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I Met a Relativist, and I’m Baffled

28 Oct, 11 | by Iain Brassington

Until fairly recently, I thought I’d met people who could be described as moral relativists.  But I recently met someone who’s made me wonder whether they were the real deal.

The “relativists” I’d met previously were, broadly, people who make the claim that moral statements do not have the same universal applicability as statements that we might make in respect of, say, maths or chemistry.  Thus an appeal to something like fundamental human rights may not be an appeal to anything all that fundamental after all.  This is a view with which I have a certain amount of sympathy, to be honest: the part of me that’s read too much Marx and Nietzsche is open to the idea that what we take as basic morality may be simply a trick of the historical light.  On the other hand, I do think that there’re bits of moral philosophy that do have a passing resemblance to some aspects of mathematical reasoning, inasmuch as I think that there’re certain rules concerning validity in deduction, analogy, and so on that do not depend on the particularities of a particular culture.  The fact that these rules, when applied to the natural sciences, allow us to make (a) predictions about the world that are true, and (b) machines that work is evidence that there’s something to them; and if there’s something to them, their application in philosophy seems plausibly to be reliable.  On this model, there’re at least some elements of Western philosophy that have come to be dominant not just because of Western political hegemony, but because they’re right – or at worst less wrong than our unexamined intuitions.  That’s why they stayed as part of Western philosophy, and we might expect that any coherent philosophy would settle on them sooner or later.  And so there might – no more than might, admittedly, but might all the same – be moral “quasi-facts”: moral statements that have a universal validity not because of any realist appeals, but for the much more idealist reason that there’re certain conclusions that follow inevitably from clear thinking.  Again, we might be much better at the negative whittling away of false claims than the positive assertion of true ones, but even that counts for something, and it’s at least truth-tracking.

One can accept this kind of relativism while still wholly endorsing the statements made by one’s culture.  So, for example, you might think that human rights aren’t fundamental, but still be willing to campaign for their extension.  By analogy, a football fan may admit that he’s devoted to his team only because it represents the town where he grew up; but that won’t stop him cheering for it.  And you might even be able to produce not just reasons why you believe this or that, but also reasons to believe it – or, again, at least reasons to reject its negation.  After all, even if there’s no actual universal standard, it doesn’t follow that neither is there buffoonery.

And this brings me to the relativist with whom I was speaking the other day. He took his relativism that step further.  Not only did he deny that there was any universally valid moral claim; he refused to attempt to argue for his own views, on the grounds that there was no universal standard by which they could be assessed, and that therefore noone was entitled to try to influence others’ behaviour.  And, before you ask, yes: he did admit that the Holocaust was morally problematic… but only from a certain perspective.

There’s a number of things about this that I just don’t get.  The first is that I find it hard to make the leap from the meta-ethical claim about the non-universality of moral statements to the claim about a lack of entitlement to seek to influence others.  After all, if there’s no universal moral standard, there’s also no universally-grounded reason to be suspicious of attempts to persuade.  (In a similar vein, I have trouble with the kind of relativist who thinks that we ought to respect – which often amounts to preserve – other moral cultures.  After all, if this is a “universal” ought, then we have at least one universally-applicable moral claim; and if we can have one of them, it’s not obvious why we can’t have more than one, and so relativism fails.  If it’s not a universal ought, though, it becomes hard to see why we should accept it as telling us anything about our behaviour after all: it’s not obvious what standard we’ve violated if we do smother other moral traditions.)

The second is that my interlocutor did make certain moral claims – but he denied that these statements did anything more than describe his preferences.  Moral statements, in other words, were expressivist in nature, but had only an autobiographical scope.  They reported a certain attitude, but were not designed to alter behaviour.  There’s something odd about this: it’s almost as if he was refusing to endorse his own moral beliefs.  Maybe I’m too much of a prescriptivist – but it seems to me to be a part of moral judgement that you’re making a claim about how the world ought to be.  I have to admit that I’m struggling a bit to get my head around the idea that one can use everyday moral vocabulary and yet explicitly resist trying to get others to share one’s point of view.  In saying “I think x”, isn’t there the silent codicil “and so I think x is true”?  And if that’s the case, aren’t we implicitly saying that people who think not-x should abandon that position?

And this leads to my third and final worry: that of quietism.  If you’re not willing to endorse your position as being at the very least better in some way than its rivals, it seems to me that you’ve given up on moral argument, and on engagement more generally.  My interlocutor denied that – but I still have trouble believing him.

If there’re any committed relativists out there who can try to persua… Oh.  I’ll try that again.  If there’re any committed relativists out there who’re willing to explain their position to me, I’d appreciate it.  Because this kind of relativism has been playing on my mind for days now, and I really, really, really don’t get it.

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  • Darryl Gunson

    Hi Iain

    I don't know about being a committed relativist, but there are a number of things that struck me about yours and your extreme relativist.1. The things that you mention as candidates for universal truths – deduction, inference, the use of analogies – are not moral facts  - quasi or not – nor are they moral principles. The are basic logical rules. Now there are people who dispute whether there are any such rules that are not just constructions, and therefore possibly culturally bound. But, even if we allow that the rules of rational argument are the same for all – universal – where does this get us with respect to morality?  2. The relativist might say that moral rules are grounded in basic beliefs and habits of thought and action that are part of the culture of a group or society. Does this admission really mean that one must give up argument? Not at all. There is room for argument at the level of: a. whether or not a rule really does require action x or y;.b. whether the rule really is part of the moral outlook of the group/culture/society; c. whether or not the morality-sustaining beliefs of that society might change. no culture, if that is what the relativist is claiming morality is relative to, can, should or will stand still. therefore reason may demand that they sometimes scrutinise even core beliefs.3. On top of all this is the feeling that the cultural difference that sustains morality might be over stated.So the relativist can and should endorse argument; they can argue about the internal coherence of their view; the connection it has in the basic beliefs of the culture; and whether or not there might be a cultural shift in morality-sustaining beliefs that warrants a change on moral position.CheersDarryl

  • Peter Herissone-Kelly

    It sometimes seems to me that a disproportionate number of male (I don't know know why that should be) first-year philosophy undergraduates are extreme moral relativists, at least until about November! Did your interlocutor perchance fall into this category?

    I think you're quite right to be baffled by your interlocutor. And I think you're certainly right to hold that normative moral relativism doesn't follow from metaethical moral relativism (and it's amazing how often people fail to notice there's even a distinction to be made here). Just a bit of terminological pedantry, though: if he really thinks that his moral judgements simply “describe his preferences” or “report certain attitudes”, then he doesn't hold that they are “expressivist in nature”. An expressivist doesn't think that moral judgements describe or report attitudes at all; she thinks they express them. The difference matters; reports of one's attitudes are truth-apt, while expressions of them are not.

    Thinking about it, I'm not sure how well either expressivism on the one hand, or the sort of subjectivism that sees a person who judges morally as making reports about his own psychology on the other, sits with moral relativism. The relativist typically thinks, doesn't she, that there are moral truths, but that they are only ever truths for a given community at a given time (so, their truth is relative to the culture of the person making them)? That being the case, moral truths are a matter not simply of individual judgement, but of the judgement of a particular cultural group.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Nope: not an undergrad.  Not a student at all, in fact.  This was part of what perplexed me: it's the kind of attitude that I might even welcome in an undergrad, because it shows signs of philosophical muscles being flexed, just so long as it's a step in getting more coherent, and better, at moral philosophy.

    I take your pedantic point about expressivism.  And I agree that the relativist typically thinks that its cultures that carry the weight.  I think the guy to whom I was talking was still a relativist - though perhaps one in a Sartrean mode, who thinks that even cultures are a bit too monolithic/ universalising/ whatever, and that there's nothing to moral decisionmaking except the individual's perspective.  Though, of course, even Sartre claimed that in deciding for oneself, one decides for all mankind – and my relativist denied even this.

    I'm horribly, horribly confused by his position.  Does it show?

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Your first question is excellent, and it's one that I'd been mulling for a few days even before I met this relativist.  I'm being drawn to the position that it's possible to do moral philosophy without necessarily having to adhere to all that many moral facts.  What matters is the justification for moral claims.  Hence you can make any normative or evaluative statement that you like, but what counts is whether that claim is persuasive – which amounts to the question of its justification.  Some claims are less justified than others, and it ought to be able to sift them using the tools of logic.  What we're left with is a kind of Sherlock Holmsian – or Popperian – account of doing moral philosophy, whereby from a range of possible positions, we whittle them down, and end up committed to what's left (or one of the remaining options if we reach a point where more whittling is not possible).

    Following on from that, I do agree with your points 2 and 3 (which seem to fit the model above nicely enough), and that speaks to my puzzlement about the relativist I met.

    But your response has got me thinking…

  • Peter Herissone-Kelly

    It sound like you're nowhere near as confused by it as he is!

  • Keith Tayler

    It is impossible to clearly identify exactly what type of relativist has baffled you. He sounds a bit like Protagoras, or, as is sometimes the case, someone who has read ‘If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”’ and has decided they have reached bedrock – everywhere! If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”’ and has decided they have reached bedrock – everywhere! Not sure I like the suggestions that relativism is a youthful passing philosophical aspiration. As a pluralist or anti-theorists (not bothered by labels) I am on the relativist wing. In my experience, most young undergrads (I include myself) start off on the “univocal” wing and mellow with age. As Williams put it, ‘The Kantian and Utilitarians take the piece of the ethical language that is seemingly, and hoped to be, univocal – the thin bit – and try to get it to do all the ethical conceptual work’. Of course I am not advocating the extreme form of relativism your interlocutor is, but I would for the most part be on his side if I were confronted with ’look how well mathematicians and scientists have done and their not relativists -so their methodology must work for moral philosophy’. After about three hundred years this argument is looking pretty weak, not least because mathematics and science is not that simple. For sure there are ’bits’ of moral philosophy that are thin, but much of the interesting stuff is thick and crooked. As Williams put it, ‘The Kantian and Utilitarians take the piece of the ethical language that is seemingly, and hoped to be, univocal – the thin bit – and try to get it to do all the ethical conceptual work’. Of course I am not advocating the extreme form of relativism your interlocutor is, but I would for the most part be on his side if I were confronted with ’look how well mathematicians and scientists have done and their not relativists -so their methodology must work for moral philosophy’. After about three hundred years this argument is looking pretty weak, not least because mathematics and science is not that simple. For sure there are ’bits’ of moral philosophy that are thin, but much of the interesting stuff is thick and crooked.

  • http://twitter.com/christianmunthe Christian Munthe

    It seems to me that if we are going to use classic references, Trasymachos is the right one. That is, I think you met a person who perhaps believed him-/herself to be a relativist, but who are in fact a nihilist or skeptic in the classic (rather than present day) sense. This since it seems to follow from what you describe that this person do not believe that there is a valid and sound argument for any conceivable moral statement. This seems to imply lack of any reason to believe in any moral fact/truth whatsoever.

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