In philosophy, there is a concept called moral relativism. It was particularly popular in the mid-twentieth century, but has fallen out of favor in many circles today. Aristotle’s famous question – “is conduct right because the gods demand it, or do the gods demand it because it is right” – is answered in moral relativism with a resounding no, to both alternatives. Instead, moral relativism asserts that conduct is right so long as it is in keeping with the conventions of the culture within that conduct takes place, and conduct should only be judged within that context.

Perhaps you can see why this would be appealing to western philosophers in the mid-twentieth century, who were quite concerned with cultural arrogance, and saw democratic methods – that is, majority rule – as the best way to resolve tricky problems. Moral relativism allows any culture to be “right” within its own confines, even if its moral code appears terribly immoral to an outside observer, and it lets the moral code be defined essentially be the will of the majority. Put another way, moral relativism is social norms as morality.

This is essentially the philosophical basis for Star Trek‘s Prime Directive, stating that the Federation should not interfere with the development of prewarp civilizations (the same idea has been seen in other works of literature throughout history, and even in real civilizations, but the Prime Directive is probably the most famous example). In other words, it’s no business of the Federation’s to judge how other cultures are behaving and evolving, so the best thing is to allow them to develop on their own, at least until they reach a level of parity with the Federation. Perhaps you see how this would be a popular idea at the time; it is essentially a repudiation of European attempts to “civilize” the Americas during the Age of Exploration.

Noninterference is probably the most concise summary of applied moral relativism, and when first introduced to this idea many in our modern context find it appealing. After all, how often are we told to “not judge” (even though this is a completely nonsensical directive that if truly implemented would make human interaction completely impossible)? I also was intrigued when I was first introduced to the idea, albeit for different reasons: skepticism demands that must question whether my own philosophies are really any better than anyone else’s, which is the briefest way of summarizing it. However, moral relativism runs into some problems when it collides with deep-seated assumptions.

One of the more famous, or perhaps infamous, repudiations of moral relativism is the example of tribal peoples in Alaska, who used to kill their children if they had too many, because they did not have the resources to sustain larger families (it has since been found that this was a somewhat rare occurrence, and that extra children would usually be passed to another family with few children, rather than killed, but it did happen, and the example still holds even if it is theoretical rather than historical). Most people will instinctively recoil from this as being possibly moral, yet cultural relativism completely justifies such extreme actions (utilitarianism might also justify such actions, but that’s another post). There are other examples – was the practice of human sacrifice in ancient cultures moral and right because it was perfectly acceptable at the time? Yet our laws today, even in religiously tolerant areas, clearly forbid cults and religious groups from practicing their religion if it involves something like human sacrifice (there are several interesting Supreme Court cases around this issue, usually with the less extreme cases of drug use or marital practices).

My philosophy professor saw fit to condemn moral relativism, primarily for these reasons, in no uncertain terms. Of course, my philosophy professor was more interested in telling his students what to think, than teaching them how to think, which is why I tend to refer to that philosophy course as a brainwashing course, but that’s a bit off-topic. I, however, think that the matter is a bit more complicated. This goes back, in many ways, to the idea of narrative physics, and the individual always being the protagonist of their own story. Double Star demonstrated how if you can put yourself fully in someone else’s shoes, even if you didn’t agree with them before, you will come to see how their actions were right from their point of view. That is, in a way, moral relativism at the individual scale.

The engineer in me favors a deontological approach to philosophy. We could write a whole post on deontology, but the premise is that there are, in fact, absolute moral “laws” out there – we just haven’t discovered/learned/characterized them yet. Immanuel Kant was likely the most famous advocate of deontology. In many ways, it’s an idealistic school of thought, and some have called it naïve, but it is appealing to me. Just like there are immutable ways in which the universe functions that we characterize with the laws of physics, I would like to think that there are immutable moral ways in which we ought to function that we can characterize as a moral code. Ironically, deontology condemns moral relativism more strongly than any other philosophy. I think, though, that looking at moral relativism as a philosophy may be the wrong approach. Instead, I look at it like a lens. While it is true that other cultures (and, indeed, our own culture, in all likelihood) might be take what we see as immoral actions as the norm, in order to understand that culture (or that person, since this can also be applied at the individual scale), we have to apply their moral code, not ours.

Going back to the physics analogy, think of it this way. Newton characterized gravity according to a fairly straightforward inverse square law. For centuries, people used Newtonian gravity to help them characterize and understand the universe. Then Einstein came along and proposed general relativity, which completely upended Newtonian gravity and invoked a different mechanism entirely. While Newton may have been “wrong,” his theory of gravity is still taught in schools, and is the most commonly used in many practical applications, including satellite operations. Yet there are some problems with Einstein’s general relativity, too. We may find one day that there is a better theory out there, and that Einstein was “wrong.”

I’d like to think that morality might be a lot like that. There have been all kinds of different theories of morality throughout history, and we have various theories at play today. What was moral a century ago may not be moral today, and what is moral today might well not be moral in another century. That doesn’t make what happened in the past right, as moral relativism would claim, but it does mean that in order to understand the past we can’t apply today’s theory of morality. In this way, we can say today that human sacrifice is wrong, without condemning civilizations that practiced it as evil or barbaric. They were doing the best they can with what they understood about the world, just as we are. We just have the good fortune of maybe understanding a little more.

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