Is Ethics Relative? (Part 1)

Ethics is that part of philosophy which deals with the good and bad, or right and wrong in human conduct. It asks questions like: What is morality? Is morality objective or subjective? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Why should I be moral?

We can divide philosophical ethics into four parts. Meta-ethics analyzes moral concepts, moral justification, and the meaning of moral language. Descriptive ethics describes the moral systems of various cultures. Normative ethics considers moral norms, standards or criteria that underlie moral theories. Applied ethics applies normative theories to moral problems in law, medicine, business, computer science, the environment and more. Over the next few weeks we will discuss normative ethics, or moral theories. We’ll begin with relativism. 


1A    What is Relativism?

Is LA close to New York City? Well it’s relative. LA is closer to NYC than it is to Mars, but it’s not closer to NYC than it is to San Diego. Is rock-n-roll good music? Well it depends. Most teenagers love it; many senior citizens do not. You may like rock, but your granddad likes Bach. In both cases, the answers depend upon what close or good is being measured against. Compared to Mars, LA and NYC are almost on top of each other; compared to San Diego, LA and NYC are a continent apart. Relative to my teenager’s musical tastes, rock is better than Bach, As for me; I’d choose Bach over rock anytime. Now, what about the logical law of non-contradiction, the distributive law in arithmetic, the parallel postulate in geometry, or Newton’s laws of gravity? Are these relative to, conditioned by, dependent upon, or measured against, something else? Or are they just true?

This kind of relativism is called epistemological relativism. The basic idea is that there are no universal truths about the world, just different ways of interpreting it. The theory dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said: “man is the measure of all things.” But this basic idea is also captured by more contemporary ideas:

  • What you believe is true (for you); what I believe is true (for me).
  • Truth is subjective.
  • Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Different strokes for different folks.
  • You have your beliefs; I have mine, and that’s the end of it.

To be a relativist means that a belief, idea, proposition, claim, etc. is never true or false, good or bad, or right or wrong, absolutely. According to the relativist, there is no absolute or objective truth; truth is relative and subjective. For example, a relativist can’t consistently claim that 2 + 2 = 4 because the answer 4 is neither right nor wrong. It’s just depends. Your math teacher likes 4, but you like 6; so for you, the answer is 6. And you can’t consistently claim that gravity pulls objects downward, that airplanes fly because of aeronautical engineering principles, or that the earth is round, since none of these are absolute truths—at least according to the relativist.

Consider some implications of relativism. If you are an art expert who loves Rembrandt while your eight year-old sister thinks her doodling is the best art, as a relativist you cannot consistently maintain that your opinion about art is better than your sister’s. And if you eat healthy, exercise, maintain an ideal weight, and engage in stress reduction activities; you cannot consistently argue that your lifestyle is healthier than your roommate who eats poorly, lives a sedentary lifestyle, is overweight, and smokes to relieve stress. After all, its’ all relative. Or suppose your brother has a Ph.D. in physics from Oxford and has recently found compelling evidence for superstring theory. As a relativist you have no justification to say that your brother knows more about physical reality than your mother, who believes that she lives in a universe comprised of tiny, invisible gremlins whose gyrations are responsible for the expansion of the universe. After all, physicists have their view of reality and your Mom has hers, and that’s the end of it.

1B    Critique of Relativism

Do you really believe that the palm reader knows as much about the physical universe or the future as a physicist? (If you do, it’s costing you money!) Or that farmers know as much about medicine as physicians? Or that auto mechanics know as much about the brain as neurophysiologists? Or that the principles of aeronautical engineering can fly planes, but holding hands and chanting “up, up, and away” works just as well? If you’re a relativist you have to believe all these things, because nothing is true or false. But is everything just relative? You might say this, but do you really believe it?  Would you rather drive over a bridge built by the army corps of engineers, or one made of duct tape built by psychics? Do you believe that the one bridge is as good as the other? Would you consult the next person you meet to determine if you need heart disease, or would you ask a cardiologist instead? And don’t you ask experts because you assume there really are truths about the universe?

In addition to the outrageous implications of relativism, there are other reasons why relativism is problematic. Consider the statement “I know you don’t think I’m a poached egg, but I think I’m one, so it is true for me. Now what does this mean? All it means is that you believe something such as: you’re a poached egg, or that the moon is made of cheese, or Elvis is alive and well in Mozambique. To say that something is true—for you—doesn’t add truth to a statement; it merely reports that you believe something. But here’s the rub. Believing something doesn’t make it true! You aren’t a poached egg; the moon isn’t made of cheese, and Elvis isn’t alive and well in Mozambique. To respond with, those statements are true for me is just silly because you’re human, the moon is a rock, and Elvis is dead. And those things are true for me, and for you! The truth is independent of your beliefs.

Moreover relativism is logically incoherent. Consider the statement: all truth is relative. If this statement is objectively true, then relativism is false because there is at least one objective truth—namely, the truth that truth is relative. Thus, it is logically incoherent to say, all truth is relative is objectively true. But if the statement is only subjectively true, then, as we have already seen, this just means that you believe in relativism. Thus, by claiming that truth is relative you either contradict yourself or make a trivial claim with nothing to recommend your belief. (The other possibilities? Relativism is objectively false, in which case you obviously shouldn’t be a relativist; or relativism is subjectively false, in which case you don’t believe in it.)

In response a relativist could claim that the proposition that the truth is relative is the one objectively true proposition, while all other propositions are relative. So the only true proposition is: all truth is relative except the claim that truth is relative. Apart from wondering why such a puzzling proposition is true, we also wonder if this modified proposition objectively or subjectively true? If objectively true, then you have again contradicted yourself, inasmuch as you have to admit that this new proposition is absolute; if subjectively true, then again you have merely made the trivial claim that you believe in relativism. And of course if this new proposition is objectively or subjectively false, you haven’t helped your case at all.

In reply, you could construct a new proposition: all truth is relative except the claim that “all truth is relative except the claim that all truth is relative.” (Hang on if you feel you need a beer!) This is known as an infinite regress argument; you continue to construct a new claim to infinity. But whatever proposition you advance, we can always show that what you’re claiming is either a contradiction or just states your belief in relativism. Now you don’t want to be contradicting yourself because that’s just silly. And you don’t want to say that you believe in relativism, because you just believe in it without any reason. Thus relativism is either self-refuting or trivial. 

1C    Relativism, the Unknown, and Belief

Relativism also seduces because you might confuse your inability to know the truth with there being no truth. I don’t know if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, but intelligent life either does or doesn’t exist elsewhere—my inability to determine the truth is irrelevant to the actual truth about the matter. You may not know whether God exists or not, or if the author of this text is married with children, but God either exists or does not, and I either do or don’t have a wife and children. The fact that you don’t know what 2 + 2 equals, doesn’t mean there is no solution to the problem; it means your bad at arithmetic. Therefore, your inability to distinguish between truth and falsity is not evidence for the truth of relativism.

This leads to a related idea. Don’t confuse the fervency of your belief with a belief being true. You may be convinced the universe is teeming with intelligent life, that God exists, or that the author of this text has six wives, but this doesn’t mean these beliefs are true. Remember that you often believe things that are mistaken. You may believe that continental drift is impossible, that biological evolution didn’t happen, or that relativity theory is bogus. But your belief has nothing to with the truth or falsity of these ideas. Therefore, the strength of your belief in something—say that all truth is relative—is not evidence for the truth of relativism.

1D    Summary and Transition

Ok, let’s see where we’ve been so far. The claim that all truth is relative is either incoherent or trivial. Moreover, relativism is neither supported by our inability to know what’s true, nor by the fervency of our belief in relativism. But does this mean that nothing is relative? No. The answers to all the following questions are relative. Is LA close to NYC? Does chocolate taste better than vanilla? Who’s the world’s greatest athlete? Am I a great philosopher? It’s not the claim that some things are relative that has been positively refuted; rather, it is the claim that all things are relative that is incoherent or illogical. And if all things aren’t relative and subjective, then some things must be absolute and objective.

Now you might agree that this assault on relativism has been successful, but still claim that while some truths are objective—logical, mathematical, and natural scientific ones for example—other so-called truths are relative—ethical truths for instance. Such considerations lead us to moral relativism, the theory that there are no absolute, objective, and universally binding moral truths. According to the moral relativist, there exist conflicting moral claims that are both true. (X is right, and x is wrong.) In short, the ethical relativist denies that there is any objective truth about right and wrong. Ethical judgments are not true or false because there is no objective moral truth—x is right—for a moral judgment to correspond with. In brief, morality is relative, subjective, and non-universally binding, and disagreements about ethics are like disagreements about what flavor of ice cream is best.

And what specifically might morality be relative to? Usually morality is thought to be relative to a group’s or individual’s: beliefs, emotions, opinions, wants, desires, interests, preferences, feelings, etc. Thus, we distinguish between two kinds of moral relativism: cultural moral relativism and personal moral relativism.

We’ll continue the discussion of relativism tomorrow.

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