Atheism, Evangelism, Foundations for Atheist Morality, Relativism

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part III

In last week’s edition of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we explored one of the difficulties with the relativist view that moral right and wrong are determined by what the majority feels will promote unity and cohesion within a given society.  This week, we’ll take a look at what constitutes a society… and some of the sticky situations we encounter when we try to apply the doctrines of societal relativism.

Ask ten people what they think when they hear the word “society” and you’ll likely get ten different definitions.  This isn’t all that surprising when we consider the dictionary definition of society as “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community” or “the community of people living in a particular region and having shared customs, laws, and organizations.”  Families, nations, religious groups, ethnic populations, football teams, and online gaming communities can all be classified as “societies”.  Each has their own governing principles, their hierarchy of power, and standards for living.

If you’ve noticed that some of these societies exist within other societies, you’re on your way to understanding one of the great ethical dilemmas faced by the societal relativist: how do you determine which society takes precedence over the others?  For example, when does the cohesive majority view of a nation dominate the opposing cohesive majority view of an individual ethnic group?  Is it ever right for the predominant religion to override the opposing view of a smaller municipality?  In order to decide which moral rules ought to govern the whole, the societal relativist must appeal either to power or to value as their guiding principle.

In the case of power, the relativist must appeal to the old adage that “might makes right”.  It is the group which possesses the most money, the greatest membership, the strongest governmental pull, or the most firepower which has the right to govern the morality of the society.

One needn’t look far to see the danger inherent in this approach.  History is filled with the stories of those who suffered under the hands of the powerful.  To claim that it is those with the most power who have the right to govern is to accept that slavery, poverty, and abuse are all morally acceptable as long as they are condoned by those who hold power.  Such situations cannot be viewed as unjust… and those who work to change them are themselves immoral for having chosen to labor in opposition to the predominant societal group.

I have known few atheists willing to accept this view, so the societal relativist must now appeal to value if he is to rightfully subject the cohesive views of one society to the governance of the opposing cohesive views of another society.