Moral relativism is prominent, unequivocally for individuals who will not obtain their morality from religion. Moral relativism says that there is no one true morality, that an action can be morally right relative to something, and that the same action can be wrong relative to something else. According to moral relativism there exists various moralities. Another outlook is moral absolutism, where there is invariably right or wrong no matter the surrounding circumstances. An opposing belief is moral nihilism, where nothing is right or wrong; these believers give up normative terms such as “right” and “wrong.” Boghossian argues for moral nihilism and in his essay articulates the maze of moral relativism that leads to absolutism and inevitably to nihilism.
Boghossian uses examples to accentuate the contrast between belief and relativity to a frame of reference by employing witches and Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Boghossian claims moral relativism is an incoherent way of responding to the denial of specific facts because it is extremely ambiguous. When people came to their senses that witchcraft is nonexistent, they did not become relativists about witches; they stopped believing in witches and developed an “eliminativist” point of view of witches and witchcraft. In this scenario, it is incorrect to assume that an individual could be a witch from one perspective but not another. We all know that witches are not real. Children and adults who dress up as witches for Halloween are simply people in costumes. We are cognizant that these people are not real witches and that is taciturn.
In contrast, in Einstein’s theory of special relativity, it is not possible for something the same to occur at the same exact time. This brought about a relativistic view about space and time. For example, to a person on earth it appears someone gets married in Australia and in Arizona at the same time. But to someone on a plane between the two destinations, he or she observes the two marriages at a different time. Whether the two marriages occurred at the same time is relative. Whether or not witchcraft exists is not relative.
Moral relativists claim that something is only right or wrong deemed upon a community’s moral code. Similar to the beef example Boghossian utilized, drinking milk is used here. “Drinking milk is wrong” is simply a normative statement. But, “Drinking milk is wrong relative to the moral code of vegans” is not normative. We can agree that the previous statement about vegans drinking milk is veracious. There are exact norms that constitute whether a certain action is right or wrong according to specific communities. So denying moral relativism does not lead to relativism but to nihilism. This is because no matter what a certain action is, Boghossian argues it is not just right or wrong, but it must be more than that depending on the community’s moral perspective.
Boghossian deliberates a response that appeals to standards of etiquette trying to back up the claim that moral relativism is coherent. Are we all relativists of certain etiquette practices? Similar to Boghossian’s example of slurping, we all are mindful of the impoliteness of belching at the table, right? But in China, we want to belch after dinner in front of the host. Burping in China is a symbol of gratitude and satiety. We want to belch after dinner to show our appreciation of the host’s hospitality so we do not offend him. Boghossian rejects this reply because even though it seems as if we appear as relativists regarding etiquette, we cannot assume to be relativists in the same way regarding morality. With etiquette, the absolute norm is not to offend our hosts, so we become absolutists about this even though initially it looks as if we are relativistic. Depending on the native culture, we know whether or not belching after a meal is appropriate.
The “maze” is about moral relativists because it leads directly out of relativism in search for absolutes, but Boghossian argues moral nihilism is the correct view. According to the author, moral relativism is incoherent because it is so unclear. Boghossian advocates moral nihilism because it is too difficult to find an absolutely correct answer to a difficult moral question.
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