Sometimes, it's not all relative

Sometimes, things can just be wrong, and tolerating them is the crime

Moral Relativism is very popular and many people claim to be exponents of it without really taking time to understand what it really means for morality. The basic idea is that we should tolerate other cultures and beliefs as every culture and individual has a right to believe, think and by extension, behave as they wish, so long as it is in line with their particular cultural norms. This has never sat well with me and I think that it is very easy to both illustrate and argue why moral relativism is not just a flawed way of looking at the world, it is also dangerous one.

While out for a run last week, I was listening to a Ted Talk by Sam Harris, a philosopher who is generally interested in improving the world, rather than just thinking about it. He does not refer to moral relativism directly, but he makes a very clear argument against it by saying that it's time that people stand up and say that we are not afraid of developing human world-wide norms about how we want to live as a species. After all, we are all part of the same planet, eco-system and species. National and cultural boundaries are relatively recent inventions and mostly illusory. There are a couple of examples that illustrate the problem :

  • Work-place cultural relativism: I have first hand experience of a colleague and friend who was not able to apply for a role in a country she wished to work because she is an unmarried female. In that country, unmarried females are not entitled to be employed. The multi-national business accepts this as a cultural norm for that country yet champions equality and womens rights elsewhere
  • Forced wearing of the Veil & Burqa : Women in certain countries are not allowed in public without wearing some sort of facial covering. In extreme cases, this extends to the full body and face being covered without the women having any choice or say in the matter
  • Women not being entitled to the same pay or education as men : This is not just a Muslim issue, it is  a world wide one. Research has shown that women colleagues are often paid less than their men peers for performing the same role. In parts of Afghanistan, women receive formal academic education and are forbidden from driving

Under moral relativism all of these inequalities must be tolerated and even embraced.

This is potentially a very sensitive topic and I would like to make one important distinction. There is a big difference between someone having both the freedom to choose and doing so and someone who is being forced, either explicitly or implicitly, to behave, think or even dress in a particular way. I am not attacking those women who live in a society that embraces freedom of worship and they chose to wear a veil, I am focusing on those situations where we allow moral relativism to manifest itself as a form of persecution of members of society.

Back to Sam Harris - he offered two responses to the issue.

The first is that one of our norms absolutely should be that women (and men) should be allowed to wear whatever they like. Period. But when it comes to forcing women to wear the Burqa, the argument that it is part of a cultural norm and that makes it acceptable is not sufficient to make it right. It is an item of clothing that is being forced upon young and old women by men as a means of maintaining control over them. Women in strict Muslim societies often (if at all) have no say in this. The right thing for the rest of us to do is, as a world society, stand up and say that any society that withholds the personal freedoms of someone because of their gender is one that we do not accept. Quite simply, it is often a cultural norm that promotes persecution and hatred, inhibits human flourishing and discriminates on gender. This is simply wrong.

Many societies do not want to oppose the wearing of the veil or burqa. The standard relativist view is for someone to say "what sort of people would we be were we to tell other cultures how to live their lives?". The response that Sam Harris suggests to this question is to say "what sort of people are we to stand by and let persecution, hatred and social intolerance take place routinely?"

The French were the first European nation to ban religious displays in schools (as far as I am aware), which was criticised by many people, including some liberals, for forcing their secular morality on religious people This missed the point. - the statement the French were making was that freedom of religion and expression is fine, but not where it contributes to the erosion of core freedoms and values; when this happens, religious "freedom" goes too far.

The second point Sam Harris made was a direct response to the argument that many defenders of the burqa make : "what about where the women chose to dress like this. Many young Muslim women surely see it as both a choice to maintain tradition and a way of protecting their female virtue". The response to this was two fold.

Firstly, how much choice can a women be said to have when the alternative to not wearing the burqa is at best persecution and at worst, rape, stoning and potentially murder. This is not a society that is encouraging choice, it is inhibiting it by fear. The second point is that the idea of "protecting female virtue" and ensuring men aren’t “given chances to be tempted” does not address the root cause of the issue. This is like saying the solution to the problem is to persecute the victim, rather than educate the people who are causing the fear and suffering.

There are numerous other ways of refuting moral relativism. One is that you are essentially saying that belief in an idea is sufficient to make it right, without evaluating the idea itself. Another is to say that under moral relativism, you can literally allow anything as being right, so long as enough people agree that it is okay and part of their "culture" or value system. Neither of these world views hold up to scrutiny.


Why am I writing about this? Firstly, I've had my eyes opened about the level of harassment girls and women experience; both young and old. This includes people close to me being wolf-whistled and ogled at while out for an evening, but it is an experience by no means unique to them. It is saddening to think that many people would defend sexual harassment either on the grounds that "that's the culture" or by blaming the women as the "cause of temptation". Yet, if you accept moral relativism, this kind of behavior is permissible so long as enough people believe it to be so. I cannot agree with any kind of system that allows that.

I fully agree with the idea that we should look macro-level when it comes to understanding what our human values should be and what we, as a species accept as right and wrong. There is no place for deviations that allow persecution because someone believes god told them it was okay. Sure, human morality can (and probably will) be full of grey areas, but there can absolutely be some values and principles that we are clear on, and we should not be afraid to say so. Fear is the prison of progress.

Finally tolerance is generally a good thing with one exception - when we are tolerating intolerance, then it becomes a negative.


Post Script

The classic quote springs to mind:

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will."

I couldn't agree more. I think that the quote applies to all people, though, unfortunately has more of a relevance to many women. Moral Relativism is, as far as I can tell, something that stands in the way of the very essence of that quote, and therefore it is not something that I can tolerate.