Moral debate and the problem of relativism

Originally published in The Daily Maverick

It is not only because of the privileged status we accord to our ideas that we are reluctant to unsettle them, or that others are wary of challenging them. In some areas of knowledge – or potential knowledge – some of us think that no truths can in fact be known, and that we therefore need to find other ways of resolving disputes. Or sometimes, the claim is that we should not even bother trying to resolve disputes, because they are in principle not resolvable.

One area where this can be observed is in the debate between naturalism, broadly defined as the view that everything can potentially be explained by reference to empirically verifiable data, and supernaturalism, where objects like deities play a significant role in explaining our lives and our physical surrounds. Another is aesthetics, where some claim that beauty only exists in the eye of the beholder. And of course there is morality, where according to a certain school of thought, there are no objective grounds on which to judge one moral viewpoint as superior to another.

The benchmark case of this view is known as relativism, where it is claimed that moral rightness and wrongness are defined by cultural preference, because there is no way to independently and objectively arbitrate between competing moral viewpoints. There is however a potential confusion that must be eliminated at the outset of this conversation: The relativist claim at issue is not that people happen to have different interpretations of what is right and wrong (they surely do, and this is surely uninteresting). The claim is instead that the moral preferences of a given society are normative, in that they are definitive of what actually is right and wrong, not merely descriptive of what a culture happens to believe.

This is the distinction between descriptive and normative cultural relativism. A descriptive cultural relativist would describe the cultural differences in the arena of moral belief, but could still claim that there is an independent truth, regardless of what the culture happens to believe. The normative relativist would instead define moral right and wrong for that culture according to the views of that culture, while herself believing something else to be right based on her own cultural preference. As I write that sentence, the proposition expressed therein seems too absurd to merit any further sentences. Yet this view is still surprisingly popular, and it is perhaps worth thinking about why that might be the case.

First, we are understandably reluctant to criticise things that we might not fully understand. Second, there is surely some virtue in avoiding the sort of provincialism that is expressed in the view that only we know the truth, and that only our moral standards are the correct ones. Relativism argues for humility in these areas, in that it asks us to acknowledge that our perception of the world might not be the only permissible one, and that we have no license to judge the strongly-held views of others as being false or foolish.

So if we discard the privilege of simply asserting that we are right and others are wrong, and instead try to reason our way to a moral conclusion, the relativist claim is that we would not be able to find any objective standard or universal truth by which to judge one moral conclusion as being superior to another. According to their view, the only reasonable conclusions are then that universal truth is a myth, that there is no objective standard to judge one moral code better than another, that there are no universal truths in ethics, and that the moral code of a society determines what is right within that society. By extension, we would of course not be able to judge the moral codes of other societies, because that would presume that our judgements are based on some higher and more justified moral standard.

It is of course true that in many cases, our categories of the normal/abnormal or moral/immoral are culturally determined, rather than absolute. Assuming for the moment that relativists are right, it’s also true that we would be more inclined to say something like “charity is morally good” instead of saying “charity is a habitual activity in this culture, and therefore morally good”. Lastly, it is also true that to demonstrate moral values as being culturally determined does not show that they are wrong.

The argument is instead about the foundation for any particular moral belief, and the reasons why it should be regarded as right or wrong. For the relativist, resolving such arguments is as simple as mapping the belief to cultural dispositions, because we have no other standard by which to judge. Alternatively, we could say that there are some independent criteria for judging a practice to be undesirable, regardless of what any particular culture happens to think is the truth.

What might such independent criteria look like? Well, we could offer an argument based on some absolutist principle, such as divine command theory (God tells us what is good) or the primacy of reason and a moral will (Kantianism), as I’ll discuss next week. Or, we could ask some more simple and pragmatic questions.

For example, we could ask how one could possibly think that female genital mutilation (FGM) should be understood as morally “right” in any particular culture. Of course we can agree that many in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt (to name but a few examples) believe it to be right, but how does that observation compel us to agree that it is in fact right? Some who might want to accuse anti-relativists of a sort of moral imperialism might say that even the “victims” of FGM accept this practice as part of their culture, and as being morally correct.

But we are of course free to say that they – both those who do the mutilation, as well as those who suffer it – are wrong. In fact, it’s very difficult to find any reason why we would not say so. Just as oppressed people throughout the ages have suffered under some hegemonic definitions of what is in their best interests, kidnap victims have experienced Stockholm Syndrome, or abused spouses have insisted that their partner loves them deeply, we know full well that people can be confused as to what is in their best interests.

This however simply goes to show that supporters of a particular cultural practice could be confused as to what best contributes to their own welfare – it doesn’t yet resolve how we could say (from the outside of this particular culture) why they are wrong to do the things they do. Well, you could ask members of that culture to explain what good they believe to come from practices such as FGM. You could also ask them to agree on some objective facts related to the process, such as the pain, the chance of infection and death, and the likelihood of permanently decreased sexual pleasure.

Then, you could consider whether or not the goods that are believed to come from FGM cannot be purchased more cheaply, with less accompanying trauma and harm. If they can be, then there is a superior alternative to FGM, whether the culture in question recognises this or not. And we have of course not even considered the validity of the cited merits for FGM, which typically relate to something sharply reminiscent of slavery, albeit described in the language of paternalistic care giving and the protection of ancient and respected values (frequently premised in service to a supernatural being).

The fact that you can imagine how such a discussion might proceed – regardless of its chances of success – demonstrates that it’s a cop-out to describe morality as relative or irresolvable through reasonable discourse. It is furthermore a lazy and irresponsible way to engage with the suffering of others, in that it accepts that suffering as being right – at least according to someone else’s standards. Most revealing is perhaps the observation that it is often only the privileged that are capable of the “enlightened” view that is normative cultural relativism, in that they are secure in knowing that these barbaric practices are not cultural norms in their neighbourhoods.

It is easy to accept that cultures or individuals can define their own moral norms when we speak of less emotive (and less harmful) practices such as whether we should tolerate animal sacrifices in our posh suburban neighbourhood. But we should remember that if this is the case, it’s simply because some practices are perhaps not objectively right or wrong, and that it is therefore permissible to define their rightness or wrongness according to cultural preference.

But there is no reason to generalise this conclusion to all moral beliefs, and there are in fact compelling reasons not to do so. If we accept the relativist argument, we could no longer – ever – say that other customs are inferior to our own. We could not make this judgement for Ukweshwama (a Zulu rite of passage involving the killing of bulls, recently in the news following plans to bless World Cup stadia via this custom), but we could also not make it for FGM, slavery, or even apartheid.

We could also no longer make any sense of moral debate, nor of moral progress and regress. The former implies that there is something to be debated, rather than the simple requirement of establishing whether what you intend to do accords with cultural standards. The latter presumes either an objective standard, or at least the possibility that some norms can be known to be better than others.

It is difficult to imagine how allowing both sexes to vote is not morally better than only allowing males to vote, regardless of the confusions inherent in any given culture. It’s also difficult to imagine those with relativist pretensions being true to those principles when they are tested closer to home, rather than involving hypothetical conversations around what people do “over there”. If it was your daughter who was killed for not wearing a veil or wanting to wear jeans, because her father and brother were offended by her violation of cultural norms, I imagine you might have a different view.

Of course, you might say that that’s why you choose to not live in such a community. Aqsa Parvez in Ontario was not fortunate enough to be able to choose, given that she was only 16 when this happened to her. Unless we start becoming more comfortable with the idea that moral judgements are possible (perhaps even obligatory) under some circumstances, many more could end up as unfortunate as she was. And the only reason it typically doesn’t happen where you live is because we agree that it’s wrong – for everybody – to kill someone for what they believe.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.