At a professional meeting where the concluding plenary panel discussion centered on what made moral values moral, one audience participant’s question to the panel was: “I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but aren’t you saying that ‘All moral values are relative?’”
At least two of the five experts agreed with that point of view. The idea of all moral values being relative is the kind of earthquake that obliterates any ground that could have made a case for how to distinguish good from evil or for how to discern the difference between right and wrong.
Cultural Relativism, which proposes that whatever values seem to be typical or to be common practices in a given culture constitute what is moral for that culture. Wherever moral relativism is deemed a relevant description of the way things really are, solutions to moral and ethical problems are going to be hard to come by.
If every culture can claim their own practices as moral even when other cultures just across some geographic border might condemn those behaviors, then all moral values are matters of preference or style rather than of moral import.
But we need not go across cultures to find cultural relativism. Examples from the United States are sufficient.
Cultural practices can be defined as matters of preference, where the issue is merely a given style or personal taste with no significant moral implications. One’s choice of ice cream flavor or hairstyle are examples. But the other category of cultural practices does carry moral implications that encompass significance regarding questions of what is right or what is good in human interaction.
Choices such as whether or when to incur debt, or how best to deal with a family member’s drug abuse are sobering examples.
Moral relativism spawns an inability to distinguish between practices and attitudes that are beneficial to, or destructive of, human well-being. Human sexual behavior is a case in point. Once upon a time, the cultural “norm” was to sustain the ideal of abstinence prior to marriage, while not being naïve to the reality that that moral standard was often violated.
Now the cultural norm frequently expressed is that one’s sexual behavior is one’s individual business, and nobody else has the right to impose cultural boundaries. (Moral relativism does assume that the choices and behaviors legitimately available to us do not include coercion of others). But within the notion of “freedom of choice,” criteria to assess the ethical defensibility of a given course of action are focused more on rights than responsibilities.)
As far as individual freedom of choice is concerned, human experience may be more richly understood if evaluated contextually, rather than individualistically. That is, what if we were to assess moral values by examining whether decisions nourish the individual, sustain quality family relationships, strengthen the community, and build a cohesive unity in the culture itself?
If all four of those dimensions could be in alignment—that is, any decision helps accomplish or sustain all four of those contextual realities, then a culture would not be culturally relativistic, but culturally sustaining the moral well-being of individuals, families, communities, and the cohesiveness of the culture itself. Yet, in every culture some behaviors and attitudes are destructive rather than constructive of the best interests of those who are participants in that society.
If we can acknowledge that every culture is morally flawed, then at least we can survive the intellectual earthquake of moral relativism by re-discovering how we decide what is constructive and what is destructive about a given culture’s practices.
When we launched our teacher-training program for the delivery of character and citizenship education to secondary school students, we had to deal with how our teachers and their students would define ‘good’ character and ethical/moral citizenship. Although we had a starting point of our own that included seeing the moral as relational rather than individual, we knew that we couldn’t just engage the students in an intellectual overview of the debating scholars’ disagreements. And we did not want to pick a certain view of the moral and make an extensive argument regarding its moral worthiness.
We sensed that 7th graders might lose interest during any esoteric hair-splitting conversations about being moral or ethical. After all, to make a list of universal values and then prescribe them would dissolve if only one student—or one teacher—were to say, “That is not my value.” Moral relativism would have had its victory.
But what became our ally in fostering a moral understanding of human interaction—and how moral behavior was fundamental to the quality of behavior—was the students’ own lived experiences. They would draw on their lived experiences to make moral decisions anyway.
It turned out, as we invited and listened to students’ stories, we saw that our work did not produce cultural relativism. Their own stories made the moral dimension of human experience central to their understanding and absolutely relevant to the task of fostering moral and ethical behavior.
One example: We asked students to imagine their being born tomorrow. We asked them to write down what circumstances they would like to be born into. The array of answers we got did include some “joke” answers—which gave us a chance to laugh with the students. But the vast majority of answers fell into three categories—all of which were acceptable as moral or ethical practices:
Having parents who loved, nourished, and protected them. [This comment was almost universal and included respondents whose family backgrounds were hardly the ideal they described.]
Having parents and teachers who would educate them about how to navigate a world that often seemed hostile, uncaring, and seductive. [Relationships outside the family unit seemed all too often not to be trustworthy.]
Have someone they trust help them set boundaries and to find out how to be prepared for the future—an unknown future that many of the students were uneasy about. [This may be a common adolescent quandary and it illustrates a longing to know how to do what they do not yet know how to do.]
We followed this question about being “born tomorrow” up with two more: “If you were to become a mother or father or aunt or uncle tomorrow, what would you want the circumstances to be?” and “What choices must you make now to enhance your ability to do for others what you longed for in answering the first question?”
The class discussions surrounding these questions did not include the idea that any possible choices would be beneficial.
Instead, the class discussions which consisted in students sharing their lived experiences, did include imagining the future—where the relevant starting points were longings to be loved, nurtured, protected, educated, and prepared for the future. Moral relativism was not illustrated in the students’ longings or commitments regarding the quality of their lives in the present moment or in the future possibilities being discussed.
Without “imposing” values, the students revealed a common moral understanding about what qualities were necessary, and what actions they must take, if a quality future is to be a possibility for them
Terrance D. Olson is an emeritus professor of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. This article was originally published at The Wheatley Institution.