This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “An Argument for Moral Relativism” with guest David B. Wong. Click here to listen to the episode.
There’s a long-standing philosophical debate as to whether ethical claims are the same type of statements as others kinds or claims—whether or not, for example, “thou shalt not kill” is the same kind of thing as “2+2=4.” Some philosophers argue that they are the same—that they both report a fundamental truth—but their opponents argue that “thou shalt not kill” is really just “I don’t like killing” or “I believe killing is wrong” in fancied-up language.
On the surface, this may seem dry. But, in fact, it is an incredibly important controversy with massive consequences for our day-to-day life. When the president appoints a new Supreme Court justice, for example, Congress grills the candidate on his or her position on this very debate. There they call it natural law: the idea that rights are written into nature in just the same way math is. If the candidate believes in natural law, he or she thinks that rights don’t come from the constitution but from God, nature, or logic. These rights then, should never ever be taken away, even if we change the constitution. Maybe there is a right to work, or a right to freedom of worship, but the point is, anytime the US does something against these rights, it’s wrong to do so, no matter what.
On the other hand, someone who thinks ethical claims are different from other truths may end up claiming that everyone gets to decide what is right for themselves. They may say that ethics is nothing but wanting to live a certain way, that moral preferences are no different than musical preferences. We disapprove of torture, they’ll say, the same way we disapprove of Coldplay. We call both abominations, but that’s really just our opinion stated in a more forceful way. So, if the government makes a law allowing torture, that’s just fine, as long as we declare it to be.
These are the most extreme positions in the debate, of course. I’m not being fair to those who hold more moderate points of view. Nevertheless, most of us end up holding some version of these extremes when we encounter moralities that are different than our own. Arab Islamic culture in the Middle East tends to think of women very differently than many American and European cultures do. Is their position immoral and if so, do we have a responsibility to get them to change their beliefs? Your answer will depend on whether you think your morality is absolutely right or not. Many Asian cultures have a stronger position on the importance of family approval than, say, many American millennials. Are these Asian cultures more respectful or just old-fashioned? Again, your answer depends on what you think about morality.
Some cultures eat horse meat, others make children work, others have caste systems, while others publicly display their own sex acts. Are these just preferences or can they be evaluated from an objective standpoint? Is there some place we can stand to arbitrate these ideas fairly and independent of culture? Can we declare one set of beliefs superior to another, or are we always unable to step outside our own education and personal experience? In other words, are ethical statements true like mathematical ones or are they fundamentally different? The consequences of our answer are overwhelming.
On today’s show we are going to step inside the debate, but we are going to look specifically at one aspect of it. We are going to ask about that moment when we encounter moral difference and consider what it might mean to be charitable to others’ points of view. We are going to ask whether there may be more than one truth and consider the suggestion that ethics is neither purely preference nor absolutely true. In other words, we are going to try to find a bridge between the two extremes and ask, not simply about the rules that we follow, but about the human experience of seeking them, acting on them, and defending them.
Ethics is often portrayed as the process of finding a single solution to a particular dilemma. But this is as incomplete as evaluating a baseball team by only considering its pitcher. In fact, as today’s guest will show, reevaluating what ethics means involves questioning our very definitions of nature and politics, of reconsidering how human psychology works and how it helps unify a culture, not to mention a long list of other debates that are often falsely regarded as settled.
To put it bluntly, today we are considering moral relativism. In doing that, we are also reconsidering our whole world.