Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ethical Relativism and Moral Reasoning

I haven’t blogged in a long time, and I can blame the holiday season on most of that. The rest of it is just my own schedule and some added time-constraints.

One of those—in a really good way—is that I am teaching an Introduction to Ethics class at a local community college. I am enjoying the teaching, the interaction, and the students, so there is nothing to complain about there. I do, however, have a conundrum I need to process.

Ultimately, how do you teach people who have breathed the air of pre-theoretical relativism and find themselves as simplistic subjectivists how to think clearly? I was prepared for a lot of reactionary relativism, but I am taken back a bit by some of the consequences of their ethical system.

It is my early contention (maybe someone can change my mind on this), that growing up to be a simple relativist softens the mind and discourages clear thinking. Instead of recognizing the value of good and bad arguments, the fact that disagreement exists is, for the simple relativist, proof of their relativism. The reaction to anything that is labeled as “good” or “right” is met with the allegedly discussion confounding response, “good for whom?”

Forget whether there is, say absolute ethical truth, the loss of the very notion of “absolute truth” severely discourages any real, critical, reasoned, engagement with a position. If something deep inside a person’s cognitive structure tells them not to “judge” another position, or that there is no way to discern any substantial difference between ethical systems, their thought process has then, as a matter of necessity, ceased. One of the consequences of ethical relativism is that there cannot be any real, actual disagreement between points of view (arguing about slavery is on the same preferential level as arguing about favorite colors). And I believe that consequence to have very real, mind-numbing realities in the ethical structures of simple relativists.

I guess one might say, from the point of view of a kind of Aristotelian view of human teleology and flourishing, that this actually constitutes a good argument against ethical relativism. If it does actually stunt a person’s reasoning capacity and hinder critical engagement with life, then it cannot be good for human flourishing.