Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Relativism: The Neutrality Myth

I pointed out in the last installment, relativists absolutely love to claim the middle ground as their own. No arguing (which leads to truth claims that are arrogant). No extremes (which is born of arrogance and results in intolerance). Just the calm, safe, tolerant, enlightened center -- right there where we all should strive to meet.

Now I have to admit this sounds tempting -- especially in a time when political demagoguing (on both sides of the aisle) has become more like the UFC is than the U.S. Congress ought to be. But we have to make an important distinction here. Politics is the art of compromise on policy issues, but it does not follow that compromise should also apply to moral issues -- especially when it comes to legislation. You see, despite the fact that we are told we "can't legislate morality," the truth is that we legislate morality all the time. We can't help it. It's just another area where the relativist wants to live in a pretend world and deny the obvious realities that come with living in this one.

There are several problems with the relativist who tries to stand on the "middle ground" and claim neutrality as a badge of honor. When your claim to a moral position is reduced to a personal preference there are several things that follow from such a position.

Relativists inevitably make moral judgments. I don't say this pejoratively; I make moral judgments too. Everybody does! And that's the point. If the relativist thinks it’s wrong to judge, how can he say that those of us who claim that something is morally wrong are "mistaken" in the first place? Isn’t he just making a judgment by saying that and thereby pushing his socially conditioned view on me? Whenever a relativist says you shouldn’t force your views on others, the first words out of your mouth should be "Why not?" Any answer given will be an example of him forcing his views on you.

Relativism is not neutral. Some relativists claim that the attempt to enforce a point of view (i.e. to "legislate morality") on a controversial moral issue is illegitimate because that point of view is based on prior metaphysical commitment. As such, the government should not restrict it. But to say that government should remain neutral on metaphysical questions is a metaphysical claim -- a moral statement about how government should function. The fact is that most moral issues are controversial. So what? The fact that a point of view is controversial has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the issue in question.

Moral relativism leads to inconsistent conclusions. Relativism doesn’t allow its adherent to claim anything is actually morally wrong, only that it is their preference to think it is morally wrong. This disallows the moral relativist the ability to advocate limiting moral wrongs if society has deemed them legal. Who is the relativist to question that? This illuminates the inconsistency in the moral relativist who claims on one hand that a moral position is wrong, while at the same time claiming adherence to moral relativism, which says that there is no such thing as an objective moral claim.

Moral relativism undermines the moral authority for cultural reform. Because most versions of relativism rely on the consensus of the community, many have actually promoted giving up on ethical disputes (against abortion for instance) because the issue we're arguing about is the law of the land, our challenging that law makes us sound "divisive," and our efforts are therefore an effort in futility. But legal does not equal moral.

Take the issue of slavery for instance. Suppose the abolitionists or civil rights advocates had thrown in the towel after the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scot decision that deemed slaves didn’t count as persons, or after Plessy-vs-Ferguson entrenched racial segregation? Those who fought against these gross abuses of human rights were in the minority -- but they kept fighting anyway. A true moral relativist would have no such motivation to fight against the "consensus." Or consider Nazi Germany. The Nazi opposition -- folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- mostly died in prison for their actions, something moral relativism could not condone.

This also demonstrates the inherent danger in a morally relativistic point of view. In such a system, those who have the most power determine what is acceptable and what isn’t. Might makes right. Ironically, it is the relativist who sees neutrality as a virtue, who ends up under the thumbs of tyrants.

Moral Relativism leads to absurd conclusions: Taking relativism to its logical conclusions is often a great way to show how utterly ridiculous it can be. Because the relativist cannot succumb to judging whether someone else's view is wrong, she will go to great lengths to remain neutral about it -- even in the face of such an obvious wrong as slavery.

As an example, a relativist I was recently discussing this issue with defended his own view that slavery was wrong while also attempting to defend relativism. Here is what he was left with:
we as a society today have reached a consensus that slavery is immoral. And while I do agree that slavery is abhorrent and wrong ... it is a view of morality that exists by consensus. Its place as unquestioned moral truth is perhaps less due to its correctness, and more due to the fact that "justice is the advantage of the stronger." If the South had won the Civil War, the way people look at slavery would certainly have evolved differently, and any discussion about the morality of slavery would look quite different.
So, there you go. Moral relativism allows the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable if our views had "evolved" differently. The idea is ridiculous on its face.

Now, I don't think the relativist really believes that himself -- he admits as much -- but his relativism forces him to put forth a view like this because the thought of admitting to an objective moral wrong is more repugnant to him than stating the obvious: that slavery is wrong for all people, at all times, in all places, for any reason -- the definition of objective moral truth.

The reality is that the moral relativist cannot live consistently within the view he defends. No one is neutral. Do not let the relativist denounce you for "imposing your view on others." The fact is that even the most strident call for neutrality commands the imposition of that moral point of view on you.

1 comment:

  1. Good write-up, Bob. I lead an On Guard! discussion group on Thursday nights and we were just talking last Thursday about the Moral Argument for the existence of God. We touched on this idea briefly. I'm going to send a link to this post to my group for more reference.

    Thanks!

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