Oct 6, 2010

A worry for moral relativism

For one sort of moral relativist, moral judgments have truth values relative to a particular culture. More precisely, a judgment like "Adam's stealing of the apple was wrong" will be true or false relative to Adam's culture, according to one version of this view, or true or false relative to the culture of the speaker of the sentence, on another version. On either view, truth values of moral judgments can vary as we vary the culture.

Here's a problem: what is it for two cultures to be different? Relativists need an answer to this question in order to evaluate the truth of moral judgments, because they have to say precisely which culture we're evaluating with respect to. The speaker of a sentence will have a variety of overlapping identities and cultural affiliations; she might be Amish and American, for example. It looks like we need to have a well developed theory of identity conditions for cultures not just to evaluate the truth of any moral claims, but also just to state the view in question.

I think this is a substantial problem for the version of moral relativism on the table. The relativist might at this point turn to anthropology to look for a good answer about what it means for two cultures to be different. But, since anthropologists work with a very different set of theoretical aims than moral philosophers do, it's not clear that the best answer from anthropology (assuming we knew what that was) would be relevant to relativism in moral philosophy. Another response is to dodge the substantive question, and let the speaker's intentions, beliefs, etc. somehow determine the relevant culture. For example, we might say that the culture with respect to which we evaluate moral claims is the culture that the speaker of a sentence believes that the claims should be evaluated with respect to. But, since very few people are moral relativists, this can't be a good answer in general.

In light of these worries, the relativist might give up relativity to culture and instead endorse a relativity with respect to individual people. That won't do either: the problem of identity reappears in the form of personal identity. Am I the same person that I was 10 years ago, or will be 20 years from now?

Maybe relativists think they can specify identity conditions for culture and persons. It still seems like an awfully heavy burden to have to answer those questions in order to know whether a moral claim is true or false. It also makes it hard to understand how there could be moral knowledge at all. Even if relativists have the right answer for what makes two cultures, or two persons, different, clearly the man on the street does not, so it's hard to see how ordinary people could have moral knowledge.

13 comments:

  1. "In light of these worries, the relativist might give up relativity to culture and instead endorse a relativity with respect to individual people."

    The natural next step, I suppose, would be to relativize with respect to momentary stages of people ("true relative to the norms accepted by person S at time t").

    (FWIW, I think the biggest problem for moral relativism lies elsewhere.)

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  2. Thanks, Richard.

    It seems right that relativizing to person-stages is one way the relativist could respond, though I don't think that's any more plausible of a view than the other versions of relativism I discussed.

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  3. Linguists agree that grammatical correctness is relative to dialect. Do they have identity conditions for dialect? Only the vaguest ones. I don't see why they need them. It is one thing to hold that grammatical correctness is relative to dialect and another to hold that we can confidently tell, for each token utterance, whether it counts as grammatically correct.

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  4. Neil, thanks for the comment. Your analogy is an interesting one. One important difference is that it usually is of little importance whether some sentence or other is grammatical, whereas it is obviously of the highest importance which moral judgments are true. You're right, though, that it can be tricky to put one's finger on the problem.

    Here's another reason to worry about a cultural form of moral relativism. On such a view, to evaluate the truth of a moral judgment we need to first identify which culture we are evaluating it with respect to. But one important thing that differentiates cultures is the predominating beliefs about which moral judgments are true. So the identity conditions, which we require in order to determine truth values, themselves involve truth values. This is obviously circular.
    (An analogous argument might also work for a theory relativized to persons, depending on how we construe personal identity.)

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  5. Matt, the new worry arises only for some versions of moral relativism. It depends what you take the truth makers of moral claims to be. Suppose you think - as some relativists do - that members of culture x can be wrong about what actions are right in culture x. How? Well, rightness might be a property constituted by their beliefs suitably idealized. Or it might be a property constituted by a whole bunch of things, including attitudes, practices, true scientific theories about their characteristics (say that their moral theory is consrquentialist but they are mistaken about what maximizes welfare). In all these cases, the circularity worry need not arise.

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  6. That's a good point, Neil. But then the worry is that some of these further refinements end up losing touch with the main motivations for relativism, or even undermining it. For instance, idealization seems like a worrying move. If it's not relative to the culture, then it seems to undermine relativism (why should morality be relative but not rationality?); and if it is indexed to culture, the choice of which idealization is relevant is going to look unmotivated, and the theory itself is not going to be attractive. (Even worse: it would mean that rationality is relative to culture.)

    Thanks for the discussion, this is very helpful.

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  7. I can see how this is a "worry" in the sense that moral relativists should ponder this. But I don't see this as devastating for moral relativism. I don't even really see it as an argument against moral relativism. You've basically just shown that moral relativism is complicated. But I don't see why complicated theories are always inferior to simple theories.

    For someone who believes that morality is dependent on culture, the most pressing question will probably be, "Then what culture do I live in?" I think most people of even fairly low intelligence have some reasonably good understanding of their own culture. So, the "man on the street" may have difficulty discussing the morality of foreign lands, but he can discuss the morality of his own everyday experience fairly well.

    Maybe someone cannot discussion culture with mathematical precision, but that's true of many subjects. E.g. The study of history has some vagueness to it at times. But I don't think this is a devastating blow to history. It's just a "worry", as in something to ponder.

    The relativist who says that morality is dependent on one's own beliefs may have an even easier time. He can just figure out what he believes and then try to act in a way consistent with his beliefs. Maybe he can't know whether other people are acting morally. This makes relativism seem silly to me, but the sorts of people who believe in relativism don't seem to be bothered by this ignorance.

    Moreover, let's look at something which we both probably think is dependent on culture: etiquette. Etiquette is very important at times. And it can be discussed and understand reasonably precisely. So, walking around without a shirt on might be a faux pas in some places and not a faux pas elsewhere. Does this mean etiquette should just be thrown out the window? There may be some murky case where one is not 100% sure what the right etiquette is, but this happens in morality as well. That's one reason people pursue PhD's in the subject.

    Lastly, you and I both think factual questions are relevant to morality. It's not purely a matter of precise, abstract definitions. E.g. For a war to be moral we have to have some understanding of the opponent and his plans, etc. We can't know such things with absolute precision or accuracy. Yes, we can speak with wonderful precision when we are discussing hypotheticals. But when an actual problem arises, we face all sorts of uncertainty. Another example: To know that Adam stole the apple, we need to have some sense about whether he owned it or not. Sometimes that is unclear. Another: You're supposed to obey the just commands of a legitimate authority. What does the authority command? The law can be very vague at times.

    -r.d.

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  8. I see that my second to last paragraph is organized in a clumsy way, but I think you can get the basic gist: if culturally dependent etiquette can be discussed intelligently and known (if not with 100% precision) why can't culturally dependent morality?
    -r.d.

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  9. Thanks for the comments, r.d. I should have emphasized in the post that it's not just that relativism is complicated, or that saying what makes two cultures distinct is hard. Rather, I think the question of what culture an individual is part of simply doesn't have a determinate answer. Cultural identities overlap; this was what I was getting at with the example of someone who is both Amish and American. Overlapping cultures entail conflicting moral standards-- and, even worse, there is no way for the relativist to allow for any adjudication between the demands of different cultures. That's why I think this is a rather deep problem for relativists.

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  10. Can't most people basically figure out what culture they live in? How many people couldn't answer that? I assume the Amish think of themselves as mostly Amish, since they basically shun mainstream culture (or so is the stereotype).

    Anyway, I agree that the moral relativism based mostly on culture seems strange. But what about the one based on one's own conscience/beliefs? In this sort of view important qualities include being true to yourself and following your passions.

    -r.d.

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  11. Also, does anyone actually believe in a simple moral relativism based only on culture? Don't relativists more commonly say things like, it depends on the person or it depends on the situation?
    -r.d.

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  12. Well, I take it that culture's a pretty complicated matter, so I think it will be pretty difficult in most cases. It's not like asking what state someone lives in.

    Yes, some people are cultural moral relativists. Some relativists think moral truths are relative to features of the individual person. I gave one reason to be suspicious of this kind of view-- personal identity is really tricky-- but I haven't thought that much about these views yet.

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  13. Here's a future blog post/article for you to write:

    Title: "A Worry for Moral Relativism: Me"
    Abstract: I, Matthew Hoberg, am a moral relativist's worst nightmare."
    -r.d.

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