“Relativism or Authoritarianism – you choose!”
Allow me to introduce two terms of art: Liberal and Authoritarian.
Authoritarians believe young people should be raised to defer more or less uncritically to some external Authority (e.g. a religious Authority) on moral and religious matters.
Liberals by contrast recommend individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external (e.g. religious) Authority.
That does not require Liberals embrace relativism and “anything goes” non-judgementalism. Yet Authoritarians endlessly smear Liberals as relativists. It’s about time this myth was nailed.
To see why it’s a myth, compare empirical science. It too is very Liberal. It too emphasizes the importance of independent critical thought. But to acknowledge the importance of getting scientists to think autonomously rather than uncritically defer to others is not to take the relativist view that all scientific theories – including even the theories that the sun goes round the Earth and that Mars is inhabited by giant wasps – are all equally “true”. It’s not to say that science is just a matter of making up ones own scientific reality (as if, were we suddenly to change our minds about the Earth moving, it would immediately grind to a halt). Nor is it to embrace the non-judgementalist view that one scientist ought never to judge the theory of another. Obviously not, in fact.
Notice that if this sort of scientific relativism were true, there would be no point to independent scientific investigation. Experiment and observation would be a waste of time. If every scientific opinion was as good as every other, than the judgement that a scientist arrived at after careful thought and study would be no better than the one they started with.
Clearly, to suggest that scientists ought to think independently rather than just uncritically defer to, say, the Authority of Aristotle or the Bible (as they tended to before the Enlightenment), is not to embrace relativism and non-judgementalism about scientific truth.
Exactly the same is true of morality. Indeed, it’s precisely because Liberals think there really is a non-relative truth to discover about what’s right and what’s wrong that they place so much emphasis on questioning and critical thinking. If we simply invent or make up morality, why bother being so scrupulously careful about getting it right? If every moral opinion is a good as every other, then the judgement I arrive at after much careful thought will be no better than the one I started with. If relativism were true, there would be no point bothering with the sort of critical thinking Liberals recommend.
So Liberals are not committed to moral relativism. They are, in effect, opposed to it.
Authoritarians tend to insist your choice is Authoritarianism or relativism. That’s how they scare the public into siding with them. “You don’t want moral relativism and anarchy, do you? Then you’d better side with us Authoritarians!”
This is a myth that’s currently distorting the whole morality debate. I would say the myth has infected the thinking of 9 out of 10 religious conservatives. Weirdly, so seductive and pernicious is this myth, even some Liberals now accept there’s some truth to it.
There’s no truth to it. You can reject both relativism and Authoritarianism. And you should.