Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Addressing the conditioned relativist: Part One

Public speaking is one of those classes I thought I could avoid. Since I’ve decided to get my Bachelors of Science in Nursing, this is no longer the case. On short notice I took up the project to write a five to seven minute persuasive speech against moral relativism (it was less fun than I imagined). If anyone was going to, it had to be a Parousian. This is my first direct attempt at bringing Catholicism to contemporary culture through the classroom. I give the speech (a modified version of the following) next Tuesday; pray for open minds and hearts.
(Note: the funny single-liners are “transition statements” required for class.)

What is the number one export of the United States? What is it that this country supplies in monumental quantities to the rest of the world? Ideas. However, because most people in the United States grow up with these ideas, and they are so immersed in their own culture, they may not realize how much these certain thought trends affect their way of thinking. I am thinking of a particular idea for which the United States is well known: moral relativism. In brief, moral relativism is a philosophy that denies moral absolutes and claims morality changes with the times, is subjective to thoughts and feelings, and is dependent on individuals.

The contemporary philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “The issue of moral relativism is merely the single most important issue of our age, for no society in all of human history has ever survived without rejecting this philosophy… There has never been a society of relativists.” Because moral relativism is such a pressing issue, especially in our country, I am going look at two of the popular arguments for this philosophy based on cultural relativism and freedom with emphasis on promoting its counterpart, absolutism – or the acceptance of moral absolutes.

To exemplify cultural relativism, let’s briefly consider a particular practice in the ancient Aztec culture.

For the Aztecs, human sacrifice was an integral part of their culture and beliefs. The question is… can we as outsiders objectively say whether or not this practice was immoral? Do we have any foundation to genuinely condemn this practice which took innocent lives? Note: I am specifically speaking of judging the action, not the people because their culpability for their actions is another matter entirely.

Some may believe that the Aztecs had the right to kill innocent victims because of their cultural understanding, but I would venture to bet that most believe that this practice should be abolished. The belief that we cannot comment on another culture’s morality is the basic tenet of cultural relativism. Like discovering different properties of chemicals, anthropologists and sociologists have discovered that moral values differ by culture. Some have concluded that this means there is no foundation for a binding system of morals. Relating back to the Aztecs then, human sacrifice would be morally right for them but considered morally wrong in our contemporary culture. Under the banner of cultural relativism, what is wrong in one culture can be considered right in another one. Morality becomes more associated with when and where you happen to be than the intrinsic value of a human person. Thus, according to cultural relativism, one of the failures of the Nazis wasn’t that they killed Jews, but they tried to bring it to other people who were equally justified by culture on their moral stance against these actions.

Besides my appeal to the moral conscience with examples, the argument for cultural relativism is fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes that morality is defined by what a culture teaches, or their values. Thus, your moral rightness is determined by your ability to always and unconditionally obey these culturally determined values. This argument is presupposing moral relativism to prove moral relativism.

So should rightness be determined solely by strict adherence to generally accepted norms of a given society, or is there sometimes a moral obligation to disobey certain values if those values can be deemed unjust? A moral relativist cannot point at Muslim terrorists and claim what they’re doing is wrong because they’re operating under their cultural influence, and thus it really is right. Nor can he look at those reformers who fought for equal rights for slaves and women as good because they went against the widely accepted cultural values of their day. All moral reform would have to be considered intrinsically evil.

To those who claim that another culture’s values cannot be deemed better or worse, but only different – this is an example of the linguistic confusion between objective true values and subjective value opinions which paralyzes cultural relativism. Analogously, we can distinguish between the objective truth that genetics influence the development of personality and the subjective opinion about to what extent genetics determine personality. Changing your opinion about how genetics influence behavior doesn’t change the reality or actually affect the way genetics and behavior is related. Just because one culture has opinions about what is right and another disagrees does not change the reality behind the debate. In fact without objective true values there would be no debate. We may never have complete knowledge of these things, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t have an adequate understanding of the moral law and that some moral systems are either more or less adequate than others.

In giving the cultural relativism argument people tend to point out differences, but cultures generally have more commonalities than differences. They may emphasize certain values over others, such as the Japanese emphasize community, whereas Americans emphasize individuality. However, there is no society that hates love and loves hatred; no society that prizes betrayal, selfishness, cowardice and despises honesty, courage, and justice. Such a society would devour itself.

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