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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Walker on moral relativism

Over on the IEET site, Mark Walker takes issue with my recent sympathetic discussion of sophisticated theories of moral relativism, such as those advanced by Gilbert Harman, David Wong, and Neil Levy (who prefers to call himself a moral pluralist, but thinks that his position is a moderate kind of relativism).

Before I go on, I should reiterate that I never refer to myself as a "moral relativist" because this expression tends to connote a vulgar and indefensible theory that has often been debunked, perhaps most famously by Bernard Williams. Indeed, I am more likely to be found elaborating on the views of Williams by delivering searching critiques of the vulgar relativist position. In my teaching this year, I haven't had much chance to fit in detailed argument about the issue, but whenever I've had time I've been known to inflict the full critique on my long-suffering students. I do, however, point out that this does not necessarily mean that more sophisticated relativist theories are false, and I now think that this point needs more emphasis.

In my experience, philosophers can be too impatient with the fairly naive ideas that are in the zeitgeist, and get picked up by students, without stopping to think that more sophisticated versions of those ideas may have something going for them - the likes of Harman, Wong, and Levy are not fools - and whether students might not have picked up ideas that are a lot worse.

Walker's response to my previous posts begins by saying that Mussolini purported to be a moral relativist, and used moral relativism to justify attempts to create our own ideologies and enforce them with all the power at our disposal. This, of course, is hardly a tolerant attitude, and it makes the well-known point (which Bernard Williams also makes, and which I make to my students) that relativism does not always entail tolerance. Whether or not it does so depends on what else goes with it.

The vulgar argument is that if morality is relative to culture we should be tolerant of other cultures with their own moralities. As Walker hints, this is a non sequitur. If we are working with a naive form of moral relativism that claims we are all morally obliged to follow the moral norms of our respective cultures, then what moral norms we follow will (of course!) depend on what norms our cultures actually have. If we live in a culture where toleration is an ideal with normative status, then we are required to be tolerant; if we live in a culture where intolerance and war are held in high moral regard, however, we are required to be intolerant and warlike. Thus vulgar moral relativism does not entail tolerance. It demands tolerance only of those who already live in tolerant societies.

Nor, however, would naive moral relativism of the usual kind support Mussolini. It would not entail that Mussolini is entitled to make up his own peronal system and then use violence to support it. It would merely entail that he was required to obey the norms of his own culture, the Italy of the 1920s and 1930s, say. Whether the generally-accepted morality of the time really supported the actions of the fascist regime is not at all clear, though obviously the regime garnered enough popular support to survive.

More generally, the theory that Mussolini seems to have sketched is itself a vulgar one: that the fact that there are no moral absolutes entails a moral right to impose one's own values by violence. But of course, that "right" could not be absolute, either. The most that could be said is that such acts of violence would not be open to criticism from some "absolute" perspective, which still leaves wide open what might be said from various less-than-absolute perspectives. From those perspectives, it seems to me that the rest of us can find plenty of reasons for condemning a fascist thug such as Mussolini. We don't have to claim that our condemnation is transcendentally underwritten.

Levy's book, Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction, which I praised so highly a couple of weeks ago, contains a careful exploration of whether moral relativism leads to toleration. Levy makes the usual points about how it does not logically entail toleration, and the practical effect of vulgar relativisms depends on what else you believe, or what norms are found in your culture. However, he does not end up dismissing the full range of arguments that moral relativism does at least psychologically encourage toleration, at least in some circumstances. He seems to find the arguments on both sides rather inconclusive, and raises questions about whether toleration is really what we want from a moral theory anyway, as opposed to something stronger, such as mutual respect. I can't go into the intricacies of the argument here: I must ask people to read Levy's book for themselves.

Partly, the psychological implications of relativism depend on why one is a relativist. If one motivation for Abigail's becoming a moral relativist is that she comes to see codes of moral norms as essentially solutions to problems of social coordination, rather than as bodies of transcendentally underwritten truth, then, as a matter of psychology rather than strict logic, she is likely to see these codes, including that of her own society, as conventional. In that case, she is likely to see them as open to rational improvement and, in particular, to be prepared to revise those norms that she sees as the more peripheral ones. Furthermore, she will not embrace the vulgar relativist idea that she just is under a duty to obey the norms of her own cultures. Rather, she will tend to respect them (since they have an important job to do), but she will probably come to perceive some as more central than others. The most central ones, she might decide, are those which severely restrict the acceptability of violence to pursue our plans.

If Abigail reaches this point, she is likely to see the efforts of other cultures as acceptable attempts to solve coordination problems. She will not withhold severe condemnation when seemingly "barbaric" norms shock her sympathies - nothing in her understanding will preclude her from thinking that certain societies will have developed practices that merit condemnation from various human viewpoints. But she will allow other cultures considerable leeway in how they solve coordination problems, as well as being open to the idea that her own culture's moral norms are not set in stone, but are open to piecemeal revision.

In other words, she is likely to adopt a stance whereby she sees no norms as transcendentally guaranteed, but sees some core norms as very important from a less-than-transcendental viewpoint. She will see others as more open to revision. In all cases, she will see the justification for moral norms as ultimately lying in the needs and interests of human beings, as social animals with an evolved psychology, rather than in something like the will of a deity or the existence of spooky objectively prescriptive moral properties. She will not expect that every rational creature in the universe would adopt the moral norms, irrespective of its nature and evolutionary history. She won't even expect every human society to do so, though she'll expect to see considerable commonality within the norms of just one species on just one planet.

There is a lot more to be said here, of course, but it looks to me as if people who espouse some sort of relativist position of a rather vulgar kind might nonetheless show a degree of good sense in practice. Their theory might not have the resources to explain this, but it is likely that at some level they sense the more sophisticated points that Abigail has identified. I.e., they sense that human beings need some core moral values, for non-transcendental reasons, so not just everything is up for grabs. They also sense that there is a conventional element in the moral systems of their own cultures, so it is not a matter of slavishly obeying their own cultures' moralities - as vulgar relativism would imply when its logic is teased out. Rather, they sense that there is a moral core that can be defended on the basis of important human interests, but they also sense that the precise way this is elaborated in different societies is conventional, as is much else that can be found in systems of morality. They will agree with our more sophisticated friend, Abigail, that at no point is morality based on spooky objective moral facts.

I can't find any other way of explaining how moral relativists of the more vulgar variety think ... at least not without being uncharitable to them. There may be a contradiction in their thinking, but I don't believe that it is necessarily incurable.

In the above, I have sketched what a reasonably sophisticated relativism might look like. Once we start spelling it out like this, it begins to resemble a contractarian theory of morality - though the human interests it relies on do not have to be limited to those that would be recognised by egoistic Hobbesian contractors - and less like the vulgar theory that Bernard Williams demolishes so effectively. If anything like this form of sophisticated relativism is true, it entails that platonist meta-ethical theories are false. To whatever extent platonism is part of our naive meta-ethics, any sophisticated form of moral relativism also entails an error theory about naive meta-ethics, but that is not a point against it. Quite the opposite. I think that the only interesting issue here is how far naive meta-ethics really is committed to meta-ethical platonism. If it is so committed, it needs to be revised (like most of our pre-scientific commonsense picture of the world).

Walker's critique of relativism concludes by suggesting a sort of Pascalian wager in which we bet on objectivism being true, because nothing is lost if it really is true; conversely if I bet the other way, and objectivism is true after all, then I have lost the opportunity to solve differences by reason rather than by force.

However, this is making some huge assumptions, notably that those of us who reject meta-ethical platonism (or some other kind of objectivism at the meta-ethical level) are inclined to agree with Mussolini. I.e., we are inclined to think it is legitimate to use force, rather than persuasion. However, I see no evidence that moral relativists tend to think like that. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. Modern university systems are full of people (staff and students) who, under the sway of anthropology and the other social sciences, have embraced some kind of (often rather naive) moral relativism. Those people do not seem to be more inclined to using force than the rest of the population. Nor should they be - there are very good human-level reasons to try to resolve conflicts peacefully.

In practice, people who base their moral positions on a theory of human needs and interests, rather than on a transcendental guarantee, are usually open to exploring their commonalities with other human beings, including those from other cultures, and to negotiating mutually-acceptable solutions. Mussolini notwithstanding, it tends to be people who believe that they are acting in accordance with some kind of transcendental mandate who take rigid, mutually opposed positions, and are prepared to resort to force to back them up. Just have a look at the ongoing catastrophe in the Middle East.

I remain convinced that something like the sophisticated relativism of Gilbert Harman (though perhaps not Harman's exact elaboration of the idea) is not only true but does well at catering for human needs and finding a place for values that many of us share, such as those of peace and tolerance. Such values are not transcendentally guaranteed, as meta-ethical platonists believe, but they serve us well as human beings (and they will continue to serve us if we ever go posthuman in our capacities).

If commonsense meta-ethics includes a large dose of meta-ethical platonism, as J.L. Mackie believed, then commonsense meta-ethics requires revision. So be it. I doubt that this revision will lead to violence or the end of civilisation, because we will still find plenty of human-level justifications for our central moral norms. If some of our moral norms cannot survive, once they lose the claim that they have a transcendental guarantee ... well, I suggest that those norms are probably doing more harm than good in any event.


Anonymous said...

Hi there -

Let's say that there is a statistical connection between the adoption of some form of moral relativism and an increased tolerance for people with a different way of doing things.

So what? Why should we care?

As far as I can see, the only reason we should care is because we value tolerance non-relativistically, as an attitude which it is good to encourage.

Felix said...

I believe this is the feedback by Mark Walker to which Russell is responding: