Moral Relativism (and why I do not embrace it)

This is a post that was actually triggered by a piece (The Necessity of Combating Relativism) I discovered on the 90th Carnival of the Godless and further prodded by a recent comment over at the Atheist Ethicist. This label is one which, for some reason, has been directed at me various occasions in the near past.

Apparently, I am a “Moral Relativist/Subjectivist”. As an explanation of this label I will quote what was, in turn, quoted at me in the past before I was banned.

Moral subjectivism is that species of moral relativism that relativizes moral value to the individual subject.
In ethics, this amounts to saying that all moralities are equally good; in epistemology it implies that all beliefs, or belief systems, are equally true. Critics of relativism typically dismiss such views as incoherent since they imply the validity even of the view that relativism is false. They also charge that such views are pernicious since they undermine the enterprise of trying to improve our ways of thinking.
Perhaps because relativism is associated with such views, few philosophers are willing to describe themselves as relativists. Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.

1) They all assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, or meaning) is relative to some particular framework or standpoint (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, [a society], an era, a language, or a conceptual scheme).
2) They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.

– Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy.

What initially strikes me as peculiar is that this is a position that not only have I never espoused directly but I find myself actively disagreeing with. Specifically, while I do agree with the 1st point, I most certainly do not agree with the second.

Initially this whole characterization was assigned to me in, what I believed then, an attempt for ad hominem against me. I was labeled as such when arguing against the notion that you can have morality without more than one person and at some point I expressed my sentiment that all morality is subjective.

Now apparently this triggered an automatic reaction on behalf of my opponent who assumed I was espousing all sorts of ideas I do not. For example, I would never accept that all moral values are equal, nor that we should not criticize other cultures’ morality. Nevertheless, this is how I keep getting labeled as and I thought I’d clear the misconception a bit. Here are my current beliefs in morality.

Morality is subjective

What I mean when I say this is that, throughout the ages, people have held various beliefs of what is right and wrong. From what I have understood (and feel free to correct me on this), these values are the result of the current period and environment the society existed in. Ultimately, the values are the result of evolutionary advantage of one morality meme over another. One of my favorite examples to explain this is Slavery.

A Perspective on Slavery

You see, in the vast majority of the history of mankind, slavery has always been a reality. Since the early Egyptian history, to Classical Greece, to Romans, Dark Ages and finally the American Revolution, slavery was something that a sufficiently large amount of people accepted.The reason this moral value (slavery = good) was accepted, was solely based on competitive advantage of the society that espoused it.

In the days before industrialization, slaves were the only real source of cheap production. As a result, any society that accepted slavery, gained the means to faster production (Egyptians), ability to concentrate on other tasks (Spartans on Warfare) and/or better standard of living (Romans). Especially in the largely agricultural societies of the time, the ability to assign the menial labor to cheap assets meant that there was a distinct competitive advantage to be gained by utilizing slaves.

This does not mean that all societies used slaves. It only means that those societies that did, were fated to overcome or conquer the ones that did not. This is precisely what was happening in most of the world until the recent centuries (I would consider feuds and imperialism as a form of slavery.) and as luck would hold it, the people of that time, happened to write down their ideas on how slavery is right as a proof for future generations (see the Christian bible or the Hindu caste system.)

Slavery, like most forms of production had some disadvantage. Specifically, even though the cost was relatively low, it was very prone to abuse. This could lead to destabilizing situations for the society that used it, as is what happened with the Romans and the slave revolution or Spartacus. This kind of disadvantage was not enough however to overcome the significant benefit of slavery.

Abolishing and the morality of it all.

Now, most of us living in the modern society automatically consider slavery wrong. This includes me.  The reason we do this is because our upbringing distilled in most of us the notion of freedom as a higher moral value than most others. Thus, for us, owning the freedom of another person is deemed as one of the lowest situations.

But how did we reach this level from when slavery was considered acceptable by most? Once again, competitive advantage.

As I mentioned before, Slavery has some disadvantages that were not sufficient to overcome it’s advantages. However, even during the time of slavery, there were people that considered slavery to be immoral. If you want, you can see this in an evolutionary perspective. The competing organisms in this case, are the societies (or even the members of each society). The traits of the organism are the various memes in effect (Slavery, Warfare, Tolerance, Religion etc). The Environment is the technological level.

People in each society would have various ideas on slavery. If that meme (Abolishing Slavery) took hold, then the society’s paradigm would shift. You could see this as a mutation in the society as a whole which was then called to prove it’s competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, as history has shown, this trait was actually disadvantageous to the society that possessed it as it could not compete with the ones that still accepted slavery.

What was necessary for this trait to gain the competitive advantage was a change in the environment. This change was the Industrial Revolution. Once that happened, it served as the catalyst that allowed the abolition of slavery to take hold. Not because of any objective goodness but because the already existing mentality that freedom is good, coupled with the alternative way to have cheap production (industrialization) as well as the lower cost (no chance of social upheaval) gave the society that abolished slavery a competitive advantage over those who did not.

Tying it all together

It is my impression, that history has shown us that all moral values that we accept in the western society are the result of such processes. A merciless war of ideas where only the ones that were competitively superior could survive. I cannot bring myself to call this process objective for I truly do not see it as such.

The morality I have currently is subjective, not in the sense that I cannot consider anything right and wrong but in the sense that the morality memes most of us possess are the result of natural selection and not of objective truths.

How does that leave me however? Am I predestined to be a “moral subjectivist” and decry all morality as inconsequential and relative? To this I respond no. This is not what I believe.
I have my own morality that is based on personal experiences, beliefs and desires. I base this morality on my reasoning and can explain why I think my moral values are superior to others. I can have a discussion and attempt to convince or be convinced. Always based on reasoning.

I just cannot go one step further and call my personal reasoning as objective as it seems disingenuous. Morality values, in the end, can be rated as better or worse by the degree to which they lead to a better life for the individual and the society that espouses them. However, each individual is different in their desires so the same things will lead to different results.

The only thing we can do is be the example first as individuals and then as a society.

In the first step, this will lead first other people who see our life to follow our example in order to achieve the same level of happiness. They do not need to copy all of our values but even a few will be enough. Given enough people who do this, the paradigm of the society’s moral values will shift.

As a society, all we need to do is the same. A more successful society can only lead to other societies copying the moral memes that led to this success. And thus the world paradigm shifts.

What I believe is that all this can be done peacefully but not by “bending over” to other cultures. On the contrary, when an individual performs an immoral action by our perspective, it should be our duty to speak against them. When a society as a whole acts in an immoral fashion, then is should be our duty to speak against them and/or take measures to disentangle ourselves from them.

Not speaking against an immoral person (by our beliefs), because of some misguided desire to “respect his culture” is only hurting ourselves. Nor speaking out against a society or a culture because we want to proudly display how tolerant we are, will only lead us to be overtaken by the more aggressive memes out there.

This is, for example, the primary reason I speak against European “tolerance” against Islam. Not only is it not helping anyone, it is outright dangerous as the immoral behavior of Islam is given ground to fester and spread.


This has gotten quite long-winded so I think it is time for me to stop.

I hope I have sufficiently explained how I can consider morality as subjective but not be a “moral relativist” myself. I am, however, the first person who will agree that I can be mistaken – indeed, this is the main reason why I shy from calling my beliefs objective. There are many very interesting takes on morality that I am currently checking out, as Desire Utilitarianism. I can see the point but I am not actually convinced that they are objective rather than just superior to what we have.

If I am convinced, I will only help to spread that idea and thus help make this meme the accepted paradigm. Even then however, there is a case that we will fail. Even if DU is “superior” to most other moral systems, if the competitive advantage is not enough, it will be lost in the pages of history.

It has happened before.

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