Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Feb 14, 2007 in moral relativism | 11 comments

relativism – end of the world as we know it?

Relativism is certainly supposed to be eating away at Western Civilization like a cancer. Here are a few examples of this worry. The American academic Allan Bloom writes:

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

William Bennett concurs. He says,

the answers I started to get from students in the ’60s were, “I think each person should do his own thing. I mean if they want to do something, who am I to say something’s right, who am I to say something’s wrong?”

Richard Hoggart commented on a similar rise in relativism and non-judgementalism among the working-class inhabitants of his own British hometown:

[i]n Hunslet, a working-class district of Leeds, within which I was brought up, old people will still enunciate, as guides to living, the moral rules they learned at Sunday School and Chapel. Then they almost always add, these days: “But it’s only my opinion, of course.” A late-twentieth-century insurance clause, a recognition that times have changed towards the always shiftingly relativist. In that same council estate, any idea of parental guidance has in many homes been lost. Most of the children there live in a violent, jungle world.

Gertrude Himmelfarb supplies another illustration:

Robert Simon, a professor of philosophy, reports that while none of his students denies the reality of the Holocaust, an increasing number do worse: they acknowledge the fact, even deplore it, but cannot bring themselves to condemn it morally. “Of course I dislike the Nazis,” one student comments, “but who is to say they are morally wrong.” They make similar observations about apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. To pass judgement, they fear, is to be moral “absolutist”, and having been taught that there are no absolutes, they now see any judgement as arbitrary, intolerant, and authoritarian.”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey, in his House of Lords address, also warned of the danger

of moral relativism and privatised morality. There is a widespread tendency to view what is good and right as a matter of private taste and individual opinion only. Under this tendency, God is banished to the realm of the private hobby and religion becomes a particular activity for those who happen to have a taste for it.

It’s this rampant relativism that, more than anything, now gets the blame for the “moral malaise”. If morality is nothing more than a matter of personal choice or preference, then teenage thugs can steal, vandalize and assault with impunity, confident that no one has the right to gainsay them. Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, sums up the devastation he believes relativism has wrought:

In attempting to be tolerant, we have wiped out all the rules. . . . It is hard these days to find a standard to which we can hold people. Everything is relative. Our moral compass gyrates wildly. There is no true north. But history shows us this is not a sustainable trait.

So popular is this diagnosis that whenever an example of immorality crops up, the knee-jerk reaction of many is immediately to blame moral relativism. Take the recent outrage at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqis were tortured by U.S. personnel. What caused this moral breakdown? TRichard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, suspects moral relativism:

This is not a breakdown in the system. This reflects a breakdown in society. These people’s moral compass didn’t work for some reason. My guess is because they’ve been infected with [moral] relativism.

Even the new Pontiff has made it clear that fighting the battle against the “dictatorship of relativism” is one of his highest priorities:

We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

Governments have introduced educational and social policies to target relativism. When Nick Tate, head of the UK’s QCAA introduced compulsory classes in citizenship for all pupils attending state-funded schools, he was explicit that one of his chief concerns was to “slay the dragon of relativism”.

But is relativism really such a problem? And if it is, what’s its root cause?


  1. I think relativism is completely to blame. After all, if we had an unquestioned moral authority to tell us specifically what’s absolutely right, we wouldn’t have these sorts of problems. Look, for instance, at the medieval Catholic Church. Oh wait, the Inquisition, the Crusades; perhaps not the best example.Let’s try the Fuherprincip of Nazi Germany. Hmm, that’s a bad example too.Islam! Yeah! No relativism there! Er… honor killings, the subjugation of women, the despotic governments… maybe not.The American Christian Right and their morally steadfast champion, President Bush. Yeah, I know: Iraq. Abu Graihb, Guantanamo, habeus corpus, domestic spying, etc.How about one of the authors you mention, Bill Bennett? There’s an upstanding, non-relativistic guy. But there’s that pesky gambling thing, plus the absurd hypocrisy of our nation’s Drug Czar (since when do we have Czars in a democracy) heavily addicted to one of the worst drugs in existence (tobacco). Ok, not the best example.I’m having a bit of trouble here. Perhaps Cassandra can help me out.

  2. the barefoot bum:yes, you are having a bit of trouble. it’s called false dichotomy.saying that morality is not relative does not imply that just any form of moral absolutism will do. it’s perfectly compatible with admitting that, while it’s not relative, we may never come to know all (or even any) moral absolutes for sure.

  3. teasaying that morality is not relative does not imply that just any form of moral absolutism will do.Well, I tried five, which demonstrates that relativism is at least not the only moral problem we face.But if you have any others, I’m all ears.…we may never come to know all (or even any) moral absolutes for sure.I think “or even any” is telling here. What good is an absolute morality we can’t know anything at all about? How is an unknowable quantity different in practice from a non-existent one?

  4. Hmm… Allan Bloom… William Bennett… Gertrude Himmelfarb… Dr. Carey… Pope Benedict… I have a sneaking suspicion. Richard Hoggart and Robert Simon don’t quite fit my hypothesis, though, so I’ll wait for the next post on this topic before drawing any conclusions.I do want to note that Law has subtly changed the subject. The original post was about establishing the truth of moral statements by reference to culture. This latest post seems more about denying the objective truth of moral statements altogether. Although related, they’re different propositions.

  5. why does everything have to be so black and white? May i suggest the existence of two distinct classes of morals? For instance: May i suggest calling `2nd class moral principles’those differences that could be considered relative to individual cultures, tastes, ways and traditions (2nd class as they would be harmless to others) ; and call 1st class’ moral principles those absolute morals that Man expects from his kind across the world; those, for instance, which might lie in such acts as the removal of either a person’s property ( theft) or removal of their life ( murder), or acts that might even stretch to all physical and mental abuse…such acts are universally frowned upon and should never be considered under this `relativist’colourless banner. How these students, mentioned in Law’s last blog, ever woke up one morning questioning whether the horrors of the second world war should be considered as immoral acts , makes me shiver with shame.Relativism seems to be associated with the behaviour of ostriches ( heads buried in the sand of their own self important politically correct morality)or perhaps it would be better to compare them to invalids of the soul…..wheel chair bound and incapable of judgement on anything…as all is relative…let alone interfere in anything….go on :murder rape and mutilate it is only relative! Can we not find a way of accepting more differences without losing grip over the obligation of all humans to fight on behalf of the weakest and defend moral principles based on human rights. or are Human Rights the only moral authority accepted today? could we not stretch the thought and beg that the court of Human rights rules RELATIVISM as illegal?

  6. blueoranges:What I’m trying to do as a philosopher* is understand morals in general, at the theoretical level.I myself intuitively distinguish something like “first class” morals from “second class”, with many of the same implications as you describe.At the philosophical level I’m interested in knowing (among other things):(1) On what rational basis (if any) do I personally make this intuitive distinction? (2) Is there an objectively true way of making this distinction, and how can we know it?(3) If not (2) then how do I deal with people who do in fact make this distinction on a different basis?*I’m of the opinion that everyone should call him- or herself a philosopher.

  7. Dear Barefoot BumI’ll reply to that last question like this so I don’t clog up the main posts too much.actually even if we acknowledge that reason cannot ultimately underpin morality, it can still provide an invaluable tool.Fact is, almost everyone agrees about certain moral basics (such as that we are not morally justified in discriminating if there is no morally relevant difference). Armed with this, you can then use reason to show (i) unacknoweldged consequences (ii) contradictions within a position, (iii) that certain things follow given certain empirical facts, (iv) where their reasoning is faulty, etc. In this way we might show someone that slavery is wrong, that stem cell research is morally acceptable, etc. we can also show that certain things foster human flourishing and other things danage it.We don’t have to throw our hands in the air and say – “Every moral position is as good as every other!” or “There’s no way of rationally settling any moral dispute”. Fact is, there usually is.Of course, whether or not people will be persuaded is another matter. We are not all perfectly rational.nb I explore all this in chpt 9 of my book The War For Children’s Minds, if you’re interested in pursuing it more….

  8. I pretty much agree. I think, though, since we’re deep into the relativism/objectivism debate, that it’s worthwhile to be extra precise about our terminology.Specifically, we can show to someone “that slavery is wrong, that stem cell research is morally acceptable, etc.” according to her own subjective moral beliefs about objective truths about reality.Likewise, “We can also show that certain things foster human flourishing and other things damage it,” only according to subjective beliefs about what constitutes “flourishing” in the first place.I acknowledge the importance of rational, scientific argumentation establishing objective truths about reality, those truths to which our moral beliefs apply.But I also think that in any subjectivist/relativist account, such scientific argumentation is not the whole story, or even the crux of the biscuit. We do not need to invoke relative degrees of rationality: two equally (or even perfectly) rational people can (contra Rand) still have competing interests or mutually incompatible moral beliefs. We need additional forms of discourse to address these differences, specifically propaganda and negotiation. (In this regard, I’d like to recommend Thank You for Smoking (the movie is far superior to the book), which I think has some interesting philosophical content.)(And your book is already on my Amazon queue; I hope you’ll excuse me by reason of lack of wealth for waiting for the paperback edition.)

  9. please forgive me if i sound foolish but i am only in my second term of my first year of study of philsophy and you are making me a little lost here….I think your first question is wondering whether Morals are innate in man or not..and if they are and you intuitively understand a complex hierarchy of moral values , then the question surely should be why do some others not have this same intuition…i would answer that they do,and just choose to deny it or ignore it for other purposes, reasons etc…. I am still in shock as to how learning philosophy can have reduced fellow students to such bad conclusions and wonder whether in fact MORALITY is not innate after which case, then as Law says, we can only hope to convince and teach it, without interfering in the simple differences of existencial choices. But if Man has any gifts it is to `reason’, and reason is useful morally , but i dont believe it should underpin moral theory.But going back to Relativism and and whether morals are subjective :why would it be so wrong to consider that if morals are not innate that we must rely on an outside authority to guide it towards attaining an objective quality. i hasten to add that i am not yet sure of the one or the other, and sometimes believe that morals are innate and that certain individuals choose not to hear their inner intuitions and sometimes feel that Man is nothing but an animal with table manners so to speak. thank you for carrying this blog forward, i have already learnt a little more about the analytical process of philosohy.

  10. morality does not have to be “innate” in order to be objective. that’s why this is a false dichotomy.most,if not all, moral theories rely on such things as reason, compassion, pleasure, happiness, flourishing, etc. in order to explain moral obligations, rights, etc. you don’t have to posit a “moral gene” or assume that, if morality is objective, then all people and cultures should agree on it.

  11. A belated comment, but here sems to be the best home for it.If moral relativism really did mean that “anything goes”, then it would be worrying, if only for practical reasons. (How would society work if a significant number of people thought that murdering others for no reason was just fine).But, as you say, “almost everyone agrees about certain moral basics” even if, I would add, those moral basics are a bit wooly and ill-defined at the edges and for the hard cases. And they don’t agree because of some overt pact; thye agree because human beings have evolved to have emotions that some things are right and wrong, indeed evolved to believe that right and wrong are meaningful categories (and of course it’s MUCH more complicated than a “moral gene”). There is of course extensive scientific literature to back up this claim.We acn and do use rationality to fine-tune morals and how we apply them to problems in our society. But the underlying fundamentals don’t come from rationality, which is (mostly) a good thing, because rationality wouldn’t make them stick nearly so well as evolved emotions.I think many of the people worrying about moral relativity are ignorant about this, and if they were less ignorant they would be less worried.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published.