Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Relativist Twist

So I guess I should start this thing with something that has been bothering me for some time. But first a little back story is necessary to set up the situation and to introduce the problem. Last night I was sitting at my favorite locally owned and operated coffee shop with some friends, having a discussion about the morallity of prostitution (like shooting fish in a barrell really). I was arguing that the immorality of prostitution lies in the fact that it is detrimental to society (not an extremely contoversial opinion). This argument led to a discussion on metaethics and what I take to be the correct moral system. My answer to this question is really irrelevant for this discussion but it should just be known that I do tend to take a pretty objective view of ethics. That is to say that I am not a relativist and that I think that there are some actions that are inherently wrong.

Needless to say, a person at a nearby table overheard what we were discussing and felt it necessary to comment on our discussion, or more accurately to attack my position and accuse me of, among other things, being a christian and being a conservative. I guess he couldn't fathom that a person could consider themselves to be a fairly liberal person and still have an objective view of morality. In fact, his opinion seemed to be that in order to be considered a liberal a person has to believe that all morality is relative and that no judgement can be made about what any person other than oneself believes to be a right action.

To me this seems to be a problematic opinion for several reasons. First, I'm pretty positive that there is no necessary connection between objective morality and either A) being a conservative or B) being religious. I was in no way making an argument from the position of a divine command theorist, which as far as I know is the only moral theory that would necessarily warrant the accusations against me. In fact I was making a pragmatic and utilitarian argument, which made no mention of god and in no way implied that I was using some form of stare decisis in deriving my argument (as was implied by the conservative accusation).

Second, it seems to me that a relative system of morality is necessarily contrary to what I take to be the tenets of contemporary liberalism (ie. interest in the well-being of all humanity, reverence for liberty, refraining from causing undue harm to other beings, etc.). People who consider themselves liberals while espousing relativism seem to have no way to rebut when confronted with a situation or behavior that seems to be opposed to these tenets. While their liberal tendencies will compel them to denounce the situation or behavior as wrong, the belief that morality is subjective and depends solely on the values of the individual performing the action makes it impossible for them to pass this judgment of wrongdoing (I understand that there are other, more sophisticated forms of relativism but this is the one that the person at the coffee shop was using). In fact, they are compelled to argue that the actor is justified in his actions because of his values. Assuming that this person is interested in alleviating contradictory beliefs then one of the two tendencies must be dropped.

Well, that's my abridged rant on relativism. If you want more then respond to the post or send me an e-mail and I will gladly debate this issue.