Ah, Moral and Ethical Relativism, the modern hippy’s companion to political correctness. It seems so warm and fuzzy on the outside, everyone can be right because no one is! It appears to lack the judgemental nature of tradition ethical frameworks and means everyone can just get along, right? Wrong. For all of its soft and cuddly exterior, the heart of Moral Relativism is an intellectually bankrupt black hole better known as nihilism with a nice little cherry of logical fallacy on top. Its also one of the most judgemental and bigoted ideas to have gained popularity.
The problems with relativism begins with the premise. “Everything is relative”, they claim, “No one system is absolutely right, it all varies.” As can be easily seen, the premise itself is false. Heck, it isn’t just false, it is self-refuting. While a relativist will claim that every possible moral is relative, they fail to realize that in doing so they have declared an absolute. Under a system of moral relativism, any absolute ethical framework is declared wrong. Instead of allowing the freedom to choose any moral code, it removes all ability to choose any moral code. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are thrown out with the bath water. In declaring absolutes, they must all declared wrong by moral relativism, and in declaring them wrong, relativists themselves become followers of an absolute morality and thus must logically pitch their own framework of “ethics” out as well. Moral relativism is the moral and ethical equivalent of saying “This statement is false,” a recreation of the Epimenides paradox. In other words, the statement is fun to think about while musing about Godel, but utterly intellectually bankrupt when used to determine a system of morals.
It turns out, however, that moral relativism is even worse than a paradox, it equates to nihilism. Moral and ethical frameworks, by their very definition, are philosophically normative, that is they talk about how things ought to be. Moral relativism is quite the opposite of normative, it states nothing about how things ought to be, it just says it doesn’t matter what things ought to be, they can be anyway they like. Furthermore, moral and ethical frameworks must be devoid of law, custom, and personal preference. A moral and ethical framework doesn’t define things in terms of the law, or your own personal likes and dislikes. Moral relativism is all about defining morality based on culture and law. Much like nilihism, Moral and Ethical Relativism eschews the notion that morality exists. As a consequence it leads to what many other moral and ethical frameworks would call “immoral acts”, as such acts cannot, by definition, be immoral in a relative framework.
The combination of the paradoxical nature of moral relativism and its relationship with nihilism creates a very dangerous product. While on the outside moral relativism may look very open, accepting, and forgiving, the fatal flaw in this facade is the consequence of their beliefs. If all morals are relative, the only sin becomes hypocrisy. Thus those who come under fire are those who declare a certain morality, but fail to adhere to it. While this may initially seem like simply rooting out the worst sorts of people, in truth we are all hypocrites. Only those who follow no moral code can truly live up to the standards that they set. Most moral and ethical frameworks, however, have within them the capacity and requirement for forgiveness. They understand that people are flawed and will often fail to achieve the goals they set, and they allow for forgiveness if one honestly regrets the moral failures one commits. Moral Relativism, on the other hand, deals harshly with possible hypocrisy but gently with callous disregard for the lives and property of others, leading to a situation where individuals are better off professing no morals and leading lives full of moral and ethical transgression.
Hopefully, in a few years, we will see Moral Relativism go the way of other dangerous and vile ideas, like Utilitarianism and Objectivism, as people realize how intellectually bankrupt moral relativity really is. One can only hope this belief is shed before it causes permanent harm to our society, or poisons the philosophical well too deeply.