On Relative Morality

Photo by Sara Darcaj on Unsplash

So this is not the sort of topic I dive into often. Perhaps some of my blog posts wax on the philosophical, but I try to stay away from the large abstractions that philosophy can create. So, why am I choosing now to talk about relative morality?

I can see two major reasons. Firstly, morality is one of the more practical issues philosophy handles. In the current environment where we all seem to think one thing is good or bad and attack each other for it, I think it is an especially important thing to keep in mind. Secondly, I think it’s pretty fascinating that it’s the philosophical viewpoint I’ve held the longest. I can predate it back, at the very least, to when I was doing the Cup of Pseudo-Philosophy series back on the old blog around 5-6 years ago. When I look at all the other ideas I thought up around that time, they seem laughably cringy at best. So what makes relative morality so enticing, and yet so resilient?

I think a big part of my view now with relative morality is that it helps to reconcile radically different moral viewpoints across cultures and across time periods. You can think of a lot of different examples of this — one might be the use of religious terrorism, or the propensity for war across time, or differences in age of consent across countries — and all these different examples seem to point towards relative morality in mutual exclusivity of absolute morality. In other words, there are no real ways to make a case for absolute morality in understanding historical cases such as Nazi brainwashing or child brides (at least, from what I can understand — see my “call for arguments” at the end of this post). You can see arguments for other ideas within morality, such as evolutionary morality (murder is seen as immoral across all cultures due to the fact that it reduces proliferation of the species), but in this case evolutionary morality is not mutually exclusive against relative morality.

Now, despite there being a lot of arguments in the case for relative morality, I can understand the idea that waving off big moral issues as “well it’s all relative so it doesn’t really matter” is pretty counterproductive. We still need to have these conversations, because we as a society need to understand our ought and ought-nots in order to move forward. 

And I think this is where relative morality comes in handy. If you can understand that relative morality exists, then it is easier to understand and not dehumanize the other person. And if it is easier to understand and not dehumanize the other person, then it is easier for you to construct an argument that leads the person to your opinion of what right ought to be.

You see, this all really comes back down to the communication idea. We communicate morals differently. What relative morality provides us is the flexibility to help others understand our moral viewpoint, and for us to understand theirs — no matter how light/heavy the differences can be. 

That’s all I have for now, but as I mentioned earlier I do appreciate any arguments against my ideas, and is especially the case for absolute morality. I think the morality debate is in general something special, and so if you have any arguments you think are great for the other side, I encourage you to post them down below. 

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