Teaching Relativism

One of my professors overheard my method for teaching relativism in an intro to ethics class. He encouraged me to write a short paper outlining the method and try to publish it, since he thought it was a good idea and had never heard of it before. This is the first draft of the attempt. Any comments would be appreciated.

Teaching Relativism

One of the biggest hurtles of Introductory Ethics classes is relativism. The students are tempted to abandon the ethical project all together, considering “right and wrong are relative” (and in the way many freshmen characterize that statement). Those coming into a course with such a view will be unwilling to engage with the material. I find that setting aside classes specifically to loosen the attachment to relativism is worthwhile for getting the ethics project off the ground. I present a new way of loosening this attachment to relativism.

                My strategy involves getting the students to think about why they are attracted to relativism. I ask them, “why would someone be a relativist; what attracts people to the view?”. As students give me reasons, I write them on the board. After this is done, and the students are satisfied with the list, I take each reason or attraction and show them they can be a moral absolutist and still hold on to the reasons that attract them to relativism. Notice the strategy of this way of teaching. The professor no longer sets up claims and then knocks them down, but the students give their reasons (or the reasons one would have) and then come to realize they are not incompatible with moral absolutism. The attractions of relativism are therefore deflated. Once this door is opened, students become much more ready to engage in ethical debates. I would now like to present some commonly held attractions to relativism that students have brought up and how they are handled.

                One reason is “I no longer have to judge or condemn anyone”. I show them that just because we say another is wrong, does not mean we condemn them or judge them. I show them that this happens often in many debates, political and otherwise. Students often think that if someone has reasons for doing what they do, they can say nothing about the morality of the act. If we do claim that one’s act is wrong, we must condemn and judge them. I let them know that just because one has justified reasons, it does not mean we must claim the justified reasons are right. We can see what their reasons are and still disagree without judging or condemning. We often disagree and say that another is wrong about their view, but we are not forced to judge them or condemn them because of this.

                Another attraction is “I don’t claim moral authority over others”. The concern stems from a misstep from moral absolutism to having a monarchy on morality. The students will say “how can you be so sure you are right?” or “who’s to say what’s right?”. They find it arrogant to think that they have the truth and others do not. I let them know that moral absolutism does not commit one to knowing the truth of morality, but merely that there is a truth. They students link up the epistemological problem of morality with relativism. If I don’t know what the truth is, I must abandon the truth and say there is no truth. I show them that this move is not necessary and contrary to moral absolutist thinking. I let them know that this is the project of ethics, to find the truth as it pertains to morality. There is debate here, and rightly so, but that does not mean we should abandon truth. Moral problems are hard, and we disagree, but that does not mean there is no truth to the matter. Disconnecting the epistemological problem of ethics with relativism relieves the worry that one must know what the truth is to be a moral absolutist.

                I close the class by presenting what we lose when we are committed to moral relativism. I appeal to their intuitions to do this. I show them that we are often tempted to say other cultures are wrong, even given a relativistic viewpoint. I show that if we are committed to saying someone is wrong, we can say nothing morally about Nazism . If we are relativists, we are forced to say it was right for them. Since most students overwhelmingly agree that the Nazis were wrong full stop, this strategy helps students to see the attractions of moral absolutism. I try to show them that the consequences of holding onto relativism are far too great to endorse the view.

                My overall strategy of this method is to show moral absolutists, in the end, believe that there is a truth to moral concerns, questions, and problems. Most students believe this commitment forces one to a particular moral view, and this has bad consequences. Once the students see that moral absolutism doesn’t outright lead them to problematic views and commitments, they are much more eager to engage in the material. I show that what attracts them to relativism can still be held as a moral absolutist, and this is something unexpected and welcomed by students. 




~ by Barky on March 11, 2012.

2 Responses to “Teaching Relativism”

  1. I would love to be in a whole course that was structured around this kind of approach. That first point for relativism, for example, deserves a few classes all to its own: what is it to judge or condemn someone? Would that ever be justified, and if so, when? What is supposed to be wrong with judging or condemning? Is it that it harms the judged person, or the judger, or both, or society in general…? And what exactly does it mean to disagree with someone or condemn their choices without judging or condemning them (to hate the sin and love the sinner)? Etc.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ben! I think you’re right about this. There are deeper questions here that require much more attention than a simple gloss.

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