Friday, June 1, 2012

Ramble About Moral Relativism

If the course of doing some random online reading, I happened across the Wikipedia article about age of consent reform. It got me thinking, and I eventually posted a long babbling status update about it on my Facebook. Well, because I was obviously interested enough in the idea to take the time to prattle on about it, I decided I'd go ahead and share my post with those of you who read this blog. The quote at the top is taken from the article.


"In the USA in the 1890s, most states had an age of consent of 10–12 with Delaware setting its age of consent at 7. In 1895, it was still 7. However, feminists and children's rights activists began advocating raising the age of consent to 16 wanting to ultimately raise it to 18 and by 1920 almost all states had raised their age of consent to 16 or 18."

It's amazing to think that something as incredibly wrong in our eyes as an adult sleeping with a 7 year old was actually legal in this very country barely over 100 years ago. Just let that sink in for a minute. We all like to believe that certain moral codes and values are fundamental to human society, but it's worth considering how quickly our ideas about what really is fundamentally right and wrong can change. If our thoughts could alter so drastically and strongly (I assume most of you are as disgusted by the idea of sleeping with a 2nd grader as I am) in just a few generations, imagine the moral world that our great-grandchildren will inhabit. We may not even be able to recognize it. Then consider the fact that they'll be no more morally bankrupt for making those changes then we are for making ours. Something you do today, without even a second thought, may be considered morally reprehensible in just a few decades.

When you put this into the context of thousands of years of human society spread out all over the globe, asserting that the ideals you grew up with are in any way fundamental to the basic human condition seems laughably ignorant. I'm not advocating that we all abandon our moral codes, since morally cooperative behavior is essential to human society. What I am saying is we should stop to think sometimes about how these ideas are artificially imposed rather than instinctively rooted in us. Realizing that simple fact makes it rather easy to understand that another person can disagree fervently with us on deeply important moral issues, yet be no worse of a person than we are. They simply have a different pattern of artificially imposed rules which they hold just as firmly as I hold mine or you hold yours. Like a blueprint, there are a million ways to design a house. And as long as it serves the same basic functions, it's still a perfectly good house regardless of how different it may look from ours.


  1. I wonder if these sorts of old U.S. regulations were relics of the general enslavement of Africans and the many ways in which that affected the culture as a whole?

  2. That I really don't know, though it's interesting to speculate.

  3. This is an interesting topic. However, for the course of human history, there are certain things that have always been considered immoral, and likely always will be, with only slight modification. Age of consent is obviously a little different from theft, because it's not so clear-cut.

    And that brings up another point. Your example still shows that over the course of a century one thing at least has remained constant: people recognized the need for such a law. The only thing that changed was where they drew the line.

    Morals aren't relative. Cultural norms are, but all of those merely approximate moral truth.

  4. I never meant to suggest that no moral standards at all are consistent, simply that many specific ones which we often see as set in stone really aren't. It's on these points that I think most people tend to diverge wildly in their views, and my intention was to highlight that it's because not all the moral standards we assume to be concrete really are.

  5. Point taken. I just wanted to point out the danger inherent in this line of thinking: If you're not careful, you can reach the wrong conclusion. The same goes for confusing situational ethics with moral relativism. This really isn't about moral relativism, but instead about cultural norms based on morals. Your point is a good one, nonetheless. It wasn't that long ago that we treated women little better than the Taliban did.