Arguments against Relativism
In my previous post I argued that the common arguments for relativism fail. In this post I want to go one step further and suggest there are good reasons for rejecting relativism. Many reasons could be mustered here; I will limit myself to three.
Both cultural and individual ethical relativism are subject to several, straight-forward, counter examples.
Take cultural ethical relativism first. Consider a culture where it is accepted that that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would an advocate of cultural relativism contend that in such a society criticism by a Christian minority of this practice and the advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow, religious perspective? Would it be true that in such a society public policy could not be based on the ethical principle that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife?
Consider an Islamic society where the majority believe that conversion to a rival, mono-theistic religion is immoral and should be a capital offence. To not execute converts to Judaism or Christianity in such a society would, according to cultural relativism, be wrong.
In a society where a racial majority believes a racial minority is sub-human and this belief is widely accepted throughout the culture, it would be unjust to grant equal human rights according to cultural relativism.
The same line of argument applies against individual ethical relativism. Suppose an individual believes that it is permissible to rape, torture and kill women. If individual relativism is true it follows that this person is right to do these things and anyone who utters condemnation because they believe rape, torture and murder are wrong are mistaken.
You may think this is a hypothetical example but it’s not. In his discussion of relativism, Pojman recounts an interview with serial killer Ted Bundy,
Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured it out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…. I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a high’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.
Moral Reform and Moral Progress
A second reason for rejecting relativism is that it implies that social reform is mistaken and those who engage in it are always wrong. Consider two historical examples; the first is Martin Luther King Jnr. Dr King campaigned against the racism and racial segregation that was practiced in the southern states of the US.
Now if cultural relativism is correct, Dr King was wrong to do this; segregation was accepted by the society he was in at the time, hence, it was permissible for members of that society. Moreover Dr King’s own practices, which involved civil disobedience, were contrary to the laws of his day. In fact contemporaries of Dr King criticised his actions on this point. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr King answered his critics by stating that above the laws and mores of one’s society was the law of God and that any law which contradicted this was unjust.
Now if we accept relativism, we have to conclude that Dr King was mistaken here. Dr King, in fact, was an intolerant bigot who imposed his private religious beliefs about racism onto others. The society he lived in accepted racism, hence racism is right for members of that society. But surely this analysis is completely lopsided? Dr King was right and his society was wrong; he was the opponent of bigotry and his society was perpetuating it.
Similarly, William Wilberforce’s campaign to end slavery would have to be considered unjust and mistaken if we take seriously the cultural relativist’s position. Slavery was, after all, accepted in the British Empire at the time. Wilberforce’s efforts were defeated by a majority of parliament on many occasions. Hence, if relativism is true, slavery was actually right and Wilberforce was wrong to oppose it.
Similar things can be said for the idea of moral progress. Normally we think that certain reforms such as women’s suffrage, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, ending child labour, etc are marks of progress, historical points where a society improves and gets better. However, if relativism is correct this is not the case.
Reform or progress is impossible; whatever a society believes is right, is right for members of that society. If something is right if a culture thinks its right, then it is impossible for a society’s mores to ever be wrong. Societal mores are in essence infallible.
But then it seems there is nothing to improve upon and hence, progress cannot occur. All that can happen is that societies can change one perfectly valid system for another and those who advocate the change are always mistaken when they do.
Further, a minority would never be justified in proposing its ideas until it was no longer a minority view. However, it cannot cease to be a minority view unless it is proposed in the first place. Consequently, this requires all societies to be frozen in whatever popular prejudices currently exist. The reforming minority that critiques contemporary culture would be effectively silenced.
This problem does not only apply to cultural relativism. An analogous argument can be applied to individual relativism. Reform does not just happen within societies; individuals can reform and make moral progress.
Consider a member of the Ku Klux Klan who thinks that lynching African Americans is justified or a Nazi who fervently believes in the extermination of Jews. If these people came to see the error of their ways and reformed their characters so that they came to view other races as people with equal dignity, made in the image of God, then it is plausible to say they have undergone moral reform and have progressed. However, individual relativism entails this is not the case.
The Klan member and the Nazi were right to engage in bigoted behaviour, because neither believed there was anything wrong with it. Moreover, the basis of this change, seeing ‘the error of their ways,’ is, in fact, hugely mistaken. According to individual relativism, there was no ‘error of ways’ at all and anyone suggesting there was is an intolerant bigot.
Equality of Cultural and Individual Practices
My final argument against relativism is to note that if cultural relativism is true then no practiced widely accepted by a culture is better than a practice accepted by another culture. According to individual relativism, no practice sincerely believed in by one person is better than another’s.
For individual relativism, if Ted Bundy believes it is permissible to rape women and kill them, then that is right for him and there is nothing wrong with him doing it. Similarly, if Mother Teresa believes helping the poor is permissible then she is permitted morally to do this. However, any suggestion that Bundy’s practices are worse than Mother Teresa’s and he should change and be more like her is mistaken. To do so is to suggest that the views of one person (Teresa) can be legitimately applied to another (Bundy) who does not believe in them.
Similarly, with cultural relativism; if a culture institutionalises and accepts the persecution of ethnic minorities then its members are justified in engaging in such persecution. If another culture grants equal dignity to all races on the basis of its beliefs then it too is justified in this. However, it is mistaken to think that one is correct and the other wrong. Both are correct and neither is wrong as there is no trans-cultural standard that one can appeal to, to claim one is better than the other.
I submit then that relativism has little going for it. When one unpacks the contemporary slogans one finds a position supported by bad and often incoherent arguments. A position that if correct, entails horrific and bigoted practices are as justified as any other practice and any attempts to change or reform people from engaging in such practices is wrong. Relativism essentially renders morality and ethics into pointless concepts.
 Louis P. Pojman The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature (Oxford University Press: 2003).
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism II
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