Against Relativism

Through my experience, I’ve been left with the impression that the clear majority of atheists are moral relativists. That is, the bulk of atheists believe that ethics are simply the products of socio-biological evolution, which are not a matter of any truth external to our individual and collective opinions.

In general, I’ve always disagreed on two levels. First, I see no reason why moral experience needs any more justification than sensory experience. Second, and more pertinently to this topic, I don’t see how a true embracing of this sort of relativism can be lived.

It seems fitting that moral relativism is almost completely rejected in those places in the world which are facing tremendous suffering, and popular in those cultures which are complicit in that suffering. It seems clear why wealthy and oppressive societies are much more eager to abandon belief in objective justice than impoverished people.

Perhaps, one might say, that the poor believe as they do simply as a psychological necessity, or because they are (formally) uneducated. I hope, however, that we see the imperialism implicit in this. To say that we are somehow immune to being influenced by our culture in a way that the poor are not is neither intellectually defensible nor morally conscionable.

But, what is morally conscionable? The relativist believes that one simply accepts the morals of one’s society – or choses them as a matter of preference. In any case, she asserts that her own morals are not rationally held. As such, I am left to wonder why so many of the moral relativists in my acquaintance are morally appalled at the religious affirmation of faith.

This is not to say that such people have no right to hate those acts they chose to hate. But it seems an odd thing to attempt to convince me (as many have) that the God I believe in is evil while admitting that this is simply a statement of opinion. Isn’t my opinion equally valid?

More than this, on what grounds does the relativist, if she is a materialist, argue that her worldview has more grounding in evidence than my own? Personally, I do not accept that there is no evidence for God’s existence, but this seems moot. The relativist admittedly has no evidence for her moral positions or sense of purpose in life. I don’t, therefore, see this as an improvement in terms of taking a more objective approach.

Rather, this seems to ‘subjectify’ nearly all statements. To say that ethics are not objective is not to support an evidenced-based view of life, but to deny that such a thing could ever exist.

While I personally maintain that a divine reality is needed for an ontological grounding of ethics, not all agree. And it seems to be in the materialist’s best interests to seek grounds on which she can believe in the objectivity of ethics. I see very little future in a view which cannot offer an intellectual, as well as personal, defense of ethics. Such views can neither commend themselves as evidence-based, nor survive the next great crisis to strike our society.

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6 responses to “Against Relativism

  • mtemples

    Nice post. As you know, i am an atheist. However, I don’t consider myself a relativist. I don’t consider myself an absolutist, either. For me, the moral imperative is: It is always right to do the right thing. While the right thing is relative to each situation, doing right is not.

  • debilis

    I’ve heard that the majority of atheistic philosophers are actually moral realists (rather like what you describe here). I couldn’t give a detailed account of their justifications for this, but I definitely appreciate those who believe in morality and seek to ground it rationally.
    I’d love to see that become a more popular attitude.

  • c emerson

    > … the products of socio-biological evolution, which are not a matter of any truth external to our individual and collective opinions.

    Let me throw two questions at you:

    1) Why is immoral to take something belonging to another without permission? That is, why is wrong to steal?

    2) Is it morally wrong to ignore the needs of the homeless, including those who appear on the surface to be sufficiently able-bodied to find their own work?

    • Debilis

      My personal moral system is based on the idea that the objective purpose of human beings is the formation of loving relationships (both with the divine and one another).

      Given that, stealing is a disrespect to another human being–an act that destroys, rather than fosters, love and trust.

      I’d say that it is wrong to ignore any person whom one genuinely has the power to help. But I don’t claim to know what would be the right kind of help, in the bulk of these situations (charity or encouragement to seek work). I suppose that would be a case-for-case judgment, and a difficult one.

    • c emerson

      Thanks for the reply. My intent was not to put you on the spot (it occurs to me it might look that way) but to raise, by example, the Q of what constitutes the basis for a so-called objective versus relativistic morality. This is a topic I have a great deal of interest in, and am always scouring the net for answers and examples. Thanks.

    • Debilis

      It was a very good kind of being put on the spot (that is, it made me think).

      As far as the ontological status of morality, it is the reason to believe in God that I, personally, find the most persuasive. But it depends on the premise that there is an objective morality (so I may have just accidentally side-stepped the question).

      My impression is that most either take objective morality as what Plantinga calls a “properly basic” belief–as we would take the existence of the physical universe.

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