Moral relativism and tolerance Notes for September 30

Main points

We spoke about the relationship between moral relativism and tolerance.

First, we talked about the loophole that Steward claimed to find in the Statement. It is the Association’s attempt to address Greg’s complaint about not being allowed to oppose the Nazis.

Then we talked about whether the truth of relativism would undermine our reasons for intolerance. It certainly seems to do so. If so, it appears that there really is a link between moral relativism and tolerance. I asked whether the link is really there.

What were those two arguments about?

I wanted to see what would follow if we granted the truth of moral relativism. Would any conclusions about tolerance follow? In particular, I was interested in the idea that moral relativism shows that our moral codes don’t apply to the members of other societies. If so, it seems to eliminate the reasons for interfering that are based on moral codes. If we treat ‘moralistic interference’ as a good substitute for ‘intolerance’, then we seem to have an argument from the truth of moral relativism to conclusions about tolerance.

But what do I mean by “the truth of moral relativism?” A lot of us share Alex’s reluctance to accept that. Here’s what I meant. The exercise is similar to the one Thomson engaged in when she supposed, for the sake of argument, that a human fetus has the same right to life as a full grown adult. In supposing that fetuses have the right to life or that moral relativism is true, we are not granting that these things are so. Nor are we denying it. Rather, we’re trying to see what the implications would be if these things were true. Thomson argues that the right to abortion is compatible with granting that fetuses have the right to life. I wanted to know if intolerance is compatible with granting the truth of moral relativism.

Both arguments start with the apparently obvious premise that A is justified in interfering with B on the basis of A’s moral code only if A’s moral code is correct. Everything, of course, depends on what makes a moral code correct.

That really is the pressing question. We haven’t discovered moral codes through the experimental method in the way that scientists have discovered (what they believe are) the laws of nature. And we know that there are lots of different beliefs about morality among the world’s cultures. Which ones should we believe? That’s the question that these observations force us to ask.

We considered two standards of correctness. One is given by moral relativism itself. It says that the correct code for you is your society’s code. As Noah pointed out, this makes the question about what to do fairly simple: follow your society’s code! But it also means that the truth of moral relativism wouldn’t give you any reason to be more or less tolerant than your society’s moral code already is.

The other standard of correctness comes from outside of moral relativism. It holds that a moral code is correct for you only if it is correct for everyone. When we combine that standard with moral relativism, it appears that no one’s code is correct. As Eli observed, though, that’s moral nihilism, not moral relativism. In a funny way, this kind of argument would move from supposing the truth of moral relativism to a sort of tolerance. But moral relativism would have to be abandoned in order to reach that conclusion.

The anthropologists were aiming for something like this. ‘Don’t follow your society’s moral code when thinking about what to do about other societies. But do follow it when thinking about what to do within your own society.’ I don’t think that kind of compromise can be sustained. I think the reasons for not following our society’s code have to follow one of the two arguments I gave. Neither is satisfactory.

Of course, I might be wrong. If someone comes up with a third argument that escapes these problems, then I have to go back to the blackboard.

Noah’s last point

After class, Noah said something really interesting to me that I wanted to repeat. The gist was that he had a hard time believing that learning about the diverse array of cultural practices would have no effect on how we think of our own moral codes. Would it really make sense just to dig in and follow our own society’s moral code even as we learn about all the different things that people believe? Shouldn’t learning about other cultures have some moderating influence on our enforcement of our own culture’s rules?

I think the answer is a resounding yes. That’s where the interesting work on the relationship between cultural diversity and tolerance happens. When does confrontation with a different way of doing things give you reason to be more tolerant or even change your beliefs and when does it not? I think we’re all pretty sure that the Nazis’ different way of doing things didn’t give people reason to doubt their moral convictions. On the contrary, they should have stood up for what they believed. But not every confrontation with the outside world is like that. Often, we have a lot to learn from other cultures.

The funny thing is that it’s very hard to appreciate this if you insist on a rigid kind of cultural relativism. If each society has its own standards and these standards cannot apply at all to other societies, then the members of one society have nothing to learn from those in another society. How could they?

Now, I’m quite certain that the anthropologists never believed that. What would the point of anthropology be if it were true?

It’s considerably easier to see how the opinions of other cultures matter if you regard the truth about values and moral codes as objective rather than as relative to the practices of a society. If the truth about what is valuable is independent of what any particular society believes, then one society might have a perspective on the truth that another lacked.

It would be more like the situation that we face with other matters of objective fact. There, we take seriously the possibility that different people can be in a better or worse position to know the truth. If you can see the lions over the hill better than I can, I will change my opinion that it’s safe over the hill in the light of your saying “they are lions over there.” And if we’re equally well placed to see rocks and you claim to see them when I don’t, I have reason to at least consider whether you’re right and I’m wrong.

“Ah, but it’s hard to think that values are simple objective matters of fact,” you say. Perhaps that’s so. I didn’t say that this proves they are. I only said that it would be easier to understand why we should be tolerant of other societies if it were so than it is to understand why we should be tolerant of other societies if moral relativism were true.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted October 1, 2009.
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