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Moral Relativism

A Social Cancer?

Moral Relativism, we are told, is a cancer destroying the very fabric of society. We are also told that moral relativism is a sacred tenet of Liberalism. Therefore, Liberalism, by extension, can be blamed for all society's ills. It shouldn't be necessary to take such a feeble argument seriously, but sadly it is, because some quite influential people who should know better aren't above employing it to foment trouble and dissent.

Moral Relativism, unfortunately, is nowadays such a loaded term that it is almost impossible to analyse it dispassionately. Therefore I propose to discuss its component parts, starting with the second, Relativism, a neutral and necessary concept, as we shall see.

What is Relativism?

When I lived in Scotland, where the weather is best described as Scottish, if the temperature ever rose above 20C (68F) we'd all put on our swimsuits and head for the beach. Now, in the deserts of Qatar, if a building is air-conditioned below 25C (77F), we start shivering and pulling on sweaters. So, 20C is hot, while 25C is cold? Yes, relative to the norm that prevails. Absolute temperature is useful when you want to cook a chicken, but is not the whole story where human perception of hot and cold is concerned.

Or, for a homelier example, do you remember moving up from junior to senior school? All these years you spent becoming a big boy or girl, only to become one of the little ones, all over again!

In earlier times, arguments and even lives were wasted over the question whether the Sun goes round the Earth, or vice versa. Though it was grudgingly admitted, eventually, that the Heliocentric view was 'correct', it took Newton himself, many years later, to explain that absolute position and motion are themselves illusionary, and the truth is that the Sun and Earth are in relative motion with respect to each other. What you observe depends on your frame of reference.

Relativity, or Relativism (because everything has to be an ism!) is inextricably linked to the human experience, whether intuitively (warmth and stature) or intellectually (Newton's Laws of Motion). In fact, it is extremely difficult to think of a field of human experience where relativism does not apply, pregnant and dead excepted. Why then should the Moral domain be any different?

Relativism in Extremis

Let's pitch straight in at the sharp end. All the familiar moral codes say it is wrong to kill, yet soldiers may be required to kill for their country. It is their duty. Immediately, we have a conflict between patriotic duty and moral duty, a conflict that is only resolved by admitting that the injunction not to kill is not absolute. Sometimes, in some circumstances, it is the right thing to do. Or if it is not, it would take a great deal of sophistry to explain how it can be wrong and necessary at the same time, while still not admitting relativism.

This difficulty with military killing is frequently sidestepped by the sophists' trick of talking only of 'dying for your country'. Dying, after all, is prohibited by no moral code. But this is disingenuous. No country requires their soldiers to die. Apart from the unprecedented and unrepeated example of Gandhi's non-violent resistance, dying for your country is not a good military tactic. In fact, the only people duty bound to die for their country are convicts on Death Row, another form of killing that can only be countenanced by admitting relativism to the equation.

Then we have torture, rationalised by one Commander-in-Chief, deprecated by another. What is the common soldier or prison officer to do, when ordered by an Officer to inflict pain or humiliation on a prisoner? Obey orders or obey conscience? Remember the Nurnberg defence? It is impossible to escape the conclusion that morality is not absolute. That means, it is relative.

Before leaving the theatre of war for the more mundane, we should mention Honour, that most valued trait, ever since the Age of Chivalry. Surely honour, of all virtues, must be absolute? We may admire the man who would rather die than betray his friends, but what of the father who would burn his daughter for bringing dishonour on his family? What of the sozzled old fool of a General who would sacrifice most of his men for the honour of the Regiment, as if the Regiment were anything more than the sum of its serving men? Let's not pretend such things don't happen. Let's agree that morals are relative, and learn to live with it, like grown up people.

Public Morals and Education

Closer to home, we have 'public morality'. This is where the more Conservative elements come into their own, denouncing all they most dislike in modern society, as the evil consequences of moral relativism. It is not my business here to defend such practices as are vilified by the absolutists. I refuse to fall into the sad old left/right debate.

Instead, I take the view that because morals are, and must be, relative, it is important to educate our young people to understand relativism, and to equip them to make ever more difficult value judgements every day of their lives, so that, when faced with complex ethical choices, they are well practised in thinking them through to the best available decision.

Our failure, in recent times, does not consist in teaching our children relative morality; rather, it consists in failing miserably to do so.


A few reactions to this article showed me that some believe there are absolute standards of good and evil against which any action can be assessed. I prefer to take the view that any two actions can be compared, within an ethical framework, and one declared to be better than the other. This does not require knowledge of (or existence of) absolute good or evil.

Example: alone in a room, I could write an article or watch Big Brother. I can know that one action is better than the other, without knowing the limits of how good or bad I can be.

Now let's say I choose to publish my article. To do so without considering the consequences is morally irresponsible. An article that fuels prejudice and hatred might cause someone to be hurt or even killed. A 'public spirited' article naming and shaming alleged sex offenders might prevent some offences but might also result in an outbreak of vigilante action, possibly even directed against innocent parties.

At this point, do I give in and say it would be better just to watch Big Brother and contribute nothing, or do I buy into the idea that is is incumbent on me to make a conscientious effort to predict and analyse the probable consequences of my actions, to decide on the best available course relative to prevailing circumstances? I think the answer is clear.

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