Politically correct death and defending moral relativism

Why would anyone hold to a belief that precludes judging rape and child abuse as objectively wrong? Seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? Yet that’s exactly where a position from moral or ethical relativism leads, as I talked about in my previous post. Because there are some who support abortion rights based on the view that morality is relative, this view is critiqued in Francis J. Beckwith’s book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1) which I am covering in a series of posts begun this week. I continue in Chapter 1 today with his responses to the arguments put forward in support of moral relativism.

Beckwith says there are two popular arguments defending moral relativism. The first is this: “Since cultures and individuals differ in certain moral practices, there are no objective transcultural values.” He cites several problems with this defense.

  1. It doesn’t follow from a lack of agreement that there is no truth. The fact that you and a neo-Nazi disagree about treating all races and ethnicities equally does not mean that equality and fairness have no objective value.
  2. It also doesn’t follow from a difference in moral practices that cultures or individuals don’t hold certain values in common. Unique cultural factors play into the moral practices. As the author states, “Although cultures may differ as to how they manifest such values as honesty, courage, or preservation of life, none promote dishonesty, cowardice, or arbitrary killing.”
  3. Apparent moral differences are often merely factual differences. Hindus’ prohibition against eating cows is not in essence a moral difference from our fondness for a good steak or burger. They believe cows may possess a reincarnated human soul but most Americans don’t believe that to be true. “For this reason,” Beckwith says, “we eat cows but we do not eat Grandma.” Hindus, however, “believe that the cow may be Grandma.”

The second argument for moral relativism Beckwith addresses is, “Since ethical relativism promotes tolerance of certain cultural practices that we, as members of Western civilization, may think are strange, ethical relativism is a good thing.” Again…several problems.

  1. Promoting tolerance as a rationale for moral relativism is self-refuting. On relativism, tolerance itself is not an objective moral good but merely one that is relative to the culture or individual, which then leaves us asking why anyone should be expected to be tolerant. If “certain cultural practices” deny basic human rights to minority groups, women, or homosexuals, we would have to contradict our relativism to condemn their practices as objectively wrong or otherwise succumb to the dissonance of having to tolerate their intolerance while holding to a belief that not even tolerance is an objective moral good.
  2. The very notion of tolerance implies that what is being tolerated is incorrect or misguided. If we agree with a viewpoint or the rightness of a behavior, there’s nothing to tolerate. Beckwith states, “real tolerance presupposes that someone is right and someone is wrong (and in the latter case, especially the person who is intolerant), a viewpoint that implicitly denies moral relativism.”

The author concludes the chapter by pointing out that even though some approach the abortion issue from a position of moral relativism, we can still reasonably debate the morality of it because both sides actually share many of the same values. He says, “In fact, the differences between the two positions lie not in their values but in certain factual disputes and the application of these common values.” Both sides value certain fundamental rights like life and liberty but they disagree on the proper understanding of those rights, what best exemplifies their ultimate expression, and what are the facts establishing whether or not human lives in the womb are entitled to any rights at all.

Beckwith closes Chapter 1 with this:

In summary, since there is a common ground between two moral positions that are often depicted as absolutely polarized, we can coherently reason and argue about this issue. And since there is a common ground of values, the question as to which position is correct rests on which one is best established by the facts and is consistent with our common values.

The legal facts regarding abortion, about which many people are misinformed, are what the author presents in Chapter 2 and we’ll look at those next time.

1. Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)