Relativists Are Not Moral Idiots

June 9, 2009

Unjustified confusion of philosophical positions, even those I disagree with, is one of my biggest pet peeves, and so I wade into any discussion of something as controversial as relativism with some major reservations. Just as there are a great many differences between positions like non-cognitivism, nihilism, and relativism, there are equally great differences internal to each. So I should probably preface the rest of this post with an acknowledgement that I am going to do some unwarranted conflation of my own. Apologies, I have a comments section, etc.

Now that I’ve disclaimed enough to scare off all but the most dedicated readers, this bit from Catholic Exchange (h/t 20 Prospect) got me annoyed in that petty way only unemployed philosophy majors can get annoyed:

In the Dictatorship of Relativism that Pope Benedict warns against, tolerance tends to mutate into moral idiocy. That’s because the relativist is forced, by his own principles, to abandon the notion of the Good (except in the sense of “what I happen to like personally”)…

Of course, even people who professed to live in that moral universe [pre-modern Christendom -h.c.] did not always live up to their principles. Such violations were called “sin”. But when relativism is embraced, the first thing to go, of course, is a belief in God’s goodness because God himself is a mere construct of Western culture. The next thing to go is belief in human dignity. After all, that is simply one more relic of a Christian civilization that has no more or less merit than any other. And so, suggesting that group human sacrifice might be intrinsically evil is “privileging 21st Century Western Culture”. All moral judgments—all attempts to condemn a particular act as evil (such as, say, solemnly and piously cutting open an innocent man’s chest while he breathes and ripping his heart out)—are out. We cannot impose our values. We cannot say that anybody “ought” to do anything, because that would imply we are subject to a Judge who blesses or condemns certain acts. We must give up all pretense that “God” exists and that our duty in life is to approximate his perfection. Our duty—our sole duty—is not to make value judgments.

Look, I hate to go all Ethics 101 here, but that is plainly not what moral relativism claims. Moral relativism, so far as I understand it, is based on two central tenets,  (1) that moral propositions require a cultural background to exist as sensible claims and (2) that the background has implications for the truth of said claims.  There are differences over how far people are willing to take the second premise, but the first premise is shared by pretty much everyone who adheres to the label. What’s important for Shea’s argument is that neither of those propositions entail that values (Christian or otherwise) can be cast aside as mere cultural construction.  Taken alone, the first premise is about the existence and sense of propositions, not their truth, and therefore entails nothing about whether cultural constructions are illusory. Paired with the second premise, it only becomes stronger: values are real on this view, albeit particular to different modes of acculturation, and are therefore emphatically not things we may discard.

Now on top of this view there is a prescriptive claim. We should not, goes the argument, force our values on others, as our values are different than theirs and have emerged under different conditions to different outcomes. This is a bit more controversial but still, it does not imply that the only values available to us are those of our personal preferences. It only entails that we should limit our moral criticisms to our own culture, and to those parts of other cultures that we share. It does not mean that our only moral recourse is to our own inclinations; we can draw on our own cultures values to critique the behavior of those within it.  (And this isn’t even touching on the very interesting issues raised at the intersection of relativism and intercultural exchange, which I imagine many harsh anti-Relativists would be pleasantly surprised by.)

All this leaves Shea in a rough spot, since it means he is guilty of a sort of reverse exceptionalism towards 21st century Western Values, wherein the West is taken as having no values of its own to enforce. Now it is true that our values have become exceptionally hedonistic in recent years, and there is certainly something to be said for the notion that emotivism underpins large chunks of the culture. But neither emotivism nor hedonoism is relativism, understood rightly.  They require extra premises, which we by our particular cultural constitution may implicitly embrace, but which are not internal to relativism itself.

One final thing: Having said all that, I want to make it clear that I am not a relativist. I tend to be very commited to the first tenant of outlined above and not at all commited to the second. Nonetheless, I’ve read enough to see that there are good arguments to be made on all sides and that the issues raised are worth understanding fully.

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