Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Moral relativism – a much abused and misconstrued term

The latest issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 97; July/August 2013) has as its theme ‘The Self’ but there are a couple of articles that touch on ethics and morality, including one that looks at moral relativism (Julien Beillard, pp. 23-4). In a nutshell, Beillard claims that moral relativism is ‘unintelligible’, because, to the moral relativist, all moral stances are equally true and equally false, which is patently ‘absurd’. I know it’s unfair to reduce a 2 page argument to a one-liner, but it’s not the direction I wish to take, albeit I think he has a point.

In another article, Joel Marks (p.52) expounds on 3 books he’s written on the subject of Ethics without Morals (one of the titles) without actually arguing his case, so I can’t comment, let alone analyse his position, without reading at least one of them. The reason I raise it at all is because he briefly discusses the idea of ‘morality [being] independent of religion’. Marks calls himself an ‘amoralist’, but again, this is not the direction I wish to take.

Moral relativism is one of the most abused terms one finds on blogs like mine, especially by religious fundamentalists. It’s a reflex action for many of them when faced with an atheist or a non-theist. (I make the distinction, because non-theists don’t particularly care, whereas atheists tend to take a much harder stance towards religion in general.) The point is that fundamentalists take immediate refuge in the belief that all atheists must be moral relativists, which is just nonsense. To paraphrase Marks (out of context) they believe that ‘secular moralists …are on much less secure ground than traditional theism, because it purports to issue commands… without a commander (God).’ (parentheses in the original.)

The point I’d make, in response to this, is that people project their morality onto their God rather than the other way round. For example, homophobes have a homophobic God, and they will find the relevant text to support this view, disregarding the obvious point that the text was written by a human, just as mortal as themselves. Others of the same faith, but a different disposition towards homosexuality, will find relevant texts to support the exact opposite point of view. This was recently demonstrated on this TV panel discussion, involving opposing theologians from the Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam (some were audience members and one was video-linked from California). And one has to ask the obvious question, given the context of this discussion: is this moral relativism in action?

The point is that most moral attitudes and beliefs are cultural, and that includes all the religious ones as well. And like all cultural phenomena, morality evolves, so what was taboo generations ago, can become the social norm, and gay marriage is a good example of a social norm in transition. It also highlights the point that conservative voices like to keep the status quo (some even want to turn the clock back) while radical voices tend to advocate change, which we all recognise, politically, as being right and left. But over generations the radical becomes the status quo, and eventually conservatives defend what was once considered radical, which is how morality evolves.

I would argue that no one ever practices moral relativism – I’ve never met one and I never expect to. Why? Because everyone has a moral stance on virtually every moral question. In effect, this is exactly the point that Beillard makes, albeit in a more roundabout way. The real question is where do they get that stance? For conservatives, the answer is tradition and often religion. But there are liberal theologians as well, so religion is very flexible, completely dependent on the subjective perspective of its adherents. In a secular pluralist society, like the one I live in, there are many diverse moral views (on topics like gay marriage) as the abovementioned TV discussion demonstrates. Abortion is another example that can be delineated pretty much between conservatives and liberals. Are these examples of moral relativism? No, they are examples of diverse cultural norms and topics of debate, as they should be. Some of these issues are decided, for the society as a whole, in Parliaments, where democratically elected members can discuss and argue, sometimes being allowed a conscience vote. In other words, they don’t have to follow party lines. Gay marriage is an issue that should be allowed a conscience vote, though one conservative party, in our country, still refuses. As Penny Wong, a gay member of parliament and a mother, says in the above debate: the issue will only be resolved when both major parties allow a conscience vote. This is democracy in action.

So moral relativism has to be looked at in the context of an evolving culture where mores of the past, like abolition and women’s right to vote, have become the accepted norm, even for conservatives. The same will eventually occur for gay marriage, as we are seeing the transition occurring all over the world. There really is no such thing as moral relativism, except as a catch-phrase for religious conservatives to attempt to sideline their philosophical opponents. No one is a moral relativist for as long as they hold a philosophical position on a moral issue, and that includes most of us.

Addendum: This is Penny Wong's speech to parliament that effectively demonstrates the evolvement of social norms. It says a lot about Australian politics that she's effectively talking to an empty chamber.


Anonymous said...

Beillard does not argue that relativism is "absurd" but that it is unintelligible -- in other words that it means nothing that we can understand. Notice it can't be both. If something is absurd it has to be intelligible.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I assume your citation is correct, as I don’t have ready access to the article right now. For all I know you might be Beillard. However, I think your distinction is a pedantic one, and, given the context, I’m not sure it matters. The important point about language is that people understand my meaning, and I’m sure they do, as I’m sure you do.

As for your point that something has to be intelligible to be absurd, then, yes, my argument has to be intelligible for people to appreciate that my analysis draws the conclusion of ‘absurdity’. So maybe the mistake is that I attached my conclusion to Beillard’s. He says that moral relativism is unintelligible, in that, upon analysis, it makes no sense. But ‘makes no sense’ could be interpreted as ‘absurd’. Having said that, his argument is perfectly intelligible.