An Examination of Moral Relativism (and Nihilism)

I recently did some reading and listening on the subject of moral relativism (and relativism in general) and would like to record some of what I came across for future reference, possibly for discussion with the group. I’ve formulated these criticisms informed by my own beliefs, and also in light of what I’ve heard and read that confirms my view on the theory, that relativism is not practically workable, running against the very nature of human thought, and that the arguments in favor of it are deeply flawed.

First, let’s define the terms. General relativism (or so I’ll call it) makes the claim “all truths are relative” although it omits its qualifier, in which case it needs to read “all truths are relative (except this one)” making an exclusive claim to truth while denying all others in contradiction. This commits the fallacy of conflicting conditions. It is internally contradictory, like saying “this statement is false.” Relativism as a general concept is by and large considered untenable.

It is possible to maintain moral relativism, but not general relativism; it is possible to say “right and wrong are relative” as an absolute statement. In other words, when someone makes an ethical or moral statement such as “killing the innocent is wrong,” either that statement is only correct within the theoretical framework in which it is uttered (the society’s particular moral code, etc.), or it is actually an expression of the person’s belief/preference/feeling: “I don’t like killing” or “I don’t want you to kill” (closer to moral nihilism–the belief that “right and wrong” do not exist in any sense). The strength of this position is that it does not fall into the trap of total relativism. But what are its problems?

To begin with, let’s look at the reason people believe this theory in the first place. The most common argument for moral relativism is the argument from moral diversity. This argument observes, rightly, that at different times and in different cultures, people have different moral values, and then concludes that morality must therefore be relative. Some critics observe that morality is actually not different enough to justify the extreme claims of moral relativism (C.S. Lewis refers to the common morality shared among all cultures at all times the tao, in his book The Abolition of Man.) But regardless of the objections, this argument fails because it makes a category error by exchanging the descriptive for the normative. Observed moral relativism is an “is” claim (descriptive), while morality deals with “ought” claims (normative)–the way things ought to be, not the way they are. It does not necessarily follow from what is what ought to be. Similar to this argument would be to say: many people solve a mathematical equation in many different ways, getting different answers–therefore, there must be no correct answer, and math itself must be relative! Clearly, this is not necessarily so. And unless somehow proven otherwise, it remains a possibility that some people have their morality wrong or less correct, while some people have their morality right or more correct–a theory which accords with the phenomenon of moral diversity just as well as relativism. Furthermore, if we are to follow the reasoning of moving from descriptive to normative, then we must draw the same conclusion that science is relative, as is morality, since scientific knowledge and practice has differed so widely across time and among cultures–more so than morality, if you think about it. Yet we don’t hold this view; we believe that the science we have is the right science, or at least the most fully developed, the most correct that we’ve been able to come thus far. We are Hegelians when it comes to science, but postmoderns when it comes to ethics.

It is also curious that moral language began with and developed using absolute terms. Wouldn’t we only have developed the language of personal preference if that’s all that ethics was? Of course, this doesn’t prove that moral relativism is false, only that it seems strange, or unlikely.

But to go further, I would argue that moral relativism breaks its own rules in the same way that general relativism does. Moral relativism (and nihilism), in going beyond the descriptive, denote a truth about ethical statements. Remember, these positions argue that moral statements such as “killing is wrong” are either only true within their theoretical framework (relativism), or actually expressions of personal preference with no “truth” value, societal or otherwise (nihilism). To make this work, they maintain that meta-ethical statements, which they are, are true, but that ethical statements themselves are relative or not meaningful at all. In other words, we can talk in concrete terms about morality, but moral statements themselves are relative. But this raises a couple of questions: first, how do we know that statements of ethics are preferential, but that those of meta-ethics are truthful? How is it that statements about morality actually correspond to reality, whereas statements of morality only correspond to a theoretical framework or personal preference? I’m not sure that there is a coherent reason for drawing the Line of Relativism at ethical statements, but not at meta-ethical statements, or scientific statements, or any other sorts of statements–other than by appealing to some other philosophical position (humanism, or atheism, perhaps?). If you draw the line too far forward (more than just morality is relative), then you tend toward general relativism, and you are in danger of a self-refuting system. If you draw the line too far back (there are absolute truths), then you are no longer really a relativist, and the burden falls on you to show why it is that morality is relative and other things are not. Second question: how and why do we distinguish between the ethical and the meta-ethical in the first place? How are statements about morality and of morality any different to begin with? I would argue that this distinction is not justified, and that in fact there is cause to believe the opposite–that statements about morality and of morality are actually of the same kind. To say that morality is relative is to make the statement that there are no absolutely necessary moral obligations, which is to say, that that is the morality (or lack thereof). Therefore, saying that morality is relative or does not exist is to make a moral claim that asserts that it exists and is not relative–saying, essentially, and in self-defeating contradiction, “all absolute moral claims are false (except this one).” Or maybe even better, “everything about morality is relative (except that it is relative).”

The support seems to me weak at best, deeply flawed at worst, and the theories themselves may contain irresolvable contradictions. Now, let’s examine the application of the theories. What are potential problems with moral relativism’s and nihilism’s outworkings, supposing them to be true?

First, a lot of people contradictorily extract a concrete ethics out of the view that ethics are relative. People say, “right and wrong are relative, therefore we should be tolerant” not realizing that they’ve just made “tolerance” an absolute virtue–making right and wrong not totally relative (and also making the same category error of moving from descriptive to normative). This is one of the key problems I see with humanism in its contemporary form.

(There are similar problems in arguments against religion. Some people argue that no religion can claim to have the whole truth, that it is presumptuous or arrogant to claim a perspective of superiority over others. But isn’t this argument itself a superior claim about religious truth of the same sort–indicating that its speaker does, in fact, have the perspective that supposedly can’t be had or shouldn’t be claimed?)

But if one manages to avoid this trap, there are others that reveal a deep incoherence in the theory. Some moral relativists say, “I have my ideas of what is right and wrong; others do too, and they are welcome to it.” But the problem is that ideas about right and wrong necessarily extend beyond the self. “I think that people ought not to murder, but it’s all relative”–yet to say that “people ought not” implies a standard that applies to more than yourself, indicating externality, and thus a nature concrete, not relative. (Or else, how is it that your personal standard can meaningfully apply to other people?)

One may avoid any sense of corporate, external morality by saying only “I ought not to murder” or “it would be wrong for me to murder” but then this still suggests at least two working pieces: a code, framework, or set of guidelines, and the self upon which these guidelines are imposed. This code can only come from either inside or outside of the self. If guidelines are imposed by the self, then the question is: how do we come up with these “oughts” and how do they meaningfully guide behavior? Are there two selves, or else how are one’s “oughts” different from moment-to-moment impulses, or different from what one actually ends up doing? You’re making up your own “oughts.” You can only say “I ought to do this thing” because you mean that you want to, or you’ve decided you will do it, and then you do it. But then you are making a distinction where none exists only to satisfy the “ought” language–and justifying your decisions and actions using circular reasoning, when there is not even a need to justify those actions in the first place!

But this is contradictory and incoherent, and no one thinks this way. We all think and act in opposition to relativism–in terms of two working pieces, ourselves and something else concrete. For example, a relativist might say that our choices are relative to what consequences we find desirable or undesirable, but how do we decide what is desirable or undesirable? Even if what you find desirable or undesirable is relative for you, you treat it as though it were concrete. You make the decision for what would be desirable on the assumption that it would be desirable no matter what you choose. What decision you make depends on what is desirable, not the other way around. If you should unexpectedly obtain an undesirable result instead of a desirable one, or discover that what you thought would be desirable is really undesirable, you then think that you had made the wrong decision–not that your appraisal of the result needs to change. This all implies permanence and externality of that desirability or undesirability, because it does not change depending on you. In resolving not to make the same mistake again, or in some other way to integrate the experience into your decision-making process, you admit that your judgment is subject to error, and the only way for this to be possible is if what you judged is external to your faculties of judgment. This is contrary to the principles of relativism. What you don’t do–and no one ever does–but what relativism demands, is to change the interpretation of the result based on the decision: you don’t say “I’m sure glad I made that decision that got this undesirable result; I’ve learned that this result is actually desirable because it’s what my decision led to!” (“I’m glad I decided buy that car on a whim from the salesman; now I know that getting cheated and losing money is good!”) Again, no one does this, but this is actually what relativism dictates should happen, because if desirability or undesirability is relative, then we have no justification for interpreting the results of our choices apart from the choices themselves–and for our choices, we have nothing other than the fact that we made them. If we thought it was right at the time, then it was right!

So moral relativism entirely undermines the idea of self-improvement, since there is no way to know or say that we did something wrong, and that we “ought” to be “better” if whatever we did is what we ought to have done. The selection can be nothing other than arbitrary or capricious. This is even more problematic on a societal scale: how are we to improve society without pointing to certain ethical codes as better or worse than others? For instance, on what basis did our society depart from its endorsement of slavery other than to say that we had had it wrong the whole time, not that we had simply, arbitrarily changed our feelings about it now? Maybe society exchanges one moral framework for another–but on what basis? Doesn’t it have to appeal to a higher, more permanent framework to justify the exchange? On the other hand, if relativism is true, the only true appeal to a certain ethics is through force. A leader can’t say “murder is wrong” meaningfully to his citizens except as a lie, justifying his convictions with ethos beyond his own; he can only truly say “you better not murder or I’ll make sure something bad happens to you” (assuming that “something bad” is something actually bad, and not just relative…)

If true ideas about right and wrong don’t exist, then what is the meaning of having ideas about right and wrong in the first place? It’s like having very strong opinions about who Santa Claus is, what he is like, but without believing that he actually exists. You might believe that Santa Claus has pointy ears–you may believe this very strongly–but then, what is the point of this, if Santa Claus isn’t real? Why do you bother with this belief in the first place?

If you are a true relativist, I would argue, you are actually a closet nihilist, and you must give up your personal beliefs of right and wrong altogether in order to be consistent. But does this work? This leads me to my next point, which is that the difference between belief in Santa Claus and belief in morality is of course that one is an integral part of the human experience and the other is not. So I’m going to apply this analogy even where it breaks down. If we discover that arguing about whether Santa has pointy ears or not is meaningless because he doesn’t actually exist, that’s fine–we can stop worrying about whether or not he has pointy ears altogether–it doesn’t affect our lives. But if we decide that morality doesn’t exist, it still affects our lives; there is no escape from it. Unlike choosing to disbelieve in Santa, deciding whether morality exists is more like deciding to breathe air or not–it has consequences either way. Keep breathing air: you live. Stop breathing air: you die. Everyone makes choices. What one believes about the nature of morality influences the decisions one makes. Therefore, beliefs about nature and morality influence everyone. Whichever one you choose, it matters. There is no way for it not to matter.

The practical result of moral nihilism–to dismiss the idea of the “ought” altogether–is to live without a framework for making decisions at all, conforming to any old whim that strikes us, living reflexively. But this is not possible. If we decide to live reflexively, to be in accordance with our nihilistic beliefs, then we have constructed a moral framework (we “ought” to live reflexively), and we are not a nihilist.

Even if, theoretically, we could avoid this, moral nihilism also has the problem of relativism’s self-justification, but with a twist: if there is no right or wrong, there is no justification for analyzing the result of a choice, although under nihilism one cannot even evaluate the result of a choice by virtue of the choice itself.

And most importantly, moral nihilism begins to undermine reason itself. Reasoning is a series of “oughts”–rules of logic and inference. This “ought” to follow from that. With no “oughts,” there is no reason. If we object to this, saying that moral “oughts” don’t exist but “oughts” of reason and logic do, then we fall into the same error as the relativist: drawing a Line of Nihilism arbitrarily between the questionable distinction between ethics and meta-ethics. What is the difference between “oughts” of morality and “oughts” of logic? And we contradict ourselves in saying “there are no moral truths (except this one).” So I don’t think it’s a slippery slope to say that not only are moral relativism and nihilism self-contradictory and contrary to the human experience, but they threaten to (and by necessity must) undermine much more than just morality.

Thus, the theories (moral relativism and moral nihilism) seem highly unlikely, especially considering that there are other competing moral frameworks more congruous to human experience, thought, and life (i.e., Aristotle’s telos, divine purpose/Christian virtue, human rights theory, etc.). Nonetheless, relativism and nihilism remain attractive positions. The theories seem to arise from the sort of naturalistic atheism which, although subject to much criticism itself, is by and large the norm in our cultural place and time. They appeal to people who disbelieve in God, the supernatural, and the metaphysical, and who hold scientistic beliefs that dismiss the idea of anything “innate” in humanity other than biological processes (and to people who want to do whatever they want to do without having to think deeply and seriously, and who want to avoid the pain of moral correction). But moral relativism and nihilism have serious problems. Their philosophical justification is questionable at best and they are incongruous with how we as humans think and live.

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