The Relativism Crisis

I used to be a relativist. I guess I should say I used to be more of a relativist. For those who don’t know, this means I used to bandy about the moral decisions of other groups and ancient groups as okay because they were just that, not me. 

For example, do you blame someone who lived during slavery for owning a slave? Surely they should have known better, but all at once, can we judge their level of education, interaction with their slaves, and the social education they received that justified owning slaves to them? I’m not going to make you answer now, take notes, there is a test at the end of this free internet blog.

Dawkins Himself

I bring all of this up because one of the atheist Four Horsemen, Richard Dawkins, is under fire for a little moral relativism of his own. This is being covered all over, but I’m going to link The Friendly Atheist. Lets see what Dawkins says that has caused all the hubbub.

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

There is more, much more, in which Dawkins notes that he was sexually abused by a few people as a child, and that he recognizes that it is terrible, but that it didn’t really effect him any. The part that is a crisis though, is the pass being given here on pedophilia. 

Of course it isn’t really a pass, as much as it is a relativistic statement. 1) Pedophilia is worth condemnation, 2) people viewed it differently in the past, 3) Dawkins has trouble condemning those who performed pedophilia at a time where it was seen differently. 

I think you can identify the problem. Especially since to a casual read it sounds like he is saying ‘being a pedophile is okay, if you did it in the past’. To me, Dawkins has tried to perform moral relativism, assigning different moral weight to a different group of people (in this case, a temporal distance), and undershot. Since you can imagine Dawkins isn’t 400+ years old, he is giving a pass to pedophiles who acted less than 50 years ago. Since Dawkins isn’t the only voice of authority on ‘pedophiles within that time period’, there have been plenty of people to call him out on this bout of stupidity.

I don’t want to waste my time figuring out exactly how many lashes to give Dawkins, it isn’t my place or worth my time. It does bring up a good question on how valid relativism is. On the one hand, I have seen a few comments across the internet that have called Dawkins out for the practice, and I can understand why. Moral relativism is one of the highest claims that religious people make against atheism.

The claim goes, ‘if you are willing to judge people differently for the same moral crime, then how can we say that anything is wrong?’. Which is simple to answer, but that won’t stop it from being repeated a billion times on the internet by junior apologists. 

If you were going to be a relativist, a red blooded moral absolutes fearing relativist, the crime is judged by the society. This is true, now, and has been forever. I can even show you.

Is it a crime for a woman to show her face in public? No, say most, but yes say some particularly religious regions. So who is right? Then we begin a long list of arguments about why it is a crime, if it should be a crime, and probably more than a few mentions of oppression and sexual objectification. We don’t get an answer though, just arguments, from two different groups. 

Without a species-wide agreed upon set of morals, there is no moral absolute. Even the things we see as absolutes for the species, like no incest, no polygamy, no cannibalism, no bestiality, have not been a crime in one or many human societies. To me, this isn’t a problem. We already live with relativism in our day to day lives. If you think hard enough, your family had some rules or law that your friends did not have to follow. That small culture shock, which happened so long ago for you, was your first realization that moral absolutes are not true.

I remember meeting my first friends who could cuss without getting in trouble. My jaw nearly imploded when I saw them cursing at their parents. These experiences continued to happen, watching friends smoke weed with their parents, drink with their parents, catch the bus by themselves, go to the store by themselves. All these things that I wasn’t allowed to do for reasons that only time would illuminate. 

Now the counter-message here, in the religious argument for moral absolutes, is that religious holy books set a moral absolute that should be eternal. To use christians as our constant example, the bible even argues against changing the words of the bible since they are ‘for this generation forever’. 

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)

God’s law has a never-spoil seal on it, and we shall never diminish it. Unless of course, it is convenient to do so, you know, because it would make life harder for us.

If you want to watch a christian backpedal from moral absolutes, you only need to mention slavery, rape, and incest. You will either find out some uncomfortable interests of your christian friend, or they will become a relativist. I predict a reply similar to this: “The old testament was the old covenant with god, Jesus created a new one. So the old laws do not apply.”

Translated, the morals of the old testament were for those living in that period of time, and now there are new moral absolutes. I don’t know about you, but if I want to count something as an absolute (and I don’t, seriously), it shouldn’t change just because the bosses beatnik son-self comes to visit.

Here is the rub though, if the idea of moral relativism makes you feel all squirmy inside, don’t worry about it. You live in your moral values, and you will judge everything based on them. You don’t have to allow any crime based on another society’s morals, you simply need to be aware. 

When some foreign guy judges your insatiable hunger for pork rinds and police procedural marathons, you would ask them to judge you through the lens of ‘Murica. 


23 thoughts on “The Relativism Crisis

  1. It is both a christian and a secular moral that moral and legal guilt requires an understanding that what you are doing is wrong at the time you do the wrong thing. There are two kinds of evil – evil in the sense of harm done, damage, pain, suffering, and evil in the sense of blame, guilt, responsibility. He is talking about one, you are talking about the other.

      • I didn’t say anything about types of wrongdoing, I was discussing different concepts, one of which is actual wrongdoing. Such as the theological “problem of evil” which is about things like disease and natural disasters. In one sense evil is just bad things and in the other it’s about actual human malice, selfishness, apathy etc.

      • You are talking about evil in the sense of doing harm, he is talking about evil in the sense of someone being deliberately or knowingly perverse, as opposed to doing something harmful out of ignorance.

        If say you saw a pregnant woman drinking alcohol you would probably think she was a terrible person because it is horribly bad for the baby (number one cause of mental retardation, not to mention other health problems). But if you saw that woman drinking alcohol while pregnant or smoking 50 or 60 years ago when we had no idea the harm it did, you wouldn’t even flinch. She is only evil if she knows what she is doing is wrong and does harm – our conscience is not omniscient, it must be informed by science and philosophy and we need to have our awareness raised to the nature of things. We do not automatically know right from wrong in every circumstance.

        Similarly people who beat their kids in the past often genuinely believed that to spare the rod spoiled the child and that they were doing something wrong to not beat their child. People who tortured people in the inquisition for not practicing christianity the right way honestly believed they were saving them from eternal torture in hell. This is where you get the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Evil can be done by people who are not, themselves, evil.

      • Then I was not saying anything different than Dawkins. I was explaining relativism, and doing so by showing exactly what you have mentioned, that past behavior was seen through the eyes of people in that time period.

      • The distinction between judging the people and judging the act is important, moral relativism is often portrayed as thinking that morality is purely subjective or changes from culture to culture, when I don’t think that is what dawkins is saying.

      • I think there is more subtlety to it than that, with many different people having different ideas of what exactly counts as ‘moral relativism’. But you could be correct.

      • Well there is a sense of the term that means that too, but it’s not the form of morality that people tend to subscribe to. It is often projected onto atheists or skeptics of religion to try to discredit or vilify them though.

      • I believe that our moral sense proceeds toward a more perfect good over history. In theory, there is an Ideal Good out there that we are seeking. Christians should be seeking the same thing, they just call their Ideal Good, “God”. I believe that most moral values held by Christians are identical to those held by Humanists. The distinction is the theological claims.

        It’s like Humanism is the Jefferson Bible version of Christianity. No miracles, no eternal life, and probably no personality out there running things. Its just us.

      • I do think christianity is much closer to humanism than the other way around these days because it’s not like we buy and sell our wives anymore. It has little to do with scripture. Though I suppose I am thinking of “christianity” in a traditional, authoritarian way.

      • I’m not so sure I care about what Dawkins is saying. I’ve never really gotten into him.

        Your point about judging the behavior rather than the person is right-on. However, we might need to judge the person in assigning a penalty. A repeat offender, where the first penalty failed to correct the behavior, may require a more effective penalty.

      • True but the context was historical not about policy or modern practicality. Another thing that makes it easier to judge people from the past less harshly is that they’re dead so what they do or believe doesn’t really matter.

      • Great points. I can’t remember the book, but only the title of a book by Bertrand Russel, “The Harm that Good Men Do”. And well-meaning and good-willed people may do harm unintentionally.

      • I am reminded of the ghandi quote about how the greatest acts of evil are always carried out under the guise of noble motives.

      • I like to classify them this way:
        Something is “bad” if is an unnecessary harm.
        It is “wrong” to unnecessarily harm someone else for your own benefit.
        It is “evil” to take pleasure in deliberately inflicting harm for its own sake.

  2. Some suggest a fixed and eternal set of principles. Others that principles evolve over time. It is probably safe to say that if there are a fixed and eternal set, then we do not yet have a perfect understanding of them, and our understanding is evolving. So the effect is identical, and the issue becomes irrelevant.

    Our moral sense is certainly evolving. But it evolves toward a more perfect good.

    I believe there is an objective definition of “good”. We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. And something is bad if it unnecessarily harms the individual, blocks cooperation, or threatens the species.

    • But those needs change, for our society, for our species, which means that even an ‘objective’ definition of good would change with time. That is acceptable, but makes that ‘good’ subjective in the long run.

      • I don’t think our real need change. Only our wants and desires change. We may want cake, but we really need food. Today, for most of us, meeting our real needs is taken for granted. But many in the world lack food, clean water, shelter, health care, etc.

      • For the most part, I would agree that our basic needs do not change much (for instance, 50 years ago no one would need a cell phone, but now it is a basic need in a modern city. That is a change in what is needed beyond the absolute basics).

        The implication that our societal good is based on basic needs has no basis in reality. Which is why it changes.

      • I think I agree with you that, beyond the basic physical needs, we also have a need to have some control over our own lives, to have social interaction, etc. You may need a cell phone to satisfy more basic needs. So perhaps what you need to meet your needs does change over time. Thanks for the correction.

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