There are many, many things that different people seem to mean by “relativism,” or “moral relativism,” all of which have serious problems, or don’t have the implications their proponents think they have, or both.
Rather than simply pick out one possible meaning for relativism and argue against that, I will discuss several possibilities, so as to cover more of what people may have in mind when they use that term, or similar terms.
I will do so in the context of a specific, hypothetical example. But first, a bit more of an introduction.
Rational beings such as humans are capable of making choices as they go through life, of doing this rather than that. This is not true of other things, such as tables, tornados, and dandelions, or even of all persons, such as infants and the comatose (and it’s arguable whether it’s true of, say, higher animals like chimpanzees). Such things do not “act,” do not “choose,” do not “do” anything (except in a metaphorical sense); they are acted upon.
But people do have this capacity to make choices. At any given time, in any given situation, a person is capable of doing a large-probably infinite-number of different things. (Which is not to say that we consciously deliberate about all these possible choices, any more than a chess player or a baseball manager consciously considers every choice that in principle is open to her.) Right now, for example, I could type a letter ‘p,’ type a letter ‘n,’ hit the space bar fourteen times in succession, pick up a pencil and throw it across the room, return a phone call to a friend, wave my left hand back and forth in front of my face for twenty seconds, stop and try to run through the list of all U.S. presidents in my mind in order, turn my computer off, etc., etc. But I will do something or other; there’s no opportunity to not make a choice at all (since things like sitting here motionless is one of the available choices, not the absence of a choice, as is committing suicide or anything else).
Making a choice means, in effect, actualizing one of those possible futures.
Now, there are many ways we can think and talk about such choices, about the things people do. We can describe them (“Harvey shot a rabbit”), we can predict them (“Clarissa will vote for Anderson in the next mayoral election”), we can explain them (“Luther left at 3:30, because he wanted to get to work by 4:00 and he knew it could take as much as a half hour to get there”), etc.
Another way we can think and talk about such choices is with the language of morality, in terms of “should,” “ought,” “right,” “wrong,” etc. Here we are not simply describing, but making a value judgment. Note the difference between “Harvey shot a rabbit,” and “Harvey ought not to have shot that rabbit.”
Every choice we make in life to actualize one possible future rather than the others implicitly manifests a value judgment like this. Maybe not a conscious one, but implicitly when I pick up a pencil and throw it across the room instead of doing one of the other innumerable acts that were available to me at that time, I have in effect expressed my judgment that that was the best act available to me.
So when we deliberate about such a choice, we are engaging in a form of moral reasoning. We are not trying to predict what we’ll do; we are trying to determine what we ought to do.
So with that said, let’s look at a specific example. Let’s say I have promised my wife I will buy a carton of milk on the way home. When the time comes, I can do so or not do so, based on numerous considerations. (Maybe I wanted the milk anyway and would have picked some up regardless, maybe I forgot and now I’d have to double back at much inconvenience, maybe milk has certain health benefits, maybe my wife subsequently called to let me know she changed her mind and was letting me out of the promise, maybe the milk is expensive, maybe stopping to get milk would make me late for a planned rendezvous with my mistress, maybe a promise is binding regardless of some or all other considerations, etc.)
Now, again, there are an infinite or near infinite number of things I could do, but let’s simplify my choice by stating it in terms of buying the milk or not buying the milk. In effect, I am faced with the following choice:
Given my present circumstances, given all relevant considerations, which of the following is true?
* I ought to buy milk.
* I ought to do one of the other possibilities instead of buy milk.
So let’s examine the things a relativist might say about this choice I’m faced with, and the problems with such a response:
1. “Some individuals in that situation would buy milk, some would not. There is no consensus on the matter.”
Problem: This is true but doesn’t address my choice. It doesn’t tell me whether it’s better for me to buy milk or not buy milk.
2. “In some societies, the prevailing moral code would say to buy milk in that situation. In other societies, the prevailing moral code would say not to buy milk in that situation. There is no consensus amongst societies.”
Problem: Same as in #1. This is true but does not address my choice.
3. “Some individuals in that situation would buy milk, some would not. There is no consensus on the matter. Therefore whatever you as an individual choose is right. If you buy milk, then that’s what you should have done; if you don’t buy milk, then that’s what you should have done.”
Problem: Ah, well at least now we’re getting somewhere. At least this addresses the question of what I ought to do. But note two things about this response.
First, it turns out to be absolutist after all, it turns out there is a truth to the matter of what I ought to do. The grounding for that alleged truth is peculiar, but it’s there. It states that I can somehow create or change moral reality simply by what I believe or what I do, but that’s different from denying that there is a moral reality.
Second, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise; the part after the “therefore” doesn’t follow from the lack of consensus.
There’s a lack of consensus about pretty much everything. So what? If you polled the entire human population and asked them who the current British Prime Minister is, or whether the star Alpha Centauri C will turn into a black hole within the next 2.4 billion years, or how many basketballs have been manufactured in human history, or what the square root of 81 is, I guarantee you will not get the same answer from 100% of the people in the world. It doesn’t follow from this that you or I or anyone gets to “make up” the right answer just by choosing it.
If there is a moral reality, and somehow each person can create and change moral truths just by choosing to, then it would take more to establish that than just the lack of consensus. I don’t know what that would be, as I don’t see this position as having any plausibility, but it would be up to the relativist to make that case, to come up with something other than the lack of consensus.
4. “In some societies, the prevailing moral code would say to buy milk in that situation. In other societies, the prevailing moral code would say not to buy milk in that situation. There is no consensus amongst societies. Therefore whatever your society’s moral code says you should do is what you should do.”
Problem: See my discussion of #3. This is exactly the same except we’re talking about the (lack of) consensus amongst societies instead of individuals. Again it turns out to provide a criterion for moral truth after all, and again the alleged grounding for that criterion-the lack of consensus-fails to be a plausible one.
5. “Some individuals in that situation would buy milk, some would not. There is no consensus on the matter. Therefore there is no truth to the matter. It’s neither the case that you should buy the milk, nor the case that you shouldn’t.”
Problem: OK, so instead of trying to deduce moral truth from the lack of consensus, this position claims that the non-existence of moral truth can be deduced from the lack of consensus. This form of moral relativism turns out to really be moral skepticism.
One potential problem is that this is utterly unhelpful to me in my deliberations of what to do. Because remember, to not make a choice isn’t an option. I have to either actualize the future where I buy milk, or actualize one of the ones where I don’t buy milk. I can’t do neither. Since this position doesn’t tell me whether “I ought to buy milk” or “I ought to do one of the other possibilities rather than buy milk” is true (and in effect says both are false), I’m no farther along in my deliberations.
Now, I’m not going to say that’s a fatal flaw to this position. It may instead be an accurate statement of the inherent absurdity of the human condition. Maybe it’s just part of life that every choice we make is an answer to a question that has no correct answer.
But it really doesn’t matter if we find that palatable or not, because the suggested premise for it doesn’t support it anyway.
Just as the lack of consensus provides no plausible grounds for the notion that moral truth is something individuals or societies can create and change at will, it similarly provides no grounds for the notion that moral truth doesn’t exist at all.
The same examples from earlier show this. If you polled the entire human population and asked them who the current British Prime Minister is, or whether the star Alpha Centauri C will turn into a black hole within the next 2.4 billion years, or how many basketballs have been manufactured in human history, or what the square root of 81 is, I guarantee you will not get the same answer from 100% of the people in the world. It doesn’t follow from this that there is no British Prime Minister, that Alpha Centauri will neither turn into a black hole nor not turn into a black hole within the next 2.4 billion years, that there is no specific number of basketballs that have been manufactured in human history, or that 81 doesn’t have a square root.
It may be that there is no moral reality, that there are no true “ought” statements, but it would take more to establish that than just the lack of consensus. I don’t know what that would be, as I don’t see this position as having any plausibility, but it would be up to the relativist-or in this case, skeptic-to make that case, to come up with something other than the lack of consensus.
6. “In some societies, the prevailing moral code would say to buy milk in that situation. In other societies, the prevailing moral code would say not to buy milk in that situation. There is no consensus amongst societies. Therefore there is no truth to the matter. It’s neither the case that you should buy the milk, nor the case that you shouldn’t.”
Problem: See my discussion of #5. Moral skepticism can no more be grounded by a lack of societal consensus than by a lack of individual consensus.
None of these versions of relativism adequately address the choices we face in life. If relativism simply says different individuals or different societies make different choices, that’s true but irrelevant. If it goes on to say that somehow the fact that different individuals and different societies make different choices implies that all those choices are correct, that simply does not follow. If it goes on to say instead that somehow the fact that different individuals and different societies make different choices implies that there is no truth to the matter and so none of them are correct, that too does not follow.
But there’s more going on here that needs to be addressed. Why do people really claim to be relativists, or to believe there’s no moral truth, or no “objective” moral truth, or no “absolute” moral truth, or what have you? Is it because they’ve reasoned this all out and come to a different philosophical conclusion? Maybe, but that’s probably true of less than 1% of such folks.
I think more often what’s going on is people think they’re compelled to take such a position in reaction against a different position they oppose. Let me explain.
To reject moral relativism and moral skepticism means one rejects the notion that right and wrong either don’t exist at all, or are things individuals and/or societies make up as they go along. That’s all.
It does not follow from a rejection of moral relativism and moral skepticism that truth is knowable, that truth is obvious, that certainty about truth is possible, that fanaticism about truth is justified, that there are no grounds for humility about one’s knowledge of truth, that one need not be tolerant of others about truth, that one is justified in forcing others to act in accordance with one’s view of truth, etc., etc. Some or all of those things may be true, some or all of them may be false, but zero of them follow from a rejection of relativism.
Yet somehow many people-on both sides of the issue-think some or all of these things do in fact follow. They think (falsely) that if there’s moral truth, then by golly they know what it is and they’re entitled to force it on anyone who disagrees. Or conversely, if they don’t want to live in a world of such fanaticism, they think (falsely) that they have to embrace relativism to reject such ugliness.
I contend that most people, most non-philosophers certainly, who make relativist sounding statements are well-intentioned but confused folks who think that in so doing they are taking a stand in favor of humility, tolerance, open-mindedness, non-ethnocentrism, peace, etc., etc.
Ironically, not only is it not necessary to be a relativist to believe in such high-minded virtues as humility and tolerance and the like, but in fact relativism is totally compatible with fanaticism and intolerance.
For instance, think back to the six explications of relativism I covered earlier that I applied to a decision to keep my promise to my wife to buy milk. What if instead we used a real world example? What would follow from relativism about the Nazis’ systematic attempts to murder all Jews and other unpopular minorities within their grasp?
A relativist of type #1 or #2 would say nothing more than that not everyone agreed with the Nazis but would draw no further conclusion from that. A relativist of type #3 or #4 would say that the very fact that the Nazis believed in what they did, chose to do what they did, establishes that they were right to do so. A relativist of type #5 or #6 would say that the Nazis were neither right nor wrong in what they did because there’s no such thing as right or wrong.
In no case would relativists come down on the side of the question that says the Nazis were wrong, that they should not have murdered millions of people.
Probably some frustrated readers at this point are saying, “I’m a relativist, but I’m not any of those six kinds. I’m the kind who thinks people and societies should be tolerant of each other and not force their ways on others, not claim to have all the answers, let folks make their own decisions without constantly condemning them, etc. Why can’t I be that kind of relativist? Where do I fit in?”
The answer is, in that case you’re not a relativist. I’m not disagreeing with those values you cherish; I’m telling you you’ve placed an inaccurate label on yourself.