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Editor's Note: This essay by William B. Irvine and the subsequent article by Charles Landesman are loosely tied by subject matter. They both address academic dimensions of morality. The former charts from its author's experience in the classroom a landscape of the relativism that prevails among today's undergraduates. The latter explores the realm of the academic moralists, where we find scholars and philosophers projecting their political longings as unconditional imperatives for a just society. The two territories trade on each other's needs. The dreams of the moralists for diversity or multiculturalism provide alternatives to genuine ethical deliberation in a packaged philosophy that affords students the luxury of never having to formulate their own moral framework.
America is awash in tolerance. Many of us simply refuse to be judgmental out the actions of others. Indeed, the only time some of us will pass judgment on our fellow citizens is to chastise them for being judgmental.
In my own life I confront this epidemic of tolerance every time I discuss value theory in the college philosophy classes that I teach. Relativism runs rampant among the undergraduates, and those undergraduates who cling to absolutes often do so surreptitiously, fearing the scorn of the relativists around them. This raises problems in the classroom, since most of the ethical theories we discuss in philosophy are unapologetically absolutist. Thus, Immanuel Kant in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals was an absolutist, as was John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism; and almost all of those philosophers who criticize Kant and Mill find fault not with their absolutism but with the particular form their absolutism took. The first task in any college ethics class, then, is to confront relativism.
In saying this, I do not mean to imply that ethical relativists are necessarily misguided souls who can easily be refuted. It is possible for an intelligent person to arrive at ethical relativism as the result of long, hard thought: consider, for example, David B. Wong's sympathetic treatment of relativism in Moral Relativity. The point is that most undergraduates do not arrive at ethical relativism as the result of long, hard thought. To the contrary, they espouse relativism as the result of a failure to think things through. More precisely, they espouse relativism because they harbor a number of misconceptions about the nature of ethical absolutism. In the remainder of this article, I will describe some of these misconceptions and explain how an absolutist can deal with them.
What Is Relativism?
To understand the difference between ethical absolutism and ethical relativism, it is useful to think about the difference between mathematics and ice cream preferences.
In mathematics there are right and wrong answers. If someone tells us 5+7=13, we don't say their math is unusual, we say it is wrong. If an entire culture tells us 5+7=13, we say the culture is mistaken in its mathematics; when it comes to math, we don't tolerate cultural differences. In mathematics, the truths are universal, i.e., the same for all people, in all places, and at all times. In this sense mathematics is absolute.
When it comes to ice cream preferences, there are no right and wrong answers. A flavor that tastes good to one person might not taste good to another. It would be silly for us to …