Is Moral Relativism Right?

Associate professor of philosophy David Jensen deconstructed the writings of Thomas Nagel and the idea of moral relativism at a recent installment of the Philosophy Lecture Series.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 27, 2016)—In 2008, Christian Smith, a sociologist from Notre Dame, conducted a David Jensensurvey of a wide sample of young adults across America about their opinions on the morality of several key issues. Overwhelmingly the response was that morals were a matter of personal taste with a typical answer being something along the lines of “Who am I to say what is right for them?” This is a classic response in theories of moral relativism.

David Jensen, an associate professor of philosophy at BYU, tackled the idea of moral relativism in a recent lecture. “[Moral relativism is] not people having different beliefs of morality,” Jensen explained. “But the position that different, even contradictory moral views are equally correct or true in some sense. Moral truths or facts vary from person to person and group to group.”

Thomas Nagel in The View From Nowhere highlights the difficulty of philosophers in tackling ideas of moral relativism. “This is more than the usual wish to transcend one’s predecessors, for it includes a rebellion against the philosophical impulse itself which is felt as humiliating and unrealistic,” quoted Jensen. He continued by expressing the difficulty of the theoretical problem of moral relativity: “It’s just really difficult to give a correct and convincing theory of morality.”

There are two types of practical moral relativism: individual and cultural. Individual moral relativism is the idea that values vary from person to person and each person has their own valid set of morals. There is no concept of correct moral principles; everything is based on what an individual desires.

The problem with individual moral relativism is that it lacks a concept of guiding principles of right or wrong. “One of the points of morality is to guide our lives, tell us what to do, what to desire, what to object to, what character qualities to develop and which ones not to develop,” said Jensen. If morality is already based on personal desire, he continued, there is no way to distance oneself from a situation to find a truly objective moral ground and make a decision based on what is right.

Cultural relativism suggests that a “culture has various standards and those constitute morality.” This viewpoint solves the guidance problem, but also raises the issue that most people identify with several different cultures which could have oppositional values. There is also the issue of tolerance. While thinkers of cultural relativism are clear that it is wrong to impose one’s own cultural values over another, some cultures hold a central value of intolerance.

An example given by Jensen was religious extremist groups. In those cases, groups often have a moral principle of destroying cultures that are different than theirs, thus unseating the notion that cultural relativism is always tolerant. For tolerance to be a true part of cultural relativism, Jensen explained, “tolerance has to be regarded as a universal moral value” which makes it no longer relative.

There are other problems with cultural relativism as well. “[The issue of cultural relativism] is the idea that something is and is not right at the same time,” said Jensen. “The category of a culture is not precise enough to do the work of morality because it’s a loose sort of generalization.”

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Philosophy for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

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