Relativism in Action

6a00e00988aca988330168e58749b6970c-320wiWe hear a lot these days about the dangers of moral relativism, or about what happens in a society that has abandoned its commitment to objective morals.This emphasis on objective morals is important, but it is equally important to remind ourselves what moral relativism looks like on ground level.

Last week for his Breakpoint program, Chuck Colson told about the recent experience of Dr. Stephen Anderson, who teaches philosophy at A.B. Lucas Secondary School in Ontario, Canada. His students had just finished a unit on metaphysics and were about to start one on ethics. Colson writes about Dr. Anderson's plan for getting the conversation about ethics going.

To jump start the discussion and to “form a baseline from which they could begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of moral judgments of all kinds,” Anderson shared with them a gruesome photo of Bibi Aisha, a teenage wife of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan. When Bibi tried to get away from her abusive husband, her family caught her, cut off her nose and ears, and left her to die in the mountains. Only Bibi didn’t die. Somehow she crawled to her grandfather’s house, and was saved in an American hospital.

Writing in Education Journal magazine, Anderson relates how he was sure that his students, “seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, [they] would have a clear ethical reaction,” one they could talk about “more difficult cases.”

But their response shocked Anderson. “[He] expected strong aversion [to it], … but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused . . . afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize,” as he said, “any situation originating in a different culture. They said, ‘Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.’”

Anderson calls their confusion and refusal to judge such child mutilation a moment of startling clarity, and indeed it is. He wonders if it stems not from too little education, but from too much multiculturalism and so-called “values education,” which is really just an excuse for moral relativism.

Anderson writes, “While we may hope some [students] are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is ‘never judge, never criticize, never take a position.’” Anderson wonders whether in our current educational system, we’re not producing ethical paralytics? Well, if the horrifying example of the students’ reaction in this case is any indication, Anderson already knows the answer.


Unfortunately Anderson is right. Thanks to relativism, political correctness, multiculturalism, postmodernism, and countless other isms, a generation of young people have been left hesitant to criticize moral atrocities when those atrocities are rooted in a different cultural tradition. How can I say that something that would be wrong for me (or even us) to do is also wrong for people with a different background?

This cultural relativism was condemned by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape. “While few philosophers have ever answered to the name of ‘moral relativist” Sam Harris wrote, “it is by no means uncommon to find local eruptions of this view whenever scientists and other academics encounter moral diversity.” Harris continued:

Forcing women and girls to wear burqas may be wrong in Boston or Palo Alto, so the argument will run, but we cannot say that it is wrong for Muslims in Kabul…. Moral relativism, however, tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice, relativism almost always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward a simple one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. Rather, tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is.

The interesting thing is that Sam Harris is himself an atheist and a materialistic determinists. Moral absolutes can and do exist, he asserts, but they are rooted in neither God nor biological evolution. Rather, they are grounded in neuroscience. This is the thesis of Harris’ entire book, which I have reviewed here. In my review I have shown that the reductionist account of morality that Harris offers ultimately lapses into the very relativism he is so keen to avoid. For example, Harris writes that each of us

is like a phenomenological glockenspiel played by an unseen hand. From the perspective of your conscious mind, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) that you are for the fact that you were born into this world.” (p. 104)

“Gazzaniga is surely correct to say that ‘in neurosceintific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.’ Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious. Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.” (p. 217)

Just think about that: if you and I have no control over what we do, and if we are not responsible for any of our actions, then how can moral values exist in any objective sense? Indeed, within the framework of the scientific determinism that Harris espouses, it is impossible to say that what happened to Bibi Aisha is ultimately wrong in any objective sense. This was a point that was made powerfully by Regis Nicoll in his article, 'Secular Fantasies: The Golden Rule Is Powerless Without Judeo-Christian Presuppositions' for Issue 18 of Salvo. Regis shows that atheistic attempts to achieve objective morality are built on nothing more than the sand of fantasy.


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