On the objectivity of ethical judgments
The middle way between the Scylla of relativism and the Charybdis of absolutism
These days a lot of my students are moral relativists, that is, they deny the existence of objective moral judgments. Typically they do so out of good intentions, rooted in a sense of tolerance toward other cultures. Who am I, they implicitly ask, to judge the practices of this or that group?
Of course, they do judge the practices of one group or another. Just ask them whether they object to the Nazi perpetrating the Holocaust and their relativism immediately goes out the window. As it should.
Relativism is a form of what philosopher call “anti-realism” in matters of ethics. A relativist doesn’t think that there are facts of the matter about right and wrong, as there are facts of the matter, say, about whether Saturn has rings (assuming you are a realist about planetary features). It’s all opinion, and yours is just as good as mine.
Perhaps the current anti-realist / relativist trend is a predictable, and even welcome, corrective to centuries of its opposite, moral realism, especially the kind founded on religion. As everyone who has been brought up within one of the faiths in the Abrahamic tradition knows well, something is right (or wrong) because God says it is right (or wrong). That’s just as true and real as the rings of Saturn, and you better believe it, or else.
The problem with that sort of approach is that it was debunked by Socrates almost two and a half millennia ago, specifically in the delightful Platonic dialogue known as the Euthyphro. At one point, Socrates puts a crucial question to the obnoxious title character who thinks he knows exactly the difference between pious and impious because he understands the will of the gods so well: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”
Either way you answer, you are in trouble, despite the protestations of countless theologians during the past two millennia. If you take the first horn of the dilemma (something is beloved by the gods because it is holy), then it turns out that we don’t need gods to tell us what is moral, because there appears to be some sort of external standard to which even the gods must defer. If you take the second horn (something is holy because it is beloved by the gods) then you are for all effective purposes arguing that (divine) might makes right, so that morality doesn’t really exist. One way or the other, gods—if they exist—have nothing to do with morality.
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