The Hypocrisy of Moral Relativism

“The separation between science and human values is an illusion – and actually quite a dangerous one … the irony, from my perspective, is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues of one form or another”.  — Sam Harris

The above is from Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) in a TED Talk he gave in early 2010. In it he argues for the existence of objective morality and discusses whether or not science has anything to say about the problem. It’s well worth listening to in its entirety. While there are better arguments for utilitarianism (here’s an interesting and light-hearted FAQ about it) Sam Harris does an excellent job at laying out the main problem and explaining why morality is such an important topic.

Morality is especially important to me because it is part of my answer to the question of why I’m Catholic at all. I am not a materialist atheist because I think objective morality and free will exist, both of which I deem incompatible with a purely materialist universe. Obviously getting from “not atheist” to “Catholic” is a whole other jump and perhaps I will get into that in a later column.

Worldviews matter. They impact almost everything about our lives and the decisions we make and questions about Right and Wrong are especially important. Over the next few posts I want to spend some time going into different moral systems (with the goal of understanding them and not just criticizing them), but I want to start by defending the idea that objective morality exists.


Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man

Moral relativism has, I think, fallen somewhat out of vogue in serious philosophical circles, but it remains a popular notion. I think people are attracted to it because it sounds good. Claiming that morality is objective and iron-hard doesn’t allow for exceptions and complex situations.  The world just isn’t black and white. In addition, nearly every culture throughout all of history has their own idea about what’s right and wrong and the lack of consensus makes it hard to see how moral truths can be objective.

The lack of consensus on important moral truths is, I think, the strongest evidence for relativism, but ultimately I don’t find it convincing…and neither does Sam Harris.

 How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise, or moral talent, or moral genius even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering? Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of [morality]?

If we tried to formalize the above argument for relativism it might look something like this:

  1. If people disagree on moral values then moral values cannot be objective.
  2. People disagree on moral values.
  3. Therefore, moral values cannot be objective.

Well, when you put it like that…it doesn’t seem so attractive any more. What if we tried to generalize the first premise?

  1. If people disagree on [topic X] then [topic X] cannot be objective

Now that looks just plain silly. Try telling that to your chemistry TA next time you get an answer wrong. “Clearly people have had disagreements as to what constitutes an ionic bond…therefore ionic bonds cannot exist!” Obviously the sheer fact that people disagree on a question does not imply that the question is meaningless or has no correct answer. The same is true of moral problems.

Ultimately, however, the reason that I don’t agree with moral relativism is that it seriously lacks explanatory power. If you examine human action you don’t observe questions of right and wrong as boiling down to opinions or preferences. Arguments about gay marriage, for instance,  feel very different from arguments about flavors of ice cream. Both sides on a moral question feel as if something is at stake, that some harm is being done by their opposition. You’re not going to impress anyone by telling them that their conviction that rape is evil is just an opinion.

Here are some things that, as a relativist, it makes no sense to do:

  • Criticize other cultures or cultural values. This includes things like cannibalism, Nazism, or slavery.
  • Criticize any human choice. It’s possible to criticize the efficiency of something (if your goal was to get an A then you ought to have studied) but it would be senseless to oppose people’s preferences or desires (even someone like Ted Bundy)

And yet, in practice, we observe all of those things happening. We do have the intuitive sense that some values are wrong and some values are right, we do have the intuitive sense that some choices are wrong and some are right and this is best seen in our own actions. We’re all hypocrites to some extent, we all have values that we don’t live up to. We regret our choices and wish that we’d made better ones. We do argue, bitterly, about questions of right and wrong and we think that problems such as abortion aren’t just matters of opinion but actually matterOur actual observations don’t match up to what we would expect given relativism; they line up much better with what we’d expect to observe given an objective morality that isn’t always clear.

Someone may object that the common thread in the above examples is the notion of harm. If you aren’t hurting anyone else then you may do whatever you like.

Well, fine, but that isn’t moral relativism any more, it’s a moral system similar to utilitarianism based on the objective fact that harm done to others is always wrong. We’ll deal with utilitarianism next time.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.


7 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy of Moral Relativism

  1. You simplified moral relativism too much. I wouldn’t say that moral relativism is saying that moral topics don’t matter, only that moral topics can’t be correctly judged from a third person perspective, and that moral meaning isn’t objective. That being said I don’t agree fully with moral relativism or objective morality. I believe most moral topics are relative to each person, while some are objective. Even the topics that are objective we are not wise enough to know yet. We have that strong feeling that a moral wrong exists but we can not possibly know the specifics. We don’t have the moral capacity to play God.

    • Thanks for the comment! I think of moral relativism as the idea that the moral categories of right and wrong don’t exist. Working with that definition I still think it’s true that moral relativists can’t, while being consistent, make judgement about actions or values that aren’t just expressions of preference. I also think that it doesn’t really explain what we observe in human interaction very well.

      Without thinking about it too hard I tentatively agree that morality can’t be judged from a third person perspective. It’s useful to make a distinction between the *actor* and the *act*. We can judge and make claims about actions and circumstances in general but in specific…we’re not aware of what’s going on in someone else’s heart or mind. I think, especially as Catholics, we need to be very, very careful about calling people sinners or implying that they’re going to Hell, etc. That’s information we don’t and can’t have and it really isn’t our place.

      I agree that morality is relative for each circumstance and person in that attributes in the actor and circumstance matter for whether a given action is right or wrong, but I still think the right/wrongness is something objective and not determined by me or my own preferences. I apologize if any of this isn’t clear.

      I certainly am guilty of over-simplifying. The trade-off between brevity and thoroughness is…a hard one and I’m still trying to figure it out.

      • Yea I can definitely understand that. I didn’t intend insult with my comment, just was puting my thoughts out there. When I started thinking about moral relativism and objective morality I realized I haven’t thought about it all that much before, and I always tend to shy away from painting with broad strokes. A majority of people in college (at least my University) tend to lean towards moral relativism, so I really appreciated the insight you provided against it, and it actually affirmed my stance on moral judgement. I wasn’t questioning the thoroughness (you’re definitely thorough), as much as I was questioning assumtions, which are inevitable because of the need for brevity in the article.

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