Wednesday, Feb 17 - Two Separate Topics: (1) Moral Relativism, (2)
(1) Moral Relativism: The view that, in Ethics, truth is relative to personal
opinions and cultural values. The view that no moral judgement is absolutely
true. Who can decide which culture is better than another?
Prof. Allan Bloom (classics professor) on THE MORAL RELATIVISM OF TODAY'S
(‘The Closing of the American Mind: How higher education has failed democracy
and impoverished the souls of today's students’)
"There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student
entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. . . .
The students' backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are
religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to
be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor,
some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance
to equality. And the two are connected in a moral intention. The relativity of
truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a
free society, or so they see it. . . . That it is a moral issue for students is revealed
by the character of their response when challenged -- a combination of disbelief
and indignation: 'Are you an absolutist?,' the only alternative they know, uttered
in the same tone as 'Are you a monarchist?' or 'Do you really believe in
witches?' . . . The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not
error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the
virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years
has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness -- and the relativism that makes it
the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various
ways of life and kinds of human beings -- is the great insight of our
times. . . .
"The students, of course cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which
they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the
opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or
anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine
questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, 'If you had
been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your
governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,' they either
remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first
place. It is not that they know very much about other nations or about their own.
The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to
provide them with a moral virtue -- openness."
students with very diverse backgrounds are only unified in relativism and
allegiance to equality; open-ness is the main purpose of higher education the
insight of our time
Students are completely indoctricated by that belief; there is not only one
truth, no right and wrong
open-ness, in the long run, produces narrow thinking: students cannot learn,
think for themselves or decide
Relativism makes it very easy: don’t have to take a stand on anything
Calvin and Hobbes: in order to improve oneself one has to have values and an
idea of what is good/bad and right/wrong; are against diversity and relativism Relativism to the extreme: Famous 20th-Century World Leader on the glories of
moral relativism – Benito Mussolini
"In [this country] relativism is simply a fact. . . . Everything I have said and done
in these last years is relativism. . . . If relativism signifies contempt for fixed
categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal
truth . . . then there is nothing more relativistic than [my political philosophy]. . . .
From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are
mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to
create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all
the energy of which he is capable."
Mussolini (Il Duco) – Fascism: if everyone can make their own values his are
Four ways to try to live as a moral relativist
1. Cultivate an attitude of total tolerance to the various life styles and behavior
patterns of individuals and cultures (Bloom’s students).
2. Create your own values and enforce them with all your energy (Mussolini).
3. Reject all moral standards. Follow your impulses and inclinations (Liberated
4. Go along with the crowd, conform to the community standards, but only to
avoid resistance and trouble (cynical skeptics).
All of these ways lead to the practical contradiction that you have to establish
Henry Veatch (philosopher) on the trouble with moral relativism: The
"Practical Inconsistency" of Moral Relativism
"No matter what practical implications one seeks to derive from such relativism,
they are bound to involve one in an inconsistency, there being no possible way in
which the very denial of all standards of better and worse can itself be
transformed into a kind of standard of better and worse."
Very Naive to believe that living without values or an ideology is practicable;
the belief itself is an ideology
Mary Midgley - Background (born 1919)
- British moral philosopher, 16 books, Champion of the humanities, Gifford
Lecturer 1989-90 on "Science as Salvation: A modern myth"
"Trying Out One's New Sword" (Honest Work, 443-446)
p. 443: What is moral isolationism?
According to Midgley moral isolationism is a position many people favour in order
to deal with other cultures. As it is difficult to understand strange cultures and
alien customs, people will say it is impossible to ever understand another culture.
This view is based on the belief that our world is divided into separate societies,
which are sealed and have their own system of thought. Respect and t