Christian Relaunch

Moral Relativism

"I can't believe it in everyday life."

Galen Strawson, The Moral Maze (BBC), 05-Aug-2015, reminding us how fatuous is his belief that moral responsibility is a delusion.

You may dispute the distinction between good and bad in a debate, but in practical life we all accept it.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in a celebrated passage of Existentialism is a Humanism, illustrating his thesis that it is the spontaneous project, not adherence to fixed rules, that constitutes humanity, postulates the case of a man in occupied France torn between staying at home to care for his mother and going underground to fight against the occupiers. No rules, Sartre tells us, can tell him what to do, he must choose freely. As regards that particular dilemma Sartre is right, and (as I think is made clear elsewhere in this site) I am far from suggesting that all we need do in any circumstance is to read off our next move from a rule book. The problem is that Sartre fails to tell us whether fighting for the occupiers, or killing his mother for her pension, are also valid options, but he clearly assumes not. In other words, he is relying on those very fixed standards that he pretends to reject. To borrow words used by Jacques Derrida (a slightly later French thinker), he declares one thing but describes another. This is the fate of all moral relativists.

The following dialogue may help.

Right and wrong, in an absolute sense, have no meaning. It is never absolutely true that "X should do A", it is only true that "if X wants above all to achieve B, and only A leads to B, then X should do A". So you should not to try to tell me what to do.

When you say I "should not" tell you what to do, you are yourself appealing to a real standard of right and wrong, so your statement is self-defeating.

I confess my inconsistency and withdraw my moralising. Now answer my main point.

If you were really now being consistent, you would not "confess" your previous inconsistency, merely state it as a fact. Though you would have no reason even to do that. But this sparring is probably futile, so I will indeed respond to your main point.

If after what has been pointed out about the universal moral experience of mankind you still stick to this view, nothing can talk you out of it. Your view cannot be proved to be false but, as I have shown even within this little debate, nobody lives by it. That is enough for me, but if it is not enough for you I can think of nothing further to say that would help you.

Back to Our Task as Humans.