05 January 2009

Relatively wrong

I was sparked by a discussion I’ve been having over at The Philosophers' Magazine website to explain why I don't accept moral relativism. I speak of “relativism” in the sense of the notion of morality being relative to each society or culture. I'm not addressing my criticisms here to the notion of morality being relative in other senses, such as between all individuals.

There is a lot of commentary on the subject, but here is a good book review from George Crowder that covers some of the issues.

In that review, Crowder mentions the ‘Liberal dilemma’. You can read about it in the article, but in a day-to-day sense it can be seen in a common liberal quandary: the average liberal deplores sexism (tsk tsk, men and their chauvinism), and they deplore being culturally judgmental (tsk tsk, the west and its cultural imperialism). So what do they say about the culture that’s sexist?

However, other positions also have their dilemmas. In the case of absolutism, it’s easiest explained with reference to Bible literalists. How do they know the Bible contains absolute moral truths? Because God says so, they will respond. Okay, but how do they know that’s what God says? Oh easy, they say: Because the Bible tells me so!

The thing is, there are at least two problems for the cultural relativists.

1) All culture’s values are equally valid; but what if one of the values of another culture is precisely the opposite of that notion? In other words, what if a society holds as a value that other society’s values are inferior? Does the relativist (intellectually, if not in practice) tell that culture that they are naughty for trying to impose their values on other societies? But if so, are they not doing exactly what moral relativists say we should not do: namely, judge another society by our standards?

Take the Taliban as an example. They hold morally absolutist views. They will impose their very strict, conservative moral views on anyone, including Muslims who hold different interpretations of the Koran. On the one hand, the relativist says the Taliban are right by their own standards, and there is no outside/objective position to judge them by otherwise. On the other hand, surely the very point of being a relativist is to say that moral absolutism is categorically wrong - and the Taliban are about as absolutist as a culture can be. How is it really possible to hold that there is nothing objectively wrong with the Taliban’s views, while being committed to a moral relativist position?

2) How does the relativist decide where the lines are between one society or culture, and another, without referring to non-societal based, objective norms? I knew an animal rights supporter who was against Spanish bullfighting. I was surprised to learn he was also against people criticizing Japanese whale hunting. Why? Because the Japanese are another culture, whereas (apparently) the Spanish are not.

The reasoning being that Spain was part of “western society”. It was valid to criticise their practices, because they could be seen within "our" moral worldview. Not so the Japanese, according to his assessment. So, was it up to this person (a New Zealander) to make the judgment that Spain was part of “our” culture? Or is it up to the Spanish to say whether they are the same culture, or a different one, for these purposes?

It’s impossible to make the judgment, or even say who should make the judgment, without referring to some non culture-based standard. Where is the line drawn; when does a person count as part of this or that culture or society; can there even be a line? If morality is reduced to a society’s view, you have to be able to judge what qualifies as a ‘society' without recourse to standards that are derived from your own society or culture. If you do use standards derived from your own society to define what counts as the other, you are effectively imposing your worldview, which is what you want to avoid. If you use standards or norms derived from a neutral standpoint you're not really a relativist.

This type of cultural relativism is nonsensical. However, that doesn’t mean I am a moral absolutist, in the sense that is usually implied by the term. As I said over on TPM, I actually fall somewhere between the moral relativist stance and the objectivists. Morality is objective in that moral truths can come from objective reality: our physical, biological, sociological and psychological interactions. It’s relative in that moral principles are contingent on changeable factors (including, but not limited to, social situations and cultural context). Morals are real, but not absolute; relative, but not arbitrary.