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.


Rusty said...


You need to check the resources at Stand to Reason. You'll also find their articles will be a tremendous help (e.g., Insulin or Ice Cream?, Religious Stew, etc.). Yes, relativism is resplendent with lazy thinking (e.g., We will not tolerate intolerance!). J. Budziszewski's "What We Can't Not Know" is another good resource. J. once asked his students whether or not murder was wrong, and one student responded with, "Well, someone else might not consider it to be wrong." J. zeroed in and responded, "I'm not asking what someone else might think, I'm asking what you think. - Are you prepared to state that murder is not morally wrong?" The student then conceded that he thought murder to be a moral wrong to which J. responds, "Okay, then let's move on to other issues we're not sure about."

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for those thoughts and resources. I loved that book of J.'s and STR is something I look to often.

Today I was pulling out of my pocket one of those current, hot-button issues that "nobody" thinks is morally relative to try and drive home the point. I talked about what MLK did for racism, that we consider it morally good, and that we also consider it morally good that we no longer hold slaves. One reaction to abolition was, "good for whom"?

Her point was probably not staunch relativism, but an issue of equivocation. She was intending to say that abolition was economically hard on slaveowners, so abolition was "bad" for them. Even though she was not advocating a deep relativism, the simple relativism in her system used the relpy, "good for whom?" to skirt criticism of even an abhorrent practice.

Brian B said...

Phil said:
One reaction to abolition was, "good for whom"?

I wonder if your student is confusing various senses of "good" here. There is a common usage of that term as applied, say, to a football team ("they're really good"), to works of art ("Impressionism is better than realism"), to some sense of "success" ("He's a very good businessman - has a good eye for a good deal"), and a number of others. It sounds like maybe she was using a "success" sense of good in responding to your query - abolition was "bad" for slaveowners in the sense of working against their intended ends, or something like that. Obviously, you were intending to talk about whether those intended ends (of slaveowners) were themselves good. I've tried to get used to always using the phrase "morally good" in these kinds of discussions with students (or anyone) in order to avoid the equivocations inherent in our language. It sounds awfully strange to say "abolition was economically hard on slaveowners, so abolition was morally bad for them," whereas there's a perfectly straightforward sense - a non-moral sense, importantly - in which economic hardship is, by definition, "bad." Perhaps even using terms like "morally permissible" (obligatory, prohibited) would be useful in this context, since those provide even further disambiguation of the concepts you mean to pick out and discuss.

A student might still try to argue that because abolition produced economic hardship for slaveowners, abolition was morally wrong ("for them"), but at least then it's clear what the structure of their argument (such as it is) amounts to: they must defend the premise that if X produces economic hardship, then X is morally wrong, which doesn't have much to recommend it. As for the "for them" addendum, well, I think you cover that very well in your post: I don't know what people mean by such phrases, and usually they don't either. (Does it mean "they believe it to be the case that..."? Is that consistent with their being objectively wrong? Is it just shorthand for, like you suggested, "don't judge - live and let live, it's a free country!"?)

Phil Steiger said...


You are absolutely right about the equivocation issues, which is why I didn't come down too hard on her reaction. In fact, we then talked briefly about "economically good" as opposed to "morally good" and that in our culture now, we come down on companies that do nasty things to their employees because the moral good outweighs the economic good.

It was their general sincerity, though, that was disheartening. They were not necessarily discomforted by a lack of clarity in their own though, and felt satisfied with the general fuzziness. It was a little funny to me, actually, how they responded to pro and con arguments in general. If people disagree and can think this much about it, the obvious conclusion is that some kind of simple relativism is true.

As a brief note, not everyone in the class fits into this mold...

386sx said...

Hi, how is the Intelligent Design thing going nowadays? And what do you think about the ethical systems of say, Dembski and Wells?

Phil Steiger said...

386sx-Good to hear from you again. As far as I can tell, the ID movement continues to gather steam, evidence, and plausibility. As for the specifics of their ethical systems, I am afraid I just don't know much. I assume both of them subscribe to a basic Christian worldview, but I have never read anything addressing their ethical views in detail.

Muslim said...

some peoople conclude that “there is apparently no objective way of justifying any principle as valid for all people and all societies” and I don’t agree with him in this point because in Islam there are principles valid for all people.