Starting To See Moral Relativism As Clearly Flawed

Most people don't think much about morality, in my observation. They are given their morals from their parents, pastors, teachers, and peers, etc. They don't need to know terms like "moral relativism". I have done just fine for 41 years without ever thinking about the definition of the term.

I think even once you eschew God and the bible, unless someone challenges you, you'll still rely on your basic moral code which you got when you were younger (and probably indoctrinated). A lot of that might evolve into what "feels" like the right thing to do, more than what the bible said.

Then there are those who think about this sort of thing all the time. I'm not one of those people, normally. I don't like philosophy very much. I prefer science and testable claims to pontificating about things that can't really ever be known. But as I venture on my Quest for Knowledge, lately I've run into philosophy more often.

I've even subjected you to it, such as the whole Free Will vs Determinism argument (which I still have plans to continue).

I think we are best served with examining our ethical code and reevaluating what's in there and why. I did that some time ago with my personal Principles. It was a challenging but rewarding exercise.

Side Note: The Rationally Speaking podcast recently interviewed Joshua Knobe about his new field of Experimental Philosophy (x-phi), which was fascinating. Joshua even made them (and me) gasp with the results of one study that was very surprising! Here's a link to the episode.

The book club I'm in, as I've mentioned, is going to be reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I lost interest in our current book, so I've started in on this one and so far Sam Harris is speaking my language, that science can determine values for conscious beings.

The following excerpt from the book shows what moral relativism basically is (the woman in it is definitely a moral relativist), and why it's clearly flawed. This is an anecdotal story from Sam. But I think it's quite important to share:

Excerpt from The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris. - Highlight Location 765-83 (chapter 1)

We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and is now one of only thirteen people who will advise President Obama on “issues that may emerge from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology” in order to ensure that “scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in an ethically responsible manner.”

Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being — and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being.

She: But that’s only your opinion.

Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.


Ok, I get it. That's a great example that he's making. I don't think I was a moral relativist before I read that, but I'm definitely getting his position that science can help us with what increases or decreases human well-being. And that woman's view is disturbing, considering her position in the Obama administration.

So I just wanted to share this with you. If you decide to read the book, please feel free to comment with your take on what he's saying. I'm only on Chapter 2 so far. Don't give away the ending! :P


  1. "science can help us with what increases or decreases human well-being."

    I might point out that in my 5c such an ethical system is still relative. It's relative to human well-being being 'good', and while I agree and it may flatter our egos to think so it's not, in my opinion, a universal truth in the sense that is investigated by the natural sciences. The whole thing ties in with my belief that science may inform ethical study such as described, but it cannot tell you fundamentally what is 'good', you need to decide on the initial axioms yourself, even if it's just as simple as something like increasing human well being. I might further add that relativism does not imply normativism, just because I think all ethics are relative to certain things does. not. mean. I think all should be accepted. If you (not you particularly but the you in general) don't think something that increases human well-being (or some alternate rendering if that one ends up being problematic - cf Arrow's Impossibility Theorem) is good then I think you're a jack ass. :P

  2. Well, I don't think getting bogged down in the minutae of relative experience is really what he is trying to express in his book. But I am only on chapter 2.
    I think in the example given above, it's pretty clear that that kind of moral relativity is depraved and dangerous, and certainly reduces human well being over mindless faith.
    Science doesn't have all the answers at this time but that doesn't mean we can't still start using this system. It's certainly better than relying on 2,000 year old books written by angry desert goat herders in the Bronze Age.

  3. It's not very disturbing at all. I've never actually heard a good argument against moral relativism. You were asking the wrong questions, did you ever bother to ask what she thought was moral and her opinion?

    Just because, in the grand scheme of things, you can't declare absolutism, doesn't mean you just do nothing about anything. The most common problem I hear about moral relativism, is murder. Well, how do we declare murder wrong and convict murderers when there is no absolute right or wrong?

    Didn't we just cover this? We can, because relatively, that is our position. Is murder absolutely wrong? No. Relatively? Yes. And that is moral relativism. The question presumed moral absolutism, which is contradictory to moral relativism in the first place. Unfortunately the majority of Americans don't agree that murder is wrong in all cases, hence the support for war. Ha, I had to stick that in there.

    I'm also going to target her when she said: "She: Then you could never say that they were wrong." She was wrong (ha ha). I could always claim they are wrong, why? Because that is my relative position.

    You should apply such thought to your determinism issues as well. I believe I remember you asking how are we to judge say murders when given their situation they would always do it... Here's the problem, your question presumes free will which determinism already claims we don't have. We convict them, because it was what we were to do given our situation, just as it was in his to murder. In fact, this expected conviction, is part of the reason why the murderer murdered. If, there was no law against killing, the situation would have drastically changed. Say he was killed earlier before he had a chance to kill... or a family member was killed and he realized how much it hurt and thus never killed.

    You have to apply the philosophy fully, you can't go halfway... :D