Moral relativism is a common response to the deepest conflicts we face in our ethical lives. At present, we are still unable to come to a consensus on many ethical issues. The seemingly perpetual and intractable debate on the permissibility of abortion, euthanasia and cloning are perfect examples of the immense ethical conflicts we face. At this point, many people resort to moral relativism, saying that all the varying views on moral issues prove that morality is entirely relative to an individual or a culture's perspective and that there is no objective rule of right and wrong (Law, 2003). Upon closer analysis, one will find that this justification is seriously flawed. This essay will discuss the problems and faults with moral relativism by showing how this claim is self-contradictory; why tolerance is not always appropriate; and how the moral relativist belief ultimately suggests that morality is not relative.
The theory of moral relativism holds that there are no objective moral truths, that there is no universal standard to judge an action as morally right or morally wrong. Rather, the validity of moral principles is relative to a person's or a culture's view (Law, 2003). An argument used by moral relativists is the claim that no individual has the right to impose his views of correctness on other people because all views have equal validity (Johnston, 1999). Thus, according to moral relativists, there is no right and wrong, and no one should ever judge or criticise another who takes a different moral stance.
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Opponents of moral relativism, on the other hand, belief that there are absolute moral principles; that certain actions are right or wrong regardless of what one thinks.
They claim that both sides of an argument cannot be equally right, that there is only one truth about the matter at issue (Wong, 1984). When two people have different viewpoints on killing; the first person believes killing is unquestionably wrong while the second person does not see anything wrong with killing; a moral relativist would conclude that no one is mistaken because whether an action or opinion is right or wrong depends on the society's or the individual's view on it. Opponents of moral relativism, conversely, would argue that one of them is mistaken, that there is an absolute truth 'out there' that makes one of them right and the other wrong, independent of what their individual beliefs are.
It is often suggested that moral relativism is the development of an enlightened, tolerant attitude toward the various customs and practices of different societies and individuals (Feldman, 1978). Moral relativists are regularly presented as defenders of open-mindedness, equality, respect, and freedom. Hence, the argument for tolerance attempts to establish that tolerance can only be truly achieved through subscription to the moral relativist view.
It is tempting to appeal to moral relativism in order to encourage people to be more tolerant of other individuals and cultures. However, it is essentially not possible to be a moral relativist and be tolerant at the same time since tolerance can only be a virtue if we think that the other person's behaviour is wrong or unacceptable (Harman & Thomson, 1996). It makes no sense for someone to be considered tolerant while believing that no one is either right or wrong. In fact, one can believe that a person's views are false, and still be tolerant because tolerance involves treating people with respect, which is not a matter of what one believes but rather of how one behaves. As Johnston (1999) claims, tolerance for others does not involve dropping the view on correctness. Thus, tolerance is not possible for moral relativists, who deny the existence of right and wrong altogether.
Furthermore, tolerance may not always be appropriate (Law, 2003). On the occasion when someone tries to hurt you, surely it is appropriate to criticise that person. In fact, it would seem senseless if in such a situation someone stands back thinking that different people have different moral standards; and that, what is wrong for one might be right for another. In this situation, it is obvious that the victim ought not to tolerate being attacked. In effect, moral relativism has implications that many of us would find unacceptable. Take the practice of cannibalism as an example. This practice is wrong for most, but is still practised within some tribes in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia (Barker, Hulme & Iversen, 1998). Surely we are tempted to say that they are simply mistaken, that killing human beings is wrong regardless of what anyone believes. Moral relativism, however, makes this impossible as the belief implies that no practice is to be criticised.
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More apparent is the mistake that lies in the belief of moral relativism itself. Moral relativists take the view that "we are wrong to judge those who take a different moral stance" (Law, 2003, p.52). This is, however, self-contradicting. As an example, moral relativists often point out that Westerners who condemn other cultures for engaging in practices such as polygamy and cannibalism are guilty of conceitedly imposing their views on others. Nonetheless, the condemnation is actually self-condemning. They are doing precisely what they insist we should not do; they are themselves condemning an alternative moral point of view (Law, 2003). A true moral relativist would have to accept that criticising others using the Western standard is just the way Westerners are. They should not even be saying 'it is wrong to judge or criticise' in the first place, for this statement clearly contradicts the moral relativistic view. One who strongly feels it wrong to judge is certainly not being a moral relativist.
The debate on the nature of ethics has been going on for a long time. Many are drawn to moral relativism, and often the attraction seems to be that moral relativism is the only way to promote tolerance. Yet, we have seen that tolerance is possible without being a moral relativist and that even though tolerance is often a virtue, it may not always be appropriate. Additionally, many of the moral relativistic claims are self-contradicting, and in fact, indirectly endorse the view that morality is not relative. As we can see, the argument from tolerance clearly does not consolidate the justification of moral relativism. Upon scrutiny, the argument for moral relativism is, indeed, utterly feeble.