Moral relativism has been in the news lately (see here and a response here). My concern in this post is less about the explanation for why some people (especially college students) are relativists and more about the claim itself.
The basic idea of moral relativism is that the truth of moral claims (e.g., “cheating is wrong,” “murder is immoral,” etc.) is relative to cultures or individuals (one could also be a relativist about all truth claims, but that's not my concern here). This isn’t the blasé descriptive claim that people disagree about morality, but rather that when two people disagree they are both right in a normative sense. Just as “I like chocolate better than vanilla” and “you like vanilla better than chocolate” can both be true at the same time, so can “censorship is morally wrong in the United States” and “censorship is morally permitted in China” both actually be true at the same time.
My claim is that moral relativism is irrational in two ways: first, there seem to be no good reasons to believe it, and second, if it were true, it would make our moral beliefs irrational.
Reasons for Relativism?
Are there good reasons in favor of relativism? Surprisingly, this question is given very little attention, even among many otherwise rational people.
The philosopher James Rachels suggests that one argument in favor of relativism is based on disagreement. It looks something like this:
- There is widespread disagreement about moral claims.
- Therefore, there is no objective truth about moral claims.
Perhaps relativism is what explains widespread disagreement. But this is still hasty. It’s as if relativism is the default explanation and any non-relativist view has the burden of proof, but in fact most people are pretty sure that some things really are right and wrong, so you’d think the burden of proof would be on relativists. And relativism doesn’t bear this burden very well.
Relativism Makes Moral Claims Irrational
There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I want to get to my second point. If moral relativism were true, it would make our moral claims irrational. After all, if a moral claim merely needs a society or an individual to believe it in order for that claim to be true, then belief would make claims true for any reason or no reason. If a society voted to make murder allowable on Tuesdays, it could do so for no reason at all.
But if you pay attention to moral discourse, you’ll find that people are in the business of giving reasons (or at least they used to be, before the screaming corridors of cable news and YouTube comments started passing as moral discourse). There are perfectly good reasons why murder is wrong: it causes harm to people and their loved ones, it robs people of their future, it leads to insecurity for everyone, and so forth. People can and do disagree about what counts as murder, but there you can appeal to reasons, too. (The reasons themselves might be relative, but then you’d have to argue for that).
If relativism were true, moral discourse would begin and end with “I believe x, so x is true for me.” It would make one of the most important parts of human life completely irrational.
And this, I suspect, is what really bothers philosophers, both as teachers and as people committed to the use of reason. Most philosophy teachers have had this experience:
Professor: Class, what do you think about such-and-such a moral controversy?
Student: (Shrugging shoulders) Some people think this, and that’s true for them. I think that, and that’s true for me. Meh. (End scene)
I call this “lazy relativism.” Most students are less committed to this idea than it seems, but there is something in the zeitgeist of college students (and other thinking people, including some science fiction/fantasy fans) that says that any intelligent person should be a relativist.
For college students this may be a developmental stage of young adulthood, but I think the main attraction of relativism for most people is the obnoxiousness of moral dogmatism, those people who pound the table and yell at or threaten anyone who disagrees with them. In contrast, moral relativism seems tolerant and sophisticated.
But here’s the thing: being committed to the idea we can reason about moral claims and think that they may be true or false beyond the dictates of individuals and societies does not imply that we know what the truth is. For all we know, we could be wrong. As The X-Files says, the truth is out there. The real harm of relativism is that, in making morality irrational, it effectively ends the search for the truth about moral claims. Maybe this is merely my opinion, but I think that would be a bad thing.