Moral relativism and hypocrisy seem to be confused with some regularity.
For example, Raya Pickett blogged, "If you’re going to condemn people on a certain subject, but not others, is that moral relativism? And shouldn’t you look into your own life and re-evaluate yourself as well?" (July 29, 2011) Actually, such inconsistent condemnation seems to be simple hypocrisy, not moral relativism.
Scott Lazarowitz similarly observed that American exceptionalism allows that "it is okay for the U.S. and its government to occupy (i.e. trespass on) foreign lands, but it is not okay for foreign governments to occupy our territory," and he labeled this hypocrisy as moral relativism. (Sept 22, 2011)
Alexander Netherton complained about soccer players who break the rules. To the rhetorical objection, "Luis Nani dives and you never see Manchester United fans complaining about him," Netherton answered that "two wrongs do not make a right, and it's mystifying that this simple lesson has not yet been grasped. Moral relativism is as lazy as it is hypocritical." (Oct. 8, 2011)
To evaluate these statements, we should first define "moral relativism" and "hypocrisy".
Moral relativism has been defined many ways. Let's begin with what it is not. It is generally agreed that moral relativism is the opposite of - or finds its clearest contrast against - moral absolutism. Moral absolutism is the position that determinations of right and wrong are somehow embedded in the fabric of the universe, possibly by the hand of God, and therefore at least some important moral questions have answers that people can discover in roughly the same way that they would discover facts about history, math, or science.
Moral relativism does not assume that there are transcendentally correct answers to moral questions. This philosophy instead believes that values are created and developed by individuals, cultures, religions, authority figures, institutions, and/or systems of thought - and therefore, that values can change over time. It tends to take a more socio-biological approach, focusing on how people actually think and behave. It assumes that no important transcendental moral truths exist because, even if there are moral facts, there is no reliable way of discovering them and therefore they do not play an important role in human moral life.
As the word "relativism" may suggest, a relativist ethical analysis tends to focus on relationships between people and their purposes. it does not seek truths independent of human life and human discourse. A moral value or rule would be "true" or "false" only insofar as it is related to something of importance to the people concerned. In this way, moral truths are not objective facts; instead, experiences and philosophies are integral to moral evaluation.
What, then, is hypocrisy? The word "hypocrisy" comes from Greek roots meaning a lack of judgment; in other words, it signifies that one has failed to properly distinguish or explain the issues at hand. The quintessential example of hypocrisy is a politician or pastor who preaches in favor of honesty and against adultery, yet who is subsequently revealed as accepting bribes and as having affairs with interns. Such a "hypocrite" does not practice what he or she preaches, clearly should know better, and covers up his or her transgressions in an attempt to deceive others.
More subtle instances of hypocrisy can include a person who has two conflicting ideas and does not realize the inconsistency. For example, a person may have a political worldview that recommends a pluralistic embrace of others' differences and yet may also have absorbed a religious worldview that encourages a slightly more militant approach to segregating the "right" sort of people from the "wrong" sort. These two worldviews then fuse imperfectly into a single worldview that may at times seem strange or ragged around the edges. The person expresses different opinions and attitudes at different times without having the self-awareness to realize the competing influences that struggle for dominance in his or her subconscious.
Another kind of hypocrisy could involve advocating different standards for different groups of people. This may take the form of exempting one's own group from a particular responsibility - "My department has worked harder than everyone else all year, so we should get a break and not be expected to meet the company's goal this month" - or exempting another group from responsibility - "In our country we respect human rights, but people in other countries can't be expected to understand the concept or put in the effort to carry it out." The former case may be seen as a lazy attempt to cheat the system, while the latter case may be seen as a patronizing and inaccurate attitude with dangerous results. Although both speakers could vigorously defend their statements, the statements may nevertheless be perceived by others as unfair or insufficiently thoughtful.
Why would moral relativism be confused with hypocrisy? On their face, they seem like different concepts.
It may be that moral relativism's acceptance of fluctuating opinions and values is confused with hypocrisy's inconsistency and "double standards" for different people. Moral relativism does accept that values can change over time (with the possible exception of those that are biologically "hard-wired" into our species and important for maintaining working social groups, such as not capriciously or deceitfully harming our neighbors). However, thoughtful relativist philosophers would require some justification for a change of opinion. Relativism need not, and should not, imply arbitrary choices made chiefly for one's own selfish benefit. Plenty of other psychological and social dynamics can, and should, influence moral choices. When a change of opinion occurs, other relevant opinions should be updated as necessary to avoid hypocrisy.
Intellectual consistency doesn't happen by magic. All thinkers must put in an extra measure of care so that our ideas do not contradict. These contradictions, when they do happen, are usually accidental; most of us are not conniving hypocrites at heart.
Moral relativism, accordingly, is not hypocrisy trussed up in philosophical skirts. This is an unfair assumption about the minority of philosophers brave enough to call themselves "relativists." One could just as easily (and just as wrongly) accuse moral absolutism of being a mask for hypocrisy, since the inflexibility of absolutist statements is just as threatening and suspicious to some people as the malleability of relativist statements is to others, and both worldviews can carry attendant risks of arrogance and mistakenness.
Hypocrisy should be called out by its own name. To call it "moral relativism" confuses the issues.
Originally posted Nov. 6, 2011 to Helium Network.