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.

Further information:

. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , ,

Arts Week 2015: ‘Invisible’ philosopher Zambrano brought into focus

The work and legacy of Spanish philosopher and essayist, Maria Zambrano, will be explored in a two-day conference at Birkbeck, University of London, next week.

Maria Zambrano conferenceHer philosophical standpoints and impactful writing will be discussed during Birkbeck Arts Week at a conference – Maria Zambrano amongst the Philosophers: A Reconsiderationheld in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, Gordon Square, on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 May. Places at the free-to-attend conference are still available.

Zambrano (1904-1991), who was associated with the Generation of ’36 movement of artists, poets and playwrights who worked at the time of the Spanish Civil War, wrote extensively on the theme of what she called “poetic reasoning”.

Influenced by philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, Zambrano’s work often reflected on hope and the importance of the divine in human life. She was exiled from her motherland by dictator Francisco Franco during the Civil War, but eventually returned to Madrid in 1984.

While considered by many to constitute one of the most original contributions to 20th Century thought, Zambrano’s work remains largely unknown to Anglo-Saxon academia – a factor which the conference seeks to highlight.

During the conference, five panels of scholars will discuss different aspects of Zambrano’s philosophical connections to 20th Century thought. Keynote speeches opening and closing the event will be delivered by Professors Roberta Johnson (University of Kansas) and Ricardo Tejada (Université du Maine, Le Mans).

Scholars attending the event will hail from France, USA, Belgium, UK, Spain and Sweden. During the conference there will also be a book launch of Zambrano’s Complete Works in Spanish, presented by its editor.

Dr Mari Paz Balibrea Enriquez, senior lecturer in Modern Spanish Literature and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, who is coordinating the conference, said:

“This conference aims to spark interest in an intellectual who remains largely invisible to the Anglo-Saxon academia. Zambrano has a lot to offer to scholars, not only in philosophy, but in the Humanities as a whole.


“Her work speaks to a wide range of intellectual fields. She produced the kind of seminal work that can productively illuminate fields and approaches of enquiry ranging from democracy, totalitarianism, feminism, exile and diaspora or memory. And yet, her voice is oddly absent from most of those discussions as they take place in the English-speaking world.”

Maria Zambrano amongst the Philosophers: A Reconsideration runs at the Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square on Thursday, May 21, and Room GORB04 on Friday, May 22. Both days run from 8.30am to 5.15pm

The conference is part of Birkbeck Arts Week, which runs in and around Bloomsbury from Monday 18 to Saturday 23 May. To book a free place at the event, and to view the full programme of Arts events, visit



Find out more

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: ,

Birkbeck’s Big Ideas: Slavoj Žižek

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, of Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Why do we so consistently act against our best collective interests? As the deleterious effects of climate change and the ecological disaster of unsustainable neoliberal models of economic growth become undeniable, why do so many of us take refuge in an affected cynicism, pouring scorn on plutocratic elites while allowing them to continue enriching themselves at the expense of the people and the planet? Why is our response to the democratic deficit evidenced by the crisis in the Eurozone and the global financial crisis one of weary resignation and sardonic inactiveness? In other words, how do we explain human passivity in the face of overwhelming provocation to organise, protest and affect change?

11004113_10155242752270634_1031773294_nBirkbeck’s Big Ideas events consider thought-provoking issues in history, politics, literature, education and philosophy. The current series of five lectures, delivered by Birkbeck and the Whitechapel Ideas Store, explore the work of the theorist Slavoj Žižek, wrestling with some of the philosophical challenges he has thrown at us and considering how he might help us interpret and change our contemporary moment.

Žižek is a something of a superstar and a ubiquitous presence, frequently publishing books (he currently has over 50 titles to his name), penning numerous articles, giving frequent lectures and interviews, and voicing his opinions on countless aspects of modern life. He is also the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Although popular, prolific and perspicacious, Žižek is also a famously abstruse thinker, melding German philosophy, Marxist politics and French psychoanalysis to produce idiosyncratic analyses of present-day woes that can be wilfully dense, confusingly complex, blistering and enraged, ludic, larky and purposefully perverse. He is a thinker derided as much as he is admired, starkly dividing opinion with his fiercely erudite approach, his shabby prankster media persona and his forceful, contrary pronouncements.

The first lecture in the series introduced Žižek and considered how he is an important and useful thinker. After a useful biographical sketch from Dane Pedro, a PhD law student at Birkbeck, Jeff Smith-Hayzer of the Whitechapel Ideas Store, a self-proclaimed Žižek fanboy, elucidated some of the key ideas of the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’.

Žižek grew up in communist Slovenia and studied philosophy in Ljubljana and psychoanalysis in Paris. He is unfashionably Marxist, foregrounding the class struggle and deriding capitalism and its politics of consumerist passivity. Although Žižek’s theoretical concerns align him with other ‘postmodern’ thinkers, he is scornful of the idea that we exist in a ‘post-ideological’ world or that we have reached the ‘End of History’, as Francis Fukuyama famously termed it, in which liberal democracy and economics have rightly triumphed as the only effective, logical and ‘natural’ structures for governing and living. Instead, Žižek urges, we must creatively refuse political ‘realities’.

Deploying psychoanalytic frames of reference, Žižek considers how our unconscious fantasies structure reality. For Žižek, modern subjectivity and politics are characterised by a disavowal or split in which we deny or refuse to believe those things that we know. Central to Žižek’s work is a persistent questioning, an unpicking, of the assumptions that shape how we live our lives and his insistence that we traverse the fantasies that shape the Symbolic, the social world of language, ideology, relationships and the law (which Žižek, following the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, calls ‘the big Other’). For Žižek, these psychic mechanisms are appropriated and exploited by ideology and our knowing cynicism actually signifies our thrall to the big Other. The imperative we most guiltily obey these days is ‘Enjoy!’, but, for Žižek, the constrained freedom we exercise within power structures – our ‘freedom’ to choose this or that product, holiday, house – contrasts with the actual freedom to ‘choose the impossible’ and intervene to alter the status quo.

Professor Bill Bowring

Professor Bill Bowring

In the second lecture, Birkbeck’s Professor Bill Bowring considered what Žižek means when he deploys the notoriously slippery and difficult term ‘ideology’. Starting from the OED definition of ideology as a ‘system of ideas and ideals’, Bowring considered how ideology presents society and its institutions as unified, unitary, fixed, unchangeable, rational, natural and universal. We know that our politicians make terrible decisions, but we believe that, ultimately, our governing structures tend towards the good, disavowing the truth of our social reality. Bowring also considered how Žižek has modified and expanded Marx’s notion of ‘commodity fetishism’, which describes the reduction of human worth and social relationships to the level of economic and monetary value. Žižek takes commodity fetishism, by which the oppressive social relations that structure capitalism are made opaque, and aligns it with the Lacanian observation that we disavow that which we know while the fetish conceals the lack around which the Symbolic order is orientated. Bowring also explained how Žižek has taken Lacan’s observation that Marx invented the psychoanalytic notion of the symptom and made this idea central to his work. In psychoanalysis, repressed desires find alternative modes of satisfaction and emerge as symptoms, which are usually debilitating or detrimental to the individual, such as anxiety or obsessive compulsions. For Žižek, the symptom is a universal condition of human life that can never be overcome, only enjoyed, so his work focuses on uncovering those symptoms in culture and politics. This gives his work an almost limitless field of analysis and partly explains his famous intellectual profligacy.

The next lecture in the series will be on Tuesday 24 March when Maria Aristodemou, Senior Lecturer from the Birkbeck School of Law, will discuss how Žižek marshals the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan to explore how consumerism extends and exploits our unconscious fantasies.

. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , ,