As recently as 2009 the eminent historian Paul Johnson informed his readers that he made “…the triumph of moral relativism the central theme of my history of the 20th century, Modern Times, first published in 1983.” More recently, however, obituaries of moral relativism have turned up here and there. For example one appeared in The American Spectator back in 2012, fittingly entitled Moral Relativism, R.I.P. It was echoed a few years later by a piece in The Atlantic that announced The Death of Moral Relativism.” There’s just one problem with these hopeful announcements. Genuine moral relativists are as rare as unicorns.
True, many have proclaimed their moral relativism. To that I can only reply, watch their behavior. You will soon find each and every one of these “relativists” making morally loaded pronouncements about this or that social evil, wrong-headed political faction, or less than virtuous individual. In other words, their “moral relativism” is of a rather odd variety that occasionally makes it hard to distinguish their behavior from that of the more zealous moral bigots. Scratch the surface of any so-called “moral relativist,” and you will often find a moralistic bully. We are not moral relativists because it is not in the nature of our species to be moral relativists. The wellsprings of human morality are innate. One cannot arbitrarily turn them on or off by embracing this or that philosophy, or reading this or that book.
I am, perhaps, the closest thing to a moral relativist you will ever find, but when my moral emotions kick in, I’m not much different from anyone else. Just ask my dog. When she’s riding with me she’ll often glance my way with a concerned look as I curse the lax morals of other drivers. No doubt she’s often wondered whether the canine’s symbiotic relationship with our species was such a good idea after all. I know perfectly well the kind of people Paul Johnson was thinking of when he spoke of “moral relativists.” However, I’ve watched the behavior of the same types my whole life. If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s a pronounced tendency to dictate morality to everyone else. They are anything but “amoral,” or “moral relativists.” The difference between them and Johnson is mainly a difference in their choice of outgroups.
Edvard Westermarck may have chosen the title Ethical Relativity for his brilliant analysis of human morality, yet he was well aware of the human tendency to perceive good and evil as real, independent things. The title of his book did not imply that moral (or ethical) relativism was practical for our species. Rather, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of our package of innate behavioral predispositions, and that it follows that objective moral truths do not exist. In doing so he was pointing out a fundamental truth. Recognition of that truth will not result in an orgy of amoral behavior. On the contrary, it is the only way out of the extremely dangerous moral chaos we find ourselves in today.
The moral conundrum we find ourselves in is a result of the inability of natural selection to keep up with the rapidly increasingly complexity and size of human societies. For example, a key aspect of human moral behavior is its dual nature – our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. We commonly associate “good” traits with our ingroup, and “evil” ones with our outgroup. That aspect of our behavior enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce at a time when there was no ambiguity about who belonged in these categories. The ingroup was our own tribe, and the outgroup was the next tribe over. Our mutual antagonism tended to make us spread out and avoid starvation due to over-exploitation of a small territory. We became adept at detecting subtle differences between “us” and “them” at a time when it was unlikely that neighboring tribes differed by anything as pronounced as race or even language. Today we have given bad names to all sorts of destructive manifestations of outgroup identification without ever grasping the fundamental truth that the relevant behavior is innate, and no one is immune to it. Racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, you name it. They’re all fundamentally the same. Those who condemn others for one manifestation of the behavior will almost invariably be found doing the same thing themselves, the only difference being who they have identified as the outgroup.
Not unexpectedly, behavior that accomplished one thing in the Pleistocene does not necessarily accomplish the same thing today. The disconnect is often absurd, leading in some cases to what I’ve referred to as morality inversions – moral behavior that promotes suicide rather than survival. That has not prevented those who are happily tripping down the path to their own extinction from proclaiming their moral superiority and raining down pious anathemas on anyone who doesn’t agree. Meanwhile, new versions of morality are concocted on an almost daily basis, each one pretending to objective validity, complete with a built in right to dictate “goods” and “bads” that never occurred to anyone just a few years ago.
There don’t appear to be any easy solutions to the moral mess we find ourselves in. It would certainly help if more of us could accept the fact that morality is an artifact of natural selection, and that, as a consequence, objective good and evil are figments of our imaginations. Perhaps then we could come up with some version of “absolute” morality that would be in tune with our moral emotions and at the same time allow us to interact in a manner that minimizes both the harm we do to each other and our exposure to the tiresome innovations of moralistic bullies. That doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon, though. The careers of too many moral pontificators and “experts on ethics” depend on maintaining the illusion. Meanwhile, we find evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists who should know better openly proclaiming the innate sources of moral behavior in one breath, and extolling some idiosyncratic version of “moral progress” and “human flourishing” in the next. As one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have said, it’s just too shy-making.
There is a silver lining to the picture, though. At least you don’t have to worry about “moral relativism” anymore.