Challenging moral relativism in conversation…

6 Mar

If you agreed with my post on Monday about why it’s worth taking a stand for moral realism, you might wonder how best to challenge that in conversation. As always, I advocate asking “What do you mean” and “how do you know” to encourage your friend to make a clear assertion and explain why they believe what they believe. After that you can begin to challenge the assertion, but again I advocate using questions.

A recent conversation I had included this statement:

“It’s ok to say it’s wrong, but it’s not ok to force that on them…”

This woman’s belief in moral relativism stemmed from her knowledge that different cultures operate in different ways, and her belief that one culture should not infringe upon another. The “it” in question is the Indian practice of sati: the ritual burning of a widow upon her husband’s funeral pyre. The act is said to be voluntary but accounts indicate that this was not always the case. I like bringing up sati because the British were the driving force behind its disappearance. In general they were imperialist, and enforced their culture at times and places when there was no benefit; however the outlaw of sati remains a positive. (This is a simplification – read the Wiki article for more information). The above response came from the following question:

“Isn’t it possible to look at a lot of what the British did and say ‘wow, they shouldn’t have imposed their culture in that way’ and ALSO look at the outlawing of sati and say ‘wow, I’m sure glad they did that’”?

She reasoned that causing people to doubt their beliefs would lead to the breakdown of a particular culture or society. I think the opposite. Jettisoning our false/evil practices and adopting true/good ones from other cultures will advance all cultures. (Of course, not many cultural practices fit neatly into these categories – but sati does).

So that’s one option – ask about a behavior or practice that is clearly wrong and see if they stick to their relativistic guns.

A second route is to ask about something the person actually cares about – maybe they’re very environmentally savvy and you could ask how they would feel about a corporation dumping waste into a river. Maybe they were the victims of bullying and you can ask if you thought the bullies deserved some sort of punishment even though they were just doing what they thought was ok. Our house and cars have been robbed, and I can tell you from experience that I felt legitimate anger over that event. Find their hot-button issue and make it morally relative. This points back to the importance of relationship and time investment. The better you know your friend the easier it will be to relate abstract debates to their own story.

...and there are absolutely NO absolutes!

…and there are absolutely NO absolutes!

The trump card, so to speak is the response above and ones like it which say “I can call it wrong, but I can’t say it’s wrong for them.”

I am super annoyed by these folk. If they are unwilling to admit that gross moral horror is legitimately wrong (torturing a baby for fun, stealing a starving persons food just to destroy it in front of them) then you have reached an actual impasse. I typically respond by saying, “it’s a good thing that your actions don’t align with what you say at all – or I’d be afraid of you. As it stands, you just seem to say one thing (morality is relative) and believe another (morality is absolute) – which is an indication that your foundational beliefs need adjusting to fit real life.”

Sometimes this hits home, and sometimes it doesn’t. You can ask if they think the guilty should be convicted (they do) and why (because they’re breaking the law) – then asking if the law is arbitrary or if it is reflective of an abstract moral law that exists whether we acknowledge it or not…but you’re probably wasting breath and time at that point. Thankfully, not many folks will go this far. Instead they’ll see that there is a disconnect between their beliefs and the real world and you can help them make sense of that.

For further reading I highly suggest Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air by Beckwith and Koukl. It’s not new, but the material still holds up.


One Response to “Challenging moral relativism in conversation…”

  1. SHARAT BABU March 6, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Brother, thank you for your wonderful messages. Babu

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