Moral relativism versus universal morality

The sin of moral relativism should not be underestimated.

About a year ago, I engrossed myself in a long debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky. Foucault argued that morality is shaped by culture: that context, collective social experience, history, leadership and so forth build moral values, which therefore differ from one country to the next. Chomsky, avowing his belief in natural human characteristics, claimed that there are universal virtues, as well as the opposite and everything in between. Despite the depth of their arguments, and the range of supporting examples that I will let the YouTube video explain, the underlying disagreement between them centred not on empirical evidence, but on two very different calls to order. Fundamentally, if you endorse the moral relativist's worldview, you accept that morality is a swinging pendulum with fuzzy edges and room to manoeuvre, whereas if you believe in universal and innate moral responsibilities you are in a much more fixed position.

As the intense debate demonstrated, yielding very few fruits but raising lots of interesting questions, the closest anyone can come to proving either theory correct is to live by its principles, in the same way that God lives for those who have faith, and dies for those who don't. The truth is beyond our reach, since no rational argument can either do away with the contradiction of the universalist's claim - if morality is innate and fixed, why does it take us humans to legislate on its behalf, and why is there such vast disagreement about the principles that should be pursued? - or deal with the major flaw of moral relativism, which is that refusing to be accountable for our own behaviour, by delegating moral responsibility to a 'higher power', is incompatible with the sovereignty of the individual.

Considering that the debate is a philosophical exercise, should it matter, and does it have real consequences? Yes (we all love false questions posed to set up a predictable answer, don't we?). As we make our decision about which worldview to adopt - yes, it is our decision - we should consider the effects of each, instead of which one seems closer to the truth. From my experience, moral relativism is a recipe for disaster, in so far as it enables people to justify heinous acts or view the world apathetically instead of campaigning for change. Of course, by making this claim I put myself in the Chomsky camp, but I have no shame in admitting this - we all have to pick a side and fight for it.

Moral relativism can justify virtually anything. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Dutertes has sanctioned the killing of drug dealers and drug users - some would say he demanded it. Many citizens heeded his calls for a mass exodus, resulting in abductions, home invasions and public executions that violate international law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the specific motives of individuals are impossible to know from such a distance, this form of 'vigilante justice' reveals that powerful leaders can subvert the 'natural' moral order, by discarding the illegality of certain acts to serve political ends and dressing up crimes against humanity as noble, patriotic acts of self-defence. The moral relativists accept this restructuring of morality since they see it as malleable and context dependent. Other people might accept it out of fear of what might happen to them if they disobey, resentment towards the targeted group, a violent disposition, or any other personal reason.

While the range of reasons that make a person capable of murder are vast, moral relativism serves as a convenient gateway to violence or other acts of cruelty. It might be the sole justification for carrying out state-sanctioned murder, or it might be one of several compelling factors, but either way it is an enabler: how many of us have imagined lashing out at someone we dislike, but decided not to because of our conscience? Because of an inherent sense of right versus wrong, that universalists live by, sudden outbursts of rage are prevented, dying at the fertile point of contemplation. Without a conscience -  or with a conscience skewed by our culture - orders, desires or sudden impulses can be enough to do what anyone who clings to a belief in universal human rights, in particular the right to life, cannot fathom doing.

We owe it to ourselves to be autonomous, in our actions and our thoughts. Not selfish, as individualism often morphs into self-centred tendencies, but aware of the right to make our own decisions: even when the tide of dominant influences is pushing up against us, there is room to stop, reflect and honour the rights we would never want taken from us, by refusing to take them from someone else.

At a time when the world is eager to find justifications for separating children from their parents (USA), detaining refugees in shipping containers (Hungary), turning away asylum seekers who have travelled across the perilous Mediterranean sea (Italy), 'bombing democracy' into faraway countries (Libya), committing ethnic cleansing largely for economic purposes (Myanmar's gas pipeline in Rakhine State), detaining and torturing LGBT citizens (Chechnya), and holding Muslims in camps designed to destroy their faith (China) - *deep breath* - the need to uphold universal human rights, rather than be led astray by the normalisation of monstrosities, cannot be overlooked.