APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

How Moral Relativism Explains Societal Behaviors

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
James Lendvay, Faculty Member, Philosophy

Are there truly any absolute and universal morals? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to philosophy professor James Lendvay about moral relativism, the view that what people consider to be right and wrong depends on their own perspective or their cultural influences. If people just believe what they want to believe, how does that contribute to today’s divisive social environment? Can progress be made to find common ground?

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to James Lendvay, philosophy faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today our conversation is about moral relativism. Welcome, James.

James Lendvay: Hello, Bjorn. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I love this topic, moral relativism. I know when I was first introduced to it, I didn’t quite have the proper understanding of it. But at the same time, I think it’s important that people understand it, so they don’t, say, misuse it or misunderstand it. So, my first question is, what is relativism, and why is it something that philosophers and ethicists think about?

James Lendvay: Well, so the idea is that we need some, we call meta-ethical principles, to use as starting points for building moral theories. So you’ll see relativism discussed in pretty much every ethics textbook, but it’s not necessarily thought of as a theory itself. And a moral theory is typically normative, or it’s prescriptive. So it’s, here’s a set of concepts that we use to make decisions.

And relativism isn’t really meant to do that. It’s more descriptive. It’s just this sort of observation that we can see that people have different views about morality. It’s pretty obvious. Your neighbors, and your friends, and your family, everybody believes something different. And so, the idea is that those perspectives are just relative to those individuals.

And that’s fine, but in ethics, we really care about what we ought to do, not just what it is that we do. So, if we’re going to talk about changing behaviors, or changing culture, or whatever, we need some way to think about what it is that we’re changing.

So, relativism, then, if, if we’re going to say that it’s normative, if it’s something that we’re going be using to prescribe behavior, it tells us that there’s no such thing as real absolute morals. They’re just relative. They just kind of depend wholly on either the individual or perhaps an individual’s culture.

Another way to think of it is that it’s synonymous with subjective. It’s defined by the subject or the experiencer, the individual cultural perspective or vantage point. So, an example of that, a more specific example is cultural relativism, which we’ve talked about before.

In that case we just look to whatever it is that a culture happens to practice. And we kind of take the position that that set of rules or morals that that group, that culture has, that’s moral. Not just for them, but in general, that’s the right thing to do just because that’s what they do.

And so, most philosophers and ethicists have a problem with this, going back to David Hume, who introduced what’s called Hume’s Guillotine. And so, Hume wanted to kind of cut this coupling of “is” and “ought.” So, in a real short section of one of his books, he says, “We can describe behavior, and we can look and see what is the case, but we make this strange jump then to what ought to be the case, just based on what we’re seeing. And we ought not to do that.”

And that does happen. We still do that. We still look at what things we see and we just kind of think, “Well, okay, then that’s the way it should be. Even though I may not agree with it, who are we to say what’s right and wrong for other people?” And so, one, again, it’s not really a theory, but it’s more of a perspective.

And, and one benefit to this perspective of, of relativism is that it promotes tolerance. Because we’re saying there’s no objective basis for right and wrong. It’s all relative to time and place, basically. And so, then, we just have to kind of agree to disagree and live with each other. And that would seem to be a very nice thing.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like, at the end, where you said it seems to be a nice thing, because it is. Accepting other people is one of the, well, foundations. You have to do that in a world. In the world in which there is more than, two people, we have to get along.

And we, we see a lot of, “Well, we observe this behavior, but this group of people ought to be doing this.” And so, there’s so many people that, in my own opinion, they think they know how other people should behave.

So, why is that an issue? Why is it an issue, and why does that create conflict when others, say, point at other people, or even you, you know, you metaphorically, and say, “Well, you should behave this way, James.” Why is that a problem?

James Lendvay: Well, it’s only a problem because we don’t necessarily know who’s right. And so, we are going to debate about that, your prescriptions, your perspective on what I should do is of course going to differ from mine. And so, we have this distinction we make between realism and anti-realism, or maybe non-realism. And that’s basically the distinction between objective and relative perspectives.

So, the objective perspective is that there are more rules that apply to everybody. Some of them all the time, no matter what. Contrasted with the anti-realist subjective relative viewpoint, that there are no absolute moral rules. And we see that there are clearly some moral rules that pertain to everybody all the time.

And, and we can see that just descriptively, no matter where you go in the world. Unjustly killing people, harming, lying for the most part, stealing, those kinds of things are just universally seen as wrong. Outside of those few things, though, there’s no real set in stone sort of list of objective, right and wrong.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like how you said that. And this does lead to the next question, which is playing off of what you talk about is, how does it play out in moral judgments that affect culture and society?

So, a couple of things. One is, when we think about the difference between something being legal and something being moral. And so, if we’re going to take this relative position, which as we all have seen, there’s a lot of talk about tolerance these days in, in culture, in Western American culture especially, and where does tolerance come from?

It seems to come from this notion that you just can’t tell other people what to think and believe. What people do is different. And behavior is constrained by law. And behavior also begins with our beliefs and our thoughts. So, while we can’t tell people what to think and believe, we can tell them how to behave.

And then, so there’s a bit of a disconnect there. Because there’s not much of a difference between our thoughts and our behaviors, except for our conscious will to do the opposite of what our, you know, instincts are perhaps.

So, this moral and legal distinction is one question. And then, as far as how it affects society and culture, we see a lot of things going on now, politically, with subcultures, especially within the United States.

So, if we think about cultural relativism, and this notion that we can’t really prescribe to other cultures what’s right and wrong, because, according to this relativist’s view, there is no such thing as this overarching objective view of right and wrong, how do we criticize one another?

And not even necessarily in a negative or dogmatic way, but how do we even make any kind of moral progress if we’re not going to accept the fact that there are some things that have to be right and wrong for everybody?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like that. Yeah. And I completely agree. And it really makes me think of, just like you said, how can we criticize each other? And I’m not using criticize as a bad word, I’m saying, in thinking critically about how humans act and react, and thinking critically even about our culture.

There’s some people in every country’s culture that will say, “You cannot criticize our culture and our country. It is great. And by criticizing it, you’re one of the enemies.” And that lacks the ability to say, “Look, we can all improve.”

But at the same time, especially when a country like the U.S., or I’ll say European countries criticize other countries, especially countries that they had colonized throughout history, there’s some real, real issues that come up, where people don’t want to listen, which is understandable. Which is totally understandable.

But at the same time, there has to be a dialogue about, say truths or the ability to have conversations. And, obviously, this is a very big question, but how do different cultures talk to each other when there is difficult cultural legacies that exist?

James Lendvay: That’s a good question. And a lot of this really stems from, and this is really, I mean, ethics is an epistemological set of problems. And what I mean by that is we base our moral judgments on what we believe to be right and wrong, true and false about the world.

So I think a good example in recent times is President of Brazil, Bolsonaro, he has made a lot of comments about Brazil’s use of the rainforest in the context of environmental damage.

And he’s made comments to say, “Who are the people in the world to criticize us for what we do with the rainforest? Our culture, or even our subculture, our political culture, this is what we’ve chosen to do. Don’t talk to us about it.”

And we see that sort of microcosmically in the United States, in our political debates. And I think that’s a real problem in terms of where we see things going politically here.

At least in the past we prided ourselves on being a melting pot in the United States. And, and other Western countries feel the same way, I think. But what does that really mean? Can we really have a serious diversity of opinion and still get along?

I think we’ve managed to do it for the most part without, at least for the last little while getting through it without having to devolve into civil war. Although recently people have been talking about something that extreme.

And the political divisiveness that we see now I think is a consequence of people having this dilemma in their head, where they want to say, “Yeah, we want to be tolerant, but we can only be tolerant up to a certain point.” And it seems like the tolerance for allowing for relativism on big issues is wearing thin in the country.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is an interesting conversation, because, in my opinion, of course, I have to preface everything with, “In my opinion.” A lot of the conflicts we have today, of course, are completely made up. Much like culture.

Culture is made up. We inherit the culture we’re born into. We accept or reject aspects of culture. But when we live in a country, we still have to potentially abide by the norms of that culture. With the odd, and I describe it as odd conversation, about the conflicts in this country and “civil war.”

My question for anybody who would say that is like, “So, do you mean a hot civil war or cold civil war? And if it’s hot, who’s going to die. Because I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go die for a difference of opinion about history.”

James Lendvay: That’s a good point. I mean the cold civil war I think has been going on forever. This has always been an issue. I mean, that’s why we have this two-party system, which has just been fighting things out for a long time. And it’s just been ideological. But as we saw with January 6th, right? We got a little bit closer to the hot side than unnerved people, understandably.

[Podcast: The Capitol Riots, Media and Free Speech]

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It does. It does. And I would only hope that Americans, and, well, everybody on this planet would read the history of every country, and to see that almost every country has had hot civil wars. We had a hot civil war back in, you know, 1860, ’61, ’65. And those were over, of course, legitimate ideas.

But at the end of the day, like any civil war, it could have been avoided if the people in the room would have talked to each other. And it’s not to reduce everything down to talking, but it goes on to one of my own beliefs, is all war is avoidable. It’s only egos that get in the way. And James, did you want to say something about a comment I made?

James Lendvay: Yeah. I just wanted to kind of back up to the notion that moral rules and maybe cultural rules are made up. And, I mean, I think that’s true, but maybe not totally in the sense that if we talk about going back to the discussion about legal versus moral. It’s made up, yes, that stealing is wrong. And it’s made up that maybe murder, unjustified killing is wrong.

But it’s also that there are these practical benefits to these things that make them so they’re not just ideological persuasions, or something. There are things that we need in life to have a society and to get by. So, I understand the idea that they’re made up, so let’s not get so bent out of shape about these things, right? But they’re not necessarily.

I mean, something like the unjustness of stealing or killing is ingrained in our nature, whether that’s endowed by God, or whether a product of evolution, or whatever. That stuff’s real, I think. And it’s something that, we’re talking about issues that are really important to people.

And if we’re talking about even how’s tax money going to be used? And who’s running the country? And what sort of agenda do they have? These aren’t just political ideas. These are ideas that affect people every day. And people get understandably sort of upset about these things. And it just seems at certain points through history, we’ve seen the upset boil over. And maybe we had a little bit of that on January 6th, and things calmed down, but I don’t know that it cannot happen again.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, of course. Unfortunately, if history is our guide, it can always happen. And we, as the people alive and hopefully guiding a safe and prosperous future will avoid that. Because if there’s one thing that is unknown is when hot war occurs, all rules fly out the window and the good intentions fly out the window, because war kind of reduces everything to a brutality that people can’t control. That’s always one of the funny things about war. And people plan, and do all these things, and then war occurs, and then I’ll say that, and this is not a scientific, but the more the base instincts of human nature come out, and I’ll say not the best of us, per se, win wars.

James Lendvay: Yeah, that’s, that’s very possible. Discussing that in class today, we were talking about another ethical theory, which is utilitarianism. And how that may have been used to justify a number of major events in the history of wars, such as the bombing of Japan in World War II. And good intentions are great, but often we don’t make the best decisions in spite of those.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, agreed. And you can see, easily see how utilitarianism, which logically can make sense, could have contributed to the Holodomor, the horrible lack of food in Ukraine that the Soviet Union, is essentially self-created.

It’s hard to know how the Soviets thought of certain aspects, but they murdered millions of their own people. And they probably thought, “Man, this is logical. We’re just doing what we have to do.” And that is so horrible that it’s even hard to describe.

James Lendvay: Right. And, clearly, there was not used an appeal to moral relativism. It was clearly this idea that there’s an objective right and wrong, we’re going to enforce it on other people. And that, of course, is problematic also. So there’s no real easy answer here in terms of, is this black and white? Do you want to be just a relativist? Do you want to be an objectivist Seems like there’s room for both, but I still think there, in some ways, it’s an intractable dilemma.

Another thing I was thinking about earlier, as we were talking, former President Obama used to talk about democracy as being this great experiment. And he was always kind of reinforcing this idea that we need to have open civic, civil dialogue with one another. And initially I thought, “Yeah, that sounds good.” And as things went on and I started teaching more classes like this and thinking about it, it seems a little bit too idealistic.

Because it’s nice to say, “Yeah, we can agree to disagree,” but can we really do that on big issues? Is it enough to say, “I understand that you come from another place. I really want to tolerate your perspective. I want to be understanding, I want to have empathy.” But now, in whatever way, depends on what topic we’re talking about, this is affecting my life, personally.

There’s a number of ways that could be the case. Abortion’s kind of a funny situation in terms of the way that plays out. Because that doesn’t necessarily affect people who are themselves against abortion, the act itself. But some people may say, “Well, look, I don’t want my tax dollars going to fund abortions,” for example.

And so, if we are talking about those kinds of life and death issues, it’s not so easy to just kind of say, “Well, come over and let’s have a beer and talk about these things, and, and be civil about it.” It would be nice if it was the case, but that’s just not the real world.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Abortion is tough. And we’re seeing that play out in front of us people’s opinions about abortion. And I would say if there are policies and are rules that are going to be more restrictive with abortions, that are implemented in various states, or some states which are defacto, it’s illegal, I would then ask those states, do they have a robust ability to then help young mothers who have those children, who maybe come from low SES? Because if you’re making abortion illegal, and then you’re not providing help for these people, what is going on here? Because you’re not helping children then. And I don’t know if that makes sense, but…

James Lendvay: No, it does. It’s just, I think it really points to the notion that there are really hard and fast limits that people set on the amount that they can tolerate. And, again, going back to this idea of a melting pot, we want to have a difference, we want to have an environment where there’s a difference or a variety of opinions.

And that seems to be really productive for a lot of different things. Maybe for our economy and for technological advances where we have a lot of different kinds of minds coming together, and different perspectives, and all that. Stuff’s great. But culturally, can we do that? Can we really make that work?

And I think we’ve kind of been stumbling along making it work, but under the surface, there’s going to be resentment. There’s going to be, especially when you have, in a democratic setup, there’s people who don’t have their representatives in power, and they’re not getting what they want. And they’re kind of festering and getting upset. And then they’re going to rise up and then maybe the power will sway during the next election.

And that seems to kind of maybe placate people enough. You get four years, and then, “We’ll, we’ll give you four years and we’ll switch it up.” And then you don’t get too upset over that period of time. But is it sustainable? We’ve sustained it for a while now, but it does seem a little bit as though we’re heading in a direction that there’s just a lot of frustrations, not helped, I’m sure, by social media.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right. No. And I think social media and the cable networks do nothing to help, because they are driven by market forces, and they are driven by profits. And so, the goal of those conversations that occur on social media and cable are divisive, and if you’re on the right or the left, they’re saying, “My opinion is right. My opinion is right.” And the people that tune in then go into these echo chambers that just reinforce what they already believe in their biases. And so, the next question really ties to what we were talking about, does moral relativism tie to metaphysical and scientific relativism?

James Lendvay: Yeah. Just a little side point that’s kind of interesting, where this kind of notion comes from, how would we even base an idea that there are absolute moral rules that everybody needs to follow? Because we all have them. Whether or not we think that animal abuse is wrong, nobody should ever engage in that sort of thing. As tolerant as I am with everything else maybe that’s where I draw the line.

I cannot stand to see a dog that’s not taken care of properly. Whatever else I think, I’m just going to draw the line in the sand there. And we all have that. So we all do have this conception of objective moral rules. And it kind of ties to this idea of whether or not there is an objective reality out there. We use the terms realism and anti-realism to talk about these moral concepts.

And I think it’s one of the reasons that metaphysics is useful to study. Some people will say, “Well, why do we even care about asking a question like, ‘Do we live in a simulation? Is reality real?'” Well, okay, I mean, that might not sound like the most practical sort of question, but here we can see where it does matter. Because it would be a way to think about whether or not it’s even possible for there to be objective rules that are not just dependent on the experiencer, or that there’s something out there greater, wherever that source of that is.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. And it makes me think of theological relativism. If you’re talking to someone whom has a great faith in whatever their faith is, they will view and truly believe that those rules are absolute. Now, we can of course talk about relativism because different religion have different views on different things. And, between different denominations, they’re going to have different views on different things.

But when you talk to some people and I’m not saying this is a bad thing, they view their moral rules as handed down from God. And now, do you view this as one of those things that creates a conflict within culture?

James Lendvay: Certainly. It’s historically been a problem when you say, “Look, we have a direct connection with this objective reality that cannot be argued with.” And then somebody comes and says, “No, I got that too.” And then the third person, “Well, yeah, I have one of those as well.” Okay now, now what are we going to do with these three things?

One thing we could do is to say, “Well, let’s just not think of these as objective. Let’s think of these as maybe good explanations, but not the only explanations.” But that’s really hard to do. Because, again, this also ties to the issue of politics. Even though we want to stay open, and we want to be flexible, and we want to be tolerant, it’s also part of human psychology to have to take a stand, and to believe in something firmly.

And it’s hard to know when we’re believing in something firmly based on good data and rational arguments, or when we’re just kind of digging in our heels because we don’t want to think differently. And all of these things make for just kind of a constellation of little dilemmas that make our moral interaction really difficult.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Well said. And this brings me back to the last question, is, what are some attitudes about relativism? So, are students flexible, or do you find that their moral views are pretty set?

James Lendvay: That’s a good question. The best that I think I can do in the context of students who come in real quick, take a brief college course in ethics, is just to get them exposed to this dilemma itself. And to get them to reflect about this idea that they may themselves hold conflicting views.

And so, a lot of students will say, “Yeah, certainly some things are right and wrong, but everybody believes differently.” And even a statement like that is, itself contradictory, right? Because you’re saying on one hand, some things are objective, they’re absolute. And on the other hand, “Uh, you know, it varies from person to person.”

People, in general, young people, want to be tolerant. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to fight. And that’s great, but they are also going to want to fight for things that they really believe in. And when are they going to decide that they’ve had enough, or they’re at a point when there’s something they just cannot tolerate?

So, there’s this little paradox of tolerance that comes up with relativism, which is, if you’re going to tolerate you can’t put a limit on it. Otherwise, you’ve devolved into absolutism. And if you’re going to tolerate everything, do you have to tolerate intolerance as well? And now, with this problem, we’ve seen kind of the rise of cancel culture, is a good example of this becoming a practical issue.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Those are great comments, because cancel culture, if you read about it, depending on your news source, it is a huge problem. And if you’re on Twitter, it could be a huge problem. But at the same time, if you’re on Twitter, those folks who are tweeting don’t represent all of America. It’s a very specific population that actually participates and actually tweets versus as they describe on social media, just lurk.

And especially on social media, you get rampant, and I always like to use this phrase, the illusion of explanatory depth. Where people just talk about stuff that they really don’t know a lot about, but they say it with such passion. And it’s not that it’s a bad thing to talk about, to have a passion about things, but do your research. But that is an issue by itself. Is, do people have good research skills? And I’m not criticizing, because a lot of people, we have blind spots to our ability to research.

James Lendvay: You know, I teach ethics I, I would like to spend even more time than I do on epistemology. And just talking about what it means to know something, what it means to have good evidence. Because we don’t believe things, really, in a bubble, have moral beliefs or preferences in a bubble. We believe those things. We have moral views based on how we interpret facts about the world.

So, going back to abortion again, how do you perceive a fetus? How do you perceive a human life? And all kinds of arguments for and against abortion have to do with epistemological questions about the nature of the fetus, is it, or is it not in fact a person? Okay, now you’re going to take that actual, at least in your view, fact about the world, and that’s what’s going to inform your moral position on it. We can’t really divorce those things at all.

And this illusion of explanatory depth is a good example, because it’s true. People often don’t know as much as they think they do. You’ve probably heard of the Dunning Kruger effect, where the less you know the more confident you tend to be about your opinion on it.

And so, yeah, I mean, if, if all of our moral opinions are coming from bad data, bad information, where do we expect to end up? And then we’re debating each other as though we know for sure that all of these things are true about the world. And then our moral opinions based on that have to be equally true. We just kind of end up spiraling out of control on some of these debates, actually.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, it’s true. And I do understand how it can be very disheartening. Because when you watch our leaders, and you just scratch your head sometimes on where they’re going, what they’re talking about, what their opinion is honestly, who’s funding them.

But at the same time, I always like to say this, about 99% of all the conversations I’ve had with people in my local area have been super positive. If they’re liberal, if they’re conservative, if they’re religious, if they’re atheist, you know, it’s just great conversations.

So it’s really interesting where the conflict really arises it seems at the national level, when people are talking about power. Like you were saying, when decisions are made and it affects real people, that’s when people start getting uneasy. I’m always positive that things will work out. It’s not perfect.

And I think even certain things that not the form of government, but the structure and the different aspects of any government should be looked at and reviewed. And we should question, “Should we continue with X, Y, and Z? Should we alter it?”

James Lendvay: Right. And that should is really what becomes problematic. Because if we go back to the idea of relativism, a big criticism of it is that we can’t, from a relativistic point of view, ever talk about should, or ought, or change, or progress.

Because, basically, if you want to reduce it to this most simple statement, it is what it is. Whatever the culture practice is, whatever’s going on, whatever people deem appropriate, that’s what it is. We’ve got to tolerate it, and we stop there.

But that doesn’t really do much for society. Even though it seems, on the surface, that it can prevent a lot of bickering, fighting, maybe even war, it’s just really not a productive position, ultimately.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And from that perspective, could you say that pre-industrial societies lived in that? In the sense that the morality that guided peoples were intact for say hundreds of years with little change, versus today with industrial revolution of course starting quite a while ago. And peoples constantly shifting around, we’re having to face different people. So, kind of that, like you said, the absolute moral relativism isn’t possible anymore, is that the right statement, or a wrong statement?

James Lendvay: So, we have a TED Talk that we, in our APUS critical thinking course, by Ruth Chang, about what she calls post-enlightenment creatures. And she says that we live in this world now where we think we can solve all of our problems with science and math. And, obviously, we see that kind of exhibiting itself in the way that educational standards and goals are being geared nowadays.

But I think the idea is that we have gone from a more objective, and yeah, I mean, this ties probably to the decline in popularity of organized religion, that people can make their own decisions. This was, as you mentioned, the kind of industrial revolution, not far from that removed was the philosophical movement of existentialism.

And that kind of brought this idea that, okay, if we’re going to get largely an atheistic perspective, if we’re going to say that God doesn’t make all the decisions in our lives, if we’re going to do this ourselves, if we can’t, we’re enlightened creatures now. We can figure this stuff out for ourselves. Look at what we can do with science. And we’re in control. We can be in control.

That’s going to kind of lead us to more of a relativistic viewpoint, overall. Because we’ve taken away that foundation of God or religion as the source of objective truth. And then there you have your first existential crisis.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, it’s good. And I think people have been having existential crisises for hundreds of years. I think it’s, it’s not giving peoples of the past any due credit to say that they didn’t either. People, hundreds or thousands of years ago, also had existential crisises similar or different. And so, today we’re speaking with James Lendvay. A great, great conversation. Any last words?

James Lendvay: Well, we covered a lot of space here. I guess my concern students are listening to this eventually and you end up taking an ethics course, keep an open mind to the dilemma that’s raised by relativism versus objective. And try to self-reflect on how you might display that in your own view of the world. And then how you criticize or interact with other people based on that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And today we’re speaking with James Lendvay about moral relativism. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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