Moral relativism is a good thing. What's more, we already accept relativism as part of our ethical framework. How, for instance, does the so-called Golden Rule work without relativism? How can we hope to understand how to behave towards others without considering their circumstances and experiences?
Moral relativism is not a problem. The problem is what to do with it. To illustrate, take the following account:
I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies—multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.Anderson, the teacher, is correct to identify the real problem: the refusal to make moral judgments. Moral relativism is one thing; moral judgments are another. Moral relativism does not preclude making moral judgments and never has.
I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.
The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions.
But I was not prepared for their reaction.
I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.
They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.”
Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”
Yes, another culture might consider that its citizens have made a morally good action in mutilating Aisha. We have every right to challenge the moral justification of the action, even though we are not of that culture. They consider the action right. We consider the action wrong. We argue about it. We try to get to the heart of the matter and to a workable agreement about morally justified behavior.
Nothing about moral relativism prevents us from outrage over heinous acts or from punishing wrongdoing. All that relativism actually requires of us is an acknowledgment that our own moral frame of reference is not the only valid one for understanding specific acts. The alternative is to declare in all arrogance that we alone possess the One True WayTM of all morality, and everyone else can go fuck themselves. Of course, this has been tried before--and it has failed miserably. Just see how the ironically named Catholic Church has done in imposing their One True WayTM.
Those who wish to use Anderson's story to critique of materialism or postmodernism are being obtuse; they are barking up not the wrong tree but the stupid tree. Such people include the insidious "Best Schools" folks, who post Anderson's account as part of their drive to bring back straight, white, and Christian as the ideal in education and society.
But Anderson's story actually shows the power of moral relativism to establish judgment. With reasoned and reasonable judgment--the kind that only moral relativism allows--we may make responsible, nuanced appeals to those who possess moral frameworks which differ sharply from our own.
The argument in favor of moral relativism, therefore, boils down to this:
- We are all already relativists in most every aspect of our daily lives.
- Relativism is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is not itself a moral system but a condition of moral agents (plural) acting in the world.
- Relativism does not entail moral equality between either acts or viewpoints.
- Moral relativism does not preclude making, legislating, or enforcing moral behavior.
- Relativism enables a necessary flexibility in assessing and evaluating moral acts, and improving moral law.
If one is not a relativist, how does one condemn the “mutilation”? After all, weren't the perpetrators enforcing divinely-sanctioned law? Yes, they were indeed acting according to an “objective” moral standard, as surely as the nation of Israel was in the slaughter of Deuteronomy 20:10-20. If one’s theory is that morality is divinely given, then one has nothing to say about either of the two cases above, except perhaps “hallelujah.”
One can be a relativist and then defend both cases. One can be a relativist and condemn both cases. But one cannot not be a relativist. The world is basically divided between people who accept this fact, and those who refuse to accept it.