Is Relative Morality Helpful?

I’m no stranger to arguing in favor of a relative moral viewpoint. But I’ve recently come under the realization of a new argument against it: relative morality is possible, it just isn’t helpful. So… is it true?

Before I answer the question, I feel we should elaborate a bit on the background of the morality argument and the claim that’s being made here. For starters, the debate between objective morality and relative morality – whether morals are part of nature or not – has gone on for centuries. I’ve already elaborated on why I like relative morality better, so I won’t discuss that here. Instead, I’ll cut straight to the point.

One of the newer arguments against relative morality goes something like this: Okay, fine, sure. Morality is relative. But does seeing morality as relative really serve to help any of us? If we’re trying to stop a group of terrorists, or put a person behind bars, does it really help to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, technically it’s okay because morality is relative and blah blah blah”. What does thinking about morality in a relative stance give us that thinking about it in an objective stance doesn’t?

Understandable. I think my first point would be to say that if someone is using relative morality as an excuse to shrug their shoulders, they have a fundamental misunderstanding of morality in general. Even in a relative moral landscape, you still have to think about morality – you have to determine what morality means to you, and make choices that lead to a good moral outcome. The only difference is that you acknowledge that there is no universal moral system – you have to determine morality on your own.

So with that out of the way, is thinking in terms of relative morality helpful? Certainly.

Think about the way you have arguments. Everyone knows that the secret to winning an argument is understanding the other person, then converting their position into yours. If you can have a good layout of what the other person thinks, you have a better chance to map a route to your side. 

Now, think about negotiating with a terrorist. You aren’t going to be able to negotiate with them with the assumption that your moral viewpoint is superior and theirs is inferior, because obviously they think it’s the other way around. Instead, if you can understand their moral viewpoint, you’re more likely to convince them to come to your side. 

Morality is inherently argumentative. They don’t want you to know it, but it’s true. While moral objectivists focus on building a theoretical canon of the “true morality”, moral relativists understand the argumentative side of morality and use it to their advantage. 

I’m always learning more about moral arguments (it’s really the only interesting topic in contemporary philosophy), so as always my opinions are set to change. I make fun of moral objectivists a lot, but the arguments do thread pretty close for both sides. Still, I’ll keep writing blog posts on the topic as long as interesting claims continue to be made. 

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