Subjective Moral Codes
For the sake of this discussion, I’ll take “objective moral code” and “universal moral code” to mean a moral code created or set down or established by a supreme being who has, in some sense, the authority to impose such a code on humans.
I should point out that there are those who believe in the existence of objective morals who reject the necessity that they be created by a supreme being. But this view won’t factor into my discussion so I won’t get into it.
By contrast, I’ll use “subjective moral code” to mean a moral code created by a human or group of humans.
Absolute versus Relative
The term “absolute” will be taken to mean “applies to everyone, everywhere under all circumstances”. To keep things simple, I’ll take “relative” to mean that which isn’t absolute.
As an illustration of the distinction between the two, I’ll do what I typically do and use an example from physics.
Consider the idea of speed. If I were a passenger in a car and ask the driver how fast we were going, most people would implicitly understand that I’m asking for the speed relative to the Earth (plus that’s how car speedometers are set up to report speeds anyways). In fact, this is usually how we think of speeds. But from a general standpoint, there is nothing particularly special about the Earth which requires us to use it as our reference frame for measuring speeds (other than the fact that it’s convenient). We could use the Sun or the Moon or the center of the Milky Way. In fact, we could choose from an infinite number of reference frames to measure speeds from.
A consequence of this is that there is no fact of the matter about what the speed of an object is (with one exception, which I’ll get to below). In other words, there is no absolute or universal value for the speed of an object. The speed of an object is always relative to some reference frame.
Of course, there is one exception to this – light. It turns out that no matter what reference frame you use, when you measure the speed of light – any light – you always get the same speed. This fact serves as the basis for Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.
So we can say that the speed of light is absolute in the sense that all people in all places under all circumstances always measure light as having the same speed while the speeds of all other objects are always reported or measured as relative to some reference frame.
There are actually a lot of different moral relativist views which distinguish themselves from each other based on things like the ontological status of morals, the classification of moral statements, the proper implementation of morals into actions and bunch of other things.
The central idea (as I understand it) of moral relativism is that there isn’t an objective or universal moral code and so there isn’t an objective standard by with to judge actions or ideas as right or wrong.
My view of moral relativism parallels my view on the relativity of speeds (excluding that of light). An individual or group can create or adopt a (subjective) moral code. This parallels a person’s ability to choose a reference frame from which to measure speed. Once set, definitive statements can be made about whether an action or idea is right or wrong based on the moral code that’s been adopted in the same way that I can make definitive statements about speeds once I pick a frame of reference.
I also recognize that other people or groups may adopt different moral codes. But my recognition of that fact doesn’t require me to accept their moral codes or their judgments. I am free to give my moral code precedence over any other. I’ll expand on this later in this post.
I should point out that there is a class of moral relativists, called normative relativists, who do seem to work from the idea that all moral codes should be given equal status in the sense that no judgment from any moral code should be given special status of any others.
I bring this up because many people who argue against moral relativism seem to assume that all moral relativists are normative relativists. That isn’t the case. The fact is that the normative view is generally held to lead to (at best) incoherence and (at worst) flat out contradictions and most moral relativists don’t accept this view.
In my discussions with people, I’ve gotten the impression that many hold to the view that morals, by definition, have to be objective or else they are not really morals at all.
The problem with this is that the existence of an objective moral code is precisely the point of contention and so asserting that the existence of morals is predicated on the existence of an objective code does little more than beg the question. In other words, this argument isn’t an argument but simply an assertion of the view that there is an objective moral code. It’s a circular argument.
You would have to argue why morals, based on a generally accepted definition of what morals are, require that they be objective. The problem is that there are a zillion different views on what constitute morals so coming up with a compelling argument based on a definition of morals that most would accept seems a pretty difficult task. The second argument (below) takes a step in this direction by attempting to show that a failure to view morals as absolute necessarily leads to contradictions.
Many who believe in an objective moral code argue that it isn’t possible to formulate a consistent moral code unless you assume that morals have an objective basis.
An example of this type of argument is given by Slyrr:
Listen to them when they talk. It's all moral relativism. To the non-believer, the individual's will trumps all. Each person decides what's right or wrong for his or herself. And that's it. Try to get one of them to admit that there are things in this life greater than his or herself. They won't do it. They'll hem and haw and stammer and stutter and come up with all kinds of philosophical gobbledy-gook, but in the end it goes back to 'I decide what's right, and therefore everyone who disagrees with my worldview is wrong.' It makes for amusing watching at times. Because when one person's beliefs happen to clash with another person's beliefs, and they're both moral relativists, who's 'right and wrong' wins out? By definition, BOTH are right, and BOTH are wrong.
Slyrr’s assertion is that holding a moral relativist view forces you into a position of accepting that actions or ideas can be both right and wrong and so forces you to hold contradictory views. There are two problems here.
The first is that in order for Slyrr’s argument to work, you have to accept that an action or idea can’t be both right and wrong at the same time. This is true if there is an objective standard by which to judge all actions and statements. But of course, the moral relativist doesn’t accept this. So Slyrr is taking for granted the very idea which serves as the point of contention to dismiss the other side’s argument.
I can counter Slyrr’s argument by saying that holding the view that a belief can be both right and wrong relative to two different moral codes results in no more a contradiction than holding the view that a car can be both moving and not moving at the same time relative to two different reference frames.
For a moral relativist, the rightness or wrongness of an action or idea is judged relative to the moral code that a particular person has adopted. Consequently, when talking about whether an action or idea is right or wrong, one has to specify which moral code is being used to make that judgment (though it’s typically just assumes that it’s one’s own). Once a particular moral code is adopted, definitive statements about whether an action or idea is right or wrong can be made. Despite Slyrr’s assertion, a moral relativist isn’t obligated to accept an action or idea as both right and wrong at the same time.
Again, to draw a parallel with speed – if I’m travelling at 60 mi/hr relative to the Earth, I’m not suddenly going to feel compelled to close my eyes and take a nap because I recognize that there’s a reference frame relative to which I’m standing still. Despite understanding the relativity of speed (with the exception of light, of course), I’m never going to believe that an object has two different speeds at the same time relative to a particular reference frame and I’m certainly never going to act as if that’s the case.
The second problem is that Slyrr’s simply assumes (knowingly or unknowingly) that all moral relativists are normative relativists – that a moral relativist is obligated to give all moral codes and all moral judgments equal weight. But based on what I’ve stated above, that isn’t the case. As I’ve mentioned previously (and as Slyrr’s comments show) the normative view has its problems and I certainly don’t hold to it.
If Slyrr could argue why the core ideas of moral relativism ultimately require, for the sake of consistency, that all moral relativist be normative relativists then Slyrr would have a powerful argument against moral relativism.
The last argument I’ll address is one related to one that Liberallies has brought up.
In making the assertion “morals are relative” I am making a definitive (or absolute) statement about morals. Liberallies has argued that I contradict myself in doing this.
If statements about morals are themselves moral statements (or moral judgments) then Liberallies would be correct.
So is he?
Well, we should get straight what a moral judgment is. This isn’t an easy thing and it’s something that many have and do disagree about. But I’ll suggest the following criterion – if a statement can be translated into a form like “I believe it is morally acceptable/unacceptable that…” and still convey the same basic idea of the original statement, then the statement is a moral judgment.
As an example, consider the statement “one plus one does not equal three”. I think most would agree that translating this into “I believe it is morally unacceptable that one plus one should equal three” creates a statement which introducing something the original statement probably wasn’t meant to convey.
By contrast, the statement “killing is wrong” obviously does convey the same basic idea as “I believe it is morally unacceptable to kill”.
Of course, there are some statements which may or may not be moral, depending on the context. For example “Jack is laughing” could translate into “I believe it is morally unacceptable that Jack is laughing”. If it turned out that Jack is laughing during a funeral, then the original statement could be a moral judgment and the translated version would accurately convey the meaning of the original. But it might simply be meant as a statement of fact, in which case the translation wouldn’t convey the original idea behind the statement.
So let’s get back to me asserting that “morals are relative”. The translation would be “I believe it is morally acceptable that morals are relative”. This one might be up for interpretation except for the fact that I’m the one making the statement and I can clarify how I mean it. And the fact is that the translated statement certainly doesn’t convey the idea behind my original statement.
In asserting that morals are relative, I’m making a statement parallel to the assertion that speeds are relative. It’s meant as an objective statement about an aspect of human conduct and behavior and not as a moral judgment.
Liberallies might view it as a moral statement but that’s irrelevant unless he can demonstrate why I have to accept it as a moral statement as well
As a final comment, I should clarify that my arguments here are not meant to demonstrate that the relativistic moral view is correct but only that some of the more common arguments I’ve seen against moral relativism can be reasonably countered.