Cultural Relativism Excuses Evil

In a recent interview with Jordan Peterson, Steven Fry, who has made some of the most powerful arguments against the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity (see The Problem of Evil), makes some staggeringly bad arguments for moral relativism. Like Dawkins blindness to the evils of the state, this shows once again how people can be brilliant in one area and complete boneheads in another.

Peterson:
Let’s say we’re going to defend the values of the west to the degree that they’re worth defending. Then we are making a claim that the inheritors of a particular tradition have something valid morally on their side, or we cannot defend the position there’s something that’s happening in our culture that’s not … right. How do you defend the damn culture against it without making the claim that we do have something of … higher value that is the consequence of following a particular tradition. Because without that you … lose the argument instantly.

Here Peterson sets out the biggest problem of cultural relativism: If culture is all relative, how can you argue that anything is bad? How will Fry weasel out of this?

Fry:
Morality is is a question of manners

Wrong. Murdering someone is not ‘bad manners’. If you excuse execution of homosexuals by religious extremists because it’s ‘part of their culture’, you are condoning evil.

Fry:
If the word immoral was used in a newspaper or by a person then that person’s immoral it would have a sexual meaning it would mean that they lived with someone with whom they weren’t married or they lived with someone of the same sex.

Sure, what people might call immoral is subject to the whims of the times. This in no way changes the fact that some things are inherently immoral. Fry has cherry picked some obvious examples of aesthetic preferences here. Immorality requires harm. A much more interesting case is adultery. Is such a betrayal of trust inherently immoral? The adulterer has not physically harmed their partner, or their property. Still, I’d say a case could be made that adultery is always immoral.

Fry:
The idea of ‘the culture’ is a false one there is no ‘the culture’.

Culture is always changing, and differs from person to person. This is just like science. Our idea of what is true is constantly evolving, and at any given time, scientists disagree on many things. Does that mean there is no science? Of course not. Another rubbish statement by Fry.

Fry:
Everything is redefined in each generation so what is left that is absolute? This is where religion has an argument with intellectual progress because it wants to hang on to something that it believes is eternal and and and permanent and utterly always true but there is no such thing.

More bullshit. The principles of Mathematics and Logic have remained for millennia, though of course they have been refined. Just because aesthetic preferences can and do change does not mean there aren’t moral principles that do not. The ability to understand this is what Jim Collins calls the ‘Genius of the And’. One can simultaneously stick to principles while changing practices that prove outdated.

I like Stephen Fry, but I find his ability to argue for this nihilistic rubbish in such a calm, sensible sounding way a little frightening. Either he truly believes that not murdering is just a social preference, or he is one of the greatest sophists that ever lived. Cultural relativism is a way of condoning evil, which I would say is itself evil.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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1 Response to Cultural Relativism Excuses Evil

  1. Jim is again kind to a fault. Fry’s argument against one normative fallacy is to declare there are no objective standards. In “Moral Rights and Political Freedom,” Dr Tara Smith of UTexas puts all such gibberish to the test. Since 1945 altruists have struggled to slow moral progress and preserve the initiation of deadly force with such maniacal ferocity as to offer a sort of experimental proof of Ayn Rand’s (and George Orwell’s) attribution of a death wish as their implicit motive. That subjective worshippers of coercion are at each other’s throats in no way implies either variant is anything other than wrong, but eloquently confirms the observation that they are consistent in their commitment to the initiation of deadly force at every pretext.

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