Relativism and tolerance

Notes for September 26

Main points

The Anthropologists’ Statement was clearly intended to present moral relativism as an argument for tolerance. So our question was: would the truth of moral relativism give us any reason to be more tolerant than we otherwise would be?

I said that I found it surprisingly hard to make the connection.

Two arguments

I presented two arguments in which the truth of moral relativism seemed to lead to a conclusion about tolerance.

In the first argument, the relevant premise holds that one society cannot judge another on the basis of its moral code. (Premise 3, if you’re keeping score at home). Each society has its own moral code that is correct for its members, so it is inappropriate for the members of one society to interfere with the members of another on the basis of their moral code.

Angela identified the problem here. If our society’s moral code is correct for us, then that is the code we should follow. If our society’s code says that we should interfere with other societies, then that’s what we should do. And if it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t. As Ian put it, moral relativism appears to be useless: it doesn’t tell us to do anything different than we would otherwise do.

As Steward and Barnett noted, it is very hard to do anything else. Part of having values is being willing to act on them. It’s one thing to think about people in the past, over whom you have no influence. But when you’re confronted with a case like Nazi Germany, you have to decide what to do. And that makes you ethically implicated with what happens, whether you like it or not. Even the authors of the Statement conceded this in the third to last paragraph: they obliquely admitted that it was possible to make a moral evaluation of what happened in Nazi Germany and even that it was permissible to intervene.

So we tried a second argument. Here, the crucial premise holds that one society’s moral code is correct only if it is correct for all societies. Of course, the truth of moral relativism would mean that this standard could not be met. If moral relativism is true, then no moral code is correct for all societies and so it would follow that no moral codes are correct. Once again, Ian put his finger on the problem: moral relativism maintains there are lots of true moral codes, so this argument amounts to abandoning moral relativism!

Closing thoughts

There is something unsatisfying about this. The fact that there are a variety of moral practices that play functional roles in their social settings should make a difference to our moral evaluations of other cultures (and probably our own as well).

It is not clear that relativism is the most helpful way of understanding this, however. If the world’s cultures were truly sealed off from one another in mutually unintelligible bubbles, then, as Ian said (he really was on fire today), we wouldn’t have anything to learn from other cultures. That would be a very odd thing for an anthropologist, or, really, anyone, to think.

We’ll return to this next Tuesday to see if we can do better.

Key concepts

  1. Why moral relativism seems to undermine the moral case for intervening in a foreign society.
  2. Why moral relativism seems to leave the moral case for intervening in a foreign society exactly as it was.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 26, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy