THERE is no denying that moral relativism has a bad reputation. As I will try to show in this post, this ominous notoriety is, for the most part, the product of a broad misunderstanding about what the word “relative” means. Moreover, I will explain that when viewed from a pragmatic perspective, moral relativism is actually a suitable starting point for a sound, levelheaded and reasonable morality in a world like the one we live in today.

The root of moral relativism’s bad reputation is the widespread misconception that “relative” means something like “arbitrary”. This misunderstanding is most evident in the usually held opinion that if moral values are relative then any morality is just as good as any other and anything goes. If moral values are relative, foes insist, everything is equally valid and what we believe to be good cannot be enforced or argued for as it stands on equal footing with any other idea of the good. This, as I am about to argue, is completely incorrect.

Let’s take a step back and think about what we mean when we say that moral values are “relative”. Saying that moral values are relative simply means that the worth of moral values is derived in relation to a certain pre-established purpose. When used as an adjective, “relative” points to the fact that the value in question is not absolute but arises in relation to something else. This, of course, is nothing new. As Wittgenstein pointed out in his famous Lecture on Ethics, “If for instance I say that this is a good chair this means that the chair serves a certain predetermined purpose and the word good here has only meaning so far as this purpose has been previously fixed upon. In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard.”[i]

Moreover, borrowing from Wittgenstein again, the relative sense of the words “good” and “bad” is actually the normal sense in which we use those words. Outside moral discussions, we are perfectly contempt with goodness being relative. A good chair is one that serves its pre-defined purpose; its goodness is relative to its purpose and we never speak about what a good chair in absolute terms would be. And here lies the most important and often ignored characteristic of relative statements of value: relative statements of value are nothing else than factual evaluations of the compliance of something with a pre-defined purpose. All relative statements of value are in the end statements of fact: “does this chair comply with its purpose? Yes. Then, it is a good chair”. That relative value is factual is important for cleaning moral relativism’s bad name because it confronts the criticism that relative values are arbitrary. They are not; they are relative to a purpose, but once that purpose is pre-determined, they are factual and objective. Once we are in agreement about the purpose of chairs, we can objectively discuss if this or those chairs are “good”, we cannot just arbitrarily say that anything is a good chair –unless we want to be locked up in a lunatic asylum.

Let me illustrate this further with another example. Casablanca is widely regarded as a good movie. That this is the case is clearly relative to the criteria we use to judge what good or bad movies are. It would be odd to argue that Casablanca is a good movie independent of any criteria – that it is good “in absolute terms”. Moreover, when we judge Casablanca to be a good movie, we are expected to give reasons why we believe so, and everyone would agree that these reasons are relative to the criteria we use to talk about movies. That Casablanca’s goodness is not absolute but relative does not in any way mean that its goodness is arbitrary. If someone comes along insisting that Casablanca is a bad movie we do not feel that it is pointless to argue about it just because Casablanca’s goodness is relative to our contingent idea of what good movies are. We would still argue about it and we could still show this person all the many aspects in which Casablanca is a great movie and why he should appreciate it and potentially change his views about it. And if he insists that the source of his disagreement lies in the fact that his criterion for what good movies are is different than ours, we can still explain our criterion and its advantages and why it has come to be the accepted criterion to judge movies in this day and age.

I think it is clear then that the fact that Casablanca is not absolutely good independent of any criteria does not precludes us from having discussions about it, from recommending it or from reading expert reviews about it in order to learn more about its goodness. To a moral relativist, discussions about moral goodness stand in the exact same level as discussions about good movies: they are relative to pre-agreed standards but they are factual in relation to it and as such they are just as amenable to reasonable discussion and constructive debate as movies are.

Now, as a pragmatist, I refuse to engage in the never-ending metaphysical dispute between objectivists and relativists regarding the true nature of moral values. I believe the question about the real status of our moral values is an interesting question, but one that cannot be settled by facts, and as such, I suggest we reformulate the problem in pragmatic terms. As a pragmatist, what I care about is which approach to morality allows us to better cope with our current environment. Therefore, the question I am after can be formulated as “What are the practical consequences of believing that our moral values are objective or relative and do these consequences fit our current goals?”

To anchor the discussion around clear criteria let me define the purpose of a pragmatic moral theory:  From a pragmatic perspective, the goal of morality should be to facilitate a peaceful, plural and sustainable world that maximizes the well being of its inhabitants. This is the criterion we pragmatists use to evaluate which concept of morality is best suited for us. Why is this the purpose of morality and why should we pursue it instead of, for instance, the goal of maximizing our individual chances of going to heaven or the goal of facilitating the ascendancy of the Aryan race? Well, my answer is that it is our goal because our current existential conditions lead us in that direction. It does not have to be our goal, but growing up in an increasingly interwoven and plural world has made this a rational priority for a large portion of humanity. We live in an interconnected, plural and global society; as such, the project of making it work in the best possible way for the greatest number seems to be a reasonable practical choice for morality.

Now that we are clear on the purpose of morality, let’s go back and consider the candidates. If a useful moral theory is one that fosters a peaceful, plural and prosperous globally-wired society, moral objectivism is a dubious contender. I have spent a lot of time in past entries of this blog explaining why understanding our moral values as objectively grounded is a dangerous stance and one we should avoid in a world like the one we live in today. The belief that our moral values are universal, invariable and independent of any contingent criteria is at odds with a globalized, interconnected and multivariate world like ours. Those two just do not add up and a pragmatic approach to morality brings this to light. Moral objectivism and growing plural interconnectivity are a toxic blend, a ticking bomb that is blowing up as we speak. As I have pointed out in previous posts, the rise of fundamentalism in our digitally-globalized era is not a coincidence; it is a deafening reminder of the perils of dogmatic objectivism. The stagnant belief that our values are absolute does not survive a pragmatic approach to morality and that alone is a valuable outcome.

The alternative to moral objectivism is of course moral relativism. We pragmatists really like moral relativism for several reasons: 1) moral relativism is upfront and unambiguous about what is the criterion we use in making moral judgments 2) moral relativism promotes the awareness that every criterion is contingent and 3) once a criterion has been pre-defined, moral discussions are factual. These three characteristics of moral relativism make it a suitable candidate for a pragmatic approach to morality in a digitally-wired world like ours. Pragmatic moral relativism incorporates these three characteristics in the following way: 1) We pragmatic relativists are upfront about the purpose of morality as a facilitator of peaceful, plural and sustainable cooperation 2) we pragmatic relativists are aware that this criterion is contingent yet we feel pretty good about our chances of arguing for it and 3) we pragmatic relativists are ready to roll our sleeves and engage in constructive discussions about which moral values will actualize our moral purpose.

But putting aside all these advantages, the most important feature of pragmatic moral relativism is its upfront and conscious rejection of fundamentalism. From a relative perspective on morality, we can never get away with just saying something is good without justifying our judgment with factual evidence. When we say something is good in relative terms we need to back our view with facts; we need to show how it complies with a predetermined purpose. On the contrary, when we say something is good in absolute terms we turn our back on facts, distance ourselves from reasonable discussion and flirt with fundamentalism. At the beginning of this post I pointed out it is common to think that moral relativism opens the door to arbitrariness. Upon close analysis, it turns out that it is quite the opposite: moral relativism favors factual discussions based on clear criteria while moral objectivism encourages dogmatism and obstinacy.

I want to close this post with a quote from Richard Rorty which I believe captures the spirit of the message I have been trying to convey here: “One can give a respectable and useful sense to “relativism” by defining it simply as the denial of fundamentalism. Relativists on this definition are those who believe that we would be better off without such notions as unconditional moral obligation grounded in the structure of human existence.”[ii] As usual, I completely agree with Professor Rorty.

[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics
[ii] Richard Rorty, “An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion”