Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part I. Principles and Reasoning
by Lisa Newton

4. Subjective Relativism as a Challenge to Ethics

A superficially popular approach to ethics in America today is known as "subjective relativism"; as it happens, it violates both of those commitments, and has the effect (usually intended) of making ethics impossible. To make the commitments clearer, it may be worthwhile examining the errors of this simple dogma.

"Relativism" denotes any approach to ethics which holds that there are no absolute or unchanging moral principles, but that the rules that govern each situation are to be determined by their relation to something else: the customs or culture of the country, for instance, or the desires of the participants. "Subjectivism" insists that the sole source of knowledge or authority is in the perception of the individual. "Subjective relativism," then, as a philosophical position, declares that each person is his own authority on the moral life, and source of his own moral principles. On this reasoning, each person has the right to decide on all matters of right and wrong; according to subjective relativism, what's right for you may not be right for me (and vice versa); no one has any right to impose morality on anyone else. So there is really no point to arguing about decisions on matters of morals, or learning all about "justifying" moral judgments according to "reason," because there is no need to justify them any way at all. And that is why, subjective relativism concludes, there is no need to study ethics.

Note that the position is both anti-reason (there is no need, or way, to subject moral judgment to reasonable criticism) and dogmatic (on the areas of morality that affect me, my opinions constitute an absolute and final authority, not to be questioned by others.) We will get nowhere with ethics as long as this view is taken seriously. But it is taken seriously, in that world that lies outside our classrooms and committees, and it is instructive to see why.

The usual justification of subjective relativism seems to follow this line of reasoning. First, we live under Constitutional government--protected by a firm Bill of Rights. "Freedom of Speech" is the name of one of our fundamental beliefs. Freedom of Speech entails freedom of conscience: each person has the right, indeed the obligation, to think out ethical and political issues and to come to reasoned conclusions on ethical and political matters. Further, each person has the right (within certain obvious limits) to express that opinion without anyone else having the right to object to, or anyway interfere with, such speech. Further, we live in a pluralistic democracy. We are a collection of very different cultures, but we are agreed on two basic principles: first, the innate dignity of each individual, and second, the right of each cultural community to maintain its identity, including its characteristic beliefs and teachings (as long as these are within the law). That means that we have a duty to treat all citizens with respect; we also have the duty to promote tolerance, or, a better word, acceptance, of all our citizens, for what they are and for the culture from which they come.

Meanwhile, we consider it very bad manners to go around telling people that we think they are wrong, especially morally wrong. But if we have many different cultures, we are bound to have disagreements, including serious disagreements, about matters of morality.

All these points add up to "respectful disagreement": In America, it is one of our proudest boasts that citizens can very seriously disagree with each other on matters of policy and moral right, and yet each will treat the other with respect, and no instrument or agent of the state will attempt to suppress either of them. So far, so good.

But it is psychologically a very short step, and a very wrong step, from respectful disagreement to "indifferentism" or subjective relativism. We make a very large mistake when we confuse a Constitutionally guaranteed "right" with the moral category of "rightness." There is no logical connection between what you have a right to do, and the right thing to do; but there is a psychological temptation to move from one to the other. Let's say that again: In logic, there is no connection between "You have the right to think what you like," and "Anything you happen to like to think is right." You have the right, after all, to contradict yourself; you have all the right in the world to think that "2+2=5." That doesn't make it correct. But psychologically, once you have told me that no one has the right to correct me when I claim certain sorts of opinions, you certainly seem to have told me that any such opinions are right, or at least as right as opinions can be.

In mathematics, of course, there is one right answer. In ethics there may not be, since ethical concepts are logically independent (more on that presently), and the question of what weight to assign to them must often be decided on the configurations of a particular case. That is why there can be honest, and possibly irreconcilable, disagreement on matters of ethics. But there are always better and worse answers, answers more or less in conformity with those concepts. There are real moral values. Several of these real values, by the way, are evident in the argument in defense of subjective relativism, given above: the integrity of the human conscience, the sanctity of individual rights, the autonomy and dignity of the human person, the appreciation of cultural variety, and general good manners.

Subjective relativism is not self-contradictory as a position: it makes perfectly good sense to posit the individual as a moral authority in his own case in all instances. But the thesis is self-annihilating: it is impossible to defend it without ceasing to be a relativist (since it requires a defender to argue from a basis of absolute values like democracy and freedom), and it is impossible to maintain a consistently subjective relativist position without admitting the legitimacy of the attempts to impose moral beliefs--especially successful attempts by the powerful to impose moral beliefs on the powerless--that the proponents of subjective relativism aimed particularly to oppose.

It may be useful to spell out that claim. Suppose I claim to be a subjective relativist, with every right to have my own opinion respected on all matters of morality. Now, should you challenge me to defend subjective relativism, I would find that probably the only way (and certainly the most persuasive way) to do it would be to appeal to individual rights to freedom of thought: "Each person has a right to reflect on moral matters and reach his or her own conclusions," or, "Human dignity requires respect for individual moral conclusions," summed up as "No one has any right to impose his or her values on me." Now, as it happens, respect for the individual and for individual liberty, along with cultural diversity, are values that you (as a non-relativist) are probably perfectly content to accept as almost absolute and certainly permanent. Suppose you point that out to me, and ask me, having used such values from the outset, if I am now willing to grant their validity. If I say I am, then we have reached agreement, agreement on everlasting principles, and I am no relativist. If I choose to be a consistent relativist, of course, then I have no right to object to your attempts, or the Moral Majority's, or Hitler's, to impose values on me. If imposing values is one of the things you like to do, just because it really feels good and right to you to impose values on others, then, according to subjective relativism, it's obviously right, for you, to impose values on me, and I have no grounds for protest. So this relativism, morality relativized to the individual, fails on either count: if I try to defend it on account of the values it defends, I cease to be a relativist, and if I try to be a consistent relativist, I lose all purchase on the field of ethics, including the right to resist the tyrantÍs imposition of values, which was the purpose for which I first advanced subjective relativism. To defend the individualism that the position sets out to exemplify, we must recover the commitments to reason, and to impartial consideration, with which we started.

With those commitments in place, the discipline of ethics is possible; the next section covers the principles and the decision procedures that give substance to the field.

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998

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