Morality, again

Some things are up to us, other aren’t. Some things we get to decide. Some things we have to figure out. Where does morality fit in these categories? We do get to decide what standards we will uphold and hold each other accountable for adhering to. Here there is a straightforward sense in which our moral standards are up to us. Societies, cultures, smaller groups and even individuals adopt their own views about what is best, right or wrong, virtuous or vicious. In their assorted ways, groups and individuals embody and enact these standards through their traditions, attitudes an actions. So morality, in a certain sense, looks like it falls in the “up to us” category.

But it remains an open question whether deciding on some moral standards for one’s self or one’s group is all there is to morality. The view that there is nothing more to morality than deciding on some moral standards where these are entirely up to us, either individually or collectively, lead to moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a group and its being right relative to that group depends only on whether the group deems it right. There are assorted varieties of moral relativism varying according to the sorts of groups morality pertains to (societies, cultures, the chess club or individuals in the limiting case) and according to the methods by which moral standards are decided upon. But what they all have in common is that they render morality, in one way or another, entirely up to us. Moral relativism of one variety or another has enjoyed enormous popularity in our society over recent decades, but not due to well thought out ethical argument. Ethicists, people who concern themselves with well thought out ethical argument, are nearly unanimous in their rejection of moral relativism.

Why, then, the enormous popularity of moral relativism among others? My hypothesis is that our social condition is ripe for the flourishing of moral relativism. No human society has ever enjoyed such material abundance, such empowered citizens with such expansive freedom. We live like gods, carted about by fire breathing monsters, exerting our wills with the flick of a finger. In our highly prosperous, technologically advanced consumer culture, even the relatively oppressed among us are free like few have ever been, to avoid reckoning with standards that are not to our taste. And so the temptation to believe that there are no moral standards that aren’t up to us is going to be powerfully seductive. Moral relativism is the natural psychological fulfillment of our god like, self important ways of life. (I used to joke with students that people are often moral relativists until their car stereo gets stolen. Worried that the joke had grown stale, I recently asked my students if any of them had been through this minor trauma. Of course not. Now they all drive cars with factory installed security systems.)

Now let’s take a moment for some admittedly unfashionable thoughtful consideration concerning the nature of morality. Granting that it is up to groups or individuals to decide on what moral standards they will uphold, adhere to and hold each other accountable for, it remains an open question whether it is possible for a group or an individual to decide wisely or foolishly in adopting one set of moral standards rather than another. Could a group adopt a set of moral standards that is just bad for people? Can a person adhere to a moral outlook that is just plain morally awful. Anthropologists have built a pretty strong case that widely varying cultures adhere to widely varying moral codes that are, by and large, at least half way decent. This shouldn’t be surprising since a culture that adopted truly awful moral standards might not last very long.

But quite aside from long-term cultural viability, we can point to pretty clear examples of cultures adopting ethically indefensible moral standards, moral standards that should be outright rejected as just plain bad. The genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans by previous iterations of our own society comes to mind. The attempted extermination of Jewish people by German Nazis seems another obvious example. At the individual level, the recent spate of mass murders inspired by white nationalist ideology seems an obvious candidate for people deciding on just plain bad moral standards. Now, if we can reasonably evaluate a culture or an individual’s moral attitudes as missing the mark, as being a view of what is good that just plain isn’t good, then the standards of evaluation in our more thoughtful ethical considerations aren’t entirely up to us. For it to be possible for a culture or an individual to do a better or worse job at deciding what moral standards to uphold presupposes that what is good isn’t entirely up to us. Or for a society to improve over time, at least incrementally, in what it deems morally acceptable presupposes standards of goodness that are not up to that society. In other words, there are things about morality that we have to figure out.