Science educators often speak about how viewpoints common amongst scientists, especially on important matters like Climate Change or evolution. The same is also true in moral philosophy. I would estimate that most lay people have either one of the two following views about the nature of ethics:
1 Morality is relative. Each culture invents their own rules, and it is not my place to say what’s good or bad.
2 Morality is determined by the edicts and arbitration of God
Contrary to what one might think, neither of these positions is especially popular amongst philosophers. While there is much to be said about position 2, a stance called “Divine Command Theory,” I am more interested in addressing the complications that arise from Moral Relativism, and would like to encourage people to think seriously about ethics.
Let us begin by looking at the two strongest intuitions people have in support of Moral Relativism:
1 The Argument from Disagreement. The thought goes, there are so many different cultures, different opinions, and different ideas about what is right or wrong. Individuals change their minds so much about what is good or bad or right or wrong. As such, there must not be a consistent moral system, or else we would have discovered it, or figured it out by now.
2 The Argument from Queerness. If there are universal or objective morals, what exactly are they? How would be ever discover them? If we assume a strict materialism, that the only things that exist can be explained in scientific and natural terms, then these hypothetical morals seem unlike everything else in our observable universe. They are “Queer” entities, and have no place in our ontology (the fancy way of saying “Worldview”)
What is interesting is how, in common speech, “Moral Relativism” can be used to describe two different positions. With these two arguments against A relativist might suppose that morals are real and worth talking about, but they are created and curated by each individual culture, with no moral system being “Final” or “Universal.” A more extreme take from the two arguments is to take a stance of moral nihilism. The nihilist will argue more than that there is no universal morality, but that there is no morality, period. The entire conversation is a category error. Australian Philosopher JL Mackie most concisely argued this in his position called, “Error Theory.” According to Mackie, every time somebody would say a moral statement, e.i. “It is good to give food to the homeless,” that person is making a declarative statement about a supposed fact in the world, that the act of giving food to the homeless has the property of being good. However, argues Mackie, there is no such property as “Good” or “Bad” or “Morally Necessary” in the universe, and thus, each and every moral statement is technically false. The moral rules we invent are little more than conventions to keep things running smoothly; there is no objective morality we can ever defer to. Just as how there is no phlogiston, there are no unicorns, and there is no spontaneous generation, there is no morality.
Some philosophers have suggested that moral statements are not like factual statement, but rather, are more like emotional expressions. Saying something is right or wrong expresses your endorsement or disgust with the activity, but does not actually refer to any facts in the world. The problem with this view is that moral statements seem to have the semantic features of factual statements. Take this construction:
A If is wrong to cause harm to a stranger, and
B Steve keys a stranger’s car, then
C Steve did something wrong
Some philosophers, most notably Simon Blackburn, have argued that moral language is a form of projection and endorsement that takes the form of factual-talk, even if there is no moral fact-of-the-matter. I find this position very interesting, but I suspect that there actually are objective moral facts, and we need not give up the chase just yet. So where are they?
For many religious believers, morals are the edicts of God. Some apologists even go as far to argue that one ought to believe in God, or else one would not have a moral system to work with at all. The argument that we ought to believe in God, because morality is too important of a thing not to know objectively, is somewhat challenging to take at face value, if only because this, too, will run into the same issues as the argument from disagreement. Take Christianity, is violence ever acceptable? Catholics would say yes, but Quakers would say no. Is abortion in the first trimester acceptable? Medieval Catholics and contemporary Episcopalians would say yes, but Southern Baptists would say no. Is capitalism a moral system? Christian socialists and activists would say no, but Southern Baptists would say yes. A perspective on the problem of morality might involve introducing a transcendent god who is coexistent with the Good, but I have reason to believe that deriving universal morality need not introduce that step. If anything, some figures (Kierkegaard and Schleiemacher) have argued there is something to be gained from decoupling religious observation from curt moral rule-making.
Bracketing out religion, I turn back to the intuitions for moral relativism. I see a problem with them, though. Disagreement is not a strong argument; disagreement exists in many fields, even in science. Consider the current state of nutritional science. The argument from queerness does not strike me as strong, either. If anything, it is question-begging: unlike descriptive facts, moral facts have the property of being normative, of course they are going to be different. Moreover, they are not unique, epistemological properties are normative as well, and they are unlike the other entities in the material universe.
More strongly, I have to acknowledge that very few people actually hold to a moral relativism. I have met a great number of people who hold these two beliefs concurrently:
1 Morality is relative
2 There are universal rights
If morality is truly relative, than we have no actual argument to criticize or stop FGM, footbinding, sex trafficking, animal abuse, gay conversation camps, torture, and a host of other malevolent activities in the world. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is founded on a category error, and all we have is our disgust pitted against another party’s everyday. After all, if all morality and culture is relative, why not openly disregard others’ cultures for our own supremacy? Very few people truly believe the consequences of this position, and for this reason I do not find moral relativism to be a helpful or convincing stance.
I believe that the most parsimonious and elegant moral theory will be a form of utilitarianism: actions are judged to be good or bad, or some scale of such, based on if they lead to pleasure or pain. This is the beginning axiom of such a moral theory; I believe that things like obligations, rights, virtues, duties, and so forth will build off the basic principles of utility, with each creature’s desires and needs considered equally.
I do believe that, if taken seriously, utilitarianism will end up considering things like power relations, theories of consent, the effects of colonialism and imperialism, capitalism, and other thick political issues. In fact, that is one of my greatest critiques of certain strands of leftist political thought, how socialist or anti-imperialist thinkers want to imply a moral imperative to support their cause, but reject a moral standard that might eventually be used against them if they happen to take power.
The strength of Moral Universalism is not that it grants a specific set of rules for every situation, but that it provides the oppressed with a direction and the tools to seek a better world, a better world that is more than merely their opinion among others.