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Contra Relativism

David Burton

Mason Neck, Virginia


Ethical relativism, normative relativism or moral relativism [1] is the point of view that no moral position, point of view or proposition is privileged or objectively correct, that there are no ultimate moral truths, or that no moral argument can ever be final. There is, in this view, no moral standard of any kind that is applicable to all people in all places at all times. Stated conversely, ethical or moral relativism is the point of view that all moral propositions are equally valid or that all morality is subjective. In its more contemporary forms, moral relativism has metamorphosed but is very much alive and well under the names “pragmatism,” “postmodernism” and “deconstruction-ism.”[2]

Those of us who partake of liberal religion have all encountered some version of moral relativism, however obliquely stated or implicit it may be. Who among us has not heard some acquaintance opine “Who are we to judge?” or “That may be our point of view, but they are entitled to theirs” or “You can’t legislate morality” or “We shouldn’t impose our beliefs on others” or that such and such is “merely a social construct” or some variation on these themes? Indeed, at first glance ethical relativism seems to be a model of tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for others’ opinions. Many, quite obviously, find its siren song appealing.[3] In truth, however, moral relativism is incoherent, self-refuting and has necessary implications from which most people would recoil once fully understood.  Moral relativism is, in fact, a virulent cancer gnawing at the heart of religious liberalism — a cancer that has enfeebled liberalism and threatens to destroy it.


The Incoherence of Moral Relativism

The reader can begin to understand the problem with relativism by considering relativism as summarized in the statement “There are no absolute truths.” That statement is itself an absolute statement (i.e. a statement purporting to be true in all cases).  Accepting the truth of the statement “There are no absolute truths” requires that it (itself an absolute statement) be false.[4]

In point of fact, relativism rests on the proposition that nothing is absolutely true except for the meta-statement that nothing is absolutely true. If the relativist logic is applied to the meta-statement, then relativism is not always true and by logical necessity its negation (i.e. there can be absolute truths) is sometimes true. The only way out of this incoherence and contradiction is to argue that the meta-statement is somehow privileged. In other words, the relativistic logic applies to every statement except this one and only this one. There is no reason to believe that it and only it, out of all of the possible statements, should be privileged. Yet the entire relativistic enterprise rests, starkly, on this odd premise. In the absences of accepting this, the entire relativistic position collapses into incoherence.


The Implications of Moral Relativism

Moral relativism means that different moral standards become incomparable, as there can be in moral relativism no objective common standard or benchmark by which to compare the two standards. Without reference to some standard by which to judge a moral system it becomes impossible to talk about one moral system being superior or inferior to another. In fact, the very idea a moral standard by which to judge any person or society lacks meaning unless the moral relativist can solve the problem of drawing the boundaries between different frameworks at some non-arbitrary place short of each individual.

Moral teaching, outside of the agreed and arbitrary framework, becomes impossible. It is, therefore, impossible to teach morality in the sense that most of us ordinarily conceive of it. It would be impossible for a consistent moral relativist to say that racism, sexism, slavery, genocide, burning widows when their husbands die and the like are wrong. The most the moral relativist can say is that “our group” (however defined) regards these acts as wrong. The moral relativist must also acknowledge that if another group regards them as morally permissible or even a moral duty then there is nothing that logically can be said to criticize the other group.

The practical effects of moral relativism are also of concern. If people come to believe that morality is relative and arbitrary, then the practical effect is that they will choose the lower, baser and easier standard or the standard that benefits themselves at the expense of others. The efforts of those who exhort people to adhere to a nobler moral standard will be in vain to the extent that the relativist point of view prevails.

Under relativism, moral progress becomes, even in principle, impossible since it is impossible to know which moral position is superior or inferior. In fact, since the term “progress” is a normative laden term implying that some state of affairs is preferable to another, the very idea of progress is a necessary casualty of adopting moral relativism. Morality, then, in a morally relativist world must become stagnant because a critic (whether without or within the group) has no basis, within relativism, upon which to criticize the then-existing agreed and arbitrary morality of the group. There is no objective or outside standard by which to judge the group’s moral position. Whether Jesus ministering to the Jews of his time, 19th Century Unitarians arguing that slavery is wrong or the founding generation of Americans making the case for a free republic against royal colonial rule, they would all have no basis for arguing against the established order.

So far in this discussion, I have avoided the relativist problem of defining the relevant moral group. What are its boundaries? Possibilities include the nation-state, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, location, a small group’s preferences, “society” or “culture” defined in some other way, and the individual. Each grouping represents a different type of relativism. Should the morality of the group be determined by a bare majority of the relevant group? A supermajority? The established order? The priests? A king? Are there minority rights and why (given the relativist point of view)? Can one group secede from a larger group? Is each individual entitled to his own morality and, if so, how is that materially different from no morality at all?

So far, I have only obliquely addressed the problem of group conflict. Let us assume arguendo that the moral relativist has defined two groups and they have adopted two different moral codes. Since the moral codes differ, it is very likely that in time the two groups will come in conflict. There are at least two senses in which this can be true. The first is the question of which set of rules applies to individuals in certain cases and the second is which set of rules applies when the group qua groups are in conflict. Let us take, by way of example, the practice of female genital mutilation. This ritual is widely practiced in certain African cultures. They regard it, however, not as female genital mutilation but as a necessary part of becoming an adult woman (analogous in some respects to circumcision in Judaism). The mothers perform the ritual on their daughters as their mothers did on them and so on as far back as anyone can remember. A relativist must regard this as perfectly acceptable when done in Africa. But what if the Africans come to America? Not as a matter of law but as a matter of morality or ethics, should it be permitted here? Or should it be regarded as criminal child abuse or battery? On what basis does the moral nature of the act change? Is the geographical location of the act what is important to the moral analysis? Presumably, the girls and women in question are still members of the same group so why should not their morality apply to them even if they happen to be in the United States? Or do they somehow miraculously become members of a different moral (not legal) group when they cross a national boundary? And as their children are slowly Americanized, when, if ever, and on what basis do American moral rules take over from the traditional tribal rules? These issues are utterly intractable for a moral relativist.

There is also the case of group to group conflict. The moral relativist must allow that discrimination based on immutable characteristics (e.g. royal birth, skin color, ethnicity, sex) is permitted if the group (however defined) decides that it is moral. This can range from minor persecution to genocide. Take for example German genocide against the Jews. A moral relativist must regard genocide directed against the Jews as morally permissible in Nazi Germany because Germans as a group regarded it as morally permissible. The Danes, however, did not regard genocide against the Jews as morally permissible so mass murder was prohibited in Denmark. What happens, morally speaking, when Germany successfully invaded Denmark? The new “group” became “greater Germany.” On what basis does the relativist say that the Danish group’s morality is superior to the German group’s morality? And on what basis does the moral relativist argue that the German group’s effort to expand the territory over which its rules apply is morally wrong?

Moral chaos is the harvest that moral relativism sows. Moral relativism is the hand-maiden of evil.


The Nature of Morality Properly Understood

It would, perhaps, be easier to just let the issue rest there.  Moral relativism is not the answer. It cannot be. But, what are the answers to our moral questions?

Since we are, in James Luther Adams formulation, creatures fated to be free we cannot, even if we wanted to, escape moral questions. We must grapple with the issue of how we should lead our lives and to what end we live our lives. Our choices necessarily have moral content. They can give meaning to our lives and fulfill, or fail to fulfill, our purpose in life. What is the meaning of life and what is our purpose? How should we lead our lives to achieve that purpose? There is no more important question and it is, or should be, the central purpose of religion to help us grapple with this issue.

There is no single all encompassing answer. We can develop objective rules that place broad limits on moral behavior and a framework for analysis of more nuanced and less tractable issues that we often confront in our daily lives. The broad limits take the form of proscriptions (Thou shall not …).  Murder is wrong. Unprovoked aggression is wrong. Theft is wrong.  And so on. The more difficult analysis is prescriptive (Love thy neighbor …) and, as more fully discussed below involves making choices between competing goods (and sometimes lesser evils).

There is such a thing as morality, good and evil, right and wrong. Given that, we are faced with the necessity of ascertaining what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. The broad parameters of what is moral and what is not can be discerned in three ways. First, we should meditate on our own innate moral sense and conscience that is in all of us by virtue of the indwelling God. Second, we should reflect on the great moral teachers of history and the common position of most great religions that represent the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. If religions and moral systems across millennia and continents and cultures agree that a particular act would be morally wrong, that raises a strong presumption that such an act is indeed objectively morally wrong. In part, this is because the great religions and their teachers reflect the moral striving of those who were deeply touched by the holy spirit, by God’s immanence. Third, we should exercise reason in light of human experience to fully consider both the basis and implications of particular moral propositions. This third source of moral knowledge has taken on increased importance since the Enlightenment and assumes it rightful station in the American Unitarian tradition. These three things, humanity’s common moral inheritance, God’s immanence, and reason in light of human experience are the basis of morality.

The broad proscriptions are objective and apply to all people in all times. Around the edges, to be sure, there will be disagreements but the core prohibitions can be easily enough grasped. This approach enables us to identify the core proscriptions of the moral life, but avoiding great evil is not really the difficult part of living a life well-lived. Given the distinctly finite nature of our being, we must also choose among competing goods. Thus, our moral system must equip us not only to know right from wrong but to know how to choose among good ends (and sometimes among lesser evils). This latter project is necessarily more vexing than the relatively straightforward project of enunciating objective moral rules directed at preventing great evil.


Understanding The Tragedy of the Human Condition

The beginning of an answer to the question of how to do this, I believe, lies in the insight that our lives are necessarily tragic — tragic not in the sense that we must die, or that we will sin or that evil sometimes prevails against good in this world, although all of these things are true. But necessarily tragic in the sense that a human life even well-lived necessarily pits the good against the good and that there is no escape from this truth about the human condition.

We cannot, for example, become a brilliant statesman, a brilliant scientist, a brilliant ballet dancer, a brilliant musician, a brilliant basketball player and a brilliant artist while simultaneously being a good and attentive parent, actively engaged in our community, selflessly helping others in an array of charities while seeking enlightenment and truth.

In my judgment, there are two traditions that most effectively help religious liberals address these more difficult issues by articulating and analyzing the virtues, by recognizing the need for balance in our lives and by recognizing that a virtue carried to extremes may actually become a vice. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is the scholastic tradition within Roman Catholicism which extends Aristotelian thought regarding the virtues by incorporating Christian thought and the second is the American Unitarian tradition which, at its best, synthesizes the core pre-modern Western values with those of the Enlightenment.

In the Catholic tradition, to the four “cardinal virtues” of wisdom (or prudence), temperance, courage (or fortitude) and justice articulated by the ancient Greeks are added the Christian (or theological) virtues of faith, hope and love (or charity). The tradition contains depth and subtlety and much food for thought. But because this tradition is pre-modern, it is incomplete and flawed.

American Unitarians, notably William Ellery Channing and James Freeman Clarke, emphasize Jesus’ two great commandments to love God and love our neighbor but paired that with a duty to self-culture and a distrust of extremes and egotism. As Clarke put it, “God has placed us here to grow, just as he placed the trees and flowers. The trees and flowers grow unconsciously, and by no effort of their own. Man, too, grows unconsciously, and is educated by circumstances. But he can also control those circumstances, and direct the course of his life.  He can educate himself; he can, by effort and thought, acquire knowledge, become accomplished, refine and purify his nature, develop his powers, strengthen his character. And because he can do this, he ought to do it.” He noted that “Unitarians commonly believe that in all men there are religious capacities, by which they may come into communion with God. These are reason, conscience, freedom, love of truth, of beauty, of goodness, the sense of the infinite, the capability of disinterested love; and the kindred sentiments of veneration, awe, and aspiration.” They spoke of educating and strengthening the will. They understood that there was much risk in pursuing one virtue at the expense of all others.

We American Unitarians have begun to re-engage our own tradition. But it remains an unfortunate fact that neither of these traditions are widely explored by religious liberals today, whether they worship in Unitarian Universalist or other Christian churches or, for that matter, in synagogues. Yet they deserve to be explored because they, more than any others, provide a foundation, flowing from the Hebrew scriptures and within the Christian tradition but enriched by the philosophy of the Greeks and the Enlightenment, to grapple with the question of how best to lead our lives. They are the common moral legacy that we have inherited and represent the best in our Western and specifically American heritage.


[1] While various authors employ one of these three terms (or substitute the term subjectivism for relativism), I will use the term moral relativism in this essay for ease of exposition. Moral relativism should be distinguished from descriptive relativism in that descriptive relativism simply argues the indisputably true empirical anthropological fact that different groups of people live by different sets of moral principles that most individuals in the group hold to be true. Moral relativism, in contrast, makes the normative point that all of these different sets of moral principles are equally valid, at least for the group that holds them.

[2] Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida are probably the two leading names in the contemporary assault of moral relativism on traditional Western philosophy and common moral understanding. Rorty is often classed as a postmodernist but prefers to call himself a pragmatist. Those holding to the more traditional versions of pragmatism espoused by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey do not accept Rorty as one of their own. Rorty sees the Western intellectual traditional as progressing from the religious, to the philosophical and scientific, to the literary culture.  We need to “give up the idea that there is an intrinsic nature of reality to be discovered either by the priests, or the philosophers, or the scientists.” (see his The Decline Of Redemptive Truth And The Rise Of A Literary Culture).  Embracing a literary culture, where we are to engage in a “conversation” about ultimate things, is what he advocates.  Jacques Derrida is among the most prominent deconstructionists.  Meaning, he argues, is an arbitrary social construct and texts (including literary, religious, philosophical, scientific and mathematical) should be read — deconstructed — in that light. There can be no final reading or understanding of texts. He criticizes the “logocentric” Western tradition which assumes that central truths can be knowable and complete.  Hermeneutics (i.e. the study of interpretation) becomes the central project of intellectuals.

[3] There are still those that defend various species of moral relativism without explicitly going down the postmodernist or deconstructionist paths.  See, e.g. Bernard Williams, “The Truth in Relativism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1974-1975); Gilbert Harman, “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review (1975); Hugh LaFollette, “The Truth in Ethical Relativism,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 1991.  

[4] There are nearly as many formulations of the relativist position as there are advocates for the position. I believe, however, that all are subject to the same objection.

© 2004 American UnitarianConference