In the last entry I looked at “truth-relativism” – the belief that there is nothing which is true for everyone - and concluded that it had some rather serious problems. In this entry I want to look at another commonly held belief in the post-modern culture: moral relativism. What is moral relativism? It’s the belief that “what’s right and wrong for you isn’t right and wrong for me.” If you live in Britain like I do, you’ve probably heard somebody express something like this belief. It seems to come up nearly every time when I talk to people about the topic of morality! Perhaps it’s something you believe yourself. If it is, while this entry will hopefully show why we shouldn’t believe in moral relativism, the intent is not to belittle. In fact, more than with truth-relativism, moral relativism seems to have some common sense and observational truth behind it (this will be shown more in the next entry). I hope though, you’ll be willing to abandon the belief, if, like me, you come to see some serious flaws in adopting it if we want to think about morality seriously. Let’s first of all explain what morality and moral relativism is in a bit more detail.
Moral beliefs are those beliefs we have which relate to how we should or shouldn’t act. They are usually phrased like orders or commands – there is an ‘oughtness’ about them. Some examples might be;
“A person ought to not steal.”
“A person ought to be charitable with their money.”
“A person ought to not be boastful.”
“A person ought to be kind.”
Even if you don’t agree with the sentiments expressed by these particular examples, I’m sure you’d agree that they at least demonstrate what moral beliefs ‘look like’. They resemble laws for governing how we act. Moral relativism is the belief that some laws that apply to me do not necessarily apply to you. For instance it may be wrong for me to be boastful, but not for you. We have to be careful not to be confused here however. Even in a non-relativistic way of looking at morality you can still assert that not every moral law applies to everyone at one time. For example if you are married you could have moral obligations to look after your spouse in ways that would perhaps be immoral for anyone else to! Moral relativism has a different meaning when it claims that moral laws apply don’t apply to everyone. Under moral relativism, even if your spouse had married someone else, that person’s moral duties in the marriage may not be the same as what yours would have been. This is because within moral relativism, it is said that moral laws don’t actually exist properly speaking. It is claimed that morality is something we create. As such, I, as one particular human being, may invent and live my life to a moral code that differs from yours. It is in that sense that, supposedly, what is right and wrong for you isn’t right and wrong for me.
So how’re you gonna sway me?
If you recall, in the previous entry I explained that ‘truth’ is about how ideas and reality match up. When I say “it is raining outside” and it actually is raining outside we would call this a 'true' statement because the content of the statement - the ideas - match up to the reality it is aiming to describe. Similarly, it works the other way round. If I say you are a true friend it means that the reality of your qualities as a friend matches up to the proper idea of a friend. The possibility of there being a truth to something is very important when we want to rationally discuss that thing. Imagine the following conversation,
Fred: Man I love dinosaurs.
Vicky: Me too. I think some fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in dinosaurs or something, but I love them. Especially T-Rex. It was like 9ft or something.
Fred: T-Rex is pretty ace. You’re wrong about the height though. It was over 460089ft.
Vicky: You’re crazy. They weren’t that tall.
Fred: Yes they were.
Vicky: Okay, we’re gonna have to debate this.
While a comic example you’d agree that in principle there’s nothing irrational about debating the size of the average T-Rex. Compare that conversation to this one,
Fred: Man, I wish some really bad-ass huge lizards used to exist.
Vicky: Me too. I’d call them dinosaurs. And one called T-Rex would be my favourite. It’s like 9ft tall.
Fred: That “dinosaw” or whatever you called it sounds ace, but yeah, it wasn’t 9ft. It was over 460089ft.
Vicky: Laughable. They weren’t that tall.
Fred: Okay but ... yeah ... they were.
Vicky: Bring your best arguments because we’re gonna have to debate this.
Why does this conversation seem so irrational? It’s because neither participant believes that T-Rex existed, yet they’re debating its height. They’re debating the truth of the matter even though they don’t think there is any reality for their ideas to match up to. But as we’ve already seen, truth is precisely about how ideas and reality match up. If T-Rex never existed, no ideas about its height could be true. Fred and Vicky are being inconsistent. Because none of their arguments about T-Rex’s height can be true if T-Rex didn’t exist, it doesn’t matter who can sway who. Neither Fred nor Vicky’s beliefs would be more valid than the other. Moral relativists are acting just as inconsistently when they debate moral beliefs.
Irrationality or immorality!
As already noted, moral relativists claim that moral laws do not actually exist; we create moral ideas but they do not exist independently of our minds. A moral relativist who claims that there is a truth to moral matters is consequently being inconsistent. If there are no moral laws then there is no reality for moral ideas to match up to. Without such a reality there can be no truth to moral matters. Any moral opinion would be just as valid as another. I’m sure you can begin to see why it would be very hard for anyone to maintain this view. To be consistent they’d have to accept that a moral belief such as, “a person ought to brutally murder” is just a valid as one such as, “a person ought to treat the elderly with care.” This offends our moral sensibilities so much it’s impossible to live with. I haven’t encountered a single moral relativist who is consistent with the logical conclusion of their belief and I doubt you can show me otherwise!
While then I haven’t proved that moral laws do exist, I hope I’ve shown that we should at least be thinking about them and considering where they might reside. Only when we believe that moral matters have a truth to them that is true for everyone can we rationally debate moral matters. In the next entries I shall look at some common defences of moral relativism made against the argument I’ve presented here.