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Why Moral Relativism is a Delusion

A few weeks ago I returned some graded papers to my English 101 students, expecting the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth. What I didn’t expect was the righteous anger with which one student blurted out, “Hey! I corrected everything you marked on the first draft, but you gave me an even lower grade!” Now his response was very interesting; he didn’t simply dislike his grade – several other students disliked their grades, but those students knew they deserved their grades – this student thought my grading was actually unjust. He knew that I could give him any grade I thought appropriate and that I hadn’t broken any rules. But he also knew that, regardless of my authority, I ought to take his accusation of injustice seriously. And he was right. I knew that I should take his accusation seriously because he was appealing to an authority above both of us, to the standard of justice.

Moral Values such as justice, love, kindness, mercy, and courage all play a prominent role in our everyday lives. These moral beliefs motivate us both to be honest and to hide our dishonesty, both to engage in self-sacrificial behavior and to make excuses for our selfish behaviors, both to work hard and to hide our laziness.

Furthermore, most of these values have been almost universally recognized across cultures and history. Of course different societies have often disagreed about which values are the most important. Some, for example, emphasized values like courage and justice to the point where mercy and kindness were completely ignored.1 But, contrary to popular opinion, no culture of any prominence has ever had a completely different set of values.2

“There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from [the universal moral law], arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation.” -C.S. Lewis

Now some may point to evil societies, like Nazi Germany, as an exception to the “universal recognition” of morality. But paradoxically, atrocities like the holocaust provide excellent evidence that people really do recognize objective moral values. Notice that the Nazi’s did not argue that the Jews are human beings just like the Germans, and that it was just ok to murder human beings. No: before they could murder 6 million people, they first had to rationalize their actions by classifying the Jews as less than human – they argued that the Jews were “rats.” The Nazis understood very well that murdering humans is wrong, and they believed in this value so strongly that they had to create a false narrative before they could justify their own atrocities to themselves.

Some would argue that these values are simply social constructions, that our evolution and our social development just happened to create a certain set of values, and that it is a mistake to think that any moral value is objective true. Such people are called either moral relativists or moral subjectivists.3 Subjectivists argue that moral values are found only in the human subject, in the person experiencing a moral perception. According to the subjectivist, there are no objective moral values “out there” in the real world, thus it is meaningless to talk about anyone’s values being “better” than anyone else’s.

Others, like myself, think that these values are objective, that they exist independently of what I or anyone else believes. I don’t think that rape, for example, is just socially unacceptable or evolutionarily disadvantageous or personally displeasing; I think rape is wrong regardless of its social status or evolutionary benefits (benefits which can be significant, as some evolutionary theorists are happy to point out). So according to moral objectivists like myself, atrocities like the holocaust are wrong even though the Nazis thought they were doing something good, and the holocaust would still be wrong even if the whole world somehow came to think that the holocaust was good.

But to understand why I believe that objective moral values exist, we first must examine how we come to believe in anything at all exists. Take, for example, how we form beliefs about things we see. When I see (as I did today) an unusually large man in front of me at a restaurant, I immediately form the belief that there is an unusually large man in front of me. I don’t form a logical argument in my head, or count up the evidence, I just see the man and know that there is a large man in front of me. Let’s take another example example. When I hear my wife calling me to pick up my socks in the bedroom, (like she did this morning), my mind immediately forms the belief that my wife is calling me to pick up my socks. I don’t reason through a deductive syllogism before I can feel confident that my wife really is talking, I simply hear her and I immediately form the belief that my wife wants me to pick up my socks. Now it’s important to note that there is absolutely no way for me or anyone else to prove to myself that these sense perceptions are actually reliable, since any method that I would use to prove that my sense perceptions are reliable would have to rely on my sense perceptions. As the philosopher William Alston says quite candidly, “there are no adequate non-circular reasons for the reliability of [sense perceptions].”4 But of course, no rational person consistently doubts their perceptions. On the contrary, everyone relies on their sight, hearing, taste, and touch every single day – usually without once doubting that these senses are reliable. And such people are quite rational in doing so.

Beliefs formed through sense perception are part of a class of beliefs that some philosophers call “properly basic beliefs.” Properly basic beliefs are beliefs that are perfectly rational to hold even though there is no way of giving evidence or argument for them. To say that my sense perception is a properly basic belief is just to say that, when I see a tree in front of me I am perfectly rational in believing that there is tree in front of me, even I could never prove this fact to any committed skeptic. Any evidence I would present to him could just be part of the illusion.

So how does this talk about sense perceptions relate to morality? It relates because we form our moral beliefs in much the same way that we form our beliefs through sense perception.5 When we see a clearly immoral action, we immediately know that the action is wrong. For example, if I see a man viciously kicking a non-resistant pregnant woman in the stomach, I will immediately form the belief that his actions are wrong. I don’t have to do an ethical analysis; I see the immoral act and I immediately know that it is immoral. These beliefs are, like sense perceptions, properly basic. Of course, neither my moral perceptions nor my sense perceptions are infallible (apologies to any Thomistic readers), and we may make mistakes in our moral perceptions. But the fact that we can make mistakes about what we perceive has no bearing on whether or not what we perceive actually exists. On the contrary, the very fact that we talk about “mistakes” is just further evidence that some such beliefs are actually “correct.” It makes no sense to talk about a “wrong” answer if there is no “right” answer. Even more importantly, any argument that a skeptic can raise against our moral perceptions works just as well against any other belief we hold. So if a relativist wants to doubt the existence of objective moral values, he must also doubt the existence of everything he learns through his sight and his hearing – at least he should if he wants to be consistent. So if the moral skeptic feels justified in trusting his vision – regardless of whether he can “prove” that it is reliable – then he is justified in trusting his moral perceptions, regardless of whether he can form a logical “proof” for them.

“But wait,” says the relativist, “You must know that we only believe in morality because we evolved to believe in morality. Moral behavior was beneficial to our survival and reproduction, but we have no reason to think these values are actually real!” Now whether evolution could actually explain the values we have is a very interesting question, but I’ll ignore that question for now. Say for the sake of argument that we did evolve to have these values; does that fact show that these values are illusory?

The correct answer would be “No.” The mere fact that we may have discovered moral values through evolution does nothing to prove that our moral values are an illusion.6 What a moral skeptic has to show is that our values are nothing more than an evolutionary spinoff – that there is no deeper reality which our evolution reflects through moral behavior. Furthermore, according to evolutionary theory we also evolved our ability to see, to hear, and to think rationally. So if the relativist is going dismiss to our moral perceptions because of our evolutionary history, he will also need to dismiss his rationality, his sense perceptions, and all of his beliefs.

Now, if a friend suddenly started pretending that nothing we see is real, we would not suddenly agree with him that the external world really is an illusion, nor would we say that we have to be “agnostic” about the existence of the world. On the contrary, we would probably treat him with a little sympathy, and try to gently dissuade him of his delusion. Therefore, when you meet a moral relativist . . . well . . . I’ll let you connect the dots.


1 Our current culture, for example, promotes sexual love and freedom to the detriment of fidelity and good faith between partners. Any act of betrayal seems forgivable if the two people involved can convince others that they were “in love” and “following their hearts.” 2Cf. The Appendix of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man contains a brief but very helpful compilation of evidence that various moral values that have existed throughout recorded history. These values include: duty to parents and elders, duty to children and posterity, justice, good faith/truthfulness, mercy, generosity, wisdom, and so on. 3 I realize that Relativism and Subjectivism are not synonymous, but for the purpose of this essay they are interchangeable. 4 Alston, William. “Religious Experience and Religious Belief.” Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Louis Pojman. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1987. Print. 146. 5 Thomistic philosophers would take this a step further and deny that there is a distinction between my sense perception and my moral perception. Rather they would argue that it is through our sense perceptions that we can perceive other human beings, and it is through our intellect that we understand and make judgments about the nature, proper function, and end of these human beings. In this view, existence itself includes the concept of teleology, so there is no such thing as accurately perceiving a person without perceiving the teleological nature of that person as a morally significant agent. I’m not going to criticize this position in my post simply because a) I’m arguing against relativism here, not Thomism, and b) I’m not certain to what extent I actually disagree with the Thomistic view of morality. 6 This objection from our evolutionary history commits what is called “the genetic fallacy.” The mere fact that you can explain how someone came to hold a belief does not refute their belief.

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