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Let’s Talk About Moral Relativism

Relativism is fairly popular in academic circles at the moment, although it is thankfully not as ubiquitous as some people would have you believe. There are actually far more kinds of relativism than you might think, too – epistemological relativism, cultural relativism (very popular in many English departments, it must be said), logical relativism and good old-fashioned moral relativism. I subscribe only to the latter, for reasons that I might go into at some future date.

Before I get any inevitable comments about how moral relativism ‘can’t condemn the Holocaust’, let me point out two things: firstly, not all moral relativists are that strict or extreme in their outlook, and secondly, that is irrelevant. I frequently see the morality of others glibly dismissed based on the fact that it would make it difficult to condemn Hitler or because it is too Eurocentric or because it is not backed up by the weight of Scripture and will therefore lead people away from God. All of those concerns are totally irrelevant, for the simple reason that if moral relativism or Biblical morality or realism are correct then they are correct regardless of their consequences. At most, offering up this kind of argument is a rather underhanded attempt at accusing the moral relativist (or whoever) of being intellectually dishonest. It is not a valid argument against relativism itself.

I have to say, I’m not particularly happy about being a moral relativist. I would like it very much if there was some way of telling with any degree of certainty what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but so far I’ve only come to the depressing conclusion that a person’s morality is no more objective than is their taste in music or their political allegiances. Again, this is not a situation that I enjoy, but it seems to be true. I’ve always been highly suspicious of any claim to have discovered moral truths or ‘facts’, for the simple reason that those moral truths always seem to coincide perfectly with what a person believed in before they made their discovery. A Christian will never ‘discover’ that, actually, the Qur’an contains the greatest moral truth of any holy book, just as a staunch liberal will never ‘discover’ that his conservative enemies have had it right all along. This alone doesn’t invalidate any argument in favor of objective morality, for obvious reasons, but it has left me pretty disillusioned with the whole business.

We all know somebody (or a great number of somebodies) who will defend their opinions on trivial matters as if they were stone-cold fact. On matters of taste in art or music or books, and especially when it comes to political affiliations, we all expect that people will treat what is obviously a subjective opinion as though it were objectively correct. Why do we look at moral opinions any differently? Surely only because they are more important to us. We all want to be able to condemn the Holocaust on the strongest terms possible, collectively unaware that having a desire to condemn something as wrong is hardly a rational starting point if we want to discover objective moral truths (again, for obvious reasons).

I would argue for relativism because it seems to be the most reasonable position to adopt, not because I like it. Am I alone in this, or are there others who grudgingly accept that relativism is probably correct but wish that it wasn’t? Or are there any theists out there who believe that their God has mandated morality from on high but who don’t agree with the content of his pronouncements? (And I mean genuinely don’t agree – I’ve seen too many people who’ll say something along the lines of ‘Yes, this part seems barbaric and arbitrary, but here’s why it’s actually 100% acceptable.)

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Categories: Atheism
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