[extropy-chat] Moral relativism

Bryan Moss bryan.moss at dsl.pipex.com
Sat May 7 20:03:50 UTC 2005

ben wrote:

> Here's a hypothetical situation in which decisions need to be made, 
> that will be guided by moral considerations:
> Frank and Sue are relatively poor westerners.
> Frank is Sue's stepfather. Sue is 14. She has just discovered she is 
> pregnant. She is reasonably intelligent, and could to to college and 
> have a chance to improve her life. But a baby would make that 
> impossible. Frank is not the father of her baby.
> What should Sue decide to do? What should Frank decide to advise her 
> (assume that they have a good relationship, and she would listen to 
> his advice)?

Under normal usage, the moral objectivist would claim that there is a 
fact of the matter independent of social norms, whereas the moral 
relativist would deny this.  The two example responses you give are 
neither objective nor relativistic, they could in fact be either.  A 
moral relativist would hold that "abortion is wrong, period" is correct 
where that was the prevailing norm and "abortion is okay given x, y, z" 
is correct where that was the prevailing norm; they would claim that 
there's no method for deciding between these social norms but that they 
hold within their respective communities.  A moral objectivist would 
claim that there is an absolute truth to the matter, that either 
"abortion is wrong, period" or "abortion is okay given x, y, z" is 
correct, regardless of the fact that there are communities that believe 
one, communities that believe the other.

Some people confuse moral scepticism or moral expressivism, the 
doctrines that there are no moral truths or that moral statements are 
merely emotive or prescriptive, respectively, with moral relativism.  
Your question is normative and doesn't have a great deal to do with such 
metaethical quibbles as relativism, objectivism, scepticism, 
expressivism, etc.  If, however, Frank believed "abortion is wrong, 
period" and Sue believed "abortion is okay given x, y, z" the moral 
relativist might claim that Frank should be tolerant of Sue's belief (or 
vice versa), whereas the moral objectivist might claim that one or the 
other or neither is correct.  Meanwhile the sceptic would shrug his 
shoulders and the expressivist would claim that what Frank meant to say 
was that he wants her to keep the baby and what Sue meant to say is that 
she doesn't want the baby.


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