Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- November 28, 2005

A Defense of Moral Relativism

(Originally, "A Moral Philosophy for Progressives")

Ernest Partridge

Adapted for inclusion in Chapter Fifteen of Conscience of a Progressive.

Shortly before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a homily at mass, in which he warned against Marxism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism. “Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism “ he said, “whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teachings, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards.”

The Pope’s condemnation of relativism strikes a responsive note among the conservative Protestants of the religious right. For example, Jerry Falwell writes:

Our nation's schools have replaced God with moral relativism and situational ethics.. [Our] children learn that there are no absolute truths, no moral authorities, no governing principles to guide their behavior.

Ryan Dobson puts it much more directly. “Moral relativism,” he writes, is “the notion that there’s no right or wrong.”

If you enter the words “moral relativism” and “religious right” in Google, you will get almost 29 thousand hits. Having examine a few dozen articles so listed, I can report that there is one sentiment that clearly unites all religious right opinions of “moral relativism” that I encountered: They are against it. But while the religious right is quick to apply “moral relativism” as an epithet to all kinds of evils of modernism, secularism, and liberalism, the right is apparently reluctant to define it. Accordingly, the defender of moral relativism faces an obstacle similar to that of the defender of liberalism: one must begin by casting off the burden of slander that has been attached to the concept, and then proceed to define it correctly.

The moral relativism that I will present affirms and defends ethical standards and moral conduct. It does not, as the Pope accuses, "[let] oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching." And it most emphatically does not assert that "there's no right or wrong." The relativism that I will defend denies that there are simple, inviolable “absolute” rules of conduct. The moral relativist is quite prepared to recognize virtuous and wicked behavior. But this relativist insists that living a moral life is not a simple matter. Such a life is complicated, not by an absence of moral rules, but rather by the abundance of such rules and the resulting conflict amongst them. A virtuous life is distinguished by choices of good over evil, which display the individual’s moral will. But it is also marked by preferable choices among conflicting and mutually exclusive goods, or among necessary and unavoidable evils, and to wisely resolve these conflicts, moral will does not suffice. In addition, one must have moral intelligence. (I will elaborate on these points in the closing section).

The following are three interpretations of “moral relativism” that are not only plausible; they are, I submit, unavoidable.

Relativism of Application.

Morality (i.e. actual conduct, “practice”) is by definition particular. It is manifested in specific acts and circumstances. To use a term detested by the fundamentalists, morality is “situational.” As Garrett Hardin puts it, “the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” In contrast, moral commandments, said by the fundamentalists to be “absolute,” are by nature abstract. Thus, by the fundamentalists’ account, the moral life consists of absolute obedience (with no exceptions) to divine commandments in the day to day conduct of one’s personal life. The paradigm example of these absolute rules are The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus, Chapter 20.

How is the devout individual to know if he is in full compliance with these Divine Commandments?

In some cases, obedience to a commandment is simple and straightforward. For example, grabbing someone’s car keys and driving off with his vehicle is a clear violation of the eighth commandment. (“Thou shalt not steal”). But other cases may or may not fall under this commandment – a consideration to which we will return.

Consider the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” This commandment takes up four verses, though the relevant elaboration is: “... in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, they manservant, not thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.” Reading this, how is the believer, with the purest of motives, to know if he is obedient to this commandment during each and every Sabbath day? Attempts to answer this question take up several volumes of the Talmud, and, in the Christian literature, still more volumes.

Does the commandment forbid driving a car to Sabbath services, as the Orthodox Jews proclaim? (Exodus is silent about the permitted use of automobiles). If an orthodox doctor, while walking to the synagogue, encounters an accident, is he allowed to come to the aid of the injured (i.e. “work”). If they hold sufficient political power, should those who adhere to this commandment enforce it upon others, through the enactment and enforcement of laws? And by the way, who decreed that the “holy day” is to be Sunday (the first day), and not Saturday (the seventh, or “Sabbath”). It’s not in the Bible.

Next, the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing...” The Moslems take this very seriously. Visit a mosque and you will never find a statue or an image of a person or object. You will find instead exquisite geometrical patterns. The Catholic church chooses to disregard this commandment. I was personally very gratified that they did on the day I visited St. Peters Basilica in Rome and gazed upon Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”

And so on, with the other Commandments. (I could go on, but it is not my intention to write another Talmud). The variety of particular morally significant circumstances that all believers will encounter in the course of their lives is virtually infinite, while each of these Ten Commandment is brief, singular and abstract. When do these Commandments “command,” and when are they inapplicable? “It depends.” In other words, morality – the particular application of abstract rules -- is “situational,” “contextual,” “a function of the state of the system.” Which is to say, relative.

Relativism of Meaning.

As promised, we return now to the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” And again, some cases clearly and unequivocally fall under this commandment: e.g., car-jacking, burglary, embezzlement. Unfortunately, meaning of the verb “to steal” is not entirely clear and unambiguous. (I will set aside the huge problem of the translation of the original ancient Hebrew word. See my “Through a Glass Darkly”). Consider two interpretations of “stealing” from opposite poles of political philosophy.

  • To the Marxist, capitalism is evil because the capitalist “steals” the product of the worker’s labor – in Marxist jargon, the “surplus value” – from the creator of that product.

  • To the Libertarian, taxation for any purpose other than the securing of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property, is an illegitimate seizing of personal property – in other words, stealing.

Which of these applications fall under the prohibition against stealing? The Marxist’s? The Libertarian’s? Both? Neither? “It depends” – it depends on what one means by “stealing.” In other words, “it’s relative.”

Relativism of meaning is conspicuous in the Roman Catholic faith, wherein there are many absolute prohibitions which, while easy enough to articulate, can appear to be morally repugnant when applied to extreme particular circumstances.  Thus "relativism of meaning" combines with "relativism of application," above.

Consider the absolute prohibition against divorce: “What God hath joined, let no man put asunder.” But what if an abusive and deranged husband is a threat to the life of the wife and children? Permanent separation is one solution. But this will deprive the wife of the support and the children of a stable home that may result from a new marriage. Too bad: no divorce allowed. So why not decide, instead, that a valid marriage never happened in the first place. This may require a meticulous review and examination of the circumstances of the putative “marriage,” along with an extension of the list of conditions that would invalidate the marriage. Voila! Annulment – the non-divorce divorce. Accomplished through a re-definition of “valid marriage.”

Next: the absolute prohibition against abortion. But what to do with ectopic pregnancies – the implantation of the fertilized egg (conceptus) in the woman’s fallopian tube. The fetus will not survive, and the woman’s life is seriously threatened. Abortion? Absolutely not! It’s “murder!” “The doctrine of double-effect to the rescue!” It is “licit” to remove the ectopic fetus in order to save the life of the woman. But this is not abortion, since the primary intent is to preserve the life of the mother. “Terminating” the life of the fetus is not the intention of the operation, it was a regrettable, albeit inevitable, side-effect. A non-abortion abortion.

In short, if an absolute commandment proves, in its applications, to be intolerable, don’t abandon the commandment, just redefine its component terms so as to exclude the problematic applications. Thus it turns out that some absolute commandments are more absolute than others.

Finally, moral absolutism rests upon an assumption of perfect semantic clarity: what Whitehead called “the fallacy of the perfect dictionary.” Natural languages are not like that. Instead, they are inherently vague and ambiguous. First of all, definitions contain words, which require definition, which contain more words, etc. forever. Second, the world contains an infinitude of separately nameable entities, while languages have finite vocabularies (individual speakers of the language have smaller vocabularies). Third, words acquire separate meanings in various contexts, leading some analytic philosophers to claim that the fundamental unit of language is not the word, it is the sentence. Fourth, natural languages, and their component meanings, are constantly changing. (There’s more, but let this much suffice). It follows that moral absolutism is impossible, simply because it is impossible to articulate moral commandments with absolute clarity. Moral commandments are inexorably tied to the imperfect languages that express them. Hence, moral relativism.

Relativism of Conflict.

Once one accepts a plurality of ethical principles, moral absolutism is done for. Exodus Chapter 20 lists Ten Commandments. And there are numerous additional commandments throughout the Bible, as well as the body of criminal and civil law. With a plurality of ethical rules, it is certain that some will come in conflict with others, and then one must choose one in favor of another. Which one? It depends upon the particular situation, and the moral judgment of the individual. And that, dear reader, means moral relativism.

It won’t do to live according to one single principle, disregarding all the rest. Such an individual is not a moralist; that person is a fanatic. Moliere’s play, The Misanthrope, portrays an individual who obeys absolutely just one commandment: never to tell a lie. The consequences, as one might imagine, are disastrous.

The relativism of conflict was vividly displayed during one of Phil Donahue’s TV shows, several years ago. A lawyer associated with a fundamentalist “right to life” group, emphatically proclaimed that God absolutely forbids lying.

“You mean,” Donahue asked,” that there is no conceivable instance in which lying is permitted?”

He replied, “I can’t think of one, can you?”

“Of course! It's 1944 and I'm in Amsterdam, standing in front of the house that is hiding Anne Frank and her family. A Gestapo officer asks me if there are any Jews hiding in that house. Surely I should lie to him.”

The lawyer pondered for a moment, then said, “I’d refuse to answer.”

Of course, that evasion can be easily blocked by stipulating that one is aware that silence would result in a Gestapo raid.

The example I use in class is that of an aggressive District Attorney ducking behind a dumpster, followed soon thereafter by a Mafia hit man, gun in hand. “Did you see someone go in that alley, or did he run ahead up the street?” Tell the truth, and you will be guilty of the crime of Accessory to Murder. Of course you lie. It is a moral imperative. Hence “do not lie” is not an absolute commandment.

Last month I was visited by two Mormon missionaries, who read to me the Twelfth Article of Faith of their religion: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

I asked, “what do you do if the President that you are subject to violates the law, or still worse orders you to violate the law? Which do you obey, the President or the Law?”

He replied: “I’d pray on it, and ask the Lord for guidance.” Touching, but not very helpful.

And so on, with the other commandments. You can readily imagine conflicts in which violation of one or another rule is unavoidable. Here’s another challenge: state an ethical rule for which it is impossible to imagine some particular emergency that would morally require you violate it. If you can’t, then you are a moral relativist.

Are there no Moral Absolutes?

As a steadfast skeptic and relativist, I am inclined to never say “never”!

So let’s look for some exceptionless moral commandments.

The Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” won’t do, since the Bible itself specifies exceptions such as self-defense, just war, and just punishment. In fact, the Bible prescribes capital punishment for such offenses as working on the Sabbath, a child’s disobedience, and premarital sex (by women only, of course). For those who do not accept the Bible as a moral authority, self-defense and just war remain as reasonable exceptions. The death penalty, however, is a highly controversial issue.

Then how about “Thou shalt not murder,” which, I am told, is the correct translation of the original Hebrew word, “ratsach.”

To be sure, there is no conceivable exception to this commandment. But that is because it is not, logically speaking, an authentic commandment. It is a tautology – a “truth by definition.”

This is why: We are asked to take the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Ten Commandments to be statements of (allegedly) God’s commandments as to what conduct is, or is not, morally justifiable in The Lord’s eyes. Thus “Thou Shalt Not...” means “it is forbidden” or “it is not justifiable.”

Now “murder” is surely defined as “unjustified killing” – i.e., not in self-defense, or in a just war, or by God’s command.

Hence “Thou Shalt Not Murder” parses out as: “Unjustified Killing is Unjustified.” Begin to spell out the meaning of “justification,” and you are returning to the realm of moral guidance.

If there are universal (“absolute”) ethical precepts, they are more likely to be found, not in commandments of the form, “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not,” but rather in the psychological and logical foundations of ethics – what moral philosophers call “meta-ethics.”

Fundamental to the moral life is a disposition to think and act morally. This disposition issues from what David Hume and Adam Smith called “the moral sentiments” of empathy and benevolence. By empathy is meant the ability to recognize in others, the felt experience of pleasures and pains of which one is familiar in one’s own life. By benevolence is meant a personal desire for the well-being of others, and a motivation to mitigate the misfortune of others.

Empathy and benevolence give rise to an acknowledgment that others have rights and duties equal to one’s own, and thus are entitled to equal respect. This acknowledgment provides the basis of “the Golden Rule” – a moral precept found in all the great world religions. When we see ourselves as equals in a community of equals, with basic rights no greater or less than those of the others, we are able to assume the perspective of a benevolent but unbiased observer of that community – what philosophers call “the moral point of view.” From this perspective, moral quandaries may be readily resolved – the same quandaries that are insoluble from the egocentric point of view preferred by regressives and celebrated by Ayn Rand and her disciples. (For an extended argument in support of these dogmatic assertions, see Chapters 5 and 6 of “Conscience of a Progressive").

I hasten to add that moral intelligence is not confined to moral philosophers. One need not “know what and why” in order to “know how.” Profound moral wisdom and exceptional virtue can be found within individuals who have never heard of, much less read, Aristotle, Kant or Mill. Just as someone can acquire a correct “grammatical sense” by using one’s native language without being able to cite a single grammatical rule, one can have a finely-tuned “moral sense” without being able to produce the kind of elaborately structured argument that delights professors of philosophy.  This “naїve wisdom,” as I call it, is acquired by individuals who are endowed with the requisite moral sentiments of empathy, benevolence and respect, who adopt a moral point of view, and who encounter, in a varied and abundant life, a myriad of moral puzzles and conflicts. As they face and deal with these issues, their moral intelligence increases in scope, coherence, subtlety and sophistication. They improve their “cognitive adequacy,” to borrow a term from the late moral psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. And as they do so, they learn that morality is systemic and that the virtues are inter-related – impoverished in isolation and when separated from the context of practical application. In other words, morality and virtue are “relative.”

And so, the answer to Socrates’ enduring question, “can virtue be taught,” is a qualified “yes” – assuming that fortunate individual is provided with a culture, a family upbringing, and an immediate community that is conducive to a moral life. Thus moral education must be approached at both an individual and a community level. “It takes a village to raise a child.”

To sum up: The Good Lord has not given us clear, simple, unambiguous and absolute rules to live by. Instead, we are called upon to develop both the moral stamina to choose good over evil, and the moral intelligence to choose wisely when confronted with competing goods, or with competing unavoidable evils. This is an enterprise that requires virtues that are more ennobling than simple, blind obedience -- virtues such as courage, wisdom, and benevolence. Following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, and in our time, of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, this concept of morality supplants the ancient legalisms of the Old Testament with an ethic of love, available and appealing to men and women of good will everywhere, of whatever religious tradition or of no religious tradition.

Moral absolutism, on the other hand, in its naiveté, simplicity, and abstraction, separates us from the complexities, ambiguities and conflicts of authentic life experience -- from, in short, our humanity.  And such a separation can lead to morally horrendous consequences, such as inquisitions and holy wars.

In his BBC television series, "The Ascent of Man," Jacob Bronowski stood at the site of the crematorium at Auschwitz and reflected:

Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was done not by gas.  It was done by arrogance.  It was done by dogma.  It was done by ignorance.  When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.

Copyright 2005, by Ernest Partridge



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .