Moral Relativism

Class notes for 10-15 November

Main points

The American Anthropological Association’s Statement had a tolerant, humane aim: they were worried that the UDHR would be used to justify western intervention in the affairs of other countries. It wasn’t a crazy thing to be worried about; in fact, I have a lot of respect for this statement, perhaps more than most anthropologists do today.

In any event, one of the objections they apparently made against the UDHR is based on moral relativism.

We spent two lectures seeing what, if any connection there might be between moral relativism and the tolerant, humane aims behind the AAA’s Statement. We were particularly concerned to see whether there was a way of moving from the truth of moral relativism to the conclusion that societies should be more tolerant than they otherwise would be.

Three arguments from moral relativism to tolerance

We looked at three arguments.

The first, which Williams called “vulgar relativism,” is internally contradictory.

Then we considered two arguments that sought to show that the truth of moral relativism would undermine moral reasons for interfering with another society. The idea we were trying to spell out was that the truth of moral relativism would show that one society’s moral beliefs don’t apply to another and that therefore the first society should not decide how to deal with the second on the basis of its moral beliefs.

Both began with a premise that I called a platitude, meaning an obvious, uncontroversial point. This was that the members of one society are justified in interfering with the members of another on the basis of their moral code (as opposed to interfering for some other reason, such as greed or fear) only if their moral code is correct.

Each argument involved an attempt to show that, if moral relativism is true, this condition could not be met. If a necessary condition of being justified in interfering cannot be met, then interfering cannot be justified. Thus, Kate was right to say that everything turns on what “correct” means — the second premise in each argument attempted to answer that question.

Neither attempt was successful, in my opinion. That is, I agree with Aaron that the problem is that, on the face of it, the truth of moral relativism would mean that the powerful countries should follow their own moral codes. But that’s what they were doing when they were going to interfere, so the truth of moral relativism is, on the face of it, harmless. Christopher put the lesson rather nicely: moral relativism appears to have consequences for our treatment of other cultures only if we fail to apply it to ourselves.

Questions about functionalism

There were a lot of questions about how to distinguish one culture from another and about whether the functionalist assumption is compatible with cultural change.

I think those are all legitimate questions. I proposed granting them for the sake of argument because I wanted to point out some problems that would hold even if these problems could be accommodated.

The epistemological argument

It seems to me that the anthropologists have an argument for the tolerant, humane conclusion they sought to draw that is not appreciated as much as it should be. I called it the epistemological argument.

The epistemological argument, however, makes sense only if moral relativism is false.

That is because the fact that we do not compare our culture’s moral code with those of other cultures should work to undermine our certainty in the correctness of our code only if there is something to being correct beyond simply being our culture’s code.

Waldron’s treatment of moral relativism illustrates this rather nicely, I think. If we were convinced of the truth of moral relativism, we would not think that the members of other cultures might have something to tell us about what we should regard as being morally right or wrong.

I myself assume that other cultures can teach me something about what is morally right or wrong. The only conclusion I sought to derive is that moral relativism is less respectful of other cultures than it might appear.

So I do not think that anything we have said shows that moral relativism is false or incoherent. I do think we have shown that it is not helpful in deciding what to do.