In the last few days, since I posted this explanation of moral relativism on a forum, I have received a few email requests to clarify some points or respond to some other ideas, so I decided to expand on the subject with a few…
Counter-Arguments and Bad Examples
#1: It’s only wrong when other people do it. When I do it, it’s “subjective”. (Hypocrisy)
Some people like to use the philosophy of moral relativism to excuse their unethical behavior. (Notice, I said unethical, not “wrong” or “immoral”). They are willing to enjoy the benefits and protections of society while wrapping themselves in the “moral relativism blanket” to avoid accountability. Calvin’s speech above is a great example of that.
In my view, it is unethical to agree to a contract (such as the rights and responsibilities of US Citizenship) or to enjoy the benefits of that contract without acting in good faith to fulfill your end of the bargain. So, if I am going to live in this country, I am going to abide by it’s laws to the best of my ability. But I will also work hard to change the ones I disagree with. I will not, however, simply disregard those I don’t agree with under the banner of moral relativism and not expect to pay for it.
And if you take a gander at my traffic record, you will see that I have, in fact, paid for it. And I didn’t contest a single one of those tickets. I broke the law and, under the contract that I sign every day when I wake up to a life broadened by “unalienable rights”, I was penalized for it.
#2 – The Slippery Slope of Sin (Lazy Ethics Version 1)
Then there’s this argument. I have never had this argument with a person who was not a religious fundamentalist. You see, religious fundamentalism is the lazy person’s morality. They do what they are told is right a wrong and never question it. They get to hop up on a moral high horse and damn everyone around them without ever having to hold a mirror to themselves.
It also, in their mind, excuses them from the burdens of logic, consistency, reason, or accountability. The argument generally goes something like this…
Religious Fundamentalist: “A man having sex with another man is wrong”
Me: “Says who?”
RF: “Says God! Don’t you have a Bible?”
Me: “While yeah, actually, I do. But my pastor and I apparently interpret the text differently than you do.”
RF: “Well, if we are all allowed to ‘interpret’ the Bible however we want, then what’s the point. We might as well just start killing each other.”
Me: “Isn’t that a ‘support the troops bumper sticker on your car? And didn’t I see you put up a post on facebook cheering the death of Osama Bin Laden?”
RF: “Well, sure, but that’s different. Those examples are justified.”
Me: “Uh-huh. And can you remind me where in the bible it says that I couldn’t bone a dude if I wanted to?”
RF: “Exodus 29”
Me: “Right. Right. That’s the same chapter where it says that synthetic fiber t-shirt you are wearing and the bible verse tattooed on your back are both forbidden. Not to mention the fact that it’s Sunday and you’re doing yard work.”
RF: “Again, that’s different. Over time, culture has changed, and Jesus said we don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore.”
Me: “That’s exactly my point, actually. But even if that weren’t true, Christianity is one of hundreds of religions in the world. And each one has a different view of morality. So while I totally support you wanting to think that homosexuality is wrong and even to try to convince me that it’s true, the law should be written from a different perspective to reflect the diversity of cultures in the US.”
RF: “But if we did that, it would be condoning something that I know is wrong.”
Me: “No, you wouldn’t be condoning it, you would just be acknowledging that a guy having sex with a guy doesn’t directly affect you, so you should have no business getting to tell me whether I can do it or not.”
RF: “You know you’re going to hell, right?” (Sometimes this line comes in five minutes, sometimes it takes hours. But when a person has nothing but religious texts to define their morality, they will invariably get here at some point. And my response is always…)
Me: “OK, we’re done talking now.”
I am a spiritual person. I have studied most major world religions but I identify primarily as a Christian. My pastor and I have had some epic arguments. We often disagree about scriptural interpretation. But I continue to listen to him because he is willing to end an argument with some version of “Hey, I could certainly be wrong, but you haven’t convinced me, yet.” He is smart and he reads endlessly. And more often then not, he raises at least one point that I hadn’t thought of. Neither of us feels threatened by the other because we trust each other to argue in the pursuit of truth above all else, not to simply console ourselves. And because we both acknowledge that, at best, we are making an informed guess about this stuff and at worst we are shooting in the dark.
#3 – Nihilism (Lazy Ethics Version 2)
Some of these folks will call themselves nihilists. The idea is that, since there are no absolutes and no real evidence that anything really exists, much less beyond what we can actually perceive, then we should all just do what we want and not worry about “morality”.
I provided one example of this with Calvin and Hobbes. For many, this is why they ultimately choose a form of moral relativism which is, in my view, flawed. It negates all logic and reason by asserting a statement that is just as much a leap of faith as any religion; the statement that “nothing matters”.
For many, this is simply a way of being lazy and avoiding guilt or responsibility for their actions. For others, it is a way of justifying being a huge jerk to everybody else. In either case, you never want these people around because you can never trust them. By their own admission, they have no ethical issue with screwing you over. In all likelihood, they don’t really believe that. But just to be safe, I always keep at least one dead-bolt between my stuff and them when I’m sleeping.
Could they be right? Sure.
But like I said earlier. We have agreed to function as a society. If you don’t want to be a part of that and play by the rules, move to some obscure African country where everyone is allowed to do whatever they want. I’m sure you won’t survive a week.
Because, you see, lazy ethics only works when you are insulated by a thick layer of people who believe that life does have meaning and who live by some standard of morality that precipitates ethical behavior (of some sort). Because if everyone operated without any ethics, we would have no society and all the scrawny little nihilists (I’ve somehow never met one that was over 130 pounds) would be dead.
That’s Darwinism, baby.
#4 – The World According to Cross (Evolving Personal Ethics)
In my personal approach to moral relativism, you have to actively work to ensure that your own moral compass is pointed in a direction that you can justify, if pressed, and which aligns with the social contract you are bound to. It’s not lazy nihilism or lazy devotion. It’s difficult, unending, introspective work. And while I fail the test of consistency every now and then, I do my very best not to be hypocritical.
And if I slip up, I am totally ok with being called on it. Sometimes that means I have to revise a deeply held belief that has been a guiding force in my life. That’s just the uncomfortable nature of honest and independent thought.
But in return, I get to say with confidence that my behavior is based on a personal code of ethics that speaks to my core beliefs about the world, and that I can justify my views about morality without having to invoke religious or patriotic dogma. I would rather know how little I know than live blindly. I would rather struggle every day to determine the right path than be led silently by the hand into an unknown and unseen wilderness.
I love to debate and discuss and argue with smart people and I love to be proven wrong (even when I don’t admit defeat). I love learning about the world and refining my theories to match the new data, rather than finding ways to make the world conform to my immovable beliefs.
I love the way I live, and when I go to sleep at night, I can do it with a clear conscience. Because I know that I have done my best to live a virtuous life. And my best is all I can demand of myself.