Is Ethics Relative? (Part 3)

Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes

(continued from yesterday’s post.)


3A    What is Personal Ethical Relativism? 

If morality is not relative to culture, might it be relative to a person’s beliefs, attitudes, emotions, opinions, desires, wants, etc.? Personal relativism is a theory that holds that moral judgments are relative to, conditioned by, or dependent upon, individuals. This theory has ancient roots, but it’s also popular today.2 These remarks capture the basic idea:

  • You have your opinion, and I have mine.
  • Truth is relative to my beliefs.
  • Truth is subjective, truth depends on me.
  • My belief is true for me, while your is true for you.
  • You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.

Analogous to the cultural relativist, the personal relativist claims that there is no objective moral truth. Relativists say that while you may hate homosexuality whereas they don’t, there is no objective truth about whether homosexuality is right or wrong. Instead moral statements merely report opinions, feelings, and attitudes; they just tell  what people prefer. Thus, to say that x is right/good/moral, just means you like, favor, or approve of x. And to say that x is wrong/bad/immoral, simply means that you dislike, disfavor, or disapprove of x. In other words, moral truth is relative, it is subjective. (Personal moral relativism is also called ethical subjectivism.)

But notice that, according to personal relativism, there is a way that a moral judgment can be true or false. If we say homosexuality is moral and we’re telling the truth, then it’s true that we think homosexuality is moral. But if we’re lying, then it’s false that we think homosexuality is moral. Of course moral judgments aren’t objectively true or false according to personal relativism, since there is no standard independent of a person’s feelings, but they are subjectively true or false, if we report our beliefs truthfully.

3B    Critique of Personal Relativism 

Personal relativism is open to the same objections as was epistemological and cultural relativism, as the following questions suggest. What does it mean to say something is true for me? Is the claim that truth is relative to me, relatively or absolutely true? If the former, relativism is inconsistent, if the latter, it’s trivial. Is there as much individual disagreement as it appears, or is most moral disagreements on the surface only? Don’t most people share common moral beliefs? And don’t the consequences of taking this theory seriously conflict with our moral intuition? Aren’t some actions just plain wrong?

Given our previous critique, we should reject personal relativism at first glance. Why then is the theory so appealing?  Maybe personal relativism attracts because it reminds us that not everything we believe is true. Perhaps it helps us be open to new ideas. Or possibly we tend to accept it because others do. Whatever the reason we find relativism compelling, let’s consider it in more detail.

Consider the following. If I enjoy torturing small children in the most painful way possible, do you think that’s ok? Do you believe that whether this is right or wrong depends on me? Or do you think it’s just plain wrong? Remember, if personal relativism is true then there is nothing wrong with torturing small children. But you don’t believe that. And you don’t believe that Gandhi and Hitler were moral equivalents because you think that good and bad are in some sense objective. That’s why you think there is something wrong with torturing children, and any moral theory that suggests otherwise must be flawed.

This critique of relativism relies on our intuition. To believe that torturing children is morally acceptable is counter-intuitive. Of course it is true that our intuition is not always a good guide. For example, it seems intuitive that the earth is flat. But if a moral theory leads to consequences that contradict a strongly held moral intuition, then we are probably justified in questioning that moral theory. If a moral theory advocates torture, and nearly everyone thinks torture is immoral, we should probably reject such a theory unless there is other compelling reasons not to. So the claim that a theory is strongly counter-intuitive doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it counts as a reason to reject that theory.

Consider another intuitive argument against moral relativism. Suppose I gave you an F on your ethics test, even though I admit that your answers were perfect. Puzzled, you ask why you received an F, and I tell you that I don’t like you. Furthermore, I tell you that your friend received an A because I really like her. What would you think about this? Wouldn’t you feel that this was unfair? If so, you’re assuming there is some objective standard of fairness. However, if you’re a relativist, consistency demands that you accept that your grade is relative to whether I like you or not. But you think your grade on the test shouldn’t be relative to me because that’s not fair. So you do think that there is an objective standard of fairness after all.

There is something else peculiar about personal relativism. It is easy to say that you are a relativist, but it is hard to actually be a relativist. If the beliefs of both child-torturers and child-lovers conflict, the relativist says that they’re both correct. And while you can say this, it’s hard to believe it. In fact, when confronted with moral disagreements, we make judgments and debate what we should believe and do. In practice, we act as if what we do matters, as if some courses of action and some beliefs are morally preferable to others. In practice, it is virtually impossible to be a relativist. We do think there it is wrong for a samurai swordsmen to try out his new sword on an innocent passer-by.

3C    Questioning the Connection Between Tolerance and Relativism 

Tolerance is generally a good thing. I don’t want my neighbors to exterminate me because I philosophize too much; I’m sure they don’t want me to attack them because they watch too much TV. Tolerance is good, serving to remind us that we may be mistaken about our beliefs. But what is the relationship between moral relativism and tolerance? Are the two connected? Does the theory of moral relativism lead to tolerance?

In the first place there is a contradiction between tolerance and moral relativism. If you’re a relativist, then you can’t consistently defend tolerance as a universal value. If you do, then you’re not a relativist, you’re an absolutist for whom tolerance is an objective value. So relativism and tolerance are logically incompatible.

Now suppose I am a moral relativist. As a relativist, I may be tolerant of your views, but I may also decide that I can do anything I want to you—say, torture and kill you because there is nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s just relative. As a relativist, I might be tolerant of you, but, on the other hand, I might not. My view that the truth depends on me doesn’t seem to be related to how I treat you. There doesn’t seem to be a necessary connection between relativism and tolerance.

Now suppose I am a moral absolutist. As an absolutist, I may be intolerant of your views, but I may also be intolerant of them. So it’s hard to see any connection between moral objectivism or relativism and tolerance. Moral relativism may lead to tolerance or intolerance, as may moral absolutism. In the end, neither moral relativism nor moral objectivism recommends any specific action at all.

In the end we just don’t know the relationship between moral theory and practice, which is probably obvious from your experience. Ethics professors may espouse moral theories, but they may also be horrific people. The religious may espouse charity, but steal the Sunday collection. Theories about how we should act, often don’t translate into action. So even if there should be a connection between moral relativism and tolerance, it doesn’t follow that there is one.

On closer examination tolerance doesn’t appear affected by the content of your belief; rather, tolerance is affected by how certain you are of what you believe. If you’re certain that you know the truth about something, then you will likely be intolerant; if you’re less certain you know the truth about something, you will likely be more tolerant. If we value tolerance, we should be humble.

We’ll conclude the discussion of relativism tomorrow.

2. Allan Bloom The Closing of the American Mind. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988) 25. “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes … that the truth is relative.”

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