It might be that, given the nature of the world, all we are left with when it comes to ethics are human conventions. But if that’s the case, then an intellectually honest relativist will have to admit that, given his view of the world, ultimately, anything goes.
Recently I’ve run into a challenge to my own challenge of moral relativism (Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, Baker). The rejoinder is clever, but misleading. I want to give you my response so you will be ready if you encounter the same objection.
First a quick review.
Moral relativism is the view that ideas of right and wrong are more like ice cream than insulin. Saying certain conduct is wrong is like saying vanilla tastes bad. The statement only tells you what individual people like. It says nothing about the action itself. There can be as many moral “truths,” then, as there are people who believe them.
Consequently, moral relativism is a kind of subjectivism. When it comes to moral rules—principles of right and wrong—it’s up to the subject, the individual, to decide because there are no true, universal, ethical obligations or moral principles that apply equally to all people.
Note, by the way, that the “subject” can be an individual person or an individual culture. Most relativism today is the latter sort. Right and wrong are socially constructed by the group. However, since no universal standard exists to govern all groups, each decides right and wrong only for itself without judging those that hold other values.
Even with this brief description, I think you can see a problem beginning to emerge. A relativist is not going to be able to get any traction if he wants to condemn (in any ultimate sense) any behavior, regardless how evil it seems to be. In the final analysis, as with ice cream, one action is just as “good” as the other. There is no ultimate right or wrong, evil or good, virtue or vice. Anything goes.
Since this is the relativist’s fatal weakness, I’m not surprised when I get pushback on this point. “No relativist believes that anything goes,” I’ve been told. “You’re twisting our view. Every culture has its own framework of right and wrong. Even if there are no universal standards of morality, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all within a given group.”
Fair enough. Let me answer this charge with a simple illustration.
Let us pretend that you want to play the classic board game, Monopoly. Like every other game, Monopoly has rules. There are standards, a framework of right or wrong of sorts that works within the Monopoly “community.” According to the rules of the game, for example, you cannot have houses and hotels on the same piece of property. That would be wrong. Parker Brothers, the inventors of the game, said so.
Relativism is like Monopoly. In one sense, it’s not the case that “anything goes.” Rather, standards set by the community (Parker Brothers, in this case) govern behavior.
These laws are “true,” though, in an entirely different way than, say, the laws of gravity are true. They are not true because of the way the world is structured, but because of the way human beings (subjects) have arranged the game. If you don’t like the rules, you can change them (variations that are sometimes called “house rules”), or play a different game, or play no game at all. It’s completely up to you.
You can’t do that with gravity. If you don’t like the laws of physics, too bad. Adapt or die. Reality will punish you if you don’t take it seriously.
Yes, even in relativistic systems you can get punished by the group if you break the rules and get caught. But I think you can see this is a contrived sort of “punishment” based merely on human conventions (“Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.”), not on transcendent standards.
In the end, as I said, anything goes. That’s always the case with relativism.
If you are a moral realist (objectivist), you think moral rules are real things, not individual whims or social conventions created by culture. They are like gravity, not Monopoly. If you are a relativist, you are playing Monopoly with right and wrong.
Of course, this would not make relativism false. It might be that, given the nature of the world, all we are left with when it comes to ethics are human conventions. But if that’s the case, then an intellectually honest relativist will have to admit that, given his view of the world, ultimately, anything goes.