The Affinity Between Moral Relativism and Moral Absolutism
By Dennis Loo (10/28/13)
This is Part 4 of the series Making a Radical Rupture with Conventional Thinking
One need only look at the news on any given day now to find evidence that there is a rising tide of intolerance and violent clashes, including fatal ones, in the world between those who regard others of different political views, cultural or physical attributes, sexual or religious orientation, etc., as the enemy, a threat to their very ontological existence. While violent clashes are not something new in the world, as world history is rich with such conflict, there can be no mistaking the fact that the trend now is towards rising violence, not less confrontation, and that reason and principled compromise with others is taking a backseat to these clashes. The violence originates overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from those whose privileges and advantages are under challenge.
In what some might think is counter-intuitive, moral relativists who uphold the idea that everybody’s ideas should be treated equally are major contributors to this problem.
To summarize my case very briefly: moral relativists undermine unity by undermining the one basis upon which adjudicating differences between people can be accomplished - the empirical world of observable and determinable facts.
Moral relativists believe that “everyone has their own truth” and that there is no such thing as objective truth. Their views are very prevalent in the academy today, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. One could even say that it is the ruling orthodoxy, an odd situation for a stance that declares itself to be non-domineering, to be the ruling dictum! In most quarters, both in the academy and in much of the rest of our society, anyone who challenges the idea of moral relativism is seen as being at a minimum, impolite for examining and perhaps challenging someone’s beliefs and not simply accepting everyone’s views as equally true, or at a maximum, dogmatic for daring to assert that such a thing as that truth exists independently of individuals’ own perspectives.
The moral relativist’s upholding of individual and group differences as unassailably “true” reflects the neoliberal value stance on behalf of individualism: co-operation is not built upon commonalities and an objective reality, the individual is supreme.
If you have access to the Internet, you know that comments threads online are rife with flame wars between people, with a very large number of people claiming that truth is a product of what one believes, not what can be demonstrated independent of one’s subjective interpretation. The distinction between objective and subjective has been erased for all too many people. People have attempted to argue with me, for example, online on the grounds that truth is all about interpretation rather than there existing a basis in the objective world to determine which interpretation is closer to the truth than another.
This attitude is matched, in fact, originates to a large extent, from the world of punditry, where talking heads hold forth based on their own often virulently absolutist views, condemning those who don’t see things the way that they do. In many instances of this condemnation, these pundits advocate in either explicit fashion or thinly veiled fashion that those they disagree with should be beaten up or killed.
I want to offer a contrary perspective and a way out of this very prevalent and immensely destructive and dangerous attitude.
Moral absolutists (those who believe that morals are passed down to us from holy books or, in its secular version, that truth exists a priori, separate from empirical investigation and empirical facts) share a strong philosophical affinity with their putative opposites, moral relativists.
Moral absolutists such as religious fundamentalists are rightly widely seen as dogmatists and the increasing popularity of such views present a huge problem for the world (e.g., the Republican Party’s solid core of fascists who caused the U.S. government’s shutdown a few weeks ago, the rising scourge of fascists in France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere).
Moral relativism, while appearing to be the opposite of moral absolutism, actually fosters an inflexible moral absolutism. It does this by increasing the ghettoization of ideas and communities, thereby undermining the basis for people to come together to jointly pursue the historic mission of humanity to discover the truth. By claiming that no one can speak about the experiences and perspectives of others (e.g., white people cannot have anything useful to say to black people, men have no right to speak about women, first world people should not criticize third world people for anything, etc.) moral relativists cut the ground out from under the basis for people to work together, both intellectually and concretely.
The notion that “everyone has their own truth” is but another version, in other words, of those who deny the usefulness of empirical data and scientific endeavors to choose the interpretation that best matches objective reality.
In both cases, the moral relativists and the moral absolutists agree that objective truth does not exist. If you deny objective truth’s existence then you are left with nothing but interpretation. If that’s all there is, just differing and clashing interpretations, then how do you decide what’s true? You cannot really determine this because in order to do so you need an independent criterion that exists separately from those varying interpretations. If as both moral relativists and moral absolutists do, you deny the existence of an empirical world of facts, then there is no common ground for people to stand on and adjudicate differences. All you have are warring interpretations.
Agnosticism is the philosophical approach that declares that knowing the truth is not possible. It comes out of the religious meaning of the term: agnostics are undecided about god’s existence – he might exist and then again he might not. Agnosticism is therefore the philosophical foundation for moral relativists: there is no truth since truth is not knowable and therefore all beliefs are equally true. While agnosticism and moral relativism appear to be the most open-minded stance possible – let everyone have their say and we will act towards them without partiality – both agnosticism and moral relativism are a) not feasible to implement fully and b) actually quite damaging to building consensus and moving forward on a sound basis.
Taking the second point first: the damage that agnosticism can do is most dramatically obvious with respect to science. The advances attributable to science would not have been possible but for science’s historical stance that an objective world exists whose laws and patterns can be uncovered. Mankind could not fly, treat diseases, use computers, communicate wirelessly, etc. if there weren’t an objective world that scientists have learned a great deal about and which science is devoted to continuing to learn about in an ongoing quest for knowledge.
There is a difference between the idea that reality is subject to absolute knowledge – which it is not and never will be - and recognizing that humanity’s mission of advancing relative knowledge and relative truth are based on the premise that an objective world exists that can be increasingly known. The fact, for example, that we cannot know both the position and the energy level of an electron at the same time (see the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) does not undermine the demonstrable fact that objective reality exists. People, including even some scientists, however, conflate these two things, concluding that because we cannot know everything, that reality does not exist independent of our consciousness of it.
As to the first point, the infeasibility of fully implementing a moral relativist position: no one can act consistently in the world on the basis of a philosophy that objective reality doesn’t exist. Those who adhere to such a position have to act in the world most of the time as if objective reality exists. Otherwise they would run up against that reality in intolerable ways constantly. When they commute home from work everyday, for example, they act as if their home is real and is in the same place as it was when they left it that morning. When they fill up their car at the gas station and they use the credit card scanning device on the pump, they are using Relativity Theory’s precepts in the pump sending your credit card information to an orbiting satellite whose clock operates at a different pace than earthbound clocks. These daily activities and devices depend upon the objective existence of a reality outside of perception and interpretation. Another example of the infeasibility of this stance is evident when we bring into focus the views of child molesters. Is their view that children are there to be molested by them equal to other views? Would we allow child molesters to advocate for and implement their perspective?
Truth is not absolute and never will be. (Though there are certain things that are absolutely true: the War of 1812 was in 1812, for example). Those who think that God or Allah or whoever they worship is Absolute Truth are wrong. The fact that they are wrong does not mean, however, that they should be condemned. Winning people over to what’s true and pursuing truth yourself and writ large, that of all of humanity, is something that needs to be based on certain principles: a) that objective reality exists and that it can be known in a protracted process of gaining more and more knowledge over time, b) that the way to best determine what’s true is through scientific and empirical investigation and through discussion and debate rather than truth being determined via “authority,” and by coercing people to accept something as true, and c) truth is a collective enterprise of humanity. No one has a monopoly on the truth and no one ever will.
At the same time, what is objectively true is something that is independent of consciousness and social norms: what is objectively true might at any given point in time be held in the hands of a very small number, even as tiny as a single person. What is true has always had to fight for its acknowledgment. Generally speaking, what a majority of people considers to be true is usually not what is true. Or at least, what they believe to be true is not the most advanced expression of that truth. There are exceptions to this of course, but the lowest common denominator is usually not where you will find truth. In science and in other arenas of human endeavor, those at the cutting edge possess the most advanced understanding. Truth is not something that a majority in most instances already knows to be true. This is another reason why those who argue that everyone has their own truth and no distinctions can be made between them cannot and should not guide human affairs. They make a mess of things.
End of Part 4
In Part 5 I will explore the large difference between moral certainty and moral absolutism. The former is desirable and needed more than ever whereas the latter is extremely dangerous.