Relativism, briefly, is the belief that “nobody is objectively right or wrong” and that “because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree.” Like the golden rule, it sounds like common sense and the rational approach to sensitive issues. Alas, I treat it with skepticism. In this post, I’m going to start with what we all agree about moral relativism and take readers step by step through the implications of this intriguing philosophy. Enjoy the ride!
The premise of mainstream relativism, although no one likes to say it, is that morals really aren’t that existent in the first place. That’s a dangerous accusation Wikipedia and others try to stray from, and there are obvious reasons why. However, to say there is no such thing as “objective” morality is to say that morality is the converse: “subjective”. And to say morality is subjective leads to an interpretive anarchy – believe what you want to believe…live how you want to live.
It’s no wonder moral relativism has its critics. Not only does it throw the entire good vs. bad paradigm into the trash, but it also threatens the entire philosophical discourse on morality. All of a sudden, one has an escape route to the tough moral questions by saying that the questions are flawed and have no answers. It’s easy to see how this is attractive, as all of a sudden the tough questions are no longer tough at all – in fact, they are no longer worthy of asking. At the same time, a lack of answers leads to deeper and deeper questions that become more and more troubling: why the heck am I living in the first place?
And that question has always been ever-so-hard to answer. But now that one potential answer has been crossed out – the idea that humans live to be good people – there’s not so many left. You could say that one’s own purpose is to be good in their own standards, another escape hatch, but that leads to more and more questions: why should one have a moral standard in the first place?
Certainly, such an existential outlook wouldn’t be Kierkegaardian. If one resolves to follow a moral outlook, then, the reasoning has to be something besides “being good because it’s good”. It would have to fall into, I think, a hedonistic or nihilistic attitude – the first being “be good because it feels good” and the second being “be good because human nature is a bull you can’t fight”. Both views are evidently seen as disgusting by all non-relativists or all non-mainstream relativists, and it’s not difficult to see why. It also presses the question on why such views should even be allowed in moral discussion, when neither makes an attempt for “true” morality.
And that’s the catch. The discussion boils down to if there is “true” morality. Is there any objective truth at all? Whether there is or not, relativists would insist the question is unnecessary. If you start with the premise that there are no morals, why bother to look for morals when it’s just a waste of time? Especially if your hedonistic self doesn’t want to bother, or if your nihilistic self hates asking questions. Which makes relativism all the more difficult to talk about – when taking that stance could lead to never questioning the stance again.
And suddenly religion isn’t the dogmatic one. Uh oh.