Well, It’s True For Me – Moral Relativism Part 2

For the preceding discussion on this topic, please see part one. When we left off last time, we saw that individual subjectivism failed in every way. Now we must examine the other vein of moral relativism, conventionalism.

Conventionalism is the second form of relativism; and on this view morality is attached to culture. Thus, it denies objective morality due to the belief that moral principles are merely determined by society.[1] In one sense then, conventionalism does offer a wider foundation for understanding morality.  Even though the foundation for this vein of relativism is larger, it still leaves the question of whether it is a sturdy enough structure on which to build a system of morality. This can be answered by appraising the two main pillars on which conventionalism stands:  the diversity thesis and the dependency thesis.

The diversity thesis states simply that, “What is considered morally right and wrong varies from society to society, so that there are no moral principles accepted by all societies.”[2] The relativist would say this cultural inconsistency proves that there is no universal truth. After all, how could an entire culture be wrong? And isn’t it ethnocentric to believe that one culture is better than another culture? These are questions that particularly effect young adults.[3] This may be the relativist’s strongest point. Especially when he or she points to what seems like irreconcilable differences in values across cultures. Many of these culture gaps are well documented and range from Eskimos allowing their elderly to die by starvation to certain tribes who throw their deformed infants to the hippopotamus.[4] Certainly differences like these show that morality is not only grounded in culture, but that both culture and morality vary.

At this point though, it is important to distinguish between practices and principles. One culture may very well have a practice that another culture abhors, while still agreeing on the underlying principle. We must be careful not to hastily judge widely different practices as a disparity of morals.  According to Pojman:

“The nonrelativist can accept a certain relativity in the way moral principles are applied in various cultures,             depending on beliefs, history, and environment. For example, a raw environment with scarce natural                     resources may justify the Eskimos’ brand of euthanasia to the objectivist, who in another environment
would consistently reject that practice. The members of a tribe in the Sudan throw their deformed children
into the river because of their belief that such infants belong to the hippopotamus, the god of the river. We
believe that they have a false belief about this, but the point is that the same principles of respect for
property and respect for human life are operative in these contrary practices. They differ with us only in
belief, not in substantive moral principle.”[5]

It would seem that the differences between cultures which relativists would to point to as evidence, aren’t actually wide enough to support their argument. The way cultures display their moral code may vary drastically, but that variance is not within the code itself. While cultures may experience diverse customs, there actually seem to be common moral unifiers that are cross-cultural. Author C.S. Lewis presents this challenge, “Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.”[6] Lewis is presenting the idea that despite cultural differences, there beats in the heart of men, regardless of culture, a universal concept of right and wrong. We will discuss this idea at greater length later in this paper, but for now we can plainly perceive that the differences between cultures is not so great as to support the argument of varied morality due to culture. In light of this, the relativist would have difficulty pointing to diversity as proof that there is no objective morality.

Since the diversity thesis is unsuccessful the relativist must resort to the dependency thesis in hopes of maintaining the validity of his or her worldview. The dependency thesis contends that something is moral if the majority of a population accepts it to be moral.[7] Again, on face value, this might sound good. Isn’t that an established principle of majority rule? Doesn’t that work for our government? The question, however, is not if majority rule is ever appropriate, the question is if majority rule makes something right. There are several instances throughout history where the majority in a society has been wrong, even immoral. If this tenet of conventional relativism is accepted then actions like genocide, slavery and even rape could be moral as long as they were accepted by a majority.[8] It seems preposterous to believe that these behaviors would ever be acceptable. Furthermore, when certain cultures throughout the centuries have tried to inflict these atrocities on their particular people groups, they have been condemned by the world.

The dependency thesis has another problem it must answer for. Professor J.P. Moreland say this, “Moral relativism suffers from a problem known as the reformer’s dilemma…if relativism is true, then it is logically impossible for a society to have a virtuous, moral reformer like Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr.”[9] Why is this logically impossible on this view? It is impossible because these moral reformers stood outside the majority in their culture.[10] In essence, if this type of moral relativism succeeds, than we would need to correct how we view many heroes of history. This seems both strange and illogical. It makes more sense that conventionalism is simply wrong.

These pillars of relativism, both subjectivism and conventionalism, are so unsound that it is dangerous to build any belief system around them. Our critical examination of moral relativism unquestionably displays its failure to provide a cogent system of morality.  In fact, not only is moral relativism insufficient, but it actually leaves us in a chaotic state of perplexity.  Let us turn then to examine its philosophical opposite, objective morality. That discussion will continue in, Well, It’s True For Me – Moral Relativism Part 3.

Sources for this article:
[1] Pojman, Ethical Theory, 46.|
2] Ibid., 49.
[3] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 50.
[4] Pojman, Ethical Theory, 44.
[5] Ibid., 49.
[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980), 6.
[7] Pojman, Ethical Theory, 44.
[8] Ibid., 47.
[9] Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind, 150.
[10] Ibid., 150-151.

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