Multiculturism is one thing, moral relativism is another

Elton Wong

Multiculturalism is all the rage these days. I think that’s generally a good thing. Not that I’m crazy about the buzzword itself, but the idea behind it is cool.

I think that it is valuable and important for people to be exposed to other cultures, customs, systems of thought, art forms, food and the like. However, this principle has, in some cases, extended to the point where we cannot criticize another culture on moral grounds.

This is a doctrine known as ethical relativism, which holds that standards of right and wrong are not universal, but rather dependent on the customs or traditions of a given culture.

This doctrine is not only wrong, it is confused.

If you’ve read this far and don’t know me, you probably think I’m a preachy, self-righteous religious person who’s trying to force my narrow views on everyone I can get within shouting distance.

This isn’t true, but it does explain the popularity of ethical relativism.

Many people believe that only self-righteous bigots believe in moral absolutes.

Since we don’t want to be bigoted, we cannot hold that there are moral absolutes.

Certainly, this is the dichotomy that the aforementioned bigots have been pushing for quite awhile.

How many times have you heard someone like Pat Robertson saying something like “If you reject God and the Bible, then you reject the possibility of a true morality?”

This view is simply wrong. Any person can take any book and define all the words in it as truth, but that doesn’t make them right.

Even if they were, no theoretical being, no matter how powerful, can define morality. It may be that God can send you to hell for breaking petty rules, but he would be wrong to do so.

To complicate the matter, many systems of religion love nothing better than to take non-moral issues and define them as ethically important. Sex is a good example of this.

Superstitious taboos placed on sex have given rise to the persecution of homosexuals, female genital mutilation and a general characterization of sex as dirty.

In regards to that last part, I’ve always wanted to join a religion where eating food is dirty and sinful. It just seems it’d be more fun that way.

Obviously, bad things can happen when powerful people claim to have an absolute hold on truth. It doesn’t follow from this that we must deny the possibility of an absolute moral truth.

Let’s use intuition as a guide for a moment.

Suppose there was a culture in which small children were regularly tortured for fun. What attitude should we take towards such a practice?

All of us, even those who try to be non-judgmental, think that torturing children for no reason is horrible and wrong.

Notice though, that the ethical relativist is unable to truly condemn this action.

The ethical relativist can only say something like “that practice does not conform to my personal beliefs about right and wrong, but what’s right for me isn’t necessarily what’s right for everyone.”

This brings to light the problem with ethical relativism: it allows any action to be moral as long as enough people believe that it is right. Relativism nullifies ethics.

The question we must then ask is this: If there are universal standards of right and wrong, where do they come from? Who defines them?

The answer is that no one defines morality — it is a fact of human existence that we must uncover.

In the end, morality is a logical extension of consistency.

I wouldn’t like it if someone ran up and hit me on the head with a baseball bat; therefore I shouldn’t hit other people with bats because they wouldn’t like it either.

I am no different from them. Other moral dilemmas that may or may not involve baseball bats can be solved or at least discussed rationally by applying the same principle.

It is also important to note that an “absolute morality” does not consist of “absolute” rules (e.g. killing is wrong no matter what).

This is like a biologist stating “all butterflies are green no matter what.”

Morality, like a science, isn’t always simple.

It is not our duty to be judgmental and self-righteous but rather to arrive at the truth through logic and reasoned arguments. Ethical discussion must not be replaced by the false idol of religious dogma, nor denied by the blindfold of relativism.

The truth is out there, and it is up to us to find it.

Elton Wong is a sophomore in biology from Ames.