For much of my life, I was a moral relativist. I thought that while I have certain values, other people and other cultures may have different values, and I have to respect that, or at least accept that, even if these values are potential sources of harm and misery.
Moral strength, I thought, is to stay true to one’s values and fight for them. I may stand up for what I believe is good, but I have no philosophical ground for morally judging others who have different beliefs—because it’s all relative: moral values are relative to one’s culture, one’s upbringing, and one’s individual Will.
I thought that having different values for living a good life is like having different words for telling a good story. Different cultures speak different languages, different people use different expressions, and the rules of ethics can vary just like the rules of grammar. If certain moral principles are useful to certain people, who am I to judge them?
“Who am I to judge?” is an expression of humility. But am I truly being humble here, or am I just expressing the pride I take in my cosmopolitan education and cultural open-mindedness? Not that there would be anything wrong with feeling pride, but there is something wrong with feigning humility—it’s dishonest.
Moral relativism is false humility if it stems from a fear of ethical confrontation. When we parade our moral humility by waiving judgment on other people’s moral convictions, even if they are harmful, are we just trying to shield ourselves from intellectual attacks? “Everything is relative” is a convenient way not to subject oneself to the judgment of others. “As long as I don’t judge anyone else, nobody can rightfully judge me.” Is this self-protective attitude of boundless tolerance, rather than a devotion to truth, what actually motivates moral relativism?