Thursday, October 9, 2014

Defending Moral Relativism

Whether or not they’re well-educated enough to know the phrase “moral relativism,” there are a lot of people—the fervently religious in particular—who are absolutely terrified of the concept. Supposedly, if there’s not some objectively right morality (usually, but not always, dictated by some kind of god), then there’s no way of condemning the Holocaust, rape, or whatever else the opponent of moral relativism can come up with. This argument is particularly popular by religious fundamentalists as a supposed criticism of atheism. In reality, there are quite a few atheists who believe in objective morality (Sam Harris, for instance)—but, really, regardless of religiosity, I think moral relativism is not something to be wary of, but something to embrace, and stand up for.

Moral relativism, in my view, is the idea that everyone is free to decide on their own set of moral rules. What are considered fundamental values differs radically from person to person, and so it only makes sense that each person should be at liberty to decide what sort of moral rules logically follow from their personal values. Without this principle, the idea of being an individual or “choosing your own path” becomes meaningless. Objective morality is the demand that each person adhere to a certain set of rules, and it grants no right to challenge those rules. Moral relativism, on the other hand, offers everyone the opportunity to reflect on what they stand for and devise their own rules and guidelines from those principles.

As for the objections to moral relativism, a close examination proves them to be completely without merit. Most people, I think, can agree that there’s no objective code for what makes a good movie or good book—sure, there are guidelines, but they aren’t rigid or unquestionable. Even those guidelines weren’t handed down by God; they were just arrived at by a sort of general consensus. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no way to criticize 50 Shades of Gray or Troll 2—the fact that there’s no objective definition of a “good movie” or “good book” doesn’t mean I have to accept these works as good, or even that I can’t view them as bad. Whether a movie or a book is good or bad in my opinion depends on my own personal taste, and my personal beliefs on what makes a movie or book good or bad. The same concept applies with moral relativism; there’s no objective right or wrong, but that doesn’t mean you can’t condemn actions if you find them to be abhorrent. Furthermore, no one needs some abstract moral code to oppose mass murder, or rape, or torture; they just need some amount of interest in the well-being of others. To imply it’s impossible to care about other people’s welfare without being commanded to do so by some set of divine rules is downright insulting to any concept of human decency.

I suppose the great fear here is that if everyone is allowed to base their morality on their feelings rather than some kind of unquestionable maxims, then we’ll have a societal breakdown as everyone acts on whatever whim they have at the moment. Ultimately, that idea is just kind of silly. In fact, moral relativism affords us a great opportunity as a society: to actually evaluate whether the values we teach our children and (theoretically) abide by ourselves are actually effective at maintaining a happy and stable society, or whether they’re outdated and should be done away with. For instance, the only reason some of our more prudish sexual mores have hung around so long is probably just because society shuns anyone who tries to question them, rather than actually listening to their arguments. Moral relativism doesn’t dictate that our society can’t hold to any values, but rather that the values it does hold to should be thought out properly instead of being clung to out of some blind faith in their veracity.

In rebuttal to those who try to argue that moral relativism is dangerous and enables the worst and most damaging behaviors, I’d like to argue the exact opposite: moral absolutism is what’s truly dangerous and what often justifies the worst things in history. For instance, it’s a common narrative that Hitler’s rise was due to moral relativism, but the exact opposite is true: some of the groups Hitler targeted—homosexuals, for instance—were chosen out of some twisted idea of protecting public morality. At least, that’s how he and his cronies portrayed it, and that’s why the German population went along with it.

The danger of moral absolutism is that when you’re convinced you’re enforcing some morality that can’t be challenged, it’s easy to justify the worst atrocities, because anyone who stands in the way of your moral crusade is immoral ipso facto, and therefore whatever happens to them is well-deserved. Moral relativism doesn’t have this issue; no principle or value is above criticism, and you have to evaluate your actions by their actual effects, not whether they’re promoting some sacred cause. For a moral absolutist, it’s easy to explain why they and their followers can commit heinous crimes and not be just as bad (or worse) than those they oppose: “We’re the ones fighting for what’s right.” It’s the same attitude Bob Dylan described when he sang, “you never ask questions when God’s on your side.” For a moral relativist, though, the question is quite a bit more difficult, because they recognize that if they’re harming others as much, or more, than those they’re fighting against, there may be no rational way to claim some moral high-ground.

Lastly, I’d like to argue something that might seem counterintuitive to many people: moral relativism, at least in the practical sense, is not at all incompatible with religion. For instance, one can look at the philosophy of the devout Christian Søren Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard’s view, ethics are just rules set up for the benefit of society, but it’s ultimately up to each individual to decide their own morals, based on who they are. Kierkegaard believed that the only legitimate relationship with God was an intensely personal one that superseded any human institutions, such as churches, for instance. And, Kierkegaard believed, what’s right from a religious or teleological perspective (which was up to each person to divine from their relationship with God) sometimes runs completely contrary to all of the ethical rules society holds dear. This is, for all intents and purposes, a belief in moral relativism.

Ultimately, the choice is clear: if we value the idea that each person should be able to be true to themselves, to choose their own way—that is, if we actually believe all the clichés we have about “being yourself”—moral relativism is the only rationally consistent choice. If we believe the chief virtue a person can have is an unwavering obedience to rules—necessarily, the rules of man (who wrote all those holy books, after all?)—then moral absolutism is the appropriate position to take. It’s a choice for each person to make, but I thought I’d do my best to dispel any illusions about the options.

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