Posted by: gcarkner | October 1, 2015

Problem of Ethical Relativism 2.

More on the Problem of Moral Relativism

Relativistic ethics cannot prove that relativistic ethics is of a certain high value; it is hung up on its own premise. In fact, we notice that relativism is not an insight into reality; it is itself a projected value imposed upon reality (i.e. the value that all is relative), a moral and an ontological claim about reality. It is not immediately obvious that all is relative. “Relative to what?”, we might ask. It would require a standard or interpretive framework to determine what is a solid anchor versus what is relative to that standard. We are caught in a contradiction with this contemporary abstraction.

Actually, what has emerged in the modern era is not the end of absolutes (ultimate loyalties or principles) but a multiplication of absolutes. “The relativization of the absolute leads to the absolutization of the relative,” writes Russian thinker Sergei Levitzky. We have ideologically substituted many gods (pluralism) for the one God. Should it be shocking to discover how much these “absolutes” conflict with one another? Consequential to this conflict, we tend to lose our ability to discern good from evil and right from wrong, virtue from vice. The hero and the villain gain equal status: Mother Teresa is equally as good as Charles Manson. Joseph Stalin matches the value of Jesus of Nazareth. This is surely to take a stance that is essentially irrational and absurd, filled with internal intellectual dissonance. New Age prophetess and actress, Shirley MacLaine, states the position: “Until mankind realizes that there is, in truth, no good and there is, in truth, no evil–there will be no peace.”  She claims to have found the magic bullet, the magic solution to all human conflict. How many others among us believe this kind of simplistic nonsense?

While the desire for peace is noble and commendable, such views as MacLaine’s formula for peace is absurd. How could we even maintain basic respect? Can ethnic cleansing be on the same level as building a hospital? Doctors Without Borders and Robert Mugabe? Relativism promotes intellectual and moral fuzziness that sounds cool on surface but in fact is naive, uncritical and even dangerous. It is a true example of fideism (blind, irrational  faith); it is a superstition without grounds in the reality of lived experience. As in the philosopher Wolfe quote in the previous post, it requires no critical thinking at all.

Cultural relativism is often viewed naively. There is a tendency to cultivate ignorance about the true content of a culture and then propagandize acceptance in order to “get along.” The cultural relativist often does not take any culture seriously at the end of the day; instead she imposes her dogma, her presumptive narrowness on that culture. We force the various cultures into our relativistic mold at a superficial level, while a deeper understanding would reveal some stark realizations. There is some highly unacceptable behaviour such as cannibalism, incest, racism, child sacrifice, imperialism and slavery in the history of various cultures and we know they are not lined up with good or universal value. No culture is perfect; all have their strengths and also moral blind spots, extremes and institutionalized injustice. They must all be open to reasoning scrutiny: How do you justify the policy that excuse these people?

Problems of Moral Subjectivism

Also, at the moral level, various cultures share more of a common human and societal ideal than we often think (see C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man). Bravery, honesty, marital fidelity, care of children, come highly recommended in all cultures. It does not necessarily follow from the fact of cultural variety that no common moral absolutes exist for all persons. There is in fact widespread agreement of ethical judgments and the importance of mutual respect (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self). A superficial relativism is inadequate as an explanation of common moral condemnation and praise. How often do we give the Nobel Prize for despicable and destructive behaviour? There is a deep need for wiser and more circumspect discernment.

What is it that is in our own best interest or the interest of the common good (Jim Wallis)? Can we actually flourish if relativism is in fact true? What are the implications and consequences? One source of insight is in Al Gore’s recent book The Future: six drivers of global change. He decries the brokenness in both democracy and capitalism in today’s world. What will constrain the powerful and wealthy who want to remake our world in their image, to their advantage, and to the detriment of the poor and weaker members of the human community? Technology and wealth can give certain people super powers (Plutocrats:the Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freehand). Relativism plays into the hands of the rich and powerful, justifying their win-lose behaviour and lack of concern for the common good.

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It is one thing to pretend that every viewpoint on ethics is acceptable, but quite another to live with the personal and societal implications, as indeed we are at the moment. British Agnostic Bertrand Russell shuddered at the thought that ethical values were strictly a matter of taste and Father of Capitalism Adam Smith realized morality was a necessity for free enterprise and markets to work. How could we prevent relativism from sponsoring pure selfishness or raw self-­interest where everyone becomes a law to themselves (solipsism)?

Ethics would then become what one could get away with; avoiding scandal would be the only ideal. If that were the case, how could we condemn indiscriminate criminal acts such as sex trafficking, rape or child-abuse? Cowardice, dishonesty, even violence could pose as a virtue as it often does in courtrooms. Relativism can and does encourage us to justify our darkest motives and actions. Note the typical attitudes of Nazi war criminals: “I am not responsible; I was just following orders”. Self-interested consumerism is an underlying  theme running through late modernity, and relativism can be a cover for the purification of selfishness and narcissism.

If relativism is correct, how do we provide for community values, hold up the ideals of democracy or sustain  a social covenant? How can we live in trust and commitment, if behaviour is arbitrary? How could we discern who to trust between good and malicious people? How can we resolve conflicts without a standard that transcends our private interests or choice? In fact, how are relationships, so vital to our well-being, even possible long term? No family, no society can function without ethical guidelines or parameters. There would be nothing to teach children. Law itself would reduce to mere pragmatics in a will-to-power game between government and populace interest groups. Moral philosophers have despaired at discussing foundations for ethical systems amidst the heavy influence of relativism. R. Scott Smith at Biola University is one who does not shy away from this vital task (The Quest for Moral Knolwledge) None of us want to be treated in a relative manner; we want to be loved and respected. We want justice and fairness; we want to be able to trust principled people, and respect servant leaders.

Relativists often naively assume that, given the right circumstances, each person will do or choose the good or right thing. But the morning newspaper and our common knowledge of people refute this claim directly. White collar crime as in the Enron scandal or hedge fund manager Bernie Madoff and the large Ponzi scheme of the 2008 Great Recession proves that knowing what is right does not guarantee that we will do what is right. We may very well do what makes us wealthy while taking the very livelihood from others, as long as we don’t get caught. Community requires a common standard to which we are committed and a structure of accountability. Relativistic attitudes destroy community and people, and remain an insult to people with real moral convictions and a larger sense of responsibility.

Morality is very closely tied to our sense of self, our identity and purpose in life. I wrestled with this much in my PhD dissertation on Michel Foucault and the late modern self. Sociologist Emil Durkheim has coined the term anomie to describe the emotional and personal implications of relativism. This malaise in society expresses itself in a feeling of lostness, an emotional sickness and uncertainty which comes from living without parameters or guidelines. It produces a sense of ambivalence, anger and alienation.  Sometimes it seems that Western citizens are emotionally lost in the cosmos and do not know which way to turn. If all values are acceptable around the table, one becomes morally confused and ends up in personal nihilism–meaninglessness. This leads quickly to a cynical outlook.

Europeans feel this nihilism very deeply; North Americans often live in a clever denial of its profundity, but suffer from it much as well. Nihilism is a very real twenty-first century phenomenon. If contradictory values are equally valid, then reality itself appears to be incoherent. The Woody Allen movie “Zelig” illustrates the multiple-self person who has no consistent identity or consistent character, but only lives a collection of roles prescribed by various situations and contexts. He is truly trapped in anomie. His whole life has been reduced to performance. He lived several false selves like an MI6 spy. Isn’t this the situation ethics of Princeton’s Peter Singer which can justify infanticide? This is how much relativism bites; it can promote moral lobotomy. It empties moral language f meaning. It promotes a delusion, a sickness of soul.

Under the serious and sober scrutiny of reason, history and present experience, we know that it is impossible to live with relativism. It doesn’t make good sense of our lives or how we can live together in community. It is especially bad medicine for the victims of injustice in this world (Rene Girard). Relativism can also set a trap for us to be seduced by extreme ideologies of the right or the left; it handicaps our discernment. It gives the cards over to the oppressor or victimizer to assert will to power (Miraslov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace). More to come in the next post. Ponder the quotes from brilliant scholars below.

~Gord Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology, specializing in moral/spiritual identity

Afterthought: The New Atheists are tragically ambivalent; they want some kind of objective morality rather than relativism, but not universal norms, and they have no justification or ground for this claim. They seem to want their cake and eat it too. Insight from philosopher Chad Meister: “The attempt to offer a view of morality in which good and evil are not illusory on the one hand, and yet not grounded in transcendent reality on the other hand, is perhaps the most confused characteristic of the writing of Dawkins and the New Atheists.”

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

See also series called of “Qualities of the Will” in this blog

See Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, chapter 5. How can the good suppress the truth?

See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World. (pp. 200f) about the challenge of difference and the dissonance caused by a popular and current convictions about pluralism.

“The modern world by its very nature, questions if not negates the trust that connects human discourse and the “reality” of the world. In its mildest expressions, it questions the adequacy of language to make the world intelligible. In its most aggesive expressions, however , it fosters a doubt that what is said has anything to do with what exists “out there”. (p. 205)

“In a culture where the covenant between signified and signifier, word and world is broken, words are emptied of meaning.” (p. 206)

“The challenge of difference and dissolution… are both longstanding fixtures of the modern world…. It is critical to note that the effect is primarily manifested not as problems that can be seen, objectively analysed, and responded to, but as a complex array of assumptions so deeply taken for granted that they cannot be fully grasped much less questioned. Culture is most powerful…when it is perceived as self-evident.” (p. 211)

“The power of the will first becomes nihilistic at the point at which it becomes absolute; when it submits to no authority higher than itself; that is, when impulse and desire become their own moral gauge and when it is guided by no other ends than its own exercise. The nature of pluralism … creates conditions in which one is required to choose. The dynamics of dissolution are that it dissolves all reality, all meaningful authority, and all meaningful moral purposes but will.” (p. 211)


Comments on Relativism by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity of Difference. (198) quoting Francis Fukuyama, The End of History (1992, 332)

Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those who have been brought up in its bosom. Relativism–the doctrine that all values are merely relative and which attacks all ‘privileged perspectives’–must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be aimed selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the ‘absolutisms’, dogmas, and certainties of the Western tradition, but the tradition’s emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and freedom of thought as well. If nothing can be true absolutely, if all values are culturally determined, then cherished principles like human equality have to go by the wayside as well.

In his influential work, The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Allan Bloom makes the observation that “there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.”

There is a con in the pluralism doctrine (a dumbing down of reality). It is a self con as well, an abuse of human faith. Cynicism is the source of this con and faith is the antidote to such treachery. It is trickery to pretend that we do not know when we have hurt or done wrong, even when we are self-righteous about it, and everyone applauds us.                                                                                     

~Canadian award-winning novelist David Adams Richards, God Is: my search for faith in a secular world.

Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil. The reality of evil in the world is one of the first objections raised against the existence of God. This entire objection hinges on the observation that true evil exists. Objective evil cannot exist if moral values are relative to the observer. Relativism is inconsistent with the concept that true moral evil exists because it denies that anything can be objectively wrong. If there is no moral standard, then there can be no departure from the standard. Thus relativists must surrender the concept of true evil and, ironically, must also surrender the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.

~Greg Koukl, Faith Interface Blog on  Seven Problems with Relativism

The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about ‘what is true for me’ is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is the mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death.

― Lesslie NewbiginThe Gospel in a Pluralist Society

We all have some idea of right and wrong. From the time we are kids and as we attempt to ‘grow up’ we demand for justice- that’s my sharpener, don’t steal it; that’s my girlfriend, don’t flirt with her; that’s my son, don’t mess with him; that’s my car, you better pay for ramming into it; that’s my walking stick, don’t use it as fire wood; that’s my epitaph, don’t copy it. Somewhere inherently we desire and crave for justice- right and wrong. Everyone say such things regardless of their social, economical or physical status or stature. “Whenever you find a man who says he doesn’t believe in a real right and wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He will break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he’ll be complaining ‘it’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”

– C.S. Lewis.


“The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence — even mental.”

― Jacques MaritainAn Introduction to Philosophy

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     See his book The Dignity of Difference; and Not in God’s Name. Profound analysis of our age and its problems.

To allow “relevance” or “openness” to be given greater weight than truth is, quite simply, a mark of intellectual shallowness and moral irresponsibility. The first and most fundamental of all questions must be: Is it true? Is it worthy of belief and trust?

~Alister McGrath, Theologian King’s College, London

See also UBC scholar Dennis Danielson’s contemporary retake of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. It is called The Tao of Right and Wrong, Regent Publishing, 2018

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