Aren’t all beliefs just a matter of opinion?

Comparing and Evaluating Myths and Ethics

Is it possible to compare and contrast belief systems and ethical positions and somehow evaluate those ideas? The multicultural perspective that has been popular in modern times supposedly asserts a position that says that we can’t really judge people’s beliefs or their ethics because all in all it’s just their opinion and we can’t really know what’s true or not true. That is often the first argument that my students put forth. There are several reasons for that. Often students are just trying to be what they have been told is open-minded and tolerant. Sometimes it’s because they are resistant to anyone judging their ethics and therefore “telling them what to do.” It might be because they have never been given the tools to approach such a discussion. They think they know what’s right and wrong, and they know that they think others with whom they disagree are wrong, but they have no idea how to approach the discussion other than getting into passionate arguments and yelling at each other. So therefore they choose to avoid such interactions. But they soon learn that not only is it possible to evaluate various myths and ethical positions, but it is necessary in order to live in society. And we do this even when we don’t admit it.

The Bankruptcy of Ethical Relativism

Cultural relativism as a descriptive theory which says that beliefs and ethics vary depending on one’s culture and background is different from ethical relativism that asserts that there are no universals or absolutes and that right and wrong are contingent on one’s culture and society. Cultural relativism just observes our world and tells it what is and it is useful just as an anthropological tool. Ethical relativism says that what a culture says is right and wrong is right or wrong for that culture because there are no universals in morality. We cannot judge another culture either positively or negatively. Ethical relativism is a bankrupt theory that cannot be coherently supported or lived.

One of the many rational problems with ethical relativism is that the position proclaims that there are no ethical absolutes but then immediately turns around and asserts that tolerance is the ultimate virtue. Additionally it eliminates the possibility of social change. How can you criticize the present societies ethical values when “what a culture or society views as right, is right?” Ethical relativism would have to pronounce that the civil rights movement was wrong. It also promotes the tyranny of the majority. If the majority are in control of the society and culture, then do they not decide for the whole society what is right and wrong? Or if you assert that there are multiple cultures within a society that have their own ethics, then how do you determine for an individual which culture is the determinant one for her/him? Ultimately, although people may think that they are just being open-minded by supporting ethical relativism, they have put themselves in an intellectually untenable and indefensible position.

It is not only intellectually bankrupt, it is also practically impossible. Should we tolerate the racial demagoguery of white supremacists because that is their culture, or should we condemn it? Should we tolerate the anti-semitic rantings of Iran’s Ahmadinejad as a cultural product or should we condemn them? At least I would hope that most people would agree that you have to condemn some positions as being unacceptable. (I find it interesting that some of those promoting tolerance as the ultimate virtue are among the least tolerant folks when it comes to those with whom they disagree.) And if you reach that point where you have to discern among those beliefs and positions that are acceptable and those that are not, then you have decided that it’s not just a matter of opinion and there must be some rational way to examine and evaluate beliefs and ethical positions. And it’s not coherent to just assert that other beliefs are okay as long as they don’t impose in your life. At that point you have again asserted an absolute position. So how do you evaluate beliefs and ethical positions?? That’s for the next post.


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