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Moral Relativism, By Steven Lukes

Relative values and home truths

Much of the last hundred years is a story of people not knowing what is good for them. From Cambodia and Vietnam to Somalia, millions have worked tirelessly to ensure their own misery and poverty. But the relativist insists that we can cast no judgment on other value systems. Relativists used to be easily chased off with a quick reference to Hitler and female circumcision; today, increasing numbers of people are willing to throw in their lot with the mutilators. In fact, as Steven Lukes writes, they ask that we show more respect by referring to it as genital "modification".

Universities continue to pump out thousands of young relativists, so if there is one philosophical debate we need to be versed in, it is this one. Lukes is an even-handed guide and manages to be concise and thorough; most areas of the debate are broached, from Immanuel Kant to the attempts of Melville Herskovits to get a brand of relativism – that would have allowed for Nazism – written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The author admits that it is not possible to be a serious thinker and yet dismiss science as just another discourse. Even creationists, he says, take flu vaccines whose development presupposes the truth of Darwinism. Relativism about facts may be a non-starter, but the basis of this book is that relativism about values is altogether more tenable.

Different moral cultures often have different ways of expressing a shared value. Lukes gives the example of Hindu widows immolating themselves (or being forced to) on their husbands' funeral pyres. The practice makes perfect sense if it is indeed the surest way to reunite the souls of husband and wife. Thus differences in factual beliefs lead to varying expressions of the underlying desire to do right by women.

Lukes concludes that different cultures cannot be expected to agree on the truth conditions of their beliefs. It can only be said that they need to try harder. After all, they manage to quickly match their beliefs with ours when they are trying to develop nuclear weapons.