In my last post I discussed what I believe to be the most widespread (and, as fallacious as it is, perhaps most convincing) argument in favor of moral relativism, which is based upon the cultural relativism and social constructivism of anthropology and sociology respectively. In my experience, 90% of the impetus for adopting moral relativism lies with this argument and it is often the most difficult to overturn in peoples’ heads  (illustrating fallacies such as Affirming the Consequent for instance, usually requires the presence of a blackboard, which is difficult to keep on one’s person at all times). But having (hopefully) at last dispelled with the myth that cultural relativism has anything to do with the field of ethics, we can now move onto part II of this series of posts, which will concern the remaining reasons that people commonly adopt this view, before in part III I strive to show how it is entirely incoherent. I use the word “reason” loosely here; as I implied in my previous post, relativism itself is an ethical view that essentially sees all of ethics as a worthless enterprise. For that reason there is little point, from the relativist perspective, in engaging in much ethical reflection outside of attempting to convert heathen moral realists to relativism; the view itself asserts that it is social construction and one’s upbringing that causes one to adopt certain ethical beliefs, and scoffs at the notion that human reason can help us to rise above these purportedly all-encompassing social phenomena.

This then, leads us to the next argument commonly used in favor of moral relativism, perhaps constituting another 8% of the argumentative force of the view, which I will label the

“if you had grown up in _____, then you would be a _____”

argument. The basis behind this argument is pretty simple and, once again, at face value seems perfectly plausible. If I had grown up in England, then I would be an Englishman. If I had grown up in Ireland, then I would be an Irishman. Similarly, if I had grown up in Europe in the Middle Ages, I would probably have been a Catholic. If I had grown up in Persia in the year 1000, there’s a good chance I would have been a Muslim. And now, according to the moral relativist, if I had grown up in the American South in 1820, I would probably believe that Slavery was perfectly acceptable. If I grew up in Germany in 1930 I very well may believe that Jews are an inferior race and deserve to be put into camps and murdered. And perhaps if I had grown up in the Middle East today, I would think that beating a woman for going to work on the wrong day, or sewing her vagina shut to prevent her from engaging in sexual intercourse are entirely acceptable practices. So therefore, the only reason that I think all of these latter practices are so incredibly horrific is just because of where I grew up and was raised right?

Actually, that’s completely incorrect. This is another argument that seems to have gotten all of the relativists and postmodernists and social constructivists ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ for no good reason whatsoever, and is in my opinion an even poorer argument than those listed in my last post. Even a minimally thoughtful person should be able to see problems with this argument; as I’m a philosophy major, I’ll move from the more abstract to the more obvious. First of all, ontologically speaking, I, as a human being, have certain essential characteristics; characteristics that cannot change unless I can be considered to have become a new person after the change. The set of these characteristics includes who my parents were (and by extension, how I was raised) along with where I was  born. Thus what a relativist even means by saying that “if [I] were born in the American South prior to the Civil War [I] would have thought that slavery was morally acceptable” is unclear at best; if I were born in 1930 or in Iran I wouldn’t really be me, so the proposition that that person (whoever he would be) would have appallingly sexist views doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant. While the relativist might wish to counter by shouting “aha! You concede that where we are born and how we are raised are essential in forming our sense of morality” this would be nothing more than another relativist false dichotomy. As I explained in my last post, the moral objectivist can be perfectly content in accepting that social norms, class structures, culture, history etc. influence the way that we think about moral issues (or anything else, for that matter). It is the far more extreme viewpoint that these forces entirely determine how we feel about morality that the moral realist argues against, and is one of the hallmarks of relativist irrationalism.

Moreover, this argument is both blatantly false and self-defeating. As to the former, maybe the relativist is right, maybe if I lived in 1930 in Germany I would be a raving anti-semitic Hitler lover. Or maybe I wouldn’t be. Maybe I would be like Oscar Schindler or many other brave Germans, Austrians, Poles etc. whose compassionate hearts were far bigger than crackpot racial theories, and who had the courage and honor to do all that they could to help their fellow human beings in their time of need. While the relativist is right that sadly, those who were blatantly antisemitic or else willing to stand aside and do nothing to help those being murdered were in the majority, there were still those that dissented, and considering the entire scenario being cooked up by the relativist is a matter of conjecture it’s a damn ballsy move for the relativist to claim to “know” what I would be if I were put into that historical situation. Certainly the spirit of the relativist’s point (that views that we now consider horriffic were at many times widespread) is true, but that it serves as some specific basis of “knowledge” that the relativist can use to lend support to his position is doubtful at best.

This leads us to an aside but an important one, before we address the first of many ways in which relativism is self-undermining, which is that if relativism were true progressive social change would be impossible, both philosophically and (as far as we could predict) practically. All of those great humanitarian heroes of progressive social change that we venerate in our capitols and history books (Martin Luther King, Gandhi etc.) have something in common, which is a passionate and zealous belief that the oppression and unfairness they fought against was wrong. What a sorry state of affairs it would have been, if no one had stepped up to the plate during mankind’s darkest days because “morality is a social construction” and what our history’s oppressors were doing couldn’t be considered “really” immoral. It has been moral objectivism, passionate zeal for justice and equality, that have driven the engines of global moral evolution, and while those tiresome, whining cynics that fill today’s universities, who endlessly bitch and moan about the tiny details of our common social interactions (“how dare you vile men oppress me by thinking that wavy hair looks more attractive than straight hair!”) may not wish to admit the fact, mankind has made some improvements over the past several thousand years. Additionally, in between spouts of bitching and moaning, those cynical academics who seem enslaved to a tired dramatic dogma of melancholy postmodernism may wish to consider the fact that the fight is still going on, and all sorts of contemporary movements for equality (such as the womens’ movement, the gay rights movement etc.) are not benefiting from the idiotic proposition that “all values are relative.” If “all values are relative” then all of the marches, rallies and parades going across my college campus (and most college campuses) every year for womens’ rights, gay and lesbian rights etc. might as well pack up and go home, because apparently there’s really no reason at all (morally speaking) to prefer equality of the sexes and marriage equality to women chained in a basement and throwing homosexuals into concentration camps.

But even if all of the above were not true; even if the argument didn’t make an unclear metaphysical assertion, even if it didn’t seem patently false or at least unfalsifiable, and even if it wasn’t a deeply offensive, disturbing and repugnant viewpoint from the standpoint of anyone who cares to see progressive equality and protection of human dignity and rights in the future, it would be wholly irrelevant because it is simply self-defeating, plain and simple. To see why, simply understand that the hidden axiom of this argument is that social forces (you know, class, upbringing, religion etc. etc. etc.) entirely determine our moral beliefs, with those beliefs having no grounding in rational reflection or fact. Now it becomes clear that this argument has exactly the same amount of force against a moral relativist that it does against a moral realist. Presumably, by his own reasoning, if a moral relativist were born in the American South today, he would be some form of relatively conservative Christian, and therefore certainly not a moral relativist. Ultimately, the argument boils down to the proposition that, at least as far as one’s moral beliefs are concerned, one cannot possibly rise above the influences of one’s socialization and location. These forces are, according to the relativist, determining factors of our moral beliefs. This is all fine and well, but it would seem to be a fair assumption that if the moral relativist is bothering to argue with a moral realist (or anyone else for that matter) it’s because he believes that his own viewpoint is, in some sense, more rational, more true (otherwise why is he bothering to have the debate?) If this is the case, then the relativist is suddenly stuck in the position of arguing that his viewpoint is the most rational one, even though he is simultaneously arguing that peoples’ moral beliefs have nothing to do with rationality at all. There is yet another contradiction here then, between what the relativist preaches and what he practices.

It’s important when considering this argument to bear in mind the difference between “ethical” questions vs. “meta-ethical” questions. An “ethical” question is a question such as “is there any crime so heinous that the death penalty is a justifiable punishment for it?” A “meta-ethical” question, by comparison, is more abstract and focuses on what gives ethical propositions their normative force. So for instance “what is it about lying that makes it immoral?” would be a meta-ethical question (needless to say, the distinction between the two is sometimes blurry). A relativist may wish to say specific moral commands (don’t kill, don’t steal etc.) are relative by culture and at the same time say that this is the objective truth, meta-ethically speaking. In this way a relativist may wish to avoid the self-undermining nature of his own theory (this issue will be settled once and for all in my next and final post). This is, however, a bizarre move on the part of the relativist; bizarre enough to simply be labeled ad hoc. Relativism seems to collapse the distinction between ethical questions and meta-ethical questions because it is essentially connected to the notion that morality is not a real area of rational inquiry. Because meta-ethics is only concerned with what gives ethical commands their normative force (which obviously involves the use of rational persuasion) it winds up being non-subject according to relativists; the very essence of their position is to maintain that morality simply has nothing to do with reason. Thus even if the relativist tries to avoid making this an explicit part of his position, for a relativist to use the distinction between ethics and meta-ethics as a defense against the view’s otherwise self-undermining undertone betrays the spirit of relativism and is a doubtful strategy at best.

I’ve tried to keep this middle post on moral relativism short because the final post will require quite a bit of room. In my next and final post on this matter I hope to demonstrate why relativism is not only self-undermining (at least in spirit, even if a relativist might find some way to slip out of outright logical contradiction) but utterly incoherent as well.