Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, April 20, 2007

"The Myth of Moral Relativism"

There have been several comments in the last week about how no one has the right to "the moral high ground" on any issue. This is a concept known as moral relativism and is a cancer that represents, in my opinion, everything that is wrong with the American education system today.

Philosopher Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty has a great essay exposing the hypocrisy of moral relativism. An excerpt:

The purpose of this brief essay is to show that moral (or ethical) relativism is a philosophical myth that is accepted by no one who has critically examined its tenets and that those who claim to be moral relativists are really not. We are dealing here with two aspects of a specific condition:

  • First, with a "belief" that states there are no fixed values, there are only fluctuating human valuations, or that ethical truths are relative, that is, the rightness of an action depends on or consists in the attitude taken towards it by some individual or group, and hence may vary from individual to individual or from group to group.

  • Second, with "actions" based on this belief which clearly show that the agent is, more or less, acting or behaving in a way that is consistent with the belief that moral relativism is, in fact, the true and only philosophical position.

  • As is usually the case in this type of reflective situation, the belief comes first, the action follows, but the action taken tells us something about the commitment to the belief undergirding the action taken.

    It is easy in our contemporary society to find statements which apparently show a commitment to moral relativism. Consider just a sampling:

  • What's true for you may not be true for me.

  • Nothing is really right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.

  • Ethical judgments are just a matter of personal opinion.

  • Anything goes.

  • One man's meat is another man's poison (in regard, of course, to morals).

  • We should not judge another's personal morality.

  • No society is better or worse than another (in regard to social ethics).

  • The above statements, and ones similar to them, are now bandied about in ordinary conversation as if they were truths about which no one should disagree. Moreover, those who claim to be moral or ethical relativists and are bold enough to declare it would simply say: "All morals are relative and that's the end of it," or some such "philosophical" assertion.

    Opinion surveys recently taken in America have shown the pervasiveness of the position promoted by moral relativism. For instance, in one survey where adults were asked if they agreed with the statement "there are no absolute standards for morals and ethics," seventy-one percent said that they agreed with it. Other surveys have shown even higher numbers who think that morality and ethics is a matter of personal opinion and that there are no universal standards by which one can determine the rightness or wrongness of a human act.

    Now, I never question what a person tells me regarding his or her personal beliefs, unless I have a valid reason to think otherwise. If someone tells me that truth is a relative matter, then I accept that that is what that person believes. I then consider that person's actions to see if they are consistent with the beliefs stated. And that is where the "rubber meets the road," so to speak. I find that those who claim "all truth is relative" may spout that belief, but they never act as if its true. Similarly, I find that those who say they believe in moral relativism never act as if they really do. In fact, I find them to be moral absolutists, not moral relativists. Belief is one thing; actions are another. And it is in the realm of action that moral relativism takes the fatal "hit."

    The old adage "actions speak louder than words" has a special significance here. If the "words" (beliefs) are really committed to by the moral relativist, then his or her "actions" should be consistent with those words or beliefs. And it is precisely here that moral or ethical relativism becomes a "myth." While many may claim to be moral relativists, their actions show they are not. In fact, their behavior shows them to be moral absolutists of a type, the very opposite of what they claim to be. And it is this point that I want to address in the remainder of this essay.

    The self-proclaimed moral relativist does not and cannot maintain his or her commitment to the "philosophy" of moral relativism. In fact, the record clearly shows that these "moral relativists" are not relativists at all, but moral absolutists. This assertion is based on their behavior, not on their alleged support of a philosophical position. To wit:

  • Modern "liberal" political groups who promote "political correctness." These groups want to suppress what they consider to be offensive language and views. Most of these people claim to be moral relativists, yet they promote a doctrine that includes an "absolutist" program, that is, "statements that are politically incorrect must be eliminated or even made illegal." No relativism here.

  • Groups promoting "Multiculturalism." All the beliefs and practices of non-Western cultures must be considered as "good" regardless of the belief and practice, but Western civilization and the "white European" are evil and to be eliminated as soon as possible. No relativism here.

  • Pro-abortion groups. Claiming that morality is a matter of personal opinion, these groups are now attempting to legally quash any opposition to their position. They want "special protection" and do not want to confront any philosophical opposition. No relativism here.

  • The above are simply examples of "absolutist" behavior parading as moral relativism.


    Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

    When I was teaching ethics and later intro philosophy, I made sure to make relativism unappealing at the beginning of the semester. One of my colleagues in the Philosophy Dept. advised me to do so, and do it at the start of the semester. He told me that if I did not, then most students would jump to relativism in every conversation and never really get past it. He thought (and I share his opinion) that most students find relativism appealing because they think it gives them an intellectual sounding position that seems to trump everything anyone can propose (naturally, they miss the absolute nature of the basic claim of relativism, which then requires that relativists call into question relativism itself). Really, all they end up doing is falling into a rut of automatic, unreasonable, and shallow skepticism.

    I don't know how that professor who gave me the advice went about it, but I found that trashing relativism's appeal was quite easy. At the time that I was teaching my ethics course, there were quite a few honor killings in Pakistan in the news. All I had to do was teach the basic theory of relativism and a few of the arguments, at which point most students love it, then I would just ask them, "So, given all of this, what can we say to the people who kill their sisters and daughters over a perceived threat to their family's honor? Is it wrong?" At that point, the student's realization that it is wrong slams into their shiny new relativism that is parked in their mental driveways. At that point, most of them have it hauled off to the conceptual junkyard.

    When I taught intro philosophy, which again included a unit on relativism, Darfur was in the news a lot. Slam dunk.

    Dr. Dolhenty's site is a great read. Good choice, Tom!

    Satanic Mechanic said...

    Sorry, I missed out on the "moral high ground" issue last week. But I did catch up on the reading.
    Paul, I am surprised you did not give the example of an officer or NCO that has the moral high ground in the military.
    I have never served but I am from a family who has served and I can tell you that people who have served are authorities when it comes to the moral high ground.
    I remember hearing a quote about moral high ground many years ago but I cannot remember it. It will probably pop into my head tomorrow morning at 3am.

    Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

    SM -

    If I know the example you've mentioned, then I can't recall it at the moment. Doesn't ring a bell at all... can you fill me in?

    Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

    Mr. Mechanic -

    I remembered this one this morning, which refers to multiculturalism specifically, but maybe it's what you were after:

    "In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of `suttee’ - the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: `You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.’"

    That comes from Ilana Mercer's blog, Barely A Blog: