Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Irrationality of Moral Relativism

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:
  1. There is widespread disagreement about moral claims.
  2. Therefore, there is no objective truth about moral claims.
As an argument, this is pretty bad.  After all, we don’t conclude from the mere existence of the Flat Earth Society that the shape of the Earth is relative.  Of course, the Flat Earth Society and many people in history have believed that the Earth is flat, but the Earth was, in fact, roughly spherical (at least for the last few billion years).  Likewise, the mere fact of moral disagreement doesn’t by itself imply that moral truths are relative.  It’s entirely possible that some people are right while others are wrong, or – and this is a possibility that’s not taken nearly seriously enough in my opinion – maybe everyone is wrong about morality.

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.


  1. But what about when people are born into a society where cannibalism is okay? Here, in America, it is unethical to eat another human being. So did those people (tribal people in Brazil that Montaigne talked about) accept that it was okay because they were taught that as they grew up? That does not make it acceptable but it does mean that maybe we are not inherently born with the same morals. Those people might have once changed their views on cannibalism over time, so maybe they were originally born with the moral perspective that cannibalism was wrong. But I just do not see how a view like that could change so radically. I guess what I am trying to say is that if morality is not relative, then it must be innate and overtime we change our morals depending on our circumstances. But would that too not mean that external factors change the way we view certain moral aspects? A Christian in America 50 years ago would be against gay marriage. But today, if they were raised the same time, or even more recent, that I was then they would say that it would be that persons choice. I don't know if what I'm saying makes sense.

    1. Thanks, Austin. I don't think the dichotomy is either complete relativism or an innate, easily discoverable truth. Most interesting truths are somewhere in between: very hard to discover, if we can discover them at all. By analogy, scientific facts are often very difficult to discover and science changes over time, but we don't need to claim that the very concept of scientific truth is relative to make sense of that. Why is moral relativism the default position? Also, don't confuse the descriptive claim that "people's moral views are different" with the normative claim that "the truth about moral claims is relative." Concerning same-sex marriage, the very fact that people appeal to reasons and claim that it should be allowed demonstrates that they're not full-blown relativists. If relativism were true, there wouldn't be such a thing as moral progress. It would just be different, but not really better or worse. At this point, I'm mostly rehashing points the James Rachels piece I referred to in the post, which is called "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism."

    2. Also, a point on the causes of people's beliefs versus the justifications for them. The fact that I learned that 2+2=4 from my second grade teacher doesn't mean that my second grade teacher is a mathematical proof for the fact that 2+2=4. Likewise, a person growing up in the early 21st century in America might be cause to believe in marriage equality by hearing about it in the news or whatever, but that doesn't count as a moral argument in favor of same sex marriage.

  2. I also think that maybe moral relativism is irrational, but aren't most human functions? Economics, for example, tries to use human rationality to predict market patterns. Austrian economists would argue that humans do not act rational and that trying to predict our patterns is what results in so many downturns in the market place. I don't have a problem with any aspect of humanity being irrational. We act as if certain things have a natural pattern, which was a theory that was prevalent ever since the creation of the scientific field of physics. Trying to create a law of human rationality. Adam Smith tried to argue that there were certain laws of the market place as far as how humans act. But this hasn't necessarily been true. I guess ever since last semester and my introduction to Cicero I have been more accepting of skeptical views.

    1. I'm not willing to admit that the entire enterprise of making moral claims is irrational, and I honestly think very few people, certainly very few philosophers, are willing to admit that. It may be that some or most people are irrational, but it doesn't mean the entire domain of moral thinking is irrational. As for skepticism, moral skepticism (the view that we don't know if there are truths about morality) is entirely compatible with moral realism (the view that there are moral facts). The abstract issue of whether there are (or could be) facts of the matter about what's right and wrong is a separate issue from which particular things actually are right and wrong. We should take seriously the idea that we very well may be wrong about a number of things. I often wonder what our descendants in say, 200 years will think about us. Will they look at us the same way we look at slave traders in 1815? What if they're right and we're wrong?

  3. I think it is a fine enough thing to ground morality in reason, but I always wonder how it is we ground our reasons. I tend to think that Emotivism offers a good explanation of the nature of moral thought, but I don't like that it was birthed by positivists. I like to think it could be adapted though, so that instead of looking at moral metaphysics as something that isn't cognitively meaningful, we instead try to ground these metaphysics, these reasons, in social practices. I don't think of this as a sly attempt to argue for relativism, anymore than I would argue for objective moral truths. At the end of the day I think we're all likely not so different from the character of Cypher from the Matrix, we don't care whether or not the steak is real, we care that it's juicy and delicious, even if some of us prefer pickled beats instead.

    1. "Pickled Beats" would be a good name for a store that sells canning supplies and drums.

    2. Thanks for the comment! I agree that reasons run out eventually (as Wittgenstein and many skeptics point out), but this happens after doing philosophy for a long time, not before it even gets started as is the case of lazy relativism. Values may be grounded in human behaviors and/or human nature (I tend to think Aristotle was on to something there), but this isn't relativism per se. Values may be (and probably are) a function of being the kind of creatures we are, but this doesn't make them "subjective." Torture and enslavement are bad for critters like us, but not just because we say so.

    3. I think people often realize that how we feel about moral issues depends on the situation we're in, and misconstrue this for thinking morals are relative. In some situations we don't want to be chained up and whipped, in others some people pay for the privilege (in a 50 Shades of Gray sort of way).

      What's interesting is to ponder if all of us would feel the same way if we were in exactly the same situation. The problem with arguing for anything objective, morals or otherwise, as I see it anyhow, is that anytime we try to universalize human experience we will always find the exceptions. Then we have recourse to the majority opinion, as I noticed you used in your article where you said,

      "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."

      But of course majority opinion doesn't necessarily make something true, and if it indeed does shift the burden of proof onto someone, it seems to me that this is because they have the power of a moral majority to both demand it and have the demand obeyed. I think, in a Foucauldian sense, that morals are shaped by moral majorities to a large extent. That's not to say that we don't have innate feelings on the matter, but that our moral inclinations are shaped by the situations we find ourselves in, power being one aspect of them. Then there's the doxa, the practices we accept without realizing it. There's the situations we're aware of, and the situations we're not.

      I don't know though, the whole question of morality, and the nature of it is always daunting to me. I'm never quite sure where I stand on any of it. It's tricky because morals are values, and a value can always be doubted. This is done through picking apart the reasons we give for being moral. There's the danger of morals staying perpetually in abstraction, and when people act on them there's the danger of making things worse (like the death penalty, for example). But then how do I justify saying that the death penalty makes things worse? I certainly have a moral feeling, and my feeling seems to justify itself. To reference Wittgenstein, I can't doubt how I feel about it anymore than I can justify it, therefore I know the death penalty is wrong.

      Yet, there are others who can't doubt their feelings any more than they can justify them, and therefore they know the death penalty is right. I'm reminded of a bit from On Certainty where W. creates a thought experiment wherein G.E. Moore meets a God King who believes the earth didn't exist until he was born. He says something like "I'm not saying G.E. Moore couldn't convince the King that the earth is much older than he knows it to be, but if he did, I wouldn't know how he had persuaded him." I think morality works in a similar fashion. We all know, in a deflationary sense, form one instance to the next, where we stand on moral issues, and some of us know that there are objective moral truths and others of us know that there are none. If that seems paradoxical I suggest it's because we're looking at morality outside of the context of social practices. The ship of Theseus seems a lot less paradoxical in a society that declares that the ship in question is whichever one has the steel plate with the serial number engraved upon it. Anyhow, that's my strange take on all of this, and I could be wrong about all of it. I hope this was at least a lucid enough rambling, lol.

    4. On torture, the real debate there isn't whether torture is bad, but what actually counts as torture. I don't think 50 Shades of Grey stuff is really torture, because it's consensual. Likewise, many moral issues are really disputes over how to define terms. Everyone who isn't a psychopath agrees that murder is wrong (and I don't think the mere existence of psychopaths gives us any more reason to relativize murder than the existence of the Flat Earth Society makes us relativize the shape of the Earth). Debates about things like abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment are really debates about what counts as murder and what counts as a person. I'm leaning a lot on James Rachels here (that article is really good, though), but he points out that there's really not as much disagreement as it seems on issues like murder, caring for our young, etc., but there are different interpretations of how to apply these general rules in specific cases.

      My real criticism is of what I call "lazy relativism." If discussions of Foucault keep people taking moral issues seriously, I don't have any problem with that. Foucault brings up a lot of worthwhile challenges to the moral majority, but I'd take that to mean that the majority could be wrong rather than to say that morality itself is merely the result the whim of the majority.

      But, of course, if you do philosophy long enough, you'll come to doubt pretty much everything. This can, at least, keep us humble.

    5. I meant to say, you're right you know, Pickled Beats would be a great name for that store.

  4. This article seems to truly rely on one essential belief: the universal distinction between right and wrong. While I believe that humans are born with a certain set of moral standards (which is contrary to the popular opinion, and I myself am still researching), while in reality there is no real proof of this. Why would murder be considered wrong, apart from the fact that it goes against our own standards and beliefs. Sure, it hurts other people, but what's necessarily bad about that. In the end there is no distinction between good and bad, therefore no real moral standard are the necessary correct ones.
    The only place where we can make a distinction between good and evil, is within our own brain, ergo morality can be different for everyone.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I'm not sure whether there's a universal distinction between right and wrong, but that's my point: relativism is a dogmatic claim that there is no such thing. It is supposed to be a non-dogmatic attitude, but it ends up being just as dogmatic as the types of views its supposed to replace. Even if there were complete disagreement, this is not all by itself an indefeasible reason to suppose that there is no truth of the matter any more than the existence of the Flat Earth Society by itself gives us a reason to conclude that the shape of the Earth is relative. This is purely a matter of the logic of the argument. This is all I'm saying. The James Rachels article I mention makes this claim better than I have, so I recommend that. You'll notice that nowhere above did I claim that I know what the One True view about morality is. That would be hasty, but that's precisely what relativism claims to have discovered. There's a huge distinction between whether we know what the truth is and whether there there might be a truth to be known. My point is entirely about the second issue, not at all about the first. Especially given widespread moral claims (even by people who claim to be relativists), I see no reason to place the burden of proof on non-relativists. If anything, most people would need far more convincing of relativism (even, I add, most self-professed relativists, who give few, if any, real arguments in its favor).