Moral Relativism
By Simon Blackburn
Professor of Philosophy
at Trinity College, Cambridge.

This article was originally published
in the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal, "Think"

There are philosophers (among them, absolutists) who like to stress that truth and morality are constant, and not based on changing social conditions. Then there are other philosophers (among them, relativists) who like to stress that as times change, and culture changes, the nature of truth and morality also changes.

The absolutists think that the relativists have no standards and thus encourage the decadence and debauchery that goes on in our society, most notably among public trend-setters and decision makers.

The relativists think that the absolutists are rigidly old-fashioned and simplistic, and that what they preach merely expresses their own personal fears and inhibitions.

I like to illustrate the way these groups talk past each other with an anecdote.
A high-powered ethics institute presented a panal of representatives from the great religions.

First the Buddhist spoke of the ways to achieve calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment. The panelists all said "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great."

Then the Hindu talked about the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release. They all said "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great."

And so on, until the Catholic priest spoke of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great." But at that, the priest thumped the table and shouted: "No! It's not a question of whether it works for me! It's the true word of the living God, and it's true for everyone."

And they all said: "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great."
The joke here lies in the mismatch between the priest's claim to universal and immutable truth, and what they hear him offering, which is just one more saying like all the others.

The relativist says the priest's certainty and truth is merely his own certainty and truth, which to him is absolute.

The relativist should not be bothered when people attach words like 'true' to their doctrines. Why, of course they think their doctrines are true; that's part of their doctrines.

Still, the relativist mocks them for being intolerant of other points of view. Moral correctness is all about tolerance, isn't it?

That sounds good, but is this relativist view really so attractive?

Genghis and Rosie

Suppose I (an absolutist) believe that fox-hunting is cruel and should be banned. And then I come across someone named Genghis (another absolutist) who holds that it is not cruel, and should be allowed. We dispute, and neither of us can convince the other. Now suppose a relativist (Rosie) comes in, and mocks our conversation. "You absolutists," she says, "always marching on as if there is just one truth. What you don't realize is that there are many truths. Yes, it's true for you that fox-hunting should be banned - but it's just as true for Genghis that it should not be."

How does Rosie's contribution help? Fox hunting cannot be banned and not banned at the same time.

Rosie the Relativist could easily say: "Look, you must learn that Genghis is a human being like you; respecting and tolerating his views, and activities based on those views, is essential. If you did not make such a fetish of absolute truth you would see that."

I would respond, "I can easily respect Genghis as a human being, but history is full of catastrophies because some people believed one thing and otherwise good people stood by and did nothing to stop them. Sometimes our humanity requires us to take a stand."

Here's the irony that Rosie is missing! If Rosie thumps the table and insists that tolerating Genghis' views is the right thing to do, then she is just elevating her idea that there are no absolute values into an absolute value!

We cannot always just agree to differ

If you and I are in an art gallery, and I say Rembrandt is better than Vermeer and you say Vermeer is better than Rembrandt, perhaps we should just agree to differ, because nothing practical hangs on our different tastes.

The same is true of idle fantasies, where I secretly believe Henry VIII was really a disguised American Indian, and you somehow think he was Chinese. Again, nothing serious hangs on our differing points of view.

But how about points of view that are racist, or sexist, or anti-Semitic? Viewpoints over which people suffer and die? When it comes to moral issues, we often cannot just agree to differ. In liberal societies, where freedom is the default, the highly vaunted virtue of tolerance cannot be a carte blanche for just any kind of behavior, however sickening or distressing or damaging. It is just not true that anything goes.

Is Relativism Dangerous?

Sometimes, admittedly, in the spirit of relativism, we need to be reminded of alternate ways of thinking, alternative practices and ways of life, from which we can learn and which we have no reason to condemn. We do need to appreciate our legitimate differences.

But in our world of constant change, where popular ideals of truth and morality conveniently adjust to what feels good and seems expedient, the never-ending contest over the very existence of unchanging, absolute truth and morality demands that we draw a line and take a stand, never forgetting that some alternative points of view can be corrupt, ignorant, superstitious, wishful, out of touch, or just plain murderous.

(significantly edited by David Van Alstyne)

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