Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's all relative?

This essay by Jesse Prinz looks like a useful defense of moral relativism to have students read if you teach ethics. But it's a bit shocking. Let me count the ways:

  1. Prinz points out that different cultures have different morals and that opponents of relativism deny that this makes relativism true. After all, different cultures have different scientific beliefs too, but we don't say that these beliefs are all equally true. Prinz rejects this response, though, because "morals do not track differences in observation, and there also is no evidence for rational convergence as a result of moral conflicts." So ethics is not science, and the analogy between scientific disagreements and ethical disagreements breaks down at some point. It hardly follows that it never gets going in the first place.
  2. "Moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation. What, then, is morality based on? To answer this, we need to consider how morals are learned." Isn't this a mistake about the meaning of "based on"? We get our morals from our parents, peers, preachers, and so on, at least for the most part. (It is also possible to innovate, to carry on a tradition, rule, or practice in some unexpected way, but this is rare.) But people who say that morals are based on reason surely do not deny this. They mean, I would have thought, that good morals can be given a rational justification. To see whether this is true we need to examine the alleged justification and see how rational it is, not consider how morals are learned.
  3. "Morality involves specific emotions." This is probably true, but I flag it because it sounds dangerously close to Hume's idea that moral approval and disapproval are specific inner objects that we identify with an inner sense. (At least I think Hume's view is something like this.) This is a bad theory.
  4. "If this picture is right, we have a set of emotionally conditioned basic values, and a capacity for reasoning, which allows us to extend these values to new cases. There are two important implications. One is that some moral debates have no resolution because the two sides have different basic values. This is often the case with liberals and conservatives." This might be true, but a) it isn't relativism, and b) I'm not convinced that liberals and conservatives admit to having very different values. It isn't relativism because relativism says that both sides are right, not simply that it might be impossible to reach an agreement. As for political disagreements, some are based on differences in knowledge (if you choose to get your news from people who like to suggest that Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, communist then you might end up disagreeing with others for flat-out bad reasons, not because of different basic values), some are based on prejudices that the people who have them are ashamed of. Racism comes to mind, but perhaps hatred of the rich or envy of the successful might be a factor too. But few conservatives will happily say, "Yes, I'm racist, and that's just a basic value difference between us," just as few liberals will happily say, 'Yes, I hate rich people, and I want to punish them even if doing so helps no one." There are basic differences, I agree, but the differences that we are prepared to admit to, that are not guilty secrets, are rather few and small, I suspect.
  5. "The second implication is that we cannot change basic values by reason alone." Agreed. But, again, this is not relativism.
  6. "The hypothesis that moral judgments are emotionally based can explain why they vary across cultures and resist transformation through reasoning, but this is not enough to prove that moral relativism is true. An argument for relativism must also show that there is no basis for morality beyond the emotions with which we have been conditioned." No. The basis for morality is irrelevant. As Prinz says at the start of his essay, relativists "believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true." An argument for relativism must show that this is a good belief to have. But can we believe that "It is good to eat the bodies of one's foes" is both true and false, true when asserted by a cannibal from a cannibal culture and false when asserted by someone like me? I don't think we can believe this, unless we use 'true' in some technical sense, meaning something like 'sincerely uttered.'
  7. "the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves." But relativism does entail that when Hitler says "Jews are inferior" what he says is true (and that this is false when said by most other people). Why should we accept this? It isn't remotely acceptable.
  8. "Allegation: Relativism entails that moral debates are senseless, since everyone is right.Response: This is a major misconception. Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground. We can also have substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values. Some debates are senseless, however. Committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other, but public debates over policy can rally the base and sway the undecided." This is close to a point I tried to make above. But the fact that committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other does not mean that what both sides say is true. 
Having said all that, I wonder now whether this would be good to give to students. Perhaps they could be challenged to find at least half a dozen errors in it. Or perhaps it's better than I think. 


  1. In answer to your question about assigning this piece as course reading, I should think that it has more going for it philosophically than the piece by Ruth Benedict that tends to show up in anthologies as the representative of moral relativism. At the same time, it should be more accessible than Gilbert Harman's defense.

    I would add three more points to your critique of the piece. I follow your numbering, though I think that the first of them actually belongs at the top of your list.

    (9) Prinz takes it as a datum that "Morals vary dramatically across time and place. One group’s good can be another group’s evil." There is an obvious problem with this sort of claim, namely the difficulty of defining, first of all, what the pertinent "group" is, and second, what the "morals" of the group are. Without the boundaries of the group being defined, it is impossible to say which moral disagreements are between groups and which ones are between individuals or sub-groups within the group. If each "group" is defined by its homogeneity of opinion then the relativistic thesis verges on triviality. As for defining what the morals of the group are, it has to be explained whether these are to be derived from behavior (what gets done and not done, what is approved and disapproved), from expressions of opinion (professions of general principle or judgments of individual cases), or the combination of these. Even given such data, it is a difficult matter to know what rules or principles are to be attributed to the group.

    (10) Prinz says that moral relativists "believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true." Yet the body of the article gives no explanation of how moral beliefs can be true, or even how they can be genuine beliefs. They seem rather to be emotional responses. His position reduces disagreement in morals to mere difference.

    (11) Prinz dismisses ethical rationalism on the grounds that "reason cannot tell us which facts are morally good." This presumes that moral judgment consists in, or at least requires, pronouncing "facts" to be "morally good." This is a dubious and artificial use of the word "good." The application of "good" pertinent to morals consists in judging human beings, their actions, their characters, their habits, and so forth, to be good or bad. "Morally good fact" has no clear sense.

  2. Thanks, MKR.

    I think I agree with your point 9, although I wouldn't dispute the claim that there are cultures with different moral beliefs.

    Point 10 sounds right, too, and might be a reason to assign Prinz's essay in a course based on Rachels' & Rachels' The Elements of Moral Philosophy, which looks at subjectivism after relativism. Prinz seems to have subjectivism in mind a lot of the time.

    Point 11 seems right as well. There are morally good deeds, so perhaps we might say it is a morally good fact that such-and-such a deed was done. But that does sound a bit odd.

  3. "The discovery that relativism is true can help each of us individually by revealing that our values are mutable and parochial. We should not assume that others share our views, and we should recognize that our views would differ had we lived in different circumstances. These discoveries may make us more tolerant and more flexible."

    This seems very odd. I don't think I need to "discover" that relativism is true (in anything more than an anthropological sense) to realize these other things, or perhaps even to be tolerant. This is in part because one could be an objectivist without claiming to know what the objective moral truth is. Our own fallibility/finitude gives us reasons for humility and tolerance (and so a reason in many circumstances not to "impose"). Many other good points already made.

  4. Agreed. A desire to be tolerant often seems to encourage people to support relativism, but relativism isn't tolerant. It does not, e.g., say that tolerance is good or right (any more than anything else is). It just says that everything is right, including both tolerance and intolerance. A Taliban warrior who wants to kill girls who go to school speaks the truth when he expresses his beliefs, according to relativism. It is not a good theory for liberals to believe in, or for anyone who is against intolerance.

  5. Michael Cholbi agrees with some of the above here: http://insocrateswake.blogspot.com/2011/03/good-source-for-moral-relativism.html

    "If you teach moral relativism in your ethics courses, as I sometimes do, you may share my frustration about appropriate readings on the topic — particularly defenses of relativism. We're all familiar with some critical work on moral relativism useful for undergraduates, James Rachels' being the best known. But I've found the non-philosophical sources on relativism (e.g., Ruth Benedict) just not intellectually rich enough, while some of the better known philosophical relativists (Harman, Mackie) are too sophisticated for students with little philosophical experience."

  6. i don't understand the formula repeated above that for relativism 'everything is right'. it seems to me like a philosopher's device for putting the moves on a relativist. er. you know what i mean. is there an alternative ism/formula that holds something like 'no one has any means of establishing that their moral judgments are right and those of [another appropriately distinguished group] are not'?

  7. I may have put the point incorrectly. Here's what Prinz says: "Relativists ... believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. The stanch socialist and righteous royalist are equally right; they just occupy different moral worldviews." It is his version of relativism that I am arguing with, not every conceivable kind. And he does not say that everything is right--what he says is that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. So I might have been unfair.

    But I still don't agree. How can an anti-monarchist and a monarchist be equally right about the rightness (or lack thereof) of monarchy? Well, they could be if each is half-right or totally wrong, but Prinz says that their beliefs about the moral value of monarchy can both be true, presumably because they "just" occupy different moral worldviews.

    I don't know what this is meant to mean. It is nonsense (surely) if it means their conflicting moral beliefs are both true because they have different moral beliefs. So I don't think a moral worldview can consist of beliefs. It must be something more like a world or form of life or language or something like that. But I don't think it's all that plausible to say that monarchists and socialists live in different worlds. And if they do, then in what sense do their moral beliefs conflict (rather than, say, pass each other by)?

    I think there is some sense in which people can and do live in different worlds, and there is something peculiar about moral disagreement. But I don't think that Prinz has captured what this is.