We do not have to either accept moral absolutes on faith or be relativists: there is an alternative.

The problem of moral relativism in Western thinking is the result of a false dichotomy. It is widely assumed that if there is no absolute basis for ethics, then ethics is just a matter of culture or of individual choice, and thus we have no grounds to make moral judgements. Both absolutists and relativists routinely point out the incoherence of each other's positions, and both are right, but the alternative to both involves questioning the dichotomy between them. Absolutism is incoherent because, as limited beings, we are not capable of gaining knowledge of any absolute position. Relativism is incoherent because no human being is, in practice, able to give up moral judgements. Moral judgements involve an unavoidable aspiration towards universality which goes beyond a particular cultural or social context, yet they are made by imperfect beings.

The dichotomy is false because it is often presented as offering the only two possible positions, when there are other possibilities. Whilst it is true, in the abstract, that a universal moral claim must be either true or false, this piece of information is of no relevance to us in our practical, embodied lives. Our knowledge of the "truth" or "falsity" of a moral claim is dependent on the extent that we can grasp it and practise it, so that in practice there are only degrees of moral objectivity found in our habitual dispositions.

For example, take a moral relativist view of cannibalism. A relativist would have to argue that cannibalism is morally acceptable in some cultures, and therefore it is OK for people in those cultures to practise it, even if it is wrong in our culture. An absolutist might respond that cannibalism is always wrong, and we are thus justified in discouraging cannibals from their cannibalism even if it is part of their cultural tradition. The relativist is correct to say that if the wrongness of cannibalism is not a true universal moral fact, then it is only a relative moral fact. The absolutist is also right to point out that if cannibalism is truly wrong, then it should be universally discouraged. What neither can actually show is whether or not cannibalism really is wrong in such a universal way. The mere absence of proof for its universal moral wrongness is not enough to support the relativist's positive claims. What we should do instead is to put ourselves in a better position to judge the degree of moral wrongness of cannibalism by developing more objectivity and investigating the issue.

So, it is equally unconvincing to insist either that cannibalism is always wrong, or that cannibals should be left to get on with it as "right for them". What probably makes cannibalism wrong to a large degree is the habitual states of mind of the cannibals, which are insufficiently aware of the suffering caused by the practice in most cases. In its original cultural context cannibalism is also related to lots of other cultural beliefs or practices which it needs to be considered in relation to. It is all the ways in which the culture as a whole does not address conditions, but merely perpetuates certain types of illusion, that might lead us to call it "wrong" with a fair degree of justification.

The same could be said about other traditional practices of cultures outside Western society, such as arranged marriage, circumcision, beliefs about pure and impure foods, idol worship, or traditional herbal medicine. One could similarly talk about specifically Western practices such as trading stocks, university education, or sunbathing. These practices are right to the extent that they address conditions and wrong to the extent that they do not address conditions. Assessing how far they succeed in addressing conditions is a complex matter, but judgements also need to be made. We should not be afraid to judge them on the basis of information available to us, but our decisions should still be provisional and made with awareness of the degree of our own ignorance. We will be increasingly justified in judging them, the more we have succeeded in cultivating objectivity either individually or in our social context.

Awareness of our ignorance is also the biggest justification for tolerance. We may well be led to tolerate things that do no great harm and have potential for good, even when we disapprove of them. However, there will be limits to that tolerance when it appears reasonably clear that a given practice leads to harm and ignorance. The extent of our moral right to make judgements on this point depends not just on the situation as we perceive it, but also our own capacity to judge it in a balanced and objective way.

Links to further discussion

Using the Middle Way in practical ethics

How the Middle Way fulfils existing ideas of normativity (thesis)

How the Middle Way can be used to make moral and political judgements (thesis)

A New Buddhist Ethics

Objection #8. In the absence of an absolute criterion to measure it against, it is misleading to talk about moral objectivity, as there is no way of distinguishing it from subjectivity.

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