| NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY | PHILOSOPHY
OF LIFE |
|Philosophy 102: Introduction of Philosophical
W. T. Stace, "Ethics Aren't Relative"
Abstract: Ethical absolutism and ethical relativism are characterized, and the inadequacies of ethical relativism are argued.
Ethical absolutism is the doctrine that there is only one eternally true and valid moral code which applies to everyone, all places, and all times. This universal moral standard is true whether or not you and I are aware of it.
E.g., we can draw the analogy with epistemological absolutism: just after an automobile accident, your passenger has said, "Well, it was clear on the right for me." The way cannot have been clear for him but not clear for you.
A problem of moral concern is one that has the potential to help or harm people (including yourself). Such potentialities are verifiable in principle.
Ethical absolutism is historically the result of the Judeo-Christian tradition, among others. Morality is seen as issuing from God's commands and is not relative to time or circumstance.
In philosophy, however, we want to try to base our beliefs on reasons, insofar as possible without transcendental presuppositions like God's existence. That is, it might be easier to prove ethical absolutism true than it would be to prove God's existence and then show that ethical absolutism would result. Moreover, of course, different persons have different religions, so relying on our religious beliefs would only convince those who agreed with us.
A platitude is a truism, a commonplace remark, or a tautology. For example, if you follow the prescription, "Do what you think is right," then anything could be done, if you think it right, whether or not it is in fact right. Or, for example, "Do your best." Isn't what we do always our best, given the circumstances?
Ethical relativism is simply the denial of ethical absolutism. More precisely, ethical relativism denies that there is a single moral standard, which applies to all people, all times, and all places.
The genetic basis of ethical relativism is usually something like sociological relativism, the belief that there are many moral laws and these laws are relative to the place, times, and circumstances of a people. Both sides agree to the truth of sociological relativism because it is descriptively true. The crucial question is whether or not it ought to be true.
Ethical relativism is not a platitude because the relativist is committed to the belief that one action that is right in one group is wrong in another group. (The relativist is not just saying that the action is considered right and wrong.)
It is obvious that moral ideas differ from country to country and period to period. But this fact does not imply that there is not any universal moral standard. The fact does imply, however, if there is a universal moral standard then it is not followed in different cultures. (If we thought sociological relativism implies the lack of the possibility of a universal moral standard, we would be committing the ad ignorantiam fallacy, as we will later see.)
Four points of difference are as follows.
The relativist argues that there is nothing that has always and everywhere been regarded as morally good by all persons. Therefore, an absolute moral standard does not exist. The argument is of the form ...
This argument commits the ad ignorantiam fallacy. From the fact that we have no proof for something, nothing logically follows. Consider the following arguments.
As Stace points out, simply because people have disagreed about the shape of the earth, it doesn't follow the earth doesn't have a shape.
The argument is that no one has ever been able to discover where a universally binding code could come from.
Religion as a common ground can no longer be appealed to; consequently, it would appear that we would have to fall back to ethical relativity.
Stace's argument shows that if relativism is true, there can be no ethics at all. See question 8.
First, the Argument from Different Ideals:
Since we habitually compare one civilization with another and judge one better than the other, the judgments can only have meaning if there is a common external moral standard which can be applied.
Since the relativist denies that there can be such a standard, the relativist cannot compare civilizations. For example, if we compare Nazi Germany with Switzerland and judge one better than the other, the basis of our judgment is the external moral standard.
Second, the Argument from Moral Progress:
If ethical relativity were true, there could be no progress from one age of a country's history to another, for, again, there would have to be a common standard by which they are measured. For there to be progress, there would have to be a common external moral standard by which to judge.
For example, if we compare the U.S. in the 1840's with the U.S. today, we would judge the latter better and say that there has been moral progress because of the standards, which include the rights of minorities.
By the argument from the difficulty of defining moral groups, the relativist would have to follow different moral rules according to the different social groups. For example, suppose person N is a member of a church, a partygoer, a family member, a student, and so forth. Consider the moral awkwardness of the relativist (N) when encountering of a group composed of one member from each of the above groups. In Socrates' words, it would be most difficult to tend your own soul.
The relativist argues, since no one knows what right is, there is no "right" in an absolute sense. This argument is similar to arguing that since no one can precisely define the word "dog," there are no dogs. (Consider the fact that not all dogs have four legs, bark, have hair, and so on.)
Ethical Relativism Discussion between Boston University Academy and the
Edmund Burke School
Check your understanding with this sample test section on Stace.