When discussing topics of moral significance, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “that’s right for you, but not for me”. Implicit in these kinds of statements is the idea that moral values and duties are subjective; that it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong for me, and it’s up to you to decide the same for yourself. At face value, this view—call it “moral relativism”—may appear to be a tolerant position. However, upon reflection, it’s obvious that it faces a number of hurdles that it simply cannot overcome. One such hurdle is that it grates against the fact that, deep down, we all know that some things really are wrong.
Here’s an example. I recently finished reading Laurence Rees’ book “The Holocaust”. The book sets out to answer two questions: how and why the Nazi holocaust came to pass. Throughout the book Rees shares harrowing accounts of the horrors that Jews, gypsies, Soviets, and numerous other people groups experienced at the hands of the Nazi regime. These accounts are, frankly, very grim, disturbing, and unpleasant to read. Rees acknowledges this, writing: “Although the contents of the book… are disturbing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do” [i].
When Rees refers to “what our species can do”, he’s obviously implying that mankind is capable of horrendous evil. Now it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the holocaust qualifies as horrendous evil—palpable, real, and true evil. However, if moral relativism is true, rather than saying “the holocaust was wrong”, wouldn’t it make more sense to say “genocide is right for you, but not for me”, or “murdering disabled and elderly people was right for the Nazis, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable”? Obviously to take such a view is absurd, indicating that relativism is an inadequate account of morality.
Rather than showing that moral values and duties are relative to the whims of individuals or societies, the fact that we perceive some things (such as the Holocaust) as truly evil indicates that good and evil are objective. By objective good and evil, I mean that some things are good or evil regardless of whether people perceive them to be that way. An oft-cited example goes something like this: even if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to exterminate all who opposed them, brainwashing the rest of us so that no one thought the Holocaust was evil, it would still be evil. That is what it means to be objectively evil.
Furthermore, though relativism may be given lip-service, I believe that our innate sense of objective moral values is betrayed in many of the films we enjoy. As Jonathan Merritt points out, film, art, literature, and music can act as a barometer for what the prevailing views are in a society[ii]. And what do we see in many of the popular movies of our time? The actions of innumerable villains portrayed as objectively—not just subjectively—wrong. When Voldemort kills Harry Potter’s parents, when the Joker sends Batman’s love interest up in a ball of flames, and when Anakin Skywalker murders young Jedi in cold blood, we judge their actions as objectively wrong.
In summary, it seems that moral relativism is bankrupt, and we should instead affirm the existence of objective good and bad, right and wrong. Although some people consciously or subconsciously subscribe to relativism, an examination of their judgements of horrors like the holocaust suggests that they actually do believe in objective moral values. James Rachels encapsulates the argument against relativism when he writes, “it does make sense… to condemn some practices, such as slavery and anti-Semitism, wherever they occur… relativism implies these judgements make no sense… [and therefore] it cannot be right”[iii].
[i] Rees, L. (2017). The Holocaust, p. 429. Penguin Random House, UK.
[ii] Merritt, J. (2016). The death of moral relativism. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-death-of-moral-relativism/475221/
[iii] Rachels, J. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (4th Ed.), p. 23. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.