Reflections on Relativism

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].


 

Citations:

[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.

4 replies
  1. TokenDude
    TokenDude says:

    Actually, the complete denial of relativism in morality is bad for everyone bar the Neo-Platonists (including its progeny of Berkeley Idealists and Reformed Epistemologist). Why? Because if objective moral values do exist, the next natural question is what is its nature as an abstract object and how do we know it. If other abstract objects that are metaphysically universal yet epistemologically subjective exist: e.g. mathematical laws about triangles and Pythogoras’ theorem, theory of gravity and relativity, etc. , the moral values do subsume to reality that way too. But that also means there ars aspects of moral relativism that is correct and must be harmonised with moral realism somehow.

    So saying that moral relativism is bankrupt, but saying absolutely nothing about the subjectivist aspect of knowledge, is not engaging enough. In fact, I think it entrecnches the coherence aspect of “true for you but not for me.” Unless you can bridge that universal yet subjective aspect of moral realism (*cough* Natural Law Theory *cough*)

  2. Seth Clement
    Seth Clement says:

    Hi, thanks for the thought provoking comment. If I’m understanding you correctly, I think your criticism is based on a misunderstanding of what I was trying to convey in my post. I didn’t mean to deny that there are aspects of moral relativism that are correct or useful in making ethical decisions. For example, moral decisions regarding modesty should be, to an extent, culturally relative, though they will embody objective moral principles. I’m sure you could think of other examples. Rather, my point was that asserting that all moral values are relative contradicts our deep-seated intuitions that some things (such as the holocaust) are truly evil. Upon reflection, I agree that “bankrupt” is the wrong term to use, and I hope I’ve clarified what I intended to convey.

    Would you be able to unpack what you mean by “saying that moral relativism is bankrupt… entrenches the coherence aspect of ‘true for you but not for me”‘?

  3. TokenDude
    TokenDude says:

    I certainly agree with the fact that morality has to have a ontology rooted in something that has permanence in reality, so I am certainly agreeing with you on your rationale to reject moral relativism metaphysically. The point on contention is I think you have set up your argument in such a way that you cannot account for moral knowledge subjectively.

    By using terms like “bankrupt” to describe moral relativism and also not putting in metaphysical/epistemological distinction- if your account of moral knowledge can sustain that at all-, you are basically severing any chance of you being able to account for relative/subjectivist aspect of moral epistemology. Yet all knowing, not exclusing moral knowledge, is necessarily relative/subjective.

    In fact, this is my main quibble with contemporary Analytic-style defense and formulation of objective moral value and duty: they set up the argument but never actually define what objective moral value and duty is, whether it is a Kantian intuition, a Platonic entity, a proposition occasionalised into our mind like an (Augusutinian) Divine Illumination, or whatever it is. What objective moral value is (substantively) will decide how we know it subjectively relative to our experience which in turn will decide moral culpability.

    As for the entrenchment comment, this is coming from the perspective of apologetics as persuasion: when one party thinks that something is indeed coming down to taste and irreconciliable differences, and you in fact argue that your position and his are radically different, this is more likey to reinforce his opinion. In one sense, this is the Dunning-Kruger effect. I happen to think that NLT is the only view of objective morality that can in fact bypass this since it reconciles a subjectivist/relativist moral epistemology yet account for ontological objectivity of morality (in the human essence).

    Where everything I’ve just said ultimately converge is the nature of the objective morality you hold to. What *is* objective morality? If you are going to become a full Kantian/Analytic like William Lane Craig (WLC did write his MA thesis on Hackett’s Resurrection of Theism, a Neo-Kantian account of knowledge), you will be running headlong into framing morality as a fully epistemologically subjectivist (due to Kantian phenomena/noumena distinction) that requires a leap of faith to become ontologically objective, but that requires a prior belief in God.

    (And there is another century-old question that lurks behind that too: namely, the problem of universals. If objective morality holds, it is a universal. But are universals actually real?)

  4. Seth Clement
    Seth Clement says:

    Right, the point of the post is to show that metaphysical relativism is an insufficient account of morality. I didn’t address the metaphysical/epistemological distinction, but you have to keep in mind that this is an apologetics blog, not a scholarly journal. I don’t see how my failure to do so effects the main thrust of my post (perhaps you could help me out there).

    Regarding the entrenchment comment, thanks, I understand you now. So your suggestion is that it’s more effective from a practical point of view to show that metaphysical relativism is inadequate (as I’ve attempted to do), but also to explain that epistemological relativism does have value so as not to alienate one’s interlocutor? Ok – but the way I see it, the underlying problem with metaphysical relativism is that the reasoning behind it (societies/individuals have different moral codes, therefore metaphysical relativism is true) is fallacious. My approach would simply be to point out the flaws in such reasoning. However, I’ll reflect on this further. Out of interest, what would you say in a conversation of this sort?

    Also, I’m struggling to see how failing to address the metaphysical/epstemological distinction severs any chance of me being able to account for the subjectivist aspect of moral epistemology. By not addressing the distinction, I’m not denying that it exists, which in my view leaves the door open to discussing it if necessary. Thoughts?

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