A few weeks ago, I blogged favorably about secular humanism even though it is a term that most conservatives view suspiciously. Earlier this week, the NY Times had an article on moral relativism, which is a similarly suspect word, and I wondered if it, too, has an undeserved bad reputation.
Regarding my blogging on secular humanism, I posted the following definition of the term:
- “A philosophy that espouses human reason, ethics, and justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making. Secular Humanism is a comprehensive life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead happy and functional lives…. Fundamental to the concept of Secular Humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith. Along with this, an essential part of Secular Humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.”
Based on that definition, I concluded that those values strike me as imminently reasonable for America, especially as our nation becomes more diverse religiously. Although an Archbishop of Canterbury had warned that Christian tradition “was in danger of being undermined by a Secular Humanism which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith,” I didn’t think that was a significant criticism of the philosophy. In fact, the criticism reminded me of the term “cultural Jew,” and Judaism has been able to deal with that.
In my blog, I also noted that “theologians have blamed Secular Humanism generally for moral relativism and specifically for the prevalence of drugs, sex, feminism, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality,” and that brings me to today’s subject – moral relativism.
According to the NY Times article, “The Maze of Moral Relativism,” by Paul Boghossian:
- “Relativism about morality has come to play an increasingly important role in contemporary culture. To many thoughtful people, and especially to those who are unwilling to derive their morality from a religion, it appears unavoidable. Where would absolute facts about right and wrong come from, they reason, if there is no supreme being to decree them? We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.”
When I first read this passage, I thought the concept of moral relativism sounded akin to secular humanism, but further examination and closer readings reveal critical differences.
The website “moral-relativism” defines the term as, “the view that ethical standards, morality, and positions of right or wrong are culturally based.”
The website “gotquestions” uses contrast to provide a definition:
- “Moral relativism is more easily understood in comparison to moral absolutism. Absolutism claims that morality relies on universal principles (natural law, conscience). Christian absolutists believe that God is the ultimate source of our common morality, and that it is, therefore, as unchanging as He is. Moral relativism asserts that morality is not based on any absolute standard. Rather, ethical ‘truths’ depend on variables such as the situation, culture, one’s feelings, etc.”
My personal bible Wikipedia describes three types of moral relativism, none of which is appealing to me:
- “Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:
- “Descriptive relativism describes the way things are, without suggesting a way they ought to be. It seeks only to point out that people frequently disagree over what is the most ‘moral’ course of action.
- Meta-ethical relativism is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective. Justifications for moral judgments are not universal, but are instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people. The meta-ethical relativist might say “It’s moral to me, because I believe it is.”
- Normative relativism is the prescriptive or normative position that, because there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.
Because I found moral relativism unappealing, I decided to consider moral absolutism or moral universalism. According to Wendy Connick in TailoredContent.com, moral universalism is:
- “… the philosophy that argues for the existence of a universal ethic. Certain behaviors are simply wrong regardless of the circumstances…. Universalism is based on the idea of a ‘rational test’ that can be applied to any ethical dilemma. The exact nature of this test varies widely among different factions of universalists. For example, utilitarianism states that the correct rational test is ‘Does my action create the maximum good for the maximum number of people?’ If the answer is yes, then a utilitarianist would say that the action is morally correct. Moral universalism in the form of human rights has become widely accepted in the past several decades. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions (which define fair treatment of prisoners of war) are based on the theory of moral universalism. In other words, human beings all have certain rights and to deny those rights is always immoral.”
- “Moral Universalism is the meta-ethical position that there is a universal ethic which applies to all people, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality or other distinguishing feature, and all the time. A universal ethic is a moral system that applies universally to all of humanity, and thus transcends culture and personal whim. The source or justification of this system is variously claimed to be human nature, a shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, common themes among existing moral codes, or the mandates of religion. It is the opposite of Moral Relativism, the position that moral propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.”
Based on these descriptions, I believe the differences between secular humanism and moral relativism are greater than the similarities. Secular humanism is a quest for ethics, justice, and human fulfillment. Moral relativism doesn’t bother with the quest because it’s all relative.
The import of last line in the quote from the NY Times article is what I missed during my first reading – “We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.”
I disagree. Some moral codes are better than others, and the better ones will prevail over time.