Sunday, 15 April 2012

Amoral relativism

Moral relativism is an attitude that seems to be relatively prominent in liberal circles, and it is an attitude that both Sam Harris and I find to be distasteful.

Moral relativism appears to have a few different meanings, but here I refer to the position that no particular moral system can be said to be superior to any other. Different cultures or people will have different values, and nobody can say that anyone else is right or wrong with respect to a given moral viewpoint. We ought to understand that our own values are not special and so tolerate behaviour in others (and especially in other societies) that we might privately consider to be immoral.

After the jump, why I disagree with this point of view.

Morality in the context of society

Moral relativists might argue that the morality of something must be judged in context. A true moral relativist could not describe George Washington's slave ownership as immoral, as slavery was not considered immoral in his time. Similarly, we should not consider the mutilation of thieves in Saudi Arabia to be immoral, nor decry the lack of democracy or free speech in countries such as China. Female genital mutilation in north-eastern Africa must be deemed acceptable within the context of the traditional morality of that region.

After all, who am I to judge that my morality is superior to that of anybody else? Future generations will likely have different moral values just as we have outgrown the morals of our ancestors. What reason could anyone have to claim that the morality of his or her own society at a given time and place is applicable to other times and places?

Sam Harris points out that this view holds that a behaviour that we might call sadistic or evil in a solitary individual somehow becomes an alternative morality when it is practised by a whole society. At what number of people do we reach the necessary critical mass to effect this magical transformation? This argument convinces me that we can judge moral issues without regard to the context of the society in which they occur. The alternative seems internally incoherent and inconsistent with any kind of belief in the importance of morality, subjective or otherwise.

No moral high ground

With no belief in objective morality, how can we claim that other moral systems are inferior to our own? With so many different moral systems occurring in different times and places, surely they must all be equivalent from an objective standpoint.

As noted above, the morality of the world at large seems to be evolving over time. In the distant past, we may have only been concerned with the welfare of our own family or tribe. Over time, this "moral circle" has grown to encompass members of our nation, race, humanity as a whole and even members of other species. Steven Pinker and Peter Singer have written eloquently on this phenomenon.

In other words, there seems to be a trend towards a more inclusive, more humane sense of morality. I for one view this trend as a positive thing. I think we are developing our morality much as we are developing our technology and science. In my view, it is fair to say that the typical person of today is more moral than the typical person of two hundred years ago. While it may not be that we are honing in on some objective moral truth, perhaps we can agree that subjectively, it appears that moral progress is being made. If this is so, and we feel comfortable in saying that the morality of today is better than that of yesterday, then I think we can also sensibly discuss the relative merits of different moral systems that exist in the world today.

We may not have a solid foundation for claiming that our opinions are objective, but we have opinions nonetheless. To give up and state that nobody can make any moral claims about other systems of morality is intellectual laziness.

Moral inconsistency

I believe there is a sense in which we can criticise moral systems objectively, even without presupposing an objective reality for morality itself, and this is because any moral system may be open to accusations of inconsistency.

If a moral system holds that all human life is sacred, and yet approves of capital punishment, then that moral system is inconsistent. If we must above all love our neighbour, then discrimination on the grounds of race, sexual orientation or gender seems to be irrational. If we claim our morality comes from the Bible exclusively, surely we cannot be free to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to live by and which to ignore.

I believe there is something objectively sick about any moral system that values human well-being and development, and yet simultaneously opposes the use of condoms in countries ravaged by AIDS where orphaned children starve to death.


The weakness of moral relativism is in assuming that the subjective nature of morality means that we can have nothing to say regarding the merits of the moralities of others. I reject this, and believe that we can criticise moral systems on two grounds: whether we accept the basic premises of those systems as reasonable, and whether the systems are internally consistent.

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