ARGUMENTS FOR ETHICAL RELATIVISM AND OBJECTIONS
1. THE ARGUMENT FROM MORAL DISAGREEMENT: Many Sociologists and Anthropologists point out the fact that individuals, as well as whole societies, sometimes disagree about moral issues (Descriptive Fact). From this fact, some conclude that therefore, principles regarding moral right and wrong are purely relative, i.e., ethical relativism is true and there is no objective moral truth (Philosophical Claim).
OBJECTION #1: Even if we do find moral disagreement, so what? It does not follow from the mere fact of disagreement about an issue that there is no objective truth regarding that issue. For example, suppose we disagreed on the date of Barrack Obama’s birthday. The mere fact of such disagreement does not prove that there is no objective truth on this issue. That is, it does not follow that Barrack Obama wasn’t born on a certain date, or worse, that he was never born at all! So why should it be any different with respect to moral issues? The mere fact that people disagree about moral issues does not alone prove that there is no objective truth in morality.
OBJECTION #2: Suppose the Ethical Relativist insists that the mere fact of disagreement regarding the objectivity of moral principles does prove that ethical objectivism cannot be true, and that there is therefore no objective truth in morality. In saying this, the ethical relativist is affirming the principle: “Disagreement about X implies that there is no objective truth about X.” The problem is that this negates the relativist’s own position. For there is clearly no universal agreement regarding the truth of ethical relativism! Hence, according to the ethical relativists own principle [that disagreement about X implies there is no objective truth about X] it follows that ethical relativism cannot be objectively true!
OBJECTION #3: Disagreement is over-rated: In many cases disagreements are not moral disagreements at all, but rather, factual disagreements. For example, many people who live in India do not eat cows because they believe in reincarnation. That is, they believe that cows may possess the souls of deceased human beings. In the U.S. we do not tend to believe cows have human souls. For this reason, we eat cows -
but we do not eat Grandma. It appears on the surface that there is a fundamental disagreement in moral principle between Indians and Americans. This is a hasty conclusion, however, for both cultures believe it is wrong to eat Grandma; it is just that the Indians believe the cow may actually be Grandma, while we do not. Thus it is a disagreement regarding the facts and not a disagreement in fundamental moral principles that divides our culinary habits. (Francis J. Beckwith, "Philosophical Problems With Moral Relativism." (Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, pp. 20.)
2. THE TOLERANCE ARGUMENT: Relativists often defend their position by claiming they are more tolerant of other people and other cultures. In a multicultural society it is better to be tolerant rather than intolerant. Since the ethical relativist does not believe his moral beliefs and practices are any truer than the moral beliefs of others, he can be tolerant in a way that the ethical objectivist cannot. Hence, ethical relativism is preferable to ethical objectivism.
OBJECTION: In putting forth tolerance as a virtue that everyone ought to adopt, it seems that the ethical relativist is putting forth tolerance as an objective, universal value. But this is inconsistent with his relativist position that denies any objective, universal moral truths. Why should everyone take tolerance as a virtue to be valued if all values are relative? Furthermore, suppose a relativist belongs to a society whose moral code requires one to be intolerant of other cultures. Then it would follow that he should be intolerant, not tolerant!
ARGUMENTS THAT ATTEMPT TO SHOW THE ABSURDITY OF ETHICAL RELATIVISM
1. ETHICAL RELATIVISM IS ABSURD BECAUSE IT CANNOT MAKE RELEVANT MORAL
DISTINCTIONS. Consider these two arguments:
1. If Ethical Relativism were true, then Mother Theresa is no better than Hitler.
2. But it is absurd to believe that Mother Theresa is no better than Hitler.
3. Therefore, Ethical Relativism is not true.
1. If Ethical relativism is true, then no culture’s ethical beliefs are better or worse than any other.
2. But then the random torture of small children is perfectly right for no other reason than that it is believed by the culture that tortures the children.
3. But this is irrational and absurd!
4. Therefore, ethical relativism is not true.
2. ETHICAL RELATIVISM AND THE PROBLEM OF MORAL REFORM: Suppose an activist sees a society in need of improvement and feels compelled to propose certain changes to improve the lives of its citizens. There have been times throughout human history where we find such reformers –indeed, these include many great moral reformers such as Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, etc. We admire these people precisely because they did not simply accept society as it is, but dared to change and improve it.
PROBLEM: Cultural Ethical Relativism prohibits such action because it requires the acceptance of society as it is. This is because what is morally right is defined in relation to a society’s moral beliefs and practices. Hence, anyone who advocates moral reform is not only mistaken but morally wrong! But this is absurd. Hence, Ethical Relativism is unacceptable.
3. ETHICAL RELATIVISM AND IRRATIONALITY: According to Individual Ethical Relativism, whatever I choose to believe is right or wrong just because I believe it. I may have reasons to support my belief, but then again I may not. In other words, it really does not matter whether I have reasons to support my moral beliefs. For it is consistent with the theory to assert that whatever moral beliefs I hold, they are true simply because I believe them. Similarly for Cultural Ethical Relativism. The only difference is that we are dealing with what a Culture believes is right, instead of a single individual.
PROBLEM: The problem is that this is completely irrational! Think about it. Imagine an Ethical Relativist (or a Culture of Relativists) who really believes that he has the moral right to do whatever he wants to do. Thus, he rapes, kills and tortures people -and he can justify all of this by appeal to the pleasure he gets out of it, or his
need for power and control, or for no reason at all! Of course, we might respond by saying that he does not have any right to harm others like that. But what’s the point? There is no reasoning with such a person (or group of persons) because he does not have to listen to or provide any reasons! And that is precisely the problem. Ethical Relativism ultimately condemns itself to being a purely irrational (and dangerous) ethical theory. And that is why a reasonable person cannot accept it.
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CONCLUSION: Taken together, the above arguments present us with a cumulative case against Ethical Relativism. If the ethical relativist disagrees, then he must rebut these arguments by presenting reasons why these arguments are flawed and unacceptable. In the absence of such rebuttal, it is more reasonable to reject Ethical Relativism in favor of some form of Ethical Objectivism.