As parents, we all want to teach our kids about values, norms, morality, and ethics. We want our children to fundamentally be good people. However, our world tends to be torn between people who see morality as black and white or subjective to the individual or culture. Essentially moral realism vs. moral relativism.
If morals are important to us as parents then we have to consider where we stand on this point. If we don’t we are potentially leading our children down a dangerous path toward an ethical quagmire.
So today I wanted to attempt to briefly discuss both. Their points of view, their problems, their claims. And potentially show a middle ground, because you’ll soon find, the like most things today, they are extreme polar opposites.
I’ll try to keep it short and sweet, but philosophy and most of life is neither simple nor easy. So please bear with me.
What is Moral Relativism?
Moral relativism is the idea that all ethical standards are cultural and therefore subject to individual choice. We can all decide what is right and wrong for ourselves. You decide what’s right for you and I decide for me.
Scholars have argued that this implies that life is ultimately without meaning. It renders words like ought and should as meaningless and claims that morality is neutral.
Essentially, moral relativism says that anything goes, because life is ultimately without meaning. Words like “ought” and “should” are rendered meaningless. In this way, moral relativism makes the claim that it is morally neutral.
What’s Wrong With that?
While I love the idea of live and let live as a moral construct. It has a number of problems.
#1 Implies Neutrality
The question is whether or not morality can be neutral. Moral relativism implies that morals are dependent upon the viewpoint of the individual or culture. Which is true to an small extent. However, most cultures so have social norms against murder and stealing, which implies that some things are universally wrong.
Moral relativists claim that morals are subject to the perceptions of individuals and their societal culture. However, that also leads to a problem. It makes it exceedingly hard to come to any sort of societal agreement on moral actions. You can see this today in our polar politics with neither side being able to agree on the right course of action.
#3 Fact vs Opinion
Moral relativism is based more on feelings about an action than the facts. We feel that a murder should go free because she killed an abusive husband. However, does that make what she did not wrong? Does it mean that she shouldn’t pay for her crime at all? And if you look at where that could lead, you quickly see that it’s a slippery slope.
From there we could justify that it’s legally justifiable to torrent something on the internet because we believe that Hollywood overcharges us. This may be true, but can we really say that makes it right to take something that people worked hard on for free because of our feelings and personal opinions?
And where else could all of that lead from there? Slippery slope indeed. Moral relativism gives us the misconception that we can justify wrong actions based on our feelings leading up to them.
#4 Contradicts Itself
A third problem is that relativism claims facts but then contradicts them. Even in the most black & white situations. True facts have no contradictions. We know that a circle is a circle. We know that a square is a square. A fact can be perceived differently by different people, but ultimately is still a fact. The law of non-contradiction applies to all facts. Morality, no matter how inconvenient, is no exception.
While it is a fact that cultures have different values to some extent, all societies and religions tend to have at least some similar foundations, which theoretically invalidates the argument as nearly every culture holds disdain for murder and thieves. They also tend to advocate that you be kind to your neighbor. There are things that are theoretically right and wrong such as murder and thievery.
Moral Realism, on the other hand, suggests that moral facts exist and that these are objective and independent of our perceptions. Our feelings, beliefs, and attitudes do not affect them. This method is more based in logic reasoning, which may be why it sits in conflict with moral relativism, which appears to be based more on our feelings.
Problems with Moral Realism
So, I did a lot of research for this post. I wanted to be able to share the views, pros, cons, of both. However, I’ve had a lot of trouble finding information about the problems with moral relativism. So I’m working simply based on my own perceptions of it here.
#1 Life is not Black and White
While I do believe that there are things that are absolutely right and wrong, moral realism leaves little room for shades of gray. This implies that a woman punished for murdering someone out of spite should be the same as someone who murdered to defend herself. This is simply not true.
#2 & 3 No feelings or Compassion
It leaves room for no feelings about morals. It is an entirely logic-based system. And we are feeling creatures just as much as we try to be logical ones. Without feelings, we would be no better at deciding just courses of action than the computer in War Games. It takes out the potential for compassion.
And while I know compassion is a feeling, I think feelings do count a lot of our human experience. So I’m going to say that’s a two for one.
But is there a middle ground?
The people on the news and in the media would have you believe that one or the other is right or wrong. However, that’s too simple. I think both have a place. Just as I believe that determinism (that there is a pattern to all order and chaos/fate) and free will. Just as I believe that there is a middle ground where science and religion meet, maybe even crosses over (quantum physics).
Personally, I think that there is still a lot about our world that we don’t understand. That we can still view as magical in nature. Hell, everything that is scientific is still magical to me. It’s amazing to me that the world can produce so many neat reactions even if we can explain them. I think that our very existence based on our knowledge of the solar system and the universe is extraordinary. The fact that our bodies function on such individual levels, each one having its own quirks, pros, and cons.
The magic of our scientific world aside, there is a middle ground for nearly everything in this world.
What is it?
I think that all of us can agree that there are certain things that are right and wrong.
- Perseverance against adversity.
- Bullying (being mean, hurtful, etc)
And I am sure that there are others. Again just trying to keep things simple. There are things that we universally value as right or wrong.
Also, I believe that there are things subjective to our experience. To our own perception of these values. I can’t define these for you. This is why there are so many differing opinions. I can share a few of my own opinions as examples, but these are going to be a little different for each of us.
- A woman who murders her abusive husband still needs to pay for her crime, but maybe not spend as much time in jail. Or maybe she needs to spend one year in jail and the rest of her sentence be mandated to work in a program (potentially at a lower wage as those things generally do not pay well) that helps pull women out of those situations. How better to give back and pay for her “crime” than to help others out of the same situation.
- Abortion. I personally do not condone abortion. However, I do not believe that it is my right based on my religious views to take that right away from someone else. Streaming. I stream a lot of things online. But I realize its wrong. I don’t justify it. While I don’t.
And there are many more examples. Just remember these are examples. Ideas. There is room for shades of gray, but there will always be prue right and wrong.
Think of the Children
As parents, we have to determine which of these views or to what extent our children are exposed to these views. We have to share with them our own personal views and help show them the pros and cons of both. Only by sharing both can we come to a realization of what each means and what the middle ground may be.
None of us can exist at either extreme. Despite what the media may imply to the contrary. Extremes don’t work. They don’t empower us, the inhibit us from our full potentials. As with all things we need to find a balance. A middle ground. I don’t care if its a middle ground in politics, religion vs. Science, determinism vs free will. There is a middle ground to nearly everything and finding them is the way we find balances in our lives.
When we push to either extreme we have problems. In moral realism, we have a problem of not adding feeling to the equation of not seeing the degree of a moral. In moral relativism, we have the problem of ignoring logic. We have the potential to ignore facts, both moral and otherwise.
Finding the middle ground is the reasonable option to balance both our logic and our feelings.