I discovered something interesting tonight, and it has me thinking more than usual. Which is saying a lot, since I spend quite a bit of time thinking. I learned—via a somewhat heated discussion over and after dinner—that my father is a moral relativist, or at least comes across as such (whether he’d stick by his guns under pressure is a question I’m not currently qualified to answer). Now, by this I mean the following: he believes that what is right and wrong is relative to the culture and society of the people who perform the action. Moreover, his explanation suggested that he saw right and wrong being contingent upon the beliefs of the actor. What’s right for me may not be right for you. Morality is subjective. There is no objective right or wrong. If I perform an action that I believe is morally right, then it is morally right.
Just to be sure I understood him, I asked him point blank: “So it’s 1785. Is slavery wrong?” He said it wasn’t wrong then, but when we look back with current understanding, we see it as a morally impermissible action. Or rather, some of us do. Because I’m sure there are still people out there in the world who advocate slavery. And according to my father’s theory, they’re right. According to his moral relativism, insofar as I understand it, for such advocates to enslave other people is not only morally permissible; it’s a good thing to do. A right thing to do.
In having this conversation with him (the rest of my family watched as our minds clashed), I realized that I couldn't exactly explain what I felt was wrong with the theory. Every point I made was rebutted in a way that, while logically consistent and rigorous, still felt somehow off to me. Moral relativism is a theory that doesn’t require any sort of deity’s intervention, and that’s something I can most certainly get behind. But on the whole I feel it to be untenable, for reasons that I find myself unable to adequately explain. Perhaps if I raise some of the objections I’ve been contemplating, I’ll discover more about why I feel that this theory isn’t worth grabbing hold of.
If I were to dive back into this debate with my dad (and I intend to, once I’ve formulated my thoughts a bit more), I would want him to answer some questions for me. They are as follows:
1) “Under your theory (your form of moral relativism), what’s right and wrong are determined by the actors themselves. So if I commit some action that I believe is right, are you justified in telling me that it’s wrong to commit that action?”
Under your theory, dad (and I’m sorry that I have to bring this into it, but it’s the best example I can think of), Hitler was a saint. Hitler did exactly what he believed was right. According to your system, what he did was right... for him. Oh sure, you don’t think it was right. You’d tell him he was doing something bad, something wrong, something that shouldn’t be done. But how can you justify that position? Certainly, the action is wrong for you to commit, because you believe it to be a wrong action. But Hitler doesn’t. So what right do you have to say anything about his action?
2) “If I am presented with a moral dilemma that I have not encountered before, how does your theory assist me in determining the correct course of action? In other words, when I’m faced with an ethical problem, what criteria do I use to determine the morally right decision?”
If there are no such criteria, then the moral theory provides no way for its proponents to determine right action, except the following axiom: “Do what you believe is right, and it will be the right thing to do.” What if I don’t know what I want to do? What if, in looking at a situation, I find both actions to be equally offensive, or desirable? How am I to make any kind of judgment call about what I should do in those circumstances?
3) “If moral action is determined by the actor, then how can we ever say, ‘He did the right thing,’ and have that statement actually be meaningful?”
My father talked at length about how people needed to have “constructs” in order to get through their lives, and I agreed with him there. His point was that everyone needs to have some kind of “belief system” about the world. I’m cool with that. I have a “belief system”, based on reason, empiricism, and evidence, but like anything it’s subject to my own biases (which I attempt to remove as much as possible). Anyway, I’m getting off track: the thrust of this question has to do with comparisons. If Smith commits an action that Smith believes is right, then he’s done the right thing (under your theory). If Jones commits the same action, but Jones believes it’s the wrong thing to do, then Jones has done something wrong. So the same action can, depending upon the actor, have different moral value? What this means is that, in essence, I cannot praise someone for doing the right thing or scold someone for doing the wrong thing, because what’s right and wrong are all based on what they think is right and wrong. So there are, in Catholic terms, no saints or sinners. Everyone does what they think is right, and that’s all there is to it. No one deserves a pat on the back or a slap across the knuckles.
4) “According to your theory, what’s right and wrong in a society are largely determined by the majority or a vocal minority. If this is the case, then isn’t this a glorified version of ‘might makes right’?”
This objection is based more on emotion than the others, but I feel it’s worth mentioning. The example I used in our discussion was gay marriage. According to this theory, if the majority of people in this country believe gay marriage is wrong, then it’s wrong. But moreover, if a minority of people believe it’s wrong, and they just happen to have the necessary power to change the laws and minds of those around them, then it’s still wrong. I guess what I’m getting at here is this: it doesn’t seem correct to me that the strongest group in a society gets to determine what is morally permissible or impermissible for that society. Moreover, it doesn't seem correct to say that actions committed by other cultures—the example I used was female circumcision, a horrific practice still performed in many African nations—are morally right because the majority of the culture believes that the action is right.
I think all in all, I have a problem with the following scenario: Say that, hypothetically, a man comes in to see my father at work. “Hello sir,” he says. “I have unfortunate news. It is my belief that people in your line of work are moral monsters who don’t deserve to live. Thus, I have a moral obligation to kill you.” The man pulls a gun and shoots my father dead. Questions: Would I be mad about this? Yes! Would I want to do something about it? Of course! Would I be correct in saying that the man did something wrong by killing my father in cold blood? No, I would not. After all, the man did what he thought was right, and thus, according to my father’s theory, he committed a morally permissible action. I can clamor for revenge or justice all I want, but in no way do I have any sort of moral justification for doing so.
That just seems wrong to me! Of course I would be morally justified in seeking justice or revenge against my father’s murderer. I don’t see how it could possibly be any other way. My father’s moral relativist stance leads, I feel, directly into chaos, for after all, if whatever I believe is the right thing to do—no matter how twisted, sadistic, or malicious my thoughts may be—is the right thing to do, then everything becomes morally permissible, and I would be morally justified in committing any action whatsoever. When all of morality is subjective, it really doesn’t even make sense to say that an action is “right” or “wrong”. I can just do as I please, and the only argument anyone can use against me is, “I don’t like that, so don’t do it.” Were someone to call me any name in some way related to morality—“evil” springs to mind—I could immediately counter with, “I’m not evil. This is the right thing to do.” And I would be completely justified in saying this.
Moral relativism of the kind my father seems to ascribe to is untenable because it, in essence, annihilates right and wrong, and instead replaces them with an “anything goes” system, under which anyone can be justified in doing anything they want. As much as I am against the idea of moral absolutism—the view that certain actions are always wrong, no matter what—I can’t help but feel that this view put forth by my old man is a bit too far in the opposite direction. Certainly I don’t want a system where every action has a moral value that cannot be altered no matter the circumstances, but at the same time I don’t want a system where no action has that status. Like most things in life, moderation appears to be the key to morality.