Moral relativism is not cool. I learnt this the hard way: you shouldn’t hesitate when your friend asks “but killing babies is objectively wrong, right?”
In my defence, I was thinking about the problems with moral naturalism; about the difficulties of locating “the moral good” somewhere in the natural world; about the book The Evolution of Morality. In my friend’s defence, he probably knows I think killing babies is wrong; making fun of me for “being a wishy-washy liberal relativist” was just a way to derail the conversation and turn it towards more pub-friendly topics.
The above conversation took place years ago. More recently, I read Ellena Savage’s article about (so much more than) “pot-boiler art”. It is not related to moral psychology exactly, but then again it sort of is – because it contains the phrase “power is relational.”
Last week, I came across this article online. Apparently, (extremist) men in Pakistan are fighting for the right to beat their spouses, following new laws making violence against women illegal.
Conveniently, recent research backs up my advice to “do not hesitate when taking a moral stand”: Critcher, Inbar, and Pizarro (2012) demonstrate that making a quick decision to act morally demonstrates certainty, and thus makes you seem like a more morally good person. (Quickly acting badly has the opposite effect.)
Even more recently, Everett, Pizarro, and Crockett (2016) published a great paper on a related issue: people who make deontological moral judgments are trusted more than those who make utilitarian judgments. I really really like this line of research, which is broadly about the social function of moral judgments.
One of these things is not like the other. But then again it sort of is. Since I started studying morality, the ugly battle of absolutism vs. relativism has played out in my mind countless times. Not in any formal, philosophical, way; not even necessarily in a scientific way; just in the human (albeit somewhat post-modern) way of “I think what they’re doing is morally wrong. But they probably think the same about me. How can either of us be sure?” Yes, it sounds very relativist. Yes, I am (sort of) saying “it depends”. But I know killing babies is wrong. Don’t I?
That’s where the phrase about power comes in, as the piece in the puzzle which tied it all together (for me). Morality is not absolute. But nor is it relative. By which I mostly mean: both those adjectives are unhelpful. What may be more true (and helpful) is that morality – like power – is relational.