: First of all, let's put aside the notion of cultural relativism for the moment. In Husker
's initial post, after all, the quotation suggested that morality is an "individual choice."
Secondly, we need at least a working definition of "morality." Morality is susceptible to a variety of different definitions
, and I don't intend to get into the finer points of the debate. For our purposes, then, I'll simply define "morality" as a system of beliefs regarding right and wrong conduct.
1. To the extent that moral relativism is moral, it is not relative.
If morality is, at its core, a system of beliefs regarding right and wrong conduct, then moral relativism posits that each person can operate under different
sets of beliefs. More importantly, moral relativism posits that no one set of beliefs is entitled to precedence over another: in other words, there is no "correct" morality, just individual sets of beliefs. Thus if person X believes that lying is wrong, whereas person Y believes that lying is right, the doctrinaire moral relativist would assert that X is moral insofar as he does not
lie, and Y is moral insofar as he does
lie. Furthermore, there is no standard by which X could condemn Y's actions or his set of beliefs as "immoral," since Y is moral to the extent that Y's actions conform to Y's moral beliefs.
This argument, however, rests on an insoluble paradox (as I have pointed out elsewhere
). For if all moralities are equal, what do we do with the personal moral belief that holds that no one else's moral beliefs are to be respected? For instance, X, in the above hypothetical, might say: "not only does my personal set of beliefs hold that lying is immoral, but it also holds that I am not obliged to respect anyone else's beliefs that conflict with my
moral code." If X is correct (as the moral relativists would have to agree), then Y's morality is immoral. If, on the other hand, X is not correct, then there must be some objective
moral belief that can resolve the dispute.
In fact, moral relativism rests on an objective
set of beliefs: most importantly is the belief in some level of respect for others. Under moral relativism, X cannot impose his beliefs on Y because it would be immoral
to do so, yet that presupposes that there is at least one moral precept (i.e. respect for others) that is not relative
Consequently, if moral relativism is, in fact, a type of morality, it rests upon an objective standard. To the extent, therefore, that it is moral, it is not relative.
2. To the extent that moral relativism is relative, it is not moral.
If morality is a set of beliefs regarding right and wrong conduct, then there must be some standard by which we can distinguish this set of beliefs from purely arbitrary choices. If, for instance, X believes that lying is wrong, then we can only call this a moral
belief if we can distinguish it from a belief that is either "immoral" or "amoral." Otherwise, there would be no reason to label the belief "moral" as opposed to something else, like "personal preference" or "arbitrary whim."
Yet if X's morality is truly personal, then X is under no objective obligation to maintain a consistent
set of moral beliefs. If he were under such an obligation, it would either be because he set up such an obligation for himself -- and then he could always discard that moral precept whenever he saw fit to do so -- or else he was under an objective
obligation -- and that possibility is removed under moral relativism. As a result, X is free to maintain both
that lying is wrong and that lying is right
, since the only thing that would prevent him from taking these inconsistent positions would be another
moral precept that prohibited inconsistency, and, as we have seen, X is either under no such obligation or else is under an obligation that he imposed upon himself and which would be no more binding than any other self-imposed moral precept.
What is "moral," therefore, is whatever a person chooses to do, since a person can always declare that any particular act conforms to that person's set of beliefs. If X says "lying is wrong," X is also free to say "but in this case, I am right to make an exception," and there would be no standard by which we could say that he was incorrect in either instance. Thus, moral relativism cannot distinguish between "moral" acts and "immoral" acts. There is no independent standard by which the distinction can be made, which makes a definition impossible. A "moral act," then, is the same as a "capricious act" or an "arbitrary act," and "morality" has no independent meaning. Thus, to the extent that moral relativism is relative, it is not moral.
3. Cultural relativism
Many of the foregoing remarks apply to an examination of cultural relativism. If, for instance, culture X holds that lying is wrong, while culture Y holds that lying is right, are we obliged to say that both
cultures are correct? Insofar as we are not required to say that the differing individual
moralities of persons X and Y are correct, I think we are likewise under no requirement to say that the differing cultural
moralities of cultures X and Y are correct. After all, if we hold that respecting cultural diversity is objectively
right, then we maintain that, at least on one level, cultural relativism does not apply. On the other hand, if we hold that every culture is right as to itself
, then we are either maintaining that there is a moral obligation to remain consistent within the culture
(which again sets up an objective standard), or else we maintain that a culture is right in whatever it does
(which makes "morality" the same thing as "wilfullness"). Thus, cultural relativism leads us into the same paradoxes that confront us when we deal with individual relativism.