Moral Relativism – What is it?
Moral relativism is the view that moral or ethical statements, which vary from person to person, are all equally valid and no one’s opinion of “right and wrong” is really better than any other. Moral relativism is a broader, more personally applied form of other types of relativistic thinking, such as cultural relativism. These are all based on the idea that there is no ultimate standard of good or evil, so every judgment about right and wrong is purely a product of a person’s preferences and environment. There is no ultimate standard of morality, according to moral relativism, and no statement or position can be considered absolutely “right or wrong,” “best or worst.”
Moral relativism is a widely held position in the modern world, though it is very selectively applied. As with other forms of relativism, it is only mentioned in a purely defensive way. The principles of moral relativism can only be used to excuse or allow certain actions, they can never be used to condemn them. Moral relativism takes several different forms, from utilitarianism, evolutionism and existentialism to emotivism and situationism. All of these, for the most part, share a single unifying theme: that absolute morals do not exist, and what is “right” or “wrong” is entirely a product of human preference.
Moral Relativism – Is there a fixed standard?
It’s easy to see that the foundations of modern civilization were not built on a philosophy of moral relativism. The very act of passing a law and enforcing it suggests a fixed standard that everyone is expected to adhere to. The reasons for this are obvious: if everyone in a society really, truly acted as though right and wrong were purely matters of opinion, then society would implode into a battle of “might makes right.” In a morally relativistic culture, the only universal reason to do (or not do) anything is to avoid the consequences from one’s peers.
All human laws involve some moral principle being enforced by threat of consequences. Speed limits are enforced on most roads because of a moral conviction that risking other people’s lives is wrong. The same is true for murder, theft, perjury, fraud, and so forth. When moral relativism becomes dominant, however, legitimate moral principles are no longer the foundation of those laws. Since everything is relative, then these laws are just a matter of opinion, and the only universal reason to follow them is to avoid consequences. This strongly encourages people to look for ways to “get away with it”; after all, it’s just one person’s opinion against someone else’s.
Even in a society operating under the rule of law, severing the connection between those laws and an objective standard invites disaster. At best, moral relativism makes society unstable, as the concepts of right and wrong suddenly become a question of shifting popular opinions. The worst possible outcome of such a condition is the dictator: a ruler who abuses a temporary swing in popular opinion to seize power, but sees no authority as superior to his own, and no laws more binding than his own. During the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the logical problem of relativism became apparent. Nazi defendants continually pled for their acquittal, saying that they were only following the laws of their land. In frustration, finally, one judge asked, “but is there no law higher than our law?” A moral relativist would be forced to answer “no.”
Moral Relativism – A conclusion
Relativism in and of itself is self-defeating. Logically, there must be some standard by which to compare two different moral statements to determine which is the “more correct” one. Obviously, moral relativists deny that such a standard exists, and so they claim that such comparisons are impossible. This results in the biggest practical problem for relativism, as mentioned above: it is difficult, if not impossible, to condemn any actions from a stance of moral relativism.
Once right and wrong are relegated to matters of opinion at worst, or are purely subjective at best, any talk of morality becomes incoherent.