Thursday, 11 March 2010

State Morality and the Myth of Moral Relativism

From time to time I slip into 'blog apathy' and simply can't bring myself to write posts, which is why I haven't posted since November. Things have also been rather hectic in my life recently (nothing sinister, merely purely professional challenges that I am quite happy to tackle). But the world is moving fast and lots of things are going on. No time to comment on them all, but an issue that has been addressed more and more frequently in the British Catholic blogosphere is the government's bill to teach sex education to children as young as five - including information on contraception from eight years of age and on abortion from 11 years. Initially these provisions were made mandatory also for 'faith schools' - such as Catholic schools which absolutely could not in good conscience teach a curriculum that said contraception and especially abortion were perfectly legitimate options. After much consternation, including a sharp comment from Pope Benedict, an amendment was introduced that opened up for such schools to be able to present the views of the denominations they are affiliated with - but they would still be required to present opposing views in addition to their own, including providing information to little girls about how they can have sex without getting pregnant and how they can have their babies killed if it happens anyway!!

Though the government will deny it, what it is doing is passing moral judgments in the manner of religious authorities. It is not possible to divorce sex & relationship education from morality: no matter whether you teach that abortion is acceptable or unacceptable, you are expounding a particular morality. Even if you desire to remain 'neutral' by presenting both sides of the argument and leave it to the pupils to decide you are still sending the message that both are legitimate options in their own right. This shows the flaw of Moral Relativism - though it purports to be 'neutral' and 'balanced', by arguing for the moral equivalence of multiple paths of moral reasoning, it is itself passing a moral judgment that it is perfectly legitimate for a person to abitrarily select one such path or the other. As such the very concept of Moral Relativism is self-contradictory, because it itself presupposes the existence of the very Absolutist principles it claims do not exist (it is readily demonstrable that the statement "Everything is relative" is self-contradictory because it is Absolutist - as long as one believes in logic).

(Interestingly, secular schools are not required - or even allowed - to present more than one side of the arguments on S&R issues. This does not seem particularly 'pluralist'. Indeed, most contemporary Western governments do not even base their policies upon moral relativist reasoning intended to represent a genuine plurality of viewpoints, but rather increasingly upon an agressive 'secularism' which embodies a distinctive morality of its own that a priori excludes the legitimacy of other viewpoints. Thus the 'secular' view that contraception and abortion are legitimate options is made the norm, and the 'religious' view that they are not is merely tolerated, and then only to a certain degree. This 'secularism' is thus an ideology in itself that seeks to exclude and destroy opposing ideologies and as such it is irrational to tout it as a common platform for all of society.)


  1. Nice logic trick.
    Here's another one for you:
    "I am lying." - Do you deem the latter statement true or false?

    Does "believing in logic" mean believing that statements refer to themselves?

  2. Since when can statements only be either true or false? They could also be ambiguous or even plain meaningless. In fact I never said that the statement "everything is relative" is false - merely that it is self-contradictory and thus meaningless, as is the example you site.

    "Does "believing in logic" mean believing that statements refer to themselves?"

    I am puzzled by this question. Obviously the answer is no, and I have never implied otherwise. Whereas statements in general do not refer to themselves, any statement which seeks to say something about "everything" ipso facto also refers to itself.

    Now the statement "everything is relative" is obviously not the same as the statement "all moral choices are morally equivalent". But both statements attempt to express the same absurd and oxymoronic idea of the "absolute relative".

  3. Touché, I have to say :)

    And I do mostly agree: any attempt at ordering human society is bound to be, in the broadest sense of the word, totalitarian.

    Perhaps what bugs me is the whole logic-game approach to politico-ethical questions. Obviously, nobody enganged in political acitivity honestly believes that anything is permissible (which would be the consequence of the moral equivalence of all moral attitudes). Or, well, perhaps some do believe so, but then at least no political action can express this belief, assuming that politics deal with questions of how we ought to organize society.

    Anyone advocating complete moral relativism will, if the point is pressed enough, admit that what they really want is broader tolerance. You've said as much yourself.

    It just so happens that a lot of people in the liberal capitalist West tend to prefer the spectrum of tolerance that is exercised under liberal capitalist (totalitarian) rule, than the one exercised under the sovereign (totalitarian) reign of the Church. (And some opt for even broader, or perhaps merely otherwise accented tolerance).


    I guess my point scarcely goes further than to say: who cares about the idea of moral relativism and its obvious self-contradiction - such logical bickering just goes to show that nobody seriously intends for tolerance to be all-encompassing.

    Your pro-life programme is tolerated thanks to the liberal agenda that seeks to avoid the reduction of human subjects to mere intersection points for lines of political rationality. For such an agenda, there seems to be no way around the fight to keep open a broad spectrum of tolerance - without reaching a breaking point of intolerable conflict.

  5. (correction: part 1, line 3 from below, should read: "... to the one exercised...")

  6. "Your pro-life programme is tolerated thanks to the liberal agenda..."

    Well, sort of... but did you know that anaesthesiologists, nurses and midwifes in Danish hospitals who are opposed to abortion are not entitled to conscience protection? So tolerance only goes so far.

  7. "Obviously, nobody enganged in political acitivity honestly believes that anything is permissible..."

    You have a fair point. But as the last part of my post acknowledged, the real challenge to morality in modern society is not really genuine moral relativism, but rather a particular (libertine) morality which is explicitly opposed to certain moral values that feature prominently in traditional religious systems of thought, especially the teaching of the Catholic Church. The question now becomes how we can determine which moral system is superior, in terms of the ordering both of the moral life of the individual and of society as a whole. I shall compose a post on this subject presently.