Looking back at my school days, I remember a Ph.D. student in the philosophy department remarking on the differences between moral realism (the system of thought that says that there exists a literal, objective morality) and its alternatives by appealing to the consequences of holding each belief. The moral realist, he underscored, has the advantages of being able to say that society is making moral progress, and that some societies have been immoral at different times, such as Nazi Germany and slaveholding America. Moral relativists, moral nihilists, and all related parties, he pointed out, have no such recourse. So, surely, even if one is convinced that moral realism is false, this student concluded, it might be better not to mention that conviction ‘in polite company.’
In fact, the article by James Rachels which I discussed last week makes some very similar statements in its singular effort to refute cultural relativism. But is it true that believing morality is not truly objective is somehow uglier or less desirable than believing that there is an objective morality? To explore this, I will take a closer look at both sides.
The Morality Pageant: