Socrates, Ma. Celine Anastasia P.
Political Science 144 Dr. Herman Kraft
Critique of Relative Morals
When it comes to the notion of “morality” in politics, it is interesting to note that neither of the classic Realist writers (Carr and Morgenthau), and not even Michael Walzer and Machiavelli and much less Thucydides, gave an explicit definition of the term itself. All of these authors seem to converge on the idea of morality as a social structure that affects the way states behave. In the absence of an explicit definition of morality, one thing is clear among the authors: there is an existing correlation between state behavior and morality. Andrew Heywood defines morality as “concerned ethical questions and the difference between right and wrong” (Heywood, 2005). It is clear that morality necessarily requires a specific standard of good and evil, unlike the idea of “social norms”, for example, which is merely subject to social structures and may change with the development of society. Given the nature of morality, one fundamental debate arising between Idealism and Realism is the notion of an “absolute” standard of morality. Morgenthau (2006) for example, questions the universality of morality. Walzer (1996) on the other hand, without outright saying that there is an absolute moral order, concedes that there are underlying agreements among states that make possible any sort of agreement or disagreement among them.
Can the concept of “morality” really be said to exist if, as Morgenthau asserts, there is no universal standard of it? Can notions of good and evil, and the very notion of “morality”, in the end, be merely reduced to social norms that are constantly changing depending on culture, structures and circumstances? This debate is also central in determining whether or not morality even matters in international politics. Claiming that morality is relative is tantamount to asserting that its place in international politics is close to none. The main argument of this paper is that, despite differences in the moral interpretations of historical events and political decisions, there is still, at the very root of all these, a universal moral standard that governs our notions of right and wrong, regardless of culture, society, or circumstances. This paper is a critique of Moral Relativism which is held by most realists, most explicitly by Hans Morgenthau. This will be done through a critical examination of the primary arguments introduced by Moral Relativism.
Dissecting Moral Relativism
There is a strong link between Moral Relativism and Realism. The idea that states cannot agree among themselves on a specific standard of good and evil is at the core of many Realist assumptions, such as the cynicism when it comes to international cooperation and the possibility of a “harmony of interests” among states, much less a notion of a “world government”. This being the case, it is necessary to examine the philosophical foundations of Moral Relativism in the first place, in order to confirm its validity. This paper will focus on two central issues among the many arguments identified by Kreeft (1999): (a) cultural relativism, and (b) social conditioning. Morgenthau used the same
arguments in his chapter on Morality, where he devoted a considerable part arguing for Moral Relativism. Many social scientists may argue that moral relativism can be empirically confirmed through a cultural approach. Some may equate cultural relativism with moral relativism. Because of differences in cultural norms, the sense of morality in each culture is also different. By just looking at the example of the different states in the U.S., one can see that while for some states gay marriage is perfectly acceptable, other states with a more conservative culture, especially the ones from the South, find this to be morally wrong. Likewise, in issues such as euthanasia and abortion, the U.S. appears to be morally fragmented. To demonstrate this on a bigger scale, social scientists may also argue that in African countries, for example, the circumcision of women is a traditional practice of some communities, while for other countries in the West it is a violation of human rights already. This argument is flawed because it makes no distinction between the notion of “values” and “value judgments”. Just because each culture can have different value judgments, this does not rule out a universal value that exists behind these judgments. If we look at the issues mentioned above, all of them go back to certain universal “core” values. Beneath seeming disagreements with regard to the application of “values” are real agreements on greater underlying values. “The moral agreement among Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Solomon, Jesus, Cicero, Mohammad, Zoraster, and Hammurabbi is far greater than their moral differences.” (Kreeft, 1997) Walzer was right when he argued that “our sharpest disagreements are structured and organized by our underlying agreements, by the meanings we share.” Take the idea of divorce, for example. The moral question cannot be simplified into whether or not a “conclusion” of
marriage is right or wrong. Behind this issue is a value judgment between core values: freedom and the value of the family, for example. Couples do not get divorced because they believe the act to be good, in itself; rather, they do this because of an emphasis on an underlying “good” that is subsumed within a universal moral standard. Examining the argument in an international context, we can take a look the Holocaust in World War II. Does the fact that the killing of more than 50,000 Jews was legitimized by German society at the time necessarily proves that morality is relative? This is clearly not true. Killing the Jews was not done just because Hitler sincerely believed the act of killing the Jews was good in itself. It was done because Fascism made it ideologically necessary; it was done for the good of humanity. Following a Hegelian logic, in order for “history” to progress, one needed a superior race within which all other races would be subsumed. Clearly, in this case, the legitimacy of the act was not due to the act’s own merits, but rather due its underlying assumption, and this motivation can still be subsumed within the realm of universal moral principles. Another fundamental argument presented by Moral Relativism, which is closely linked to cultural relativism, is the idea of “social conditioning”. This argues that values are just a construct imposed on us by our social environment, and since societies are different, morality, or a sense of it, is also different. This is, again, flawed, because it assumes that all ideas acquired from society are subjective. This is not the case. Rules of Science and Mathematics, for example, do not change, whichever society you are moving in. The way numbers are written, or the way concepts are explained may be different, but one plus one will always be two. Although it is true, that some “rules” are created, such as game mechanics, why must morality automatically be subsumed
within the latter category and not the former? When are “rules” created, and when are they discovered; when they are empirically verifiable? Kreeft argues that the very presence of non-conformists in society is already empirical evidence that values are not conditioned by society. Non-conformists obviously do not derive their principles from what society “imposes” on them, because if they did, they would be conformists. Clearly, the argument that values are merely conditioned on us by society simply does not fly, in whichever angle you look at it. Moreover, this argument completely disregards the reasonableness of man, and his capacity to decide on the value of things for himself, since in this context, his knowledge of reality, and consequently, notions of “good” and “bad”, are merely shaped by society. It does not account for the fact that people from different social backgrounds can agree upon a similar value of things, no matter how different their cultures and societies are. John Locke, for example, uses the barter system in ancient economies to demonstrate this. The fact that the Indian and the Swiss can barter means that they are capable of agreeing upon the value of things; that differences in social background is not a hindrance when it comes to agreeing upon a similar standard to be applied. Again, in this scenario, social conditioning does not fly. We can also apply this same reasoning to the notion of “Asian values”, that are allegedly different from values held by Western cultures. This is in line with Morgenthau’s attacks on human rights, calling it “daring” for the U.S. to impose upon the rest of the world its own respect for human rights. In this case, if morality is relative, then “the defense of human rights cannot be consistently applied to foreign policy because it can and must come in conflict with other interests that may be more important in a particular instance.”
However, there is a need to examine whether “Asian values” and human rights necessarily go against one another in the first place, or if they actually are subsumed within an absolute moral order that governs all societies. In truth, the debate is not about whether or not certain “values” are universal; rather, the debate revolves around the emphasis and degree given to these values, not on the values themselves. In fact, the emphasis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is simple: “the life, liberty and security of the human person”. Contrary to how some scholars may have (over)analyzed it, it does not force states to democratize, nor to liberalize the economy. One major qualm about this of perpetrators of “Asian values” is the emphasis on freedom and individualism. “Asian values” argues that authoritarianism and the good of society as a whole is more important than the individual’s freedom and his own good. This may be true, but the point that must be stressed is, they are not mutually exclusive. After all, the value of the group necessitates the value of the individuals that compose it. Amartya Sen (1997) contests the monolithic view of “Asian values” and argues that Confucian principles of discipline and the centrality of authority exist side by side with Buddhist emphasis on freedom and liberation. Another evidence that “Asian values” do not necessarily go against more “Western” ones is the fight for self-determination and independence among many Asian countries, which shows that freedom is a principle that is also valued to some extent.
I attempted to question the validity of Moral Relativism in International Relations as a coherent philosophical thought by questioning its foundations, which, taking off from Kreeft, I
identified as cultural relativism and social conditioning. Moral Relativism is philosophically incoherent, not only because its very premise is self-defeating (relative to what?), but also because neither of its foundations fly, primarily because of the failure to take into account the underlying assumptions behind morally contested actions. Cultural relativism and social conditioning fail to take into account the rational nature of man, and sees him as a mere subject to his own social environment and the structures that govern his life. These two arguments also fail to explain how people of very different social environments and cultural backgrounds can agree on certain values through negotiation. On the other hand, the idea of a universal morality that governs all actions in society is philosophically coherent and empirically correct. This paper was able to prove, by examining underlying assumptions behind moral actions, that despite disagreements on the surface, all actions necessarily go back to a universal sense of good and evil. A world where injustice, hatred and death are considered good in themselves is simply unimaginable, because it cannot possibly exist. So what does this mean in IR? If there is, indeed, a universal moral standard of good and evil, prospects for cooperation and state harmony are less bleak; but that is another debate altogether.
References: 1. Heywood, A. (2007) Politics, 3rd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 2. Kreeft, P. (1999) A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) 3. Morgenthau, H.J. (2006) Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 7th ed. (McGraw Hill International Edition) 4. Sen, A. (1997) Human Rights and Asian Value. (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs) 5. Walzer, M. (1996). Just and Unjust Wars, 2nd ed. (US: Basic Books)