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.
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.