in the Debate Between Moral Relativism and Moral Absolutism
The issue of moral relativism versus moral absolutism is an important one in the history of moral philosophy. Benedicts argues that normality is “culturally defined” and argues that what we think of as right and wrong, good and evil, and moral and immoral varies from culture to culture” (qtd. in Rosenstand, p. 146). This view of moral relativism is that the standards of moral right and wrong are based on the moral code of each culture. On the other hand, Christina Hoff Sommers observes an opposite view that moral objectivity, to do no harm, to mistreat a child, to humiliate someone,” stealing, lying, breaking promises” are moral wrongs (qtd. in Rosenstand 480). Benedict argues for variance of moral standards, while Sommers argues for an objective moral truth. In this paper, the view will be maintained that Benedict has a hollowed out perception of morality, and that instead, moral objectivity cancels out the view that culture defines morality. In this way, Sommers view, in the main, will be defended.
Benedict’s view closely aligns with someone like Steven Pinker, who argues that moral truth is just a product of evolutionary biology. Pinker argues that moral judgments are simply byproducts of the human need to survive. In his view morality is simply a survival mechanism and it does not have any moral truth inherent to its structure. While I do not think that moral relativism necessarily has to go the route of “anything goes” morality, I do think that the point thinkers like Benedict and Pinker fail to realize is that the moral sense, and our ability to make moral judgments cannot simply be inherited traits in the same way that a giraffe has a long neck. Making judgments like, “It is wrong to murder” and “Do not like” are not either product of evolutionary biology nor are they cultural vestiges passed down from age to age.
The moral relativist says that if one culture thinks it good to execute people who are homosexuals, even if this act goes against the moral judgments of other cultures, we are just supposed to say that cultural values are not normative in an objective sense. In effect, the moral relativist is saying we should agree with other cultures if their views go against our own. However, we can respect other cultures while at the same time disagreeing with their moral views. If not, then philosophy is not able to continue, because the basis of philosophy is to engage in discussion. Moral relativism seems to cut off the conversation and say: accept it. Even if I agree with a culture who murders homosexuals, I am still sort of unable to make a judgment of agreement because the dictates of moral relativism say that I cannot make value judgements of other cultures, even if I agree with them! In this way, the value of moral judgments are under attack.
I want to say more specifically what I mean. The problem with the position of moral relativism is that it defines morality as a cultural tradition irrespective of objective moral facts. If moral values are simply normative based on cultural inclination then, it implies there is no such thing as an objective moral standard. In my opinion, I think the answer lies more the way of Sommers, or someone like Immanuel Kant who observed that just as the starry sky has it ordered objectivity, so to does the moral law exist within the human heart (251). Notice, however, that this idea that the moral law is internal to the human being’s being with the world, it is not the same thing as arguing for moral subjectivism. The difference between moral relativism and moral subjectivism, which is the view that what is morally right or wrong is relative to individual subjects of experience rather than entire cultures or ways of life.
Morality cannot be inscribed within the everyday practices of society and culture because morality is a priori inscribed with the human ability to make sense of the world. We can even begin to think of questions like, is this right or wrong, or is that right or wrong, or should I harm, or should I steal, or how am I to be a good person, only if we had a moral sense. By moral sense, I mean the ability to judge between right and wrong. To argue for moral relativism makes it seem like all the cultures of the world have their practices that are distinct and separate from everyone else. In this way, moral relativism can lead to another view, moral isolationism, which contends since every culutre is distinct its own moral standards, then we cannot say anything substantive about them (Marino 324).So just because it is morally acceptable in one culture for a husband to beat his wife, it makes it seem like, another culture cannot judge that practice as wrong because it is not part of that culture. In this way, moral relativism leads to cultural relativism that makes it seem as if because each culture has their body of passed on moral truths then individual cultures have nothing to say to each other!
However, how can each culture be its moral island separate from each other? Surely there must be something objective in morality that undergirds the human ability to make moral assertions. For example, if we take the moral principle that people should avoid intentionally harming others, then it seems as if this moral principle is a universal principle that can be found in more than one culture. Of course, interpretation of this principle may differ. For example, it could be argued that in self-defense it is permissible to harm another person, or in the case of capital punishment one could argue that one wrong egregiously done by an individual deserves the punishment of death. However, notice how all the arguments stem from a moral principle. Moral principles are objective and are discoverable. So for example, when I make a judgment that murder is wrong, I am basing it on an inherent moral principle of "do no harm" that is glued onto every human heart. So there must be universal moral principles that govern morality. It seems that the job of the moral philosopher is to attempt to discover these moral principles.
Benedict’s view also brings up an issue that Mary Midgley brings up in her article “Trying Out One’s New Sword.” If moral relativism is true, then we would not be able to make moral judgments at all. The problem with moral relativity is that it undercuts the capacity to make moral judgments, and it devalues the innate ability for a person to use moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is objective, I say, even though circumstances in the world may change. Midgley gives a good example of a samurai soldier killing an innocent person so he can try out his new sword (587). In Japanese Medieval culture, it is considered permissible for a samurai to kill someone so he can test his sword. However, if we were moral relativists, we would have to concede that this practice is permissible because each culture has its moral standards. However, if we follow the route of moral relativism to its ultimate end, it would denigrate morality itself. We are moral creatures because we can make judgments about the samurai soldier even if we do not share his cultural views. In the same way, the samurai soldier, if he were able to travel into the future, could make judgments about our culture too. Society continues to exist because we value the objectivity of moral facts and is this ability that allows us to question the moral life. Adoption of moral relativism would only strangle our ability to reason and to think critically.
In his book Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant argues that the reason why an objective morality exists and it cannot be the subject of moral relativism is the simple fact that human being have an autonomous will (3). Moral values lie within the human ability to think and reason. Notice that Kant avoids placing moral objectivity in God. We are moral not because we obey God’s commands. Nor are we moral because it is merely a tradition that has been passed down, but we are moral because the way we are as human beings. The moral injunction to do harm, as I cited in the above example is the way we are hard-wired to think. Do people always follow this principle? No? Is there more than one way to interpret the principle? Yes. Just because I argue for a version of moral objectivity am I suggesting that there is a univocal absolute moral truth that everyone must obey. Nor do I think one religious tradition has a moral truth that supersedes all others.
Another challenge to the objectivity of moral truth is someone like Friedrich Nietzsche, who simply argues that morality is nothing more than the tension between master and slave. In his view, he argues that those in power, truly the weak, simply create morality to keep those who would otherwise be the stronger, in place (Qtd. in Kraucz 113). However, the problem with Nietzsche’s argument is that he posits that the Ubermensch would have ultimate moral truth, but again, where does the moral judgment of this man who is, above all, conventional morality arise? I agree with Nietzsche that a society corrupts morals, but just because there is a corruption of morals in society does not necessarily imply that morality itself is corrupt. The problem with the moral relativists is that they respond to a crisis in morality and conflate corruption with something inherently wrong with morality itself. Their answer is to argue that morality is relative, but this moves denigrates the human moral sense. Just because there has been an abuse of power, and perhaps there will always be an abuse of power, it does not mean that morality cannot be discovered in the same way a distant star that was once unknown can be discovered.
I am not arguing for ethnocentrism, that one culture is superior over another because of its own moral standards, but I am arguing that moral relativism fails as a viable moral theory because it does not place due diligence on sussing out solutions to moral problems we face today. Without standards of morals, we could not even think critically about issues. If norms are solely culturally conditioned, then it prevents us from speaking across culture. If we are straddled by the constraints of “I cannot make moral judgments” then we risk developing a worldview that actually does slide into an everything goes mentality.
However, I do realize the dangers of a radical moral absolutism as well as the dangers of a fast and loose moral relativism. Moral absolutism taken to its extreme can become “I am right. You are wrong. There is only one moral truth.” I’d like to think there is more than one right answer to solve moral dilemmas. There is no overarching moral fact that grounds all other moral facts. We can still discover new moral truths, and we shall not be conditioned into thinking that one person, group, or religion has hegemony on moral truth. I am not advocating moral tyranny or even a kind of moralism that makes one superior to another. In the end, we have to realize that there is bound to be a tension between “anything goes” and “moral absolutism.” The standards of morality are to be discovered, and we cannot rely on the contingency of cultural traditions that have no basis for truth when moral reasoning itself is a genuine capacity of the human spirit to think, feel, and reason.
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