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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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