Moral relativism is the idea that there is no absolute good and evil, but that all customs and practices of mankind must be evaluated in terms of their function in the society where they are found. Any attempt to make moral judgments about other cultures merely reflects our own cultural prejudices.
Some tolerance, doubt, and perspective is good. But this is the notion of tolerance taken to its ultimate—and ultimately, absurd and destructive—conclusion. Not only does it handicap our ability to make moral judgments within our own culture by weakening our convictions, but it handicaps our ability to see true evil as well as our ability to fight against it, and paradoxically can lead to the triumph of a very intolerant society.
The principle of moral relativism is often confused with cultural relativism, grounded in anthropology and discussed in Part I, here. But it turns out that moral relativism not only goes against traditional concepts of good and evil, but against the teachings of some anthropologists as well.
For example, back in 1944 the well-known anthropolgist Clyde Kluckhohn stated that:
While breeding a healthy skepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.
Kluckhohn spent a goodly portion of his career attempting to derive these universal moral rules, although it’s not clear that he was especially successful in doing so. But the idea that there is a universal morality, and that we can ascertain (or receive through divine revelation) its laws, is the basis of most ethics (and of most religions).
The Jews happen to have been one of the first peoples to declare that there are some universal moral codes by which all humans should live. Other religions that came after Judaism also aspired to offer a universal morality, but unlike Judaism these were proselytizing religions (for example, Christianity and Islam) that considered it their destiny to spread their own particular faith throughout humankind as well. Of course, by adopting those religions, a convert would adopt their rules. But Judaism was unique (at least, as far as I know) in being a non-proselytizing religion that nevertheless still endeavored to suggest some basic rules for moral human behavior that would apply to all people.
These rules that Judaism offered to the world were not the Ten Commandments, as some might imagine. No, the Ten Commandments were originally meant for Jews only (in fact, there are supposedly 613 commandments that observant Jews are supposed to fulfill). I’m referring instead to what are known as the Noahide Laws, which according to Talmudic tradition were given to all humankind: Noah’s descendents, survivors of the flood.
These rules are related to but somewhat different than the Ten Commandments. According to the Talmud, not just Jews but “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come,” and righteousness is defined as following these Noahide rules:
1. Prohibition of Idolatry: There is only one God. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
2. Prohibition of Murder: You shall not murder.
3. Prohibition of Theft: You shall not steal.
4. Prohibition of Sexual Promiscuity: You shall not commit adultery.
5. Prohibition of Blasphemy: Revere God and do not blaspheme.
6. Prohibition of Cruelty to Animals: Do not eat flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive.
7. Requirement to have just Laws: You shall set up an effective judiciary to fairly judge observance of the preceding six laws.
The details of these laws and how they came to be are less relevant to the subject of this post than the mere fact that Judaism posits that there are such laws for all cultures and all peoples, which of course is not very relativistic of it.
Likewise, the Founding Fathers of the United States believed in certain truths that held for all humankind; just read the words of the Declaration of Independence. Here’s a cogent summary of their point of view on the subject:
…Western civilization is founded on the idea that many Judeo-Christian truths—and the Western values that spring from them—are true for all men and women. This idea is especially important in the United States, a nation founded on a distilled set of Judeo-Christian beliefs and values that were declared to be true for all men.
Those beliefs and values are well known to most Americans: That God created all men, meaning that any legitimate government must recognize the fundamental equality of all men before Him; that the affairs of men are guided by the hand of Providence, meaning that government is not the final authority in the lives of its citizens; that the natural corruption of the human heart behooves us to place checks and balances on governmental power; that it is best for all people, even rulers, to be subject to the rule of law; that government should protect all religions, leaving a man’s conscience free to seek God as he thinks best, rather than constraining the religious urge by tyrannical decree or by force; that the maintenance of justice requires the freedom of the people to assemble and speak freely, even against those in power.
Most importantly, however, America’s Founders believed that these Judeo-Christian truths were not true only for themselves but for all people. This meant that, for the first time in the history of the world, a nation would be built in which citizenship was determined primarily by allegiance to a set of declared truths.
So although the idea of tolerance of different ethnicities and religious beliefs is basic to American thought, the idea of moral relativism is actually antithetical to it, although it grows out of that idea of tolerance. Therein lies a certain inherent contradiction; tolerance has its limits.
The United States is not just a country bound together by a common language or birthplace, as is the case with most other nations. There is something in American thought that is, in a sense, inherently proselytizing, and that is this idea of liberty and equality of opportunity as a great good for all humankind. And indeed, Americans did not hesitate to fight for their own liberty, and have not hesitated—especially since the twentieth century—to use military force at times to protect liberty around the world. This certainly isn’t in line with moral relativism.
To go from the general to the particular, one of the main objections to the war in Iraq is that it was not a war to protect liberty from encroachments by a foreign power (such as occurred during World War II), but rather a war with the goal of bringing it to a part of the world where it had not previously existed (for the purposes of this discussion I will ignore all the other reasons behind the war and concentrate on just this one, but it was certainly not the only one). This particular goal smacked of cultural imperialism, and in a sense that is correct.
One can argue that this impulse to bring liberty to the people of Iraq may have been impossible to accomplish. One can argue that it was not worth it even if successful. We’ll leave those questions aside in this post, as well; they’ve been discussed many times before. The more pertinent point is that, if this was cultural imperialism, it was in the service of something that has been long defined by Americans as a universally desired human good, although moral relativism would declare there are no such things.
[Shrinkwrapped writes on a related theme today.]