Do moral relativists really exist?

by Neil Shenvi

As I said in part one, the basic premise of moral relativism is that there is no objective standard of moral behavior. All moral behavior is relative to individual persons or cultures; what is “good” or “bad” depends on the person, on the place and time, on the community, and on the culture. No action and no behavior can rightly be termed “bad” or “good” without qualification. Actions are only “good to you” or “bad to you”, “good to this culture” or “bad to this culture.” In the previous section, I tried to show that –based on the evidence– belief in moral relativism is unwarranted. It is theoretically possible to find ways around the evidence presented above, but each of these pieces of evidence seems to clearly point to the existence of objective moral values. In this secion, I will not attempt to show that belief in moral relativism is unwarranted; rather, I will try to show that no one actually believes in moral relativism. To do so, I will ask four questions. Each of them centers around a “thought experiment,” a highly hypothetical situtation which probes our reactions to admittedly unlikely circumstances. I urge the reader to take these questions very seriously.

First, imagine some extremely evil action that would provide you with something you greatly value. For instance, since presumably all of us value money to some degree, let us imagine that we could acquire millions of dollars simply by subjecting some innocent child to a painful death. To make things clear, let us also say that our culture condoned such an action, as might have been the case during the Rwandan genocide. What would you do? I think all of us would say that we would absolutely not kill the child. However, the reasons given by a moral realist or a moral relativist would presumably be very different. A moral realist would say that murdering an innocent child is objectively wrong and that no personal pleasure could induce them to commit such an unspeakbly evil act. In contrast, a moral relativist might also abhor the murder. But they would have to base their decision on the fact that the negative emotions they would experience from killing the child would far outweigh the positive emotions associated with the money. Since there is no objective standard of good and evil, they would have to appeal to their own preferences to explain their actions.

Second, let’s press this thought experiment further. Now let’s imagine that we faced the same choice, but could also choose to have the memory of our action erased (I think about Cipher’s bargain with the machines in the Matrix). The child would still die painfully, their family would grieve and mourn and lament your action, but you would be utterly oblivious to your deed. You would have the money and would be able to enjoy it free from any memory of the decision. Now what would we choose? Hopefully, we would again choose to let the child live. But this time, the moral relativist has to be a bit troubled. If asked for the reasons behind his decision, he must again point to his personal preference for love, compassion, emphathy, happiness, etc… But we could then remind him that he would derive no negative moral emotions at all from the killing as a consequence of his amnesia. In contrast, he would have the very real and concrete positive emotions that would come from his enjoyment of the millions of dollars. Again, a moral relativist would have to appeal to some sense that he prefers an objective reality in which there is no suffering even if he himself is oblivious to it and can derive no pleasure from it.

But this is where the trouble really starts. We next need to ask whether the moral relativist takes daily steps to deaden and kill his negative moral emotions. For instance, there is no question that we all enjoy certain items like money, sex, food, sleep, and leisure. On the other hand, there is also no question that certain moral emotions like guilt and empathy are extremely unpleasant. Anyone who has wept and wept comforting a friend who has lost a loved one or who has stared in horror at images of poverty or starvation, knows that we do not seek out or enjoy these experiences. But if moral relativism is true, then there is nothing inherently good or right about feeling empathy. And since guilt has no objective basis in a moral reality, it is nothing but an extremly unpleasant illusion. Then why does the moral relativist not spend more time trying to divest himself of all feelings of guilt, empathy, and remorse? If these emotions often prevent us from enjoying pleasurable items like money and sex, then why not work to deaden or kill these negative moral emotions? Why does he not work to develop an indifferent attitude towards those in need so that he is free to devote his entire life on his own pleasures? Here again, the moral relativist has a problem. Surely, the cost-benefit analysis is perfetly clear. If there is some way to destroy all negative moral emotions while retaining my ability to enjoy all the easily accessible positive emotions, shouldn’t I be working to find it? Why is it that I, as a moral relativist, don’t devote more time to either shielding myself from human misery or working to harden my heart against it?

There is a final question. Imagine that I offered you an “amorality pill”. This hypothetical pill would permanently destroy all of your capacity to experience negative moral emotions like guilt, empathy, and remorse. But it would leave intact all of your capacity for positive emotions like love, joy, excitement and happiness. To put it starkly, you would still be able to love your wife and children, to experience the vicarious joy of giving them gifts, to feel a rush of tenderness when you kiss them goodnight. However, if you decided one morning that killing them all with an axe would give you great happiness, you would be able to do so without a single twinge of regret or remorse. You could pile the corpses of your children into the fireplace and spend the rest of the day exquisitely enjoying your coffee and the crispness of the autumn leaves. You would be a completely amoral individual like Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho. The amorality pill would set you free from the illusory shackles of morality to pursue your own happiness, utterly indifferent to the pain and misery of others. Would you take the pill?

If you are a moral relativist, you need to seriously grapple with these questions, especially the last one. If moral relativism is true, then there is no obvious reason to not take the pill. The completely amoral monster who could kill his own children has done nothing objectively good or evil, because there is no objective good or evil. The man (or woman) I just described might be rapturously happy. Yet you recoil in horror from the thought that this is the man you could become. Why? I would like to make a bold assertion: you are not really a moral relativist. You may claim that your deny the existence of objective moral truths, but your behavior and your answers to questions like the ones given above show otherwise.

Neil Shenvi is the author of Neil Shenvi Apologetics, a website on which he publishes many articles and essays with the skeptic, seeker, and those reaching out to them in mind.

The Poached Egg Apologetics


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