Moral Relativism and Multiculturalism

How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?  Answer, four.
Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

     Protagoras, c.490-421 B.C., a Greek philosopher. was one of the leading Sophists, and is most famous for the saying "Man is the measure of all things." He held that all truth is relative to the individual who holds it.  This implies that morality is relative as well.  His statement may be the earliest known one promoting moral relativism.*

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    After Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity people in the social sciences such as the German sociologist Max Weber, again applied the concept of relativity to concepts such as morality. Thus appeared the concept of moral relativism in which morality simply becomes what a particular society believes is moral. If we consider cannibalism immoral, the argument goes, than it is immoral for us to be cannibals but if another culture considers cannibalism a noble form of human sacrifice then it is moral for people from that culture to be cannibals. Albert Einstein would probably have been  horrified at this sort of reasoning but it has stuck. The prevalence of this sort of reasoning and some of its negative consequences have been discussed by Paul Eidelberg.

There is in my opinion no justification to assume that relativity applies to morality but if for a moment we are to assume that it does we should consider the theory of relativity more closely. The theory of relativity says that everything is a constant, the speed of light. The theory of relativity implies a universal constant. Applied to morality, one could argue that this implies that there is a universal morality, independent of the culture.

    Although I believe there is a universal morality, I do not believe that we necessarily know what that universal morality is. Although I believe we have an intrinsic knowledge of right or wrong, I also believe that we can be mistaken about it. Most of us have had times when we did what we thought was right and later realized that what we did was wrong.

    Free speech, is key to our being closest to an accurate perception of what is moral and what is not since it makes available to us all sides of an issue, and democracy is key in giving us the power to act in a moral way.   In a democracy the majority rules and although it is possible for the majority to be wrong it is more likely that an individual will be wrong. In addition it is more likely that the majority will be more concerned with their welfare than an individual will be.

One of the reasons Free Speech is important is that different opinions can be heard so that conclusions as to what is right and wrong will be as accurate as possible.

   John Kekes gave a great speech in which he discussed the problems of moral relativism ( 4/2/04).   Here is an excerpt.

Suppose for the moment that relativism is right: all beliefs are cultural artifacts and they do not conform to objective facts; they merely reflect how a culture views the world, not how the world is. Two consequences follow, each devastating for relativists. First, if what relativists claim holds for all beliefs, then it holds for relativism as well. It too is a cultural artifact and it does not conform to objective facts. Relativism, then, tells us nothing about the truth; it tells us merely what relativists have been culturally conditioned to believe about the truth. People who believe that relativism is false because some beliefs do conform to objective facts are also culturally conditioned. In that case, however, there is no more reason to be a relativist than to be an anti-relativist, since neither is a matter of reason at all. Both depend on the cultural conditioning to which people have been subject. It would, then, be just as wrong for relativists to try to impose their views on defenders of “Western civ,” the canon, the classics, the objectivity of science, and the authority of teachers over students as relativists say it is wrong for anti-relativists to impose their views. If relativists attempt to defend their position by claiming that it is not culturally conditioned but actually true, then they cannot consistently maintain their central claim that the truth does not exist. It must exist if they have found it.

    One argument I have heard  for relativistic thinking is that if we judge others as less than us we are being racist.  Of course if those others are objectively evil and we aren't as evil as they are than by facing the truth about that we are not being racist we are just being realistic. 

    Moral relativists in fact tend to judge us more harshly and others less harshly.   Howard Rotberg in an interview with Frontpage Magazine said:

the West began to adopt a moral and cultural relativism, which meant we were encouraged (aided by the Critical Theorists in the universities) to critique every aspect of our own societies, but any critiques of other societies or cultures were damned as constituting "racism". The very concept of "racism" was re-defined so that it could only apply in the case of words or actions by more powerful groups against less powerful groups. The rise of "political correctness" meant that reasoned discourse was difficult in the face of a subversion of language and a "closing of the American mind". Any discourse on Israel was met with discussion-ending use of improper terms such as "cycle of violence", "occupation", "apartheid", and "peace process" (which of course was anything but).

    One motivation to paint the other as no worse than we are maybe to avoid conflict with them.  I read about a father who murdered his daughter in Canada for not wearing the Hijab.  Those defending Islam said that it was just a case of domestic violence and had nothing to do with Islam.  Those who make this defense may be trying to prevent the murder from leading non-Muslims to act against Muslims.  Islamic cultures punish women severely for what they consider to be sexual transgressions.  Islam believes that women should be obedient to the man.

     Michael Ledeen in a Frontpage Symposium about the war on terror had some inciteful comments about multiculturalism.  He said:

So I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. The first is that we have all bought into a theory of human nature which is anti-historical and philosophically false. And that is -- number one, all people are the same; and number two, all people are basically good. This is one of the core doctrines of multiculturalism. We believe it. By and large, all Western societies have bought into this. And we all know that it's false. Both of those statements are false. People are not the same, and people are not all good.

Machiavelli, to whom I devoted a book once -- line one, chapter one, is -- man is more inclined to do evil than to do good. Well, I don't know if it goes that far. But anyway, there's plenty of evil people. That we can certainly agree on.

And number two is that if you grant the existence of evil, and if you look at it and take seriously the things that their leaders are saying today, then you are obliged to act. And the actions you take are very painful...

War and the preparation for war is the normal condition of mankind. That's what human history is. Start with the Old Testament, and read forward, and you have the history of war. That's basically what it's all about -- too bad.

 One of the reasons that people like multiculturalism may be precisely because they don't want to have to make the sacrifices necessary to fight evil.

* There was an interesting dialog between Socrates and Protagoras about the concept of truth being relative.  The dialog is given below.

Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.

Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?

Protagoras: Indeed I do.

Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.

Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates.


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