In trying to respond to one of the comments made on an earlier thread on Hijab, I realized that my reply may end up being too long. I think long comments are generally not good policy – I don’t read them and I don’t think anyone should suffer them either. So I thought it best to make a post out of it instead, with a clickbaity headline to boot 😉
I am answering the questions posed in the comment having trained as a student of physics, rather than philosophy, let alone moral philosophy. The latter is a serious can of worms. So treat the following as falsifiable conjecture at best 🙂
I think the question of moral relativism is no different to the question about physical universalism. Moral truths may appear obvious and even “common-sensical”, but they could be as incorrect as the theories of ancients about the steadiness of Earth, cf Skt dharA (holding firm) or its centrality, cf geocentric universe. How did we come to know which set of physical laws describe the world better?
Note that the above theories of ancients were falsehoods, but they were *not* bad theories. In fact, they were good initial guesses and our species of ape should be rather proud of them. What we shouldn’t be proud of is how emotionally invested our forefathers were in these guesses. In other words, what’s stupid about the old culture, going all the way to the dawn of man, is not in its ability to produce good/bad guesses but to take its guesses to be too sacred. That is what changed with the modern Western Enlightenment – the universalisation of virtue of calling out others’ baloney without the fear of being harmed for doing so. The Royal Society, set up by stuffy Englishmen affecting Roman cognoscenti, simply uses fancy Latin for it in its motto but the idea is really that simple.
Yet this idea is not itself a theory of Science. In fact, it is a theory of epistemology (fallibilism), that can very well be applied to morality too. In short, the (well-nigh) truth about morals is that there is no perfect moral truth, which isn’t to say there’s no moral objectivity. Two people can agree on the amount of error in a moral theory and all error is measurable. So a theory about morality can be objective, but never quite axiomatic or “self-evidently” true.
As far as liberalism vs conservatism goes, the nice feature of conservatives is that they are not slippery. They do not indulge in sophistry or like to keep things woolly. They may be wrong (most of them are almost by definition) but at least they make falsifiable claims. Retaining the ability to be wrong is more virtuous than happening to be right. That is a guiding virtue of Science and in general of fallibilist epistemology.
There are various reasons why modern liberalism is preferable, but their attitude to generating new knowledge (physical or moral) is certainly not one of them. West is currently in a bit of a philosophical bind. Their conservatives have lost the university and opinion-making space to the liberals because the liberals, justifiably, argued for lack of certainty being the defining feature of the world we live in and won that debate. That much is sensible. However, they went further in confounding the lack of certainty with lack of objectivity. That is where they make a serious error that every scientist (or at least every physicist) is trained – on pain of ridicule under peer review – not to make.
The liberals seem to think that just because we cannot know something for certain (i.e. with exactly zero error), we cannot produce/compare/agree on uncertainty bounds on predictions of a theory. This is a very mistaken notion. E.g. the concept of “acceptable error” is a central dictum of physical theories. Scientists are trained to live with error, and not just tolerate it but see it as a confirmation of the utility of their and others’ theories. Error can make physics wrong, but that’s already infinitely better than being not even wrong. And yet, that’s precisely what the Western liberals are these days.
Post-colonial moral relativism is just the same woolly-headed lack of commitment to error and objectivity being applied to moral theories. The liberal anathema to error is so debilitating that they are not even willing to measure or compare error in moral theories across societies and cultures. Indeed, much effort is spent on finding more novel and innovative ways to avoid criticism necessary for identifying and correcting error: safe spaces, echo chambers, de-platforming, narrative control, language policing and the suchlike. Even the word “criticise” is now seen as negative, and “critique” (which wasn’t a verb in olden days) is now preferred as its de-fanged version. A sad state of affairs.