Moral Relativism

This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant.

Question from Steven:
I have been debating morality with a theist, and I was a little unclear about moral relativism and the implications of the law.

1. Does a moral relativist have to be an anarchist?
2. How can relativists agree upon any set of laws?
This is specifically in reference to Dawkins wanting the pope put in prison, and my friend is arguing that as a relativist you can’t judge a child rapist.

Thanks for the help.

This will become a reference point for similar questions, as this comes up a lot these days.

Firstly, this has no bearing on your discussion of the Pope and the Catholic Church, because child rape is wrong according to the tenets of the Church itself. Even if non-believers couldn’t judge the rapists and all accessories, the Church must do or be proven hypocritical. And now that’s out of the way.

Now to answer your questions directly:
1. No, relative (non-absolute) morals are still morals and still have worth and can still be supported. Same with laws, so anarchy is not necessary.
2. Relativists can and do agree on laws by examining their relative merit and picking what appear to be the best ones.

Moral relativism, in the sense your theist means, is the opposite of moral absolutism. Your theist thinks that God has set certain moral absolutes for us, which are supported by His divine authority, and without these no moral judgement can be supported – even the judgement that child rape is bad and should be punished.

Without being assured of the existence of a particular god as described in some religion, there’s no way to know what the universe’s absolute morals are, if any. This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant. In their place, we use very similar moral codes – most codes condemn murder and dishonesty, value generosity and compassion and so forth – but we support them with things besides gods: history, the law, basic human empathy, the reasoning of philosophers (including some religious ones), abstract principles like reciprocity and the minimisation of harm and so on.

According to any of the above, to take your instance, child rape is wrong and immoral, the perpetrators deserve punishment and the victims deserve protection and/or compensation. You can reason from first principles that this is the case, for example…
– via the law: child rape is explicitly outlawed nearly everywhere.
– via harm minimisation: child rape harms the child for no good reason.
– via human empathy: you wouldn’t want to feel what the child feels while being raped.
Therefore, especially when you use several approaches, you have an objective and literally reasonable basis for your moral judgements.

The issue is that any of these objective but non-absolute bases can be challenged and judgements dismissed, whereas the divine authority of hypothetical moral absolutes cannot be trumped. This is true, and as a moral relativist (again, anyone who isn’t a moral absolutist) one must be prepared to defend one’s morality when challenged. The important thing is that one can defend oneself with logic, precedent and documentation.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, defend only one thing: the existence of moral absolutes. If they can establish that, their righteousness in this matter is assured, but they have not and possibly cannot. (For more information, see my discussion of recent attempts.)

Ultimately, we must all choose on what to base our morality: on a combination of the flawed but sturdy and obviously real systems available to us on this planet (which usually work together very well), or on a supposedly perfect and all-encompassing moral code which may not even be there.


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