Turning Heroes into Horrors

It’s easily proved false, still cultural relativism goes virtually unchallenged, to our harm.

Growing up, A.J. Jacobs’ father tried to read through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He didn’t make it past the Bs. Now 36, Jacobs decided he’d try to climb his “mental Everest” in an attempt to bond with his dad and stop his post-college “long, slow slide into dumbness.” It didn’t hurt that he’d snagged a book deal to write about it. The result: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

What Jacobs discovered, in addition to countless trivial facts, is that contrary to popular belief, morality isn’t culturally relative. We’re told no culture has a moral right to judge the practices of another culture, but history makes this hard to swallow. Reading about the Indian tradition of burning a man’s widow alive on his funeral pyre, after reading about the patriot sacrifices of American men and women who died to outlaw slavery, give all adults the right to vote and own property and speak and assemble freely, his common sense took over. And he started to draw this conclusion halfway through the Es. Moral relativism says morality doesn’t transcend culture; moral relativism is wrong.

Still, moral relativism is widely accepted on campus today. According to moral relativism, what is right for one society is not necessarily right for another society.Moral relativism is sometimes formulated in terms of the individual. This variety of individual moral relativism is often called subjectivism, and it states that what is morally right for one person may not be morally right for another person even within a common culture. The theory that says that morality is relative to cultures or societies (rather than individuals) is often called conventionalism. In this article, I will be dealing primarily with conventionalism. Society A may have in its code “adultery is morally permissible” at the same time as society B has “adultery is morally forbidden.” In this case, according to the moral relativist, adultery is morally permissible for members of society A and forbidden for members of society B. The point here is not the diversity of moral principles at work in different cultures. That different cultures apply different moral codes is a matter of fact, and a rather mundane one. Moral relativism goes well beyond recognizing this diversity and asserts that different moral principles are true and false in different cultures. In other words, moral statements are never simply true or false, according to moral relativism. They are only true or false from the perspective of a given culture. The statement “murder is wrong,” for example, is not true plain and simply; it is only true “for culture A,” and might be false “for culture B.”

For at least four reasons, the majority of moral philosophers and theologians do not embrace moral relativism.

First, some acts are recognizable as wrong regardless of the cultural perspective from which we view them. Advocates of this criticism point out that all people see some things as wrong (e.g. torturing babies for fun, greed as such, murder as such) without first having some cultural criteria for determining that they are wrong. Thus, an act can be recognized as wrong even if one’s culture says it is right, and an act can be recognized as right even if one’s culture says it is wrong. In fact, an act can be recognized as right or wrong even if society says nothing whatever about that act. This shows that our ability to make moral judgments transcends the cultures we’re part of.

Second, if moral relativism is true, it is difficult to see how one society could be justified in morally blaming another society for immoral behavior. According to moral relativism, one society should act in keeping with its code while other societies should act in keeping with their codes. If society A does something that’s right according to its code but wrong according to society B’s code, how can society B justifiedly criticize A’s action as wrong?

One could respond to this objection by pointing out that society B’s code may include the principle “one should criticize acts of murder regardless of where they occur,” so members of B should criticize murder in other societies. But such a rule reveals an important inconsistency in moral relativism. If moral relativism is true and embraced by members of B, then members of B must simultaneously criticize members of A for murdering, yet hold that members of A should keep murdering (since A’s code says that murder is okay). Thus, members of B must criticize A’s behavior as immoral, and at the same time hold that A should continue it. Further, why should members of A care what members of B think? After all, if relativism is true, there is nothing intrinsically right about the moral views of society B.

Third, it is difficult to say what, exactly, a society (or culture) is, and it’s also difficult specify which society is the relevant one. Consider societies A and B in the third paragraph of this article. If a man from society A has extra-marital sex with a woman from society B in a hotel in society C (which has different views than either A or B), which is the relevant society for determining whether the act was right or wrong? Should we use the code of society A, B or C for determining which society’s moral code is the right one to use here? Moreover, we are often simultaneously members of societies that hold different moral values: our nuclear family, our extended family, our neighborhood, our school, our church, our social club, our place of employment, our town, our state, our country, even the international community. Again, which society is the relevant one? What if I am simultaneously a member of two societies and one allows a certain moral action that the other forbids? What do I do in this case? Moral relativism seems incapable of answering the most basic, day-to-day moral questions.

Fourth, and finally, moral relativism suffers from a problem known as the reformer’s dilemma. If relativism is true, then it is logically impossible for a society to have a virtuous moral reformer like Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Why? Moral reformers reject the moral codes of their own societies. If an act is right only when it’s in keeping with a society’s moral code, however, then the moral reformer is by definition an immoral person, for his views are at odds with the moral code of his society. Moral reformers must always be immoral, according to moral relativism, because they go against the moral code of their society; but any view which implies that moral reformers are always immoral is obviously defective.

Put differently, moral relativism implies that cultures cannot improve their moral code. The only thing they can do is change it.Note that subjectivism (see footnote #1) suffers from this defect as well. Why? Consider the fact that America no longer views racism as morally acceptable. How should we evaluate this change? All moral relativists can say is that, from the perspective of 19th century America, the new principle is wrong; from the perspective of 21st century America, however, the old principle is wrong. In short, we’ve made no moral progress; all we’ve done is change our perspective. No sense can be given to the idea that a new code reflects an improvement on an old code because this idea requires a vantage point outside of and above a culture’s code from which to make that judgment. And it is precisely such a vantage point that moral relativism disallows.According to moral relativism, even God cannot provide us a vantage point outside of or above our culture’s moral code.

Some relativists respond to these arguments by claiming that moral reformers simply make explicit what was already implicit but overlooked in a society’s code. Thus, if a society already believes (for example) that people ought to be treated as equals, then this implicitly contains a prohibition against racism, even though it may not be explicitly recognized by the society. The moral reformer merely makes this explicit by calling people to think more carefully about their code. Unfortunately, this claim is simply false. Many moral reformers do, in fact, call people to alter their codes. They do not merely make clear what was already contained in pre-existing codes.

Other relativists respond to these arguments by claiming that a society may contain a principle in its moral code that says “follow the advice of moral reformers.” But, again, this response does not work, for a number of reasons. For one thing, what does it mean to call these reformers “moral” if they can only become moral reformers by breaking their societies’ moral codes? Such a reformer could have the power to bring about change, but how could he or she have the moral authority to do so? And if a change is effected by a mere demonstration of power, why call it a moral improvement? Second, moral reformer’s can exist without the presence of the principle “follow the advice of moral reformers” in their society’s code, so the presence or absence of this principle is irrelevant. Third, what if there are two or more moral reformers operating at the same time? Which one do we follow? (In the mid 90s, Mother Teresa and Beavis and Butthead all called for our moral allegiance. How does the code “follow the advice of moral reformers” help us recognize Mother Teresa as a better role-model than Beavis and Butthead?) Finally, the presence of such a principle in a society’s code would place every moral principle in jeopardy, for each would be temporary and subject to the whims of the next moral reformer. In fact, before someone could responsibly follow a principle in his society’s code, he would have to make an effort to ensure that a moral reformer hadn’t recently (perhaps that morning) changed the code.

In short, moral relativism can’t account for our experience as moral beings, it is practically useless in day-to-day decision making, it reduces the greatest moments in human history to mere power struggles and it denies any real, culturally transcendent moral difference between heroes and tyrants. For these and other reasons, moral relativism must be rejected.

Copyright 2004 J. P. Moreland. All rights reserved.


About the Author

J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life.