Friday, February 1, 2013

[PHI 2200] Moral Relativism: False or Redundant?

Moral relativism is commonly understood as having three components:
  • Meta-ethical thesis: Moral truth is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.
  • Descriptive thesis: There are deep and widespread moral disagreements.
  • Normative thesis: We ought to be tolerant of those with whom we have a moral disagreement.
Can these theses be asserted consistently by a moral relativist? Or is the moral relativist faced with the following dilemma?
  1. 'We ought to be tolerant' is either absolutely true or true relative to a group of persons.
  2. If 'We ought to be tolerant' is absolutely true, then moral relativism is false.
  3. If 'We ought to be tolerant' is true relative to a group of persons, then moral relativism is redundant, since tolerance can be prescribed only to those who already share the value of tolerance.
  4. Therefore, moral relativism is either false or redundant.
What do you think? 


  1. This dilemma arises if we accept the meta-ethical thesis as you stated it: "Moral truth is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons."

    Couldn't moral truth be relative to something else? Couldn't it be true relative to institutions, ideas, etc.? So, for example, rather than saying that tolerance is a value only for those who already value it (thus collapsing the "is" and the "ought"), one could say that tolerance ought to be valued by those who believe in democracy, religious freedom, etc.

    One could coherently approach someone and say: "Fred, you believe in democracy and religious freedom and a bunch of other nice things, but you say you don't believe in tolerance. Let me show you why tolerance ought to be something you value, given all the other things you value." This is possible even (and especially because!) tolerance is relative to other values, ideas, and institutions. On most interpretations, they form part of a consistent and interdependent set of ideas.

    If Fred supports totalitarianism and persecution, on the other hand, here the relativist would shrug her shoulders and admit, "I don't think I can convince Fred to value tolerance, relative to his other beliefs."

    Relativism itself can't choose between two radically different worldviews. Fortunately, simple descriptivism saves us here. Humans evolved as social creatures, so most humans actually do value trust, cooperation, compassion, and so forth--so the major ethical project is showing people what specific values they ought to accept, given everything else they're already hard-wired to accept. This might not work for the 1% of people who are naturally psychopaths because they are hard-wired differently, or for people in difficult social/political positions where they are molded toward greed, abuse of power, etc. and have a difficult time returning to the awareness of the kinder people they'd otherwise be in better circumstances. But for most people, I think it works. One begins with descriptivism: "Most humans are naturally empathetic, and all humans flourish in an environment of kindness and cooperation." One then moves to relativism: "For those who accept this description of reality, here's a list of virtues and practices they ought to learn to recognize and accept."

  2. The problem I have with this is that "common understanding of," does not actually define something. As a moral relativist, I am not tolerant of behavior which I consider immoral. I am frequently tolerant of people who believe such behavior is moral. For example, I have a lot of evangelical Christian friends who espouse the belief that homosexuality is wrong and act on that belief. I do not tolerate their bigotry, but in many cases I do tolerate the person.

    The key point though, is that I am very selective about what behaviors I tolerate and ultimately about who I will tolerate. There are people whose behavior causes them to be intolerable. Mostly what moral relativism is about for me, is how I make those sorts of judgments. I don't judge the general goodness and/or moral fitness of a person based only on my moral frame, I judge them based on their actions and the consistency of their moral frame and it's application to their lives.

    A good example is the family of someone I went to school with. Her family fled the Middle East in the mid seventies. Her older sister had already had her clitoris removed before they came to the states. The only reason my classmate had not, was because she was born here - her parents actually considered traveling to a country where it is allowed. I didn't know about this when we were in primary school together, but I did know her parents and family.

    There is absolutely no reasonable defense for removing anyone's clitoris (or foreskin for that matter). I think the practice is absolutely immoral and barbaric. That doesn't mean that people who believe it is important are inherently bad people. To the contrary, they may be good and moral persons who happen to believe something that is wrong. The action they might be inclined to take is immoral (according to me), but the intention behind it and consistency with their moral frame might mean that in spite of that action, they are a good person.


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