What’s Wrong with Relativism?

*Last updated 5 April 2016

Ethical/moral relativism has a lot of problems which, I suggest, disqualify it as a complete ethical system.

But, before defending this claim, let us remember what we’re dealing with. Ethics is a strange field of study. It rarely admits much certainty. Everyone has their opinions about it yet it’s very different from the natural sciences, math or logic. So we’re left without a scientific method, or a rigid calculus to help us decide between who’s right and wrong. It’s wildly contentious. And people use their terms in vastly different ways often thinking they’re saying the same things. Indeed, equivocation–using a word/term in different way, talking past each other–is one of the most common problems in ethics, especially as you span popular level and scholarly discussions.

I’ll try to avoid equivocation, and see if I can add some clarity to an otherwise murky pool of terms and concepts.

Relativism and Religion

What is Relativism?

Relativism, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is:

[1] [Simple Definition]:  the belief that different things are true, right, etc., for different people or at different times

[2] a:  a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing

[3] b:  a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.

More philosophical sources, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(SEP) largely agree:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down in a word study, so I’ll try to be brief. The key features in these example definitions is that relativism has only changing things, like human minds and cultures, to serve as the reference points for knowing and grounding truth or goodness. All truth claims are relative, in a sense. They are relative to their respective reference. “I love Hillary” is true, relative to my wife Hillary Ferrer, but it’s false relative to Hillary Clinton. If love is a morally weighted virtue, then it’s “good” that I love Hillary and it’s not good or it’s bad/evil that I don’t have any love for a fellow human being named Hillary Clinton. This is a real sense of relativity, and while it’s useful for Einsteinian physics or worldview analysis, that sense of the word “relativity/relativism” breaks down, in ethics, if the reference point is absolute, objective, or otherwise unchanging. When we apply this insight to ethics we get a working definition for this post:

Moral relativism [My Definition]: a.k.a., ethical relativism, is the position that only changing things–specifically human minds, individually or in groups–serve as the reference points for moral truth claims, and for knowing and discerning morality. Any moral facts/truths, if they exist at all, exist only as relative truths. Ex., “Cannibalism is evil according to this tribe, but it might be good according to that tribe.” or “Human rights didn’t really exist before the Magna Carta.”

The core defining feature of relativism is that the reference points (for moral truth, moral knowledge, moral authority) are all changing/changeable. If rape is evil, according to relativism, that means that it’s evil only for some person or group of people. Their desires, instincts, opinions, or any other moral faculties are the relevant causes imposing moral value on rape, in this case a proscription against rape. Yet all of those things are subject to change. Rape could have been “good” in the past, or in another society; or it may become good in the future.

Can Religious Ethics Escape Moral Relativism?
Religious ethics often tries to avoid the category of “moral relativism” by appealing to a supernatural being, God, as the arbiter of moral laws or as the personal basis for moral goodness. In one sense that move fails to avoid relativism, it just locates the reference point in a different person–God. Merriam-Webster leaves this sense open, but SEP does not. In this tenuous sense, Christian ethics is a vast relativistic system anchored in the person and work of God. Christian ethics is relative to God.

But that’s not a helpful sense because Christian ethics also asserts that God is unchanging, irreducibly good, morally perfect, etcetera. Classical Theists, Divine Personalists, and even Open Theists agree that God’s character, and moral knowledge are unchanging and morally perfect. The notion of “relativism” breaks down when our ethics transcend the shifting and fickle failings of human society and anchor instead in God. My definition of moral relativism helps curb that theological problem.

If God is the only ultimate anchor for ethics, and he’s not changing in his moral goodness, then relativism and objectivism have converged, and those terms don’t help us much anymore when He’s the reference point. We don’t have “moral relativism” any more because God isn’t relative, he’s absolute. He transcends human culture. He’s a perfect knower able to inerrantly discern any and all moral facts. Anchoring ethics in God avoids the various avenues into moral relativism–imperfect knowledge, cross-cultural disputes, human subjectivity, etc.

There does exist one more avenue into relativism, mentioned above, and religious ethics is guilty here but it’s only a petty offense. Religious ethical systems like Christianity, locate the core moral reference point in a person, and that’s a sort of a relativim, but that’s only relativistic in a tenuous sense because that person is also the unchanging anchor of all existence (i.e., God).

Simply put, yes, religious ethics can escape moral relativism.

Can it be both–relativism and objectivism?
Often these categories are treated like a strict dichotomy: Either relativism is true or objectivism is true, no exceptions. Indeed in my definition above, that’s the case. This dichotomy is correct when we are using relativism in a universal or comprehensive sense, as the term “relativism” is normally used. In common usage, the term “relativism” excludes moral objectivism. It cannot be the case that all morality (all of it’s parts and wholes) is relativistic and yet some morality is objective in the same sense at the same time. According to the square of opposition, those would be contradictories.

But it could be the case that some morally weighted features are culture bound, individualistic, or otherwise adaptable while other moral features are not. In reality, this seems to be the case. There are relative aspects to morality even for those of us who affirm traditional biblical Christian ethical systems like divine command theory, divine essentialism, graded absolutism, Augustinian ethics, or Thomistic Ethics.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that it’s always and everywhere evil to force someone to have sex with you, that is, rape. This seems like a safe enough assumption. This notion would be a moral absolute, in that it’s just plain true and it’s not changing. This notion would also be objective, in that it’s true regardless of what society or an individual may say. If there is even one objective moral value, then moral objectivism is true.

How then might we generate laws around this moral value? We could make it a capital crime, issuing the death penalty. Or we could give it a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. We could allow for mitigating circumstances to determine the degree of offense: was the woman blackmailing him into an adulterous affair and then she changed her mind halfway through the act? Did he warn her several times and try to avoid that situation where his criminal impulse might get the best of him? What about dilemma scenarios? In the Nanking Massacre (a.k.a., the “Rape of Nanking”), Japanese soldiers forced fathers to have sex with their daughters on threat of death.

Obviously these sorts of questions reveal some of the messiness and complexity of ethics. Extracting moral principles, conventions, and societal laws can be very relative. I’m not saying that these complicating layers of ethical theory are sufficient, in themselves, to account for all moral facts reduce the who spaghetti plate of ethics to a relativistic mess. That would be conceding too much to ethical relativism, and that doesn’t seem warranted or wise. But these complicating features are still ethical in that they are changing, subjective or conventional aspects closely tied to ethics.

So, I grant that legal code, cultural norms, and moral principles are relativistic features informing ethics, at least at the normative and practical level. But, just because some aspects of morality are relative doesn’t mean that all of morality is relative. We can still have an abiding objective or absolute moral value like “rape is evil” and be widely divided on how to implement that moral value in society. We could even have objective moral knowledge, but resist it for various reasons and lean entirely on those relativistic features as if those are enough to produce all of morality. In these ways, relativism can truthfully describe some of ethics while objectivism truthfully describes something else about ethics. It cannot be the case, however, that all of ethics is relativistic yet some of it is not relative but objective.

Could God have “willed” rape to be good?
Another accusation often arising in ethics is that even in religious ethics, relativism is unavoidable. God’s laws are arbitrary like that, and God could have made rape “good.” On some brands of religious ethics this might be the case. Some forms of Divine Command Theory allow that God might have the kind of ‘freedom’ to where he could make moral laws arbitrarily, like “Wearing the color purple is evil, punishable by death” and “Rape is a good thing so long as it generates lots of pleasure for the rapist.” This arbitrary sense of divine law is sometimes called “volunteerism,” referring to an extreme form of free-agency/free-will. I don’t hold to that view, and don’t have any intentions to defend it here. I’m not a divine command theorist, nor a volunterist in my theology proper.

I suggest, instead, God can’t make “rape” good any more than he could make a square circle or a married bachelor. Rape goes against God’s nature, so God’s laws reflect that fact in the various divine, natural, and civil laws surrounding rape. It is not the law that makes rape evil, it’s God’s perfect unchanging nature that makes rape evil and that justifies laws against rape. “Good rape,” is an absurdity, referring to logically and metaphysically impossible descriptors. It’s referentially incoherent for to be “good” is to be a member of a class that excludes rape. Even an all powerful God cannot accomplish incoherencies like that. Those aren’t powers, per se, they are more like anti-powers contradicting metaphysical basics. Those are illusions masquerading as possibilities.

Put another way, logical absurdities don’t refer to anything–they can’t–they are referentially incoherent. But without referring to anything, they are referring to nothing. If God is bound by absurdities, he’s bound by nothing. To be bound by nothing is omnipotence. Hence God is omnipotent. Rape is one of those absurdities, not because it’s impossible to even imagine a world where rape is morally permissible–unfortunately, our modern fictions often attest to such deviant imaginings. Rape is an absurdity because God is love and rape defies that loving nature. God can’t affirm rape as morally good and as morally evil, that would violate the (logical) laws of non-contradiction, of identity, and of excluded middle.

Critique of Relativism

With those prior-matters out of the way, we can proceed to the heart of this article. Many people aren’t persuaded at all by religious ethics, and so they don’t grant that morality has an objective basis in God’s nature (or laws). Most philosophical ethicists, to my knowledge, reject moral relativism whether or not they are theists or atheists, or other. Usually some brand of  objectivism wins out among the studied professionals in the field ethics. That’s not always the case, see for example, J.L. Mackie (moral scepticism) and David Hume (emotivism). But most of the time it’s the case, see for example, David Brink (moral realism), and new-atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Why bother with objectivism when relativism seems to accommodate the vast cultural disagreements, the arbitrariness of evolutionary outcomes, the mindless valueless operations of natural forces, and so on? Well, in short, relativism seems too morally repugnant and too unsuited to what we know/believe about reality. In the following list, I’m going to intermingle conventionalism (group relativism) and subjectivism (individual relativism).

  1. Naturalistic Relativism fails to account for moral revolutionaries.
    Occasionally there arises a moral revolutionary who defies the majority or concensus ethic and asserts a different ethic. According to conventionalism, that minority view is inherently wrong. No matter what they are talking about, if the societal or cultural convention has established that slavery is morally persmissable than abolitionists are advocating evil. Obviously some minority views are right, and the majority view (in ethics) can be wrong. Hence conventionalism is wrong.
  2. Might doesn’t make right.
    The reason moral revolutionaries pose a problem for relativism is that, ultimately, conventionalism (group relativism) mistakenly treats the collective self-interests of people as somehow “good, ” as if the might of the masses inherently santifies their efforts at ethics. People people can be collectively bad or good. Likewise for subjectivism (individual relativism), a person could try to assert his own ethical standards for himself on a group. Authority figures and bullies do this all the time. But there’s nothing intrinsically correct about that exercise of strength. His or her ethics could be wildly off target. The might doesn’t make it right.
  3. People Can be Wrong
    Related to the past two poiints,  individuals can be wrong, and so can groups. Even whole nations can approve of and institute moral evils, as if they weren’t evil at all. In logic, we would call this conventionalist problem: “ad populum” (fallacious appeal to popularity) or “consensus gentium” (fallacious appeal to the consensus of the people)
  4. Legality isn’t Morality
    Similar to the last point, we know from experience across our tumultuous history that laws aren’t always ethical. Whether it’s slavery laws in the antebellum southern states, or apartheid in South Africa, or human rights abuses from Sharia law in Islamic states–legality is clearly not the same as morality even though conventionalism would demand that ethics are the same as a groups legal standards, at least in so far as the law still represent the standing conventions of the masses.
  5. Individual and group relativism fail in terms of moral mediators.
    When one group (or individual) disagrees with another, there’s no objective and higher ground for mediating between those feuding parties. Yet that seems counterintuitive and wrong, for example, when it comes to the moral feuds between between WWII Germany and Poland, between the Husseini regime in Iraq and its Kurdish citizens, between the Tutsis and the Hutus in Rwanda, or between Japan and China in the early years of WWII.
  6. Relativism amounts to an unduly bold Universal negative Claim
    Objectivism needs only one objective moral value; then objectivism can be true. But relativism needs all moral values to be relative. This is a universal negative claim: “No moral values are objective.” Such claims are bold, perhaps too bold, because one would need to either know all moral values, or have justified reason for generalizing over all moral values and concluding that no objective moral values exist.
  7. Naturalistic relativism fail by trivializing morality.
    It’s been said that relativists becomes objectivists when you steal their radio. Relativism treats all the vast world of morality like truthless opinions and shifting conventions, and that just doesn’t jive with us when we are wronged. Sure we can feel bad about some crime, but that’s not what makes it evil. We might not even know a particular evil has been done to us, it’s effects are still submerged or latent (like undisclosed HIV), so there may be no relevant emotional or experiential quality to a morally weighted event, yet evil has still been committed. It’s easy to talk about moral laws and values, abstractly, as relative opinions, desires, and feelings when we are in the safety of sterile classrooms or in the luxury of our skeptics meetup and coffeehouse convos. But it’s profoundly insulting to describe our ethical indignation that way when someone just had you or I have our house burned down by arsonists, or our daughter was raped and killed. We don’t correct those sorts of wrongs by changing our desires, or instilling a different instinct, or developing different feelings. Injustice like that is not an emotional chimera, it’s a metaphysical reality. We “correct” those wrongs with justice by punishing the guilty party, or perhaps even forgiveness. And even then, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever be the same existentially. Relativism comes off as trivial and simplistic when faced with profound harms, mass crimes, and otherwise “clear examples” of evil.
  8. Some values are too agreeable to merit the skepticism of relativistics (courage, love, etc.) 
    This point is a softer one, it bears mentioning. Even amidst the wildly divergent laws and norms across different cultures, there abide a number of apparently universal virtues such as courage, love, truthfulness, and benevolence. No society has ever been found which exalts cowardice as a virtue, or which has no moral value for love. These sorts of universal moral values are consistent with ethical universalism and absolutism, and as such, are promising candidates for objective moral values.
  9. Can justify ANYTHING
    Perhaps the scariest result of relativism is that it has no principled objections to any moral fixture. Rape, torture, sport-killings, warfare, all of these can be readily accomodated by moral relativism. A little imagination and an unprincipled ethical outlook can go a long way, . . . towards disaster.
  10. We know better—some stuff is just wrong.Lastly, it bears mentioning that we tend to know better than this. I’m not saying that relativism is devoid of intellectual justifications, as if it has no evidence or argument on its side. There are at least some evidences for relativism, but when it comes to our own moral knowledge, we seem to have an operating leverage of moral facts to push against, for example, an apparently evil God (the problem of evil), or apparent evils in the Bible (“total war,” slavery, etc.), or church abuses (pedophile priests). I doubt the naturalistic atheist is comfortable surrendering all that moral indignation to the status of mere “opinion” or “feelings.” Since opinions can be epistemicallly baseless and feeligns can be devoid of truth-status, that option surrenders too much. Essentially, some of the toughtest objections to conventional conservative forms of theism require objective moral facts. Moreover, setting that theological dispute aside, I think we all just know better on a personal level. A youth group member might get all relativistic about sexual ethics when he wants to sleep with his girlfriend, but he would appeal to the highest court in the land (even to God  himself) if his parents took away his car after having promised him one. We have a sense of justice which is very much unlike mechanical laws, but doesn’t seem as shifty social conventions like dress code and etiquette. While it might be difficult to give a full metaphysical account of “justice” it seems like a good, realistic, starting ground for ethics to grant that “justice” is an objective moral fact and we need a worldview that allows for “justice” that way.

Critiques of Naturalistic Objectivism

Now that we’ve critiqued relativism, we can turn to a critique of naturalistic objectivism. Naturalists might agree with enough of the previous critiques so that they seek an escape into objectivism. But for several reasons, that door might be closed too.

  1. Naturalistic Objectivism fails to ground ethics in a mind.
    Morality, as we have so far encountered it, is mental stuff. It’s hypothetical states theorizing about what “ought” to be and what “ought not” be, and involves moral desires, motivations, goals and so on. All of that is profoundly mental. Yet nature is fundamentally non-mental, and even human minds tend to be explained away as deterministic programming, leaving morality so radically revised it’s not even recognizable. Naturalism is having a beast of a time demonstrating that it’s even possible for human minds to emerge from brute material processes.
  2. Naturalistic Objectivism fails to provide an objective transcultural law-giver that could issue objectively binding laws.
    so far I’ve focused the truth-makers for moral facts. What makes a claimed moral value “true”? If that truthmaker is merely human minds, culture, and society then it’s relativistic and fails to live up the the fuller, more robust aspects of morality we sometimes encounter. But there’s also a question about moral authority. We lack moral authority to create laws that are binding for all cultures and all times. We may have authority to make laws, but we can’t make those laws “good” because we aren’t transculture law-givers establishing the moral foundations of human existence. The best we can do is create laws in our time, which may or may not be “good”, and have those laws serve as binding features relative to our group.
  3. Naturalistic Objectivism lacks transcultural grounding.
    As I discuss, at length, in the article “Nature is a Jerk,” descriptive facts of nature are not prescriptive. They have no innate oughtness. So the ethical laws and rules emerging from one’s naturalism aren’t binding apart from that groups who thought up those rules and laws.
  4. Naturalistic Objectivism has no natural truthmaker to make any value claim “true.”
    At the heart of the naturalist’s problems is the wholesale inability of naturalism to produce even one single “ought” which has arisen indisputably from natural causes. that ought is critically important because if any of our moral claims (our “moral oughts”) are going to be “true” they need to correctly correspond to a real-world reference point. Our moral claims are ought statements, so if nature is going to make any of them whatsoever “true” nature needs to show us some “oughts.” Nature hasn’t given us any moral oughts, therefore our moral claims are either truthless, false, and thereby non-objective or they have their grounding outside of nature, in supernature (i.e., God).
  5. Nature has no transcendence to enable meaningful language hence moral language/ideas are all meaningless.
    An even deeper problem of naturalistic ethics is that the very use of language requires teleology, for example, the goal-directedness and referential operations of language (language ‘points’ to things besides itself). Moral language is an instance of language. Naturalism is openly hostile if not prohibitive towards teleology. Therefore, moral language is potentially banned from or foreign to naturalism.
  6. Naturalism’s chief bodyguard, evolution is value neutral, yet natural reason can only discover (not create) moral values, and objective intuitions (Moore, Ross) are non-natural if they are “good” at all (see, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica).

Summarizing this case against naturalistic objectivism, it seems that naturalism is frought with problems when the naturalist tries to erect an objective moral framework. Perhaps one can appeal to pan-psychism or pantheism, but these are only tenuously “naturalistic,” and they are liable to introduce more problems than they solve.

Closing Thoughts

Relativism, we have seen, is bogged down irredeemably with a strong of objections. It trivializes morality, it prohibits cross-cultural judgments, it prohibits moral mediators, it rules against all moral revolutionaries, it’s an overzealous universal negative claim, and in many ways it’s morally repugnant. Now, it could be that objectivism fails too, torn apart on the same rocky shores of critical inquiry. In that case nihilism, absurdism, or amoralism might prevail. But I’ll have to save that critique for another day.

In the mean time, naturalistic objectivism is frought with problems too including it’s “mental handicap,” lacking a divine mind or even a strong account of human minds whereby the imminently mental stuff of morality can inhere. Naturalism fails to demonstrate even one single moral “ought” to serve as an objective truthmaker for moral claims. And it struggles with moral authority, teleology, and the various embarassments of it’s horrifically violent brother, Evolution.


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