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May 02, 2005

What's wrong with relativism

A lot of commenters on previous relativism threads describe themselves as relativists. About half of these self-identified relativists seem to be arguing for moral skepticism or moral nihilism.

Moral skeptics deny that anyone knows anything about morality. The skeptic notes that different cultures have different moral beliefs, and that moral disagreements seem to endure within cultures. If universal moral truths are knowable, the skeptic wonders, why hasn't everyone converged on them already? Moral nihilists reject the whole concept of morality. They argue that so-called moral principles are just norms or customs with no special authority. Most people think the fact that stealing is wrong is a prima facie reason not to steal, regardless of the practical reasons for or against. Nihilists argue that moral principles don't provide reasons to do anything.

By contrast, moral relativists argue that the morality of an action depends on (is relative to) prevailing cultural norms (or, to each individual's beliefs and values). According to the relativist, claims about morality are analogous to claims about legality. It doesn't make sense to ask whether radar detectors are illegal, simpliciter. There are facts about whether radar detectors are legal in Utah, or California, or Finland, but something can only be illegal relative to a particular legal code. The relativist claims that the same is true of questions about morality. According to the relativist, you can't just ask whether slavery is wrong, you have to ask whether a particular culture considers it to be wrong at a particular time.

Unlike skeptics and nihilists, moral relativists agree that there are moral facts and good reasons to be moral. Unlike moral skeptics, relativists think we know a lot about morality. Ironically, the moral relativist is committed to much stronger claims about the state of our moral knowledge than most non-relativists (hereafter, "objectivists"). If morality is relative to culture or individual values, then everyone must already know a lot about morality.

Many self-described relativists make some version of the argument from ontological queerness against objectivists. They argue that it's absurd to suppose that there are any abstract universal moral principles. Where do these standards come from? How do we learn about them? How could such metaphysically weird things fit into a scientific worldview? Queerness is a profound objection to all theories of morality, including moral relativism. But it's even harder to explain why right and wrong should depend on the prevailing attitudes of the culture in which the act takes place. It seems unlikely that the truth of moral claims should be indexed to the ebb and flow of popular opinion, that is, if we assume that morality is the sort of thing we should take seriously.

One of the most serious problems with cultural relativism is that "culture" is a nebulous abstraction. We all belong to multiple social groups, and the moral codes of these groups often conflict. The choice of reference group is critical for relativist ethics. If the rightness of my actions is relative to the norms of my culture, I have to know which group constitutes my culture. Is is culture defined by race, nationality, geographic proximity, religion, gender, class, or what? If a draftee is both a Quaker and a citizen, is she both required and forbidden to serve in the army? Any moral theory that allows for the same act to be simulatneously required and forbidden should be rejected as incoherent. Even if we suppose that there is some non-arbitrary criterion for cultural identity, relativism must still contend with ideological diversity within cultures. How do we know what Our Culture thinks about anything? Inevitably, there will be moral disagreements within any group. Who's to say which opinons define the moral standards of a culture. Powerful factions within cultures have always asserted their values as definitive of the culture as a whole. When we say that slavery was acceptable in a particular culture, we're probably going by the slaveholders' opinions rather than those of the slaves.

Cultural change raises additional complications for relativist ethics. If you want to say that morality is relative to culture, you have to specify what time-slice of the culture you're talking about. At one time, homosexuality was all but universally condemned in our society, but this consensus has dissolved. It's odd to think that homophobia was right until 1970 and became increasingly morally problematic thereafter. Likewise, slavery used to be a universally accepted human institution. The relativist has to explain at what point slavery became wrong. According to relativism, the early abolitionists were incorrect because they started protesting slavery at a time when it was still widely accepted. It would be absurd to argue that all dissenters and iconoclasts are necessarily wrong, that is until they gain some critical mass of public opinion.

Reformers change public opinion by offering reasons and evidence to support their position. If they are successful, they will change people's minds. They may well change the culture itself. Relativists might argue that reformers are really appealing to some deeper, shared set of cultural values to resolve an apparent disagreement. But how are we to separate a culture's "deep" values from whatever people happen to believe at the moment?

It is telling that most self-identified relativists don't take arguments from popular opinion or tradition seriously in everyday contexts. Appeals to traditional values tend to leave them cold. Most would agree that it's fallacious to defend torture on the grounds that most people support the practice. Likewise, most relativists don't think that mere tradition is is a good argument against gay marriage.

Finally, it is odd that many cultural relativists are drawn to this position because they are atheists or agnostics. It's puzzling that they do so, knowing how many widespread moral beliefs are based on dubious religious beliefs. Many Americans disapprove of homosexuality because they believe in vengeful fag-hating God. The atheist rejects this factual claim. It's odd to argue that cultural norms determine right and wrong while acknowledging that these norms are predicated largely on delusional beliefs. It's perverse to argue that homosexuals actually deserve to be punished because a majority of the population believes some sick folktale.

Update: I want to emphasize I'm not arguing for objectivism here. For the moment, I'm just arguing against relativism. Relative moral truths are at least as difficult to reconcile with naturalism as absolute ones. If anything, relative moral truths are queer twice over because relativism doesn't give a good explanation for the alleged metaphysical fact that first-person opinion or cultural norms make moral claims true or motivating. I think skepticism and nihilism are more serious challenges to absolutism than relativism.

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If you're still hungering for more of the relativism debate, Majikthise has a nice big post on why relativism isn't all it's cracked up to be. Of course, I think she's right: There's a lot better ways to go than speaker-relativism, and the distinctio... [Read More]

Comments

The moral absolutist has to answer questions about the ethical status of everyone who ever held slaves or profited from their labor. The absolutist condemnation of slavery requires the condemnation of pretty much the whole elite of the whole civilized world before about 1700 or so. Absolute anti-slavery opposition was scarcely even argued before then.

My feeling is that "relativism" is a loose umbrella-word for a lot of things that bother a lot of people (but which some approve of), and the fact that it doesn't map neatly onto the more technical definition of relativism means that the technical definition of relativism, rather than resolving the debate, is somewhat irrelevant to it.

My own opinion and a lot of discussion are up at the URL.

This sudden burst of refutations of naive relativism on the blogs is something I generally approve of, but I think any sophisticated individualist relativist does have a line of defense against many of the criticisms I've seen recently. As you note, people's opinions can be changed if you can show them that their values are inconsistent; it is possible to get someone to change one value by showing it conflicts with another value they consider more important. There is nothing in relativism which would rule out making such arguments, so relativists are not in fact incapable of being reformers and engaging in moral persuasion.

They are, of course, incapable of engaging in persuasion on the basis of a straight up "my position is true" argument, but arguments of that kind are especially unlikely to be convincing in any event. The final kind of argument which frequently turns up in ethical debates, the good old Argumentum ad Baculum, is no more or less easily available to the relativist qua relativist than to anybody else.

This is not to say that I endorse relativism (sometimes I'm a non-cognitivist, sometimes I'm a utilitarian, more often I think I don't have a clue about ethics, even though I try to teach the stuff), but I'm not impressed with the argument that being a relativist is unacceptable because it prevents you from being able to take moral stands; it seems to me that it doesn't do that.

I think there's also a bit of 'burden of proof' tennis going on in the general discussion of 'relativism' versus 'objectivism', too. Sure, the relativist needs to address at least some of the problems Lindsay poses, but if it's so hard to imagine that morality should have 'popular opinion' as it's only moral ruler (which, of course, seems disingenuous to me: Seems like any thoughtful relativists wouldn't want to keep their analysis that simple), it seems just as hard, or harder, to explain what one's absolute standards of morality are, and where they come from, what makes them absolute, etc. Even given Lindsay's criticisms, how do 'objectivists' support *their* position(s)? Let's say that one doesn't watn to be a moral relativist for exactly the reasons that Lindsay points out--why is objectivism a good alternative?

Hi Lindsay,

Well I'm not a relativist, but I don't think that this--

"If a draftee is both a Quaker and a citizen, is she both required and forbidden to serve in the army? Any moral theory that allows for the same act to be simulatneously required and forbidden should be rejected as incoherent"

--is a serious objection.

The question of if there are value conflicts and what ensues from the fact of value conflict seems orthogonal to the objectivity or positionality of morals. (Isaac Levi's Hard Choices, which begins with the Dewey-Tufts quaker-patriot example, for example, has no implications for objectivity of morals or values.)

But the fact of value conflict, and it seems to me that value conflict is common, has different implications for the two positions.

A relativist may more easily admit of value conflict by pointing out that coherence(cultural, psychological, social) is a virtue, meaning here that it's only normative goal to be aimed for, actual coherence is probably impossible, at least on a practical level, and thus the fact of value conflict is predictable.

And further, since we have no position outside our belief-desires to clean it up, change results from the conflict itself. This does not imply any convergence onto Morality or even a declining level of conflict among our values (overtime and across people). And a relativist could square their position with what's observed--contradiction,

It would seem that the absolutist, as you term it, would have to hold that Morality is non-contradictory, well, to be intelligible anyway, and, then would have to explain why morality (small "m") hasn't been moving towards any lesser level of non-contradition.

By the way, C.S. Peirce's stuff offers up a (sort of) middle ground when it comes to the relativist and objectivist stances. He was a 'realist' in the sense that he thought that universals (including ethical absolutes) exist, but he also thought that it was at least possible that those universals weren't unchanging. So, his answer to one of Lindsay's critiques (this is me putting many words in his mouth) might be: Well, given the assumption that we can know some things, and given that at least some of this knowledge is knowledge of universals, and given that knowledge is a social sort of thing (also an assumption by Peirce), popular opinion over the very long run will have the best chance at getting to the actual moral absolute, which itself can be 'evolving'(he misused the word, really). Unfortunately, Peirce also subscribed to fallibilism, so it's also true that we can never know if we've gotten our moral absolute right.

(Sorry for the unclear language--this is like answering "What did Aristotle say about ethics" in a few paragraphs...)

Partial eureka.

I think the reason a number of liberals identify themselves as relativists is they are focusing on the individual's carved-out right to decide what is moral and what isn't, without looking at the other part of relativism, which refers to current cultural norms and which obviously runs the risk of smothering the very individual rights the soi disant relativist is seeking to claim.

i.e. I am free to decide for myself what the truth is, and since I reserve this right for myself, I must also grant it to you. But, see, I'm right and you're wrong. I'm not saying if you (or society) simply believe(s) what you're doing is moral, it is moral.

This is why I think battlepanda really does think her non-recycling neighbor is committing an immoral act, albeit small in the scheme of things. It's just that certain immoral acts don't really rise to the level of the phrase, while still being actually immoral. To put it another way, whether something is moral or not is both a switch -- either immoral or not -- and a continuum -- a little bad all the way to really unbelievably fucking horrible, and in conversation we usually reserve the label "immoral" for acts on the extreme end of the spectrum. Unless we're, you know -- okay, I won't go for the easy joke.

WINGNUTS

The moral absolutist has to answer questions about the ethical status of everyone who ever held slaves or profited from their labor. The absolutist condemnation of slavery requires the condemnation of pretty much the whole elite of the whole civilized world before about 1700 or so. Absolute anti-slavery opposition was scarcely even argued before then.

This isn't a problem for absolutism, per se. It's quite coherent to say that slave holders were complicit in a terrible crime. I have no problem condemning slavery. By "condemnation" you seem to mean something like "wholesale moral writeoff" of individuals or societies which absolutism doesn't necessarily require.

Absolutists can also agree that people are more or less culpable depending on whether they knew, or should have known, that what they were doing was wrong. If people honestly didn't realize that slavery was wrong, it's not quite as bad as realizing that the institution was evil and doing it anyway (like Thomas Jefferson).

jp seems to imply that an anti-relativist needs a foundationalist theory of morality. I've heard that on a lot of the comment threads.

First off, as Lindsay defines "relativism" here, an anti-relativist just needs to establish that not all moral beliefs broadly held within a culture are true for people in that culture. Nihilism would imply relativism is false, because in all cultures people believe some things are right and wrong, while, in fact, they aren't. But so too would the proposition that it is wrong to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation. Most Americans believe it is OK.

Moral skeptics are in a better position to demand proof of moral propositions than moral relativists. But why is this argument for skepticism considered more plausible in the moral sphere than in the empirical one? I know it is winter in July in New Zealand, even though I've never been there, and certainly couldn't prove it beyond a Cartesian doubt. I'm more certain that rape is wrong, and could give an explanation more easily than I am that continental drift happened.

Almost none of what we know is really derivable through modus ponens from self-evident axioms or direct experience. And even if it was, that still wouldn't mean that I could force a sceptic to believe. So why expect that when it comes to morality?

Where do these standards come from? How do we learn about them? How could such metaphysically weird things fit into a scientific worldview?

But it seems to me that treating moral rules as bound to social group identity actually answers these questions in a way that asserting moral absolutes does not. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the entire study of anthropology is a scientific discourse about precisely these questions.

How would Cicero or Socrates have known that slavery was morally wrong? Neither was stupid, so you can't excuse them on ignorance. How would they have found out? What was their error of logic or observation?

A salient thing about slavery is that in societies based on slavery, every single free individual was complicit. And these societies include those which are the sources of our tradition. (I think that the Biblical Hebrews can be added to the list). These were in many respects our sources of value.

Suppose an American today moves to a slave society (e.g. Saudi Arabia) where he buys and sells slaves and abuses them the way slaves are abused. Wouyldn't we be inclined to give them a "wholesale moral writeoff"? So why not Socrates or Cicero?

They argue that it's absurd to suppose that there are any abstract universal moral principles.

I don't think it's absurd to suppose that there are any abstract universal moral principles.

However, I do think it's absurd to ask me to believe that there are abstract universal moral principles without explaining what form they take, what their ontological status is, how we know them when we see them, and how they relate to everyday moral practice.

I understand the need for social beings to agree on a system of ethics, and I think ethical behavior starts with the Golden Rule, but this capital-letter Right and Wrong morality is just a form of religion and I don't buy it. Slavery is unethical because you wouldn't want it done to you and you shouldn't do it to others. But for it to be capital-W Wrong requires there to be rules that do not originate from interpersonal ethics, and for that to be true there would have to be a god making the rules, and there isn't.

If we morality is worth taking seriously, it seems unlikely that the truth of moral claims should be indexed to the ebb and flow of popular opinion.

If morality is worth taking seriously, we should be courageous about following inquiry about it whereever it leads.

It doesn't seem unlikely to me that such an inquiry about morality may lead us to conclusions that we think are morally unsatisfying.

My basic objection to any form of relativism is that it combines the worst aspects of absolutism and skepticism. If you want to argue that there are moral facts and that we can know them, you've already gone out on an ontological limb. Relativism presupposes both of those contentious points and goes on to make a dubious conjecture about what makes moral statements true, namely individual or collective approval.

The burden of proof is on the relativist to motivate this counterintuitive view. The relativist is vulnerable to attacks from all sides. The skeptic will demand to know how we know that moral truths are relative, and furthermore, how an individual agent can know which standards apply to her (i.e., which culture she belongs to).

The absolutist will wonder if relativism isn't tantamount to nihilism. If morality is the sort of thing relativists describe, it's hard to explain why we should care about it at all. If "right" amounts to whatever I approve of, or "whatever the culture approves of" it's easy to come up with counterexamples of things that are approved of, but not intuitively worthwhile, and therefore easy to wonder whether it's the approval that really makes the difference. For example, it's possible that an individual has a moral belief based on a factual misconception or a reasoning error. An individualist relativist would have to argue that "right" for that person isn't what she actually approves of, but what she would approve of under some suitably idealized conditions. But once you start idealizing an individual's information and rationality, it starts to seem as if you're really appealing to some non-relative truthmaker. I.e., it's not really the approval that makes something right, it's the fact that a moral belief would survive a certain level of logical and empirical scrutiny (which is more or less what a lot of absolutists are saying).

Individualist relativism ends up making morality seem almost nihilistically trivial. If the right thing for each person to do is whatever she thinks the right thing is, then morality ends up having a much more circumscribed role than we usually assume. It will turn out that everyone almost always does the right thing for them at the time. If we agree with Socrates that nobody ever acts except in pursuit of some conception of the good, then all voluntary action would turn out to be morally right for the agent at the time. If so, there's no rational basis to criticize anyone else, or even one's former self. These arguments don't show that relativism is false, but they do limit relativism's appeal as a solution to the problems of absolutism.

The nihilist will say that relativistic ethics are no more compelling than absolutist ethics. Relativism isn't any better at explaining normative force than absolutism. On the contrary, cultural relativism more or less undercuts normative force. Why should I strive to do what my culture happens to approve of, just because it happens to approve?

I think the burden of proof shifts when an absolutist has to defend her view against a skeptic or a nihilist.

Lindsay, is it possible that there are universal moral principles, but that not we cannot necessarily apply these principles to every situation to generate an unambiguous moral judgement?

I guess this is another way of asking if it's a necessary feature of universal morality that it can be applied to any situation and generate an unambigous judgement.

A second question, Lindsay, in the same vein -- is another necessary feature of universal morality this when we discover it, we will find it to be morally satisfying?

"Then morality ends up having a much more circumscribed role than we usually assume."

I do not admit to being a relativist, but I have been called one. One reason why relativism doesn't bother me much is that, in fact, I think that morality does have a circumscribed role. Most people behave decently, if they do at all, because of a mixture of prudence, conventionality, timidity, and superstition.

"Why should I strive to do what my culture happens to approve of, just because it happens to approve?"

Partly because misbehavior is sanctioned. Partly because most people end up accept some version of their society's morality, without really knowing why. Most actual moral dilemmas rise from disagreements about ethics within the culture. A belief in moral absolutism, in itself, does not help resolve these dilemmas; it only would do so if there were an agreed-upon method of finding what the moral absolutes were.

The German experience makes one doubt the efficacy of moral teaching. A strict form of Kantian morality was inculcated in several generations of German schoolchildren. Eichmann justified his actions in Kantian terms (source: Hannah Arendt. Marlene Dietrich was also an ethical Kantian, so Kant wasn't all that bad really).

Functionally, moral absolutism does often motivate resistance to unjustice, but more often than not it is in theistic or superstitious form. If you make a pragmatic argument for absolutism (thus getting into weird logical dilemmas, but never mind) why not go the whole way to Biblical Christianity?

Lindsay, I'm not sure of the distinction you have in mind between moral skeptics and nihilists in the original post.

So, "Moral skeptics deny that anyone knows anything about morality." In this way, they conflict with the cultural relativist, who thinks that we know a whole lot about morality, i.e. what is accepted by a given culture. What I find puzzling about your definition is that the skeptics deny anybody knows anything about morality. This would seemingly be fine, yet they deny that there are moral facts. It seems to me that knowing that there are no moral facts entails knowing something about morality. So I'm not clear exactly what the their claim is.

Now, the moral nihilists also believe that there are no moral facts. Further, they "deny the whole concept of morality". I guess this seems to me to be a sweeping error theory- that for moral judgments to be true, they would have to report to moral facts, and there are no moral facts to which our judgments report to (I may be assuming too much by saying that you think the nihilists make the semantic claim that moral judgments are truth apt). I would take this to be in tension with the fact that they think that so-called moral principles are "just norms or custom," which seems to be some sort of non-cognitivism, like norm-expressivism.

I was just hoping that you might clear up what you had in mind. Perhaps you were clear and I simply misunderstood.

How would Cicero or Socrates have known that slavery was morally wrong? Neither was stupid, so you can't excuse them on ignorance. How would they have found out? What was their error of logic or observation?

Here are some possibilities

i) They had an empirical belief that slavery was literally essential to human society. Slavery was certainly very important to their own societies and they probably didn't have much evidence that non-slave holding societies could function. A contemporary American doesn't have that excuse.

ii) They had some mystical or religious belief about the rightness of slavery. This is rationally indefensible, but there's no guarantee that even the smartest people will grasp every contradiction. Slaves didn't get to participate in moral dialogues about the ethics of slavery, and everyone in the ruling class accepted the rightness of the institution. So, it's somewhat understandable that it wouldn't occur to privileged people to question the rightness of the status quo.

iii) Some failure of moral imagination prevented them from understanding why it was harmful someone to be owned by someone else, even if the slave was materially well-provided for and seemed "happy" in his or her role.

These are at best partial excuses. But it's always hard to say what someone should have known. (Maybe they did realize at some level that slavery was wrong but chose not to say anything.) What I'm saying is that their self-delusions and rationalizations didn't make slavery permissible, as relativism would imply. That level of delusion just isn't possible for a contemporary American because so many strong arguments against slavery have been widely circulated and because there is so much empirical evidence of the suffering and destruction it causes.

I don't see why this should prevent us from acknowledging the other good things that Cicero and Socrates taught us, or from appreciating their moral insights while acknowledging that their theory and practice were objectively imperfect.

Most of the folks commenting appear to have missed the argument.

I hated taking Philo classes, but it is discussions like this one that make me treasure the experience.

I'm waiting for someone to get Intentionality wrong, or to make a goofy analogy about walking through a door in order to show that Husserl was a meathead.

Thanks, Lindsay.

Just a white, straight male businessman/engineer,

--me

I think the burden of proof shifts when an absolutist has to defend her view against a skeptic or a nihilist.

But, but, but...doesn't the burden of proof rest on the person making the assertion? That is, if you're arguing there are moral absolutes, doesn't the burden of proof rest on you to convince us about them, without regard to the existence of competing claims?

Well, frankly, if I knew someone who bought slave girls in Saudi Arabia, I'd be disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. (Except for Kristoff, I mean.)

It's hard to see Socrates and Cicero as examplars if they were as far wrong as that. We're not just being asked to give them an ethical D-minus, after all.

My opinion is that ethics, politics, and society have evolved, and that anachronistic moral judgements are moot.

"They had an empirical belief that slavery was literally essential to human society. Slavery was certainly very important to their own societies and they probably didn't have much evidence that non-slave holding societies could function."

They may have been right. The Marxist Perry Anderson (Passage from Antiquity to Feudalism) does not believe that classical culture could have flourished without slavery.

So, "Moral skeptics deny that anyone knows anything about morality." In this way, they conflict with the cultural relativist, who thinks that we know a whole lot about morality, i.e. what is accepted by a given culture. What I find puzzling about your definition is that the skeptics deny anybody knows anything about morality. This would seemingly be fine, yet they deny that there are moral facts. It seems to me that knowing that there are no moral facts entails knowing something about morality. So I'm not clear exactly what the their claim is.

The minimal moral skeptic just says that we can't know whether any moral claim is true. A moral skeptic might well believe that there are moral facts, but that we can't reliably discern them. She might even allow that we sometimes have true beliefs about moral facts, but deny that these beliefs count as knowledge. A more radical moral skeptic might go even further and wonder whether there are such things as moral facts.

A moral nihilist either asserts that all moral claims are false, or denies that there is any reason to act morally (even if there are true moral statements). Either of these positions could be described as denying the existence or significance of morality.

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