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What is Moral Relativism?

Updated on December 18, 2013

Moral Relativism Following WWII

With the liberation of the Axis occupied territories following WWII, a global consortium was convened to establish a bill of universal human rights. With the chimney's of incinerators still spewing human ash into the air at Auschwitz, Dachau, and other locations, a fierce debate began in regards to this project. Many Sociologists proclaimed the endeavor to be an exercise in futility. They contended that issues regarding morality were specific and variegated amongst particular cultures. This is the position of moral relativism, specifically that one culture cannot judge another culture by their own standards. Implicit in this claim is that there is no such thing as a common human moral system that transcends proximity and temporality.

This debate as well as the dissent of Islamic majority countries caused The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to take six years to be adopted by the UN general assembly in1948. It has detractors amongst reputable sociologists to this day. Their presumption that, though difficult to formulate, an agenda propagating the basic right's of humanity is untenable is indeed an unconscionable abdication of responsibility and a retreat into an overly zealous multi-cultural sensitivity that is blind to atrocity.

If moral relativism is in fact legitimate and thus all morality is the transmutation of the popular cultural zeitgeist resulting in Ethical precepts specific only to that culture, the question that presents itself is, "Is my moral conduct simply governed by the Ethical imperatives of the society in which I live and will future generations judge my behavior as immoral."

Thankfully this need not be the case. Transcending the Liberal fallacy of moral relativism is possible given a sufficiently advanced degree of moral reasoning. From the moral standpoint of the majority of the populace this may not be possible but Kohlberg outlined a theory a moral development that ends in an understanding of universal moral truths. It is in an explication of this model that we might free ourselves from the manacles of moral relativism.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg, a Developmental Psychologist outlined a six phase construct of moral development;

Stage 1- The punishment and obedience orientation- This stage is seen amongst early preschool children who, as a result of their age, find it difficult to consider more than one point of view and so by default, when presented with a difficult moral dilemma, fall back on their understanding of what action will not result in punishment.

Stage 2- The instrumental purpose orientation- Slightly older school age children develop a rudimentary ability to hold opposing points of view but only in a concrete way. They often reason in a quid pro quo manner, i.e., "If so and so chooses to do X because he thinks it's right he should still be punished if he is caught."

Stage 3- The morality of interpersonal cooperation orientation- Seen in preteens and teens, they develop a sense of morality based on unified wellness or ideal reciprocity. They can express a level of concern for others commensurate to their level of concern for themselves. They act very much in accordance to a, "Golden Rule," Philosophy.

Stage 4- The social-order maintaining orientation- Older teens express a meta-view of morality as it applies to the welfare of a culture. The view that no rules should ever be broken because society as a whole depends on the uniform abeyance of prescribed laws.

Stage 5- The social contract orientation- Young and older adults in this stage recognize the malleability of laws in crafting a more just society. They regard laws as the instruments to further individual rights and promote the majority interest. They become part of a changing system that is necessitated to promote the well-fair of most people. This is the stage where most people stop developing morally.

Stage 6- The universal ethical principle orientation- This stage is defined by self-chosen ethical and moral orientations that might be at odds with the social contract or the consensus of the majority. An individual in this stage autonomously develops notions that may be independent of cultural agreement but rather place a premium on notions of dignity and worth for every individual.

The moral relativism contention is engendered in the 5th stage of moral development and is the stage from which most people operate. Kohlberg hypothesized that few people would reach stage 6 and that those that did would most probably those trained in advanced Philosophy.

Transcending Moral Relativism

The current day examples that spark the most objections from Moral Relativists is the contention that the subjugation of women through compulsory veiling and the atrocious practice of female circumcision is morally wrong in all instances regardless of the cultural standards.

To demonstrate the logical flaw of moral relativism let me point to a corollary example. For moral relativism to hold you must be prepared to say that slavery in the antebellum U.S. was moral for as long as it was legal and regularly practiced and approved of by most people most of the time. You must further concede that as soon as Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st 1863 that it at that moment became immoral. This is not a notion that most people will popularly embraced but it follows from the logic of moral relativism. Namely, that a practice is morally sound as long as it coincides with the social zeitgeist of the culture in which it is practiced.

And so it is a mistake to say that we cannot make moral judgments on concomitant cultures from our outside view of morality and Ethics. Cultures, for economic, social, political, and theological reasons, progress in their respective moral understandings and practices at different rates. This simple truth does not justify a moral outrage anywhere in the world simply because it may be an Ethical norm in that place.

The most frustrating thing about recognizing this truth is that the only people who tend to also believe in a universal morality are religious demagogues. But appeal to a supernatural law-giver is not needed to justify the convictions imprinted upon our hearts and minds through heredity, reflection, and secular debate. We can transcend the provincial Ethical norms of our own cultures and come to embrace and better understand a Platonic sense of morality unfettered by any particular popular notions of sectarian Ethics.


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