A friend asked me a question on Facebook about moral relativism. He said he was debating a Christian and he told the Christian that morality is relative. He messaged me and asked if that position was good. I told him I did not think so and for this post I’ll paste in the answer I wrote to him in the Facebook private message.
By way of brief explanation, someone might appeal to moral relativism either as a direct defeater for Christianity or as a defeater-defeater. The latter might go like this: A believer says morality is objective, so Christianity is true. The non-Christian might respond by saying that morality is not objective, it’s relative, and so that reason for belief in Christianity has been defeated. The direct argument might go like this: (1) If God existed, morality would not be relative. (2) Morality is relative. (3) Therefore, God does not exist.
I realize the issue of moral relativism is very complicated and there’s a lot of literature on the matter. There are some very sophisticated relativisms out there, but to address them would require to much set up. What I’m going to paste in is fine as far as it goes, and I believe it covers a lot of ethical ground in a short space. While the below is not the final word, it’s at least good for the main intended audience of this blog (see “Read this first” up top) as an introduction to some ethical terms and concepts, and as a conversation starter. Below is pretty informal, but as I said, it was a Facebook message to a friend that I wrote fairly quickly:
. . . As for the morality question, I agree with the moral argument for God but not necessarily in the way [your friend] framed it. But since you asked about relativism, I’ll offer a brief answer to a large and complex issue, compressing a lot of information in a fairly short message:
We need to distinguish between two kinds of relativism: (1) subjectivism and (2) cultural relativism. Next, we need to introduce the concepts ‘objectivity’ and ‘absoluteness.’ As I mean it, an ‘objective’ truth is a truth that is not made true by the mind of any particular human person. And, as I mean it, ‘absolute’ will mean ‘not admitting of exception or variance.’ Now that we have those two individually we can put them together and form ‘objective absolute,’ and I trust you can figure out what that means. Another issue to grasp is *ethics* itself. Ethics is the study of right and wrong, it’s a *normative* discipline that concerns how one *ought* to behave.
So let’s go back to our two relativisms, (1) and (2) above. In ethical theory philosophers ask questions like this: What *makes* some action, A, right or wrong? We can answer this question on behalf of (1) and (2) above. For subjectivism, i.e., (1), the answer is that a particular subject, Tom, let’s say, simply believes that action A is wrong. Cultural relativism, i.e., (2), says this: Some action A is wrong for any member of a culture, C, just in case C claims that A is wrong.
Okay, that was quick and dirty but it’ll work for now. So check this out: notice that (1) and (2) give different answers to the ‘objectivity’ and ‘absoluteness’ issues. While subjectivism can allow for an action, A, to be *absolutely* wrong, it cannot allow for one to be *objectively* wrong. So an ethical subjectivist can say that, “No one should ever murder under any circumstance whatsoever.” This does not admit of exceptions, but since it is made true by the mind of the *subject*, then it can’t be *objective*. The opposite holds for cultural relativism. Any member of a society can look “outside” themselves to a standard apart from their mind, and *their* mind does not determine the action to be wrong, the *culture* does. However, cultural relativism can’t account for *absoluteness,* for *other cultures* might have different ethics.
Okay, so that was a whirlwind tour of some basic distinctions in ethics and a brief overview of the two relativisms. Now for a quick presentation of just some of the flaws with both of them:
(1) _Subjectivism_: On this view, we’re not really doing ethics anymore. We’re doing *psychology* That’s because we’re really talking about what beliefs we hold as individuals. But this is *descriptive* (i.e., tells us *what* is the case, i.e., “Tom believes X,”) and not *normative* (i.e., telling us what *should* be the case and not what is *in fact* the case). So, on this view, when we say “moral belief M is *true*,” we just mean, “M is believed by some subject.”
But that’s just one problem. On the above view, it turns out that we could never be wrong about our ethical beliefs! For if all an ethical statement is is just a report about what we believe, and we’ve reported what we truly believe, then we’re not wrong. That’s because, “X is wrong” simply *means* “Tom thinks X is wrong.” So we’re all *infallible* about our ethical beliefs, and this is highly counter-intuitive (haven’t you ever been wrong about what you thought was the moral thing to do?).
But it gets worse, for the above position can’t make sense of ethical *disagreement*. But ethical disagreement seems real. John says “abortion is immoral” and Tom says it is not. They argue. Do they disagree? It seems so. But if ethical subjectivism gets things right, they do not disagree! That’s because, once analyzed, “abortion is immoral” *just means* “John thinks abortion is immoral.” And if John thinks that, then it’s *true*, i.e., true that John *believes* that. Likewise for Tom. “Abortion is immoral” *simple means* “Tom this it is immoral.” That’s true too! So why are they disagreeing? Both of them are stating *the truth*!
Following from this, subjectivism has it that *all* ethical statements are *true*. This seems blatantly false. “Child molestation is wrong” and “Child molestation is right” are *both* true so long as someone believes each one. These suggest that subjectivism suffers from some fatal flaws.
(2) _Cultural Relativism_: I’ll try to be shorter here. Some of the above problems apply with some minor tweaking. For example, culture A and B couldn’t really disagree over the wrongness of some action A, for they’re both right just in case one culture really asserts that A is wrong and another that it is right.
Another problem ethicists have pointed out is that it’s very hard to define what one’s relevant culture is. What is your relevant culture to look to? Your family? Your church? Your ethnic group? The U.S.A.? The Western hemisphere? What? Are subcultures authoritative? What if a Mafioso’s culture says to kill Luca Brasi but the New York culture says not to? Which one does he listen to and how do we know?
Another problem is that *cultures* are infallible. If your culture says that X is wrong, then X is wrong. But it seems plain as day that some cultures have been *wrong*, take the U.S. and slavery for example.
But following on the heels of this is that cultural relativism doesn’t allow for the concept of a “moral reformer.” But we seem to recognize moral reformers. MLK Jr., Ghandi, Jesus, William Wilberforce, etc. They *criticized* cultures and *called them out* for immoral behavior. But on what basis could they do this? If culture A says slavery is okay, to what culture did William Wilberforce appeal to when he condemned them? Not A, because Wilberforce was a member of culture A! So moral reformers are unintelligible on cultural relativism.
Buit if this weren’t counterintuitive enough, not only is the notion of a reformer unintelligible, but it’s worse. Cultural reformers are *immoral*. On cultural relativism, if moral and immoral, wrong and right, are made true this way: “A is right/wrong just in case some culture says it is,” then for the reformer to true to work *against* the right is to work for the *wrong*, and working for the wrong is immoral.
So these are some brief reasons why I think relativism is false. There are many more reasons, but they’re more advanced and require some background knowledge, but I think the above are serious enough to through doubt on relativism (1) and (2). Moral realism, by contrast, does not suffer these problems. It makes sense of moral disagreement and debate. It makes sense of moral error and our fallibility when it comes to ethical positions we have held throughout human history. And it best fits with claims like: “Torturing a little 4 year old girl for the pure fun of it is wrong no matter whether anyone human believes it is, or whether you’re in a culture that happens to say it isn’t.” This is an objective moral absolute, and both relativisms can’t make sense of this, but I think it’s truth is about as obvious as anything. In fact, I’m not even sure what to *say* to someone who denies its truth. The disagreement here is *so* basic that there’s not much *more* basic that I could appeal to in an argument. I guess the only thing left would be to see if they can live out their philosophy in a consistent way.