Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Prime Directive

A second form of moral relativism is known as conventionalism or normative ethical relativism (Beckwith and Koukl call it 'Society Says Relativism'). Whereas the moral relativism I discussed yesterday merely describes (makes the observation that different cultures exhibit different mores), this form prescribes morality on a cultural basis. Conventionalism goes beyond acknowledging that what is right in one culture might not be right in another; it says that one should follow the moral dictates of one's own society.

This view is familiar as Star Trek's 'Prime Directive'--the view that each culture's morality is equally valid and the resulting policy (inadvertently violated in nearly every episode) that Federation representatives were not to inflict the Federation's moral norms on any other cultures with which they came into contact.

At first glance, this understanding may seem somewhat reasonable and certainly tolerant, a sort of culture-level 'live and let live.' But, as Beckwith and Koukl argue in their book Relativism, there are at least three fatal flaws to this view.

First, if conventionalism is true, then there is no such thing as an immoral society. No matter how barbaric the practices of a particular culture, there can be no moral judgment made against it; that culture's morals simply are what they are. Conventionalism was essentially the defense put forth by the Nazis at Nuremberg when they were tried by the International Military Tribunal. They said, in effect,
We were following the just orders given by the leadership of our society, which orders accurately reflected the mores of our culture. What's more, the Tribunal, composed of members of cultures outside our own, has neither right nor jurisdiction to judge us for what we did.
Thankfully, the Tribunal did not accept this defense or its underlying cultural relativism. Rather, it appealed to a higher moral law, and rightly condemned the atrocities perpetrated on humanity by the Third Reich.

It likewise seems reasonable to suggest that the current genocide occurring in the Sudan and elsewhere is wrong, as is the trafficking in sex slaves taking place in southeast Asia. But if conventionalism is true, this is not the case. We can only observe such genocide and slave-trading with a sort of distaste associated with our own cultural norms; we can neither judge it nor justify any attempts to end it.

Second, if this view is accurate, then there are no such things as immoral laws or immoral governments. Any particular set of laws would, by definition, constitute the moral guidelines for that society. On this view, all moral discussion (and politics is almost entirely moral discussion) would be pointless, since the existing laws are equivalent to the society's morality. But this, too, seems extremely counterintuitive.

Likewise (and third), conventionalism leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as moral reform or moral reformers. Indeed, if individuals should do exactly as their society says (with regard to moral issues), then moral reformers are actually acting immorally. William Wilberforce was wrong to spend the latter years of his life fighting to abolish England's slave trade. Martin Luther King, Jr. should be vilified, not honored, for demanding equality for blacks in a culture whose morals did not extend such equality. Those Germans who hid Jews or otherwise didn't cooperate with the Nazis? Yup, it was they who acted immorally, and not the Nazis themselves.

Seems kinda silly, looked at that way, doesn't it? It just seems to make more sense that there are such things as immoral cultures, immoral laws and governments, and the possibility for moral reform. Since conventionalism involves a denial of all these things, this form of moral relativism is clearly false.

In the next post, we'll begin to examine a third form of moral relativism, individual ethical relativism.


Anonymous said...

I have become a daily reader. You make cogent points and persuasive arguments. And now you have brought in Star Trek!
Now that is truly creative apologetics.

Rick Gerhardt said...


Thanks for reading. And thanks for the encouragement. We bloggers need to know every once in awhile that someone is either helped, amused, or challenged by our little efforts at cyber-journaling.

B said...

I think it's immoral that the first person selected for the "away team" always died first. ;)