Matthew Flannagan

Back to Matt Flannagan’s tirade against moral relativism – that producer of such moral outrages as equality for women, freedom of homosexuals from legal persecution, and all those other things that cause your average member of a conservative think-tank to worry about all night in bed.

Later on in his presentation, Matt announces that he is going to produce ‘counterexamples’ to moral relativism. Now, usually a ‘counterexample’ would demonstrate the illogical or absurd nature of moral relativism. So does Matt produce this type of ’counterexample’? Does any one of his examples demonstrate the illogical or absurd nature of moral relativism? In fact… none of them do.

Matt makes the following confused suggestions about moral relativism:

– If a society considered wife-bashing to be morally acceptable, it would not be ‘right’ for a feminist or a moral relativist to object to it;

– In an Islamic society which believed that conversion to another religion was a capital offense, it would be morally required to execute converts;

– In countries in which racism is widely practiced, then racism is acceptable;

– An individual who thinks it is right to rape, torture, kill or ‘chop up’ women would be morally right under individual relativism, and nobody could impose their views on them.

Matt adds, “If you accept cultural relativism, essentially the norms of your society become infallible. They can’t be wrong. Because right and wrong just is what your society says it is.” As Matt concludes that is it implausible that societies can be morally infallible in their judgments, he concludes that moral relativism is not true.

Matt’s reference to ‘infalliblity’ here is interesting. For infallibility is a normal trait of divine commands. Once again, it seems that Matt is assuming that moral relativism must have the characteristics of moral objectivism. He just cannot appreciate how moral relativism works. For moral relativism is not some monolithic system across society, but a variety of different views, some coalescing together, some in conflict to some degree or another. Moral relativism is not some stationary edifice, as Matt pretends, but is always developing, always reacting to material circumstances and prior ideologies. Once one removes the imaginary characteristics of divine command theory – infallibility, immutability, universality, etc – from the description of moral relativism, then Matt’s conclusions are exposed as unsound.

For moral rules are always sites of dispute. A society that approves of wife-bashing, like most of New Zealand did only about 50-or-so years ago, can certainly renegotiate the moral rightness or wrongness of such behaviour. And such disputes need not only occur within a society. Our learned (not objective) disgust at certain behaviour might prompt us to attempt to alter the behaviour of other societies (and it often has, for better or for worse, relatively speaking). So there is no illogic in the system, once relativism is properly viewed as a fluid process, rather than as the artificial imaginary associated with Matt’s divine command theory.

Moreover, there is no absurdity in the fact that a person or sector of society with very unusual morals might consider their behaviour to be morally good. To the contrary, if morality depends on cultural norms, the examples he provides are exactly as we would expect. Only a few people would openly claim moral rectitude for really weird or kinky behaviour. For if everybody openly claimed it was morally good, then – culturally – it wouldn’t be considered weird or kinky in the first place! When Matt fantasizes about some weird behaviour (and his favourite suggestion, for some reason, is a person who rapes, tortures and ‘chops up’ women, which places Matt in the position of patriarchal protector of women), the very fact that this behaviour is culturally abnormal is consistent with the claims of moral relativism. Moral relativism in fact claims that morally weird behaviour will usually correspond to culturally abnormal behaviour. Morality follows cultural norms. Just as we would expect from moral relativism.

So Matt’s so-called ‘counterexamples’ are nothing of the sort. Instead, these examples have all backfired on him. Matt’s examples are entirely consistent with the truth of moral relativism.