First (the Dodo) marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle ('the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out 'The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and aking, 'But who has won?'
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for along time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, 'everybody has won, and all must have prizes."
Courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily, I found a compellingly spot-on take on contemporary moral relativism by Anthony Daniels at New Criterion (for such a profound issue, his analysis is remarkably brief and easy to read). Basically, his thesis is that moral relativism results when we grow too impatient for absolute and irrefutable philosophical justifications for ethics and morality. When no secular version of the Ten Commandments is unanimously forthcoming, the automatic fallback position is, "Well, then everything is relative."
It is a kind of black and white thinking: if ethical guidelines do not club us over the head with irrresistible force, then they must be wispy and dispensable. We crave an ethical absolute that, outside of religious strictures, is no longer available. It's a bit like violating a diet one is on and then deciding, "Well, what the hell, I may as well eat everything in sight."
Why is relativism increasingly a problem? Daniels has some interesting answers. One is the relative decline, in global terms, of Western political and cultural influence as compared to Asia (and, as I would add, Islam--could it be that some Westerners, viewing the fanaticism that characterizes a small but highly visible fraction of Muslim culture, implicitly decide that maybe relativism isn't so bad by comparison?). Second, the broadly decried emphasis upon individualism and consumption for several decades now has coarsened moral considerations.
But third, and interestingly, he suggests that, well, increasingly educated populations are less satisfied with the kinds of simplistic (but potentially useful) moral doctrines that prevailed in centuries past (think the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule). That is, the average man on the street is much better than his ancestors at sophristy, that is, bending philosophical arguments to suit his own inclinations. He has just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
The problem is that as many philosophers of course have argued, ethics broadly considered draws on far more than the working out of logical syllogisms in some university library. It depends on evolutionary psychology, which hasn't much changed we can assume. But is also rests on the cultural consensus of shared tradition and decorum, on a kind of moral common sense that we increasingly seem to have lost. As individuals and as a culture, we have become clever enough to question and undermine communal common sense--but as my son teaches me anew every day, it's a lot easier to take things apart than to put them together.
I see an interesting correlate here with psychiatric diagnosis. Some seem to think that if mental disorders aren't as structured and as clearly laid out as, say, the periodic table of the elements, then they don't exist, or are merely social constructions. But there are levels of cultural common sense, the sense of ethics and the sense of illness, both of them falling under the wide rubric of the sense of the proper way to live. The common theme here is the tolerance, or lack thereof, for ambiguity, which is the natural habitat of ethics, law, and medicine.
The question is how much whole cultures can live with ambiguity. Socrates died because he was accused of blurring the clear black and white signposts that were "the gods." Those signposts served useful purposes, but they were also used to bludgeon people to death (just ask the Grand Inquisitor). But did Socrates have a substitute that whole cultures can live with? Can people live amid infinite shades of gray, without going blind or starting to hallucinate?
What is the good life anyway? Supposedly W. H. Auden said or wrote somewhere, and I paraphrase, "The purpose of my life is to help other people. What they themselves are good for I have no idea."