The moral debate of relativism versus objectivism is one that confronts a moral question that philosophers have been debating for many years. The ultimate question brought about in the debate is whether morality is based solely on individual choice and cultural approval, or are there universally valid moral principles. With this essay I will present the arguments for each view and I will also argue for the position I favor: moral objectivism.
Relativism is the view that states that moral principles vary by culture (conventionalism) or by individuals (subjectivism).
Conventionalists like Ruth Benedict argue that since different cultures hold different principles, one culture has no basis to judge another culture’s morals. She uses the argument of normality: each culture defines what behavior is normal to fit the behavior of the majority. The majority of that population then defines normality and lives by it, and only a small minority deviates from that normality. According to Benedict morality is just term that we’ve come to use for socially approved habits, and normal is a variant of the concept of good.
Subjectivism is the extreme end of relativism. This view holds that morality is determined at the individual level, not a social or universal level. Therefore, the only moral principles that are valid are the ones you believe in, and basically all principles are equally valid.
Criticism of these arguments starts with the judgment question: how can a society or individual judge the behavior of another if all socially accepted behaviors or personal moral principles are valid? The answer is that it can’t, but a few examples will show what tolerance can allow.
From a historical standpoint slavery was considered normal by those who held slaves. Since slaveholders were the dominant culture in that area, the normal and therefore, the good behavior was to own slaves. According to conventionalism slavery was a morally right act at the time that it was popular, and only when conventions changed did it become wrong. Nazism was morally right, simply because the numerical majority of a population agreed with it.
The terrorists of September 11 are definitely aberrant in Western culture, but in their own they are saints in paradise. If conventionalism holds true, then the actions of those men were absolutely correct because their society agreed with them. Louis Pojman goes further to ask, how large is a population or a society? If he and a friend get together and decide to become criminals, is that a large enough group to count as a society? He accuses conventionalism of sliding toward subjectivism. He also asks if social reformers aren’t aberrant and therefore immoral. Since they swim upstream in their culture, and disagree with the majority, aren’t they committing a wrong act?
While these kinds of issues arise at the conventionalist level, they are even more obvious at the subjectivist level. If subjectivism holds true, then any court system or law is useless, since the only standard by which a man can be judged is his own, and whether or not he upheld his own principles. Essentially, all behavior is correct to the subjectivist. Thus, the subjectivist cannot even disapprove of murder or terrorism because these acts are as valid and acceptable as love and altruism, so long as they are a part of the individual’s moral principles. Since all is permissible and every action is as good as another, where is the meaning?
By removing value judgments from a person’s behavior he is left with no motive to behave in a moral fashion, because he can craft a moral principle to suit every behavior. Everything he does is as good as anything else, because there is no standard to measure his behavior. In Pojman’s essay, he argues further that subjectivism reduces morality to aesthetic individual tastes: if I like to murder, I will craft my morality to suit my taste for death. According to Pojman, “a contradiction seems to exist between subjectivism and the very concept of morality…” because morality is the “proper resolution of interpersonal conflict and the amelioration of the human predicament”. To the subjectivist then, there is no proper, and therefore no need for morality.
Objectivism is the view that holds that certain moral principles are valid for all individuals and cultures. There are different levels of objectivism: the fixed view, which says that principles are fixed and do not change; the universal view, which includes the fixed view and adds that principles apply to all people everywhere; and the absolutist view, which includes the universal view and adds that certain principles are non-override able and true for all situations. People who hold this theory answer the question “where do these principles come from?” in several different ways: from the essence or commonality of human nature, from natural reality (moral realism), from God or the divine, or from the intrinsic good within humans. Pojman bases his view of objectivism on the assumption that “human nature is relatively similar in essential respects, having a common set of needs and interests.”
He then defines moral principles as “functions of human needs…instituted by reason.” Pojman is not an absolutist; he does not necessarily think that principles are non-overrideable. Instead, he argues that certain principles hold true across cultures and relativism comes in at the application stage. These principles, which form his “core morality,” are general and leave less important or secondary issues up to the individual or to society. He uses abortion as an example: the debate isn’t about the right to kill babies; it is about when life begins. Everyone could agree that killing babies is wrong, but what constitutes a baby and a life? Pojman concludes that the fact of someone disagreeing with a principle does not invalidate the principle; perhaps it is the person who is incorrect.
When deciding which side of the argument suited me best, I found it to be a rather easy choice of objectivism. At its roots, relativism seems to be a fair argument for tolerance and for cultures to stay together. However, as I analyzed relativism deeper I decided its tolerance is too loose and leaves too much room for completely reckless and destructive behavior. Instead, objectivism makes more sense to me. I feel that humans across the globe are ingrained with common sets of needs, interests, and desires, and therefore there are principles that are universal and ingrained in human nature. Then those principles are interpreted by a culture and society, which then decides how it implements them into its existence. An objectivist society should still be leaving room in its moral philosophy for tolerance of other cultures and their practices, but not to the degree that conventionalism or subjectivism allows. Principles of morality that effect an entire culture or society should be based on a majority decision, not the beliefs of a few.