Should we be moral relativists? (Part 2)

Protagoras

Protagoras

Since antiquity man has pondered the source of our morality. Indeed, early Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the controversial phrase, “man is the measure of all things.”  Is this true though?  Is the mind of man, either his personal or societal bent, the measure of moral quality, or are moral laws akin to the laws of physics or mathematics, being a described feature of the universe, rather than a personally or culturally defined development?  While the debate will inevitably carry on between camps that claim moral objectivism is true, and camps that claim relativism is true, one thing it seems we can say for certain is that neither view of morality allows us to say we “should” be moral relativists, as the question necessarily falls on its own sword.

Moral relativism seems to manifest itself either personally or culturally.  What’s deemed good for me and by me, is the “right” thing, or what’s deemed good by my culture is the “right” thing.  Assuming the question, “should we be moral relativists” is meant to apply to a universal “we”, it seems moral relativism itself disqualifies any meaningful answer to such a question.  The question implies an oughtness, as if there is a correct answer to the question about how we should behave.  It seems to presuppose that the answer “yes” may be less morally dubious than the answer “no”, or vice versa.  However, one would need an objective source of morality to affirm or deny the premise in any real sense.  If moral relativism is true, the question, and other questions whose answers imply a proper mode of right conduct by mankind, simply become meaningless.

If moral relativism is true, then to say we “should” behave any particular way becomes nonsensical.  We are permitted to say I “prefer” a certain action, or my culture “prefers” a certain action, but to carry moral relativism any further than preference to a particular action or outcome begins to reek of objectivism.  Further, what one person or culture prefers, cannot be a recipe for what I ought to do.  I am free to reject the preference of anybody else.  Consider a culture in which believing the sacrifice of children to a deity is considered “good”.  On moral relativism, we are impotent to condemn it as wrong.  My personal sensibilities, or the sensibilities of my culture, may find it distasteful, but in no way can that be applied across the personal or cultural boundaries inside which the ideology is promoted.

One might offer a rejoinder that appeals to some seemingly universal recognizable wrongdoing.  For instance, one might say it’s wrong to torture children for fun, and everybody seems to recognize that across cultures. Therefore, the relativist may say, there are just some things we can all agree on, and so we “should” do some things and “should not” do others.  However, on moral relativism we become free to reject any such notion as a fallacious appeal to popularity.  If one person decides killing babies for fun brings them joy, the moral relativist is impotent to condemn that action as intrinsically wrong.  The relativist may impose his current cultural standards upon the stray ideology by force of law, but this is simply a “might makes right” tactic, rather than an appeal to a true state of affairs in the universe where killing babies for fun is always wrong.  The worst any action can be is personally or culturally distasteful.  On this view of reality, an individual or societal quest for power by extermination of opposing people-groups and force, such as the ideology of the Third Reich, is no more or less valid than any other way of living.

In the end, moral relativism does not allow for any “should” or “should not”, as both would imply there are objective moral truth claims that can be applied to all people, places, and times in the history of the universe.  The moral relativist has removed from himself, all grounds for being able to say anybody else ought to be a moral relativist. In short, the question, “should we be moral relativists,” implies a state of affairs in the universe where there is a correct answer to the question.  However, moral relativism itself ensures that there can be no correct answer to questions about how we should behave.  Since the question itself makes an inquiry into how we ought to behave, its self-defeating nature allows it to be safely ignored as incoherent.

Shove it, Cosmos!

I love the cosmos.  I really do.  It’s quite an amazing place.  I love it so much that when the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT offered an evening of star gazing in Yellowstone National Park using a fleet of high powered telescopes, my family and I packed up the tent and braved the cold Wyoming air to get a close up view (relatively speaking) of planets and galaxies far, far away.

Prior to getting to peer into the heavens with the guidance and equipment of some amazing volunteers from the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society, a lecture was given by an astronomer positing that YNP could well be a good representation of what Mars may have previously looked like.  It was an interesting presentation, which ended by posing a question about the possibility of life on other Earth-like planets located elsewhere in the universe.   The observation was made that a lot of conditions would have to be met in order for another life-permitting planet to exist.  The Earth seems to be quite special in this regard, given the number of “just-so” conditions that it meets to make life possible.  It seemed at least somewhat unlikely to this man of science that another planet might exist which would permit life, especially intelligent life, and thus there is the distinct possibility that planet Earth is one of a kind.  It followed then, in this gentleman’s estimation, that we should, therefore, respect and take care of the Earth.

Why?  A naturalistic bent seemed implicit in this presentation, and in that context I see no objective reason why anybody should take care of the planet, or anything else for that matter.  If the universe is an accidental mess of meaningless matter, on what real grounds should I care about the Earth or any other random ball of rock? If the universe is without meaning, my life is without meaning, and all other lives are without meaning, then I fail to see why I should care about any particular planet’s uniqueness. There’s nothing on a naturalistic worldview that compels me to care about anything.

This seems absurd though. Most people seem to have an intrinsic sense of obligation to protect not only other people, but other special collections of matter, such as the Earth, as well. On a decidedly Christian worldview this makes sense. Biblically speaking, humanity has been gifted with Creation by God, and has been charged with being a good steward of that gift. In this instance, among others, the Christian worldview seems to have significanly more explanatory power to describe reality than does naturalism.

If you talk me into a naturalistic worldview, you simultaneously talk me into an objectively meaningless existence. In that case, the cosmos can shove it! Seeing how this sort of meaningless existence doesn’t seem to comport with reality though, I think I’ll continue to appreciate the stars, refrain from littering, and thank God for the beauty of places like Yellowstone National Park.