Just What Is Moral Relativism, Anyway?

Or: Why Pop Philosophy Is Dumb, Part 1

My goal in this essay is not to argue for or against moral relativism. I have my own views on it, but before any discussions of that sort can get moving, I think it's necessary to clear up some confusions about what moral relativism is, and what it entails.

Moral relativism is the belief that right and wrong reduce to the feelings of approval or disapproval of some party. Two common variants of moral relativism are agent relativism and social, or cultural, relativism. Agent relativism is the belief that moral rightness or wrongness reduce to the approval or disapproval of the person performing the action. People have some justifiable difficulty distinguishing this from moral nihilism. Cultural relativism is the belief that moral rightness or wrongness reduce to whether the agent is part of a culture or tradition or social framework that approves, or disapproves of the action taken. Cultural relativism is actually a key part of the philosophical views of certain important conservative figures (such as Russel Kirk); it also often pops up implicitly in the sort of apologia that conservatives, especially, tend to make on behalf of, say, certain 18th Century American slave owners, or on behalf of the infanticidal, genocidal ancient Israelites. However, among internet pop philosophers and pundits, cultural relativism is for some reason held to be a doctrine of the left, where it seems to find considerably less practice. Arguing that, say, Americans would be doing something horribly immoral to blow up a whole country that practices some morally questionable, or even abhorrent, thing is not cultural relativism. Arguing that some morally questionable thing practiced by some minority group ought not be illegal is not cultural relativism. Arguing that all or most cultures have something of value to offer, or even that on balance all cultures add up to being morally equal, is not cultural relativism. It may well be that some, or all, arguments of those sorts are substantively wrong, but what they are not, is (necessarily) relativistic.

When people discuss moral relativism, or moral relativity, or moral subjectivism, or moral subjectivity, or however they term it, they tend very strongly to confuse some distinct topics:

1) Moral facts. That is to say, facts of the matter concerning which actions belong in which moral categories.
2) Moral beliefs. The beliefs people have concerning which actions belong in which moral categories.
3) Personal bias. The conscious and unconscious feelings, and sense, of approval and disapproval that people have of actions, traits, characteristics, etc.
4) Motivation. What people feel motivated to do.
5) Behavior. What people do, as a matter of fact, end up doing.

Now as we make these distinctions it should be clear that these things often overlap, and so it is perhaps not too difficult for an inexperienced thinker to conflate them. Clearly, when someone has a sincerely held moral belief, it is likely to affect his feelings of approval or disapproval - his biases. One's biases, which are likely to be affected by one's moral beliefs, will usually affect one's motivations in some way, and motivations are a large part of what determines one's behavior. And, of course, if there are such things as moral facts, then it is likely that some of any given person's moral beliefs overlap with moral facts. Nevertheless, these are useful distinctions to make, and collapsing them (in either direction) is hazardous to clear thinking, as we shall see. But first, let us consider a hypothetical and fairly extreme (though not unrealistic) example to help us understand these distinctions better.

Say we have a man named Joe. Joe is married to a woman he loves dearly and has two children by her. Joe is also a drug addict. Joe's behavior - the things he actually does - varies, as he sorts out his conflicting motivations day to day. Now, Joe loves his family very much - this forms a personal bias, as he approves of what is good for them and disapproves of what is bad for them, even when this might conflict with some of his moral priorities. He might, for example, have a strong feeling of approval when his son deals a school bully a sound beating, even if he holds a belief that that sort of vigilante violence is morally wrong. Joe's more amoral bias is usually reinforced by his belief that he has a moral duty to be a good husband and a good father. This involves helping to provide for his children, sharing tasks fairly with his wife, and treating his wife and children with patience, respect, fairness, and so forth. Often this moral belief forms in him a bias or reinforces his other biases, often indistinguishable from them in even Joe's own mind - and sometimes it forms a decisive motivation. And, of course, he has his addiction - a powerful motivation, and more importantly for our inquiry, sometimes a bias of just the sort that careless thinking might confuse for moral belief. For, when confronted about his problems, he may well become defensive - even enraged - even though he firmly believes he is, morally, in the wrong, and even though he does truly care for his family's well-being. Now perhaps this family will have their happy ending - Joe will find some way to kick, or at least gain firm control of his habit. Perhaps it will end in a grand schism - an ultimatum, a divorce, custody battles in the courts. And perhaps it will simply defy an observer's need for narrative, for character arcs, for grand clashes of principles, for resolutions, and all the rest of the artifice of popular fiction, and carry on as most things do in real life - everyone enduring their lot, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. But in the meantime, well, there it is; and it does some rather ugly violence not only sound moral philosophy, but to our thinking about and understanding of what actually goes on in peoples' minds and senses[1], to conflate all of these things (moral facts, moral beliefs, biases, motivations, and behaviors).

But here we shall concern ourselves with violence done to moral philosophy. A lot of discussion of moral relativism, or subjectivity - both sympathetic and opposed - gets a lot of verbal mileage out of conflating moral beliefs with moral facts. Sometimes this is a very obvious equivocation, as we see when the dreadfully stupid and question-begging argument from disagreement is trotted out by critics of moral realism. This argument starts with the premise that various people across times and cultures have disagreed about morality, and conclude, just from that (for no further argument is given, and no further premises are explicitly drawn on), that moral realism is false. The hidden premise in that argument is exactly what the moral antirealist has to prove - that there is no fact of the matter, and that moral reality is a matter of consensus - hence, why I call such arguments question-begging.

Even more frequently than this, defenders of some form of realist theory - almost always defenders of some kind of conservative or theistic morality, such as it is - will point to widespread dissent from some particulars of their moral theory (often some kind of sexual taboos they think are important), conclude that the dissenters are wrong and, from that, conclude that the dissenters are moral relativists, and hence, that moral relativism is taking over the world, or something similarly silly. In fact, loopy conservative rants[2] that conflate moral relativism with simply holding different (and presumably incorrect) moral beliefs probably make up the bulk of ink, pixels, and noise that passes for discussion of the matter (Do a websearch on "moral relativism"; tell me I'm wrong). The hidden premise in such arguments is that holding incorrect moral beliefs constitutes moral relativism. Once we have that out, the correction is simple: No, it that's just not what moral relativism refers to. Perhaps what is really going on here in both sorts of cases is that people, out of innocent ignorance, mistake moral fallibalism (the view that people can sincerely hold incorrect moral beliefs)for moral relativism; I personally suspect it is some more vicious sort of willful ignorance.

Another way people get confused when talking about moral relativism is to mistake the application of disagreeable (or agreeable!) moral distinctions or nuances for a rejection of "absolutes" or moral facts. For instance, many conservatives will insist some liberals are moral relativists because of certain moral distinctions liberals might make between, say, certain kinds of sexual activities that conservatives do not make distinctions between, or whatever. These are moral distinctions, and perhaps they might be false or morally irrelevant distinctions, but they are not examples of moral relativism in practice. In truth, any moral theory carries with it subtleties and distinctions made within broader categories. For instance, most people believe it's wrong to kill except in certain circumstances[3]; some people believe in more lenient standards for justifiable homicide than others (for instance, some people think that capital punishment is justifiable, or that killing in war is always morally justifiable). But that doesn't make them moral relativists. It's worth noting that sometimes it is the person making the moral distinctions that in fact takes himself to be reverting to relativism, often sprinkling his analysis (such as it is) with talk concerning "absolutes"; talk of "gray areas" and of how nothing is "black and white"; but this is just confusing moral relativism with some sort of situational ethics. I suppose one temptation to this error is a confusing analogy between relativistic physics and morality that one sometimes sees in the bowels of pseudo-intellectual internet debates. "Einstein proved that everything is relative!" the pioneering pop philosopher might say, not stopping to consider that ethics may not be comparable or reducible to matter, energy, space, and time in a relevant way (or even in any way at all).

One final, and related, way that moral relativism is often misidentified is actually even more inane than the sort of equivocation that goes on in the argument from disagreement: moral equivalence. For about a decade or so, pundits of the left, right, and center have been throwing around this phrase, "moral equivalence" (or the more pejorative "moral equivalency games"), whenever someone makes a moral comparison that is unfavorable to some blithering, venal, arguably murderous scoundrel they've made a hero out of (like, say, Obama, or Reagan, or Truman, or Chavez), or some pack of gangsters and bandits they're enthusiastic fans of (like cops). This would be a fine bit of empty rhetoric if it were simply left at that, but thanks largely to the influence of the right, "moral equivalence" is generally treated as a method or habit of moral relativists, even though almost any kind of attempt at a moral comparison (i.e. moral equivalence) presupposes that moral relativism is false. Perhaps the error occurring here is something like the following argument:

1. This person treats A's action and B's action as equally wrong, whereas I think A's action is wrong and B's action is right.
2. So this person doesn't see important moral differences between A and B.
3. So this person treats different [people, countries, organizations, religions, causes] as having the same moral status even when one is good and the other is evil.
4. So this person thinks any [person's, country's, organization's, religion's, cause's] standards are as good as any other.
5. So this person is a moral relativist.

When it is drawn up formally like this, I'm confident that further comment on its inanity will be unnecessary.

This essay hasn't exactly been exhaustive, but I think I've covered most of the habits, views, and practices that are often misidentified as or confused in some other way with moral relativism, as well as given adequately charitable accounts for why these errors might be made in good faith by inexperienced thinkers. So now that I've cleared up what moral relativism actually is for you internet pop philosophers, you can get on with having a meaningful discussion about whether it's true or false, or what it entails, or what the social effects of widespread belief in it are.

Oh, who am I kidding.

[1] Consider how often people apt to conflate moral beliefs with moral facts also conflate moral beliefs with personal biases, and conflate personal biases with motivation, and derive undue conclusions about peoples' motives by combining shallow observations of behavior with ham-handed dimestore psychoanalysis. This kind of confusion is made somewhat understandable by the fact that people can, and often do, hold contradictory moral beliefs. Even so, people generally make these conflations when they are taken in thrall of some sweeping and grandiose pontifications of some silly social theory. When not deeply ensorcelled by some pseudo-intellectual theory that they think is more important than actually understanding anything, even some of the dimmest among us could understand what is going on with Joe were we to pay attention to his situation.

[2] If you want to see an example that is, sadly, not exceptionally stupid, websearch "the myth of moral relativism" to find an online essay by one Jonathan Dolhenty's. Be forewarned: brain cells will die. If you are truly in a mood for punishment, you can also find his inane rebuttal of a rather inane critic who manages to make him fuss and sputter while completely missing what is truly wrong with his essay. Yeah, I know, it surprised me too: Fictionpress isn't really that bad, relatively speaking. (Ha, ha, ha).

[3] An interesting thing to note is that the people with the strictest moral standards in this category of human action, pacifists, are thought to not just be wrong, but utterly perverse, by the kind of folks who posture as the defenders of society and morality from the evil influence of moral relativism.