Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Empirical Evidence Linking Moral Relativism with Openness?

A few months back, The Philosopher's Magazine published an article reflecting on some recent "experimental philosophy" exploring the relationship between personality and the propensity to be an "objectivist" or "relativist" about morality. I want to reflect a little bit on what conclusions, if any, can be reached based on the research discussed by Joshua Knobe in the article (some of it his own research, some of it the research on which he based his own).

The following passage captures a key dimension of the experimental work on which Knobe basis his own work:
For a nice example from recent research, consider a study by Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely. They were interested in the relationship between belief in moral relativism and the personality trait openness to experience. Accordingly, they conducted a study in which they measured both openness to experience and belief in moral relativism. To get at people’s degree of openness to experience, they used a standard measure designed by researchers in personality psychology. To get at people’s agreement with moral relativism, they told participants about two characters – John and Fred – who held opposite opinions about whether some given act was morally bad. Participants were then asked whether one of these two characters had to be wrong (the objectivist answer) or whether it could be that neither of them was wrong (the relativist answer). What they found was a quite surprising result. It just wasn’t the case that participants overwhelmingly favoured the objectivist answer. Instead, people’s answers were correlated with their personality traits. The higher a participant was in openness to experience, the more likely that participant was to give a relativist answer.
It is the lessons from this research that I want to focus on in the present post. I may return in a later post to a discussion of Knobe's own research, but for now the Feltz/Cokely research outlined above gives plenty of material to chew on.

One of the questions I have about this research is what the researchers mean by "objectivist" and "relativist." Knobe attempts to capture this distinction in the following way: "Should we say that there is a single right answer and anyone who says the opposite must be mistaken, or should we say that different answers could be right for different people? In other words, should we say that morality is something objective or something relative?"

Part of the problem with framing the distinction in these terms is that it runs the risk of conflating two different distinctions: the distinction between absolutism and context-dependence, and the distinction between objectivism and subjectivism. Although I explored these distinctions at length in an earlier post, a brief reminder seems warranted here. An absolutist on a certain matter thinks that something is true under all conditions, as opposed to thinking that what is true depends on a range of valiables and so may vary from one circumstance to another. The latter position is sometimes referred to as "relativism." On this understanding of relativism, the boiling point of water is a relative truth insofar as the temperature at which water boils varies relative to such variables as purity and atmospheric pressure.

But sometimes the term "relativism" is used as a synonym for what I call "subjectivism." Subjectivism is opposed to objectivism. The objectivist with respect to some field of discourse holds that the truth-maker for a claim within that field of discourse is not reducible to the subjective preferences, attitudes, or emotional dispositions of the individual making the claim. The truth-maker (to put it in helpful if slightly misleading terms) is "something out there, rather than something in my head." The subjectivist, by contrast, thinks that the truth-maker is something in one's head. With respect to ethics, the ethical subjectivist thinks that the truth-maker for moral claims is a subjective attitude of approval towards that which is given a positive moral evaluation, or a subjective attitude of disapproval towards that which is given a negative evaluation. In short, ethical subjectivism makes moral truth relative to the subjective attitudes of individuals.

But notice that while the temperature at which water boils is relative to atmospheric pressure and purity, it is not relative to the subjective attitudes, preferences, and emotional dispositions of the person making a pronouncement about said boiling point. Water's boiling point is what it is, regardless of what one happens to think or feel about it. As such, a claim about the boiling point of water is objective. But it is not absolute, since the boiling point of water is context-dependent. Likewise, moral truth might turn out to be context-dependent but not simply a function of whatever subjective attitudes an individual happens to have.

Now if you had to read through the preceding a couple of times to get the distinctions clear your head, you are not alone. Through years of teaching undergraduates, I know just how easily these distinctions can get muddled together. And when they do get muddled, it is easy (for example) for people to reject objectivism because they are deeply bothered by absolutism, and because they think the only way to set aside the latter is to set aside the former. Even when these distinctions are laid out with painstaking precision, people sometimes lose sight of them.

To see this point, let's breifly consider another common meaning of the term "relativism." Sometimes, this term is used as short-hand for cultural relativism, a theory which holds that morality is determined by a kind of cultural consensus as embodied in a cultures customs--and as such that moral truth varies from one culture to another depending on what is customary. But the theory of cultural relativism is itself often confused with other theoretic frameworks, ones which make culture an important contextual variable for the determination of what is moral without making it the foundation for moral truth.

For example, One might hold--as utilitarians do--that the morality of an action is determined by its effect on aggregate human interests, whatever those interests happen to be. In simplest terms (oversimplified terms, really, but pedagogically useful nevertheless), X is right if X does the best job of satisfying the most interests of everyone affected.

If you think that, then you're not a cultural relativist in the sense defined above. After all, you don't believe that cultural consensus, as embodied in custom, determines what is right and wrong. You believe that the effect of actions on aggregative interest-satisfaction determes what is right and wrong...and what satisfies the most interests might not be what custom dictates. Nevertheless, if you are a utilitarian, you will believe that specific moral obligations will depend on a number of variables, including cultural custom. Among other things, the customs with which you were raised will profoundly influence the interests you come to have. And since the utilitarian thinks morality is found in maximizing interest-satisfactions, the utilitarian will therefore be convinced that specific obligations will vary according to cultural context.

Other theoretic perspectives--objectivist but context-dependent ones--produce a similar result: one of the variables that affects our specific moral obligations is culture, even though the foundation for morality is not taken to be culture. From years of teaching experience, I know that students often mistake their own objectivist but context-dependent theoretic perspectives with cultural relativism. They think they are relativists because they don't make all the distinctions they need to make--and once they do make these distinctions, they realize they aren't relativists after all. In other words, what people "think they think"--that is, what theory they think best captures their ideas, commitments, experiences, etc.--isn't always what they actually think (what theory actually fits best with their ideas, commitments, experiences, etc.).

As such, we need to distinguish between giving an accurate account of the patterns that someone's thinking follows, and asking people what they think. The latter may not conform to the former. That people think they are relativists doesn't mean they think and speak and act like relativists. And that people give one answer to a difficult philosophical question because it seems to them to fit better with how they think doesn't mean that the answer they choose really does fit better with how they think. People get themselves wrong a lot.

To appreciate this point more deeply, I want to share here a true-false question I have occasionally used on tests in the past. It is one that I don't use anymore, because the error rate is so high. Here's how it goes:
Consider the following statement: "We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion on moral matters. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about morality." Someone who makes this statement is most likely an ethical subjectivist.

Now the correct answer to this question is....FALSE. (Did you get it right?) Ethical subjectivism is the view that moral truth is subjective in the way that matters of taste are subjective. Food is tasty just in case you happen to like it. Likewise, according to ethical subjectivism, rape is wrong just in case you happen to disapprove of it. What makes a moral claim true or false, on this theory, is whether it corresponds to the attitudes and preferences of the person expressing the view.

Given that definition, can you see why a person making the statement above is not endorsing ethical subjectivism, but on the contrary presupposing that ethical subjectivism is false? In fact, there are multiple ways in which this hypothetical speaker is saying things at odds with ethical subjectivism. First off, this statement begins by making a claim about how people ought to behave--a moral claim if ever there was one. We should be respectful of differing opinions. It would be wrong not to. But does the speaker justify this claim by then saying, "This is true because I happen to have a subjective attitude of approval towards being respectful of people with differing moral opinions"?

No. If the speaker were really an ethical subjectivist, that would be the only relevant consideration. If the relevant attitude is there, then the statement is true...for that speaker, at least. For someone who delights in intolerance towards people with differing moral views, the statement would be false.

But instead of justifying the statement by reference to subjective attitudes, the speaker instead offers reasons to accept the moral claim--reasons that are put forward as if they might convince someone with an initially different attitude. In effect, the speaker is saying, "Here are some reasons offered in support of my moral judgment--reasons which I offer because I think they might be relevant in the thinking of someone who isn't sure they agree with me." Offering such reasons makes no sense if ethical judgments such as "We should be respectful of everyone's opinion on moral matters" are wholly subjective, true if one happens to have an attitude of approval towards showing such respect, false if not. To be an ethical subjectivist is to hold that, if you happen to approve of being disrespectful of people with different moral opinions than your own, they you should absulutley go ahead and be as disrespectful as you please. That would be the right thing for you.

At best, an ethical subjectivist who offered reasons such as this would be engaged in deceptive manipulation--trying to convince you that you have reasons to believe something that there are no reasons for you to believe, and hoping you'll buy it. This is one important outcome of ethical subjectivism: If moral truth is determined by whatever subjective attitude you happen to have, then your moral opinion is true so long as it conforms to your attitudes, and there is therefore no reason for you to change your opinion.

Of course, concern for consistency might inspire you to iron out internal discrepancies among your subjective attitudes. As such, if someone points out such a discrepancy, that might count as a reason to change your opinion. But which opinion do you change? If you harbor attitude A, and I argue that it is inconsistent with attitude B, that isn't a reason to change A as such, since you could just as readily modify B.

And why should I care about consistency anyway? When it comes to objective matters, consistency is a guide towards truth: If my views involve a contradiction, they can't be wholly true. But when it comes to my subjective attitudes, what's wrong with a bit of contradiction? Approve of A and disapprove of B, even though B imples A. So what? What's wrong with my attitudes being all over the map? There is no truth out there that I'm losing out on by sitting happily in my contradictions, so why bother eliminating them? Because...what, inconsistency is bad? Only if I adopt a negative attitude towards it (on subjectivist assumptions). Why shouldn't I just delight in my own inconsistency, thereby making it good?

But be all of that as it may, there is another reason why the statement from my abandoned test question isn't the statement of an ethical subjectivist. The reason the speaker gives in support of respecting divergent moral voices is one that just doesn't make sense if ethical subjectivism is true. Given ethical subjectivism, what is there to learn about what is right and wrong by paying open-minded attention to people who disagree with you? I might learn that you have such-and-such moral attitude (making such-and-such moral judgment "true for you"), but I can't learn anything about what is moral by engaging in respectful critical discourse with people who have different moral views. I certainly won't make progress in my understanding of morality (since I've already got it right so long as I'm in line with my own attitudes). What's the point of being "open-minded" about moral opinions if the moral opinion I happen to have is right for me regardless of the moral opinion you happen to have? Will you offer reasons for your moral opinions that will require me to rethink my own in a substantive way? No (for reasons already addressed).

In other words, there is nothing in the statement to suggest that the speaker is an ethical subjectivist, and much that is at odds with ethical subjectivism. But people get so fuzzy about the relevant concepts that even when they're taking a course on it, they will mistake a statement which is hardly coherent given ethical subjectivism as an endorsement of ethical subjectivism.

In the face of such muddiness--and in the face of the fact that the objectivist/relativist distinction used in the study invites muddiness by failing to clarify all the relevant distinctions that need to be made--what can we conclude about the study's reliability in correlating views on ethics with personality?

Instead of answering this, let me share one more thing about my true-false question--more specifically, about the statement embedded within it: "We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion on moral matters. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about morality." Although I've stopped using this as a true-false question, I still make use of it in class, as a teaching aid for clarifying ethical subjectivism. One thing I do is read the statement in class and ask students whether they agree or disagree with it.

I think a slight majority agree with the statement--and in my experience, the ones who seem to be most "open to new experiences" are the most likely to agree with it (of course, this isn't a controlled experiment, so you'll have to treat this as anecdotal evidence that calls for further study rather than as proof of anything in its own right). When I ask those who disagree with the statement why they disagree, they don't disagree because they are ethical subjectivists--because the statement implicitly rejects the subjectivism they embrace. They disagree for reasons such as the following (while not direct quotes, these come as close to direct quotation as I can get operating from memory):

"Some people's moral opinions don't deserve respect."

"Some people, like Nazis, are blinded to what is right and wrong, so you can't learn anything from them."

In other words, there are those in my class who agree with this statement--hence implying implicit agreement with the ethical objectivism that it presupposes. And then there are those who disagree with it--grounding their disagreement in ethical objectivism. None have, so far, rejected the statment based on the fact that it implicitly denies subjectivism. So, based on their answers to this question, we can assume that all of my students are ethical objectivists--including the open-minded ones, none of whom reject the statement because of its implicit objectivism. Right?

Well, maybe not. Let me put it this way. Who do you think is more likely to agree with the statement extracted from my true-false question: Someone inclined to "open their minds to alternative perspectives" (Knobe's language), or someone not so inclined? Of course, the statement is an endorsement of the importance of opening one's mind to alternative perspectives on moral matters--and so is nicely geared towards getting people so inclined to agree with it. Since the statement makes sense only if we assume some level of objectivism, does it follow that most of those inclined to open their minds to alternative perspectives are objectivists? Or is it more that they are drawn to the open-mindedness expressed in the statement, regardless of where it falls on the objectivism/subjectivism/relativism divide?

Perhaps the reason why, in the Feltz/Cokely study, the researchers found a correlation between the supposedly "objectivist" option and openness to new experiences was because the objectivist option was the one that sounded more open-minded. I wonder what the results would have been if the research subjects had been asked whether or not they agree with the following statement: "There is no point in listening attentively to people who have different moral opinions than you do, because whatever you happen to already believe to be moral is moral for you anyway, so you can just ignore what other people have to say with no loss." In this case, of course, agreeing with the statement is agreeing explicitly with subjectivism, and disagreeing with it would be the "objectivist" position. But in this case, agreeing with the statement is agreeing with something that sounds really close-minded--and hence would be a turn-off for those students whose personality type falls under the "openness to new experiences" heading.

My point is that how we phrase our questions, and how we classify our answers, likely plays a big role in what sorts of conclusions we can legitimately reach about this (and similar) experimental philosophy studies. A "relativist" option that sounds more open-minded than an "objectivist" option might be attracting those with open-minded personalities because of the open-mindedness it seems to espouse, rather than because of its relativism. And if so, then when the "objectivist" option sounds more open-minded, it will be the objectivist answer that draws the endorsement of those very same personality types. Nothing in the Feltz/Cokely study rules this out. As such, the conclusions Knobe wants to draw from this study strike me as unwarranted.


  1. Hi eric,

    Consider the following statement: We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion regarding the appreciation of food. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about the world of food and taste.

    This is almost word for word what you say about morality but only a food “relativist” (open to new taste experiences) would say it. (It could phrased better in the context of food however.)

    Likewise, I certainly agree with your original statement although I am not looking for what is Right or Wrong. Whether we believe in the latter or not, morality is real and we make moral judgments all the time. To say that a relativist could not learn by listening to others does not make sense to me.

  2. My question would be .. why does the utilitarian have this preference that "... the morality of an action is determined by its effect on aggregate human interests ..."?

    She has it because she wants to live in such an ultimately fair society. It would be a pleasant place to be, in her estimation. The criterion turns out to be subjectivist no matter how one's system is systematized and objectiv-ish-iated. There is simply no other way to construct this kind of argument.


    The test question was interesting, but I answer that the speaker is most likely an ethical subjectivist:

    - The fact that the person says "We should..." can be taken as her opinion, resulting from her preferences about her ideal world. Making moral claims is not contrary to subjectivism, only painting them as objectively true, rather than propositions still requiring some persuasion as to why one's claims / preferences / reasoning might appeal to the listener.

    - "But does the speaker justify this claim by then saying, 'This is true because I happen to have a subjective attitude of approval towards being respectful of people with differing moral opinions'? No. If the speaker were really an ethical subjectivist, that would be the only relevant consideration.

    She wouldn't say that the proposition is "true" because it isn't.. it is an opinion. She is describing a world she hopes is attractive to her listeners, even compelling... subjectively.

    - "... the speaker instead offers reasons to accept the moral claim-" Subjectivists offer reasons because others can be influenced to share one's opinions by way of sentimental and utilitarian arguments. The end in view doesn't have to be objective to be attractive and worth arguing about. It is like arguing about the qualities of a movie ... an enlightened reviewer can completely change one's attitude towards a film with sufficiently innovative reasoning and sensitive interpretation.

    In short, I think you get ethical subjectivism substantially wrong. It can found claims and reasoning, but they have to be consensually argued and propagated. No one can appeal to extraterrestrial sources, laws, and absolutes. They can appeal to the listener's innate empathy, or their ability to foresee distant harms from apparently innocuous practices, etc.


  3. To say that subjective ethics means that one washes one's hands of the entire rest of human race is making a straw man of it.

    - "Given ethical subjectivism, what is there to learn about what is right and wrong by paying open-minded attention to people who disagree with you?"

    I'll admit that you are on strongest ground here, since the "learn something new about morality" formulation makes morality sounds like some cut and dried subject like grammar. But nevertheless, as above, subjectivists are not averse to cultivating in others higher tastes in compassion and ethics. If a benighted Greek were taught about the possibility of nation states that don't have wars between each other, let alone between city-states, they might have an eye-opening experience about the possibilities of the human condition. All without giving up a subjectivist position, which can welcome new and better ways of being happy (or not, as the case may be, of course!).

    So everything said is quite consistent with a considered position of ethical subjectivism, which possibly made your students feel like they were regurgitating more than thinking when faced with the question.

    " ... because whatever you happen to already believe to be moral is moral for you anyway, so you can just ignore what other people have to say with no loss."

    This is simply incorrect. It is the person sure of their morals, and typically sure that their morals are objectively true and absolute, who makes this kind of statement. A subjectivist would recognize that claiming "no loss" goes too far. He may be happy with his personal moral system, but if it mires him in endless poverty, wars and suicide bombings, and if he sees another moral system offering relative peace and prosperity, he might well think twice about his choice of systems, however subjective each is. Just because a subjective system is chosen for subjective reasons doesn't mean it necessarily performs terribly well over the long run.

    .. and what JP said...

  4. Burk,

    I cannot help but think that much of our disagreement (not all) is linguistic. In your defense of what you call ethical subjectivism you repeatedly say things that strike me as evidently objectivist (and utterly incoherent if one adopted ethical subjectivism as I am using the term). Indeed, I'd be inclined to classify you as a species of preference utilitarian, which is quite a different thing from ethical subjectivism as I understand it.

  5. Hi, Eric-

    Ethical subjectivism is not the same thing as moral relativism, let alone completely atomic moral relativism of every individual for himself. So there is that difficulty in your post.

    I agree that preference utilitarianism is to me a congenial position. But the real question is why one would adopt this or similar position in the first place. Is it because the world is constructed such that this is the only right and objectively moral position? This is perhaps Peter Singer's view, and is objectivist. Or is it because I personally prefer such a world and think you might as well if I could introduce you to my knowledge and perspective? That would be consistent with a subjectivist position.

    Subjectivism just means that the whole edifice one favors, whether traditional, individual, utilitarian, totalitarian, or whatever, is staked on the desires and preferences of one's self and perhaps if one is empathic and desirous of the good feelings of others, their preferences as well.

    Reading the basic wiki page of preference utilitarianism, it seems to take a subjectivist attitude, which is great. The remaining question is how to resolve differing preferences in a society. One way is through brute power. But that has alot of unpleasant (subjective) consequences as far as I can see. Another is through anarchy, which ends up similarly. So some kind of rule would be nice, to meter out harms and minimize them. This is the kind of thing that constitutions, laws, and deliberative, representative government provide, all based fundamentally on the negotiability of goods and harms, and our common quest for a subjectively congenial system.

  6. If I may add a small joke, parents often take the totalitarian subjectivist position ... "Because I said so!"