Moral Absolutism vs Moral Relativism


This is an answer to a question on yahoo answers http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=Ak9l5pzBdJiDGJP7Nzc6aVUOJ3RG;_ylv=3?qid=20130920034731AAigZcu. I was just replying for fun but my reply was too long for yahoo answers so I thought I’d post it here and link to it.

Moral Relativism is very very odd and has probably come from practical anthropology rather than actual philosophy. I think moral relativism works as a description of the way people in our culture act. But if you’re talking about a well thought through philosophical position a better comparison is between “Moral Absolutism” and “Moral Nihilism” where nihilism is simply that there are no moral propositions that are true or false. (Also known as Moral Skepticism which is similar)

Moral Relativism states (sort of, it’s hard to describe as no one really thinks it) that the truth of moral propositions is relative to the context of the culture that it is in. For example in “Civilised Western Society” rape is wrong but “random cannibalistic tribal society” might accept Rape as ok. Moral Relativism states that in one place the act is fully completely wrong but moving to a new geography/ community makes it suddenly completely morally acceptable.

This was a good thing in anthropology. Studying cultures used to be through a completely colonialist lens and so in the study of cultures it is good to try and study it from the culture’s point of view. If we look at a culture that says murder is ok (For example state sanction murder in the US with capital punishment). We’ll get a better understanding of it if we try and do it from the American point of view rather than enforce European Human Rights based assumptions.

However that is about describing about how a community is. It becomes completely different when you describe how a community ought to behave.

It just seems bizarre that raping someone in one place is completely evil and immoral and then suddenly being ok in another place.

Now… NO ONE is suggesting that Moral “Acts” are not relative. Whether or not the act “have sex with person X” is morally acceptable will be relative to a whole bunch of factors. Sometimes sex with the same person will be morally acceptable one day and unacceptable the other. However, even according to Moral Absolutism, the moral propositions or principles behind whether or not an act is immoral are not relative. For example the principle “All sexual acts are fine between consenting adults” or something more generically philosophical like “Acts that maximise the amount of pleasure for the most people are good and acts that minimise pleasure or cause pain for the most amount of people are bad” which is sort of Utilitarianism.

Now if we think “pleasure is good” we will find in different cultures different things cause pleasure. Some people like eating food that literally tears apart their mouth (chilli) and some people do not. But that is because the physical pain of chilli (combined with endorphins) actually causes pleasure to the person eating it in some situations and sometimes it will cause displeasure to other people who don’t like chilli. The act “Eating some chilli” is relative to person but the principle “What causes pleasure is good” is not.

Now… the reason why I personally think people talk about moral relativism as an attitude that people take when it is not thought through is about judgement. For example, I personally think murdering people is wrong, but I might hear about a group of people in France who love murder. Now I’ve never spent much time with those people so I think to myself “well to each their own, I don’t want to judge them and I don’t want to visit France so I won’t think about it and get on with my day”. However if those French people came over to the UK and started murdering my friends I’d be outraged. This is me acting like a moral relativist. The same act, murder, is not ok on my friends and family but it is ok when practised by a bunch of people I don’t know or care about.

However… I’m not ACTUALLY a moral relativist. What I’m saying here is that I don’t know what could be the reasons why these French people love murder. In the same way that piercing a child’s ears could seem horrible and barbaric but then I think, well I don’t know the culture maybe there is something I’m missing out on. Basically the moral relativist here is only acting like this because they admit they don’t have access to all the information and they don’t care about those people. But they don’t ACTUALLY think Murder is wrong in some places and other places. They more like “Moral Agnostics”.

This gets really complicated when a bunch of people act like this and then engage in politics. The chances are, if the person who thinks Murder in France is fine thought about it, they would discover an underlying principle behind their attitude that truly governs their moral attitude, such as “Freedom to do as you please individually is important including exerting that onto other people”.

Now… the more defensible philosophical position is moral nihilism. This is the view that there are no moral statements that are true or false or at least, if there are, it is impossible to know about them. If this is true, then what people think are morals are just strong people forcing their views onto others. Instead of “Murder is Wrong”, actually

“Murder is neither right nor wrong but for some reason I don’t want you to murder my family (maybe cause I have a biological attachment or I like having sex with my wife) and so if you murder my family I will torture you and because I’m stronger then you my way wins out.”

If I am strong enough the parents of other people will start telling their children not to murder Jamie’s family and you’ll get some kind of aristocracy form. The children will feel and believe these moral truths but only because a bigger stronger Jamie has forced them to.

Some people might explain “moral feelings” as nothing more than as a result of the evolutionary advantage to make humans work in groups and win against all the other animals.

It’s interesting because if Moral Nihilism was true then you’d expect something like Moral Relativism to arise naturally in the communities you study. In one city, I may really hate people murdering my family but in another city, the king might love people murdering their family and so the morality would look different in those cultures. And so that is why I think whilst moral relativism as a philosophical position is completely mad, it is interesting as a description about the way the world is.

Finally Moral Relativism is appealing as an easy option. As I said earlier, if someone says they are a moral relativist about specific issues they probably have an underlying principle that is morally true everywhere and is not relative. However, trying to find those underlying principles is really really hard! Try Kantian Ethics with his “Categorical Imperative” compared to the Human Rights movement compared to Utilitarians and Hedonists compared to Nietzsche. Even John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty and Utilitarianism seem to be at odds with each other in the same person. If there really was a moral absolute position then why is it so elusive? Let’s just ignore the argument between, Absolute verses Nihilism and just go with the flow.

In summary. Moral relativism I don’t think is a defensible philosophical position (But look into that stanford article in my sources yourself, especially read the top paragraph). The interesting philosophical discussion is between moral absolutism and moral nihilism. However philosophically this question is so hard that pragmatically we may want to act like moral agnostics. If we have this attitude a moral relativistic stance will probably be the safest. If a whole group of people all think murder is fine and I think it’s not, then I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt until I get really good evidence to the contrary.

Disclaimer: I am a Christian and so take a stance on ethics that is Christian. An Atheist may have a different take on the things I’ve said here. Also, I’ve deliberately used quite racist language to describe some positions. This is because I think moral relativism, anthropology and racism are deeply intertwined. A lot of the principles behind it I think were created to help the people studying a culture get out of their racist assumptions. Particularly the idea that “Western Civilisation” is morally better than “barbarians”. The reality is that if you are a moral absolutist it becomes very easy to justify acts that are really evil and racist. Eg, all these women in this country wander around topless, this is immoral therefore I can kill them all. However, if you’re writing an essay and you use the examples and language I used (eg Examples involving Rape) you’ll probably find teachers and examiners don’t like it. So maybe tone down the rape and racism!

Disclaimer2: Moral Relativism is a pet peeve, I think it’s just silly. Instead of listening to me, reading the stanford encyclopaedia article about it is probably better. I stopped after the first few paragraphs as I had read enough to support the position I had picked before I did any research. If I had continued reading I might have found out that I’m wrong and I wouldn’t want that!

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