Problems of Moral Relativism

5/09/2012 DK 0 Comments

Moral relativism (Source)
Taken from

There is a very strong draw to moral relativism in recent years. I will discuss the reasons why people are drawn to it but first I’d like to talk about the problems of moral relativism. There are two different kinds of relativism; cultural & individual. Cultural relativism is when cultures determine what is moral. What may be moral in American culture will not always be moral in Russian culture. Regardless, it is the culture that determines the morality of the people. Similarly, individual relativism is when individuals choose or determine their own morality. For instance, a pacifist will be said to have a different morality than that of a neoconservative. Either way, both would be considered moral beings. Both types of relativism suffer from the same problems.

The first problem is the problem of infallibility. There may be a slight tendency to equate a disbelief in morality with moral relativism but that’s not what moral relativists say. They are not claiming the nonexistence of morality rather they claim that it’s what an individual or culture believes. This means that they are morally infallible. If the premise is that whatever one believes is moral then it automatically follows that they can’t ever be wrong. Even if they change their mind. That seems to be a false premise as we’ll soon find out. For now, lets move on to the next criticism.
This criticism is a confusion between fact & opinion. A relativist may say that murder is wrong unless somebody says something mean about their mother. However, the relativist falls into a trap of trying to create a fact out of an opinion. They make their preference a fact. This is no different than saying, “my favorite sports team is the Miami Dolphins therefore they are the best team in the league.” It is fairly clear that this is a matter of opinion being put into a fact.
A third problem is that relativism claims facts but then contradicts them. Even in the most black & white situations. When dealing with facts, there can be no contradictions. For instance, a relativist may happily agree that a circle, the physical shape, is not a square. One that does not agree may simply mean it is different in a metaphorical sense but the physical shape is still a circle. One may also say that it depends on how you view it. However, that still acknowledges that there is an objective fact but it may appear to be different to other people. The importance is to see they acknowledge the existence. A fact can be perceived in many ways but a fact is still a fact. The law of non-contradiction applies to all facts. Morality, no matter how inconvenient, is no exception.
Among the ones listed, there is one more problem (though, I am sure there are others that exist). There is only one premise in the argument so it is hard to see how the conclusion follows. The syllogism looks something like this:
1. Many people or cultures have different moral beliefs.
2. Therefore there are many different moral beliefs.
There is a missing premise. The premise seems to be, “whatever people believe is true is true.” This is not a true premise at all and I don’t think that’s even up for a debate. The missing premise not only invalidates the argument but it also raises two more issues; what is morality? & the most famous ethical dilemma, the “is-ought” gap. Regarding the question of morality, it’s a question that relativists have a real problem answering. Is it just a set of beliefs people have? If that’s the case then something as simple as holding the door open for somebody or looking somebody in the eye while talking is moral. This seems to mix up morality & customs, though. Is anyone really going to argue that a man asking a woman to marry him is a moral issue rather than a custom in society? The relativist commits a huge fallacy when he or she equates what people actually do with what they ought to do (the “ought” is something that most philosophers would agree is what morality represents). The relativist has no other answer than “we ought to do what we do,” which is a circular argument as well as begging the question.
There are so many reasons not to fall into the trap of moral relativism, so why do we do it? Many people probably just want an excuse for what they do. Perhaps they are doing something that is immoral so they try to reason that whatever they do is moral because they think it is. There may also be another case in which people genuinely don’t understand what morality is. They perhaps it is an analysis or observational (empirical) science rather than a priori. However, it seems to me that people have not heard a reasonable, if any at all, argument for an objective morality. There are many lesser known theories of objective morality such as Ayn Rand’s theory of rational ethical egoism or Michael Huemer’s revisionary ethical intuitionism. While these may not be true they at least start off with the correct analysis; morals are objective.

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