Posted by: gcarkner | October 1, 2015

Problem of Ethical Relativism 1.

Moral Relativism, a Problematic Posture 

Come and hear R. Scott Smith live at UBC on October 7 & 8 on Can Scientific Naturalism Fully Explain Ethics? and Does Postmodernism Offer a better Alternative to Naturalism in Ethics? Woodward (IRC) 5 and 1 respectively @ 4:00 p.m.

The perspective of individual relativism dominates the mindset of a good number of university students today. They go with the flow and develop, rather uncritically, moral values that are quite subjective and without external standards/norms or significant grounding. One could say that their moral values have a certain therapeutic quality to them, rooted in feelings and largely uncritical. They have absorbed from the culture that one has a right to one’s own private morality, whatever that might entail by the end of four years of undergraduate study. Hey, it’s my journey into adulthood; let me explore it my way. I am under construction…

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.  It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.

Relativistic views of morality first found expression in 5th century Greece, but they remained largely dormant until the 19th and 20th centuries.  During this time, a  number of factors converged to make moral relativism appear plausible.  These included a new appreciation of cultural diversity prompted by anthropological discoveries; the declining importance of religion in modernized societies; an increasingly critical attitude toward colonialism and its assumption of moral superiority over the colonized societies; and growing skepticism toward any form of moral objectivism, given the difficulty of proving value judgments the way one proves factual claims.

For some, moral relativism, which relativizes the truth of moral claims, follows logically from a broader cognitive relativism that relativizes truth in general.  Many moral relativists, however, take the fact-value distinction to be fundamental.  A common, albeit negative, reason for embracing moral relativism is simply the perceived untenability of moral objectivism: every attempt to establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles runs up against formidable objections.  A more positive argument sometimes advanced in defense of moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance since it encourages us to understand other cultures on their own terms.

Critics claim that relativists typically exaggerate the degree of diversity among cultures since superficial differences often mask underlying shared agreements.  In fact, some say that  there is a core set of universal values that any human culture must endorse if it is to flourish.  Moral relativists are also accused of inconsistently claiming that there are no universal moral norms while appealing to a principle of tolerance as a universal norm.  In the eyes of many critics, though, the most serious objection to moral relativism is that it implies the pernicious consequence that “anything goes”: slavery is just according to the norms of a slave society; sexist practices are right according to the values of a sexist culture. Without some sort of non-relative standard to appeal to, the critics argue, we have no basis for critical moral appraisals of our own culture’s conventions, or for judging one society to be better than another.  Naturally, most moral relativists typically reject the assumption that such judgments require a non-relativistic foundation.

~Definition from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The individual relativist (sometimes called a soft relativist) often makes up morality as life unfolds, sometimes choosing from different religious and philosophical traditions; it is taken to be a matter for self-construction. There is nothing transcendent, objective or systematic about values; moral convictions belong strictly to an individual’s free and personal choice. Tolerance then becomes a necessary sanction of an individual’s views or opinions, so we can loosely get along within a pluralistic values society. It promotes the outlook that there are no absolutes, no right or wrong, no transcendent source of the good, only individual or social constructions, personal values within a marketplace of possible options. Brilliant Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith articulates the mood this way in his award winning book on 18-23 year olds, Souls in Transition. He notes the following characteristics in this generation:

  • soft ontological antirealists
  • epistemological skeptics (question everything)
  • perspectivalists (various ways to see this; mine is only one among many alternatives)
  • in subjective isolation (following my own unique path)
  • constructivists: building my self and my morality from the ground up (often rejecting the tradition of my parents)
  • moral intuitionists (how I feel about a situation or decision is the most important factor)

Cultural relativism is slightly different. In this case, moral values and value systems of a group are relative to the sociological and psychological conditions of different cultures or tribes. Continental poststructuralist philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard would say that there are many narratives/many stories and each deserves to be heard in a democracy of global cultural values. Each has its own history and special conditions. This is a post-colonialist perspective. To judge one culture as true or superior (especially that of Dead-White-Male-Europeans) and another as false would be seen to be both inappropriate and arrogant–colonialist or imperialist. We are encouraged to affirm and celebrate the plurality, the diversity, la diférence in late modernity. The focus here is on the conviction that moral values are essentially a social agreement, a consensus or social contract (J. Rousseau).

It was Nietzsche’s insight to unmask Western Enlightenment and recognize that rationality could not automatically produce truth, morals or certainty (despite Immanuel Kant’s claim that the rational man will naturally follow the moral law). This is also known as the failure of practical reason. We can ask ‘Which Rationality and Whose Moral Standards?’ Early modernity in its promise of a unified moral consensus has failed us, and left us in a state of fragmentation. Science itself could not offer a substantial moral consensus; disagreement is more the order of the day. Evolution struggles to produce moral beings we would respect or want to marry out of the tooth and claw of natural history. And yet this has not stifled the desire for common moral views to bind humanity together, and help us solve international relations as in the Universal Charter of Human Rights at the UN piloted by Charles Malik et al. We never loose our instinct that certain actions are just and fair and others are unjust and despicable, that there are higher and lower values (Charles Taylor). The need for a proper moral grounding and for appropriate moral discernment never departs the human drama, never vanishes from the human psyche.

This leaves the individual self of late modernity in the strange (and challenging) situation of needing to create myths about the world and make up the moral self (Foucault), or invent the world and one’s identity as well. We borrow from Max Weber the idea that individual values thus replace traditional morality (an objective sense of good and evil, right and wrong), or a normative principled ethics. Relativism seemed to be the only authentic  moral choice after the “death of God” in European consciousness. See the immensely popular and insightful essay by Glenn Tinder called  “Can We Be Good Without God?” from Atlantic Monthly (December 1989). Nietzsche himself was the inventor of many of the new values around which our world now revolves, self-assertion, consumerism and radical individualism being among the dominant ones. Note for the moment the lack of concern or sense of responsibility for the Other (E. Levinas), compassion or empathy.

Building on this assumption of diversity and subjective choice of values, German intellectual Max Weber suggested that the task for the future was one of positing values. Personal values have replaced objective standards or norms in society (once rooted in a Christian worldview) in what early modern European historian Brad Gregory calls hyperpluralism. Humans in this schema are creative “value-makers,” according to Weber, not “good-discoverers”. This means that one projects one’s values onto the world as one sees fit. The content of these values varies widely from those which are pro-human and compassionate to those which celebrate cruelty and sadism and are anti-human. With globalization, the masses have values provided for them by the internet and social media marketplace; they are given a variety of options which conflict with each other. Want to find a group that sanctions violence? No matter how unusual, you can find a comrade in cyberspace who shares your quirky likes and dislikes. That guy is kind of dark, but it is cool with me, many would say naively, following a relativist sentiment. Live and let live.

For Nietzsche, truth-claims about moral issues were not much more than a statement about human subjectivity, a derivative of certain sociological and psychological conditions, coming out of a knowledge-power centre. According to Nietzsche, Enlightenment liberalism had produced three types of people: a. the “last man” the one who craved private creature comforts, security and amusements (e.g. the eighties yuppie or Boomers) the archetype of consumerism, b. the radical nihilist, who devalued all previous values (e.g. Nietzsche and his disciples among the Poststructuralist philosophers of the extreme) and set out completely new values as inventors of a new reality and finally c. the “will-to-power” ruler who would enforce the dominant values of the day and the regime (e.g. Hitler, Pol Pot, Mugabe, Pinochet, Kim Jong Un, ISIS or Stalin). We have experienced all three types in the twentieth century and suffered much under their chosen values, some of which include creatively starving their own people to death (Stalin’s purges). In this sense, he saw the future of the West.

Thus what may seem on surface a happy, naive relativism (or youthful consumer nihilism) ends up entailing some very scary perspectives and outcomes that we may not like or endorse at all. In fact, we would flee their regimes and not welcome them in our family or neighbourhood. Some of these values, that we say everyone has the right to enjoy and endorse, end up in some awfully frightening places for society, as in Nazi concentration camp racism, or gender prejudice, gangster violence or the transhumanists who wish to redesign/remake human beings. We will speak more about the darker implications and consequences of relativism in future posts in this series. Suffice is to say that a key part of the dominant ethos of Western ‘enlightened’ morality in late modernity contains a major problematic (complete with serious contradictions and consequences) at its core. There is no doubt that relativism plays into the hands of those with more pernicious and malevolent views and the will-to-power elites. Chaos does not always lead to creativity; it often leads to oppression and domination, tremendous pain and suffering.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology

Fact: Most philosophers today do not believe in moral relativism.

“It’s God that’s worrying me. That’s the only thing that’s worrying me. What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right–that it’s an idea made up by men? Then, if He doesn’t exist, man is the king of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. Who is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity instead of God. Well, only an idiot can maintain that. I can’t understand it. Life’s easy for Rakitin. ‘You’d better think about the extension of civic rights, or of keeping down the price of meat. You will show your love for humanity more simply and directly by that, than by philosophy.’ I answered him: ‘Well, but you, without a God, are more likely to raise the price of meat if it suits you, and make a rouble on every penny.’ He lost his temper. But after all, what is goodness? Answer that, Alyosha. Goodness is one thing with me and another with a Chinaman, so it’s relative. Or isn’t it? Is it not relative? A treacherous question! You won’t laugh if I tell you it’s kept me awake for two nights. I only wonder now how people can live and think nothing about it. Vanity!”
― Fyodor DostoyevskyThe Brothers Karamazov

“Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.”
― Richard M. Rorty, Postmodern Thinker

Neither the plurality of worldviews, nor the elaboration given  any one, implies that worldviews are entirely relative. Truth claims can be made and ways must be found for evaluating the claim that a certain worldview is objectively true.                                                                    –Arthur Holmes, American Philosopher

“We should challenge the relativism that tells us there is no right or wrong, when every instinct of our mind knows it is not so, and is a mere excuse to allow us to indulge in what we believe we can get away with. A world without values quickly becomes a world without value.”
― Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi in the UK

“I do not have it in for relativism. In many respects I find it a fascinating, even attractive, alternative. It engenders epistemological humility, defeats an arrogant pomposity in belief, even promotes a sort of democratic ideal in matters of knowledge. Perhaps its most comforting feature is that it requires no hard work at all in the matter of justifying beliefs.”
― David L. WolfeEpistemology: The Justification Of Belief

What is so notable about the twentieth century and a principal cause of its horrors, is that great physical power has been acquired by men who have no fear of God, and who believe themselves restrained by no absolute code of conduct.                                                                     –Paul Johnson, British Historian

Ethical Relativism claims that we know how things really are for all people–that morals are relative to individuals or cultures…. It is a constructivist approach to ethics: what makes something right is something we choose. [It] is a bankrupt view of the nature of morality…. It leaves us unaccountable and makes it easy to rationalize any behaviour. We should not settle for a relativistically based tolerance, since that will not succeed in building a moral society or in helping people be moral. That kind of morality forces us to consider all ideas as being equally valid, yet we know that this is not the case …. Nevertheless, tolerance (as respect of people as having equal moral value) would make sense if a universal, objective moral basis exists for that equality.

~Biola Philosopher R. Scott Smith

The religious relativist, while claiming to take every religion seriously, does not take any religion seriously. He does not appreciate what is at stake in religious disagreements.                                                                                                                                                                                     –Dr. Jay Newman, Canadian Philosopher University of Waterloo


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