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The False Problem of "Moral Relativism"

On the bus to work last week I encountered a transit advertisement, paid for by some vague religious group, that read "There is no absolute truth… absolutely?"  Being an advertisement aimed at university students who are presumably indoctrinated by what is taken to be an intrinsic secular doctrine of moral relativism––supposedly prevalent in post-secondary education––it was designed to demonstrate the inherent logical contradiction of this position.  By pointing out the cognitive dissonance that results from this position, I would assume that the people behind this advertisement were hoping to win university students to some religious doctrine of moral absolutism.

The subway advertisement in question.  And despite the appropriation Hebrew, In Search of Shalom is a fundamentalist Christian campaign.

The problem, however, is that both the advertisement's worry and its slogan demonstrate a general ignorance about the supposed prevalence and contradictory nature of moral relativism in universities.  Simply google "moral relativism"––you'll find that, aside from the predictable wikipedia link that explains what this concept means, every significant site that appears on the search have little to do with actual moral relativists.  Rather, these are sites run by religious fundamentalists who are operating under the assumption that there is some sort of secular moral relativist conspiracy out there; they spend all their time designing websites and apologetics to combat this plague when it doesn't seem to be very threatening.  So what is prevalent is the religious fear of moral relativism, not moral relativism in and of itself.

Moreover, the advertisement's witty slogan about an absolute truth claim that rejects absolutes is neither original nor impressive.  On most of the aforementioned sites regarding the evils of moral relativism you can find the same argument, which is always presented as if it is a unique revelation that nobody has thought of before––especially not those moral relativist conspirators!  Here we can encounter supposedly true stories about some religious student who, upon encountering an [unnamed] authoritative academic who states that there are no moral absolutes, puts them in their place––even driving them to fanatical anger––by cleverly adding "absolutely."  Thank the good lord for bargain basement formal logic!

Of course, anyone who has even an inkling of how logic functions would know that the statement "there are no moral absolutes", which is the implicit meaning of the slogan, is not logically contradicted by the counter-claim that this is an absolute statement.  (This slogan is not problematizing the irrational position that someone would actually say and believe there is no such thing as truth in general: the fact that the door to the room you are in, if it has a door, is opened or closed is a truth that is not relative; the fact that the universe possesses an even number of stars is either true or false and cannot be both.  When this slogan is used, then, it is speaking of moral truth and not truth in a more general sense.)  As Mackie has demonstrated, a claim about the non-existence of moral absolutes is not an absolute claim about the non-existence of absolute truth.  The latter would indeed be logically absurd because it would mean presuming that there are no such things as facts so that I cannot even make a truth-claim as banal as "the door is closed."  Hence, the claim that there are no such things as moral absolutes, since it is an ontological and not an ethical claim (that is, I am making a metaphysical statement about morality, not a moral statement about morality), is not contradictory––to make it so is a category mistake.

Even still, despite the fact that the moral relativist is not a walking logical contradiction, the problem of moral relativism is not very much of a problem.  Hell, the average textbook on critical thinking will warn against the pitfalls of moral relativism, even after recognizing that is not as contradictory as relativism in general, due to its ethical implications.  Indeed, the critical thinking textbook I'm using in a class I'm teaching this semester is extremely careful in warning students away from this position, claiming that it is the result of lazy thinking.  Most often, those who are most invested in the idea of moral relativism (either cultural or individual relativism) are first year philosophy students who, after having read a few passages by Nietzsche, are trying to be "edgy" and controversial.  In my experience, philosophy teachers usually try to problematize this facile position, though with some level of nuance, which is why I am always suspicious of those religious people who claim they encountered philosophy teachers who were staunch moral relativists, let alone that they tripped them up with the above-mentioned category mistake of absolute-absolutely.

So if these evil moral relativists are supposed to be hiding in secular philosophy departments, why is it that the average philosophy textbook about critical thinking is critical about this position?  Rhetorical answer to a rhetorical question: because it is a problem invented by religious fundamentalists who are suspicious of secular education and, due to this suspicion, see any and all moral challenges to a fundamentalist moral absolutism as "moral relativism"––in fact, it may make sense to treat this discourse of moral relativism as a complex straw-person fallacy raised against secular approaches to ethics and morality.  If it's not dogmatically absolutist than it is moral relativism!  Moral relativism abounds!  Moral relativism is logically incoherent!

Most likely this fear of moral relativism is due to the religious absolutist's misapprehension of postmodernism––which they're still inaccurately railing about despite the fact that postmodernism has come and gone (though still influential) in the secular university they so despise.  But it is hard to find an honest treatment of postmodernism in these invectives against the conspiracy of moral relativism; most often we find a simple-minded definition of postmodernism as moral relativism and then a focus on the contradictions surrounding a rejection of absolute truth.  But what postmodernism questioned, rightly or wrongly, was the category of absolute truth that was applied to ethics, politics, structures, and institutions.  The complaint was that claims to absolute truth produced totalizing narratives that obliterated minoritarian counter-narratives: by claiming that your moral position possesses the ontological status of an absolute truth, and thus making the social akin to a law of nature, you were confusing an instance of seizing power with an instance of truth in-itself.

Despite the problem that such an analysis tends to produce its own contradictions of totalization (i.e. this is also a totalizing ontological judgement), it still teaches us something about the problem of moral absolutism by operating on a more sophisticated level than the one targeted by those terrified by moral relativism.  More precisely, it is concerned with the distinction between universality and particularity and is generally troubled by the possibility of asserting universal moral/political claims.  Even still, if we were to readapt these religious complaints about moral relativism to the problematic of the universal and the particular we would still discover that they are behind the times: notable representatives of so-called "postmodernism" are now recognizing the importance of conceptualizing a terrain of universality––Judith Butler, for example, has recently admitted that it was necessary to conceptualize such a terrain in the interest of political and ethical action.

But let us return to what might actually trouble those organizations and individuals who are so concerned with the prevalence of moral relativism: a conception of ethics that rejects their understanding of "absolute morality" while refusing to devolve into an "anything goes" moral relativism.  Such a position is not new: Engels explained that this was the heart of a communist ethics when, in Anti-Duhring, he argued that morality was classed––and he did not, for all that, fall into the trap of moral relativism because, despite this argument, he was also arguing on the absolute necessity of a proletarian ethics and the absolute fact that history (the motor of which is class struggle) conditions and reveals moral positions.

But the moral absolutism of the dogmatist is one that refuses to recognize that class conflict has anything to do with a morality which is unchangeable and unmediated by history, and it is moral relativism to suggest otherwise.  Never mind the fact that such absolutism is plagued by the same relativism even though it will never admit to such a thing: why is it that the moral absolutes of the ethical order of slavery upheld the institution as an absolute good dictated by God?  The only answer to this quandary is to claim that the faithful misunderstood God's absolute laws at the time… And yet we are forced to ask how and why they misunderstood these laws: because of social-historical circumstances that conditioned them––and thus even the immutable laws of God can only be comprehended through a process that the moral absolutist would probably treat as absolutely relative, unaware that hir own absolutism has been affected and developed by the so-called "relativism" s/he despises.  Although many liberation theologians got this point (thanks to the synthesis of their religious conviction with historical materialism), the majority of religious absolutists still refuse to recognize that this was the case… And this is probably why these staunch opponents of moral relativism (that they themselves continue to conjure into existence) do indeed cling to moral "absolutes" that are as absolute as failed scientific theories no longer treated as true––these knights of absolutism are the same people who defend six-day creationism, patriarchy, racism, and everything we should understand as "absolutely" ethically and logically heinous at this historical conjuncture.  That is: they absolutely defend positions that are absolutely incorrect.

This is why these annoying claims about "absolute truth" are ultimately a sophistic use of semantic categories.  The self-professed moral absolutist is, in actual fact, a moral dogmatist that treats any challenge to dogmatism as a challenge to the ontological category of objective truth and thus ascribes all of these challenges, in bad faith, to homogenized category of moral relativism.  Those who challenge this dogmatism are seen as people who are challenging the possibility of ethical truths in particular and the ontological problem of "absolutes" in general.

But what is the "absolute truth" of science?  If we were to cling to this bad faith absolutism we would have to declare that all scientific facts can be absolutely known, once and for all, and that there will come a time when physics and biology and chemistry ought to close shop, dust their hands, and declare that every fact that can and will be known has finally been discovered––an absurd claim that is, in fact, anti-scientific.  Science is such that it produces truth processes that are always open to the future and necessarily incomplete.  Does this mean science lacks truth, that we cannot know things objectively and for certain?  No, all it means that the absolute general TRUTH of science, in the larger and ontological sense, is about dealing with a multiplicity of possible truths and truth procedures that can only and ever reveal partial knowledge.  Such partial knowledge will at times be greatly momentous, and is always generating an objective understanding of reality, but it is partial insofar as it is not closed.

As Simone De Beauvoir once argued in The Ethics of Ambiguity, we should treat morality and ethics in the same way that we treat science.  Of course those who cling to the category of pure absolutism will find the ambiguity of truth-as-procedure off-putting, but it is not absurdist (i.e. the category that does indeed claim there are no absolute truths) to refuse to be an absolutist in the dogmatic sense.  In fact, on that ontological level, it is absolutely axiomatic to engage with reality in this manner.  Otherwise, if we descend into a dogmatic absolutism, then we have no way of explaining how and why people absolutely convinced of their moral objectivity make terribly historical mistakes––again, we are forced to smuggle what we initially despised as "relativism" in through the back door: they got it wrong, they had an incomplete understanding of the absolute truth, others had it right at the time… precisely the explanations those of us who dispute this bad faith absolutism use to describe our understanding of ethics.

The slavery example used above is especially salient in this regard: do you really think a moralistic slave-owner from the eighteenth century, if transported to the present, will agree with these claims made by someone who supposedly shares his understanding of morality?  Chances are, he would call this person a "moral relativist" (if he is even aware of these semantic categories) and defend the absolute righteousness of his position.  For if this approach to morality believes it can declare once and for all the meaning of ethical practice then it must also admit that either such a declaration is impossible, placing it in the camp of the supposed "moral relativist", or that it was always correct, placing it in the camp of the bigot.

I am not a moral relativist and I am not a dogmatic absolutist.  I am an historical materialist who believes that it is an absolute fact that morality is conditioned by society and history while, at the same time, being capable of objectivity and universality.  Even Aristotle, a metaphysical materialist, understood that ethics could only be understood by an appeal to the social, despite his understanding of objectivity, universality, and absolute truth being far more clear-cut than mine.  Here in the real world moral truth is often a messy business: we act according to an incomplete understanding, we base ourselves on historical procedures that are still in development, we have not yet passed beyond class morality, and the general moral axioms that we do treat as absolute and universal do not always square with particular situations.  And yet we struggle to make sense of things, and make moral decisions, by avoiding both dogmatism and facile relativism.


  1. Fantastic post, a position I have been arguing for quite sometime. I would just add, and forgive me if this has been raised elsewhere - that class morality in itself is becoming ever more fractured with the advent of what some have called 'late capitalism'. I refer to works by such authors as Frederick Jameson. I wonder, in your opinion can there be such a clear-cut notion of class morality without a guiding vessel?


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