[Paleopsych] Routledge: David B. Wong: Moral Relativism

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David B. Wong: Moral Relativism
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

     Often the subject of heated debate, moral relativism is a cluster of
        doctrines concerning diversity of moral judgment across time,
    societies and individuals. Descriptive relativism is the doctrine that
    extensive diversity exists and that it concerns values and principles
     central to moralities. Meta-ethical relativism is the doctrine that
        there is no single true or most justified morality. Normative
     relativism is the doctrine that it is morally wrong to pass judgment
    on or to interfere with the moral practices of others who have adopted
      moralities different from one's own. Much debate about relativism
       revolves around the questions of whether descriptive relativism
       accurately portrays moral diversity and whether actual diversity
    supports meta-ethical and normative relativism. Some critics also fear
                   that relativism can slide into nihilism.

      1. Descriptive relativism
      2. Meta-ethical relativism
      3. Normative relativism
      4. Relativism and moral confidence

                          1. Descriptive relativism

    From the beginnings of the Western tradition philosophers have debated
    the nature and implications of moral diversity. Differences in customs
       and values the Greeks encountered through trade, travel and war
    motivated the argument attributed to the sophist Protagoras in Platos
     Theaetetus: that human custom determines what is fine and ugly, just
    and unjust (see Protagoras). Anthropologists in the twentieth century,
        such as Ruth Benedict (1934), have emphasized the fundamental
        differences between the moralities of small-scale traditional
    societies and the modern West. For example, many traditional societies
    are focused on community-centred values that require the promotion and
    sustenance of a common life of relationships, in contrast to both the
       deontological morality of individual rights and the morality of
    utilitarianism that are the most prominent within modern Western moral
         philosophy. Within this philosophy itself moral diversity is
    represented by the debates between utilitarians and deontologists, and
     more recently criticism of both camps by defenders of virtue theory
    and communitarianism (see Deontological ethics; Utilitarianism; Virtue
        ethics; Community and communitarianism). Such differences have
     motivated the doctrine of descriptive relativism: that there exists
       extensive diversity of moral judgment across time, societies and
    individuals, and that it concerns central moral values and principles.

     Critics of descriptive relativism argue that it fails to account for
      important moral similarities across cultures such as prohibitions
    against killing innocents and provisions for educating and socializing
    the young. A relativist response given by Michael Walzer (1987) is to
    argue that shared norms must be described in an extremely general way
     and that once one examines the concrete forms they take in different
    societies, one sees significant variety, for example, in which persons
    count as 'innocent'. The descriptive relativist might go so far as to
      assert that no significant similarities exist, but an alternative
      position is that broad similarities exist that are compatible with
     significant differences among the moralities human beings have held.

     Critics of descriptive relativism also argue that many moral beliefs
    presuppose religious and metaphysical beliefs, and that these beliefs,
     rather than any difference in fundamental values, give rise to much
     moral diversity (see Religion and morality §3). Also, differences in
    moral belief across different societies may not arise from differences
     in fundamental values but from the need to implement the same values
      in different ways given the varying conditions obtaining in these
    societies. One relativist reply is that while such explanations apply
    to some moral disagreements, they cannot apply to many others, such as
    disagreements over the rightness of eating animals or the moral status
     of the foetus or the rightness of sacrificing an innocent person for
                         the sake of a hundred more.

                          2. Meta-ethical relativism

     The most heated debate about relativism revolves around the question
     of whether descriptive relativism supports meta-ethical relativism:
     that there is no single true or most justified morality. There is no
      direct path from descriptive to meta-ethical relativism; the most
    plausible argument for meta-ethical relativism is that it is part of a
     larger theory of morality that best explains actual moral diversity.

     Critics of meta-ethical relativism point out that moral disagreement
    is consistent with the possibility that some moral judgments are truer
     or more justified than others, just as disagreement among scientists
    does not imply that truth is relative in science. Some relativists are
     unimpressed by the analogy with science, holding that disagreements
       about the structure of the world can be sufficiently radical to
    undermine the assumption that there is an absolute truth to be found.
    This defence of meta-ethical relativism amounts to founding it upon a
      comprehensive epistemological relativism that expresses scepticism
    about the meaningfulness of talking about truth defined independently
    of the theories and justificatory practices of particular communities
                   of discourse (see Epistemic relativism).

     An alternative relativist response is to take a nonrelativist stance
      towards science and to drive a wedge between scientific and moral
        discourse. Defenders of such a morality-specific meta-ethical
      relativism argue that scientific disagreements can be explained in
     ways that are consistent with there being a nonrelative truth about
     the structure of the physical world while moral disagreements cannot
    be treated analogously. For example, much scientific disagreement may
      be traced to insufficient or ambiguous evidence or distortions of
      judgment stemming from personal interests. Relativists have argued
     that such explanations will not work for moral disagreements such as
     the ones mentioned above concerning the eating of animals, abortion,
             and the sacrifice of an innocent to save more lives.

         In offering alternative explanations of moral disagreement,
    morality-specific relativists tend to adopt a 'naturalistic' approach
    to morality in the sense that they privilege a scientific view of the
      world and fit their conceptions of morality and moral disagreement
         within that view. They deny that moral values and principles
     constitute an irreducible part of the fabric of the world and argue
    that morality is best explained on the theory that it arises at least
        in part from custom and convention. On Wong's view (1984), for
     example, a good part of morality arises out of the need to structure
    and regulate social cooperation and to resolve conflicts of interest.
     Meta-ethical relativism is true because there is no single valid way
                       to structure social cooperation.

    Morality-specific relativism divides into cognitive and non-cognitive
     versions (see Moral judgment §1). On C.L. Stevensons emotivist view
      (1944), for example, moral discourse merely expresses emotion and
       influences the attitudes and conduct of others (see Emotivism).
        Cognitive relativists, such as Mackie, Harman, Foot and Wong,
     interpret moral judgments as expressing belief, on the grounds that
    moral judgments are often argued or judged true or false on the basis
     of reasons. Within cognitive relativism, there are those who believe
     that there is no single true morality because more than one morality
     is true, and those who believe that there is no single true morality
    because all are false. J.L. Mackie (1977) represents the latter camp,
     on the ground that while morality actually arises out of custom and
        convention, the meanings of moral terms presuppose a mistaken
       reference to sui generis properties that provide everyone with a
    reason for acting according to morality (see Value, ontological status
     of). Other cognitive relativists see no need to construe moral terms
     as containing a reference to nonexistent properties and instead tie
           their cognitive content to certain standards and rules.

     According to such a standards relativism, moral language is used to
       judge and to prescribe in accordance with a set of standards and
      rules. Different sets of standards and rules get encoded into the
      meaning of ethical terms such as 'good', 'right' and 'ought' over
     time, and into individuals, groups, or societies in such a way that
      two apparently conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. Though
    under a relativist analysis the beliefs express no conflicting claims
    about what is true, they do conflict as prescriptions as to what is to
         be done or as to what kinds of things are to be pursued. The
      disagreement is purely pragmatic in nature, though parties to the
    disagreement may not be aware of this if they erroneously assume they
                        share the relevant standards.

     Another crucial question for the standards relativist concerns whose
    standards and rules apply when someone makes a moral judgment. Suppose
     that Jones makes a moral judgment about what Smith ought to do, but
    that the standards Jones applies to guide his own conduct are not the
      same as the standards Smith uses to guide hers. One possibility is
       that Jones uses Smith's standards to judge what she ought to do.
      Another possibility offered by Harman in some of his writing about
    relativism is that one must judge others by standards one shares with
    them. His theory is that morality consists of implicit agreements for
     the structuring of social cooperation. Moral judgments implying that
    the subjects have a reason to do what is prescribed make sense only as
        prescriptions based on what the speakers and subjects (and the
    intended audience of the judgments) have agreed to do. Other standards
    relativists observe that people use their own standards in judging the
     conduct of others, whether or not they believe these others to share
                               their standards.

     There are radical and moderate versions of meta-ethical relativism.
    Radical relativists hold that any morality is as true or as justified
     as any other. Moderate relativists, such as Foot (1978), Walzer and
    Wong (1984), deny that there is any single true morality but also hold
       that some moralities are truer or more justified than others. On
       Wong's view, for instance, certain determinate features of human
       nature and similarities in the circumstances and requirements of
    social cooperation combine to produce universal constraints on what an
    adequate morality must be like. It may be argued, for example, that a
     common feature of adequate moralities is the specification of duties
     to care and educate the young, a necessity given the prolonged state
    of dependency of human offspring and the fact that they require a good
      deal of teaching to play their roles in social cooperation. It may
      also be a common feature of adequate moralities to require of the
    young reciprocal duties to honour and respect those who bring them up,
      and this may arise partly from role that such reciprocity plays in
      ensuring that those who are charged with caring for the young have
     sufficient motivation to do so. Such common features are compatible
    with the recognition that adequate moralities could vary significantly
       in their conceptions of what values that cooperation should most
          realize. Some moralities could place the most emphasis on
    community-centred values that require the promotion and sustenance of
      a common life of relationships, others could emphasize individual
      rights, and still others could emphasize the promotion of utility.

                           3. Normative relativism

    Does meta-ethical relativism have substantive implications for action?
     Normative relativism - the doctrine that it is morally wrong to pass
      judgment on or to interfere with the moral practices of others who
     have adopted moralities different from one's own - is often defended
     by anthropologists, perhaps in reaction to those Western conceptions
          of the inferiority of other cultures that played a role in
    colonialism. It also has application to disagreements within a society
    such as that concerning the morality of abortion, where the positions
    of the disputing parties seem ultimately to be based on fundamentally
                     different conceptions of personhood.

     As in the case of descriptive and meta-ethical relativism, however,
    there is no direct path from metaphysical to normative relativism. One
     could hold consistently that there is no single true morality while
        judging and interfering with others on the basis of one's own
        morality. Wong has proposed a version of normative relativism
           consistent with the point that nothing normative follows
         straightforwardly from meta-ethical relativism. Meta-ethical
      relativism needs to be supplemented with a liberal contractualist
     ethic to imply an ethic of nonintervention. A liberal contractualist
    ethic requires that moral principles be justifiable to the individuals
    governed by these principles. If no single morality is most justified
      for everyone, liberal normative relativism may require one not to
        interfere with those who have a different morality, though the
    requirement of noninterference may not be absolute when it comes into
     conflict with other moral requirements such as prohibitions against
            torture or the killing of innocents (see Liberalism).

                      4. Relativism and moral confidence

     A reason why relativism has been feared is the thought that it could
    easily slide into moral nihilism. Could one continue living according
     to one's moral values, which sometimes require significant personal
     sacrifice, if one can no longer believe that they are truer or more
      justified than other values that require incompatible actions? One
    relativist response is that one may reasonably question the importance
     of certain features of one's morality upon adopting a view of their
     conventional origin. Consider that duties to give aid to others are
      commonly regarded as less stringent than duties not to harm them.
     Gilbert Harman (1975) has proposed that this difference results from
    the superior bargaining position of those with greater material means
     in the implicit agreement giving rise to morality. Those with lesser
     material means may reasonably question this feature of morality, if
     they are persuaded of Harman's explanation. Notice, however, that it
    is not merely the supposition that this feature arose from convention
       that may undermine one's confidence in it. With regard to other
     features of one's morality, one may adopt a relativist view of them
      and continue to prize them simply because they are as good as any
    other and because they help to constitute a way of life that is one's

     Admittedly, people who condemn torture and unremitting cruelty as an
    offence against the moral fabric of the world may possess a certitude
       not available to relativists and may find it easier to make the
      personal sacrifices morality requires. Moral certitude has its own
     liabilities, however, and has itself contributed to the unremitting
          cruelty that human beings have inflicted upon each other.

         See also: Morality and ethics; Relativism; Social relativism

                        References and further reading

     Benedict, R. (1934) Patterns of Culture, New York: Penguin. (Argues
          that different cultures are organized around different and
                           incommensurable values.)

    Foot, P. (1978) Moral Relativism (The Lindley Lectures), Lawrence, KS:
                         University of Kansas Press.

      NOTE: (Defends a form of moderate relativism.)

      Harman, G. (1975) 'Moral Relativism Defended', Philosophical Review
                                   84: 3-22.

       NOTE: (Argues that morality is founded on implicit agreement and
      that moral 'ought to do' judgments presuppose that speaker, subject
          and intended audience share the relevant moral standards.)

      Harman, G. (1984) 'Is There a Single True Morality?, in D. Copp and
       D. Zimmerman (eds) Morality, Reason and Truth: New Essays on the
      Foundations of Ethics, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld. (Discusses
         the relation between a naturalistic approach to morality and

         Harman, G. and Thomson, J. (1996) Moral Relativism and Moral
                    Objectivity, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

          NOTE: (Most comprehensive statement of Harman's relativism.
                    Modifies some earlier positions taken.)

      Herskovits, M. (1972) Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural
        Pluralism, New York: Vintage Books. (Anthropologist argues for
                    meta-ethical and normative relativism.)

        Krausz, M. (1989) Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation,
         Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (Besides the
       articles from this volume specifically identified here, this is a
           good survey of different perspectives on descriptive and
                           meta-ethical relativism.)

        Ladd, J. (1973) Ethical Relativism, Belmont, MA: Wadsworth. (A
           collection of philosophical and anthropological essays on
                   descriptive and meta-ethical relativism.)

      MacIntyre, A. (1988) Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Notre Dame,
                      IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

      NOTE: (Accepts a strong version of descriptive relativism in which
         different moral traditions contain incommensurable values and
            standards of rational justification, but argues against
         meta-ethical relativism on the grounds that traditions may be
      compared with respect to their ability to resolve internal problems
      and to explain why other traditions have failed to solve their own

            Mackie, J.L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong,
        Harmondsworth: Penguin. (Defends a sceptical form of relativism
       under which moral judgments lack the objectivity they purport to
              have. Hence no standard moral judgments are true.)

      Nagel, T. (1986) The View from Nowhere, New York: Oxford University
        Press. (Criticism of arguments for meta-ethical relativism from
                               moral diversity.)

        Plato (c.380-367 BC) Theaetetus, in The Collected Dialogues of
        Plato, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton, NJ: Princeton
                            University Press, 1961.

         NOTE: (Statement of a conventionalist and relativist view of
                      morality attributed to Protagoras.)

        Scanlon, T.M. (1995) 'Fear of Relativism', in R. Hursthouse, G.
       Lawrence and W. Quinn (eds) Virtue and Reasons: Philippa Foot and
           Moral Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Discussion of why
       relativism appears to be a threat to the importance of morality.)

        Stevenson, C.L. (1944) Ethics and Language, New Haven, CT: Yale
          University Press. (Defends a noncognitivist theory of moral

       Walzer, M. (1987) Interpretation and Social Criticism, Cambridge,
                         MA: Harvard University Press.

        NOTE: (Defence of moderate meta-ethical relativism based on the
      theory that the meaning of general values is given through specific

      Williams, B. (1972) Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, New York:
         Harper & Row. (Criticism of some versions of meta-ethical and
                            normative relativism.)

         Wong, D. (1984) Moral Relativity, Berkeley, CA: University of
        California Press. (A defence of moderate relativism based on a
         naturalistic approach. Some chapters presuppose contemporary
          philosophy of language that some may regard as technical.)

       Wong, D. (1991) 'Three Kinds of Incommensurability', in M. Krausz
      (ed.) Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, Notre Dame, IN:
        University of Notre Dame Press. (Discusses ways in which value
       differences between cultures may result in different criteria for
                  the rationality of belief about the world.)

         Wong, D. (1996) 'Pluralistic Relativism', Midwest Studies in
                            Philosophy 20: 378-400.

        NOTE: (More discussion about the constraints that all adequate
                        moralities would have to meet.)

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