“Man I don’t know no more, am I the only f**ckin’ one whose normal anymore?!” -Eminem, “My Dad’s Gone Crazy!”

In his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, the British philosopher Mortimer J Adler discusses in his introduction the way that philosophy is and always has been, in some sense, “for the people.” While many subjects in contemporary philosophy have reached quite extreme degrees of abstraction, there are a certain core areas of philosophical thought that always have been, and always will be, areas that all people must, consciously or unconsciously, confront for themselves. Questions concerning the meaningfulness of life, the rightness or wrongness of certain actions, and the degree to which we balance individual liberty with civil responsibility are all examples of these kinds of philosophical areas.In contemporary society however, I have noticed, particularly throughout my education, that there are certain philosophical opinions that have become quite prevalent; so prevalent, as a matter of fact, that I am tempted to call these opinions “street philosophy” or (perhaps more pejoratively) “social dogma.” These views are important parts of the ‘common sense’ of our age, the views that purportedly any educated person ought to know and accept as true, and the rejection of which constitutes, if not an affront to rationality, than either a lack of thoughtfulness or allegiance to archaic religious dogma.

There is one particular ‘commonsense’ philosophical proposition which is extremely common amongst Americans and many Westerners today, and is so taken for granted that to dissent from it can, in my own experience, condemn one to incredulous stares and the taking of offense. This view is known as “moral relativism,” and is without doubt the most common ‘street philosophy’ view anyone encounters in ordinary life; since the 1960’s era of radical liberalization it has become nothing less than the status quo among the “educated” members of society, particularly those in the Northeastern United States from which I hail. I ought to say at the outset that I speak, in this entire essay, from my own experience and my own experience alone; I have conducted no surveys or studies to see how many academics in American society are relativists, or how widespread the view is amongst our population as a whole in the United States or the rest of the Western World. However, I have encountered this view time and time again throughout the past ten years of my education, from middle school to high school to college, and every time I have encountered it I have grown to loathe it even more. And what I have found to be most interesting about this view is that as far as my college education has been concerned, only a single liberal arts department has consistently either left this view unstated or openly opposed it; that department is our own (heavily analytic) philosophy department, which is only one more reason that I have so much admiration and respect for those members of our faculty (even if some of them are a little bit nuts sometimes). And furthermore I do believe, and hope to demonstrate in this essay, that there is a very good reason for this, which is simply that moral relativism is a trick, a farce, a sophistical and rhetorical scam. Much like the ‘Postmodernism’ that it is so closely related to, moral relativism survives because its arguments, while appalling to those brave enough to pick them apart, appear convincing and are easy to make, and for that reason relativism has snowballed into one more view that everybody “knows” must be true, and which it seems to me few people have the courage to doubt.

Perhaps you have noticed a trace of bitterness in my voice; there is no doubt about it; I absolutely hate this view, and one of the significant challenges of my intellectual life is the fact that so many of my closest and most loved friends subscribe to it in some form or another. That was the reason that I included the lovely quote by Marshall Mathers at the beginning of this post; in discussing it with many people I sometimes wonder if perhaps they’re right and I am nothing short of completely insane. What is most difficult about a debate over moral relativism is that it is bound to circle endlessly, and even after several years of philosophical education and a decent background in the subject it becomes very easy to get so dizzy from this spiraling that one forgets what one is fighting for. But I seek to be ambitious in this post; if I am successful, I will demonstrate not only that 1.) there is absolutely no rational justification for holding the view whatsoever (meaning that all arguments in favor of it are invalid or at least unsound) but even more strongly 2.) that moral relativism is literally incoherent, meaning that its very statement, its very framework, implies a contradiction. In doing this I want any reader (particularly any reader who does not know me personally) to understand a.) that I do not mean to be personally offensive in this post, but you are reading the pent up rage from being the butt of about 7 years of relativist snobbery, b.) I am not writing this post in order to defend “religion” or “traditional morality” or any such politicized concept of our modern social scene, but rather only the moderate path of rational commonsense that desires nothing but the truth, nothing more, nothing less and c.) that I concede that there are many relativists of goodwill and I feel no particular ill will towards them whatsoever. I only aim in this post to help to free our contemporary intellectual environment from this vile parasite, this disgusting infection, this despicable cancer that is moral relativism, and while this may be a lofty goal for a humble blog post, such a change must begin somewhere.

The introduction over, the discussion of moral relativism will span several posts and will take three parts: 1.) the fallaciousness of the primary argument in favor of this view, 2.) the fallaciousness of other informal impetuses for adopting this viw and 3.) the fundamental incoherence of the very framework underlying moral relativism.

I

I noted in my last post on Postmodernism (which is intimately connected with Relativism) a poster in a well-liked teacher’s class that read “other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” This poster very succinctly gets across the idea of the main motivation for adopting moral relativism, which is simply the “cultural relativism” common to Anthropology and the other Social Sciences. In the context of Anthropology or Sociology this axiom (which is simply the admission that different cultures have different ideas about right and wrong) makes perfect sense; little work can be done in the way of understanding an unfamiliar society if we are constantly focusing on how morally repugnant we find this or that practice of theirs. There is an underlying noble principle to Sociology and the other Social Sciences (as insane as their advocates may sometimes seem) which is that people, particularly vast groups of people, do not engage in behavior because  “they’re just bad people;” overall, it would seem most Sociologists believe, most people share a certain set of core categories of experience that dictate their individual behavior and their social organization. Thus when we see a widespread behavior of any sort, whether we find it morally reprehensible or not, what we ought to focus on is how the social stratification and organization of a particular society or culture leads to this behavior, and how it makes sense in a particular social framework. Cultural relativism is thus a perfectly valid and understandable methodological framework and assumption for those trying to do Social Science; about that I have absolutely complaints.

The problem however, is that all sorts of people take this methodological assumption and extend it improperly, taking it not only as a descriptive fact about people (“gee, look, all sorts of people believe all sorts of different things about right and wrong”) but as a normative fact about ethics. That is, social scientists, postmodernists and most relativists take the fact that many different people have many different moral beliefs and conclude that morality or ethics itself, that which those moral beliefs are about, must also be relative, with no particular set of them being superior to any other. Such a conflation of descriptive propositions (simple observations or descriptions of things) with descriptions of propositional attitudes (descriptions of peoples’ beliefs about things) is understandable given how abstract, technical and boring (to people who aren’t philosophy nerds) the distinction between the two is; what is not understandable is how tenaciously people will stick to this conflation and insist it must be true, no matter how much one attempts to talk a person out of it. But I have finally learned, I think, that the reason for this conflation and the reason it appears so damn convincing, though it is nothing more than a lie dressed up in veritable clothing, is twofold; one a general lack of clarity in the implicit, central argument in favor of moral relativism, the other a general unfamiliarity with truth-functional logic. Let me now demonstrate both errors:

The primary argument given for moral relativism, if it were stated formally, would probably look something like this:

1.) If what is considered “right” or “wrong,” “moral” or “immoral” varies widely across culture, place, time and situation, then morality is relative.

2.) What is considered “right” or “wrong,” “moral” or “immoral” varies widely across culture, place, time and situation.
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(c) Morality is relative

(a standard modus ponens of the form “If A, then B, A, therefore B.”)

This is nothing more than the common-sense conclusion that goes from cultural to moral relativism, according to most defenders of that view. However, what is often left unspoken in this argument (and for good reason, since to make this tacit premise explicit renders the argument fallacious) is the presumption that ethical propositions are true just in case individuals or societies say they are; in other words, ethical propositions are entirely human “social constructions,” and have no real truth value except as widespread assent to certain historic opinions. Thus ethical propositions (and the entire field of ethics for that matter) are not even in the realm of “truth” or “falsehood,” they instead reduce to propositions along the lines of “I like chocolate” or “Bob likes Vanilla.” Seen in light of this underlying assumption, the above argument really should be stated more like this:

1.) Ethical propositions are not “true” or “false,” but derive their meaningfulness only from individual or collective human interest.

2.) By (1), if what is considered “right” or “wrong,” “moral” or “immoral” varies widely across culture, place, time and situation, then morality is relative.

3.) (2) is true.
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(c) Morality is relative

So what is the problem here? The problem is that this argument blatantly begs the question against a moral realist; exactly what is at stake, between the moral realist and the moral relativist, is whether or not ethical propositions can be considered “true” or “false,” with the moral realist answering “yes” and the relativist answering “no.” Furthermore, when we actually bring this core and unstated presumption underlying the relativist’s argument into the light, we see that there is little to no reason whatsoever to accept it. Why should we think that ethical propositions are not at all subject to rational constraints, that we cannot rationally decide whether it would be better to scratch one’s nail or see an entire ethnic group slaughtered? The support of this presumption usually comes from the assertion that ethics is obviously an entirely human construction; “if there were no humans there would be no right or wrong,” as I have been snobbishly told by so many people at so many times. Of course we could let all of the religious philosophers out there throw a hissy fit and insist that right and wrong are somehow based on God’s commands (whatever they might be) but we don’t even have to bother with that; why exactly should we think that just because any particular phenomenon is a ‘human construction’ it is in no way subject to rational constraints? As the United States, England and the rest of the Western World are currently in the experience of learning, the fact that the Economy is an entirely ‘human construction’ (there would be no economy if there were no humans) does not mean that there are not perfectly objective laws governing the growth and decline of markets, inflation or prices. And furthermore, as any economist will tell you, these economic principles can be derived, explained, made systematic and used to predict market fluctuations in the future; and all of this wondrous rational analysis concerns an entirely ‘human construction!’ So who the hell cares if there would be no ‘right and wrong’ if humans had never existed? As a matter of fact we do exist, we do make value judgments including moral judgments, and these judgments do have real consequences for the world we live in. Given this, it would seem prudent to put some effort into understanding what it is that gives support to particular moral judgments, and furthermore seeing what the implications are for how we ought to act (as rationally moral agents) in the situations we encounter.

A more skilled defender of moral relativism than most of those I have encountered might counter this along a more Wittgensteinian line; the very language of ethical propositions you see, the very notions of ‘ought’ and ‘should,’ are unclear and go beyond the limits of what can be clearly expressed. As Wittgenstein stated rather deppressingly (standard practice for Wittgenstein,) perhaps the drive to make moral judgments represents nothing more than a widespread idiosyncrasy in the nature of humans, but is forever outside the domain of true rational determination. To this though my counterpoint is that Wittgenstein, much like Russell and the Logical Positivists before him, were far too zealous in their quest for “scientific clarity” in all sorts of different areas. No one ever said that ethics had to be a “science,” that it had to share the same degree of systematic clarity as physics or chemistry. All that is necessary to show that moral relativism is false, at least of the sort propogated by endless legions of contemporary liberal academics, is to demonstrate that we can rationally decide between mutually exclusive moral courses of action, regardless of compassionately descriptive judgments about the reasons for a person’s behavior. Thus under this view Brutus’s despicable betrayal of his friend Julius Ceasar was unethical, regardless of whether he “thought” it was right or any other extraneous factors that our overly soft modern culture would want to use to excuse it (for instance that Brutus had a bad relationship with his father, came from a difficult socioeconomic background or any other pity points).

The grounds for rationally determining which moral course of action is superior in a certain situation of course, must be spelled out in some form, even if they cannot be made as systematic as the grounds for a scientific theory or mathematical theorem (and I will spell out my own in later posts, though I must continue clearing away the giant mounds of garbage left by moral relativists before I can do so). Nevertheless, the Wittgensteinian based critique of ethics as going ‘beyond the limits of language’ or ‘not being a systematic science’ are, as far as I can tell, simply promoting a well-entrenched false dichotomy that is itself without any real foundation. Modern philosophers, regrettably, though (at least in the Analytic strain) they are often harshly critical of Postmodernist and Relativist tendencies, are also very prone to speaking as if there are simply two epistemic categories, “rational” and “irrational,” seeking I suppose to reduce much philosophical inquiry to the sort of “yes” or “no,” 0-or-1 kind of computer-like clarity. For all the scientists and mathematicians out there this may be fine, but as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to philosophy (and here I must admit that I believe our Continental friends across the pond are usually better at getting this than we are over here in the good ol’ USA) we don’t have to have everything spelled out so exactly that we could turn it all into a bunch of equations and use it to build a spaceship; just because certain kinds of judgments or propositions cannot be spelled out in that way does not automaticaly mean there are simply “irrational” or “non-rational.” They are merely judgments and propositions about which we cannot have as much certainty, and it is for this reason that our modern society (at least in America) generally follows John Locke’s lead in not killing or imprisoning people for having the wrong ethical (or religious or spiritual or political) beliefs. But that these judgments are simply entirely non-rational, that there is no hope in attempting to distinguish certain moral principles as definitely preferable to others, is a thesis that is far to strong, and manifests not cautious rational reflection but merely extreme cynical skepticism. While some modern academics would have us think that increasing cynicism and skepticism is the best way to better come to know the truth, as far as I can tell there’s no reason to believe this, and it would be best for such academics to cheer the hell up and give a little more truck to the power of human reason.

To finish the first part of my critique of relativism (I’ll get to part II as soon as possible in my next post) I suppose I ought to briefly note what happens to the argument stated when we alter it slightly. Thus the argument becomes:

1.) If moral relativism were true, then we would expect to observe a range of different moral perspectives among different cultures, times and places.

2.) We do observe a range of different moral perspectives among different cultures, times and places.

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(c) Morality is relative

The reason I include this argument in my discussion of moral relativism is because it is another common variant of what seems to be the stereotypical relativist formula (such-and-such culture/group of people thinks this + such-and-such culture/group of people thinks that= I GUESS THIS ENTIRE AREA OF REFLECTION IS JUST A RELATIVE, ‘SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION’ LOL.) It also commits a blatant logical fallacy that renders it entirely worthless, but it’s a logical fallacy that many people who have not studied logic are unfamiliar with; it is a fallacy known as ‘Affirming the Consequent.’ Basically, just because we observe lots of different moral perspectives between different cultures, times and places does not mean that all of these perspectives are true or rationally equal (consider the fact that some people out there still believe that the earth is flat or that we never landed on the moon, and then consider the fact that these preposterous ideas do not change the fact that the earth is a sphere and we put a flag on the moon, but merely cast doubt on the sanity of those who hold them). There is tremendous diversity of opinion in all sorts of areas of science for instance, but this diversity of opinion does not prove that some theory or other, whether it’s yet been spelled out or not, is ultimately the true one; it only proves that very complex debates are prone to create widespread and differing opinions (one matter I have also not addressed, simply because I do not wish to sound like an arrogant snob, is that one must take into account whose opinions we are talking about when it comes to diversity of opinions as well; Billy Bob from backwoods Arkansas may think that evolution is a big load of hogwash, but if Billy Bob has no more than a third grade education, his opinion on the matter is not much above ‘worthless,’ and the same applies to a condescending Art History major who once informed me that I had to ‘open my mind’ and ‘be more tolerant of diverse moral views’ shortly after she had informed me that she had never once opened a book of philosophy in her life. But I digress.)

In any event, when one ‘affirms the consequent,’ one reasons in the form as follows:

1.) If A, then B

2.) B
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(C) Therefore A

A glance at the argument in the form I have just written it (which, as I stated, is another form I have had it thrown at me in) reveals that it commits exactly this fallacy, going, as it does, from the consequent of A (we observe many different moral perspectives) to the antecedent of A (moral relativism is true,) and is therefore no more rational justification for holding the standpoint of moral relativism than a loud belch or fart. The way in which relativists often try to salvage this argument is to state that it is not intended as a deductive, a priori sort of defense but rather as an inductive argument relying on the ‘evidence’ of the social sciences. The use of the word ‘evidence’ is a hallmark of the scientism of our modern age (a suject that part II in this series of posts will concern), the implication being that apparently moral relativism is the best ‘scientific’ conclusion to reach, as if science can reveal to us not only the inner workings of the world around us, but somehow the moral fabric of that world as well. This standpoint seems to be emerging thanks to the work of scientists such as Stephen Hawking and pop-philosophers (or whatever) such as Sam Harris, the former of which knows nothing about philosophy (his brilliance in the field of physics notwithstanding) and the latter of which apparently knows and does not care, considering the relase of his recent book (though I confess not to have read it, so I will abstain from deriding it here; I assume he has some way to get around the objection I’m about to raise to this method but to address it would require getting into sticky areas of religion and religious morality, which I wish to avoid doing for the time being). The problem with this sort of thinking however, was raised centuries ago by the philosopher David Hume, and concerns the frightful difficulty of going from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ (well, sort of frightful; Hume was what is called a nominalist which is why most of his problems come up, but I will, once again, have to wait until another post to address that incredibly important (and incredibly overlooked) archaic philosophical debate).

Basically, knowing that such and such is the case does not tell us that such and such ought to be the case. The same way that the historic prevalence of monogomous, heterosexual relationships does not in and of itself prove that this arrangement is in some way morally superior to, for instance, a monogomous homosexual relationship, the fact that widespread diversity of opinion exists in matters of morality does not in and of itself prove that this is itself the framework underlying moral judgments. Restating what has been said previously to some extent, it is entirely possible that those Southern plantation owners who really thought there was nothing wrong with owning and selling their fellow human beings as property were simply horribly and tragically wrong, the same way that all the generations of humans who thought that the earth was flat or thought that the sun and moon were conscious, living beings were simply mistaken. Thus stated as a deductive argument the second formulation of the relativist credo is devastatingly fallacious, and stated inductively it is blatantly unsound. Having cleared away this argument, the conclusion to make is that, appearances aside, the fact of cultural relativism, the fact that ideas about morality and ethical actions vary widely based on time, culture and situation, is utterly irrelevant to the study and practice of ethics, and using it to demonstrate the accuracy of relativism in any way cannot help but be fallacious and useless, plain and simple.

To conclude, please do not misunderstand what I hope to have shown in this first essay. There is no doubt that cultural and social relativism are indirectly related to the philosophcial field of ethics; “indirectly” insofar as these areas help to explain widespread descriptive facts about usual human behavior. What this means is that we can be less judgmental of the characters of those Southern plantation owners; while condemning their actions as wicked, we can ‘love the sinners and hate the sins’ in some sense, by judging them less harshly for their actions given the time they lived in then as compared to the time we live in now. But reserving our judgment on their characters does not have to mean that we judge the actions of slave owners, racist bigots or any other rationally morally offensive people as anything less than wicked; an important lesson to learn if we hope to preserve a just and moral society for the future.

 

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