In his influential work, The Closing of the American Mind, the late philosopher Allan Bloom made the observation that “there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. . . . The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.” Bloom was talking about both moral relativism and epistemological relativism. The latter is the view that there is no such thing as objective truth, that knowledge is relative to one’s self, culture, and/or point of view. This type of relativism will be addressed in the next chapter. In this chapter, however, I will focus on moral relativism, a view that is not limited to indoctrinated college freshmen but is dominant in North American culture.
Moral relativism is the view that when it comes to questions of morality, there are no absolutes and no objective right or wrong; moral rules are merely personal preferences and/or the result of one’s cultural, sexual, or ethnic orientation. The fact that one believes there are exceptions or, to be more precise, exemptions to moral rules does not make one a moral relativist. For example, many people who believe lying is wrong nonetheless believe it is not wrong to lie in order to protect someone’s life. These people are not moral relativists, for to permit certain exemptions to a rule one must first acknowledge the general validity of the rule. The moral relativist rejects the idea that any such moral rules exist at all.
Many people see relativism as necessary for promoting tolerance, nonjudgmentalism, and inclusiveness, for they think if one believes one’s moral position is correct and others’ incorrect, one is closed-minded and intolerant. They typically consider moral relativism the indispensable cornerstone of our pluralistic and modern democratic society. Unless we all embrace relativism, they fear we will likely revert to a moralistically medieval culture.
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