One Particular Critique of Moral Relativism

After reading the very interesting comment discussion on yesterday’s moral relativism post, I thought it would be good for me to be a bit more explicit about the particular (usually conservative) complaint about “moral relativism” that I had in mind. Here’s what strikes me as an unusually thorough explication of the argument, which indeed triggered the latest post. It’s from ACLU v. DeWeese (6th Cir. Feb. 2), a case holding that a judge’s display of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom was unconstitutional:

In June 2006, Defendant created a second poster (“the poster”) which he hung in his courtroom containing the Ten Commandments entitled “Philosophies of Law in Conflict.” Immediately under the title on the poster are three numbered comments:

1. There is a conflict of legal and moral philosophies raging in the United States. That conflict is between moral relativism and moral absolutism. We are moving towards moral relativism.

2. All law is legislated morality. The only question is whose morality. Because morality is based on faith, there is no such thing as religious neutrality in law or morality.

3. Ultimately, there are only two views: Either God is the final authority, and we acknowledge His unchanging standards of behavior. Or man is the final authority, and standards of behavior change at the whim of individuals or societies. Here are examples.

I. The universe is self-existent and not created. Man is a product of cosmic accidents, and there is nothing higher than man. (Humanist Manifesto I)

II. Ethics depend on the person and the situation. Ethics need no religious or ideological justification. (Humanist Manifesto II)

III. There is no absolute truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me. (Humanist John Dewey)

IV. The meaning of law evolves. “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.” (U.S. Sup. Ct. Justice Chas. Hughes)

V. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey)

VI. Personal autonomy is a higher good than responsibility to your neighbor or obedience to fixed moral duties. (Humanist Manifesto II)

VII. Quality-of-life decisions justify assisting the death of a fetus, defective infant, profoundly disabled or terminally ill person. (Princeton U. Prof. Peter Singer)

This is not, I think, chiefly a complaint about people’s refusal to judge behavior in foreign countries. My sense is that this judge, and generally most people who deride moral relativism, care much more about what happens in their own country rather than in a foreign country.

(An example from the comments to the original post: “How about this: ‘An action’s morality is based only on the views of the actor taking it.’ That’s how it usually comes into play in the abortion context, isn’t it? I often hear it like this: ‘Abortion may not be right for me but it might be right for someone else and that person shouldn’t be punished for doing what’s right for her.'”) My sense is also that very few people actually genuinely think that slavery, genocide, etc. are morally fine in countries that like it, though more believe that local conditions can affect moral judgment in some situations, so that (for instance) the death penalty for cattle theft is generally improper in rich countries that can afford prisons, insurance, and some level of lost property, but proper in very poor countries in which cattle theft may leave the owners near death (or at least in a vastly worse position than before).

The interesting about the judge’s list is that it is how mixed it is. Example I is a claim about the origin and nature of the universe, and not directly about morality as such, though it might have implications for morality (or not, since even if man was created by God this doesn’t necessarily tell us whether God cares about what we do). Example IV is a claim about the interpretation of legal documents.

Example VII is a claim about particular moral rules related to when killing is appropriate. Debates about the death penalty,
the morality of war, the morality of lethal self-defense, the morality of lethal defense of property, euthanasia, abortion, and infanticide are interesting moral debates, but my sense is that few of them end up really turning on anything that can be meaningfully called moral relativism vs. moral absolutism; in fact, people who support killing — whether for “quality-of-life” reasons or other reasons — and people who oppose killing in any of these situations tend to be moral absolutists in the sense that they think it’s morally right for their views to be made into law. (For instance, though people who support lethal self-defense don’t generally think that everyone should have a legally enforceable obligation to engage in such behavior, or perhaps even a moral obligation to do so, they do generally think that society has an obligation to leave proper lethal self-defense unpunished, and to punish those who would retaliate against lawful lethal self-defenders.)

The same, I think, is largely true of Example V, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Under one definition of “the right to define,” this could be seen as a restatement of traditional American concepts of freedom of religion. Under another definition of “the right to define,” which would include the right to act on any such definition even if it means robbing, raping, and murdering born human beings, no-one would endorse that, and certainly not the Justices who signed on to that opinion. The controversy about the quote turns on (1) whether it can properly be applied to morally justify abortion, and (2) whether in any event it can properly be applied as a constitutional rule that trumps contrary legislative decisions. But that again is a question about a particular moral and legal issue, not about moral relativism as such.

Example VI, “Personal autonomy is a higher good than responsibility to your neighbor or obedience to fixed moral duties,” likely generally falls in that category as well. It’s true if we’re talking about personal autonomy to, for instance, choose a religion, or decide which relatives to love; my sense is that even most Americans who thinks there’s a fixed moral duty not to worship graven idols or to honor one’s father or mother would think that the law should not enforce those duties, largely because of a respect for personal autonomy. Virtually no-one thinks it’s true of a claimed personal autonomy to kill, rape, or rob. Debates about personal autonomy vs. moral duties generally turn on the particular moral claims raised in the debate, not on moral relativism vs. moral absolutism.

That leaves II, “Ethics depend on the person and the situation. Ethics need no religious or ideological justification,” and III, “There is no absolute truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me.” These might more plausibly be tied to the distinction between moral relativism and moral absolutism; but again they are at a high enough level of generality that it’s hard for me to grasp what’s really going on here. As I mentioned in my original post, obviously ethics depend on the situation in some measure, since ethical rules often require different actions depending on different conditions: Whether it’s OK to kill someone turns on whether they’re attacking you; whether it’s OK to take someone’s property depends on whether there’s a substantial enough emergency. They likewise depend on the person in some measure, since ethical rules often require different actions depending on one’s abilities and knowledge; a very strong person may be ethically faulted for not helping a crime victim (and perhaps even legally faulted, if he has a relationship to the victim that requires such help) resist someone who is beating him, while a very weak and unarmed person might not be.

I also think virtually no-one really thinks ethics needs no ideological justification, so there must be something more there. And as to absolute truth, again the question turns on what is being discussed. Few people think there’s much of an absolute truth as to the quality of various flavors of ice cream; few people think that someone is acting morally, or should evade legal sanction, if he says “it’s OK for me to murder, rob, or rape people because the prohibitions on such behavior aren’t true for me.” So there again I think some clearer definition of moral relativism is needed for these sorts of argument to prevail.

Now of course this is just the statement of one judge, who can’t speak for all critics of moral relativism, or even all people who would say what he said in his statement 1, “There is a conflict of legal and moral philosophies raging in the United States. That conflict is between moral relativism and moral absolutism. We are moving towards moral relativism.” But my sense is that his argument is indeed very similar to the arguments I’ve generally heard from critics of moral relativism in domestic moral debates (again, setting aside the rarer debates about judgments of behavior in foreign societies). That is the sort of argument in which it seems to me some sharper definition of moral relativism is required, if the moral relativism critique is to have much meaning. And my sense is that no such definition has been offered, or (and here I am much more tentative) is likely to work, at least if it focuses on relativism vs. absolutism as such rather than on adherence to a particular set of moral rules rather than another.