The dictatorship of moral relativism

Pope Benedict, in the homily he gave as Cardinal Ratzinger before the beginning of the conclave which elected him warned us of the danger of a dictatorship of moral relativism. What exactly does this mean?

The goodness of G.E. MooreThe question is more complex than it seems, and the answer equally so. At the beginning of the 20th century — in 1903, to be exact — the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore published an extremely dull and extremely confused book, Principia Ethica, in which he laid down what he took to be the basic principles of ethics. No one had ever managed this before, he thought, and what he achieved in that book was definitive and would endure for ever. It certainly had an immediate effect on British intellectuals, particularly those littérateurs who were later to form what came to be known as the Bloomsbury group.

Moore searched for the nature of goodness, as being the central notion of ethical judgement. He concluded, however, that the nature of goodness could not be defined. One could not give an account of goodness in terms of its relationship to any other properties.

This view he took in part because the other properties which may make one thing good may precisely be the properties which make another thing bad. If the properties which make a good doughnut to be a good doughnut are softness, sweetness, sponginess and freshness, one cannot conclude that the properties which make a good mechanical wrench to be a good mechanical wrench are also softness, sweetness, sponginess and freshness. Thus Moore, at great length.

Since Moore could not find any way to relate goodness to other properties in a regular way, he concluded that it was a special kind of property, a “non-natural” one, which could only be directly grasped by intuition. His own intuition was that nothing in the world was of such goodness (or “value”) as intercourse with friends and the contemplation of works of art. This point was taken up eagerly by his young disciples in the Bloomsbury group, led by Lytton Strachey, who thereafter devoted their lives to the pursuit of artistic and literary excellence, and of one another in a dizzying whirl of (largely homosexual) affairs.

Perhaps, despite the supporting activities of Moore’s literary claque, this theory would never have had any serious effect. It is true that friendship and the contemplation of works of art can come to seem supremely important and supremely valuable, if one focuses on them alone. But all one has to do is to step back and look at a wider context, and one immediately sees that there are other goods which are at least equally valuable. What about family? What about work — in fields other than the fine arts? What about solidarity with one’s equals? What about compassion? What about justice? what about courage? The list could go on almost indefinitely.

But although the goods which Moore does identify by his intuition can come to seem absurdly limited with a little consideration, he has already done the major damage in an earlier step. He has decided that “goodness” and other ethical notions are “non-natural” — that is, that they are completely unrelated to any other “natural” or real properties in the world. The way has been opened for a major feature of 20th century moral thinking, which has been instrumental in creating moral relativism. The feature is that of the “fact-value distinction”.

Facts and values

Moore claimed that there were truths of ethics, genuine ethical facts — but they were totally unlike any other facts and totally unrelated to them. The next step was for later thinkers to claim that ethical utterances did not represent facts at all, and therefore could not be recognised as being genuinely true or false at all.

There are different ways of representing the alleged fact-value distinction. One of the earliest was that of C. Stevenson and the emotivist school, which began to appear in America in the 1930s. These people held that ethical utterances were mere expressions of emotion, like the “Ouch” of pain or the “Aaah” of pleasure. “Killing people for no reason is bad” would spell out as something like “Killing people for no reason — boo!” and “Caring for those in need is good” would spell out as “Caring for those in need — hurray!”. Or, as American young people say these days, “Killing people for no reason — eeew!” and “Caring for those in need — yay!”

This theory will not work. One of the reasons why it will not work is that it is obvious that someone who says “Caring for those in need is good” is disagreeing with someone like Nietzsche who says “Caring for those in need is bad”. But someone who says “Eeew” at the same time as someone who says “Yay” is not disagreeing. One has one feeling, the other has another. If you love beets and they make me feel nauseous, there is no disagreement between us.

This obvious weakness led later upholders of the fact-value distinction to hold that ethical utterances are not mere expression of emotion, but instead commands uttered to oneself. This was a great improvement and seemed to provide a structure which makes sense of the fact-value distinction.

One can see how this theory, vulgarised and debased, could have contributed to some popular forms of moral relativism. If moral judgements involve commands given to oneself, then people can easily come to think that what is important in moral judgements is my personal commitment to them. Their content, or their agreement with the moral judgements of others, is irrelevant.

Towards a healthy relativism

Oddly enough I think that the way out of this tangle is to go back to the beginning and insert a little relativity at the beginning, in order to avoid relativism at the end.

Moore was looking for a single nature or meaning for “goodness”, and when he could not find one, decided that goodness was a property unlike any other. His problem is that he was looking for an absolute meaning for goodness, while in fact goodness is a relative notion.

This requires some explanation. Logicians are familiar with relative or relational expressions, and also familiar with expression which are relative or relational without at first sight appearing to be so. Take “large” and “small”, for example. These appear to be simple descriptions of physical objects, and perhaps at first glance we can easily think of things which we can unquestionably call “large” or “small”.

But second thoughts are valuable here. A small elephant is very much larger than the largest mouse, and vice-versa. Perhaps nothing is truly large except what has nothing larger than itself. In that case only the universe is large. Likewise, perhaps nothing is truly small except the smallest sub-atomic particle. Our confidence that we could easily find examples of things that are unquestionably large or small was based on the fact that we can easily find things that are unquestionably large or small compared to a human being. Size is a relative notion.

And so is goodness. A good doughnut is good on account of certain properties which arise from the nature of doughnuts, a good mechanical wrench is good on account of properties which arise from the nature of mechanical wrenches. Being good is being good relative to one’s nature. Putting a drop of three-in-one oil on part of the mechanical wrench is good for it, but would be bad for a doughnut.

Making goodness relative in this way ties it in again with the ordinary facts about a thing and about its nature and situation. There is no need to set out on the road that ends up detaching goodness from facts and attaching it solely to personal commitments. If we begin with relativity we need not end up with relativism.

For of course there are different ways in which a thing can be considered, and thus different levels at which we can consider its goodness, and what is good for it. We can consider a thing as an individual, and say that there is nothing good or bad except what is good or bad for that individual. This is what is sometimes called ethical egoism.

Some people may make all goodness relative to their own family, or at least in practical terms submit all other goodnesses to the good of their own family. I do not think this is very common among sophisticated people nowadays, though it may be common among simpler people. There is, I think, no philosophical label for this error. For considering a larger group as the focus of the relative notion of goodness there are names, and not pretty ones either: tribalism, nationalism, racism. Perhaps I don’t need to argue against these.

One could invent a name for those who consider that the goods of their own culture are paramount. In fact, the name has already been invented: “cultural relativism”. Its adherents claim that we should not “impose our culture” on others. However, it is obvious that there are features of other cultures — or of sub-cultures within our own — which the most liberal cultural relativist is prepared to override.

I wrote recently about how the British intelligentsia refused to take seriously the claims of Muslims against the intellectuals’ religion of Art. But there are many other examples. Polygamy in Utah, female genital mutilation in East Africa, veiling laws and customs for women in Afghanistan, objections to the use of condoms in South Africa: the liberal West is very willing to impose its own culture in these matters.

But to take a step up from making good and bad relative to a culture: can we not make good and bad relative to the human race? Can we not try to establish what makes a human being a good human being, and encourage that, find out what is good for human beings and develop those conditions?

What is a good human being?

This is the point at which the true argument starts. I believe that there are qualities which make a human being a good human being, and conditions which are good for human beings, and that clear statements about these qualities and conditions are either true or false. This is what the cultural relativists deny, and this is the practical point on which the struggle has to come.

When the matter is put so clearly, then it seems obvious that the cultural relativists are mistaken. Their own practice of imposing their culture in some cases proves that they don’t really believe it themselves. The strongest case they could make out is as follows: religious believers (for example), particularly Jews, Christians and Muslims, believe that a very large range of ethical standards are valid for the whole human race. We, cultural relativists, believe that only a few ethical standards are so valid. Everything that is not valid for the whole human race should be left to each culture to determine.

There is a problem with this, of course, because the standards that cultural relativists regard as universal shift every few years. It is not so long ago that up-to-date thinkers thought that the sexual abuse of children did no harm except in a few cases, and then usually because the parents or the authorities made a big deal out of it. Child abuse lay within the field of those things which could be acceptable in some cultures, not in others — certainly not universally unacceptable. Now things have changed. If one is dealing with someone who accepts the Ten Commandments as being universally valid one does not have to worry about their changing their minds every few years.

The emergence of dictatorships

American slave marketBut if cultural relativism means that everyone who forms part of a culture should be free to accept or reject the standards of that culture, independently of what members of any other culture think about it, how can there be a “dictatorship” of cultural relativism, as the Pope has said? Isn’t cultural relativism all about avoiding the imposing of a culture?

We can look at an example from the 19th century. When there was agitation for the abolition of slavery in the United States, Southerners often answered: This is part of our culture (the “peculiar institution”, they called it): please don’t interfere with our culture and impose your own. It was the perfect reply of a cultural relativist.

But it was not accepted by the Northern abolitionists. They usually appealed to religious and universal moral standards, but they could also have said the following:

By continuing to own slaves, and by continuing to insist that the law of our country should maintain the owning of slaves, you are imposing your culture on us. You are making us accomplices in your crimes. Do not tell us to respect your culture: your culture is a culture of crime and death, and we cannot respect it. Either you will continue to impose your culture on us, or we will impose our culture on you. Do not use the excuse of cultural relativism. Do not impose on us a dictatorship of moral relativism.”

I don’t think anyone whose opinion I could respect could disagree with the abolitionists. But I don’t see how the cultural relativists could disagree with the slave-owners.

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.


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  • Christopher Martin