If I were to say something such as “I cannot speak a word of English,” not only would you look at me like I was a fool, I would be speaking a fallacy. It would be quite apparent that the sentence just uttered from my lips would be a self-defeating thought. By its very existence it refutes its own reality. I obviously speak at least seven English words. This is an illustration of Relativism in general. Relativism is the concept that all truth is relative to some structure of thought or singular experience. Rather than speaking on English, relativism would say, “there are no absolute truths.” The reason that this would be a self-vanquishing proclamation ought to be equally clear. Either this statement about truth is false, and some absolutes do, in truth, exist, or all truth is indeed relative which would make the statement that “all truth is relative” a relative statement but asserted in an absolute manner, making it false. Which means it could either be absolute or false. So why believe it? You shouldn’t. If it is still not clear that this concept is false, consider the fact of 1+1=2 or, “I think therefore I am.” Although this basic form of relativism is clearly false, other forms are not so easily diffused. Religious relativism is a bit more persistent, although I think again provably false. (Where atheism and theism coexist, contradictions abound.) The form of relativism I will be addressing in this paper however, I consider to be the most firm standing of the set. This manner of relativism of course is moral relativism.
Moral relativism states all moral actions (or amoral actions), from lying to helping a little old lady across the street are derived, prescribed, and practiced within a cultural framework. This means that in America we have moral norms and aberrations that vary from those of Japan, the Congo or the Australian Aborigines. This, says the moral relativist, is due to the varying cultural developments within the assorted societies. It seems to me that the main, if not the only basis, for moral relativism is the mere fact that each society has its own moral code. This does not seem to be a very solid foundation for a moral system however. Let us think of an experimental maze in which there is only one achievable path that will lead to the outlet. Any other path taken will lead to an insurmountable obstacle. Let us also assume that this maze will take more than a lifetime to finish, even if the voyager chooses the one correct path. This assures that only the person watching the test, with full knowledge of the maze and of its paths, will know if the traveler chose the correct path from the onset or not. Does the mere variety of choices from the commencement mean that no choice will be a correct one? No, the fact that there is a multitude of choices does not mean that there is no reason to choose one or another. So does a mass of moral frameworks necessitate relative moral truths?
Before I move on I would like to point out the falsehood that so many people come up against when discussing moral differences. This deception is the idea that there is a gigantic gap in the moral structures of the different cultures from around the world from all times. Christian Apologist and scholar C.S. Lewis writes:
"If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason of man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young and the weak, almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature." (Lewis 106)
With that said, let us proceed as if it hadn’t because many will, for some reason or another, not believe it. Let us continue with the notion that major differences do exist, because that is the general platform from which moral relativist chose to debate from. And even from there, I believe that their theory will still plummet.
Although I believe moral relativism is overall a false theory, it does have a couple of truthful points. In general, our moral framework is based on the culture that we are brought up in. We start thirty paces into the maze. And unlike the maze, no single framework has it completely accurate, and I would argue that in general no single framework has it completely mistaken. Nevertheless, this does not mean, like I have said before, that moral truth or truths do not exist or cannot be found. I argue that just as we see some people as being amoral within our own code, some moral frameworks are simply amoral within the absolute moral law. I will attempt to show that if moral relativism were the only viable choice, we would lose all right to judge others of their obviously egregious actions. (If you disagree that I can call them wrong then consider the torture, rape, and murder of babies for fun or simply Nazi Germany and wonder if you could stand by the concept that no one can call an action completely immoral.) Moral relativism fights against our intuition and our common sense. We have an innate duty to justice and mercy yet within moral relativism, justice falls to the wayside. C.S. Lewis once said this:
"Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching the Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their own ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring." (Lewis p101)
Two points I would like to extract from this assertion by Lewis are these; first, it is key to notice where Lewis states “whether we obey it or no.” This means that in our society, we judge many people. We look at pedophiles, rapists, murderers, and men like Dahmer and Bin Laden, as extremely immoral. We recognize that they do not comply with the moral measuring rod that Lewis spoke of. But does their disobedience to those morals mean that they are not objective but subjective to culture? People break the speed limit every day. Does that give us the right to look a policeman in the eye and tell them that we shouldn’t get the ticket she is writing because that law is subjective? So is it not possible that there are moral laws that we simply break in the same way that we break our own legalities?
The second point I would like to discuss is Lewis’ final statement about the measuring rod. Unless the moral code is somewhere external to us, meaning not invented by man, then we are indeed left with the conclusion of moral relativism. If we do not have an external moral law, then the moral standard was undeniably derived from men and therefore who is to say which men were correct in their moral assessments? The moral code must be external to humankind. Lewis later echoes this by stating this about the relativist:
"…he does not fully realize that those who create conscience cannot be subject to the conscience themselves… If ‘good’ means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike." (Lewis p111)
Francis J. Beckwith asserts three major reasons why moral relativism must be false. First, he states that if moral relativism were true then we would be unable to make moral assessments like, “Mother Teresa was better than Adolph Hitler; rape is always wrong; it is wrong to torture babies for fun.” (Geisler/Hoffman p19) And the inclination inside all of us is that Mother Teresa is actually morally less corrupt than Hitler was, and that this is not only true in our own framework but in all frameworks. We would have no reason to see one action as more morally acceptable than another.
Secondly, Beckwith says that if the relativist is going to claim that moral conduct is individually based, then they will face another judicial impossibility. That is, what ought we to do when individual moral frameworks conflict? It is guaranteed that Dahmer had a very different outlook on cannibalism then did his neighbor who was his victim. Needless to say, there is obviously a conflict of interest from time to time.
Finally, Beckwith states that if the relativist maintains that morals are qualified by their culture, then they will arrive full force into three more impossibilities. The first of these is that it would be self-refuting. He states this by saying,
…the cultural relativist is making an absolute and universal moral claim, namely, that everyone is morally obligated to follow the moral norms of his or her own culture. If this moral norm is neither absolute nor universal, then cultural relativism is still false, for in that case I would not have a moral obligation to follow the moral norms of my culture. (Geisler/Hoffman p22)
The second quandary observed if morals are culturally based, is that there is no way to impartially decide which culture’s morals (and even which subculture’s norms) we ought to decide from. What is a cultural norm but the moral code from some dominating subculture? But each subculture can be reduced down further to the majority in the subculture and then further and further until we come back to individual moral codes. Think of it this way. We have a “national” moral framework. However, this is only the common ground between various subcultural frameworks. Then further, these subcultural frameworks are again only the major agreements between the proponents of that subculture. This can go on and on until we come down to individual moral systems, which I have already been proven inconsistent with moral relativism.
Finally, without some standard of moral absolutes, there can be no real moral progress. It would be utterly impossible to say that one culture was even changing for better or for worse without some standard to measure it by. “Yet who can reasonably deny that the abolition of slavery in the United States was an instance of genuine moral progress?” (Geisler/Hoffman p23) We often say that we have become more morally enlightened and even sometimes say we have become more civilized or less savage than our earlier counterparts. This is impossible without moral progress. Lewis also writes about moral progress in his essay entitled The Poison of Subjectivism. Lewis writes:
"If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can approximate or from which they can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if one perfectly right answer is ‘stagnant’."
As a side note, Beckwith also adds that if morals are relative to culture, then those who we consider to be great moral leaders such as Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are nothing more than advocators of their own individual moralities, and therefore are bandits raiding the territory of our own freedom to create our individual moral system.
Beckwith also states that moral relativism is self-destructive because it is its own absolute. What that means is that it would claim that we ought to be moral within our own moral structures. But is that not a moral absolute? It unknowingly contends that everyone ought to be obligated to follow the moral norms of his or her own moral communities (Geisler/Hoffman p22). This is a universal “ought to” that is to be prescribed to all people of all places at all times. In essence it states, “Doing what is right within your moral code is the right thing to do.” That is an absolute not to be challenged within moral relativism. If we can find one absolute moral, then moral relativism must be false. And let us even say that the relativist says that even this universal is just as relative as the next. Then what? We are not even proper in doing what is moral in our own moral framework? If this were true, then we creep nearer and nearer to moral nihilism.
So why is this idea, that moral norms are somehow united with some mass cultural dictate about how we ought to act, such a popular mode of thought? I believe it is derived from two dominant rationales. The first, as I have acknowledged previously, is the sheer enormity of moral constructs varying from culture to culture. I will explore this in more detail presently. The second of these, I believe, is the push for tolerance across cultural boundaries. Now tolerance on its own is not an evil or harmful notion. In fact, it is quite admirable. However, I will argue that within moral relativism, the very tolerance that it seeks to promote, actually ends up being abolished.
With that said, let me now address in more depth the idea of variety or moral norms as a proof for a relative moral system. As I have stated before with the maze illustration, the mere variety of choice does not negate the possibility that there is one moral code to which all moral codes ought to measure up to. Let us for now think of moral A as some moral proposition that is consistent and believed to be true in the general populous of the United States. If someone were to break moral A we would not say that it was because they had a different moral proposition in opposition to A. Instead, we instinctively assert that they are somehow acting immoral in regards to A. Often the moral relativist will even say that the person who commits A simply has a different moral code about it. However, contrary to that allegation, the accused most likely knows, with the exception of the ignorant or the deranged, that they did undeniably break the code. We often recognize that we have been immoral. “There is a difference between imperfect sight and blindness,” (Lewis p108). Someone can be immoral within a moral construct, without creating a new moral system. Within moral relativism I would be wholly justified in doing whatever I felt was acceptable according to my moral scaffolding, because as I have shown before, in moral relativism, the culture has no right to judge my moral actions since I can claim sanctuary in my framework. But we, more often than not, observe the contrary. Even within our own individual moral laws, we recognize that we do indeed make immoral decisions and commit unscrupulous acts. Without some moral standard, we would feel no guilt or remorse over our actions because we would be acting out from our own morality. But indeed, we often feel such feelings. We feel bad when we lie to friends. We often feel guilt for our wrong actions. It is possible that whole moral frameworks are off, is it not? How often have we not felt guilt for an action until years after when we recognized its grievance? We are not always enlightened, even in our own morals, to what is right or what is wrong.
We also find that the variety of moral programs works against moral relativism instead of for it. Consider the basic claim of the relativist in regards to disagreement about morality: “the fact that there is disagreement means that there are no absolute truths about morality.” But I say to this relativist, I believe there are moral absolutes. Has not my simple disagreement with him then made his own position untrue? After all, his position is that disagreement eradicates truth. So according to the relativist, he and I would both be incorrect. Hadley Arkes states,
“My disagreement establishes that the proposition [i.e., disagreement means there is no truth] does not enjoy universal assent, and by the very terms of it the proposition, that should be quite sufficient to determine its own invalidity,” (Geisler/Hoffman p19).
So if relativism were the accepted moral philosophy, even though it is false, that leaves us neither here nor there. We must then either have moral absolutes or else all morality is invalid! What a world that would be! We would have no reason whatsoever to teach our children that lying, stealing, murder and rape are immoral actions.
The second reason to endorse moral relativism was for the promotion of moral tolerance and the elimination of ethnocentrism. After all, who are we to judge another culture? However, what we actually find is that relativism is only tolerant of those beliefs to which it decides to be tolerant to and it is again self-refuting and it destroys, as I have briefly hinted at before, any right to justice for wrong doings.
To start with, to assume that tolerance is a chief goal of the moral truth seeker is to assume that it is an absolute good. To be tolerant is to be morally ‘better’ than being intolerant. I would not argue with this proposition but I also have no issue seeing it as an absolute with in my absolute moral code.
Another reason that relativism is in point of fact anti-tolerance is because it itself is an intolerant and arrogant position to maintain. It is a system that Beckwith calls “judgmental, exclusivist and partisan,” (Geisler/Hoffman p25). He states that if you do not agree with the relativistic claims (not his claims of which morals are true, but his overall claim that morality is relative) then you are wrong, so it judges (while claiming not to judge.) Then if you claim to be an absolutist, it “excludes your belief from the realm of legitimate options” so it is then exclusive, (Geisler/Hoffman p 25). And finally since only those thinkers who believe that morality is relative will be allowed into the “correct thinking” party, it is also partisan, (Geisler/Hoffman p25).
Tolerance makes sense only within the framework of a moral order, for it is within such a framework that one can morally justify tolerating some things while not tolerating others. Tolerance without a moral framework, or absolute tolerance, leads to a dogmatic relativism, and thus to an intolerance of any viewpoint that does not embrace relativism. (Geisler/Hoffman p25)
Finally, without any sense of moral absolutes, there can be no real rationalization for any judicial action. Whether this be from a cultural or an individual standpoint, I would not be able to rationally justify saying one action is wrong. Genital mutilation in Africa would be just as morally acceptable as reading my children a bedtime story before tucking them in at night. Nazi Germany was just as right in committing genocide of over six million Jews as I am in feeding the hungry at the local soup kitchen. After all, who would I be to judge one moral platform according to my own? This should raise the hair on your back. It is clear to us, and I would suspect to all moral frameworks, that the slaughter of six million people, innocent or not, is much more wrong, if not even in the slightest degree, than loving our children. I’m sure the officers in charge of the gas chambers would have much rather been at home with their children than slaughtering these people in their camps, even if they did approve of their own actions. Without some system of moral absolutes, it is impossible for us to evaluate the right and wrong doings of others in our subcultures, super cultures, nations and then outreaching into the entirety of humankind.
Does the diversity, or seeming diversity, of moral codes really validate a system of thought that prescribes all morality as relative? If we ascribe to such a belief system what ought we to do with the blatant and blaring contradictions that it generates? What do we do when faced with obvious moral wickedness? Conversely, would praise still be appropriately given to those who do ‘right’ and promotion for those who do ‘good’? Moral relativism is not only self-defeating, and unsound, it is also intolerant and discriminatory. It purges justice and removes praise. It has nothing solid to stand on and no reason, even by its own precepts, to accept it. C.S. Lewis ends his essay with this thought, and since it is befitting I will end mine with it as well. He states that even while the relativist assumes no morals are absolute, they, in their daily life, seek leaders of good morals, trustworthy friends and faithful wives. Lewis records, “But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts and who has learned to do his job,” (Lewis p112). And I resonate that. As for the moral relativist, let him try to live his philosophy and see how quickly, though unwittingly, he falls back into the habits of the absolutist.
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