The rise of multiculturalism has created an environment where all backgrounds, and by extension all opinions, are given equal standing. Especially at Penn, we value diversity of thought, and that has resulted in an outbreak of ethical relativism in the student body.
Formally, ethical relativists believe that everyone has their own version of morality, and their own moral ‘truth,’ with all versions of morality being equally true.
The appeal of this philosophy, especially for progressive students, is that it provides easy access to a world of cultural tolerance and equality. If everyone’s version of morality is equally true, then it makes sense that we should treat people equally, and respect their values and beliefs. People on the political right often say that Western cultural practices are superior to their Eastern counterparts — for example, the less limiting dress codes for women — and moral relativism refutes that claim.
Unfortunately, the appealing conclusions that the moral relativist position provides has led its followers to adopt some less-than-sound justifications. Instead of rooting their philosophy in foundational truths, some moral relativists have borrowed from Einstein’s theory of special relativity in an attempt to legitimize their beliefs via association with scientific objectivity. As interesting as it sounds, this argument is ultimately a fallacious appeal to physical principles and one that’s necessary to disprove.
The argument goes something like: “Physics has shown us that the world is relativistic! The world people experience is conditioned by their point of observation; their reality is as equally true as anyone else’s. Thus what is right and wrong is just a function of a person’s point of view.”
Special relativity indicates that it is possible for two observers in different reference frames to observe events happening at different times, if they are traveling at close-to-light speeds. Depending on your point of observation or ‘reference frame,’ you can experience time-dilation or length contraction effects, from the warping of spacetime. What one observer experiences as five seconds might be five minutes for someone traveling near light speed.
The big (and I think sometimes non-obvious) problem with this argument is this: it is an analogy. It’s an attempt to analogize one property of the physical world to an entirely different domain of study, namely moral truths. There is no reason why this argument has any validity, because there is no reason that morality and physics need to have the same structure.
People in economics like to talk about the ‘momentum of the market’, as if the market had a quantifiable mass and velocity (though momentum has achieved its own formal definition in finance). In sports commentary, commentators love discussing the ‘momentum of the game’, as one side gains the lead or loses the lead. In both of these cases, people are borrowing the language of physics in order to describe something; but luckily, they are merely borrowing the language, and not trying to make an argument.
Analogies have tremendous pedagogical value, and can often help us conceptualize abstract objects by appealing to things we are more familiar with in our lives. We cannot see electric charge move in wires — but a commonly used analogy is that charge movement in wires is similar to the flow of water. However this does not mean that charges and water have to share other properties e.g. water is blue, therefore charge has to be blue.
Analogies also offer beauty in the form of metaphors and similes; “Her eyes were as bright as the light of a thousand suns.” This doesn’t mean her eyes have to, like the sun, burn at 5,505 degrees Celsius.
It’s important to differentiate between making analogies — which can often be missing something crucial — and truth-preserving arguments, that start from premises and reason to a conclusion. This latter kind of argumentation is far harder to produce, but is far more powerful as well.
Those who want to argue that everyone’s beliefs are legitimate will need to find stronger footing. Some people’s beliefs are true and others’ are false; not just as a matter of preference but as a matter of fact. No reference to quantum mechanics or relativity will change that.
To those who formulate their moral convictions on a relativist paradigm; I strongly urge a you to reconsider it. You do not need relativism to argue for civil rights or against oppression and violence — in fact, relativism destroys the foundation for your arguments rather than supporting it. What is needed is a paradigm of moral objectivity, formulated on consistent and coherent principles.
VINAYAK KUMAR is a rising sophmore from Parsippany, N.J., studying finance, physics and philosophy.