When studying ethics and the nature of moral values there is always an assumption that either universal moral truths exist or they do not. Moral absolutists believe these truths do exist, relativists do not. Problems arise in both cases since the concept of absoluteness and the notion of beliefs without objective truth both verge on incoherence. While I hope that rejecting moral relativism does not necessarily force me into the category of moral absolutism, I find that I am obliged to do so, whatever the cost. Although moral relativism is appealing in its own right, I will argue that it is ultimately indefensible because cultural practices or social conventions alone cannot justify the moral value of an act.
In the first section of my essay I will describe the beliefs held by the moral absolutist and moral relativist. Section II will investigate the philosophical underpinnings, that is, the tacit distinctions made in absolutism and relativism. In section III, I will describe the roll situational ethics plays in cultural relativism and moral absolutism. Section IV will evaluate other examples and reject criminal morality as support for cultural relativism. Last, in section V, I will consider the possibility of an alternative to the dichotomized ethical views of moral absolutism and cultural relativism.
Moral absolutists hold that there is an objective truth, a fact of the matter, regarding the morality of an action or social practice. This does not dedicate them to a Kantian picture of categorical imperatives, but in the minimalist form they hold that every morally significant act is right or wrong whether we know it or not. They also believe that those moral truths hold universally. Many philosophers have different theories describing how exactly we can come to know these moral truths. Plato believed in the forms, Aristotle believed in the golden mean, Kant believed in the faculty for reason, just to name a few; the point is that there is an objective moral truth and human beings have the ability to know that truth. Simply stated, a morally wrong act is wrong regardless of the society in which it is instantiated. The moral relativist’s view is fundamentally divergent from the absolutist’s conception of truth. For the relativist a morally significant act is right if the society’s moral code says it is right. The morality of an act is determined not by an objective moral truth, but by subjective societal or cultural standards. Human beings can come to know these subjective truths by appealing to the moral codes of their society. Both theories of morality are far from foolproof; but cultural relativism in what Bernard Williams describes as the “vulgar” sense is blatantly inconsistent, and the extended sense that Gilbert Harmon advocates is quite counter-intuitive (Williams 326, Harman 430).
An investigation of some of the distinctions at play in absolutism and relativism may help clarify their meaning. One of the most basic dichotomies in the two views distinguishes between that which is found and that which is made. Absolutists believe that moral truths are found or discovered, that they exist naturally, objectively, irrespective of human beings. The moral truths are static, platonic-like forms (since morality is immaterial) that human beings can appeal to through the faculty for reason. For the absolutist our rationality leads us to moral facts. Relativists deny this conception of moral truth; they say that morality is not found, but made. For the relativist, moral truths can only come from within us, our subjective beliefs, culture, tradition, and from our very humanity. They believe morality is a human construction that exists to suit human needs. The relativist can only conceive of ethics in terms of secular moral values. Put simply, the absolutist believes moral truths are outside of human beings and the relativist says they are within.
I mentioned before that the moral absolutist need not adopt a Kantian view of the categorical imperative. Murder, for example, is not always wrong – one could conceive of a situation in which killing might be necessary. However, the moral absolutist without absolute moral rules (Kantian rules, not just moral truths) has an exceedingly difficult time drawing a clear distinction between what counts as moral or immoral in any particular set of circumstances. Kant obviously avoids this problem by asserting that certain morally significant acts are right or wrong regardless of the situation. On the other end of the spectrum, the cultural relativist believes that social conventions can distinguish between morally right and wrong acts in any situation. There is an important difference between situational ethics, the belief that there are moral rules which may or may not hold in a particular situation, and moral relativism. The latter states that the justification for a moral belief in any situation is founded on social convention, not on otherworldly objective truths. The moral absolutist might say that some morally significant act A is always right in some situation S; even though in another culture action A in the same situation S may be accepted, it is still wrong. The relativist says that the action may be wrong for our society, but it would be right for that culture as long as it coheres with that culture’s moral codes.
Cultural relativism has the general appeal of tolerance and open mindedness, but there are many compelling counter-examples that cannot be ignored. The absolutist has no problem saying that slavery is a cultural practice that is morally wrong for all people in all societies. Vulgar relativism is predisposed to say that if a society accepts slavery, then it must be right for that society. Other such abominable practices could be equally accepted as morally right within cultural norms according to the cultural relativist (Williams 326). The moral absolutist rightly believes that not only are certain practices wrong for all societies, but that we may even be morally obligated to step in and stop such practices (Williams 328). Gilbert Harmon puts forth a slightly more appealing example that supports cultural relativism. Consider the case of “a successful professional criminal who recognizes various obligations to other members of a criminal organization but not to those on the outside… the successful criminal may well have no reason at all not to harm his or her victims (Harman 429).” Basically Harman explains that the criminal has no rational reason to feel morally obliged not to harm others. The criminal is not deficient in any way other than that the absolutist would label him immoral (Harman 431). The counter-intuitive move that Harman makes is to say that if the criminal does not have “sufficient reason not to harm his or her victims”, then he does not have “sufficient moral reason” not to do so (Harman 430). Harman makes the assumption that if the moral agent is not deficient in any rational way, then the agent’s action is morally justifiable. It is hard to accept the supposition that just because a criminal does not have a reason not to harm others, it is not possible that someone could give him one; and if there is any rational reason not to harm others then it is morally wrong. Since I cannot accept slavery or unnecessary violence as rationally morally right in any situation or culture, I must reject cultural relativism.
Having discarded cultural relativism I must inevitably end up as a moral absolutist, but problems still arise. The absolutist has the serious task of discovering how exactly humans can know objective moral truths. Our faculty for reason has certainly failed us in the past; with moral beliefs that historically change at an alarming rate (shouldn’t we be alarmed by the fact that it changes at all?) it is hard to have much confidence in that moral knowledge. Even among philosophers today there is great disagreement about the method for discovering universal truths, and much less of a consensus regarding particular cases. The moral relativists are in equally deep trouble trying to justify beliefs with no foundation of truth. If there is no objective truth, any belief seems as good as any other. Given the choices, I must ask: if you are not a relativist and you are not an absolutist, what exactly are you? This question is hard to answer; there is no doubt that social conventions play a role in our conceptions of morality, but they cannot serve as the sole foundation for moral truths. Perhaps the role of morality is to help societies become better and, “growth itself is the only moral end (Rorty 526).” This is the view that some neo-pragmatists and post-modern philosophers have been trying to advance, with limited success. The dichotomy of absolute and relative morality is so deeply ingrained into western thought that it seems almost impossible to consider an alternative view (Rorty 527). If we can someday overcome the dichotomy of absolutism and relativism perhaps the new morality will appeal to our intuitive belief in objective truths, while still allowing us to be open-minded and tolerant of foreign moral codes.
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