BEST ARGUMENTS AGAINST RELATIVISM

It’s the time of year again when I prepare to teach an online Intro to Philosophy summer course at Asbury University.

The opening unit is on moral or cultural relativism and moral realism or objectivity. So we have to think about whether morality is real. Are some things really wrong? Or is everything permissible? Does ‘permissible’ depend on what you can get away with in your particular setting? Does it depend on your individual conscience or universal rules?

On the “no, morality isn’t real, it’s a cultural artifact like dress codes, etiquette, and tribal medicine” side we read a nice little article by anthropologist Ruth Benedict outlining the widely varying cultural practices of different societies.

On “yes, morality is real and somethings are really wrong, dummy” side we read a nice little article by James Rachels.

Between these two, Rachels has the upper hand. There are better defenses of a skeptical or cynical attitude toward morality –Thrasymachus, Nietzche, Gilbert Harman, Simon Blackburn’s quasi-realism, and others. There are also better arguments for moral reality.

That got me thinking: What are the best arguments for morality? Here’s my list:

1. Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica, Q VII, “Whether there is a Moral Law?”

In 2 pages, Kreeft puts all the best arguments and counter arguments in one place. It’s airtight, and also funny.

#2. Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism

Shafer-Landau’s book is not 2 pages, and it’s more technical, but it includes some persuasive destruction of the anti-realist arguments, along with a full defense of moral reality and one possible explanation of how it all works.

#3. Peter Geach, the Virtues

The first few chapters.

He has to clear the way for his full discussion of the cardinal virtues. He demolishes the paltry line of thought that morality isn’t real because some people act immorally sometimes.

#4. David Enoch, “How is moral disagreement a problem for moral realism?”

Again, this ones a bit technical compared to Geach or Kreeft but this article is the best attempt anyone has ever made (including moral anti-realists and relativists) at actually stating the argument from moral disagreement explicitly. It turns out that being clear makes the argument much less persuasive. Put differently, the argument for relativism depends on innuendo, suggestion. It is sophistry.

#5. CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book I.

Lewis lays out an argument, in terms the radio-listening public of 1950’s England could easily follow, for why moral disagreement proves that moral rules are real. (We wouldn’t argue over subjective feelings.)

#6. CS Lewis, Abolition of Man

Lewis’s more mature, robust, and academic offering on a similar topic. Not only does he defend moral realism against specious and shallow appeals to “instinct”, “biology”, or cultural code, but he goes beyond to analyze the real nature of immorality. The Abolition of Man defends the “tao”, a set of universal moral laws that are visible to every morally decent person but invisible to the type of Unman our culture is busy creating.

That’s my list of the best arguments, or those which have had perhaps the most influence on my way of thinking.

What’s yours?