On Moral Relativism (virgilio a. rivas)

Moral relativism proceeds, among other things, from the premise that moral values are not inherent in human nature.  They are instead the product of social relations.  As society, meanwhile, develops out of shifting or varying conditions of existence these values are tested as to their relevance to the mood and spirit of the time, and the constitutive material needs of the people.  And as societies differ in demographic, geographic, historical, political and cultural determinations, the values that each respects, holds, and legitimates through various mechanisms of preservation, control, discipline and order, also vary according to the exact conditions in which a society finds itself, and is therefore grounded in the particularities of existence that define its uniqueness, or rarity as in the case of primitive and/or indigenous communities. Moral relativism respects this unique context of social determination. Moral norms are established in the light of the distinctive character of the community, its material conditions, and cultural beliefs.  The values that a particular community holds are precisely for the intrinsic purpose of achieving social cohesion. Also, these values serve as protective mechanisms against alien influences and other forms of external values which by being other or different may pose a threat to the preservation of sameness or the symbolic unity of the community represented by folklore and myths.  Most often, myths function as an ideological scheme to enforce the ‘natural’ order of sameness vis-à-vis the other which is automatically perceived as ‘unnatural’ and characteristic of evil that must be avoided at all cost.           

From this perspective, we can begin to see the debate between moral relativism and moral absolutism as being already a decided discourse. The anthropological dimension of the evolution of society promotes the side of relativism as a critical factor in ruling out any possibility that a certain norm can be applied to all existing and imagined cultures. Meanings, values, and codes of conduct are culture-bound.  They arise out of the inherent needs and legitimate wants peculiar to a distinct social community.            

However, moral relativism is ineffective as a perspective in understanding society  and culture where the standard of universal morality is a valuable tool of social and cultural analysis.  In worst cases of ethnic cleansing and violence that had erupted in the past, even an understandable notion of universal morality that condemns murder is treated with contempt from a relativistic standpoint that has closed in on itself, unable to see the other side of reality from which the horrendous consequences of fanaticism which relativism breeds by shutting out any external influence could be objectively judged from an understandable standard of right and wrong.            

Even so, universal morality may be employed with the same degree of dissoluteness that shapes an excessive relativization of moral norms. The example of colonialism will lead us to an awareness of the brutal fact that a universal standard of judging what is right and wrong could be used to advance the interests of power, which has the tendency to stand above moral concerns.  The goal of Spain to discipline the savages of the islands off the Far East (later to be known as Las islas Filipinas) and the much-vaunted US imperial policy of benevolent assimilation to educate the Filipinos are examples of how a supposed universal standard of good could be effectively employed with a permissible, if not an unobtrusive dose of excessive evil. It must be stressed that notwithstanding the reputed moral capability of humanity to learn from its mistakes in that history will not regress to its old ways cannot be perfectly guaranteed. Ironically, this admission of guilt and readiness to transcend old ways is inspired by a learning in virtues, a learning in universal morality. 


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