Posted by: dswerling | May 23, 2008

Relativism: Relatively Stupid

Whether you be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, member of any religious faith or no faith at all, chances are that you’ve run into a moral relativist, someone who believes objective moral values do not exist. Moral relativists assert that all ethical or moral claims reflect particular societal or cultural standards depending on time and place, but do not reflect any universal moral standard. Certainly you can understand how this would be a problem for any religion or philosophy claiming to support a position with universal rights and responsibilities for all people. However, moral relativism often seems to have this certain prominence in academia, this arrogant air that is assumed in high-gloss “civilized” society. Quite frankly, it sometimes seems “cool” to be a moral relatvist, as if “all the smart people are doing it.”

I have detested moral relativism all my life, but I will grant that a certain amount of relativism is always necessary, especially when looking at history or other cultures. For instance, imagine if we held the founders of the United States to the same standards we hold one another to now. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves for instance, and I think that for most people in our country now, if you knew a person who somehow managed to own slaves, you probably would not think of this person as the most moral person. You might think they had very little appreciation for human life, or that they were being oppressive, and that slavery is evil and cannot be tolerated. I would of course agree with you, but if we held Thomas Jefferson to this modern standard, he would immediately be written off as a “bad” person before we could even look at all the good he did for our country. From a more Christian perspective, while the writers of the Bible certainly do not condone many of the actions in the Old Testament, they certainly seem very uncivilized and unjust to us. We must keep our cultural relativism in sync with this, and not pass unecessary judgment on people from a less learned time.

However, I am always baffled by this ultra-intellectual movement I sometimes see, where apparently moral values are all a matter of personal opinion. Apparently we can all just have different moral values and not worry about anything being “right” or not. Some terrorist blows himself up on a bus filled with school children in Israel, but we don’t have the right to judge this as wrong because “there are no absolute moral values.” This is what I call thinking yourself into a hole: paying so much attention to the intellectual, empirical side of things that you lose touch with what you feel. I suppose that I have the heart of a rationalist, but I simply feel that too much of either position is a bad thing. Certainly trusting only what we feel to be important cannot lead us to success, it would reduce us to being animals. However, trusting only what we think to be important is not the answer either, because when we only think and do not feel, we become machines. It’s the happy medium that yields success, and I think that medium can be lost both in the emotive services of evangelical churches and in the arrogant circles of intellectual criticism.

But when it comes to relativism, I have three main points against it. First of all, relativism assumes a blatant hypocrisy that any person could test quite simply. If you ever run into a moral relativist, and manage not to run screaming in the opposite direction, listen to what he or she has to say, then punch him or her in the face as hard as you can. Make sure that you hit them hard enough to break their nose, hopefully causing them to fall on the ground, blood pouring out of their nostrils and mouth and covering their face. I would be willing to bet that the relativist will indignantly ask you why you would do such a thing, and reply that whenver you disagree with a person, you have been taught that you are morally obligated to punch the person in the face. This sums up my first argument against relativism: its hypocrisy. I’m sure the relatvists wouldn’t be happy to dismiss the actions of terrorists if it was their children being blown up on Israeli school busses. Of course, the subjective feelings of humans cannot change objective truth. I only mean to point out that our intellect can often fool us into thinking we’re much greater than we actually are. This leads me to my second argument, which is that relatvism cannot ever be used to criticize anything else. If a moral relatvist criticizes me for thinking of the mujahadeen as rather barbaric and says that I’m ethnocentric, I can merely ask the relativist what standard he bases his assertion on. What if I come from a culture where ethnocentrism is taught as the highest moral value? If moral relativism is true, than not only can the actions of savage fighters in different parts of the world be criticized, neither can my ethnocentrism or pre-conceived judgments. Moral relatvism immediately makes all attempts at justice or equality completely worthless. As I said in the beginning, events from history or in different parts of the world certainly should be interpreted with a somewhat culturally relatvist lens. However, that does not mean we have to simply accept these other practices as “right.” Relativism makes itself worthless, it means that moral judgments don’t even matter. This is non-sensical. A case could be made either way about whether objective meaning exists, but in a pragmatic world, we can dispense with the notion that somehow moral judgments don’t matter. Our civilization wouldn’t last very long if suddenly everybody stopped caring about anyone but themselves.

My final argument against relatvism comes from a disagreement I have with much of my own culture. Way back when we were all in second grade, when we first got to write our opinions about issues, we were all told that “these are your personal opinions, there are no wrong answers.” Apparently that viewpoint has never faded from the psyche of much of academic America. It appears that any opinion any person has cannot be criticized because it’s only an opinion. I would like to say right now that this is nothing short of bilge. The reason Mrs. Friendly told you that your opinions couldn’t be wrong back in second grade wasn’t because her and some other big group of second grade teachers got together and decided to make a solemn decree that opinions could never be wrong, it’s only because the nature of opinions isn’t a nature of right vs. wrong. Opinions are subjective stances on issues created by information that may or may not be correct. While the opinion itself can’t be wrong, the information backing it up most certainly can be, which essentially can equate to the opinion being wrong. I’m merely reacting against what I see in our culture sometimes nowadays, where every crackpot who comes up with some far-out idea can’t possibly be wrong just because he has an opinion (I am fully aware that that very same criticism could be applied to me, but if you will just bear with me for a moment I’ll show you where I’m going.) If you didn’t live in America but wanted to know what other people thought of this country, you could ask a highly educated Saudi Arabain diplomat, or you could ask Osama Bin Laden. They both have an opinion, and neither of their opinions are wrong. However, Osama Bin Laden is a radical terrorist who lives in caves plotting to blow up skyscrapers, while the diplomat has studied international history and politics. Which one has better information? Whose opinion is right then? Our opinions grow and change based on learning and experience, they are not always valid. The opinion itself may never be wrong, but situations can very easily arise where it might as well be.

If we tie this back into relativism, we can see where the philosophy clearly doesn’t hold up. If morals are really nothing more than subjective beliefs about right and wrong (otherwise known as opinions) then those subjective beliefs can be wrong, which means that there are moral absolutes. Relativists are often quick to point to large groups of people oppressing women’s rights or having multiple wives or partaking in other practices that we would call “immoral.” The implication is somehow that because some big group of people have all agreed that something isn’t wrong, it isn’t. Where does this conclusion come from? Relatvists have indignantly asked me if I’m implying that entire cultures can be wrong about their moral values, and they’re right! That’s exactly what I’m saying. Just because some big group of people says something is right doesn’t make it right, because it’s completely possible for a big group of people to be thick-headed and immoral. Don’t believe me? Let’s take the United States as an example. Most people here now would hold that slavery is an evil, immoral, terrible thing. In the year 1830 however, many people would have thought slavery was completely justifiable. How did this change in opinion occur? It took a tremendous war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and completely destroyed the industry of the south to finally get the message accross. Cultures, like people, are perfectly able to grow and change, and will often endure suffering. Only through this suffering can knowledge be gained. Our country had to learn that slavery was wrong, nobody gave us the memo beforehand. I see no reason why this principle shouldn’t still be acting now, and in fact, I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen in the Middle East and Asia. For many centuries those countries were ruled over by the west, but now that they have started developing independently, I believe that they will go through their own trials and tribulations, and have to endure their own suffering in order to learn. I only pray that their learning will not come through nuclear warfare or other global catastrophes, but I believe they must learn if our civilization is to ever continue growing as a whole.

In terms of other cultures, it is completely possible for them to have their morals messed up and incorrect. If you have a country with limited education and oppressive government where people are more concerned with how they’re going to eat tonight than the fundamental nature of right and wrong, of course you’re going to have a messed up system of values. This doesn’t make the messed up value system right, only an unfortunate reality that must be grown out of, the same way a child must grow out of bad, adolescent habits. The only way for cultures to grow out of these bad habits is for them to learn through their own suffering. This is how the United States became the great power it did, and how much of the west rose to its former glory, and this is the only way the Middle East will ever come forwards too. I am just interested to see the way entire groups of people can agree to do the wrong thing. I remember when I was in Spain, I noticed that the first few days we were there, our entire tour group could easily walk by vast groups of homeless people without even a glance. There seemed to be this subconscious agreement to ignore the plight of these poor people lying in the streets, even when their conditions very obviously weren’t their faulgs. However, in the middle of the trip, two of the young men began to give money to all the poor people the group would walk by, sometimes even running back behind the rest of the group. By the end of the trip, every time our group ran into a cluster of homeless people, we would all give them money. Once the subconscious, cumulative agreement to ignore our call to do the right thing had been overcome, people immediately reverted to doing the right thing. It seems that what is necessary then for a group to act “morally” is for people to be properly educated in what is morally right and wrong, and to have that one brave soul to get the movement started. After that, the process can spread, like a disease of hope.

My final comment is only on what I consider the dying breath of Relativism. Relativists will often give several people a question, usually something abnormally morbid like “A train is heading for a group of twenty people. You can pull a switch and the train will not hit the twenty people, but it will hit and kill five small children. What is the right thing to do?” Multiple people will give different answers to these questions, and Relativsts often assert that this means that everyone has different moral values. I will concede that certainly we may disagree on the specifics of what is right and wrong, depending on the situation. However, this example does not mean there are no objective moral values, only that we disagree on what objective moral values are more important. What would be disturbing for moral values would be if someone could read the question above and write “Who cares which group the train hits? It might as well kill them all.” This is a complete rejection of morality. As soon as a person takes the effort to figure out “what the right thing to do” is, the person is admitting some amount of objective morality. He or she is only unable to initially figure out which objective moral value is more important.

Nietzche said “God is dead- and we have killed Him.” While belief in God is certainly not a prerequisite for moral behavior, I believe the opposite to be true: “Relativism is dead- and we have killed It.” Nietzche and the relativists contributed much to philosophy, and I do not mean to insult the work of the masters. However, Nietzche’s philosophy and the idea of subjective moral values lead to World War II and the Holocaust. We have thought ourselves into a terrible hole in the past. It is my sincere hope that we can learn from the suffering we endured, and not make the same mistake again.

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Responses

  1. I agree about the problems of moral relativism; as you say, the philosophy quite clearly doesn’t stand up to its own parameters. Ironically, the only way it could is by agreeing to one objective moral stance (its own) – but this fundamentally undermines the entire point.

    Nonetheless, I think there are similar problems with the idea objective morality. If we consider that all moral systems throughout history have believed themselves to be based on objective, absolute moral principles, we hit a snag. If we consider that most (if not all) of said systems have, at some point or another, changed or evolved *without* altering this belief, we hit another. Point being, even if objective morality does exist, can knowledge of its existence ever help if human beings have no foolproof means of detecting it?

    It’s not an easy question. But I really enjoyed your post. 🙂

  2. No moral relativist is consistent once you hit their favorite issues. For example, all your “cool kids” you referred to probably aren’t too thrilled about war profiteering, environmental problems, etc. They probably find more things evil and repulsive than your run-of-the-mill conservative.

  3. Also, from everything I’ve read, Nietzsche’s a douche 😀 .


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