Moral Relativism — Steven Lukes

Moral relativism is the belief that ideals of right and wrong and good and bad are contextually determined by one’s local culture, as opposed to a theory of morality that holds that good and bad exist as absolute, metaphysical values existing cross-culturally, values intrinsic to one’s humanness. At the same time, individuals, even those (sometimes especially those) who see moral relativism as the overwhelmingly rational, sensical position, nonetheless are inextricably tied to their own sense of right and wrong, and this sense often leads them into a position of judgment–and perhaps action–against, over, and/or in reaction to the perceived wrongs of other cultures and societies.

In his new book Moral Relativism, NYU sociology professor Steven Lukes employs an interdisciplinary approach to tackle one of the biggest sticking points of contemporary thought. Using a variety of methods including philosophy, anthropology, history, and literature, Lukes addresses the fundamental conflict of moral relativism: that what’s right and good in one’s own culture may not be right and good in another’s culture, yet a will remains to believe in ideals of universal human rights. Lukes uses a number of timely concrete examples, including female genital circumcision, Islamic fundamentalism, and mass immigration, to assess the costs and payoffs of holding a view that says that no absolute morality exists. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Moral Relativism is Lukes’s negotiation of Western (or globally Northern, as he saliently points out) human rights actions as an extension of colonialism, with the one-time colonists imposing their values–again–upon the one-time colonized.

Lukes concludes that “the question Who are we to judge other cultures? is a bad question.” Arguing that the “postcolonial and multicultural contexts of our time do not require us to see the discourse and practice of human rights as ethnocentric,” Lukes takes up a position–well-argued–that a moral fundamentalist might claim is simply a liberal humanist wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Which, of course, is the problem with the book. It’s a fantastic argument for moral relativism, one that points out that no one–no one–is absolutely relativist, and that, in fact, being a moral relativist entails recognizing that within cultures certain perceived absolutes exist. The idea that right and wrong are relative doesn’t mean that right and wrong are arbitrary or don’t exist–it simply means that ideals of right and wrong have to be reconstituted within different systems of social and cultural order. Yet Lukes’s book isn’t going to convince the types that need convincing. Still, those of us who think that moral relativism is simple common sense will find plenty of concrete, contemporary, real world ammunition here in case we feel like arguing with a–gasp–moral fundamentalist.

Moral Relativism, available now, is part of the new BIG IDEAS // small books series from Picador Books.