Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Are Moral Values Merely Relative?
"What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me."
This statement, attributed to the great Sophist, Protagoras, in a conversation with Socrates, is one of the earliest statements of philosophical relativism we possess in the records of early Greek philosophy.  The doctrine has been popular with thinkers ever since who are uncomfortable or hostile to notions of absolute or objective truth. (1)  Relativism is defined in different ways in contemporary discussions, but, following Protagoras, this one from Wikipedia is the most useful for my purpose here.
 “The term [relativism] often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture (cultural relativism)."
A radical version of this theory would imply that there is no universal truth about the shape of the earth.  If a non-scientific culture says the earth is flat, then the earth is flat.  If others believe the earth is round, then that’s the truth.  Both beliefs are equally true or valid, or if you prefer - there is no objective truth about the shape of the earth or anything else, only culturally determined beliefs, which may contradict one another.  Too bad for logic and common sense.  Life is hard.
Not that hard.  Most philosophers realize that extreme relativism is self-contradictory.  Proponents do not offer their theory as a culturally relative opinion that may be validly contradicted in another context, but rather as a universal truth that is valid in any culture, any language.  In other words, it’s both a relative and an absolute truth, which is absurd.  A theory that refutes itself leads nowhere.  For this reason, most contemporary discussions of relativism are concerned with ethics and morals. 
Ethical relativism (ER) is the philosophical theory that there is no such thing as objective moral truth.  All judgments about right and wrong, good and evil, are either just matters of individual opinion (individual relativism or subjectivism) or are determined by cultural traditions (cultural relativism).   The version of ER that is most popular among liberals and postmodern philosophers is cultural relativism.  It’s a theory they think is required by multiculturalism policies in some liberal democracies.  Many ordinary people have absorbed the theory without knowing what it is and without thinking about it very carefully. 
Why would anyone believe that cultures alone decide what is right and wrong?  One popular approach is based on a well-known generalization I call Descriptive Relativism 1:  different cultures hold conflicting beliefs about right and wrong.  Here is the argument:
  • Premise:  Different cultures hold conflicting beliefs about right and wrong.
  • Conclusion:  Therefore, whatever a culture believes is right or wrong really is right or wrong, and if another culture holds opposite moral beliefs, their beliefs equally valid.  In short, there are no moral truths.

That cultures differ in their moral beliefs is a well-known fact which does not provide a basis for any interesting ethical conclusions.  The argument is a non sequitur.  Different cultures have held different beliefs about all sorts of things: shape of the earth; causes of diseases; how the universe came into being, etc.  So what?  We don’t accept that contradictory beliefs about these matters are all true.  Why should we accept contradictory beliefs about morals just because cultures don’t agree on them?
Of course, the argument can be made valid by adding one more premise:
  • Premise 1:  Different cultures hold conflicting beliefs about right and wrong.
  • Premise 2:  There is no universal standard by which we could decide which morals are right and which are wrong in different cultures.
  • Conclusion:  Therefore, whatever actions or practices a culture believes are right or wrong really are right or wrong, and if another culture holds the opposite beliefs, then what they believe is right or wrong is also really right or wrong.  There are no moral truths.

Adding Premise 2 does correct the non sequitur, but now the problem shifts to Premise 2: why should we believe it?  What is the evidence for it?  You can hardly say that the evidence is right there in Premise 1 - that cultures cannot agree on a standard for settling moral differences - that would be circular reasoning.  Without supporting evidence, Premise 2 is useless.
Let’s make a fresh start.  The problem with DR1, some philosophers think, is that it does not probe deeply enough into the nature of cultural differences.  A more sophisticated approach would be this one, call it Descriptive Relativism 2:  different cultures hold conflicting fundamental beliefs about right and wrong.  The distinction between surface morals and fundamental moral beliefs is important because many apparent moral differences among cultures disappear when they are traced back to their deeper ethical assumptions.  For example, the Aztecs believed human sacrifice was justified, because they thought it was necessary for their survival to ensure the sun would rise each day.  Everyone agrees that societies need policies that will ensure their survival, but we disagree about the human sacrifice, because we know sunrises are governed by physical laws, not by rituals aimed at appeasing national gods.  Both Aztecs and ourselves agree that  policies that benefit our societies in important ways are good. That's a shared fundamental ethical principle.  So the dispute is about factual assumptions about how the universe works, not about fundamental values.  If the facts could be made clear to the Aztecs, the practice of human sacrifice should eventually disappear and the apparent ethical conflict along with it.
Now if moral disagreements between different societies were always like this one, ethical relativism wouldn’t exist.  Everyone would agree on a few fundamental moral principles, and their disagreements would be only about the relevant factual issues which could be settled by science.  Unfortunately, fundamental differences among societies about morals do exist.
Consider the Navajo game called Chicken Polo.  Navajo men bury a chicken in the ground up to its neck and then compete on horseback to see who can knock the chicken’s head off.  They freely admit that chickens feel pain but see nothing wrong in the game nonetheless.  Our culture, or at least a large segment of it, regards such activities as morally wrong, because we hold as a fundamental principle that it is wrong to cause pain to sentient creatures for trivial reasons.  The Navajos do not hold that principle, so the cultural difference in this case is fundamental.
Closer to home, consider the belief of many religious fundamentalists that women should be subordinate to men, because God has decreed thus in the Bible or the Koran.  Secularists do not accept that any scripture is the ultimate source of moral truth.  They argue from rational grounds that women should have rights and freedoms equal to those of men.  The clash between faith-based ethics and rational ethics, therefore, is a fundamental difference.  Which is correct?  Ethical relativists say there is no way to decide.  Let’s take a closer look.
A proper discussion of cultural relativism must focus on Descriptive Relativism 2.  The question then becomes:  if different cultures hold differing fundamental beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, does this fact entail ethical relativism?  The answer is no.
Descriptive relativism in either version is an empirical generalization, not an ethical theory.  Ethical relativism is a theory about moral truth, not about what this or that culture believes about right and wrong.  This is important, because, as we have seen, without a premise that contains a claim about moral truth, any argument for ethical relativism will commit a fallacy, a non sequitur.  The more plausible versions of ER use Descriptive Relativism 2 plus an assumption about moral truth as a basis for the theory, as follows:
The Basic Argument:
  • Premise 1:  Different cultures hold conflicting fundamental beliefs about right and wrong.
  • Premise 2:  There is no objective standard of moral truth by which we could decide which of the conflicting fundamental beliefs are true and which are false.
  • Conclusion:  Therefore, all moral values are culturally relative.  If an act or practice is believed to be morally permissible in one culture and morally impermissible in another culture, both beliefs are correct.

The argument for Premise 2 is that, because the conflicting ethical principles are fundamental - that is, not capable of support by additional argument, there is no higher principle available to us for deciding which of the contradictory fundamental principles is wrong in any given case.  Therefore, the conclusion means that actions believed on fundamental principle to be right in a given culture really are right, and those same actions, if thought to be wrong in another culture, really are wrong despite the fact that the fundamental principles are contradictory.  Chicken Polo is right and chicken polo is wrong - really.  A corollary to this conclusion is that no society’s moral code is better than any other’s.  Some philosophers further conclude that we have no just reason to criticize another society’s morals, and it would be especially wrong to attempt to impose one’s own moral system on another society, as Great Britain for example did in India.  We may feel horror about the Saudi Arabian custom of cutting off the hands of a thief, but we have to accept it and shut up about it.
What are we to think of this apparently stronger argument?  The first thing to notice is that Premise 2 suffers from the same objection we saw in the previous argument for DR1:  what proof is there that there is no objective standard of moral truth?  Even if no such standard has been discovered so far, it doesn’t follow that none is possible.  There are, in fact, some impressive candidates.  Premise 2 would need to be buttressed by a careful examination of the various attempts by philosophers to identify a plausible universal standard of moral truth.  The relativist would also have to show that all the criticisms of ethical relativism are wrong. A tall order, as we shall see.
Let’s start with an interesting, although perhaps inconclusive, observation: most relativists do not really believe their own theory.  Ask a relativist if she is really willing to accept that, if some culture believes that killing children or sexually mutilating adolescent girls is morally permissible, then those practices really are morally acceptable.  “Of course not, but …..”  All right, let’s move on.  A theory might be right even if the person defending it doesn’t really believe in it, although that seems rather odd.  More than a few relativists have felt uncomfortable with this challenge.  However, there are other serious problems with ethical relativism.
1.  ER can’t account for the fact that we reason and argue with one another about value issues. If there is not at least one universal ethical truth, we could not reason about values at all.  We could only plead with or shout at one another to get them to accept our point of view.
2.  ER can’t explain the many moral similarities among various cultures, e.g. the universal prohibition against betraying your own tribe or nation.  Despite the differences, there is a lot of agreement among cultures about basic moral norms.  If the Basic Argument were sound, we would expect far more basic disagreements than exist in fact in order to justify the conclusion “All values are relative.”
3. ER cannot explain why so many societies in the modern era are embracing ideas of universal human rights and freedoms as found in the American Declaration of Independence and the UN Charter.  This global trend suggests strongly that a liberal system of ethics is increasingly considered by people in most societies to be better than the traditional norms they grew up with.  This is powerful evidence that universal ethical standards exist, even if philosophers may not agree on what they are.
4. Why is culture to be the arbiter of moral truth?  On relativistic premises, why not say that right and wrong are determined by the whims of the king or dictator?  Or why not by the preferences of each individual?
Do these ruminations prove the demise of ethical relativism?  Not necessarily.  They just show that a certain approach does not work.  Cultural relativism is not a convincing basis for ethical relativism.  Is there a firmer foundation?  I doubt it. One philosopher has even argued that the worst problem facing relativists is that their theory is not even intelligible.(2)  Relativists could retreat to skepticism and challenge moral philosophers opposed to ER to produce a positive account of the possibility of moral truth.  It’s a legitimate challenge, and there are a number of plausible candidates:  the Golden Rule, the No-Harm Rule, the Interest Theory version of utilitarianism (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics), theories of justice and human rights, etc.  If any one or combination of these could survive critical scrutiny, that would be the final and fatal blow to ethical relativism. 
I must leave it to you readers to pursue these inquiries on your own.
(1)  Zogby poll findings regarding what is being taught in American universities. Studies indicate 75% of American college professors currently (2002) teach that there is no such thing as right and wrong.

(2) You can find a useful collection of recent essays pro and con on ethical relativism at the Philosophy Now website here.


  1. I think that humans have a rather crude moral system based on a small set of drives and aversions. Since the "goal" of life is to spread and survive in time and space anything that extends our lifespan or increases our number of offspring is "good." But this must be assessed over some kind of time average. "Good" and "bad" will be vector quantities, not scalars. They will have a number of components, things like, but not limited to, lifespan and number of offspring. The need to "spread" might also suggest space travel and adapting to a wide range of environments is also part of "good."

    1. I am having trouble connecting your comments with the theme of my post. Perhaps you could clarify?

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