On Moral Relativism
What Roger, to your mind is the problem with moral relativism?
Roger Scruton: Well, there is an intellectual problem as to what it is. What does a moral relativist believe?
He obviously believes that moral judgments do not have any kind of absolute force; but, what follows from that? Are they relative to something, if so, to what are they relative?
That's one problem.
There's a huge discussion in the literature about this, very inconclusive discussion.
The real problem is what it means to ordinary people, who don't have the philosophical training and philosophical inclination that some of us have; who nevertheless hear this expression, they hear phrases like" it’s all relative", "there are no absolute values", "any judgment you make is your judgment from your point of view","there is no objective point of view".
These are all garbled versions of philosophical positions, but they are very influential on ordinary people and have given rise to the feeling that really in the end there is no point outside the individual's own perspective from which he can be judged. He can only be judged from within his own perspective, in terms of his own desires, ambitions, aims, and so on. Which means that judgment becomes a kind of impertinence and as a result of course, people cease to share any conception that they are joined in a common enterprise.
Interviewer: Maybe in just a few sentences: what exactly is moral relativism? Maybe you can put it in layman's terms. What's been its unique contribution to western thought?
Roger Scruton: Well, I would say that in layman's terms a moral relativist is somebody who believes that a moral judgment is the expression of the subjective opinion of a particular person, and that it cannot be evaluated from any other position than his own.
So every judgment is relative to the interests and position of the person who makes it; so that in the end, there is no position outside the individual from which he can be judged.
Interviewer: So then maybe an older view of thinking of philosophy or approaching life would have been an endeavor to discover truth.
Roger Scruton: Well, obviously one contrast with this is the religious world view which says there is a position outside the individual’s interest from which he is judged. That is the position occupied by god, who as it were provides that overview, systematic overview of all our desires and all our aims and is in a position to judge us. We can then by, as it were, discovering what his position is, come to an objective view of our own situation. And the obvious thing to say about moral relativism is that it's what is left when the religious world view collapses, and that’s perhaps a reason why it’s so prevalent now.
Interviewer: Do you have to have, though a religious world view would've. Would an Aristotle have viewed it that way, do you necessarily need to be religious to recognize that truth might exist, and it would be worthwhile to discover what that is.
Roger Scruton: No, you don't, and of course that's been the efforts of philosophy down the centuries. Aristotle is only one example, Kant is another. The effort to produce a fulcrum on which a worldview can turn which is not simply our own individual desires; and I think for a long time after the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals believed that they'd discovered that in the idea of morality put forward by Kant or perhaps some version that was downstream from that like the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and so on; which gave a secular grounding to a shared moral position which would not be the position of any particular person but the position of all of us; and from that we could come to conclusions about what was right and wrong, which didn't privilege the individual and his desires.
But of course, I think there’s been increasing, during the 20th century, an increasing despair that that project was possible. And this despair had many forms, but one of the most important from the point of view of rhetoric was the existentialist position of people like Sartre. Sartre said, he argued, that there is no position from which I can be judged except my own. So that the only thing that can authenticate my moral judgment is my choice that those are my judgments.
So the difference between a moral and an immoral person on Sartre’s view is simply that the moral person is somebody who wills his own desires as commitments; whereas the immoral person is someone who just has those desires. On that view, the authentic existentialist rapist is the one who you should praise, not the person why simply is tempted by his sexual appetites.