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.