Have you ever heard someone argue that we in the U.S. shouldn’t tell citizens of another country what is right or wrong, that the society in the other country has to decide what is right for itself? Or even one state or city shouldn’t tell another state or city what is right for it? This is an example of the “conventionalism” ethics argument. The problem with this argument is that it is “…impossible to criticize another society’s practices, no matter how bizarre or morally repugnant they may seem to us” (p. 50). If this is true today, why did we prosecute the Nazis at Nuremberg? The majority of that society believed in “The Final Solution” to exterminate the Jewish population (as well as homosexuals and gypsies), so if society had decided that extermination was appropriate, why the trial? The conventionalism argument can be extended to any length to include (insert the most repugnant act you can think of) and still, supposedly, be “moral.”

Some like to argue that there is a “higher good” that all people ascribe to. In other words, all people have decided that murder is immoral so murder is therefore immoral and therefore illegal. But according to conventionalism, why? If a group of people who believed murder was morally allowed, bought an island somewhere, moved there, why shouldn’t they be allowed to dispense with what other people believed and live as they see fit? Although the population most likely would dwindle down to one before too long.

Without a base morality defined by an authority higher than humankind, there is nothing that is immoral or unethical under conventionalism. “If there is no law above society – no external standard – then that society cannot be judged” (p. 50).

Thankfully, people of previous eras didn’t ascribe to this philosophy, or the work of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., Corrie ten Boom, and those seeking religious freedom from England would not have accomplished what they set out to do. How many people today owe their freedom to the work of people who believed in a higher moral standard?

– Beckwith, F. J. & Koukl, G. (1998). Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.