As most of my veteran readers are probably aware (and all of my new readers should know,) I’m a product of the political Left. However, I am more than willing to stand by the political Right on the handful of issues on which I agree with them. For this reason, I feel it is my responsibility and obligation to attack an ideology that too much of the Left has embraced and that most of the Right, especially the religious Right, despises: moral relativism.
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, moral relativism can be defined as, “…the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint…and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.” In other words, moral relativists believe that the context behind actions, and not the actions themselves, determine their morality. In essence, while a moral absolutist could say that it is never acceptable to steal under any circumstances, a moral relativist could argue that stealing a loaf of bread to feed an impoverished family would be a moral act.
While I can see moral relativists’ points in many cases, it is also my view that the context behind actions which they use to determine morality is not a reflection of an action’s morality, but rather its necessity. Whether we like it or not, the world does not operate in a moral fashion. In every sedentary society in the world, some portion of the population is marginalized in some way. Similarly, the Soviet Union’s 1991 implosion proved that communism, despite being a morally superior ideology to capitalism in theory, is unworkable in reality. It is therefore safe to assume that despite our immense intelligence as a species, it is highly anthropocentric to say humans are a benevolent species and are anything more than apes.
Because the world is inherently immoral, people sometimes must do bad things in order to achieve good goals. For instance, the firebombing of German cities by American and British forces during World War Two was necessary to save Western European democracy from the dual evils of Nazism and Stalinism. As horrific as the bombings were for those who suffered most from them, their necessity to defeat Nazi Germany and undermine the Soviet Union’s geopolitical influence in Europe makes them necessary, understandable and perhaps even excusable, but still not moral.
Going hand-in-hand with moral relativism is its anthropological cousin known as cultural relativism. Cultural relativism teaches that one’s behavior must be understood in the context of their cultural background. While cultural relativism has value when it comes to such things as material and political cultures (the latter always having at least some degree of immorality,) it can be just as self-serving as moral relativism, and used to justify such historic and contemporary acts of barbarism as foot binding in China, sati in India, cannibalism in Papua New Guinea, female genital mutilation in Egypt, and human sacrifice in pre-Hispanic Mexico. While this school of thought originally was intended to serve as a non-ethnocentric alternative to an anthropology field that had long been dominated by imperialists, it can be argued to be just as racist, if not more so. According to Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-British human rights activist:
[Cultural relativism] is a profoundly racist phenomenon, which values and respects all cultural and religious practices, irrespective of their consequences…It asserts that the rights of people, women and girls are relative to where they are born, “their” cultures and religions. There is no right or wrong according to cultural relativists. As a result, cultural relativism supports and maintains sexual apartheid and violence against women…because it is “their culture and religion.”…
Cultural relativism doesn’t merely ignore violations ; it actually legitimizes them. Moreover, it never opposes any cultural or religious practices. Cultural relativism not only makes it unnecessary to oppose violations and lack of women’s rights, but also makes it racist and against freedom of choice to do so!
By pointing out that cultural relativism is too often used to to hold people to a lower moral standard, because of their religion or culture, Ms. Namazie demonstrates that cultural relativism can be seen as a smug, ivory tower form of racism little better, if at all better, than the pro-imperialist anthropological currents it was created to combat.
Namazie’s argument against cultural and moral relativism is further validated when one considers that in order to believe in these ideologies, one must hold different people to different moral standards or deny the existence of moral standards altogether. Such attitudes undermine the ability of law and order to prevail in a society, which while not always moral, are necessary for its survival. Furthermore, any legal system that officially holds different people to different moral standards will inevitably be ridiculously byzantine and unworkable. For these reasons, moral relativists should learn that morality and necessity are not the same thing, the world is inherently an evil place, excusing one’s bad behavior on the basis of their culture or religion is bigoted, and that no matter what we do, human societies will never be perfectly just and moral.