Moral relativism has been a cornerstone of American academia since the civil rights movement of the 1960's. This movement forced our society to acknowledge egalitarianism as a social ideal; race and gender equality entered the realm of possibility. Many social reformers went even farther than this - if all people have been created equal, don't all people equally have the right to determine morality?
This question is the root of moral relativism. Sociologists and philosophers have noticed for thousands of years that there is a great range in social mores among world cultures. Relativists use this fact to claim that there is no objective moral truth; morality is a tool used to protect and foster human interaction. As such, an individual's moral standards are either formed by the society that the individual operates within, or by the individual's conscience. These differing ideas on the source of morality produce two forms of moral relativism - cultural relativism and individualistic relativism.
Individualistic relativism, or subjectivism, is the more radical of the two forms. Subjectivists propose that every person has a unique moral code, created and maintained by that person - a conscience. This conscience in no way has to conform to society's norms. A person's morality can only be judged against his conscience, no matter what that entails. Every person sets up a standard of morality to be judged by.
Cultural relativism is somewhat more conventional, at least on initial analysis. An individual can only be judged within the context of that individual's society. All Americans are to be judged according to American morality, and all Canadians according to Canadian morality. Relativist Americans cannot judge Canadians according to the American system of morality, but according to the Canadian system. The advantage of this method of study is that it seems to provide an external moral standard without resorting to an objective one.
Further analysis, however, shows this not to be the case. The term 'culture' is so amorphous that attempts to nail down any individual's external culture are impossible. What is the minimum size for a culture? What happens when a person is a member of two different cultures, which conflict on a certain matter of morality? Inevitably, after many such attempts to better define culture or society for an individual, the only applicable definition would be a society of one - the individual, and only the individual. Therefore, cultural relativism reduces to subjectivism.
Relativism, then, reduces to a single idea: I can't judge anyone's morals except by that person's own standard of morality. This means people such as David Koresh and Jim Jones are completely justified in destroying other people's lives, as long as that action is consistent with their personal conscience. The inverse, however, is not true. Relativists cannot expect others to conform to their ideas. Non-relativists can be as judgmental as they want, but a relativist must abide by the dogma of individual morality and honor their moral decisions.
I disagree with the theory of moral relativism, as its framework contains multiple assumptions. Many of these assumptions were mentioned within the text, but were not accompanied by coherent support or explanation by the featured relativists. The most critical of these was the assumption of cultural equality.
Relativists assume that every human culture (or individual, in the case of subjectivism) has the same capacity to study and dictate morality. This seems to be the definition of relativism itself, but it is an inherent assumption integral to its defense. This can be seen in Pojman's description of the argument for ethical relativism:
- What is considered morally right varies from society to society, so that there are no moral principles accepted by all societies.
- All moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance.
- Therefore, there are no universally valid moral principles . . . (Pojman 240)
The argument gives equal weight to each society's moral principles, without regard to social or educational advancement
. If a person were to impose certain restrictions on societies -- such as only considering those cultures who have reached the industrial age, or only accepting those whose average educational level is at a certain grade -- a more unified morality would most likely emerge. The question of whether or not these restrictions (or any other restriction) should be used in the quest for objective moral truth was not addressed. The featured relativists, when using the above argument, simply assumed that each culture has an equal say in determining objective moral truth -- a permutation of cultural relativism. This is circular reasoning
, as a form of relativism is being used to prove relativism.
This problem is exacerbated by the propensity of many relativists to assume that a difference in moral application reflects a difference in moral principle. Herodotus, when speaking of the differences between cultures, contrasts the burial rituals of Greeks with the cannibalist rituals of Indians (Herodotus 208-9). Although these two applications of morals are greatly different, the basic principle is the same: certain rituals are to be used to honor and respect the bodies of the dead. Many relativists hold Herodotus's account up as the perfect description of moral relativism, although it actually supports a non-relativist view of moral principle.
What would happen, then, if certain societies were given lesser weight when researching objective morality, and the researcher acknowledged that moral principle, rather than application, should be used as the meter stick? I believe that certain basic moral principles would be proven universal: The killing of another human without reason is wrong. Respect should be given to those in authority. Members of a family unit have responsibilities to one another. These principles, and certain others, form the basis of any functioning society on Earth.
Sommers, Christina, and Sommers, Fred. Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers. © 2001.
Pojman, Louis. "Who's to Judge?" Sommers pp. 237-50.
Herodotus. "Morality as Custom". Sommers pp. 208-9.