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.

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