A Complaint About an Article on Moral Relativism
Found at On Earth As In Heaven's Website


Dear sir,
I am a philosophy graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. My specialty is moral philosophy. I was surfing the internet for material for my class, Intro to Ethics, and I noticed your website. I am writing because your website contains several errors that I thought you might like to fix.

First of all, your definition of moral relativism is sloppy. You write that it is the doctrine that good and evil do not exist; but that is simply false. That doctrine is properly called nihilism or anti-realism. The difference is not merely verbal. Moral relativists think that moral truth is relative to one's culture, or religion, or whatnot. As such, 'eating meat is wrong' can be true for a Hindu, but false for us. An anti-realist about morality, on the other hand, would say that neither view is true or false, since moral claims are not attempts to describe the world. Rather, they are attempts to 'create an influence' or to persuade others to act in certain ways. 'Eating meat is wrong' is, on this view, more like 'Boo! Meat!' than 'The chair is red'--more properly viewed as a sort of exclamation (which is neither true nor false) than as a description (which is either true or false, according to the facts).

You are right to criticize moral relativism. It is a stupid doctrine. But you don't get the critique quite right. You write: The observation that morality is different from culture to culture and from person to person does not prove that morality has no one true standard, for by applying such an argument in other ways, it would be like saying that since there are different types of love (such as love of siblings, love of parents, love of friends, love of spouse, love of neighbors, etc.), then love cannot be the standard for these experiences. Or since there are different kinds of ice cream, then there can't be ice cream. Contradictory systems of morality do not prove that morality doesn't exist; all it proves is that morality can be different. The problem is that you're getting muddled about the content of the doctrine. Moral relativism is not the view that morality doesn't exist, as I explained above; so your argument is sort of beside the point. But you are on the right track. From the fact that culture A has moral beliefs X Y and Z, but culture B has moral beliefs -X, -Y, and -Z, we cannot conclude anything at all about the truth of those moral claims. (This is contrary to the relativist, whose conclusion from this premise is that moral truth must be relative to culture.) The proper counter-example is something like this: suppose we found a tribe in the Amazon that believes that the earth is flat. Well, we think it is round; would this disagreement cause us to conclude that geographical statements are relative? No, of course not. When two parties disagree, it is possible that one of them is just plain old wrong. Surely the same argument applies with respect to morality. Disagreement does not imply relativity of truth. It implies, instead, that one, or perhaps both, of the parties are wrong.

But the main reason I wrote to you is the following paragraph. You write that: Since modern liberals, who practice moral relativism, cannot make moral judgements, or do not wish to, they often escape the moral question completely by diverting attention away from it by saying that it is "too complicated to understand" or that "it is another gray area". They often do this when certain facts force them to make some kind of definite moral assessment of a social issue or of persons represented by a social issue. This obfuscation of morality is often abused by liberals so that they can advance their own social morality or agendas without making moral determinations. It is simply false to think that there is any necessary connection between liberalism and moral relativism. John Stuart Mill was no relativist, and he was perhaps the founder of modern liberalism; and John Rawls, the most influential contemporary liberal, was a Kantian through and through, meaning that he certainly rejected relativism. When liberals like John Kerry say that an issue is complicated, and so they will suspend judgment for the time being, why not take them at their word? Some moral issues ARE complicated, and take time, and thinking (not necessarily prayer) to sort out. Hesitation and deliberation are not surefire signs of relativism. On the contrary, they are indicators of a healthy, active, questioning mind, of someone not content with dogmatism and facile answers.

I think you do you readers a disservice with your confused section on moral relativism and liberalism, and I urge you to change it, or at the least, to reply to this message.
Best, Sam

Sam,
I appreciate your e-mail a lot. One of the reasons that I set up a website was to find holes in my arguments if anyone should point them out.

Your understanding of moral relativism sounds just like what I understand cultural relativism to be. From my research, cultural relativism occurs when a person judges morality by culture, whereas moral relativism is simply the idea that the traditional standard of morality must or can be changed. So in my article I used the term "moral relativism" to sum up all forms of relativism, including nihilism, since distortions of traditional moral perspectives are at the root of all forms of relativism. All relativists, no matter what type of relativism they ascribe to, tend to bend morality for a certain agenda; they are relativists because they don't want to believe in God and/or they don't want to follow at least some of the well-established religious moral ethics, or whatever. So when I wrote that moral relativism teaches how good & evil don't exist, I meant to say that the standards of good & evil are not treated as absolutes, which also happens to be the dominant theme of nihilism. Because of all this, it may be that certain points of my article were muddled, so I might take your advice & fix or clarify some of what I wrote once I get time for it. I'm sure that people in philosophy circles are far more exact about philosophical terminology, but I had hoped to write a simple article for all people to read and to get a sense of what basic relativism is and how all forms of relativism are focused on altering traditional moral standards, which led me to describe them as moral relativists.

Thanks for your good analogy about the tribe in the Amazon. I was trying to come up with a good example to prove the folly of cultural relativism, what you call moral relativism, & I just thought of love & ice cream. I wanted an analogy that deals with something spiritual though, not something where two people disagree on visual facts. But I might use your analogy anyway or modify it somewhat.

Your main concern was what I wrote about modern liberals being moral relativists. I don't know how there can't be any connection between them in today's world. Relativists don't think that there are any moral absolutes and liberals don't feel constrained to follow traditional norms. Before the Viet Nam War there were major differences between liberals and relativists, but in modern times more & more relativists are liberals & vice-versa, & this has become more & more true for many decades now. The spiritual inclinations & social beliefs of both of these types are so similar that there is little difference between them anymore in their effects on society.

Philosophy students may have strict definitions separating liberals from relativists in ideology, yet in practical reality there isn't much visible difference between them. For instance, New Jersey voting laws state that a political candidate cannot enter a race 2 months before an election. Sen. Torricelli, a Democrat, was involved in some scandal in 2002, which made him drop out of a race 5 weeks before the election. This meant that the Republican had no opposing candidate on election day, which, because of such laws, has happened in every election throughout the country since the 1700's. But the New Jersey supreme court decided to change the law and invent a new law in order to allow a Democrat to run in the race. (A similar thing happened in 2000 with the Florida supreme court during the presidential election.) Were these judges relativists or liberals? News commentators all described them as liberals or progressives or any other term but conservative. Hence, the relativist would look at the law & claim that the law is relative & can be changed, & the liberal would look at the law & claim that the law is unfair & can be changed. What's the practical difference between them? Technically, relativists say that good, evil, right, wrong, the law, tradition, etc. are all relative or fluid; & liberals say that all these things can be subject to change. There isn't much difference between them. Though there is some ideological differences, they are still asserting the same practical effects. That's what I was aiming at in my article, which I wrote for people with no philosophy majors.

Your point about the differences between liberals & relativists is well taken, & if I re-write my article on moral relativism, I will consider clarifying this point. But I don't think I need to clarify too much. This is because I don't feel the need to tell my readers that not every liberal is a relativist & not every relativist is totally liberal, or explain that liberals & relativists aren't exactly the same. Doesn't the reader have enough common sense to know that, or to know that I know that? Jesus Christ never apologized & clarified His statements that all Pharisees, Sadducees, & scribes were corrupt vipers in Matthew 23 & elsewhere, even though He knew of Christians who were Pharisees. The Apostle Paul never apologized & clarified his statement in Titus 1:12 that all the people on the island of Crete were liars & gluttons, even though there were Christians on that island who had repudiated such a mentality. People all over the world have spoken like this for centuries & it was always the readers' responsibility to use common sense & to see common sense in the writer, or at least to ask for clarification. There's nothing wrong with asking for clarification, but I don't feel the need to change what I say when I generalize liberals & relativists, or generalizing them as being the same.

This brings me to your objection about my saying that modern liberals often escape moral judgements by creating platitudes about gray areas & complicated issues. In my article I specifically wrote two times that liberals OFTEN escape making moral judgements by relegating certain issues to gray areas, not that they all do this all the time. I also wrote that liberals, modern liberals, OFTEN abuse the method of seeing gray areas for the sake of advancing their own moral agendas. The words "often" & "abuse" should indicate that they don't all do this all the time, & that there are non-abusive methods of assessing gray areas about certain complicated issues, which do exist. Again, there is nothing wrong about making generalizations & I don't feel the need to clarify a generalization, just as Jesus Christ & the Apostles never felt obligated to clarify & re-write generalizations they made of people & groups of people or certain types of behavior most pronounced among certain groups of people. I wrote in my article specific words designed to formulate a context by which the reader could ascertain that my generalizations about liberals & relativists were generalizations, not factual statements considered true 100% of the time.

I've heard some liberals complain that conservatives never see gray areas regarding certain moral & ethical issues. And I've heard some conservatives complain that liberals always try to create gray areas. These are common generalizations which reflect actual tendencies for each of these groups, & there's nothing wrong with saying such things. Liberals do see more gray areas than conservatives, & conservatives do see issues more in black & white than liberals do. But it's not true that all conservatives 100% of the time see no gray areas & that all liberals 100% of the time see no issues in black & white. There are some people who actually believe that such generalizations are true, but other people, maybe most people, making generalizations know that they're making generalizations, especially when confronted with it. If you were generalizing me into the category of those who believe that generalizations about liberals are factual 100% of the time, then I hope this explanation helps you to put me into the group of people which understands that generalizations are not applicable 100% of the time!

Your e-mail was great! I really do appreciate the constructive criticism you gave me. I will take into consideration all your points & maybe some time this summer I'll re-write the article & use all or some of your points. I feel kind of honored that a philosophy graduate student took some time to write, & if you'd like to continue this discussion, maybe send more objections about my opinions, write back to me.
-Gaius