I had in interesting argument the other night. Not interesting because of the content precisely. It was old ground about the rationale for being in Iraq and Afghanistan and this person took the position of the post hoc rationalization “to contain Iran” and that – and this was a new one, funny but new – that our reason for being there was based on our need as driven by the hostage crisis of the 70’s. It wasn’t a match against a skilled opponent. He was about as smart and skilled at argumentation as a house plant and that is really an insult to house plants. But what was interesting was when the topic turned to the idea of just wars and ethical relativism. I’ll summarize the just war argument to give some context and then show how ethical relativism came into the conversation because it got me thinking about ethical relativism (and its natural cousin moral relativism). Is it a good idea or a path to anarchy?
Summary of the just war argument:
A’s Primary Contention: We went to war in Iraq to contain Iran because we’re on a 70’s style revenge mission for the hostage taking. (Ed. Note: Seriously. That was the claim.)
B’s Primary Contention: The rationale given the public for invading Iraq was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” In the end, there were no WMDs, no support of terrorism, and the Iraqis were a lot better off before we removed the only stabilizing force holding their secular country together and destroyed their infrastructure. The just war would have been to attack those who attacked us on 9/11, the Saudis with help from Afghani terrorist training bases. It would have given us the same benefits as invading Iraq (oil, common border with Iran) and come at a substantially lower cost to materials and troops when combined with an in and out strategy in Afghanistan (which history has proven to be fairly immune to long term occupation because of geographic and societal factors).
A: There is no such thing as a just war. Name one.
B: I can name two. American entry into WWII and the Revolutionary War come to mind, but there are other examples of just war through history.
A: We went to war to make rich men richer.
B: Really. And that is a reason to wage war that is just?
A: I haven’t heard the term “just war” since Medieval History class. You’re a (*#$#($*#head.
B: That’s all very interesting but I think you don’t know what a just war is. %$*($%$.
A: I know there is no such thing.
B: I can think of a couple of examples. Coming to the defense of your allies in the face of outside aggression, in defense of attack or in retribution of an attack by foreign forces.
A: There’s no such thing as a just war. Just depends on your perspective.
B: No. It doesn’t. There are some ethical absolutes.
A: No there aren’t.
B: Saying there aren’t and proving there aren’t are two separate things.
A: You *()$(#)($#) $)#$()#$ ()$#$!
B: That’s still not proving there aren’t, )($#)()@head. Are there are are there no ethical absolutes? Yes or no.
A: That’s a stupid question.
B: It’s not stupid just because you can’t answer it. It’s a simple question.
[Much back and forth of "stupid" and/or ($#_)#@$#% combined with a rebuttal of "non-responsive, try again".]
A: People make ethical judgements all the time.
B: That’s not what I asked. Are there ethical absolutes or not?
A: Have your ethics changed over time?
B: Yes they have but that is irrelevant to the question here: are there ethical absolutes or not?
A: You’ve got nothing!
B: You saying I’ve got nothing is not the same as you proving I’ve got nothing. Are you an ethical relativist?
A: Give me an example of an ethical absolute.
B: Human life has value. Protecting it is a good thing.
A: That’s true, but I just want to see some people die.
B: Then you are an ethical relativist and we really don’t have much more to discuss.
A: You’re jumping to conclusions.
B: No I’m not. If human life has value except when you “want to see someone die”, then you are an ethical relativist.
The rest of the conversation was basically A drunkenly ranting about how I (B) didn’t know $*(# and that he had me just where he wanted me (on my knees) before he called me a little girl and proclaimed victory. I was very not impressed. I’d say it was embarrassing for him, but he proudly proclaimed that “ignorance was not a problem for him” and that he thought “retrograde drunken Neanderthal” was a compliment. But I digress . . .
It all got me thinking about ethical relativism though.
What is ethical relativism? It is the philosophical theory stating that ethics are relative to the norms of one’s culture; whether an action is right or wrong depends on the ethical and moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. There are no universal ethical or moral standards and the only standards against which a society’s practices can be judged are its own. The implication of this is there can be no common framework for resolving moral disputes or for reaching agreement on ethical matters among members of different cultures. We know from history that this is not the case. Some acts are considered to by universally wrong or right among the human species. Most ethicists reject ethical relativism because while the practices of societies may differ, the fundamental ethical and moral principles underlying these practices do not. Consider cultures where euthanasia is practiced like some Eskimo tribes when parents declare they are ready to die because of old age or illness, their families would kill them directly or leave them on the ice to die at the hands of nature. This would be frowned upon in our culture, but if you look at the underlying principle – taking care of one’s parents – both societies hold this principle as valuable.
Secondly, it’s an important topic because a kind of ethical relativism is encouraged in law schools under the guise of giving all comers adequate representation and ensuring a fair trial. It’s also something you see more often now in public behavior than in the past: rationalizations of bad behavior based on personal desire rather than ethical or moral principle. “I wanted to feel what killing someone felt like,” said 17 year old killer of 9 year old Elizabeth Olten. Truly a sign of someone with a broken ethical compass probably based in mental illness, but it illustrates the first problem with ethical relativism. It injects ego into the equation.
Consequently and concurrently we cannot remove ego from the equation altogether. If the ethical rightness or wrongness of an action depends on a societal norms, then the logical implication is that to be ethical that one must obey the norms of one’s society because deviance would be unethical or immoral. This leads to an interesting conundrum. If a member of a society that believes that racial or sexist practices are ethically wrong but they are permissible within that society, then one must accept those practices as morally right. This view is both oppressive and narrow in promoting unthinking social conformity and leaves no possibility for ethical and/or moral reform or improvement within a society. Consider that a lack of uniform majority though on a matter may not have created an ethical or moral standard to follow with the members of a society holding different views. Consider the example of the United States. Need I say more than “abortion” or “animal testing” or “medical marijuana” to provide examples of such unsettled ethical questions?
One of the strongest arguments against ethical relativism comes from the assertion that universal ethical and/or moral standards can exist even if some practices and beliefs vary among cultures. In other words, it is possible to acknowledge cultural differences and still find that some of these practices and beliefs are wrong. Consider that although the Aztec had a society that was in some ways more advanced that their contemporary European counterparts, that their practice of human sacrifice is simply wrong. Just so, the barbaric treatment of the Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally handicapped by Nazi society is ethically and morally reprehensible regardless of the beliefs of the Nazis. Ethics are an intellectual inquiry into right and wrong through applying critical thought to the underlying reasons of various ethical and/or moral practices and beliefs. Ethical relativism fails to recognize that some societies may have better reasons for holding their views than other societies.
However, although ethical relativism has much going against it, it does remind us to examine and consider that different societies have different ethical and/or moral beliefs and invites us to examine those forces influence within our own culture. The only way to reach universal ethical truths whenever possible is through examining and challenging our own ethical systems by comparing them to other systems.
Can ethical relativism lead to anarchy? When everything is relative, there are no true stable standards, so I think the answer is yes.
Should ethical relativism be discouraged in our educational systems and society as a whole or do you teach it with the proper caveats and perspective to make it a useful tool instead of a dangerous tool?
Is ethical relativism a good thing or a bag thing?
Or is it like most tools dependent upon the user’s intent and application?
What do you think?
~submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger.