Monday, August 01, 2005

Confessions of a Moral Relativist

It's not easy being a moral relativist these days. Everyone is down on us. Addressing the College of Cardinals just before being selected as Pope Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger said:
We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

In his book Be Intolerant James Dobson's son Ryan summarized our worldview like this:
Moral relativism. Know what that is? Moral relativism is a way of looking at the world that says what is right or wrong for you depends on what you think is morally right or wrong. In other words, everything is relative.

Syndicated columnist John Leo blames us for this:
We are seeing large numbers of the young unable or unwilling to make the simplest distinctions between right and wrong. Even horrific acts -- mass human sacrifice by the Aztecs and genocide by the Nazis -- are declared to be unjudgeable. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one upstate New York student told his professor. "But who is to say they are morally wrong?"

In the face of this shock-and-awe bombardment, it's not surprising that few people are willing to stand up and declare themselves to be moral relativists. Consequently, a vicious cycle is forming in which the term is used only by its enemies. The worse they make it sound, the less likely anyone is to defend it.

I Remember Liberals

We've seen this happen before: the Right did the same thing to the word liberal.

Conservatives can say anything they want about liberals these days -- Ann Coulter wrote a whole book about how we're traitors -- because no one admits to being a liberal any more. (Most ex-liberals are progressives now.) The problem with this Fabian strategy is that it gives the Right a demon-word. Anyone who tries to talk about real issues like health care ends up having to explain why he isn't a liberal -- and gets tied in knots because he probably really is a liberal, just not the demonic kind of liberal the Right talks about. As Barack Obama said: "Conservatives have created a boogeyman. Liberals take all your money; hate God; hate family." No wonder he doesn't sign up for that label.

But I don't want to make up a new label and then spend the rest of my life explaining why I'm not a moral relativist. So I'll confess right now: I am a moral relativist.

So, does that mean I think genocide is OK and Hitler was as good as anybody else? Hardly.

This is what moral relativism means to me: Every moral discussion takes place in a context, among a community of people who share some common language, assumptions, and values. Unlike the hypothetical examples raised by absolutists, actual moral judgments are always made in a time and a place, under the aegis of one or more moral communities. If you take a statement out of its context, it loses so much of its meaning that I probably can't say whether I agree with it or not. But in an actual situation, I'm as likely as anybody else to have a strong conviction about what is right and to take action based on that conviction.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, believe that the words right and wrong refer to something as real and objective as height and weight. The moral properties of a situation might be hard for flawed human beings to measure or discern, but there is always a truth-of-the-matter independent of anyone's ideas, a God's-eye-view of the clear and absolute distinction between Good and Evil.

My Family's Values

A simple example brings these abstract ideas about context down to Earth. I was raised with very definite ideas about conversation, attention, and respect. In my parents' household one did not chatter. To speak was to demand the attention of others, and one did not make such demands lightly. But when you did speak, you got attention and were not interrupted unless someone needed to point out that the house was on fire.

I learned these standards by osmosis and applied them unconsciously, never realizing that they weren't universal. Imagine my surprise when I visited my friend Sean's family during a college vacation. In that household no one saw any reason to deny themselves the pleasure of speaking at any time. If you thought you had something important to say and couldn't be heard over the din, you raised your voice. Stunned by the cacophony, I imagined that these people must have no respect at all for each other. I expected violence to break out at any moment. It never did, and by the end of my visit I had realized that Sean's family loved and respected each other every bit as much as my family. Conversation just played a different role in their interactions. They had their own ways, and those ways seemed to work for them.

But if they weren't wrong, did that mean my own family was? Or is it "all relative"? And if the highest goal of relativism is "one’s own ego and one’s own desires," well then, the next time I went home I should have interrupted my parents whenever I felt like talking and told them they were stupid to react by taking offense.

I did no such thing. Instead, I recognized that different contexts call for different standards. My parents' house operated under one moral consensus, and Sean's house operated under another. The question: "Is it wrong to talk over somebody who is saying something that is just as important to them as what you want to say is to you?" has no absolute answer. I don't believe in a context-independent God's-eye-view.

Breaking the Chain

Having covered a simple case, we're almost ready to talk about Nazis. Is the morality of killing Jews relative, like the morality of interrupting your parents? I'm going to answer that question, but you'll have to wait for it.

First I need to discuss the most common over-simplification of relativism: the failure to recognize that the modern individual lives in multiple overlapping moral communities. That, in a nutshell, is the defining characteristic of modern Western society. In tribal society, by contrast, the tribe and your family belonged to the same consensus and there was nothing higher. More complex societies all worked (at least in theory) according to some version of the Great Chain of Being: a moral vision in which the same principles applied at every level. Conflict between two levels meant that one of them was in the wrong hands, requiring either a revolution to change leadership or an inquisition to bring the people into line.

The Renaissance and Reformation broke the Great Chain of Being in the West, and the situation has only gotten more complex since. Today, every individual belongs to dozens of moral communities -- families, companies, churches, nations, professions, cultures, and even subcultures like folk music or home-schooling. Each has its own shared assumptions and values, and each imposes its own obligations and restrictions. The central problem the modern individual faces is how to resolve the contradictions among these diverse moral visions: How do you form an authentic identity that can participate honestly in all the communities of which you are a part?

The most difficult moral issues of our day are not the ones that turn one person against another, but rather those that turn one of your community loyalties against another. How, for example, can you balance your admiration for a valued co-worker against your allegiance to a church that condemns him to Hell? How do you square the morality you practice in the marketplace with the morality you teach your children? How do you stay loyal to both your country and to abstract moral principles that your country is violating? Your neighbors, your pastor, your wife, your friends, the government -- no matter what you do, somebody is going to think you're dead wrong.

Moral absolutism tempts us with the promise of making all these contradictions go away. Somehow, the Great Chain of Being can be restored and one vision imposed on every sphere of life. Then one harmonious set of rules will apply wherever you go, and no one will ever fault you for following them. (In fact, what absolutists call relativism is actually an egocentric form of absolutism: I make the contradictions go away by defining a universal right and wrong according to my own interests. What favors me is right and what works against me is wrong.)

Unfortunately, the methods for achieving this charmingly harmonious world have not changed since the Middle Ages: war and inquisition. Scratch the surface of any moral absolutist from Osama bin Laden to Jerry Falwell, and you will find either a conqueror or an inquisitor. Or both.


What About the Nazis?


John Leo's simple-minded relativists would apply my family-conversation example directly to the Holocaust: Maybe it's wrong to murder Jews in America, but in Nazi Germany they did things differently and who's to choose? When in Mussolini's Rome, do as the Fascists do.

The problem with that analysis is that it ignores the multiple overlapping contexts. Bush's America and Hitler's Germany are not two different worlds, and I can't separate myself from a concentration camp guard by drawing neat circles around our two countries. In fact, the guard and I belong to many of the same moral communities: His family may be similar to mine; we may share a religion; we definitely share the heritage of Western moral thought that goes back to Jesus and Socrates and Moses. He not just a follower of Hitler, but also an inheritor of Goethe and Leibnitz and Beethoven. Like me, he probably claims the Western scientific heritage -- which, if he applied it soundly, would show him the flaws in the theory of an Aryan master race.

It is, in fact, these shared contexts that give us our intuitive conviction that the guard is still wrong, in spite of what his country's laws might say. We can judge him because he belongs to our community. To a lot of our communities, in fact. By contrast, a pack of wolves might kill just as many people as our hypothetical camp guard. And though we can choose to fight the wolves, we can't judge them the way we judge the Nazis. A moral judgment against the wolves seems ridiculous, because there is no context for it, no shared moral community or consensus.

Ryan Dobson's relativists would have to shrug and let the guard go on about his business, but in fact the guard and I would have a lot to talk about, because we have so much in common. I could attempt to show him that in following Nazism, he was violating every other piece of his identity. I suspect I would get further with him than Dobson would.

Of course, I might have run into the kind of Nazi who was happy to sacrifice every other scrap of his identity -- to be a Nazi and nothing else. I would get nowhere with such a person, and neither would anyone else. This kind of person is like the wolves: We can kill him or run from him or try to control him, but our morality means nothing to him. I could tell him that he was wrong according to moral communities he had rejected; Dobson and Leo and the Pope could tell him that he was wrong in the eyes of a God he had rejected. Other than the possible satisfaction of imagining the guard roasting in Hell, I can't see much advantage one way or the other.

Summing up

Moral relativism doesn't mean that you lose all claim on right and wrong, or that you make moral judgments in a whimsical, arbitrary, or self-centered way. You do lose the ability to make sweeping claims about poorly fleshed-out hypothetical situations. In exchange, you get to stop chasing chimeras and stop looking backward to the Middle Ages.

Personally, I think it's a pretty good deal. But that's a judgment you'll have to make for yourself.

7 comments:

Camassia said...

Nice to see you blogging. I wrote a response to this post on my own blog here.

Clyde Grubbs said...

I also respond to your post on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Consider that actually everyone is a moral relativist.

Particularly in America, there is a religious flavor and mixture for everyone. Check into a hotel and open the book you find there. No, not the Bible in the drawer; open the phone book to the yellow pages, and turn it to "Churches". In my community, there are more churches than there are dry cleaners or even chiropractors. We even have a UU church--oh, sorry, I meant "congregation"; we used to call ourselves a church, but to be more welcoming, we changed it. There are Baptists, Baptist-Americans, Baptist Free-Will, Baptist General Association of Regular Baptist, Baptist General Conference, Baptist Independent, Baptist Missionary, Baptist Southern... Churches of God in Prophecy, Church of the Nazarene, Congregational Churches, Episcopal Churches, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics... We have three Baha'i Faith congregations, at least one Buddhist Temple, something called the Christadelphian Ecclesiastic Church, and countless others. They all offer something special. If you prefer, you can turn to page 697 where the Synagogues are. Of course you can stay home on Sunday, or Saturday, but go ahead and pick one, go to a service. Do you like it? Stay, or try another. Is the Word not true enough? Minister too much like a secular humanist for your taste? Keep trying until you find the one where God agrees with you.

In many lands, one finds oneself in a religious community; one is born into a faith, and must truly break bonds to leave it. In America, however, believers vote with their feet. America tops the list of places in the world where those who are serious about the inerrancy of their religion are moral relativists. There are some heartbreaking exceptions, such as those Jon Krakauer describes in "Under the Banner of Heaven", but by far the overwhelming majority of people here, whether they see it or not, exercise their God-given right to choose whether to accept which God-given humanly unalterable divinely ordained Word of God. Does James Dobson advise his audience to just shut up and accept the doctrine which their liberal mainstream ecumenical Protestant minister preaches? Or does he tell us to leave those churches and seek one where one finds the authentic Word expressed?

Anonymous said...

Consider that actually everyone is a moral relativist.

Particularly in America, there is a religious flavor and mixture for everyone. Check into a hotel and open the book you find there. No, not the Bible in the drawer; open the phone book to the yellow pages, and turn it to "Churches". In my community, there are more churches than there are dry cleaners or even chiropractors. We even have a UU church--oh, sorry, I meant "congregation"; we used to call ourselves a church, but to be more welcoming, we changed it. There are Baptists, Baptist-Americans, Baptist Free-Will, Baptist General Association of Regular Baptist, Baptist General Conference, Baptist Independent, Baptist Missionary, Baptist Southern... Churches of God in Prophecy, Church of the Nazarene, Congregational Churches, Episcopal Churches, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics... We have three Baha'i Faith congregations, at least one Buddhist Temple, something called the Christadelphian Ecclesiastic Church, and countless others. They all offer something special. If you prefer, you can turn to page 697 where the Synagogues are. Of course you can stay home on Sunday, or Saturday, but go ahead and pick one, go to a service. Do you like it? Stay, or try another. Is the Word not true enough? Minister too much like a secular humanist for your taste? Keep trying until you find the one where God agrees with you.

In many lands, one finds oneself in a religious community; one is born into a faith, and must truly break bonds to leave it. In America, however, believers vote with their feet. America tops the list of places in the world where those who are serious about the inerrancy of their religion are moral relativists. There are some heartbreaking exceptions, such as those Jon Krakauer describes in "Under the Banner of Heaven", but by far the overwhelming majority of people here, whether they see it or not, exercise their God-given right to choose whether to accept which God-given humanly unalterable divinely ordained Word of God. Does James Dobson advise his audience to just shut up and accept the doctrine which their liberal mainstream ecumenical Protestant minister preaches? Or does he tell us to leave those churches and seek one where one finds the authentic Word expressed?

Anonymous said...

I apologize for clicking twice. You will want to delete at least one of the posts that resulted.

My daughter has pointed out that I do then to keep repeating myself unnecessarily.

Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.

David said...

Hey Doug,

Just looking through your archives and found what my recent post on www.truthisheavy.com was talking about with moral relativism.

If you are a moral relativist (MR), why call yourself also a Unitarian? Aren't there groups of MR's that meet, or a society to be a part of?

I want to understand whether there is something in particular that distinguishes a MR and a Unitarian, or are they often the same people?