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. more…