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Are You A Garbled Relativist?

Ray Prebble argues that moral relativism is both incoherent and immoral.

Are you a relativist? A relativist is someone who says things like “There are many truths, many ways of seeing things.” Compare this with the non-relativist, or absolutist, who says, “This is how things are, and there are no two ways about it.” What’s your reaction to these opposing viewpoints? If the relativist sounds decent, non-judgemental, and understanding – someone you feel a connection with – whereas the absolutist sounds biased, unforgiving, and unthinking – someone you would avoid – then you are just the audience I’m aiming at.

Of course one can unproblematically be a relativist about taste in art, or in gardening, or anything involving only purely subjective evaluations. But the philosophically interesting kind of relativism is cultural relativism, also known as (or is at least a substantial subdivision of) moral relativism. (From now on in this article, ‘relativists’ will refer specifically to moral relativists.) The fact that different cultures do things differently is still unproblematic if you’re deciding where to have dinner; but accepting the differences can get tricky when you’re making decisions about moral issues. How ought one to think and act when cultures clash morally or moral systems collide? Whose rules should be followed; yours or theirs? How can we decide? What should a nice relativist do?

These questions are more pertinent today than ever. Decent people from modern Westernised cultures often talk about the requirement to tolerate and respect people from other cultures. But you need to be careful that you don’t fall into one or more of the traps which start to open once you start putting meat on the bones of this relativist framework.

Here’s a quick tour around the trap line.

1. Did I Just Contradict Myself?

Let’s begin by looking at the idea that if morality is relative to cultures – if one is enculturated into one’s moral beliefs, and there is nothing more to morality than that − then there is no way of choosing between moral systems, and one ought therefore to respect the moral decisions of other cultures. To put it another way, the idea is one ought not to pass moral judgements on the moral judgements of other cultures, or the actions of people from other cultures.

This is a very interesting argument, because it is both beguilingly plausible and utterly invalid. The problem is that relativists’ moral statements, such as “One ought not to pass moral judgements on the actions of people from other cultures” are not remotely relative; they are absolute. They are meant to apply as a moral rule to all individuals in all cultures. So, ironically, the central catch-cry of many moral relativists is a thoroughly absolutist moral statement, the very possibility of which their own theory denies.

At best, statements about not passing judgement on other cultures can coherently function as representing a moral decision in one’s own culture (if for a moment we pretend there is such a thing as all the members of a culture having the same moral beliefs). In other words, you and the other members of your culture might believe such statements to be true; but according to that very statement of belief, a member of another culture has the right to say, “Well, moral relativism is what you believe in your culture; but in my culture we don’t believe that one ought not to pass moral judgements on the people from other cultures. We feel perfectly free to cast moral judgements on whomever we like, including you and your culture.” You may have experienced this very retort.

Further considering the statement by the relativist, “You ought to be tolerant of others’ moral beliefs” – what then of the moral belief that one ought not be tolerant of others’ moral beliefs? Ought one to tolerate this moral belief? Ought one to tolerate intolerance? Of course the relativist should (supposing of course that they want to be consistent) because it is a moral belief; and once you accept that you ought to be tolerant of others’ moral beliefs, then you are obliged to tolerate others’ intolerance – in the name of absolute toleration!

slave ship hold 1830
Moral relativism means slavery is just another cultural tradition.

2. Is That What I Mean?

But let’s suppose that we accept both that moral judgements are relative to cultures and that this relativism gives each culture some kind of protection from criticism from other cultures, and let’s see where it leads.

Now it could be that a generally agreed-upon belief in my culture is that dark-skinned people are inferior and that we have the right to enslave them and use them to our benefit, and that because of their inferiority we are not morally wrong in doing so. The moral beliefs of the dark-skinned people themselves are irrelevant (as are the beliefs of any other culture): they can make whatever moral judgements they like, but they have no relevance to my culture, because my moral system is distinct from theirs, and cannot be judged by their beliefs.

So let’s consider the captain of a Muslim slave ship operating between Africa and the Middle East in the middle of the nineteenth century. (Some readers may feel uncomfortable at me singling out Muslims. Would you have felt uncomfortable if I had singled out Christians? No? Is that because you feel that one ought not to pass judgement on other cultures? If so, well done: You have passed the ‘Am I a garbled relativist?’ test with flying colours!) If you had challenged the morality of the slaver captain’s activities, pointing out that the British had made the slave trade illegal in 1807, he might have said, “Why should I care? In my culture slavery is acceptable. If you want to abolish slavery in your culture, that’s up to you. Leave me alone!” This slave trader is making moral judgements within a relativistic framework. He is a moral relativist through and through. Yet this doesn’t restrain him from acting appallingly towards the members of other cultures. In fact, it encourages him to do so.

Sati: Just another tradition to be respected?

For another example, many writers have poured scorn on the mental gymnastics of those cultural relativists, especially ones also claiming to be feminists, who have justified the Hindu ritual of sati – the practice of a wife throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre – or the widespread African cultural practice of genital mutilation, in culturally relativistic terms. The scorn is well deserved, because such tolerance involves condoning the suffering of women out of post-colonial guilt, rather than through any well-thought-out moral system. It’s relativism at its worst.

The point I am making here is that relativism leads not just to contradiction, but also, sometimes, to the very kind of abhorrent moral conclusions it sets out to avoid, and provides an excuse for any sort of behaviour the members of a culture can collectively dream up. Think of the response of any authoritarian country accused by Amnesty International of human rights abuses: “You have no right to judge, no right to interfere!” It is the perfect defence against a relativist. Note also that relativism does not imply any requirement to tolerate strangers in one’s midst: as Tzvetan Todorov notes, “an entirely consistent relativist may demand that all foreigners go home, so they can live surrounded by their own values” (On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought, trans. C. Porter, 1993, p.34).

3. How Big Is ‘My Culture’?

There is also the problem of what actually constitutes a culture. Depending on how you define the term, a culture could be a family group or a confederation of nations. But the issue becomes crucially important when a relativist poses the question as to when the cultural walls rear up to protect a group from moral criticism. Was the Manson family a cultural group? On most criteria, yes. So should we have tolerated and/or respected their moral decisions, their moral system?

We tend to talk very airily about ‘culture’. Someone might expound knowledgeably at a dinner party about ‘Spanish culture’ or ‘the culture of the Inuit’ as if a given culture has a single list of beliefs and practices to which everyone adheres – which, of course, is nonsense. There is a large diversity of moral thinking within any culture, and one could quite validly react to any claim that “This is what we do in our culture” with “Says who?” or “What do you mean by our culture?” However, if moral right and wrong are to be based on cultural beliefs, there had better be some way of coming to an agreement about what these beliefs actually are. But haven’t we now defeated the whole point of cultural relativism? Morality is supposed to arise naturally as a function of being part of a culture, and suddenly relativism seems to work perhaps only for an individual at any given time, or at best, a small tribe living on a river bank.

Does it make a difference if we take a temporal perspective? On most criteria of cultural difference, the British colonists of New Zealand in the nineteenth century could be said to constitute a very different culture to either British or New Zealand culture in the twenty-first century. It would seem to follow that whatever the colonists did or didn’t do, in terms of confiscating land or abusing the (non-relative) rights of the Maori, is, according to cultural relativism, outside the bounds of moral criticism. So present-day Maori cannot criticise the actions of the colonists, because Maori belong to a different culture from them. Indeed, on this line of reasoning, the Maori cannot seek redress from the present New Zealand government either, because the government also belongs to another culture from the colonists.

Are rich, clean-cut Western businessmen a different culture from poor, dreadlocked, anti-globalisation Western activists? They have staggeringly different values and accompanying moral systems, so the cultural relativist would surely have to conclude that they are from different cultures – and that therefore each is safe from the other’s criticism. Both groups have been enculturated into their moral beliefs and actions; and if they are relativists, they ought to stand back and respect the other’s culture. Otherwise any criticism from one side – such as protesting and egg throwing – is simply a form of cultural imperialism − an attempt to impose one’s culture forcibly on others: to culturally colonise them.

Would you advocate respecting Naziism?

4. Toleration Vs Respect

Some relativists question whether cultural relativism implies toleration, or rather, respect. Early anthropologists promoted toleration, or tolerance; but it was later argued that tolerance implies acting from a position of power to put up with something you condemn or think is bad, much as a parent might put up with an errant teenager. This, it was further argued, implies a patronising cultural attitude, and still involves making evaluative judgements. As a result, tolerance and toleration have often been rejected by relativists in favour of respect. For example, Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, in The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (2010), sees toleration as a kind of ‘intellectual charity’ and therefore an insult, since “when standing on equal footing, one does not expect to be merely tolerated or grudgingly accepted” (p.47). He also argues that tolerance towards other groups is not enough because it involves acquiescing to the prevailing power relations: “Calling upon powers to be tolerant once meant asking them to moderate their strength and to limit their ability to do harm. This actually implied an acceptance of a power relationship that might exist between the State and individuals, the police and citizens, or between colonisers and colonised” (ibid). Rather than this patronising toleration, then, Ramadan wants acceptance and respect from other cultures.

There are two important points here (for this analysis I have made use of Frank Furedi’s excellent review in Spiked 40, 2010). First, toleration does not imply any particular power relation, much less one in which it is only the more powerful who tolerates the less. Many who are disempowered, from downtrodden wives to minority cultures, tolerate the actions of those who are more powerful, for many reasons, and when pressed may even sometimes maintain that this is not only the safe course but the morally right thing to do. And as citizens we tolerate (albeit while grumbling) the quirks of local and central government, while recognizing their right to have power over us. Indeed, toleration of a greater power is part of the social contract. One could also well ask Ramadan why he doesn’t respect the viewpoint of people who advocate merely tolerating and grudgingly accepting other cultures? Where is his respect for that culture?

The second point is, what’s so bad about being tolerated and grudgingly accepted? After all, this could well describe how most academics feel about each other (on a good day). A common perspective in academia would be, “I think your theories are nonsense and your work sloppy, but I recognise your right to publish your opinions.” Indeed, this attitude could be viewed as the very core of Enlightenment thinking: tolerating what you utterly disagree with because you don’t think that people with different opinions ought to be silenced. The same applies to attitudes to other cultures: laws that apply equally to all citizens, plus toleration and grudging acceptance among cultural groups, could be seen as the core of multiculturalism. And this is not to be summarily dismissed. After all, it’s easy to respect someone you actually respect because you agree with their values. Tolerating someone you fundamentally disagree with and whose beliefs and actions you despise is a monumental achievement.

Suppose however that we do accept that one ought to respect the moral beliefs of others. What does this commit us to in terms of decision-making and governance? This is a pressing contemporary question, because the requirement to respect the beliefs of others is not simply an idea bandied about by writers on multiculturalism. It often crops up in legislation dealing with moral issues where different cultures with different viewpoints are involved, such as opinions on the rights of the foetus. Respect often becomes a legal requirement. Moreover, an enormous amount of energy and money is put into various forms of community consultation by local and central government, where there is an explicit or tacit requirement to respect the views of all participants. And so the idea of respect has enormous practical implications. But what does such respect amount to? Can I be said to be respecting someone’s views if I allow them a hearing, listen to them attentively, ask for points of clarification, and then utterly reject all their suggestions? How can you be said to respect someone’s beliefs if you ignore what they say? Does this mean respect entails agreeing with and acquiescing to people? Clearly not, given that many opinions contradict each other, and yet practical decisions need to be made.

To sum up: it’s hard to see how either ‘toleration’ or ‘respect’ helps the relativist. Indeed, the mere fact that different cultures have different moral systems doesn’t of itself imply any sort of moral attitude towards other cultures; and if it did imply toleration or respect, then we would be obliged to tolerate or respect the most morally appalling cultural groups history has thrown up. Finally, where there is a cultural clash, while we are all busy tolerating or respecting each other, how is one to decide on a course of action? Relativism provides no answers, no way of making a moral decision.

5. You’ve Just Ruined Everything

Having been informed that moral beliefs are just customs that we have had enculturated into us, like cooking techniques, and that there is no absolute right or wrong, one is left with no reason for behaving morally, apart perhaps from any sympathy you might accidentally feel, or to avoid punishment or humiliation. Relativism, despite setting out to be decent, in effect destroys morality because it gives a person no objective reason to be moral. And this applies to how one behaves towards anybody, including people from another culture, the people who live next door, one’s own family, and one’s own self. If morality is simply what people do, and there is no objective authority to appeal to, then in the end it doesn’t really matter what you do.

It’s hard not to feel that this conclusion has already been reached by many people in modern society, especially the young. Imagine constantly hearing, “Listen, there is no objective basis for morality, but by the way, you still ought to be nice, especially to people who look and act differently to you.” Why should anyone pay any attention to this?

6. Nobody’s Really A Moral Relativist

Aztec sacrifice
Do you think this is really wrong, or not?

So with moral relativism you end up contradicting yourself, or you find yourself allowing slavery, or you eliminate any objective reason for behaving decently. However, even though you may still claim to be a moral relativist, if you dig deep enough, you will inevitably find some practice that you are not willing to accepts as a matter of culture, whether this be paedophilia, genocide, torture or rape. Most people who claim to hold relativist views will baulk and bail at some stage, wanting to maintain that some action simply is wrong, even if it is practised or condoned by all the members of a cultural group – such as the Aztecs’ systematic human sacrifice of war captives.

This basic inconsistency is an essential part of what it means to be a garbled relativist. A garbled relativist is someone who espouses relativism (“One ought to respect the moral beliefs of others”) in one breath, while issuing non-relativist statements in the next (“Tax-avoiding rich capitalists should be put up against the wall and shot!”). Indeed, anything you say people should or should not do is a non-relativist assertion.

It is almost inevitable that a relativist will be a garbled relativist: there is always something that they will find so unconscionably appalling that they will have to admit it really is wrong.


You might now ask, “Do these problems with moral relativism mean we ought not to tolerate diversity? Does this mean we ought to persecute people from different cultures for their different moral beliefs?” My reply is: absolutely not. But these problems do mean that a simple universal tolerance of all moral beliefs is not a viable, or even meaningful, moral code. Instead we need a robust framework within which to discuss clashes of moral systems – not something that falls apart as soon as you look at it.

So what’s the answer? What am I advocating? Bible thumping, threats of fire and brimstone, and a corresponding list of rules? No. I’m arguing that to put a blanket ban on criticising the values and moral beliefs of another culture is patronising, counterproductive, and dangerous. It stops discussion just when it should be starting. Really respecting people from other cultures means engaging with them, taking them seriously enough to question their moral decisions: Why do you think that? How can you justify doing that? What consequences will that decision have? Haven’t you just contradicted yourself? Does everyone in your culture agree?

Morality must, in the end, be about arguing, and giving reasons, and providing evidence. It cannot just be about being who your culture encourages you to be.

© Ray Prebble 2018

Ray Prebble received his PhD in philosophy from Melbourne University. He works as an editor, lives on a lifestyle property, and is finishing off a book on the structure of moral thinking.

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