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November 30, 2023

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Moral relativism can lead to ethical anarchy

It happens nearly every semester. Somewhere on campus, an instructor attempts to integrate an ethical perspective into the subject matter. Be it biology or business, humanities or history, the class material is examined through an ethical lens.

At this point, someone – the instructor or a student – will note that different people can have different views on what constitutes proper ethical behavior. Indeed, this phenomenon is not limited to individuals; entire societies have had wildly diverse views on right and wrong.

At this point, the discussion usually turns to moral relativism and tolerance.

The view currently in vogue maintains that each person is entitled to his or her own definition of right and wrong, so long as it doesn’t impinge on another. It’s the ethical adaptation of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous dictum: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Moral relativism sounds wonderful and feels so “right.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear up to any sort of rigorous scrutiny.

For one thing, the lack of a uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong based on Natural Law leads to the moral anarchy we see today. For example, some believe in capital punishment; others do not. Neither view cannot be reconciled with the other. As a society, we must ultimately take a stand. The condemned person is either executed or not.

The usual recourse is to apply democratic principles. But decisions about right and wrong are not always suitable material for a plebiscite. Relying on a majority to determine fundamental issues of right and wrong can be fraught with unintended consequences.

For example, of the 17 million people who voted in the March 1933 German parliamentary elections, more than 40 percent endorsed the Nazi party.

Democracy cannot always be relied upon to discern the proper ethical solution, much less protect the minority from the majority, or vice versa.

Some might point out that different societies have different notions of what constitutes right and wrong and these should be respected. But those who believe this ignore the fact that our sense of right and wrong has developed and evolved over time.

American history provides such an example. Two hundred years ago it was considered acceptable in some states to own slaves. The efforts of abolitionists and a grinding, costly civil war put that idea to rest.

Of course, we need to be cautious so that the “evolution” of our concept of right and wrong doesn’t regress. One indication of this ethical retrograde slide is the redefinition or replacement of words and phrases. The replacement of “murder” with “abortion” is a contemporary example.

Fundamental concepts of right and wrong are not subject matter for a vote. Certain ideas are always wrong, although endorsed by the ruling class or majority; Auschwitz comes to mind. So as a society advances, new issues requiring the application of ethical rules arise; the growing opposition to capital punishment is a contemporary example.

A uniform set of rules based on Natural Law and accepted by everyone would be highly desirable. However, the extrication from moral relativism can be a long and painful process, filled with discussion and debate.

But the alternatives are either the moral anarchy produced by today’s cafeteria-style moral decision-making, or the heavy-handed rule of the majority (or minority).

This naturally leads to the topic of tolerance. Once a society begins to embrace universally accepted standards of right and wrong, it becomes apparent that tolerance has limitations. No society should be tolerant of slavery or sex trafficking or child abuse, merely because some feel otherwise. Tolerance, as properly understood, has – and should have – limitations.

Moral relativism is fraught with problems, from ethical anarchy to possible tyranny of the majority to a misguided understanding of tolerance. Only by the acceptance of universal ethical standards based on Natural Law can society hope to emerge from its current moral quagmire.

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