The Myth of Moral Relativism: A Reply to a Critique of My Essay

philosopherby Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

I received this critique of my essay “The Myth of Moral Relativism” from A.R.M., a reader who resides in Canada. I thought it was worth a reply, so here it is. The critic’s words are in red type and my response is in black type. I have not edited the critic’s remarks but any misspellings have been corrected.

I just read Dr. Dolhenty’s article “The Myth of Moral Relativism.” I am an armchair theologian and can hardly be considered a philosopher except in the broadest sense of the term. Also, I am philosophically in pretty much the same camp as Dr. Dolhenty. However, I found the article to be somewhat lame and most certainly what might be considered a “straw man argument.”

I am sorry you found the article “lame” but that is a personal value judgment and I don’t know what criteria you used to come to that evaluation. So I accept it as your honest opinion — to which you have every right.

The “straw man argument” accusation, however, is, in my considered opinion, not appropriate here. That type of argument, for those unfamiliar with it, is a weak argument or opposing view set up by a debater in order to easily “shoot it down.” I did not “set up” the argument regarding moral relativism; that argument actually exists out there and is promoted by many people. I am merely replying to their argument in my essay, maintaining that, while they may “claim” that morality is relative, they do not “apply” that position consistently in real life, that is, in practical affairs.

Few who adhere to relativism as system, and I am not one of them, would argue for such a rigid position as Dr. Dolhenty has ascribed to them, as doing so would in itself represent an absolutist perspective. On the other hand, few if any absolutists would be so absolutely. It is only when looking at particulars that one is able to meaningfully discuss the commitments and position that each takes. Speaking of relative or absolutist positions is really to speak of dominant trajectories.

To address the absolutist perspective, an absolutist may take a very definite position on one matter but consider other similar matters to be matters of indifference. This is an inconsistency. The minute that a choice is permitted on any moral issue that is not grounded in a absolute it allows relativism. The minute that “other factors” are permitted as part of the discussion and allowed to direct the conclusion, relativism has set in.

Now, the “relativism” I am arguing against here is, to be true, what is called “universal” or “unqualified” relativism, but that is the way it is normally presented. “There is nothing right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.” The philosophical position of what is called “emotivism,” a position taken by most if not all Logical Positivists (and put forth famously by British philosopher A.J. Ayer), and is technically nothing more than “ethical skepticism,” results in moral relativism of the universal type. Arguments for ethical relativism are also presented in the works of Sextus Empiricus and Michel de Montaigne and many other philosophers. Ordinary people pick up this idea of ethical relativism and simply repeat it, usually without critically thinking about it.

And this type of ethical relativism is the common view. Professor Patrick Grim (State University of New York at Stony Brook) has aptly pointed out in his video course entitled “Questions of Value” (The Teaching Company) that “ethical relativism is usually put forward…as an absolute and universal claim that all values are culturally relative.” So I am not setting up any straw man here, nor do I think I am misrepresenting the views of moral relativists.

Dr. Dolhenty criticizes relativity, but makes no attempt in this short essay to admit that the other extreme is also a myth. We all, regardless of which pigeon hole we are stuffed into, use the phrase “it depends” and thus accept some measure of relativity and we all will say with categorical certainty, “it must be” indicating absolutist tendency. The fact is both extremes are myths.

I completely agree that both extremes (moral relativism and moral absolutism) are, indeed, myths. I did not, it is true, address the issue of moral absolutism. But I was not concerned at the time with that view. I was responding to a very vocal group of contemporary moral relativists. Furthermore, I don’t personally consider moral absolutism to be a significant philosophical position because I cannot name a single philosopher who argues for that view from a philosophical stance. (Granted, some religious leaders may argue for moral absolutism or some form thereof, but I am not concerned with theology or religion.)

You are probably correct that most ordinary people will use a “it depends” qualification in some specific circumstance, and that is not a moral relativism. However, there is often a “disconnect” between what people say in principle — “[All] morality is relative” — and what they actually practice. And that is really the point of my essay. Those who claim to be moral relativists do not consistently maintain that view in practice. They are, then, suffering under a “myth.” They “think” they are moral relativists, but they “act” differently. For most people, it’s simply a matter of a philosophical “mistake.” For others, however, in my opinion, it’s a matter of hypocrisy; they do not practice what they preach.

More important than relativism and absolutism, as useful as these terms may be for discussion purposes, is the need to consider the political relationship and the appropriate centre for the arbitration of moral dispute. When is an issue an individual one and when is it a social one. When does the right of the state override the right of the individual. When should the rights of one be upheld and enshrined in law and when should it be curtailed or denied. When should the public good be given precedence over the private good.

The absolutist position naively supposes that any competition between goods is contrived. Such competition can be eliminated if everything is put in its proper place. Relativism also can fall into this trap. It supposes that the competition will be resolved or eliminated but often according to different criteria. This is not liberalism, but something else. It is a left wing kind of conservatism.

True liberalism understands that what are goods may in fact compete. Sometimes a studious consideration and weighing of these goods will lead to a near consensus about which good should have priority. In many cases this will not be true. The multitude of factors and complexity of social reality mean that this will remain a choice in which one will ultimately triumph and the other be denied, not because one is better and the other worse, but because the possibility of doing both is not possible. For many this is relativity. It is so because it factors in a number of variables that are not certainties. But it is not without its absolute commitments.

I don’t have any problem with what you say above, but I fail to see how it is relevant to my essay.

For example, legislation allowing homosexual marriage will need to consider the societal commitment to individual rights as well as the social impact of the decision. It is a political decision that is concerned not about pleasing God but about how can we construct a society that allows individuality while ensuring stability and cohesiveness. An absolute in this discussion would be that private acts that have private effects are almost exclusively considered the right of the individual. Private or personal acts that have public or social effects will be considered public acts. Since few acts are entirely limited to either of these spheres, it is normally necessary for some kind negotiation to take place. Each act is considered and weighed and a decision as to its “legality” is made based upon how private and how public it is deemed to be and how representative the act is thought to be of the kinds of acts that fall under each category.

Homosexual activity is largely considered to be a private act and so in most of the western world is permitted and discrimination against it or those who practice it is largely prohibited. This is not to say it has no social impact or that there is a complete consensus on its private nature. Homosexual marriage is still in the debate stages. Movement appears to be towards seeing it as largely a private affair, however marriage is primarily a social institution and so its acceptance will have considerable social impact. The move to accept it is not simply a matter of private and public choice but of making what is currently largely accepted as a private right a public one. Some of us who are not comfortable with the first but recognize that it should be allowed are not as easily convinced of the second.

I don’t have any problem with what you say above, but I fail to see how it is relevant to my essay.

The issue is not “relativity” and “absolutism” but negotiation. A number of Dr. Dolhenty’s examples were not so much about these two extremes as they were about shutting down the negotiation so as to force an agenda with minimum debate and resistance. This same thing can be said of the other side, the absolutist side. Absolutism of any kind in morality is not so much about grounding behaviour in certainties as it is about not having to see or talk about alternatives. The issue that Dr. Dolhenty really seems to interested in is the red herring approach to the negotiation process that often seems to characterize the relativity camp’s tactics. By asserting relativity as the overriding principle choice between competing positions is eliminated altogether. It now becomes a matter of who can garner the most support and force their agenda through. This is simply power politics.

I am sorry but I don’t follow your argument here. I don’t understand where you got the idea that I wanted to shut down negotiation in order “to force an agenda with minimum debate and resistance.” How did I do that? And, where? This doesn’t make sense to me. And what is this “red herring” thing? This entire paragraph, unfortunately, is bizarre, to say the least. I do not see how it is at all relevant to my essay on moral relativism, which I thought made a very simple point: Those who claim to be moral relativists are living within a myth; they may claim to be such but they don’t maintain their moral relativism in practical matters or real life. They do not practice (and cannot practice! unless they are certified sociopaths) moral relativism in any unqualified sense.


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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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