Moral Relativism

A treatise on moral relativism leads Robert Segal to question whether we are in fact absolutists

February 19, 2009

There are different kinds of relativism. Conceptual relativism denies the existence of objective criteria for assessing the diversity of beliefs about the world. Perceptual relativism, which is more radical, denies the possibility of evaluating objectively the diversity of experiences of the world. Moral relativism denies that objective criteria exist for evaluating the diversity of norms.

There are also different kinds of anti-relativism. Universalism argues that there is uniformity rather than diversity in our conceptions, perceptions or morals. For example, all cultures oppose murder, however differently they define it. In contrast to universalism lies absolutism, which grants the existence of diversity but argues that the conceptions, perceptions or morals of one culture are correct and those of all others incorrect.

If one can generalise, absolutism was far more common in the 19th century than in the 20th, when relativism became dominant. Universalism emerged in the mid-20th century, in reaction to relativism.

A quintessential conceptual and perceptual absolutist was the pioneering anthropologist J.G. Frazer, for whom the human race has gone from a stage of magic to one of religion to one of science. Our magical and religious forebears, he argued, explained and even perceived the world outright incorrectly.

A quintessential relativist of all varieties was the 20th-century anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Of perception, he wrote: "Even the facts of the physical world are discerned through the enculturative screen, so that the perception of time, distance, weight, size and other 'realities' is mediated by the conventions of any given group."

The most prominent contemporary conceptual and also perceptual relativist was the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. But despite his influence, cognitive and perceptual relativism has been succeeded by universalism. As the philosopher Ernest Gellner regularly asserted, science explains the world for everyone. The classic demonstration by anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay that cultures the world over have the same colour sequence refuted perceptual relativism. But in the domain of morality, relativism remains.

The author of many other succinct books and of one huge work (Emile Durkheim, 1972), the English philosopher and social theorist Steven Lukes questions the easy acceptance of moral relativism, just as years ago he questioned the easy acceptance of cognitive relativism (in his essay in Rationality and Relativism, 1982). The starting point of moral relativism is the undeniable fact of moral diversity. But then must come the denial of any neutral way of evaluating the diversity. Moral relativists "hold that there is no point beyond a culture from which we can judge others in a way that is not relative to our own position".

Lukes traces moral relativism all the way back to Herodotus, although I myself read him as an absolutist. Lukes roots modern moral relativism in Giambattista Vico and even more in Johann Herder. Herder is the source of the relativism of the anthropologist Franz Boas and of his students Herskovits, Ruth Benedict and Edward Sapir. Herder is also the source of the relativism of the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin and (if, as assumed by Lukes, he is truly a relativist) the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.

Moral relativism is surprisingly hard to defend, as Lukes demonstrates. For example, an arranged marriage may to us violate individual freedom but to practitioners may constitute an alternative dating service. Particular circumstances may dictate distinctive morals, as in Albert Camus' The Plague. Disagreement over morals may actually be disagreement over facts. Lukes cites philosopher Richard Brandt's example of a society in which children kill their parents when they become old or feeble in order to ensure for them a better afterlife. Our abhorrence at the practice would presuppose our disbelief in an afterlife.

Lukes ties morals to values and charts the views of "value pluralists" from Herder to Johann Fichte to Max Weber to the late Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Values become irreconcilable cultural differences, as in German culture vis-a-vis French or Western culture vis-a-vis Islamic. For Huntington, those values are basically religious. For relativists, any appeal to universal human rights, as in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, proves embarrassingly ethnocentric.

Lukes notes alternatives to cultural relativism. One response, found above all in religion, is to contend that one's own morality is right and that of all others wrong. Here we are back to absolutism. A postmodern response is to reject the idea of homogeneous cultures and to see them instead as random assemblages of things, like Claude Levi-Strauss' bricolage.

There may be "multiple best ways for humans to live", Lukes grants, and in so doing he rejects absolutism, but he asserts that there remain universal criteria, deriving from Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative and from the telos of human beings for Aristotle, that can still be enlisted to judge. Lukes worries about the popularity of moral relativism, tied today to multiculturalism, but surely in practice nobody is a relativist. When proverbial push comes to shove, we are absolutists all.

Moral Relativism

By Steven Lukes

Profile Books, 256pp, £10.99

ISBN 9781846680090

Published 22 January 2009

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