[U05] Relativism & absolutism


§1. What is moral relativism?

Moral relativism says that (1) there are no objective normative facts, and (2) what is right or wrong is relative to particular societies or persons, or moral frameworks or perspectives. For example, clitoridectomy, the mutilation of the sexual organ of a young female, is practiced in certain communities in Africa and the Middle East. It causes a lot of pain and often has long term psychological and health consequences. Should such a practice be banned? A relativist will say that clitoridectomy is only wrong when see from a Western liberal perspective. But it is quite alright relative to certain African or Middle Eastern traditional belief systems. There is no objective answer as to whether it is right or wrong, whether it should or should not be banned. Before continuing, you might want to try out this test :

§2. Non-interventionist moral relativism is inconsistent

Some people are attracted to moral relativism because they think it represents toleration and liberal thinking. A moral relativist might think that we should not interfere with other people's lives or moral values. He might think that if there is no objective fact to determine whether abortion is acceptable, then we should not interfere with a woman's request to have an abortion.

This is actually an inconsistent position. If there are really no objective moral truths, then there is no objective answer as to whether something should or should not be allowed. It is inconsistent to say that there are no objective facts that determine whether something ought to be done or not, and at the same time claim that abortion ought to be allowed, since to make the latter claim is to claim that something indeed ought to be allowed.

When this inconsistency is pointed out, some moral relativists might say that they are only affirming non-interference from their own perspective. But the problem is that from other perspectives, interference might not be undesirable and might even be necessary, and the relativist would then have no way to engage the other party in a rational discussion as to what the right thing to do is. For example, someone might think that abortion is wrong relative to his moral theory, and that all violent means are justified in order to prevent women from having abortions, including the killing of doctors and nurses who might participate in such matters. For a moral relativist, such a position is just as valid as thinking that abortion should be protected, and so no reason can be given to stop any such violent campaign against abortion. The obvious conclusion is that it would be a big mistake to think that moral relativism supports any kind of liberal moral outlook. Under relativism, any non-liberal or absurd position is just as valid as any other.

§3. Do not confuse moral contextualism with relativism

Notice that moral relativism should not be confused with the claim that what is right or wrong depends on the context. For example, a moral realist might refuse to judge whether abortion is right or wrong because she thinks that abortion is permissible under certain situations (e.g. rape) but not permissible under other situations, say when a woman is 8 months pregnant out of her own freewill. But this is not relativism, for it is supposed to be an objective fact that abortion is permissible in cases of rape. A moral relativist will however insist that it is still a relative matter whether abortion is permissible in such a situation.

Contextualism urges us to be cautious with regard to moral claims. Is lying wrong? That depends on the situation. Lying to young children is sometimes of no big consequence. Is killing always wrong? Perhaps not when you have to kill somone attacking you out of self-defense. Generalizations about morality should take into account special situations. But being cautious about general moral claims is not the same thing as accepting moral relativism.

Can you think of any exceptions to these claims?

  1. If someone has committed a murder, then that person should be given a fair trial.
  2. Students should study hard and get a good grade.
  3. We should never toture any innocent babies just for fun and for no other reason.

§4. What is moral absolutism?

Moral absolutism is the view that some actions are morally required or morally prohibited regardless of the situation and the potential consequences.

For example, the famous philosopher Kant is a moral absolutist with regard to telling the truth. He seems to think that lying is always wrong, no matter the consequences. In the essay "On a Supposed Right to Lie", Kant says that we should not lie, even if there is a murderer at the door asking you whether the innocent victim is in your house. The moral absolutist might say that perhaps one should also call the police or to warn the victim, but the bottom line is that one should never lie.

Understandably, many people find Kant's position bizarre, and there are probably very few people who are moral absolutists with regard to lying. But moral absolutism with regard to other actions are not difficult to find. For example, many people would think that incest is wrong, even if the parties involved genuinely love each other. Others might also hold some form of moral absolutism with regard to abortion and homosexuality, believing (perhaps for religious reasons) that they are never justified.

Consider also the 1987 United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The second paragraph of Article 2 says,

"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Notice that this rule explicitly says that torture is never justified. A moral absolutist with regard to torture will agree with this rule. The absolutist would say that even in a situation when a terrorist has planted a bomb that is about to explode and kill many innocent people, it is still not permissible to torture the terrorist in order to extract information as to where the bomb is.

§5. What is moral contextualism?

The opposite of moral absolutism is moral contextualism. This is the view that the very same action can be right in one situation (context), but wrong in a different situation.

Obviously, moral contextualism with regard to an action X is inconsistent with moral absolutism with regard to X. Unlike Kant, most of us would probably think that when a murderer wants to find out where a person is in order to kill him, we should lie if it would save that person's life. But we might also think it is wrong for government officials to lie to its citizens, e.g. about corruption. This would be to reject moral absolutism with regard to lying.

Sometimes people say that morality is not black and white, and it is possible that moral contextualism is what some of them might have in mind. For certain actions described generally, it might be impossible to say whether they are right or wrong, and that it all depends on the details of the particular situation.

Notice that both moral absolutism and contextualism agree that morality is objective. They both agree that there are cases where certain actions are objectively right or objectively wrong. Moral relativism would deny this.

The author Shickle wrote in a paper "On a supposed right to lie [to the public] from benevolent motives: communicating health risks to the public." the following passage:

There are three main categories of rationale for withholding information or telling lies: if overwhelming harm can only be averted through deceit; complete triviality such that it is irrelevant whether the truth is told; a duty to protect the interests of others.

Come up with your own examples for illustrating these three types of situations.

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