Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism. Part I was “Why worry about moral relativism?”
Part II: Partial relativism and skepticism
People may think that what they read in their chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks are objectively true, or at least, that there is some reality that could determine whether the claims in these books are true or false, but that there is no objective truth to be found in a book on ethics, politics, or aesthetics. That is, one could think there are truth makers relative to some domains and no truth makers relative to another; in the latter sort of domain, all perspectives are equally valid because there is nothing that could serve as a measure to adjudicate between rival truth claims. Such a view would not be self-refuting. But that doesn’t mean that the view is any good (self-refutation is a pretty low bar for theorizing). I will limit myself to discussions of moral and cultural relativism.
Before I talk about what moral relativism is, let me stave off confusion by saying what it isn’t. It isn’t moral skepticism. The moral skeptic doubts our claims to possess moral knowledge. But this is not the denial of objective truth; rather, it is a denial that we have reliable access to that truth.
Alternatively, a skeptic may deny that moral claims function like regular beliefs at all. On this view, moral claims are just statements about one’s own personal preferences, such that moral disagreement is an illusion. Disagreement is an illusion because statements of preference are not truth-apt—they are not susceptible of being true or false. If I say I like ice cream, and you say ice cream is gross, we are not disagreeing about anything objective. We are saying something about ourselves—viz., that you and I have different reactions to eating ice cream; I have a pleasure response, and you don’t. Similarly, if I say I don’t like murder and you say you do, we aren’t disagreeing about objective facts about what it is ‘to kill the innocent’ but merely stating our own responses to it when it happens.
There are other forms of skepticism, but skepticism is not our topic. The moral relativist thinks there are no objective truths that could settle moral claims, but that moral claims do assert private or personal truths. Consider a moral disagreement like this: Lucy thinks that rape is impermissible is true, whereas Linus thinks that rape is permissible is true. Both claims can be equally true according to the relativist—true from each person’s first personal perspective. But neither claim is objectively true, and so neither claim demands our allegiance.
One thing that is weird about this point of view is that it can in principle have no practical upshot, because as soon as one tries to make moral relativism practical one is caught in a performative contradiction. For example, suppose you are at a frat party and you see Jack trying to rape Jane, who is only semi-conscious. Suppose you believe that rape is wrong—really, terribly wrong—in which case you will want to stop him. But you cannot stop him if you are an ethical relativist, because you will have no ground on which to do so. As a relativist you are committed to the belief that Jack’s value judgments are true for him and equally as good as your own, and Jack plainly doesn’t think that rape is wrong. Perhaps he thinks it expresses his will to power, or perhaps he thinks so long as he has drugged a woman and makes sure that she doesn’t get pregnant, then he isn’t really doing anything bad to her. Let us suppose that you are a decent person, so you are horrified by what Jack is doing and thinking. As a relativist, however, you have undermined any ground you might have otherwise had to object to his behavior. As an ethical relativist, you cannot impose your belief, your truth, on someone else. At best you can say that what he does is upsetting you, but of course, Jack will only stop if he cares about that. But Jack doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that puts other’s needs before his own; I mean, think about what he is doing to Jane. Hopefully you can see the problem.
All this is to say that the ethical relativist can only be a relativist in theory but not practice. That’s pretty weird, because we typically think that our ethical beliefs are supposed to translate into action—they are supposed to be practical. But now it looks like the only time this is possible is when my actions only concern me, because only then would I not be imposing on anyone else in trying to realize my own private vision of the good. Good luck identifying what actions those are! If you can find any—and I personally doubt that you can—they will certainly be few and far between. Most of what we do either directly involves others or affects others in fairly obvious ways.
This point about the practicality of judgments about the good is important, so I want to dwell on it a bit longer. I have already argued that we cannot escape making judgments and having beliefs—as creatures with an intellect, this is our plight. But we are not merely knowers, we are also actors, and so we have to deliberate from a first person perspective not only about what to believe but also about what to do. But just as the question about what to believe is transparent to the question about what is true, so also the question about what to do is transparent to the question about what is good or desirable to do. When we choose some action in some circumstances, we choose it because we think it is in some sense good (either that it is pleasant, that it is fitting, or that it is instrumentally useful to the attainment of some other good we are also trying to secure); alternatively, we choose some action because we think that it avoids some evil, but avoiding evil is just a way to maintain or preserve one’s good. So, just as the intellect orients us to the truth, the will orients us to the good. For this reason Aquinas says that the will is a rational appetite, it is a capacity or tendency to pursue what the intellect judges is good to pursue. But no one wants to choose what is merely apparently good—people want things that are really and truly good for them. According to Aquinas’s theory of vice (where vice is the opposite of virtue, the dispositions to act well), even the vicious person is after real human goods. For instance, the greedy man is after wealth, a real good; the greedy man’s trouble is that he wants this good inordinately, which causes him to wrong others and sacrifice higher goods, which ultimately causes him to wreck his life.
So, from within the first-person perspective of human experience—of deliberating, making choices, and acting—moral relativism looks like it is a denial of central and inescapable aspects of human experience. And this is because the moral relativist holds that there is no such thing as objective goods for humans to seek in their choices. But then choice itself starts to look pointless, if not impossible. For if choice isn’t about getting onto real goods, why choose anything at all? The very act of choice seems to depend on the thought that you can secure a real good for yourself—perhaps even a good life on the whole. And again, as rational animals who must make choices, a commitment to the pursuit of real goods seems to be our plight.
The fact that ethical relativism is deeply impractical and untrue to human experience certainly undercuts the motivation many had to adopt it in the first place. For if one adopted relativism because she was practically committed to advancing values like freedom, equality, and tolerance, she now finds herself in the awkward position of being unable to advocate effectively (if at all) on behalf of it, and equally unable to realize this value and maintain her relativism. For as soon as she tells someone else to be tolerant, she is contradicting herself. If tolerance, freedom, and equality are really goods, then they are truly goods, and things that are truly good ought to be realized in our individual and collective actions; indeed, we should arrange our lives and our societies so that we can secure and maintain these goods. Once we see that relativism undermines these possibilities, it becomes rather less appealing.
Tomorrow: Cultural Relativism
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.