Moral relativism

Notes for September 24

Main points

We talked about what moral relativism is and why someone might believe it.

What is moral relativism?

I proposed a three-way contrast:

  1. Moral realism: there is one true moral code
  2. Moral relativism: there are lots of equally true moral codes
  3. Moral nihilism: there is no true moral code

I also tried to show how these different views partly overlap.

Moral nihilists agree with moral realists that our moral beliefs can be justified only if there is a single true morality. They also agree with the moral relativists that there are many equally true moral codes. Consequently, they don’t think there are any justified moral beliefs. You might say that relativists think all moral codes are tied for first while nihilists think they’re all tied for last.

It’s helpful to compare the different positions on morality with beliefs in other areas. In physics, the idea that there is no privileged position from which to measure motion does not mean that there is no reason to measure motion. It just means that all measurements are relative to a frame of reference. There are as many equally good ways of measuring motion as there are frames of reference. So measure away! Moral relativists see morality as being like the measurement of motion.

Things are different where religious belief is concerned. Suppose you came to believe that each religion’s story about the supernatural being who created and rules the universe is equally good: there is no more reason to believe the Christian’s story than there is to believe those told by the Zoroastrians, or the ancient Greeks, or the Hindus, and so on. The typical reaction to that is atheism. The atheist’s thought is that if they’re all equally good, then none of them could be true. Moral nihilists see morality as being like that. If several moral codes are tied, then none of them are true and you should ignore them all.

Why would you be a moral relativist?

The Anthropologists emphasize the fact that different cultures have different moral beliefs. The Anthropologists added what I called an undermining or debunking explanation of our moral beliefs. We believe our moral code is true for reasons other than its truth, namely, we grew up with it. By analogy, suppose I said that the only reason you object to the referee’s call is that it went against your team; if it had been against the other team, you would have thought it was correct. That undermines your belief that the referee was wrong. My explanation maintains that you believe what you do because it’s what you want to be true rather than because it actually is true. So if you buy my explanation of why you believe the referee got the call wrong, you will almost certainly no longer believe that the referee got the call wrong.

Of course, the fact that there are a lot of different beliefs about morality doesn’t mean they’re all equally good. There still might be a truth that is independent of any of them. And it is possible that some societies are closer to this truth than others. By analogy, there are objective truths about the natural world that some cultures better understand than others. Why couldn’t this be true of morality?

This brought us to Harman’s arguments. Harman maintains that several features of our moral code strongly suggest it has a conventional origin. We think there is a significant difference between harming others and not helping others. Harman does not think this is based on reason. He thinks it is far more likely that it reflects the interests of the powerful: they do not need help but they do have an interest in not being harmed. Similarly, we treat non-human animals very differently than we do human ones. And we draw distinctions among non-human animals that seem arbitrary. In our culture, it is common to eat cows and repulsive to eat dogs. But cows are sacred in some cultures and dogs can be for dinner in others. What’s the difference? Historical happenstance, according to Harman’s way of looking at it.

Does this prove that moral relativism is true? Moral realists think it just shows that our culture’s moral code is imperfect. What we need to do, according to them, is subject it to critical reflection, much as we did with Singer, Cohen, and Thomson. When we do that, they think, we will either understand why these apparently quirky bits actually make sense or we will eliminate them on the ground that they do not fit with the true morality.

It seems to me that each side has a reasonable case.

How much disagreement is there?

I think Cyrus was right to say that we should be careful not to exaggerate the extent of moral disagreement. There are some moral rules that you wouldn’t expect to find in any functioning society and there may well be some rules that every society really needs.

Based on my extensive research, I can tell you the following: we all agree about drowning children. The obligation to save a drowning child has a prominent place in a fatwa issued by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan.

Azzam’s fatwa draws a distinction between a fard ayn and a fard kifaya. The first is an individual religious obligation that falls upon all Muslims, like praying and fasting. One cannot avoid such duties and be considered a good Muslim. If nonbelievers invade a Muslim land, it is fard ayn — a compulsory duty — for the local Muslims to expel them. If they fail, then the obligation expands to their Muslim neighbors. “If they too slacken, or there is a shortage of manpower, then it is upon the people behind them, and on the people behind them, to march forward. This process continues until it becomes fard ayn upon the whole world.” … Fard kifaya, on the other hand, is a duty of the community. Azzam gives the example of a group of people walking along a beach. “They see a child about to drown.” The child, he suggests, is Afghanistan. Saving the drowning child is an obligation for all the swimmers who witness him. “If someone moves to save him, the sin falls from the rest. But if no one moves, all the swimmers are in sin.” Thus Azzam argues that the jihad against the Soviets is the duty of each Muslim individually, as well as of the entire Muslim people, and that all are in sin until the invader is repelled.Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (Knopf, 2006), pp. 102–103.

Saving a drowning child also helped to make conservative opinion columnist William Safire popular at the liberal New York Times.

He had a rough time with his transition from the Nixon White House to The Times. He told me that many of the liberal reporters stiffed him for the first couple of years until he dove into a pool to save a drowning child at an office party.Maureen Dowd, “On Safire,” New York Times, September 29, 2009.

I have yet to read anything about anyone’s opinions about violinists with kidney problems, however.

Key concepts

  1. The distinction between moral realism, moral relativism, and moral nihilism.
  2. Arguments for moral relativism based on cultural diversity.
  3. Arguments for moral relativism that suggest moral codes have conventional origins.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 24, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy