The challenge of Relativism

Finally, we must confront the challenge of relativism to ethics in general. There are many versions of moral relativism, but all of them hold that we cannot decide matters of right and wrong good and evil in any rational way.

Moral relativism seems to imply that since right and wrong are relative to whoever is making the decision, there are only individual answers to any moral question. It also suggests that constructive, moral argument is impossible for each person. Each person will do what is right for himself or herself. Though we may agonize over moral problems, we have no sure way of deciding that one decision is morally better than another.

Naive Relativism:

Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism might be called naïve relativism – the idea that all human beings are themselves the standard by which their actions should be judged. The naïve relativist believes that because ethical decisions are personal, important, and complex only the decision maker’s opinion is relevant.

However, it does not follow from the personal and serious nature of morality that we can’t reason about it quite the contrary. Precisely because morality is so vital to our lives, we must do our very best thinking in the area, and for this we need the help of people who are engaged in the process of moral reasoning. If we reject the idea that one’s moral beliefs have to stand up to scrutiny and criticism how will anyone get better at making moral choices? If there are no standards for deciding whether one moral decision is better or worse than another, how can we believe that morality is important?

Tolerance of others is necessary and good, but naïve relativism takes tolerance too far. People often disagree about moral questions, but we should not therefore conclude that there can never be any reason for anything we do, or that one course of action is always just as good as another. Instead we must try to sort things out because if we don’t, we have admitted defeat in coming to terms with our own lives. Besides, the naïve relativist’s tolerance for all points of view is a contradiction in that it is itself an absolute point of view: We must always be tolerant.

There is an even more compelling argument against naïve relativism. In insisting that the moral test of any action is whether or not the person believed it to be correct, naïve relativism tells us that we need not check on the content of a particular action: we need only find out if the person acted in accord with his or her beliefs. Therefore, any judgment about an action taken regarding such issues as abortion, infanticide, civil liberties, and capital punishment is necessarily suspended. The real failing of naïve relativism is its laziness: It is not a belief, but rather an excuse for having no beliefs. It is hard to marshal facts and construct theories about many ethical questions, and the naïve relativist just doesn’t want to bother. Such laziness exacts a price. It requires giving up any hope of living in a better world or becoming a better human being.

Cultural Relativism:

A second form of moral relativism, cultural relativism claims that morality is relative to particular cultures, societies or communities. It further asserts that no standards can help us judge the morality of a particular culture, and that the best anyone can hope to do is to understand the moral codes and customs of a given society.

Cultural relativism tells is to try to understand for example, Kenyan morality or Middle Eastern morality, but not to judge them. If norms and customs are shared by the members of any society, what right do we have to criticize them from an external standpoint? Why should other parts of the world be obliged to accept our ideas of morality?