Note on Ethical Relativism
A Note on Relativism:
“I’m saying that if you mutilate 100 million women and make it so hard for them to give birth that many of them will die trying or their children will be born deformed or crippled, how can you expect the continent to be healthy.”
Well-intentioned people often believe in and say really stupid things. In 1992 following the publication of her novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy,” Pulitzer-prize winning author, Alice Walker, was attacked for her ethnocentrism and bigotry by academics, feminists and multiculturalists for her condemnation of the African cultural practice of genital mutilation. Her critics claimed that since FGM was a central part of traditional African culture and was outside of Western moral sensibilities, it could not and should not be judged by others.
In similar fashion, it is common response for students studying ethics for the first time to claim that ethics are socially-conditioned or that morals change from person to person. While superficially that may seem true, upon deeper reflection, you will likely find that that is not the case and indeed cannot be the case.
Relativism is the belief that all knowledge is subjective, including moral knowledge. It is the belief that claims of evaluation are relative to and specific to culture, place, custom, language or biological makeup. Advocates of relativism usually claim that the “good” or “morality” is entirely dependent on the specific circumstances, particular persons, or cultures from which it emerged. Note that this is different than the anthropologists “relativism” which is an operative practice used as a tool to understand a culture that is different than your own. The anthropologist may “do as the Romans do” but only in Rome and not back home. As such, it is an intellectual tool that the student of different cultures uses to aid in her understanding of a culture different than her own. Also note that there is frequent confusion between morals and mores: the latter being the socially determined practices of etiquette, folkways and customs specific to any culture. Mores are relative in the anthropological sense.
Moral relativism is the strong claim that all morals are relative to the believer; and if this claim were true, then we would inevitably need to accept that genital mutilation, sex selection abortions, murder, abuse, mercy killing, rape, and even genocide are, well, morally acceptable since we lack a ground to condemn such actions. If a culture or person practices an act that we believe is inhumane, then we need a basis to ground our moral criticism and judgment upon. Lacking that ground—or objective notion of moral right or wrong—pushes us into the corner of silence or apathy. Most philosophers argue that moral universalism—an objective moral good—is the preferred position. On the contrary, and strictly speaking, if relativism is true and all morals are up to the culture or individual, then literally all things are morally permissible. Cleary this is an untenable position, but why?
Moral relativism is a sub species of epistemological relativism which states that:
“All truths are subjective.”
But this is a canard, a specious or unjustified belief. The logic (or grammar) of the sentence above, “all truths are relative” rests on an objective notion of truth, namely, that ALL truth is relative. But to use this logical and grammatical quantifier “all” is to smuggle in an anti-relativist position. The relativist undermines herself by attempting to claim using objective truth that all truth is subjective. The relativist is an objectivist in wolf’s clothing. They obfuscate. They say one thing, but mean another.
What is at the heart of relativism is either a desire to be viewed as open-minded and tolerant or just plain old muddle-headedness. Of course, there may be those who do believe that whatever they do is right and beyond question but ethics has little to offer those of that solipsistic persuasion. In contemporary American society, Americans are trained, socialized and imbibe a kind of noxious moral relativism where anything and all things are permitted. Pop culture, fashion and the domestic economy thrive on this assumption. There are economic reasons for such practices of socialization: It profits the markets, sells products. But as philosophers, we question such assumptions.
In order for ethics to exist the very possibility of an ethical judgment must exist at the objective level. In other words, ethical philosophers argue that there is a universal good accessible through human reason. This good may lack specific content—it does not tell you exactly what to do at any given circumstance. But it does provide a framework or justification for your belief or moral evaluation. Kant’s categorical imperative (CI) is an efficient example of such a content-free claim. An act is moral, Kant says, insofar as the agent can “universalize” the action. In short, would any and all future agents accept my action as moral, be willing to do as I am doing? If the answer is yes, then the act is moral; if, on the other hand, it is not universal then there must be something wrong with the act. As an example, the C.I. provides a framework for ethical evaluation but it does not tell you what to do.
To demonstrate and add to the universalist position of Kant’s C.I. you should know that it actually started life in China in the 6th century BCE! The great Chinese philosopher, Kung-fu-Tzu (Latinized as Confucius) articulated the “golden Rule” in his “Analects”:
“Tsekung asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?” Confucius replied, “It is the word shu (恕) –reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15.23
To further demonstrate its “universal” nature, this claim traveled into the mountains of central China and was adopted by the Taoists:
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
Traveled over the Himalayas to India where it appears in the Mahabharata:
“This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.”
From there it was carried and spread via trade caravans to the Middle East, where it appeared in the foundational religion and philosophy of the Iranian thinker, Zarathustra, whose religion is called Zoroastrianism:
“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.”
Centuries later it would be written down in the Jewish sacred texts known as the Talmud by Rabbis: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.”
(Shabbat 3). It will appear in the gospel of Mark Chapter 7, verse 1:
“”All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophecy.”
And the prophet Mohammed would approve of it in the Hadith as an embodiment of the ethics of the holy Koran:
“No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”
Quite remarkably, Plato and Aristotle, the great seminal thinkers of Western philosophy, used it and it would appear in The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the teachings of the Shawnee people. Even the Yoruba people of Kenya, Benin and Mali who practice FGM have a saying: “If one is going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird, one should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.” So from Confucius to Kant to the Yoruba, the world’s religions, many of its philosophies and most of its cultures accept the basic logic of the “golden rule” clearly and cogently demonstrating it as a universal moral practice or good. Yet, because moral education and philosophy is sparingly taught and religion is on the wan in the West, most well-educated people will maintain a logical absurdity and claim still that there is no such thing as a universal moral good.