Suppose you asked me what today’s date was and I answered that the Maori Electorate seats in Parliament should be scrapped. You would quite rightly wonder what I was on. The question of what the date is is a completely different question as to whether a particular social policy is just.
Oddly enough, however, when it comes to many questions on social policy or on ethics in general, people offer the date as a justification for their stance. I often hear people justify some ‘progressive’ policy by informing me that is the 21st century or that we no longer live in the dark ages.
Recently in there has been controversy over whether women should be allowed to ride motorbikes down our main street topless to promote a pornography erotica festival. There were predominantly two responses articulated by supporters in the media reports on the controversy: “it’s the 21st century” and “we live in a liberal society.”
Let’s unpack both slogans. The first claims that being topless in public is acceptable because in the 21st century the fashions trends are for acceptance of such activities. In the past people opposed such actions but they shouldn’t anymore because society’s attitudes have changed. Note the implicit assumption here, that right and wrong is determined by what society currently accepts. The same assumption is even more evident in the second slogan. The assertion here is that New Zealand is a liberal society, that is, kiwis today have liberal attitudes towards pornography and public nudity. Suppose this is true; this entails that pornography and public nudity are permissible only if right and wrong are determined by societal attitudes.
This is not an isolated incident. When I was studying the abortion issue for my PhD research I often found people who stated they were personally opposed to abortion but would not condemn others who did it. This, of course, suggests that one can accept a principle opposing abortion, apply it to oneself and yet think it inappropriate to apply it to others.
Similarly, we often hear slogans such as “who are you to judge,” “don’t force your morality onto me,” Both suggest that one person cannot make moral judgments about another and that their moral scruples only apply to those who also hold them.
It is not uncommon to hear people say things like, “if you don’t like abortion don’t have one” or “if you don’t agree with what’s on TV turn it off.” Both responses assume that a person should not apply their moral standards to other people’s actions. They should follow these standards themselves if that is their belief but other people who disagree with them are not required to.
Behind these responses is a position known as ethical relativism. In a series of three posts I want to explore what relativism is, the common arguments for it and provide some reasons for rejecting it.
[This series was developed from my talk on the topic for Thinking Matters]
What is Ethical Relativism?
Frances Howard-Snyder suggests that relativism comes in two forms, cultural ethical relativism and individual ethical relativism. These views can be formulated as follows:
Cultural Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action.
Individual Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person believes that the action is wrong.
Two things follow from this view of ethics; first, humans create right and wrong, either by societal consensus of some sort or by an individual choosing to adopt and/or believe in, certain principles of action. Second, moral principles only apply to people or cultures who accept them. A few of examples will illustrate this.
Consider first cultural ethical relativism. Suppose two cultures have differing positions on the morality of pre-marital sex. In one culture it is seen as a serious sin, in the other it’s a normal courting ritual. Cultural ethical relativism entails that pre-marital sex is wrong for members of the first culture but not wrong for the second. Consequently, if a person in the second culture mocks a member of the first culture for holding repressed ideas about sex or conversely if a person in the first culture criticises someone in the second culture for engaging in pre-marital sex each is making a serious mistake. Premarital sex is only wrong for people in the first culture and denying your sexual urges is only wrong for people in the second.
A similar result follows from adopting individual ethical relativism. If a person believes that pre-marital sex is wrong then it is wrong for him and he should refrain from engaging in it and can be condemned if he does not. However, he cannot apply his own standard of sexual conduct to the behaviour of others who do not accept his views. If a person does not accept his view then pre-marital sex is not wrong for them.
This suggests a corollary that hypocrisy will be seen as the worst kind of evil (indeed the only evil) and sincerity will be highly praised. The hypocrite violates his own views and the sincere person embraces them. (Of course the problem is that an individual or culture might believe there is nothing wrong with hypocrisy and despise sincerity, this would lead to the conclusion that hypocrisy is ok and sincerity is evil.)
A final implication is that as cultures and individuals often disagree on moral questions there is no set of moral precepts which bind all people, regardless of their culture, at all times. Given this, it is not surprising that people commonly respond to ethical and social policy questions by providing the date.
Before looking at the arguments for relativism I want to contrast it with objectivism. In this context objectivism is not a form of Libertarianism expounded by Ayn Rand, it is the view that actions are right or wrong independent of whether anyone believes them to be so.
Robert Adams defends the thesis that ethical wrongness is (i.e. is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.” [Emphasis original] I have defended divine command theories in various places on this blog, in this post, however, I want to simply note that a divine command theory, like other meta-ethical theories, grounds right and wrong in in facts that hold independently of human volition or cognition.
If God exists, he existed before I came into existence and will continue to exist after I die. He does not depend on me in any way for his existence rather I depend upon him for my existence. The same is true for the commands he issues; if right and wrong are constituted by divine commands then, it follows, right and wrong are objective properties of actions and do not depend upon us for their instantiation.
Two implications of objectivism are noteworthy. First, ethical rules are not created by human beings but rather discovered by them. Second, whether an action is right or wrong is a factual question in much the same way as the question is the earth round? The shape of the earth is something human beings have discovered. If some people, such as the 4th century Theologian Lactantius or some culture, such as the ancient Babylonians, believe the world is flat then they are mistaken. Despite what they think Lactantius and the Babylonians lived on a spherical globe; no matter how sincerely they believed otherwise, there was no change to the shape of the earth. Objectivism sees moral properties such as right and wrong as being on par with factual claims about the shape of the earth this is respect.
As the slogans above suggest, objectivist views of ethics are widely disparaged in popular culture in favour of relativism. Of course, the fact that a position is widely disparaged does not mean it is mistaken. To determine this we need to ask whether the arguments in favour of relativism are compelling. It is to this task I will turn in my next post.
 Frances Howard-Snyder, “Christianity and Ethics” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing co, 1999) 376-377.
 The same basic distinction is found in Pojman who distinguishes between what he calls conventionalism and subjectivism
 Robert Adams, “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again,” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 76.
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism II
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism III
Video of Matthew Flannagan Speaking on Moral Relativism
With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality
On a Common Equivocation
Sunday Study: The Virtue of Judging – Jesus was not a Relativist