Letter to the Editor: Moral relativity necessary for unity

By: Julie Fitz – Senior, Biochemistry

After reading the opinion piece by Paul Gutbrod entitled “Questioning moral relativism” in the October 16, 2013 publication of Flyer News, I was so disturbed by the misrepresentation of moral relativism, I couldn’t help but put together a rebuttal piece.

Gutbrod’s idea of moral relativism is: “there is no absolute, objective moral goodness or evil; all morality is created and judged within an individual’s own mind with no exterior affirmation or negation.” The key point I take issue with is his claim that morality is created with no exterior affirmation or negation. When I appealed to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it explained the principle of moral relativism: “The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons”.

From this definition it is evident that one’s cultural and societal upbringing plays a key role in the formation of the individual’s morality. We can now recognize Gutbrod’s provocative claim that acceptance of moral relativism indicates that “if one person decides that his or her passion and fulfillment in life finds expression in the drowning of newborn children, we as a society should not deny him or her this fulfillment” to be false. There will always be actions that society as a whole deems immoral. This is best expressed by the society’s legal code, which individuals must abide by if they wish to live in society.

Gutbrod argues that moral relativism contradicts itself. He writes: “One could even say, ‘for me, moral relativism is correct, but you may follow the morality of Buddhism which is entirely right for you.’ In this, you have succeeded in saying nothing as to the appropriateness of one path over another, which is absolutely necessary to morality.”

This example captures the fullness of Gutbrod’s misunderstanding of moral relativity. First, moral relativity is not a system of morality to live by. It is a description of the moral variability that exists in a complex, multicultural society. A more correct version of the example might be, “For me, Catholic morality is correct, but I respect the fact that you follow the morality of Buddhism because I believe in moral relativity.” Furthermore, Gutbrod’s statement that claiming the appropriateness of one path over another is absolutely necessary to morality could again be reworked into a more accurate statement: claiming the appropriateness of one path over another is necessary to moral absolutism, a stance that is an exact opposition to moral relativism.

Moral absolutism is the idea that there is some absolute moral code that all humankind should live by. If one rejects moral relativism, one must by default accept this position. Morality is rarely black and white, and different cultures have come to variant conclusions in their dealings with the moral gray areas.

But by whose moral scale should the entire world live? I again reference the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which states, “In 1947, on the occasion of the United Nations debate about universal human rights, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement declaring that moral values are relative to cultures and that there is no way of showing that the values of one culture are better than those of another.” Moral relativism encourages an age of cultural and religious understanding and dialogue.

In conclusion, moral relativity is necessary for cross-cultural understanding and the attainment of harmony in our world. I leave with the recommendation that each of you live according to the moral principles you accept, but respect others’ freedom to do the same.

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