Is morality relative?

This article was written by Dr Michael Garnett, from Birkbeck’s Department of Philosophy. The article is taken from the introduction to a study guide on moral relativism, written by Dr Garnett and Professor Lillehammer, ahead of the conference and essay competition on the question ‘Is morality relative?’, which will take place on 28 June 2017.

platoI used to be a moral relativist—I used to think that moral judgements could be true or false only relative to a culture. Not just that: I used to think that moral relativism was obviously true. I struggled to understand how anyone could not be a moral relativist. Denying moral relativism, I thought, meant thinking that you were in possession of the one, true, universal, objective morality—and who could be so arrogant as to think they had that? I mean, maybe if you were religious you might think you had that. But even then, there are many different religions, and religious teachings require interpretation; and so who could be so arrogant as to think that they, out of everyone in the world, had hit on the one true interpretation of the one true religion?

My mother is a social anthropologist, someone whose job it is to study different cultures, and growing up I was keenly aware of the huge differences in moral ideas and outlooks between different human societies. As a kid I’d sit through dinner parties listening to my mum and her anthropology friends swapping stories about the distant peoples with whom they’d lived: the things they’d had to eat (live grasshoppers and stewed goat’s placenta were particular standouts), the different kinds of family structures they’d been welcomed into, and the different ideas about ethics and the cosmos that they’d learned about. For as long as I can remember, then, I’ve known that the ideas I happen to have about things like property, marriage, suicide, homicide, incest, cannibalism, the natural world, and so on, are mostly just local to me and to my little corner of the world.

So how could I not have been a relativist? Perhaps I could have believed in a universal, objective morality if I’d been ignorant of the extent of these cultural differences—if I’d somehow thought that everyone in the world shared more or less the same moral ideas as me and the other white, middle-class Londoners in my neighbourhood. But I wasn’t ignorant: I had a front row seat at the theatre of human cultural diversity. So to believe in a single true morality I would have had to believe, arrogantly, that somehow I (along with the rest of my ‘tribe’) had some special access to the moral truth, a special access denied to everyone else on the face of the planet. What could possibly justify this? After all, it’s simply an accident of birth that I grew up to have the moral ideas that I have. Had I instead grown up on a Fijian island, or deep in the Amazon basin, or in rural China, I would have had an utterly different moral outlook. Clearly, I had no better claim to the moral truth than anyone else. And that’s why I thought moral relativism was obviously true.

But I’m not a moral relativist anymore. So what happened? What happened is I studied philosophy. Philosophy showed me that I was muddled about what exactly did and didn’t follow from these facts about cultural diversity and disagreement, and it helped me to see everything more clearly. I eventually came to understand that, of the various things I thought about this topic, some of them were correct, but weren’t moral relativism; and some of them were moral relativism, but weren’t correct.

It took me a few years to get this all straightened out in my head. I’ve written a short Study Guide to pass some of this on; this is the essay that I wish I’d been able to read after sitting through those anthropology dinners, my head spinning vertiginously at exotic tales of cultural difference. And at our conference on 28 June, some of my esteemed colleagues will share their own perspectives on the topic of relativism. We very much hope to see you there.

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