Are moral values relative? If so, relative to what? Are they absolute/universal? If so, universal to what?
A lot of people are attracted to the idea that moral values are relative. But we don’t quite know what that means until we dig a bit deeper (remember the second week, when we talked about meaning and definition? What do we mean by ‘relative’?).
For instance, we might think moral values are relative to human beings or rational agents (porpoises, smart as they are, aren’t subject to the same ethical constraints or rules). This seems really plausible. But it’s the exact same thing as saying that moral values are universal to human beings or rational agents. Until we’ve filled in the blank in “universal to ____” and “relative to____”, we haven’t clearly said anything at all.
Some people think moral values are relative to culture: India has one set of values, the European west a different set of values; or maybe the American South (and most of rural California) has one moral standard and the American Coastal cities have a different moral standard.
Others think moral values are relative to individuals: I have my morality, and you have yours. Live and let live. There is nothing I can appeal to that we share, I can only appeal to my moral values.
On either version of relativism, we can’t critique the moral values of others (perhaps other cultures, perhaps other individuals), there’s no such thing as moral progress (every consistent set of moral values is totally incomparable), and we can’t find any common moral values (which is clearly wrong since virtually all cultures and nearly all individuals abhor violent unnecessary killing, torture, rape, and other horrible things). With these considerations in mind, many conclude that relativism is wrong and that there is some set of moral values or principles that transcend individuals or cultures and extend to all human beings.
In this discussion, you may have noticed that I slid back and forth between two uses of the word ‘morality’: there’s a use—the descriptive sense of the word—according to which a morality is any consistent set of principles that governs the actions of an individual or a community. So if we use morality in this way, it will make more sense to think that morality is relative: I have my morality and you have yours.
But if we think of morality in its normative sense, then it’s harder to be a relativist about that kind of morality. According to the normative sense of the word ‘morality’, morality is a system of right and wrong that different individuals and different cultures debate about. What does morality require here? Is generally a question we use when we want to know what’s right. Full stop. Not when we want to know what is right for an American or for me. Moral reasoning focuses on the normative sense of the word: what is right and what is wrong (not what principles govern my actions and which govern the actions of people I think are wrong).