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Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Moral relativism - a response

On Friday, November 12th I received an anonymous comment to one of my posts. Click on the quote to read the post to which it responds:

“Comparing the President to a child molester? Good job, pal. However, I wonder, as you are apparently a moral relativist, do you believe it is "bad" to be a child molester, and if so, how do you reach that conclusion in your moral vacuum?”

I am going to respond to this with a post of its own.

First, did I compare the President (of the United States) to a child molester? I argued that the fact of an action having a better outcome than would have resulted had that action not occurred does not necessarily make the actor themselves good. I illustrated this with a thought experiment that contrasted the saving of a life, one of the greatest goods we can imagine, with a wickedness that is apparently unparalleled in our modern moral maze. So did I compare the President to a child molester? Yes, in so much as I compared every moral actor to a child molester, by stripping away the defence of ‘it is better so it is good’, or perhaps, as I would like to rephrase that, ‘it is better so I am good’.

Second, I am charged with being a ‘moral relativism’. What does this mean? Do I believe that morals are the product of human culture, that different cultures hold different moral values and that if I were to be brought up in a different culture I would necessarily possess moral beliefs and make moral decisions based upon the values of this culture? Yes, I do. Any other argument seems to be built on quicksand. This does not argue that I do not believe that my moral beliefs are correct, or that I cannot condemn the moral values of others as wrong. I must, as a necessary consequence of holding them, believe that my values are true and correct.

But I suspect that ‘moral relativism’ is used here to mean more than this. I suspect that it is ranged against the notion of ‘moral absolutism’, that moral decisions can be derived from a concrete set of rules. It reminds me of the John Birch Society’s attack on ‘situational ethics’. Can moral decisions be derived entirely from a set of rules? Well, that depends on whether we believe that it is possible to devise a set of absolutely unambiguous instructions for human action. I argue that such a task is impossible, even given a theoretically infinite set of instructions, definitions, etc. If you agree, then moral codes can be nothing other than guidelines. Even if you disagree, it is extremely difficult to contradict the argument that the range of moral situations that a moral actor might find themselves in is too great to be, in practice, codified according to a set of absolute laws, and, furthermore, for a human being to digest and retain that information. So, whether through logical or practical necessity, ethical and moral decisions must arrived at by reference to the situation.

Let us take that famous injunction of moral absolutism, ‘thou shall not kill’. Is this always true? Are there exceptions for self-defence? Does this extend to death resulting from callous inaction? And on, and on. We could ask, what does this command mean when we pollute? We know that it will contribute to a certain number of deaths, but we justify this by reference to the benefits of the industry concerned. We could ask, and we could ask. The list of situations in which we might question this, the most basic rule of any decent, civilised moral code, is as long as the number of hypothetical causes of death, limited only by our combined imaginations. Even if we can list definitive moral instructions for one thousand situations resulting in human death, in order to remind us that this is a guideline, however tightly defined, all we must do is ask, ‘and what about this?’ And there will always be a ‘this’.

In other words, and in short, I fail to see how anyone can credibly hold to being a moral absolutist. There can be no set of rules applicable to all possible situations. Everyone is a moral relativist, unless they are a nihilist. And, to cut the ground from under those who defend the President by throwing moral relativism at me, it is surely plain to anyone the remotest of connections with the world that the President is a moral relativist, a practitioner of situational ethics. He supports executions and persecutes wars. These might be defendable actions, but only if he argues that they are justified by the greater good that results. Of course he could argue that ‘thou shall not kill’ is not part of his moral code, or that he is a nihilist. If either case we should all be extremely frightened.

A fine response Andy, can’t really add too much to that. Although I’m an advocate of promoting an open public debate on such issues it really doesn’t help things when people use terms like ‘moral relativism’ without thinking about what such terms actually mean. As you have shown, an argument built on such shoddy thought falls apart very quickly. I think you could possibly argue that this is the fault of Western education systems that work so hard to train people to pass exams that they fail to help people develop critical thinking skills. Such a vacancy leaves the world open to the unquestioned reproduction of prejudice and restrictive ideologies – many of the things that manifest in calls for ‘common sense’ for example, as if ‘common sense' is somehow naturally ‘right’ and unworthy of scrutiny.

Will the anonymous commenter come back for a rebuttal though?
Will Anon. be back? Not now I've stopped posting (and some might say, exposing myself) on LGF, I'd be willing to wager.
Get back on LGF then Andy…. Actually maybe not. Can't say I blame you for giving it up though, the people on there are sickening and foolish. You could spend your whole life knocking them down, but they'll just keep coming back because they don't know when they're beaten.
great point veiw by random student that was reviewing your paper.
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