Allow me to propose something of a “middle” position on this issue. I entirely agree those who say that moral relativism as defined is not logically coherent. In discussing this in the past with humanists, the conclusion that was reached was them saying, if I can paraphrase “I don’t really worry about it being logically coherent, I just try behave in what I see as a moral way.” At the same time, I agree with relativist’s fear of what can occur in the name of moral “absolutes”.
I was recently reading a book by Robert Pirsig titled “Lila – An Inquiry into Morals” (Pirsig is the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that had an interesting perspective on this issue.
To Pirsig, the fundamental reality is Quality – the “Good”. The primary experience of quality is dynamic. It is constantly leading you to new insights, constantly trying to progress and advance. The trouble is, the absolute freedom dynamic quality (or morality) begs for can be chaotic. It can quickly end up destroying the foundation it sits upon. To prevent this, dynamic quality creates static structures to preserve the gains of the past and keep us from slipping backwards. The trouble is that these static structures tend to try to run the show and suppress dynamic quality in it’s advance. In the tension between these two – dynamic and static quality – we progress.
The static structures are things like the 10 commandments, the Constitution – human laws and religious systems of morality. These represent moral GOOD – at a particular static moment. It’s clear that in some ways, we have morally progressed beyond the Jews who received the Mosaic law (things such as slavery, women’s rights, the treatment of children, etc. ) This is not to criticize the Jews and their morality, which was quite an advance for the time. Without their static morality, our advances would probably not have been possible. Human laws, such as the Constitution, are wise when they incorporate processes for dynamic quality to influence and eventually change the static structures. The same things happens to religious systems of morality. Jesus himself seemed to devote a lot of time to making morality a more dynamic thing. Generations of rabbis and theologians spend a lot of energy adapting the principles of morality to their own generations. This doesn’t consist in tossing the 10 Commandments aside, but in refining our understanding of the Good to which they point.
There is an absolute in morality – you might call it a direction. Whether you call this God or simply regard it as a hypothetical absolute, it is the direction dynamic quality attempts to lead us toward. Some human and religious moral laws are farther down this road than others. However, there is no static standard – no absolute moral rulebook – that will give you the perfect moral quality in every situation.
The difficulty comes when we put forth that a particular static interpretation of morality is a God-given absolute that it is blasphemous to examine, interpret or adapt. You see the subtle trap? “Because there is an Absolute to which morality points, MY particular interpretation of THIS particular static embodiment of that morality IS one and the same as that Absolute.”
We like to think, when we develop our static systems of morality, that we are taking clear absolute moral principles and applying them to our situation. I suggest that what we do more often is this – we have an inner, dynamic sense of what is right and wrong and we tweak and fit our “moral absolutes” until we come up with a system that seems to give us answers that agree with this inner dynamic sense as often as possible. It should be noted, however, that this “dynamic sense” is building upon all the static systems that have gone before. If you start out as a barbarian warlord, your “dynamic sense” of morality isn’t going to lead you to ideas of egalitarianism and intellectual freedom the next day. You will end up going through the intermediate steps first and building upon them dynamically.