Sunday, January 16, 2011

Moral relativism

From my last post, I laid out a brief description of postmodernism, as I understand it.  One of the outworkings of postmodernism is this view called moral relativism, which essentially says that no one has a privileged view of morality.  You should do what feels right to you, and that's what's right.

Well, that's clearly not true.   If it were, then what I think is right and what might feel good to me is to go on a shooting spree (as has been done recently and several times in the last couple of decades).  I don't think anyone would agree that the people who committed these terrible acts were well within their moral right.  So, that alone is easy to defeat.

But some would say that you can do whatever feels right to you, as long as you're not hurting others or impinging on their freedom.  OK, that's fine, but the questions I have then are, how do we know (1) what freedom is or what hurting someone else is, and (2) that upholding others' freedom and not hurting them are "good" things?  Those two points might be confusing, so I'll elaborate a bit further.  I'll talk about freedom first because I think it's easier.

In order to make a claim like "you can do whatever you feel is right as long as you don't impinge on someone else's freedom" (note italics), you have to have some absolute standard that tells you what freedom is and why you shouldn't take it away from someone.  Because how can you recognize that someone's freedom has been violated without knowing, inherently and subconsciously and conscience-ly, that such an abstract thing as "freedom" exists?  But most of us understand (or at least think we understand) what freedom is, even if we don't know where it comes from.  But even so, how do we know that freedom should be something that is good?  Maybe we can define freedom without an absolute standard (and that's a big maybe).  But what gives us the right to say that you shouldn't take it away from someone?  Do you see what I'm saying?  The very moral claim that says, "you can do whatever you want except take away someone else's freedom" is making an absolute moral claim regarding taking away someone else's freedom.  So even then, there are moral absolutes.

Here's another.  Justice.  Everyone longs for justice in their heart.  If your little sister got raped, there would be something burning within you, saying the person responsible must be punished.  But why?  If everything's relative, then how can you judge someone else's actions?  Well, most people would answer that the criminal hurt your little sister (to put it lightly).  And that's why there should be justice.  But there we have it again.  Where do we get this abstract standard of justice if no such absolute standard exists?  And even if we did somehow know what justice was, what standard of goodness is telling us that justice ought to be upheld?

Let's take it a step further.  Let's say the rapist went on trial for his actions and was jailed.  Then he could claim that the people jailing him were taking away his freedom, something they should not be allowed to do.  But you could answer, "that's what you get for hurting someone else."  That's justice.  But again, if everything's relative (with the exception being, for this example, that you can't take away someone's freedom), on what moral grounds can you stand while insisting justice be served?  If you have no moral grounds for justice (as the moral relativists say), then the rapist, as he is being jailed, could rightly say that his jailers should then be then jailed because they were taking away his freedom and thus deserve punishment as well.  But then the jailers of the jailers should be jailed, etc.

OK, so that seems absurd, but don't miss my point: if you follow moral relativism to its logical conclusion, then you end up somewhere absurd.  In other words, no one, not even the most die-hard moral relativist, really lives as if everything were relative.  We only appeal to it when it's convenient for us.  We only go to it when we want to justify our actions.  When it comes right down to it, search your heart of hearts: there must be a standard.  I can't even speak of these examples without inherently appealing to a standard.  Everywhere in this post where I said, "should" and "must be" and "ought," I am using the language of moral absolutes.  You can't even talk about these things without borrowing the capital of moral absolutism.

Ok, but then what about hurting someone?  Surely you can say that you shouldn't hurt someone, even in a relativistic world, right?  More on this later.