I began this exchange in the midst of another thread, but as it was developing into its own discourse, I decided it should be moved to its own thread. If you'd like to see the comments that lead up to this reply by my friend Glen Rosenberg, they are here.
"John, you just want an argument. OKAY
Your hard core [moral relativism] excuses any and all acts of violence, depredation and all of the awful -isms. INTOLERABLE. You manage to arrive at the same place as a fundamentalist (absolute moral standards) in accepting the very worst of human behavior. Furthermore, liberals who have been persuaded by moral relativism are more apt to accept religious and cultural actions (muslims in Scandinavia) which are inferior to their own standards. ENABLERS.
Atheists do not require 100 % overlapping of moral standards to understand that some things are just plain wrong. (most of the faith-based morals-women are shit, slavery is cool, infidels ought to be murdered etc.) I have told Catholics that their failure to accept all of the teachings means that they are not catholics and that in a different age they would have been excommunicated or worse. Nevertheless your analogy does not stand. Break a law and you are still a citizen. You have not broken the covenant.
In matters of true cultural variations such as the boundaries of sex and friendship there are pockets of relative morals which are truly elastic and the judger can say that one is no better than another. Other aspects of sex and friendship are to be judged as wrong in any culture."
And here's my new reply:
I like an analysis more than an argument. My intention is not to be combative, but to find a common ground between all peoples. To reconcile differences, we must first become aware of them, and it is my position that morality is one of the differences between us all. I see a potential for great harm in any attempt to paint over this situation with the broad stroke of a universal or societal moral code.
People's individual tendencies will not be swayed by a legal document or a divine decree, they will only be supressed. Things like guilt, shame, and threats of force or imprisonment can get us to change our behaviors, but not our motivators. Instead of adressing the underlying causes of our thoughts and actions, such supression will merely squeeze that motivation through alternative openings, the outcome of which may be unforseeable (look what happens when priests take a vow of celebacy - lot's of people suffer because the rule does not quell the urge, only the ability to express it honestly). Yet, we embrace those unknowns rather than face the real issue we know is there: that we all are individuals who are entitled to our own concept of right and wrong.
What's wrong to me is what harms me, and what's good to me is what helps me (along with any thing or other that I define as part of "me"). But if I try to project those values of right and wrong onto you, I may inadvertantly harm you by thinking that we are similar. One man's trash is another man's treasure; one man's pain, another's pleasure. There is not a single issue on which you could get everyone to agree. Not death, not rape, not torture...not anything.
Although a particular concept may seem starkly harmful or helpful to a great many of us, we cannot know that a person won't come along whose experience of it is opposite. Indeed history teaches us to expect exactly that. And what right does the majority have to impose their values on that minority? The argument ad populum is a text-book logical fallacy. 'Greatest good for the greatest number' is the embodiment of that fallacious thinking. Even a minority of one can be correct, but a shared moral code supresses the individual for the benefit of the collective.
I think we try so hard to find universal morality because we are weak and insecure as individuals. The affirmation of the collective is a seductive offer; one that makes us feel powerful, accepted and safe. I arrived at moral relativism because I was trying to find that security and power myself. I wanted sure footing by which to stake my claim to righteousness and never have to suffer the humiliation of being considered wrong, or the loss of backing down. I sought to force my will on others by basing my thoughts and actions on unquestionable absolutes. Such is the allure of moral absolutism; a danger more potentially catastrophic than any individual with abberant morals could ever be. I am glad now that I was never able to find that secure footing.
Relativism does allow me to justify any and all of my behaviors, but it leaves room for disagreement because it only justifies them to me - always allowing that others may differ. It does not condemn difference the way moral absolutism does. With relativism, we can agree to disagree, but with absolutism one of us is evil and must be supressed. And the only way to tell which of us is evil is by how many others stand on our side, or by who has the holier book, or by whose legal document is backed up by a more capable military - all very fickle systems of measurement, and all based on logical fallacies.