Ethical Relativism

Many people nowadays assert that the moral sense is completely subjective, that there are no absolute ethical values, that it's all purely a matter of opinion.

Opponents of this view have raised a number of objections.

1. We tend to judge actions by our own moral code, and we can also find ourselves judging one moral code to be better than another, as for example, someone might say that the Buddhist morality is better than the Israelite one.

The relativist would reply that when we do this, we are comparing those moral codes with our subjective on, and then judging the one which is most similar to our own subjective code to be superior.

2. If no moral code is superior to another, it is logically impossible to speak of a moral progress or a moral decline. Yet many people do actually speak in those terms.

3. Again, if there is no superiority in one code over another, and therefore no such thing as moral progress, then there is no point in moral effort.

Relativists might reply that a person should strive to be true to their own moral code. But this still begs the question as to why anyone should bother to do so.

4. The logical outcome of ethical relativism is that no one person is better than any other, since there would be no absolute standard to judge them against. Thus a murderer could not be regarded as morally worse than anyone else, since one code would be as good as any other.

The ethical relativist might reply that this is not a fair inference from their theory. They deny the existence of an absolute universal code of morals, but they accept that there may be a code of moral standards that apply to a limited group of people, although there are still problems with this reply, in that there appear to be no adequate criteria for defining the limits of such groups, and also no particular reason why the group should contain more than one person.

The philosopher says that there is indeed an absolute standard of moral behaviour, although how it has come to us, or where it originated, are questions which are still being strongly debated. The fact of the absolute standard is something that can be seen every day, when people talk about what someone else did or said, or what they themselves did, in a certain situation. Time and time again, an appeal will be made to some or other moral precept, which the speaker invariably expects there listeners to know about and share their opinion about.

Certainly there are differences, but these are usually very minor ones, and by and large, there is general agreement that this or that action is right or wrong. This cannot just be explained away as the code of a particular country or race. The practice is accepted worldwide, as, for example, when a country invades another country, there is general acceptance of the view that such an action is wrong if the motive is to seize power in the invaded country, but right if the motive is to help the invaded country remain free from oppression.

So the standard appealed to is a universal one. As to whether it is absolute as well as universal may still be open to question, but the difference between the two could be said to be too subtle to be of any value in practice.


Mulled Vine said...

Good post. I think there is a universal standard. Whether this standard is something akin to the suvivial of the fittest law or God-ordained is open to debate. However, I think laws like survival of the fittest still beg the question as to why such laws exist in the first place

Maddie said...

Great post, very insightful as always. I was thinking a lot about that this week actually, so it's nice to see another perspective. I agree that although laws are necessary for our society, it's not really the same universally. Look at areas where laws regarding human rights have blatantly been disregarded, it's clear to see that if there is a universal moral code then I'm not sure if we've found it yet.

Sofia said...

To MulledVine: Yes I like the way you express the problem.

The moral evolution theory still presents some problems for scrutiny.

The God-ordained theory itself begs the question as to why God would choose to ordain a moral code anyway.

Sofia said...

To Maddie: Yes you have pointed out the possible weakness of the absolutist position, in the area of government versus human rights.

I'm thinking particularly of those human rights violations where the rulers act towards an ethnic minority as though the members of that minority were not fully human, and therefore can be treated in a different way, as though their rights were not those of the rest of humanity. We call it a "violation" of human rights, but they do not see it that way, apparently.

Are we then saying that our view on human rights is only our opinion, and has no absolute authority or validity? When we express our concern and displeasure at these violations, can we really say that it's only our opinion that they are indeed violations? Surely we would be unfair on those rulers to criticise them, if morality truly was only a matter of subjective opinion.

Are we not rather appealing to what we see as a "higher authority", whether it's God or whatever, to back up our condemnation of them?

Mulled Vine said...

Why do you think the God-ordained theory begs the question as to why God would choose to ordain a moral code?

It makes sense to me that just like there are physical laws to govern an effective functioning material universe there should be a moral equivalent for the non-material side.

Sofia said...

From the point of view of philosophy, it is valid to ask the question: Given that God exists, why did God choose to create a moral dimension to the universe?

It is, if you like, the non-material counterpart to the question: Why did God create the universe at all? Or, to put it in more general philosophic terms, why is there something rather than nothing?