Moral relativism is the belief that everything someone believes is right because there is no objective universal morality. Because there is no universal morality transcending time, culture, and other boundaries, there is no objective moral standard by which to judge actions. Barbara MacKinnon and Andrew Fiala, authors of the book Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues Eighth Edition, describe moral, or ethical, relativism as “a kind of skepticism about ethical reasoning – it is skeptical of the idea that there are right and wrong answers to ethical questions.” For example, cows are sacred in certain cultures while the only thing holy about a cow in American culture is if it is eaten at a church pot-luck. Moral relativism claims that both these ideas are correct.
Wow! That sounds like a pretty good philosophy, right? After all, it sounds like moral relativism supports tolerance and acceptance of people with different backgrounds.
Before making a judgment call, let’s apply moral relativism to an event; let’s apply it to the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was a mandated relocation forced upon Cherokee Indians by the settlers. According to the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center, “an estimated 4,000 [Cherokee] died from hunger, exposure and disease.” Now, from the Cherokee viewpoint, this was obviously a disaster and a great tragedy. What the settlers did was obviously wrong. In the first place, the land belonged to no one, but the Cherokee were using it. Also, the Cherokee had played by the white man’s rules to try and save their land, but President Jackson had broken the laws and had them thrown from the land anyway. Their land was gone, four-thousand were dead, and they had done nothing to deserve such treatment. Surely, the U.S. had done wrong.
But, according to moral relativism, all those who participated in or supported the Trail of Tears were right. President Thomas Jefferson was correct when he declared, according to an article on the website Indian Country: Today’s Media Network.com, “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.” Benjamin Franklin was correct in asserting that, “if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.” Even George Washington, in his orders to General John Sullivan, was correct: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”
Should we all be moral relativists? Should we all promote tolerance and acceptance? Should we all declare everyone, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Vlad Dracula, rapists, murderers, and every single criminal who has ever walked, free of all moral charges because they did what they thought was right?
Is the correct answer for that question for the individual to decide?