Monday, July 25, 2011

The problem with moral relativism

Relativism about morality has come to play an increasingly important role in contemporary culture. To many thoughtful people, and especially to those who are unwilling to derive their morality from a religion, it appears unavoidable. Where would absolute facts about right and wrong come from, they reason, if there is no supreme being to decree them? We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se. ...

What’s essential to “right” and “wrong” is that they are normative terms, terms that are used to say how things ought to be, in contrast with how things actually are. But what relativistic cousin of “right” and “wrong” could play anything like such a normative role?

Most moral relativists say that moral right and wrong are to be relativized to a community’s “moral code.” According to some such codes, eating beef is permissible; according to others, it is an abomination and must never be allowed. ...

The trouble is that while “Eating beef is wrong” is clearly a normative statement, “Eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus” is just a descriptive remark that carries no normative import whatsoever. It’s just a way of characterizing what is claimed by a particular moral code, that of the Hindus. We can see this from the fact that anyone, regardless of their views about eating beef, can agree that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus. ...

There is no half-way house called “moral relativism,” in which we continue to use normative vocabulary with the stipulation that it is to be understood as relativized to particular moral codes. If there are no absolute facts about morality, “right” and “wrong” would have to join “witch” in the dustbin of failed concepts.

The argument is significant because it shows that we should not rush to give up on absolute moral facts, mysterious as they can sometimes seem, for the world might seem even more mysterious without any normative vocabulary whatsoever.
--NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian, NYT, on nihilism being the only coherent alternative to moral absolutism