What makes something good or bad? How do we determine right from wrong when there are so many different opinions on the topic? Philosophers, religious leaders, and everyone in between have been trying to figure this out for thousands of years.
One attempt at answering this question is moral relativism. The theory goes a bit like this:
“There is no such thing as universal right or wrong. People and cultures are free to form their own moral truths, and those truths are always correct, as there are no objective truths to compare them to.”
A lot of people today subscribe to moral relativism, but I believe it’s a dangerous concept that encourages individuals and entire societies to abandon the quest for betterment. Let me explain.
Adding Relativism to Morality
The concept of relativism stretches back thousands of years.
A classic example of moral relativism comes to us from the ancient historian Herodotus. He describes an encounter between the Callatians, a tribe who ate their dead, and the ancient Greeks, who practised cremation. Each group thought their own practice was “right” and the other’s was “wrong.”
A moral relativist would say that both the ancient Greeks and the Callatians were in the right. There is no universally correct way to dispose of the dead, no rules dealt out by the universe that dictate what we’re supposed to do. And besides, who are we to judge what another culture does?
This sounds like a harmonious outlook towards life, especially in our modern society with its emphasis on tolerating others. The reality is that it’s a fundamentally broken theory.
Moral Relativism is Logically Inconsistent
Consider the core statement of moral relativism, that all truths are relative.
The problem is this: “all truths are relative” is itself a universal claim about moral truths. You can’t simultaneously claim there’s no such thing as universal truth AND then make a universal statement like that about all truths.
This is logically self-contradictory and serves as the first sign that the theory is broken.
Moral Relativism Ignores Reality
There is a real world out there and we can use that to inform many of the moral decisions we make. Consider this nice picture of the Eiffel Tower:
Let’s say that Sally believes the Eiffel Tower is made of cheese. Roger believes it’s made of soap. Should we conclude that because these two disagree there is no universally correct answer to the question? Of course not. There are ways to objectively determine what the Eiffel Tower is composed of (it’s iron, by the way). This remains true no matter what Sally or Roger believe.
Morals are less tangible than towers, but there are still cases when they can be informed by objective data. To return to the ancient Greek example from earlier, we now know there are health hazards associated with cannibalism. Practising cannibalism carries those risks, no matter what our beliefs are.
By studying the real world, we can find information about what our morals point to and make well-reasoned decisions that are good for both ourselves and for society.
Moral Relativism as an Excuse for Evil
Still think moral relativism is okay? Sure, it’s logically inconsistent, but who cares? Let me challenge you a bit further.
Here’s a sobering fact: moral relativism requires us to accept the worst parts of human nature as morally permissible.
- Thomas enjoys raping babies in his spare time. But who are we to judge whether this is good or bad?
- David keeps a slave who he forces to work for 20 hours a day without stopping. If the slave wants a break, David beats him with a stick. Oh well, David is entitled to his own beliefs.
- Elizabeth burns her husband with a lighter whenever she is angry. After all, it’s what her mum did to her, so it’s fine. To each their own, right?
It doesn’t take much empathy to realise that the behaviour in these examples is morally unacceptable. Regardless of the moral standards of the time, behaviour like this has been objectively wrong across all cultures for all of human history, and will continue to be so in the future.
But here’s the problem: if you believe in moral relativism, you have no logical basis for calling out behaviour like this. Morality is relative, so everything is fine. It’s just a matter of opinion.
Frankly, this is lazy reasoning that is used to justify cowardly behaviour — like not calling examples like these evil.
Moral Relativism Leads to Individual and Cultural Stagnation
To be clear, I don’t think that most of the people who believe in moral relativism would support the sort of sociopathic behaviour described above.
Rather, my main reason for speaking out against moral relativism is that it discourages reflection and self-improvement. If everything is relative, there is nothing to strive for.
If a moral relativist were to live consistently with their theory, they would do nothing but sit around in bed all day watching Netflix. After all, what’s the point in taking action to live a better life if everything is relative anyway?
Starting an exercise routine, going to therapy, or founding a business are all a waste of time, because someone who’s doing those things is neither better nor worse off than someone who is not.
Even science itself and the pursuit of objective knowledge would become pointless. It’s just a matter of opinion, say the relativists. Who are we to judge? Why bother forging our own path if everything we believe is already correct?
This is a cowardly way to live and a terrible way to set up a society.
My Journey From Moral Relativism to Self-Improvement
Over the last 10 years, I have observed a number of dysfunctional behaviours in myself and the people around me. Here are just a few examples:
- I was given to manipulating people to get approval from them, especially women. I previously wrote about this here.
- I used to eat poorly and had energy issues as a result. Now I meal prep once a week and have a great diet.
- I have been to therapy multiple times and identified a lot of dysfunction in my family environment.
- I used to feel a lot of anxiety about spending money on anything that was non-essential. I needed to learn about financial abundance and rethink my mindset.
If I had no objective moral standard to compare my own behaviour against, none of this growth would have been possible. Yes, seeing my own flaws has been painful, but that pain has been so worthwhile.
My intention for Universal Owl is to help young people embark on their own journey of self-betterment. It is my belief that this is how we improve society: by encouraging each individual to accept responsibility for their own inadequacies from a young age and work through their own issues.
There are objectively healthy behaviours in the realms of relationships, communication, diet, sleep, finances and more. It is the mission of Universal Owl to uncover these behaviours and teach them to as many young people as possible.
Becoming a Better Person
The path to self-betterment begins with comparing ourselves against an objective moral standard and realising that we can improve ourselves.
There are ways to objectively measure what is good, especially in the areas of life that come into direct contact with the real world. It’s a gradual process of analysing your inner world, comparing it to the external world, searching for an action you can take that would bring about change for good, then finding the best way to implement that change.
Sometimes this change is as simple as removing harmful habits or starting up new ones, like creating an exercise routine. That might sound like an insignificant move, but it’s objectively better than not exercising, and can lead to improvements across your entire life.
Other times, change for the better means learning a new skill, something that’s useful no matter where you live or what you do. Writing and speaking skills can help you better articulate your ideas to the world. That holds true no matter what you do for a living, making it an incredibly useful meta-skill to work on, one that is universally good.
But self-betterment can’t happen if we ignore objective facts. Not every idea, opinion, or moral outlook is correct, let alone good for individuals or good for the world. And that is why we must dispense with moral relativism.
By looking at objective reality as often as possible, and by considering our actions in terms of their broader implication, we can take huge strides in the direction of living healthier, more functional, and more conscious lives.
Start your journey towards successful adulthood
Subscribe for the latest updates from our blog.