It seems that the existence of moral relativism undermines the entire enterprise of ethics, as it devolves into a bunch of, albeit very smart, people abstractly formulating what is ultimately just a particular neurological sentiment.
While I hope that it can be refuted, as I would very much like to see ethics as moving us towards an objectively better life, I find it hard to envision ethics ever being truly prescriptive in the same sense that, for example, medicine is. If a doctor says you need to do something that is uncomfortable or very painful or seems counterintuitive, they can convince you to do it because they can demonstrate, or, more likely, we trust that it has been demonstrated that following their recommendation will heal us or improve our condition. At a fundamental level, this can happen because we don't have medical relativism. Either a disease is cured or it is not. A person can walk faster or not etc.
How can ethics hope to capture this type of prescriptiveness? Is that even a goal? As a non-ethicist but someone who works with the law, environment, and human health, I would hope it would be the goal, as having an ethical equivalent to "medical knowledge" would be very helpful in weighing options.
So, is moral relativism dead? Can we honestly condemn some actions as ethically wrong just as we can classify some actions as medically/biologically harmful (ignore, for the sake of this question, the confusion surrounding nutrition and other "observational-study" dependent sciences, as they are messy and may be much more political).
To the ethically minded (and other ethical optimists like myself), do you see a way out and a path towards a prescriptive ethics? One that can command action even if the recommended course is prime facie undesirable or counterintuitive?
Thanks for your thoughts.
Expansion per Michael's comment:
... 1st, we've got to define with more clarity what moral relativism is, and 2nd, we've got to understand the cause of your dislike for it and [y]earning for the ethical gurus able to shed the light on one and only true ethics."
The first point: I see moral relativism as the belief that every person's ethics is sui generis, and ethics as a whole lacks an objective basis for comparing differing ethical systems. This is in contrast to, say, medicine, where there is a clear basis for what medicine is "about", even though different doctors may hold varying philosophies about treatment approaches (sometimes passionately) and different approaches work better for different people. In other words, there is still quite a bit of subjectivity and diversity of opinion, but, they all agree on the overall point of this enterprise called "medicine". A moral relativist denies this type of "teleological coherence" for ethics, and hence all moralizing is conditional upon an unchallengeable set of moral axioms, with no basis for comparison.
Second point: I am not seeking a pre-written code of ethics nor a prescriptive set of rules, I only "yearn" (to use your terminology) to see ethics actually develop principles that allow us to improve the human condition, as opposed to merely fill books with "alternatives" lacking any way to compare them. I don't think for a moment that such a system would be a cookie-cutter set of rules as the thinkers of the Enlightenment thought. For example, based on what we see in the world today, some principles of a widely applicable ethical calculus could be something like this:
Human psychology is such that values and priorities are not homogenous between societies nor individuals. However, living in accord with ones values and priorities brings the most happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, there will be inevitable conflicts between priorities, with a high potential for a zero-sum situation. Therefore, the freedom of association should be maximized to allow for moral variability and an efficient system of inter-societal transfer should be established for those individuals or groups that find other societies in better accord with their morals. Government should aim to ensure peaceful coexistence between groups and not interfere except to protect from aggression and to arbitrate disputes.
Granted, my principles have a very American flavor, which may undermine my point, but I was trying to convey the gist of what I am thinking. I want to point out the central role psychology, sociology, and neurology will play in an ethical calculus. Its not the rules, per se, but the development of a systematic method for accommodating moral diversity. I think that, like medicine, ethics has a goal, which is to allow people to experience more happiness, less suffering, more peace, less violence...all of which are fundamentally psychological/sociological. To the extent that the human brain has a common base of drives and rewards, we can hope to formulate a flexible ethical calculus that allows for diversity and happiness.
Anyway, sorry for making this long post even longer. I still think it means something to say "ethics", and its not just "whatever I think is ethics" (which could include chess, beer drinking, or a number of other unrelated areas of activity)