July/August 2012

It’s All Relative, Dude

Written by Tom McGuire

Many philosophical problems are destined to remain the province of unread journals, dusty manuscripts and specialist-level seminars. Their debates are conducted in, what to most people is, a foreign language, saddled with complex and obtuse points that could only occur to those who ponder the topic at every waking hour.

Not so with the question of morality. Everybody who can think has a view on it. This is because we are forced to make moral decisions every day. Whether to help a blind man cross the street, or to steal that cupcake you are sure nobody will miss.

From the five year old who screams “it’s not fair!” to the sophisticated criminal who claims that they are the victim, we all readily make appeals to morality. A child is aware of personal likes and dislikes, but pretty soon grasps (perhaps subconsciously at first) that there is something called ‘fairness’ to which his parents ought to pay homage. As we develop, we usually try to make sure that our behaviour conforms to morality, which we may see embodied in social conventions.

Other times, a strongly held moral conviction motivates a defiance of such conventions. It is natural to have feelings such as disgust or gratification as a reaction to certain things. Consider the act of putting a baby in a blender. I am guessing you feel that such an act of infanticide is abhorrent. But do you think this feeling is simply personal to you, or does it reflect a universal standard, one which is applicable to everyone whether they like it or not?

You might think that regardless of whether the baby-killer shares your values, they are morally obliged to respect a child’s life. Or perhaps because they have a different set of values according to which they are doing a good thing (after all, the baby could grow up to be a terrorist), we cannot truthfully hold that what they are doing is absolutely evil. The latter view is an example of moral relativism.

The Pope believes that moral relativism is “the central problem of the 21st century”. He is not the only representative of the opposite view, and there are many possible justifications (not only religious ones) for belief in objective morality. The Pope argues (p.3) that there is a natural law of moral right and wrong. Our conscience can tell us when we are obeying or breaking it. The denial of this law leads to its habitual violation, and thus a world in which evil prevails. This argument has wide support, especially from religious people. It is the notion that we each have a ‘moral compass’, though some people may choose to ignore it or even have one that is faulty.

However, moral relativists tend to disagree that the denial of objective morality must lead to social chaos. Stable societies in which people get along make us happier and increase our chance of survival. No moral law required. According to Gerald Lang (p.4), moral views have continually changed and shifted over time. But if there is something objective about moral values, then every society should have roughly the same ones. Lang thinks cultures (both past and present) are just too different for that to be feasible.

As Jesse Prinz (p.10) puts it, relativists “believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true”. My values are true for me, and your values are true for you. And because both are ‘true’ in this sense, neither is triumphant over the other. In the absence of some objective standard applicable to everybody which governs all values, there is no basis on which the truth of mine outweighs yours.

Prinz believes there are three forms such a standard could take. It could be divine, arising from the commands of an entirely good Supreme Being. Alternatively, perhaps humans have evolved a genetic predisposition to certain moral values. Or maybe there is some rational principle not subject to human opinion (such as the laws of mathematics) to determine what is right and wrong. Prinz rejects all three possibilities in favour of moral relativism. Ask yourself whether he is right.

From the belief that moral values are subjective, it is only a small step to the related idea that all values are. Take beauty, for example. Aesthetic relativism would say that from a neutral standpoint, a heap of soil is just as beautiful (or ugly) as the Taj Mahal. William Tam asks: ‘Is Beauty Subjective?’ (p.16) and answers with a resounding ‘no.’

Also in this issue, some pieces on the nature of philosophy itself. Catherine Cunningham (p.14) muses on the opulent lifestyle awaiting the philosophy graduate (note: tonguein- cheek alert), and Bob Fitter (p.18) tries to find out what it is, if anything, that philosophers actually do. Whether you like to use Café Philosophy for discussion fodder or as free wallpaper for your inner city apartment, we sincerely hope you make the most of this edition.