Charles Petzold

What is “Moral Relativism”?

July 21, 2011
Roscoe, N.Y.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is certainly one of America's more spiritually advanced politicians. He recently set up a web site asking people to help solve America's problems using the only solution with proven, guaranteed effectiveness: prayer.

Governor Perry's video message included the following statement:

After hearing this, some people may have asked "I've heard about this 'moral relativism' thing before, but what exactly is it?"

Moral relativism is the recognition that people don't always agree about moral questions — which behaviors are morally right and which behaviors are morally wrong.

For example, consider two adult men having consensual sex with each other. Many Christians, including Governor Perry, believe such activities to be morally wrong. In fact, as recently as 2003, Texas law imposed penalties on men who engaged in such acts. That law (as well as similar laws in the states of Alabama, Idaho, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia) was struck down by the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision.

Although some people think that gay sex is wrong; others do not. These others think that sex performs just as vital a function in a gay relationship as in a non-gay relationship, and to prohibit it would be immoral.

This difference in viewpoint is called "moral relativism."

New York recently passed a law instituting marriage equality. Some people think it's immoral to let two adults of the same sex get married. Others think the immoral thing is to prevent two consenting adults from marrying each other. That's more moral relativism.

But here is where it gets confusing, because Governor Perry alludes to "people adrift in a sea of moral relativism" as if this is something undesirable, and not just an acknowledgement that we happen to live in a society where we disagree on moral issues.

It's actually quite simple: Being as spiritually advanced as he is, Governor Perry has special knowledge of the one true set of moral strictures, and hence he has the prerogative to use the term "moral relativism" as a synonym for "nihilism." The rest of us, living in ignorance, are not so fortunate.

Let's look at another example that might clarify this issue: If we were having this discussion 150 years ago, it wouldn't be about gay marriage, but it might very well be about slavery. Back then, Governor Perry's state of Texas was home to almost 200,000 slaves. The state of Texas wished to keep these individuals enslaved, so the state seceded from the union on February 1, 1861, and became part of the Confederacy in March.

Back in those days, some people thought slavery was immoral, while many others did not. This difference was largely geographic in nature: People who had been raised in a culture that allowed slavery often grew up believing the institution to be natural and moral. Indeed, many religious leaders in the American South justified slavery as well, retelling the story of the Curse of Ham, and emphasizing that the practice of slavery was never condemned in the Old Testament. In their view, people who opposed slavery were atheists.

The morality of slavery was a particularly devastating case of moral relativism, and one that involved the loss of half a million American lives trying to sort it out. But it also gave liberty to four million American slaves.

Was freeing four million slaves worth the cost of half a million lives? You might answer this question in different ways, and that's an example of moral relativism.

It would be hard to find someone trying to justify slavery these days. Concepts of morality change over time. Something that was acceptable in the past but is considered immoral now is also an example of moral relativism.

War is another area where people have moral disagreements. Some people and some religions (such as the Quakers) think that war is always morally wrong. Others, not so much. Some people are advocates of classical Just War criteria. Others prefer to pretend to be advocates of Just War theory without actually giving it much thought. Some people think war is morally acceptable only as a form of self-defense. Others will choose to invade countries without direct provocation. It's all moral relativism.

Some Christians read the Sermon on the Mount as one of the most pacifistic doctrines ever. Others think it's allegory. (Oddly enough, people who read the Sermon on the Mount as allegory are often the same people who believe the Book of Genesis to be literal!) More moral relativism.

Or consider the issue of torture. As historian Lynn Hunt discusses in the second chapter of her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, moral opposition to torture began during the Enlightenment, and by the 20th century this attitude had been codified into international law. But even as recently as the past decade, some people found it within their moral boundaries to actually order prisoners to be tortured!

Some people think torture is always wrong. Others think it's OK to torture people who aren't American citizens. Some people think it was proper for the U.S. to execute Japanese soldiers who authorized waterboarding of American prisoners of war during World War II. Some of those same people oppose executing Americans who authorized waterboarding of Islamic prisoners.

Some people argue that torture "works." Others argue that torture "doesn't work." And still others think that all this talk about whether torture "works" or "doesn't work" is beside the point because torture is always wrong.

That's moral relativism.

I mentioned executions. Capital punishment is another moral issue where there's often disagreement. Some states have capital punishment, while others do not. New York State hasn't had an execution since 1963, whereas Governor Perry's state of Texas currently executes about 25 men and women a year.

It used to be that capital punishment in the United States was employed for a variety of offenses, including burglary, sodomy, arson, rape, and slave revolts. By the 1960s, however, capital punishment was limited to murder. That change is an example of moral relativism.

Some people think that children and mentally retarded adults can be executed without causing any ripples in the moral universe. Others do not. Moral relativism again.

Even people in favor of capital punishment usually don't want innocent people to be executed. So when questions arose about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004, some people thought that case should be investigated, and any flaws in the system that allowed the execution of an innocent man should be corrected. But other people believed that Governor Perry was right to replace three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to avoid a finding that might be embarrassing and cause the people of Texas undue distress and hamper future executions in Texas.

That's moral relativism.

Capital punishment also gets morally tricky when considering the means of execution. What's a good way to kill someone that doesn't involve a lot of messy cleaning up afterwards? Over the past couple hundred years, a variety of techniques have been used in the United States, including hanging, firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber, and lethal injection. A slave was burned at the stake in South Carolina in 1825, but that practice was historically reserved for heretics and witches.

Whether one believes that capital punishment should cause pain or not is also an example of moral relativism.

What about crucifixion? Is crucifixion an acceptable form of capital punishment?

Here's where I suspect many Christians who otherwise support capital punishment would draw the line. Whereas ancient Romans believed that capital punishment by crucifixion was moral, many modern-day Christians would prefer methods of death somewhat less visually disturbing.

That's moral relativism yet again.