What Is Moral Relativity and Why Is It Better Than Morality?
I read an article recently that explored the alleged importance of teaching morality in schools as a compulsory subject, and decided I would write somewhat of a response to it. If you'd like to read the article that inspired this one click here. I'd love to hear your opinions on the topic as well, so please hit the comments so we may discuss.
If you'd rather not read but still want to have an opinion here is the gist: Making a list of morals the focus, rather than the calculation and observation of the long-term consequences of taking certain actions, you create people who focus on image over substance.
Defining Moral Relativity
Where morality is the living up to a set of standards, usually based in religion but also societal expectation, relative morality is much more of a grey subject that allows for a greater level of freedom with less of a chance for crippling guilt should you make the wrong choice. At one point or another in our lives, we have all heard the popular trope, "If you had to choose between saving one-thousand strangers, and saving the person you love, who would you choose?"
In most cases I was presented this question, it was presented to me as weighing the value of human life while presenting you with the stigma that if you save one person over one-thousand then morally you have made the wrong choice. What about the relative morality of making the best choice for my own life? Perhaps I'm the type to need to save the one-thousand individuals because they hold more value in my mind than the one person that I love dearly; perhaps the situation is reversed and by saving the one I love and letting the one-thousand die I have added more value to my own life. Is either choice inherently evil? No, and that is the importance of moral relativism.
Moral relativism is the practice of measuring the long-term consequences of your actions, favoring personal choice over the idea that you have to live up to a standard set forth by an external stimuli. So in looking at the one versus one-thousand situation we have all been presented with at one time or another, I would save the one individual that I love because they have more value to me than the one-thousand strangers. I love so few individuals that it would either be my son, or my girlfriend who was going to be the one to die and both are invaluable and integral pieces of my life. I may gain more personally by saving the one-thousand, be the hero and get the fame associated with it, but I'd be losing a piece of my soul and psyche to let my son or girlfriend die.
Other than offering you the necessary aspect of personal choice, moral relativism eliminates the need for inherent guilt. Moralistic views tend to set forth rules and regulations for you, and frequently those rules and regulations have consequences. The most common consequence of breaking a moralistic rule is suffering from the guilt of that transgression, and knowing that it was unavoidable. Moral relativism allows you to bypass this inherent feeling of guilt, giving you the choice between right and wrong without the worry that everyone could harshly judge you for your choice.
To put this all concisely: To be a moral relativist is the truest expression of right and wrong, letting your actions dictate the value of your morals rather than adhering strictly to a set of guidelines and living a limited life.
The Balancing Act of Morality
There isn't a more accurate descriptor for morality, by my standards, than calling it a balancing act. If you choose to live by a strict system of morals then I also assume you are in such a position where you are also doing it to uphold an image you wish to convey to those around you. Humans are flawed creatures, arguably more so than any other if we want to look at morals, and are bound to fail at anything they do at some point. Let's look at a false beacon of morality so as to put things into perspective.
John F. Kennedy was a President widely regarded, and still widely regarded, as one of the best the United States has ever had. The air around this man's reputation could be equated to that of a saint in many cases, and nothing could be further from the truth. Kennedy often played the game of brinkmanship politics, pushing issues to the breaking point or creating issues himself, just so that he could look like he was the hero in the situation when he solved the issue he was manifesting to begin with. This is a morally relative choice he made, and it played out splendidly when he presented it as a "moral" dilemma that he overcame himself. What if his brinkmanship, presented as moral duty, hadn't worked out so well? I'd rather not speculate because the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear devastation all the while Kennedy was using it as a popularity contest.
If you are upholding a moral image strictly for upholding a moral image rather than the morals themselves, you are probably the type to be fooled by people like Kennedy who are simply doing a balancing act. We all know the other stories about him as well, he lived more like a rock-star than he did a President and made questionable "moral" choices all the time. Infidelity, dishonesty, spousal abuse, etc. were all immoral traits of the man he had to cover up. Yet even a man who lies and hides horrible truths is useful to those who call themselves "moral."
Moralists are some of the most dangerous people in the world because they, and those around them, have quite a bit of evidence to the contrary of any allegation you could ever make. This allows for evil individuals to present themselves otherwise and have their evil acts accepted over and over again so long as they apologize. Who cares if you beat your wife and sexually assault women if you also have a really bright smile and show up to women's power events? Who cares if you never uphold any promises so long as you continue to make wholesome guarantees? Who cares what lies behind the image you put up so long as you maintain the image?
This is where teaching moral relativism over morals becomes important. Moral relativism acknowledges the truth, whereas morals are more often used to hide it.
No Morals, Only Relativism
When you teach someone moral relativism rather than to adhere to a system of morals, you also teach this individual to question the value of every action someone takes. Seeing a celebrity or politician make a million dollar donation to a good cause is something you are not allowed to scrutinize in a moral standard-based society. Why would you ever want to question such a moral act?
You have to question this because charities and causes are often used to launder money, or otherwise pay off debts and cover up misdeeds committed by the individuals doing this seemingly generous act. Take for example all the generous acts that politicians talk about themselves as doing, and the presence of a plethora of different media whenever they "selflessly go out of their way" to do these charitable acts. Moralists and those who abuse such a title love this, but a moral relativist sees a greedy individual fueling their own self-interest. That isn't to say that is a bad thing either, but the lack of transparency now makes it an immoral act and blinds people to the truth using moral standard.
Wouldn't you rather teach someone that their actions don't need to be viewed as moral, only that they need to take into account long-term consequence? If we taught children, who become functioning adults, to look at things through the eyes of actions rather than moral presentation of said actions, then we are raising a more aware society that doesn't let evil get covered up by a flowery presentation.