A couple entries ago we looked at moral relativism in its most popular form today. Moral relativism is the belief that we create our own moral codes and as such what is moral for me may not be moral for you. We saw that if we acted consistently in believing moral relativism we’d have to accept that every moral belief is equally worthy – even those that promote cruelty of the highest order. We are in the process of looking at some commonly made arguments defending moral relativism. Today we are looking at the charge that the alternative, “moral realism”, which I’ve been arguing in favour of in this blog, is just arrogance. Moral realism is the belief that some sort of universally binding moral law actually exists independently of the human mind (in the same way rocks or dolphins exist whether or not we believe in them). So let’s look at this objection.
How dare you say that your standards alone are right!
The following exchange illustrates the nature of this complaint,
Benny: Y’know in some cultures they permit men and women to have multiple husbands or wives.
Jimbo: Oh yeah?
Benny: Uh-huh. I think it’s pretty morally wrong.
Jimbo: Um, don’t be such a bigot! Their culture just has different standards of right and wrong.
The idea is that to say that one set of beliefs about right and wrong is correct, and all others false, is arrogant and irrational. There are in fact a few problems with this objection when it is used against moral realism. Firstly it assumes that morality – matters of right and wrong – are just human constructs and that because of this, to judge one culture’s morality as ‘wrong’ is like saying that one culture’s choice of cuisine is wrong; it is just a matter of taste and you should respect the other culture’s choices. But the moral realist doesn’t believe that right and wrong are just cultural inventions. That issue is in fact the very thing being debated. So there’s no reason for the moral realist to accept that objection at all. Imagine if a Christian tried to persuade you he was right by just assuming he was; you wouldn’t be too impressed! The objector has committed what’s called the fallacy of “begging the question”. He has already assumed something important about the very issue being discussed.
The next problem is that the objector is making a moral claim that looks something like this; “one ought to not say that a culture’s moral beliefs are wrong.” But as we’ve already seen in the first entry on this topic, the logical conclusion of moral relativism is that any moral belief is as valid as any other. So if the objector was being consistent he wouldn’t believe that you have any obligation to follow this moral command at all. Whoops!
Okay but it’s still arrogant!
Perhaps, when the moral relativist’s objection has been countered with the above observations, he begins to accept that moral laws aren’t just human inventions, but he still thinks it is arrogant to claim that one set of moral beliefs is right and another wrong. What can be said to ease him fully over to the realist side of the fence? As we did when we looked at the objection in the previous entry, let’s compare this issue of belief in moral laws with belief in scientific or “natural” laws. Imagine this conversation,
Benny: Y’know in some cultures they think the sun orbits the earth.
Jimbo: Oh yeah?
Benny: Uh-huh. I think it’s pretty scientifically wrong.
Jimbo: Um, don’t be such a bigot! Their culture just has different standards of scientific truth.
Has Benny fallen into foul play here? I hope there are few of us who would say he has! There is nothing wrong about saying that a particular scientific belief is incorrect if you know it is. After all if there is a truth to the matter, not everyone can be right if their views differ. Similarly, if there is a truth to moral matters as the moral realist claims, there is nothing wrong about saying that a particular moral belief is incorrect if you know it is. How can we know that our moral beliefs are correct? This is indeed a good question and it’s one I hope to explore later on through the blog. Right now we have done enough to show that the objection examined today fails.