“Society Says” Relativism

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2006

For some, ethics is nothing more than a social contract to insure survival. Compliance is the highest good, breaking ranks the greatest evil, regardless of the issue. This may make sense on television, but it doesn’t work in the real world.

For many in the world, the moral legitimacy of a U.S. military incursion into Iraq hinged on one issue: United Nations support. For them it is clear that, all other things being equal, armed invasion would be indefensible unless a single detail changed: U.N. approval.

At the heart of this view is the conviction that morality is a result of community consensus, in this case the international community. There can be no “majority of one.” The guiding ethical principle is simple: Don’t buck the system. This is the same approach implicit in both “social contract” and postmodern views of ethics.

Many of us have seen this moral calculus before—on TV.

Star Trek Morality

“Trekkers” will recall the Prime Directive of the Federation prohibiting the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek from interfering with alien civilizations. Moral standards are set internally, by one’s culture. What’s right for one society isn’t necessarily right for another. Since morality is relative—all competing values are equally legitimate—the crew of the Enterprise was forbidden to intrude.

On this view, morality is determined by the group. Generally the relevant group is the larger cultural unit: the tribe, the linguistic community, the nation-state. In some cases, the ruling social unit can be expanded to a consortium of cultures, like the United Nations, but the basic principle is still the same: the majority rules.

Morality as Social Contract

Classical thinkers saw the apparently innate tendency of all human beings to think and act according to moral categories (what Francis Schaeffer called “moral motions”) as evidence for God.

Others disagreed. To them, morality represented nothing more than a social contract. As 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbs famously put it, life in an unregulated state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to avoid such a fate, humans consent to live by a set of rules called morality.

This “Star Trek morality,” otherwise known as conventionalism, teaches that each society survives because of consensual moral arrangements each individual is obliged to honor. Morality is relative to culture, determined by popular consensus, expressed through laws and customs. Each person (or each country in the case of an international “community” like the U.N.) fulfills his end of the contract by keeping the code of the group.

No Immoral “Aliens”

Star Trek morality has serious problems in any of its applications. First of all, since each society is “alien” to another, no society could be judged immoral by another’s standards, no matter how bizarre or morally repugnant they may seem.

The torture of prisoners by military regimes, the injustice of totalitarian governments, and the apartheid of racist administrations would all be outside the reach of moral assessment on this view. One might counter that these policies, in many cases, are not the will of the people, but only of those in power. This rebuttal, though, fails twice.

First, why should one accept that the population at large is the relevant “society” determining morality, instead of those who have the power to rule? If one has an obligation to obey society, then which society does one obey? This ambiguity is a weakness of conventionalism.

Culture is complex, with many overlapping internal “societies” making claims on us. Behavior acceptable at the gym in the morning is considered gauche at a dinner party later that evening. The moral convictions of one’s religious community may be at odds with the demands of his business community. Which group is primary? Culture is not homogeneous, making it impossible for it to define a common standard of behavior.

Second, the rejoinder also misses the point. Maybe such injustices don’t always represent the will of the people, but what if they did? The kangaroo courts of the French Revolution had popular support. So did the Third Reich, to a great degree. Do we grant French anarchists and German Nazis moral justification on this basis?

Nazis at Nuremburg

Indeed, the Nazis essentially used the Star Trek defense at Nuremberg. Advancing a notion called legal positivism, the German leadership claimed that the International Military Tribunal had no moral legitimacy to preside over the trials.

In The Law above the Law, John Warwick Montgomery describes their argument:

The most telling defense offered by the accused was that they had simply followed orders or made decisions within the framework of their own legal system, in complete consistency with it, and that they therefore ought not rightly be condemned because they deviated from the alien value system of their conquerors1 [emphasis added].

The Tribunal didn’t accept this justification. In the words of Robert H. Jackson, chief counsel for the United States at the trials, the issue was not one of power—the victor judging the vanquished—but one of higher moral law. “[The Tribunal] rises above the provincial and transient,” he said, “and seeks guidance not only from International Law, but also from the basic principles of jurisprudence which are assumptions of civilization...”2

The first serious problem with the social contract view is that it violates our deepest moral intuitions, the foundational “assumptions of civilization.” Some things seem wrong regardless of what “society” says, including plundering innocent Jews, pressing them into forced labor, and exterminating them. If the Star Trek view is sound, then governmentally sponsored genocide can only be silently observed. If there is no law above society, then society cannot be judged.

No Immoral Laws

This leads to the second problem with Star Trek morality: There can be no such thing as an immoral law. If society is the final measure of morality, then all its judgments are moral by definition.

An attorney once called Stand to Reason’s radio talk show with this challenge. “When are you going to accept the fact that abortion on demand is the law of the land?” she asked. “You may not like it, but it’s the law.”

Her point was simple. The Supreme Court had spoken, so there is nothing left to discuss. Since there is no higher law, there are no further grounds for appeal. End of issue. This lawyer’s tacit acceptance of conventionalism suffered because it confused what is right with what is legal.

When reflecting on any law, it seems sensible to ask, “It may be legal, but is it right? It’s the law, but is the law good? Is it just?” If these are proper questions, then there appears to be a difference between what a person has a liberty to do under the law and what a person should do according to sound moral judgment. Conventionalism renders this distinction meaningless. There is no majority of one to take the moral high ground. As ethicist Louis Pojman puts it, “Truth is with the crowd and error with the individual.”3

When any human court—even a de facto court like the United Nations—is the highest authority, then morality is reduced to mere power, either the power of the government or the power of the majority. If the courts and the laws define what is moral, then neither laws nor governments can ever be immoral, even in principle. Compliance is the highest good, breaking ranks the greatest evil, regardless of the issue.

No Room for Improvement

Another absurd consequence follows from the social contract view. Not only is it impossible to criticize society from without; it can’t even be opposed from within. Star Trek morality makes it impossible to morally reform a society from either direction.

This view requires not only that outsiders remain morally mute in the face of things like the Holocaust of the Third Reich, but that even Germans within the Reich would have been wrong for resisting. Instead, they had a moral obligation to participate in the murder of innocent people. That’s part of the contract. All those under the authority of the Third Reich—their ruling society—would have been morally bound to cooperate in genocide.

There are actually two problems here. The first is called the Reformer’s Dilemma.

Moral reformers typically judge society from the inside. They challenge their culture’s standard of behavior and then campaign for change. If morality is defined as the present society’s standard, though, then challenging that standard would be an act of immorality by definition. Social reformers would not be moral after all, but rather moral outcasts precisely because they opposed the status quo.

Corrie Ten Boom and other “Righteous Gentiles” risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. William Wilberforce sought the abolition of slavery in the late 18th century in the United Kingdom. In the ’60s, Martin Luther King fought for civil rights in the United States. In Germany, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenged Christians to oppose Hitler.

We count these people as moral heroes precisely because they had the courage to fight for reform. According to Star Trek morality, however, they are the worst kind of moral criminals because they challenged the moral consensus of their own society.

Moral Nonsense

Star Trek morality faces another difficulty with moral improvement. It makes the whole concept incoherent. If a society’s laws and cultural values are the ultimate standards of behavior, then the notion of improving those laws or values is nonsense. A social code can never be improved; it can only be changed.

Think of what it means to improve something. It means to increase in excellence by raising to a better quality or condition. How would one know if he’d increased the quality of something? Only by noting that some change has brought it closer to an external ideal.

A bowler improves when he raises his average closer to 300, the perfect game. A baseball pitcher shows his increased skill by the decreasing number of batters he allows on base. If he strikes out every batter, he’s attained perfection. In either case, an outside standard is used as the measure of improvement.

What would it mean to improve a society’s moral code? It can only mean that the society would have to change its laws and values to more closely approximate genuine goodness. If no objective good exists, if the social contract is itself the highest possible law, then there is no way to improve the quality of the contract.

A society can abolish apartheid in favor of equality. It can adopt policies of habeas corpus protecting citizens against unjustified imprisonment, or guarantee freedom of speech and of the press. No one could ever claim, though, that these are moral improvements. All that can be said is that society changed its tastes.

With Star Trek morality, the society’s standard is the ultimate. There is no objective ethical ideal to emulate. Moral change is possible, but not moral improvement. Improvement means getting better, and there’s nothing better—on this view—than any society’s current assessment of morality.

Selfless Is Selfish

There’s a final twist in the social contract view of morality. If moral rules can somehow be reduced to a personal survival code, then ethics is ultimately self-centered. This seems to turn morality on its head: The moral rule to be selfless only has legitimacy if it accomplishes a selfish end. Selflessness has now become selfishness.

If morality is simply self-interest in disguise, then as long as I ensure my self-interest—personal survival—all my conduct would be “moral.” I could still rape, murder, and steal as long as I get away with it. A dictator at the top of the pecking order of power could do as he pleases—including purging his country of millions of undesirables—with no moral ramifications.

I’ve heard two ways of responding to this charge. The first is that this works only if one doesn’t get caught. True enough and precisely my point. Such actions are only undesirable if one gets caught. Genocide is only suspect because it endangers my personal safety (I might get caught), not because the behavior itself is despicable.

The second response is that since living this way breaks the contract, it’s not a fair criticism of the contractual system itself.

Normally that would be a reasonable defense, but not in this case. Here the flaw is in the contract itself because it has no grounds for enforcement. On what basis does one find fault with the renegade? He broke the contract. But what obligates him to keep the agreement? Star Trek morality only works if one must keep her end of the bargain in the first place as an extra-contractual obligation.

One can’t demand she live “morally”—according to the contract—without smuggling morality in the back door to begin with. Such moral obligations can’t be explained by the contract because they are prior to it. Ethics can’t be explained by culture because it’s a moral rule that applies to culture.

Star Trek morality might sound plausible in a TV script, but real life is more complex. This view of ethics rules out the possibility of moral critique of any culture from without or within, reduces morality to power, and makes nonsense of the idea of moral improvement. It also leaves individual nations beholden to the collective will of morally misguided governments and brutal regimes.

The social contract view may explain some behavior and even some social institutions. However, it can’t explain the human moral enterprise because some ethical principles must be in place (e.g., “people ought to honor their contractual agreements”) before any contract has force.

Ethical theory aside, a simple reflection is sufficient to show that the social contract view simply rings false. When someone cuts in line and you object by saying, “You shouldn’t do that,” what do you mean? Is your meaning, “Your action encourages others to cut in line in the future. It’s therefore in your own self-interest to play by the rules”? Of course not. You mean the opposite: Line-cutting is wrong precisely because it promotes self-interest over fairness.

Sometimes we are compelled to rise above the “provincial and transient” and interfere in the affairs of other cultures or ignore the consensus of the international community. That’s why even Captain Kirk ignored the Prime Directive so often. It wasn’t just good TV. It was good moral thinking.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Gregory Koukl’s book, Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, co-authored with Francis Beckwith (Baker). It’s available through Stand to Reason.