Moral Relativism

Class notes for 11-18 May

Main points

We began with the American Anthropological Association’s 1947 Statement on Human Rights. This Statement deploys a variety of arguments against interference with weaker societies. In my opinion, most of these arguments are quite sensible. The one that is most interesting for us is the argument from moral relativism.

This argument attempts to show that the truth of moral relativism would add something to the case for tolerance. It would show that a society ought to be more tolerant than it would otherwise be if, for instance, its members simply followed their society’s moral code without thinking about moral relativism.

Williams dismisses what he calls “vulgar relativism”, a view that one might well glean from the Statement. But we weren’t satisfied with that. So we tried out several different ways of formulating an argument that might move from the truth of relativism to tolerance.

The two formulations that we spent the most time on were called, unimaginatively, “Formulation 1” and, wait for it, “Formulation 2”. Each attempted to show, in its own way, that the truth of moral relativism would undermine moral reasons for interfering with other societies.

Undermining the reasons for interference

Both formulations begin with an innocuous premise. Interference (or, really, any action) can be justified by one’s moral code only if one’s moral code is correct. This is an innocuous premise that everyone should be able to accept. Consideration C justifies action A only if what C claims is correct.

But just saying that the considerations supporting one’s actions must be correct does not say very much: that’s why it’s so easy to get everyone to agree! As Rosie and Matt both quickly noted, what “correct” means is what matters. And that’s where people disagree.

Each formulation proposes a different criterion for a moral code’s being correct for someone who is trying to make a decision about what to do.

In the first, moral relativism provides the criterion. A moral code is correct for a person to use in making a decision only if it is the code of that person’s society.

In the second, the criterion for correctness is different. It is that a moral code is correct for a person to use in making a decision only if it is correct for everyone. The supposed truth of moral relativism would show that this criterion cannot ever be met.

(I used the awkward phrase “supposed truth” in the previous paragraph because the second formulation of the argument comes to the conclusion that it does in a way that is incompatible with the truth of moral relativism.)

Questions about the first formulation

I want to mention two questions about the first formulation. First, I need to give the relevant parts.

  1. (Platitude about correctness.)
  2. Suppose moral relativism is true: each society has its own standards of morality that are [a] correct for its members. [Definition]
  3. Therefore, the members of A would be [b] wrong to think that their moral code is correct and a [c] conflicting one is incorrect.
  4. (Conclusion prohibiting interference.)

Rachel asked how [a] and [b] fit together. Are the members of A supposed to think that their code is correct or are they wrong to think that this is so? Kara picked up on [c]. Suppose the members of A are wrong to think that the B’s code is incorrect. Then they are wrong to think that the members of B are doing anything wrong in following the B society’s code. But that conflicts with their own code, which tells them that what the B’s are doing is wrong.

I think they’re right. It is impossible to square points 2 and 3. If the A code is correct for the members of A, then they can’t be wrong if they use it when they think about what the members of B do.

Perhaps this is why Bonnie thought that Formulation 1 couldn’t stand up as a stable alternative to Formulation 2. But, of course, Formulation 2 isn’t stable either. In the end, neither argument holds together.

The Loophole

We talked about one particular point from the second piece we read by Williams, “Human Rights and Relativism”. On pp. 68-9, Williams argued that what he called “standard relativism” either arrives too early or too late. His point is that the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is an ethical one.

For example, suppose ‘we’ are unaware of other societies (as our distant ancestors were). Relativism is ‘too early’ to tell us anything interesting because we don’t know there is a ‘them’ that is distinct from ‘us’ and that ‘our’ code doesn’t apply to ‘them’. (Note: I didn’t get this right in the lecture; I said the point was about societies at different historical times when, actually, it is about contemporaries who are ignorant of one another).

Relativism arrives ‘too late’ if we know of and can affect another society. Whether they count as belonging to ‘us’ for moral purposes depends on our moral code. If, for instance, our moral code holds that all people are equal, then there is a fundamental equality among all human beings, even if they belong to another society.

I suggested that the apparent loophole in the Statement, identified by Julian Steward, illustrates this problem.

Waldron and tolerance

If moral relativism were true, the members of one society would have little to learn from the members of another. how could they? Each society’s code is correct for its members and different societies have different codes.

By contrast, non-relativists have to assume that those who disagree with them may be correct.

Waldron has a good case to make that his is the more tolerant view. But there are two costs.

First, we may be wrong and the culture with which we are in conflict may be right. That is something you have to admit if you are going to treat our justification for believing moral claims as independent of what we, or the members of any other culture believe.

Second, it’s possible that the members of the powerful societies will be right and the members of the weaker societies will be wrong. So interference may sometimes be justified on moral grounds. (It is far from obvious to me that this would be a bad thing, if used wisely: a little interference in Rwanda would have saved thousands of lives. But it won’t be the same “hands off” conclusion that the anthropologists sought to establish.)