Ethical Relativism: A Good Idea or a Path to Anarchy?

by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

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.

279 thoughts on “Ethical Relativism: A Good Idea or a Path to Anarchy?

  1. @Gene: If that’s what you want to think? Knock yourself out, Gene. In my profession we are in the business of creating tools, and so we judge them by their potential utility. If tools were only judged by their utility, then the understanding of powdered willow bark would have ended with Edward Stone, and we would have vast monoculture farms of willows being ground into aspirin. The value of understanding the social compact through the lens of anthropology and evolutionary psychology, the best estimation of truth available to us, is precisely the greater potential utility it affords.

  2. You seem to think the social compact is a static tool simply because it hasn’t changed as fast as you’d like or to the parameters you prefer. This simply is not the case but I’m sure we’ll just get the entire legal profession to jump right on that for you, Massa Tony. Law, like science, is an ever evolving subject. Again, believe it or not, most students of jurisprudence and legal professionals do know what they are doing Tony. You should let us design our own tools in the way we see fit just like you do in your profession. The skill sets may be in some ways complimentary but they are by no means interchangeable. What we have in re the social compact works well enough. Will it be further refined going into the future? Probably so, but as long as it works, that’s hardly going to be a priority in the realm of legal theorists. Necessity is the mother of invention.

  3. @Gene: No, science is pretty damn slow too. In fact science has measured that! As I recall, it typically takes 50 years to get from discovery to application in science; the structure of DNA was discovered in 1953, and 59 years later we are barely turning that into any kind of widespread genetic engineering.

    I do not understand your defensive aggression, Gene, I am not telling you what to do. I presented an analysis and I am defending my analysis, and every time you mischaracterize it or misinterpret it or presume (as you did here) to know what I am thinking (which of course is uniformly derogatory and dismissive and presumes I am an unlettered idiot and you are far smarter than me), I will do the same.

  4. Tony,

    Yeah. I’ve read that about science and seen it within my own lifetime. That’s in part what is so frustrating about reading some of the really interesting stuff coming from the cutting edge (of whatever speciality) is knowing that I might not see some of the potential amazing applications in my lifetime.

    However . . .

    I don’t know why you think I’m being defensively aggressive for critiquing your analysis. I’m being just as critical and exacting as I usually am and we’ve easily had more contentious interactions than this one. That I don’t cut you any slack should be considered an indication that I think you can take the heat and thus earned a place in the kitchen.

    As for the rest of that, I’ve stipulated more than once I don’t consider you anything less than highly intelligent. As to what you think? I’m going by what you say and reasonable supposition thereon. However, law is my speciality. In that regard it’s not derogatory or dismissive to think I know more about that subject than you do. It’s simply a fact. For example, when I talk science as we have many times past, you know I have the understanding of a well informed layman – an apprentice knowledge at best – but that I am not a science professional nor have I ever claimed to be. If I crossed that line, I would take the smackdown due without complaint from actual professionals. Methinks perhaps you are just a tad hypersensitive on this right now because objectively you should realize no degradation or dismissal was meant and if any was taken I ask that you reappraise the situation. I’m usually very explicit when I dismiss an idea (like Objectivism) and I save degradation for the trolls and trollish. I’ve been nothing in this discussion if not through (as opposed to dismissive). If I had, I would have said something along the lines of “you’re a pantload” and left it at that. If you thought you were getting the troll treatment, I submit that 1) it was not intended and I apologize for any statements that could have been construed as such, 2) that you may be mistaken in that perception and 3) no offense was meant. You’re one of the smartest regular posters here and the least trollish. If I thought otherwise, I’m certain there would be no room for error in interpretation.

    You’ve seen me pummel trolls. There is really no objective comparison.

  5. mespo,

    I just wanted you to know I’ve been using that joke about God and the Devil all week and it has been quite a hit.

  6. @Gene: I don’t know why you think I’m being defensively aggressive

    The “Massa Tony” remark (rebelling against insubordination); agreement with Bob that my argument was impressively solipsistic (clearly intended as an insult) and then comparing me to a water buffalo; the obvious resort to “proof by acclaim” invalidating my argument by virture of “the entire legal profession” disagreeing with me; your blatant appeal to personal authority as “the product of a modern legal education.” To me those are the words of somebody defending a personal attack.

    I do not think the social compact (or contract) is static; but I also do not think that is the issue, not for me. No matter how it has evolved or is evolving, the issue for me is whether it remains rooted in the ‘state of nature’ arguments as put forth by Rousseau and Locke.

    I am not intending to be dismissive next but metaphorical: no matter how elaborate the doctrine of signatures might have gotten, no matter how much it might have contorted itself into some semblance of an objective scientific method, it would have remained rooted in a false premise.

  7. Impressive. Utter gibberish, but impressive gibberish. Now it’s my turn.

    The Massa Tony remark was about your arrogance that the practices of the legal profession and models used by jurisprudence should jump up and meet your standards simply because you’re the Great Tony and Things Should Be As You Say Because You’ve Got This Shit All Figured Out. It’s called sarcastic hyperbole.

    What I may have been so generous to think was jokingly solipsism on your part in the interchange with Bob? Is now steadily being revealed to be simple garden variety actual arrogance on your part. Solipsism? Is cutting you way too much slack.

    As to the water buffalo? That was one in a series of inside jokes between me and Bob quoting the move “Fletch”. If I had wanted to call you a water buffalo, I would have. Instead, I’m opting now to call you an arrogant ass.

    Proof by acclaim? If you’re just so arrogant that you think you know better than the common practice of an entire profession that has technically been in existence easily as long as your own and one you aren’t even a part of, well then, that’s also entirely your problem.

    Considering how often you bleat about how you’re rooted in reality because you’re a scientist, pardon me if I laugh my ass off about your whining about an appeal to my own authority that was nothing of the sort. I was illustrating that those in the legal profession today who have all had similar training as mine illustrated that the social compact theory is (often but I’ll stipulate not always) taught in the proper perspective to understand its origins in analytical context kind of belies the notion that it’s the equivalent of teaching medical students the doctrine of signatures. We as a profession are given the proper context to understand and apply the tool to get useful results for legal analysis. If it had been an appeal to authority? It’s only fallacious when that appeal to made to someone NOT an expert on the subject matter. As I am an expert on the subject matter of law, if I had appealed to my own authority, it would not have been a logical fallacy. But since I didn’t? That ‘s moot.

    You may be a genius research scientist, Tony, but no one in the legal profession is going to be terribly impressed with your “scholarly insight” on this matter no matter how impressed you are with yourself. Bob was right when he said that you will not find one serious legal scholar that will follow your line of argument anywhere. I was doing so simply in the name of Socratic discourse and so perhaps the audience could learn something and maybe even you, but now after your last comment?

    The audience has what they need from a legal perspective to get the basics of social compact theory. Trying to educate you is a futile task.

    I’m going to take Bob’s advice and simply move on and let you argue with yourself since I plainly see now that your ego is simply one of the most impressively overheated that I’ve ever seen and this ends with you proclaiming how you know better than an entire profession. The only thing that will placate you is clearly for the world to bow down to your legal genius. Too bad for you, that’s just not in the cards. You don’t know what you’re talking about and even getting you to grasp the basics is a thankless repetitive task analogous to teaching a salamander to play piano.

    I’m done being accommodating and catering to your bullheaded boorish arrogant ignorant pronouncements about a foundational subject within a field in which you aren’t even trained.

    So you just go ahead feel free to be offended all you like at this point, “councilor”.

    Have a nice day.

  8. Once again: “Well said; well spoken.”

    …. “And bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia while you’re at it.”

  9. @Gene: See, that anger looks like self defense. I have not asked anybody to bow down to me, I just did not bow down to YOU. I am not the one with the ego problem, Gene, that would be you, when I reject your initial claims that Locke and Rousseau are self-evidently solid (by implication when you presumed that my disagreement with them must mean I did not read them), you get livid. When I disagree with your pronouncements of fallacies I did not commit, you get livid. The only time you can have a civil conversation is if nobody ever challenges your pronouncements from on high.

    As for knowing better than an entire profession, all trained the same, that is just inflation on your part, not mine, because what I claimed from the beginning is that the ‘state of nature’ is an illogical straw man used by a handful of men a few hundred years ago to justify what was ultimately a good idea, the social compact.

    And it is a straw man, because it is easy to argue against anarchy. My argument on this thread has been with a man, Rousseau, not a profession.

  10. Bob Esq:

    Tony makes an interesting point:

    “And it is a straw man, because it is easy to argue against anarchy.”

    Why are Locke and others doing this? What was going on at that time in history to have them interested in the state of nature.

    Locke goes into great detail to prove that kings have no divine right to rule, something we take at face value know. As far as I can tell they werent arguing against anarchy but for government as a means of preserving rights. The state of nature is used to show people they are better off in society.

    But why? Why didnt they just say “hey listen up you got rights and government should protect them and not trample them.”

    Why did Locke have to examine it the way he did?

  11. “@Gene: See, that anger looks like self defense.”

    See, you mistake utter disgust as anger. Your ignorance and arrogance are revolting but they are no cause for me to be angry. They are your problem.

    “I have not asked anybody to bow down to me, I just did not bow down to YOU. I am not the one with the ego problem, Gene, that would be you, when I reject your initial claims that Locke and Rousseau are self-evidently solid (by implication when you presumed that my disagreement with them must mean I did not read them), you get livid.”

    You go ahead and project your problems on others if that makes you feel better. As to “my initial claims Locke and Rousseau were self-evidently solid? What? And you have the balls to accuse me of setting up a straw man? Good luck with that. Also, that word “livid”? I do not think you know what that means either. Are you psychic? No? Then any assumption about my emotional states to your ignorance are purely supposition.

    “When I disagree with your pronouncements of fallacies I did not commit, you get livid.”

    When you disagree with logical fallacies that you commit and I point them out – specifically – because you can’t or won’t see them? Is simply your problem, but again, unless you’re psychic, your understanding of my emotional state is supposition and sorely lacking.

    “The only time you can have a civil conversation is if nobody ever challenges your pronouncements from on high.”

    You’re hardly one to dictate civility or be the arbiter of it so pardon me if I chuckle at that, Mr. Big Ego.

    “As for knowing better than an entire profession, all trained the same, that is just inflation on your part, not mine, because what I claimed from the beginning is that the ‘state of nature’ is an illogical straw man used by a handful of men a few hundred years ago to justify what was ultimately a good idea, the social compact.”

    Saying you know a better way than an entire profession about how to deal with a cornerstone of said profession is pretty much saying you think you know better than an entire profession no matter how you want to color it.

    “And it is a straw man, because it is easy to argue against anarchy. My argument on this thread has been with a man, Rousseau, not a profession.”

    If that’s what you want to think, I don’t really care. You still – obviously to anyone who does know what they are talking about – don’t understand that arguing against anarchy is not what the social compact theory is about. Let me try this one more time . . the social compact theory is about the trade off of absolute liberties in a state of metaphorical perfect lawlessness for the acquisition of mutual benefit in a metaphorical state of perfect lawfulness. That the reality of the matter is that chaos and order in social structures is a spectrum of behaviors is well known and understood for the purposes of analysis. That analysis is geared to determining legitimacy of a given governments use of coercive power. No one – I repeat no one – in the legal profession really thinks there is such a thing as perfect anarchy or perfect order, your pedantic mauling of the metaphor and its utility notwithstanding. That you have a problem understanding the use of metaphors in building a model – a map – is simply self-evident. That failing is entirely yours.

    Like I said, I’m done being accommodating and catering to your bullheaded boorish arrogant ignorant pronouncements about a foundational subject within a field in which you aren’t even trained.

    I’m simply not interested in talking to you about this anymore.

    Actually, I’m to the point I’m losing interest in discussing anything with you, you pig headed putz. Your display of arrogance on this matter has been simply been breathtaking. And that wasn’t anger just so you don’t go away thinking I’m mad at you. Anger is work. Anger requires motive. Why would your ignorance and arrogance be a reason for me to be angry? That’s not logical. They’re your problem. The only person they harm is you to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius. Angry? I’m not angry.

    That was mockery made in disgust.

    Two totally different things.

    Carry on.

  12. Bron,

    See this:

    [T]he social compact theory is about the trade off of absolute liberties in a state of metaphorical perfect lawlessness for the acquisition of mutual benefit in a metaphorical state of perfect lawfulness. That the reality of the matter is that chaos and order in social structures is a spectrum of behaviors is well known and understood for the purposes of analysis. That analysis is geared to determining legitimacy of a given governments use of coercive power. No one – I repeat no one – in the legal profession really thinks there is such a thing as perfect anarchy or perfect order.

    Literalism really does fail in dealing with metaphor.

  13. In the court ruling US vs. Fishbine, a man subjected to potential incineration while wearing another man’s suit is entitled to $10,000 worth of airline tickets. It’s an obscure ruling, but a very important one to me.

  14. @Bron: It was apparently the style of the time in the 1700’s, I have read several papers and letters from the period (not all political; some on economics, some on medicine).

    They liked overly dramatic contrasts. Unlike peer review now, I think the editors and publishers of the time apparently paid little attention to whether an argument made sense, just if they enjoyed the reading.

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