Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Flaws of Moral Relativism

What is moral relativism (MR) and what are its consequences? Steven Novella is an MR and a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. Consequently, he believes that morality,

• …is not immutable – we as a species will debate endlessly about our moral code, which will evolve as our civilization matures and gains more experience.

Morality will therefore change along with our culture and societal pressures. (All of us believe that morality is relative in some regards and must be applied according to the people and situations. However, in contrast to the MR, the moral absolutist (MA) acknowledges that there are also unchanging moral absolutes.) Because there are no higher truths hanging independently beyond us, humanity is left to choose its morals and laws:

• Therefore there is no evidence of an objective morality to the universe.

Nevertheless, Novella believes that there is a solid basis for our choices:

• As a social species we have evolved a number of moral senses. These include notions such as reciprocity – doing good to others so that they will do good to you. Reciprocity has been demonstrated even in many animal species. While reciprocity may be a cold calculation of evolution, that does not mean that each individual is making a cold calculation. We actually feel that being good to others is the right thing to do, and we feel that those who do bad deserve to be punished. We have a sense of justice.

We all agree that we are wired for morality and moral judgments, but where does this wiring come from. For Novella, the answer is “evolution”:

• …we “know instinctively” that murder is wrong because we evolved that moral sense because having such a sense is a survival advantage in a social group. Therefore there is no reason for a supernatural cause of our instinct.

Others might argue that evolution is a muddled theory, which has also been used to justify social Darwinism and rape as vehicles to pass on the “fittest” genes. In any event, instinct is not enough to justify a moral system. For one thing, we have many conflicting instincts —hating/loving, forgiving/revenging, raping/protecting. What determines which instincts to follow? Even more importantly, is there any reason to follow any of our instinct? The philosopher, David Hume, pointed out that it’s impossible to go from what “is” (our instincts) to what “ought to be” (moral judgments). It seems like there is an impassible chasm between the two worlds.

Generally, the MR makes his leap by introducing another piece into his puzzle – pragmatism, that which works and brings desirable results! Pragmatism makes the leap from our physical reality to what it ought to be, based upon our instincts and proclivities. Any MR system must gravitate to a pragmatic justification. “We don’t rape and kill because it will HURT both us and society!” Thus, murder would violate our well-being. Novella puts it this way:

• For example, we can start with the basic principle of equality – that all people should be considered to have equal rights. We can reason that without this principle there is no way to develop a moral system that works.

Novella claims that “equal rights” is not only intuitive, but it also “works.” It provides salutary returns to society. He is right; morality does work? (However, the beneficent harmony or correspondence we find between following the dictates of our conscience and what is right seems to point to divine causation.)

Nevertheless, I think that there are significant problems with the MR system, and I’ll try to detail some of them:

PRAGMATISM. Novella adds,

• There are other basic principles – such as, one of those rights that everyone has equal access to is the right not to be harmed. We all have a right to our own autonomy, to be left alone, and not be harmed by others.

Although most of us would agree that we do have certain “rights” and that Novella has identified things that should be protected as “rights,” pragmatism has no way of accounting for this concept of “rights.” Most obviously, who grants the “rights?” If it is the State that fundamentally grants them, then the State can just as easily un-grant them when it’s no longer pragmatically expedient. “
Thus, “rights” in a MR system resemble only superficially rights in a MA system, where rights are granted unalterably by God, because we are created in His image and therefore possess inestimable value (Genesis 1:26-27).

Our “rights” can not be assured by any considerations of evolution or pragmatism, which tends to be very myopic and demanding. Society has urgent needs, which have often been found to preempt more humanitarian concerns. Lenin had been asked, “What does communist morality entail.” He answered, “Whatever promotes the revolution is ‘good,’ whatever interferes with it is ‘bad.’ Consequently, millions were exterminated to secure this “utopian ideal.”

While pragmatism can serve equality and human rights, it can just as quickly stamp them out, depending upon the winds of change. We can love for pragmatic reasons; we can also kill for pragmatic reasons, or simply remain silent in the midst of genocide. Besides, pragmatism alone lacks the fiber to motivate us to stand up for human rights when there is a risk of greater costs.


• The implications of a moral system with and without equality have been carefully thought out by our brightest thinkers over thousands of years, and it is the only conclusion that works.

I tend to also believe that “equality,” in most circumstances, “works” to produce results that I value. But “works” means different things to different people. Serial killer Ted Bundy stated that once he realized that morality was man-made, he was freed from all moral constraints to do what “worked” for him – raping and killing women. According to him, there are no absolute values that set us apart from pigs, which we slaughter for food.

If there isn’t an absolute qualitative difference between a pig and a human, then Bundy is faultless, and no amount of persuasion could make any difference. At this point, the relativist must forsake reason for might-makes-right or, in our case, majority-makes-right if he wants to hold the disparate elements of society together.

Besides, if there are no MAs, how can we hold anyone accountable, when accountability is merely a matter of conforming to another man’s laws? In good conscience, can the MR throw someone in jail simply for violating an arbitrary convention, which others claim “works” for them? How can this but engender resentment, cynicism and bitterness!

Even for those who believe in MR, it will be difficult to be enthusiastic about something that they know isn’t absolute and is always changing. Why sacrifice for a man-made concept of human rights if it will be different tomorrow. Rather than inspiring obedience, MR laws will incite rebellion – “Why should I obey someone else’s laws!”

Instead, we tend to become excited by those things that elevate us, that bring us in contact with something greater. However, in the world of MR, there is nothing greater. Burnout is almost inevitable. If life is just about “what works,” then it is likely that this concept will lead us to pursue our immediate needs and desires. Our persistent and demanding lower desires will eventually win out over our noble, but baseless ideals. It’s hard to resist the hamburger, unless we have sounds reasons to do so.

WHOLENESS AND CONSISTENCY. Many MRs confess to a feeling of emptiness, an alienation from themselves. Relativism seems to have set them up for this schizoid experience. While their heart (conscience, instincts) tells them that there is justice and injustice, right and wrong, and transcendent values, their relativistic mind takes them in the opposite direction.

In contrast to this, there is a great joy in knowing that we walk in the light, that what we are doing is pleasing to truth, even to God. This is a joy and a meaning that will probably elude those who do “equality” merely because it “works,” at least for now.

Likewise, pure pragmatism undermines altruism and love. According to relativism, we do what we do because it “works,” it provides certain personal benefits. The higher ideals of love, altruism and self-sacrifice are denied in a purely pragmatic world. Although they might still exist on the intuitive level, MR denies them their independent reality. Instead, they have been reduced to tools of expedience to produce what “works.”

THE FLATTENING OF LIFE. In the world of MR, there is no room for the higher ideals of truth, honestly, courage, dignity, or even character if it is just a matter of what “works.” Our ideals can take us no further than changing considerations of human welfare. What then can be our purpose in life? What can bestow upon us dignity? The pursuit of what “works?” And for how long will it work if it is bereft of the depth that truth imparts? Novella writes,

• We will also face new challenges and our moral code will have to adapt to those challenges. Such a system is not absolute, but it works and it’s the best we have.

Will it work? Will MR provide the glue to keep society functioning without overly oppressive means? William Golding, the author of “Lord of the Flies,” is understandably skeptical:

• Before the second world war I believed in the perfectibility of social man…but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another…I must say that anyone who had moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.

If MR is truly about what “works,” then its most logical recourse is to God.

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