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The Challenge of Moral Relativism

This article explores the challenges of moral relativism, the view that in ethics, truth is always relative to cultures, times or individuals.

The Challenge of Relativism

One influential variety of moral scepticism begins from the observation that different cultures seem to have different ethical views. Some cultures think polygamy is immoral, others think that it is perfectly proper. Some cultures think it permissible to abandon the elderly to die, others that the elderly must be treated with particular respect and reverence. These apparent differences have led many to reject the idea of universal ethical truth. There is, the idea goes, nothing more than different cultural customs. None can be condemned as wrong or honored as right, for there is no ‘acultural standpoint’ from which such a universal assessment could be made, or from which practical or applied ethical advice might proceed.

Cultural relativism has attracted a good deal of criticism. For now, it will do to simply recite some of the more obvious difficulties.

  • First, even granting the observations of ethical differences between cultures, it does not follow that there is no universal moral truth: It does not follow from the fact that people disagree about whether or not polygamy is wrong that there is no fact of the matter, any more than it followed from the fact that people disagreed about the shape of the earth that there was no fact of that matter.
  • Second, even allowing, again, that there is quite dramatic ethical disagreement, it might still be the case that there is a very large area of ethical consensus. There may be some moral rules – ‘gratuitous killing is wrong’ perhaps – held by all communities at all times.
  • This point connects with a third: Perhaps it will seem that even the rule ‘gratuitous killing is wrong’ is not really universal. After all, certain cultures abandon their elderly to die. But the bare observation of such practices does not evidence different ethical values. Suppose attempting to keep the elderly alive in certain environments threatened the entire community. In such circumstances, abandoning the elderly may not seem to be ‘gratuitous killing.’ Those who followed the practice would not show by doing so that they held radically different values to those cultures that thought the elderly should be treated with reverence and respect. Indeed, we can easily imagine circumstances in which the appropriate way to show reverence and respect was to abandon the elderly before they became a threat to the community that they themselves held important.

The Challenge of Subjectivism

Subjectivists claim that ethical statements report things about the utterer rather than about the world. Such statements are either merely emotional responses (so not really statements at all) or are statements only about the beliefs, desires, and attitudes of the speaker. An apparent dispute about euthanasia, according to the subjectivist, is not really about euthanasia at all, but about the feelings, attitudes, and so on of the disputants. Again, as a challenge to applied ethics, subjectivism denies the ethicist an intersubjective position from which to assess or issue advice.

This common view is both importantly right and importantly wrong.

We can see how it is importantly right by contrasting ethical judgments with legal judgments. It is an integral part of our legal system that legal issues can be authoritatively settled by specified institutions. The court’s role is to impose a public judgment as to what should or should not be done. There is no analogous ethical institution and to this extent the sceptical view about ethics is right. If we disagree about an ethical matter I can think you mistaken in a way that, after enough appeals, will seem merely perverse in the legal case. My moral views are arrived at by me and there is no ethical court who can overrule me. Each person’s assessment of the right thing to do is in this sense at least as good as anyone else’s.

But we need to be careful about the implications of this. The idea that ethics is ‘personal’ in the sense that I cannot be definitively overruled by others in ethical matters does not mean that ethics is personal as taste is personal, and the quick sketch above is importantly wrong about that. There are a number of related differences that show the cases to be importantly different. I will simply outline the central ones here.

  • If my tastes change I do not suppose that I was mistaken and that I have now come to the correct view: I now like olives although I once did not, but I do not think now that I was mistaken about the taste of olives then. But this is just what I am likely to think if I change my mind over a moral matter. If I once thought abortion was always wrong and now think it at least sometimes right, then I will probably think now that I was mistaken then. The idea that ethical judgments are just matters of taste does not seem to capture this feature of moral judgments.
  • The way in which taste is personal seems to make certain kinds of disagreement over matters of taste impossible. We do not really disagree when one of us says “Olives taste good” and the other says “Olives taste bad.” We can each sincerely and correctly assert our view. Expressions of ethical judgments do not seem to be like this. If they were, two people expressing what we normally take to be conflicting ethical views would not be expressing conflicting views at all. They would be like two people ‘disagreeing’ over the taste of olives. We might think that a view of ethics that cannot explain our perception that there is a genuine disagreement between pro- and antiracists cannot be adequate.
  • If ethical judgments were just matters of taste, it would be odd and futile to try to convince someone that their moral views were mistaken, just as it is odd and futile to attempt to convince someone obviously enjoying an olive that they are mistaken – that they are not really enjoying it at all. But our ethical views can be changed by argument and reason. We can change our ethical views non-arbitrarily, in response to argument and discussion, in a way that seems quite mysterious in matters of taste.

Ethics then is not just a matter of taste. We can make sense of the idea of genuine moral disagreement, it seems to make perfectly good sense to try to convince people they are mistaken about ethical matters, and we change our minds about such matters in response to argument and reason.

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Logical and Critical Thinking

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