Friday, May 18, 2012

Ethical Relativism vs Preference Utilitarianism

There’s been a provocative discussion going on in the comments section of an earlier post, “Spitting at the conventional wisdom.” Specifically, the conversation has been about a recurring topic on this blog: the nature of morality and the respective merits of relativistic and objectivist understandings of moral claims—a conversation sparked by Darrell’s suggestion that the effort to change hearts and minds on the issue of same-sex marriage requires invocation of objective moral standards.

In this discussion (and elsewhere on this blog), Bernard has been an eloquent voice in defense of relativism. His comments, however, have features that cause me and others like me—probably Darrell among them—to scratch our heads and wonder if we might simply be miscommunicating. That is, I’m led to wonder whether we are using terms like "objectivism" and "relativism" in different senses.

Specifically, Bernard’s comments in the earlier discussion thread are rich with normative language, and I wonder how to make sense of those remarks if I interpret that normative language in accord with what I understand relativism to be. For example, he says the following:

"(The fact that most leaders of social movements were objectivists rather than relativists) certainly doesn't establish social progress requires such leaders. It may well be that incremental change is more positive and lasting than revolutions (and here we must balance the positive achievements objectivists against some of their immeasurable damage, hence my use of Stalin as a possible example)."
An underlying assumption of this remark seems to be that there is such a thing as social progress—that social change can be positive (change for the better) or negative (change for the worse). And the suggestion is made that maybe an advantage of relativist approaches to making social progress is that the changes, while more incremental, are more likely to last.

The difficulty I have with this perspective is that one of the key philosophical challenges to relativism is that, because it makes the subjective preferences of the individual or community the standard of value, and because "progress" is a value judgment (change for the better), relativism seriously truncates the senses in which any social change can count as progress.

If what is "good" for a society and its members is relative to a culture's collective subjective values, then we might say that a culture progresses to the extent that it develops institutions and practices that more effectively realize those values. But no change in the dominant subjective values could count as progress.

And so a slow, negotiated change in the dominant valuation of same-sex relationships wouldn't count as progress in any deep sense. It would count as progress only relative to those individuals who happen to already value such relationships. From the standpoint of those who abhor same-sex relationships, it wouldn't count as progress at all. It's not just that it wouldn't seem like progress to them. It wouldn't be progress. Progress itself is fundamentally relativized.

And one wonders: why should I seek to persuade people to move away from their subjective preferences in favor of mine, if there can in principle be no reason to think that my preferences are any more fitting or appropriate than theirs? Why should I be open to being persuaded, to adjusting my preferences in the light of theirs, if there is in principle no reason why my preferences are any worse than theirs?

As James Rachels and other have argued, it seems as if subjectivism in ethics takes away the possibility of rational discourse about ethical issues. If there’s no sense in which it really is better (or really is worse) to allow same-sex marriage in society than to forbid it, then there’s no sense in which there really are reasons to allow same-sex marriage rather than forbid it (or really are reasons to forbid it). And if there are no such reasons, then if I talk as if I am trying to give you reasons to believe as I do I’m really just engaged in a kind of deceptive use of language (perhaps self-deceptive): I am attempting to present as a reason something that cannot be a reason for the simple reason that in the ethical domain there are no such things as reasons that support one ethical view over another.

And so, all arguments and efforts at persuasion reduce to a kind of psychological manipulation: I attempt to get you to embrace my preferences, not because there is any good reason to do so, but because I want you to; and I try to make it look, falsely, as if there is a good reason to do so in order to more effectively influence your preferences. Since this is done in the absence of any actual reasons to suppose that such a change would be a change for the better, there is no meaningful distinction between reasonable persuasion and pschological manipulation. All of it's nothing but more or less effective forms of the latter.

So can this line of concern be answered? And if so, how? It seems to me that the best way answer to these concerns while staying within the spirit of relativism makes something like the following move: while there’s no such thing as “values” or "the good" apart from subjective preferences, other people's preferences have the same status as my own, shaping the good of other people as surely as my preferences determine what is good for me. And every person’s subjectively-defined good has just as much of a claim on being realized as anyone else’s, implying that there is a reason to attempt to negotiate our way towards policies and practices that do the best job of maximizing preference-satisfactions.

In such negotiations, the fact that someone subjectively values X becomes a reason (all else being equal) for anyone to pursue actions or policies that help to bring about or maintain X. But each such reason must be balanced against a wide array of potentially conflicting reasons in the effort to find that course of action which has the strongest reasons in its favor.

From such a perspective, it becomes possible to reject certain preferences, to view them as ultimately bad reasons on which to act. Some preferences effectively "drag down" our potential for maximizing preference-satisfaction, since they are preferences about the preference-satisfaction of others. More precisely, some people prefer that certain important preferences of others not be satisfied. This creates a conflict among preferences. Not all such conflicts "drag down" the potential for maximizing preference satisfaction (for example, I prefer that pedophiles not satisfy their preference for child sex partners; but in this case, we know that children who fall prey to pedophiles suffer long-term affects that negatively impact their prospects for maximizing preference satisfactions of their own).

In many cases, however, there can arise good reasons to oppose such conflict-generating preferences and to encourage those who have them to take steps to change those preferences--for example, by cultivating and practicing empathy. More broadly, we might argue that the more widely people practice empathy—the more their actual preferences are shaped through the practice of empathy—the less conflict there is among our preferences and the more preferences it becomes possible to satisfy. This, then, becomes a reason to call empathy “good” in a sense that isn’t just an expression of personal preference, and to use empathy as a standard for assessing the merits of individual preferences.

But none of this is relativism as I (or most moral philosophers I know) would define it. It's preference utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism is a moral theory which holds each person's (and, arguably, animal's) preferences to be reasons for anyone to favor actions that satisfy those preferences (all else being equal). And this means that what is right is determined by what has the best reasons in its favor, not by what any person happens to prefer—even if the preferences that are out there in the world serve as the basis on which moral reasoning is done. Subjective preferences become, on this theory, objective reasons for action: That Joe prefers that X come about is treated, on this theory, as a reason for anyone to favor the realization of X in the absence of any competing reasons against X.

There are many who explicitly label themselves relativists who, when I listen to what they have to say or read what they write, sound to me as if they are actually preference utilitarians. This is the case with some of the regular commenters on this blog. Which leads me to wonder whether they are using "relativism" in a broader sense than I do--or whether, perhaps, they are a bit unsure themselves about whether they find relativism or preference utilitarianism more attractive.



  1. Eric-

    "But no change in the dominant subjective values could count as progress."

    Who measures progress? Do we have some celestial progress-o-meter swaying from green to red in the sky? No- we have ourselves, as usual. And specifically, we have ourselves at the end of some historical process (not to be overly Hegelian!). At which point we write the histories as to whether progress has occurred (civil rights) or not (fall of Rome, ensuing darkness).

    So the criterion tends to be our future historically-minded selves, and is itself continually in flux. These days, it is a rare Conservative that defends their wing's (Democratic or Republican) continual votes against civil rights. The degree to which this historical shift has proven itself generally beneficent and acceptable to ensuing generations is what "progress" means.

    In the moment of action, each of us has our own subjective definition of progress, whether it is fascist, nationalist, wavy-gravy, etc. While conservatives define progress as recouping some better conditions of the past, it serves in this discussion as "progress" just the same. As you say, progress is relative, as are all other values. No harm in that.. it is both an accurate description of reality, and enables that free will you so value.

    "And one wonders: why should I seek to persuade people to move away from their subjective preferences in favor of mine... "

    Your question answers itself.. because I am always right, ipso facto! The question in rhetoric is not whether there is some cosmic fact about "what is good for humans" that I can discern on your behalf, but whether your own system of beliefs, however wayward, (in this case the pose of rationality in philosophy, as well as other moral commitments), can bring you to my view of a particular situation, after they are presented and conjoined in some congenial and sensible way. But perhaps after going into our various commitments and the foreseen consequences of some action, I may find I have changed my mind instead- a big surprise!

    "... and I try to make it look, falsely, as if there is a good reason to do so in order to more effectively influence your preferences."

    You anticipate me again. But the issue is that good rhetoric not only joins my aim with your suppositions, it also joins my aim with the reasoned consequences of my aim, which is the ultimate ground of each of our values. If I say that gay marriage will destroy America and the entire surface of the earth, then yeah, that is sort of a bad thing that we all would agree is to be avoided. If you can credibly say on some reasoning from experience and other objective sources that the consequences are morel like to be beneficial for everyone, not only the gay couples involved, (more families, higher taxes, more foster parents, etc...), then that changes the possible engagement of the other person's value system, insofar as you can come to some agreement on the likelihood and goodness of those consequences.

    ... I do indeed cop to being a preference utilitarianist, in your terms. This is, frankly, uncommon jargon. One also has to ask how this fundamentally differs from relativism. If preference utilitarians ground their judgements on the preferences of people, how is that not relative? To me it is vaguely less solipsistic and more abstracted than relativism is commonly caricatured, but doesn't differ in any real way. Both are ways of saying that objective morals don't exist, which is, I think, the point we are making as commenters. I think we can agree that even relativists have reasons not to prefer "the death of a thousand Orientals to the pricking of the little finger."

  2. Hi Eric

    I too end up scratching my head, and wondering if we are miscommunicating. There is more to this that can be addressed in a comment, but to make a few points:

    Normative language is common in subjective treatments, read any book review or listen in to friends discussing dessert at a restaurant. When, in discussing 'progress' with Darrell, I refer to what I anticipate are values he and I share, like not excluding minorities from full participation in society. Because he and I both value this, we can use the word progress unambiguously. This is just how language works.

    I think a sleight of hand is being pulled when you speak of 'progress in any deep sense'. What counts as deep progress? Well, in your case, it must be progress against some objective value. This is, in essence, your subjective judgement being brought into play in defence of objectivism, which is interesting. You find the notion of objective values more satisfying. Okay, that's your taste, but to then assume that this does in fact represent depth is to beg the question.

    For my part, I believe progress towards a point where I can live the most satisfying life available to me (which, because of my value system, includes the requirement that the same is available to others, and because of my reliance upon a community, includes the requirement that solutions are stable and peaceful) is a very very deep sort of progress indeed.

    Notice again the loaded language you choose, in describing this careful negotiation towards stable social solutions of maximal human expression as 'psychological manipulation'. This is one way of painting respectful interaction, but it is a choice revealing of, I submit, a subjective viewpoint.

    It may also be worth noting, in the interest of stimulating further discussion, that two types of objectivism appear to be referenced at various times in these debates, and keeping them clear might be helpful. There is the kind you refer to above, I think, which is the existence of values that transcend human assessment. Some things just are wrong, and that is that.

    Then there is the type of objectivism we refer to in science, where we say the measurement is not affected by the measurer. That is to say, some moral truths exist to the extent that anybody, possessed of the full facts, would reach the same conclusion.

    I suspect that our biological constraints are such that some of the second type of moral truths do exist, but this is an empirical question, to be answered through anthropological study. I am a relativist in the sense that while I do not disregard the possibility of the first type of truth existing, I claim any attempt to find it will be necessarily a subjective one. In other words, we have no way of preferring one moral outcome over another, except by examining how we feel about it.

    We can choose to believe our deepest moral feelings refer to a reality that reaches beyond the dictates of biology and culture, of course. My question is whether this narrative choice changes the way we engage in ethical decision making, and whether the change is necessarily a positive one.


  3. Bernard: Don't have much time for more than a quick word, so here it is in brief: I do not think that the kind of negotiation towards a stable balancing of subjective preferences that you favor amounts to nothing more than psychological manipulation. I do, however, think that it would amount to nothing more than psychological manipulation were relativism true in the sense of "relativism" that I have in mind when that term is invoked. And so I conclude that you do not mean THAT. And some of what you say in this comment suggest, also, that you don't mean what I mean by that term.

  4. A final point that intrigues me:

    It seems to me that any system can be called objective in the sense that you suggests preference utilitarianism is. Once a group of people in discussion decide upon the goals of an ethical system (maximisation of preference realisation, fidelity to a scared text, consistency with a tradition) then they can measure choices against these criteria in a way which is at least theoretically objective.

    But, and it's a big but, if there is no good reason, beyond personal taste, why we should prefer one set of goals over another, then we are ultimately behaving exactly as relativists claim we are forced to behave, from personal preference alone. Treating these systems as objective requires the same sort of sophistry that academic markers use when they suggest they have devised an objective marking schedule for an essay.

    For my part, preference utilitarianism isn't exactly to my taste, although there are elements of the system, as you describe it, that do appeal. My main objection would be the risk of generating a rule like set of behaviours, the results of which would at times clash with my prior intuitions, and as such yield a lower level of satisfaction/fulfillment. The example Darrell gives with Singer and environmentalism is the sort of case I have in mind.


  5. Hi Eric

    Well, perhaps at some future date there'll be a chance to clarify terms and distinctions. Or perhaps one could forget the terminology altogether and dig back into why the distinction should matter in the first place.

    One claim that is often made, and I think it's been made here at some stage, is that religious belief has the advantage of grounding moral values, the implication being that a purely materialist worldview is not sufficient to provide individual or social motivation for 'betterment'. The idea, if I have people correctly, is that if we do not believe in a notion of goodness that transcends the individual assessment of what is best for them, then we have no compass by which to guide us towards betterment. The assumption appears to be that self interest is insufficient.

    My counter claim is that this argument only works by conveniently redefining self interest as selfishness. It seems to me that both the religious objectivist and the materialist relativist undergo exactly the same process of moral reasoning. Each examines, to the best of their ability, their sense of themselves and the world, they interrogate their narratives if you will, in order to discover the goals most consistent with a sense of fulfillment. They then reason their way to the set of moral principles most likely to achieve these goals.

    The trick that is pulled in this debate is the smuggled assumption that the objectivist narrative somehow generates loftier goals. Why not just treat others appallingly, if you don't believe in moral truths, people like to ask. The answer is not complicated. Because I don't want to. Because I wouldn't like being that person, with all it entails. Which is precisely the same process by which the objectivist arrives at the conclusion that such behaviour is wrong in the first place.

    Doesn't the whole thing spin about this false distinction?


  6. "It seems to me that both the religious objectivist and the materialist relativist undergo exactly the same process of moral reasoning. Each examines, to the best of their ability, their sense of themselves and the world, they interrogate their narratives if you will, in order to discover the goals most consistent with a sense of fulfillment. They then reason their way to the set of moral principles most likely to achieve these goals."

    First, I just want to note that religious objectivists and materialist relativists do not exhaust the possibilities (not that you were suggesting this, but it's worth keeping in mind). Erik Wielenberg, for example, is a non-religious objectivist--and there are many like him, non-religious philosophers who are objectivists about morality.

    More significantly, I think you may be right that both of the categories you identify engage in what is structurally the same process of moral reasoning. Both have foundational values or basic-level normative commitments, and both strive to both get clear about what these are in relation to their broader views of life (their narratives, as you put it). And both then look for more concrete principles of action and goals most consistent with these foundations (and so most likely to generate a sense of integrity and fulfillment in relation to them).

    But it seems that one crucial difference between the two is that the objectivist has to be open to the possibility that these normative foundations could be mistaken--that, at least in principle, they might learn something that would call into question the adequacy not merely of the rules and goals for living in accord with one's rock-bottom values, but of the rock-bottom values themselves.

    Practically speaking, one might think this difference would *make* a difference only if we thought we had uncovered a way to critically interrogate our own rock-bottom values--only if, in other words, we thought we had discovered a mechanism whereby we could judge the adequacy of these root subjective values that wasn't really just some even more basic set of subjective values; and only if this mechanism weren't some ad hoc invention but could be shown to be a reliable mechanism for testing the adequacy of our values.

    One might think the difference would be practically significant only if such a mechanism has been found, AND that no such mechanism has been found. But I think the difference is practically significant even if no such mechanism has been found. Because if you are an objectivist you will presumably be strongly motivated to search for such a mechanism in the absence of one; whereas if you are a relativist you won't think there is such a mechanism to search for.

    I think the big worry with objectivism is that so many objectivists ASSUME that they have found the mechanism for assessing the adequacy of rock-bottom values--but their supposed mechanism is really nothing more than a jimmy-rigged invention for justifying the objectivist's own rock-bottom values and thus for criticizing all who disagree. And I suspect that many relativists are initially drawn to relativism out of an understandable aversion to this propensity.

    And it should come as no surprise that I think this propensity is avoided when objectivists pair their objectivism with a strong fallibilism--one which regards with great skepticism any claim to the effect that one has identified THE mechanism for determining the relative merits of rival rock-bottom values.

  7. Hi Eric

    Would it not be the case that a search for those values which best unlock the potential of one's human state (relativism) can diverge from the search for objective moral values (objectivism) only if we allow the possibility that the objective moral values, when found, might not best unlock our human potential? That feels like a problem to me.

    Is this really what you mean when you speak of progress in a deep sense, progress that takes us away from fulfilling our potential? This seems unlikely, yet appears to be an implication of your stance here. Have I misinterpreted you?


    1. Bernard,

      With respect to the following: "Would it not be the case that a search for those values which best unlock the potential of one's human state (relativism) can diverge from the search for objective moral values (objectivism) only if we allow the possibility that the objective moral values, when found, might not best unlock our human potential?"

      This question introduces a definition of what you mean by relativism--namely, that morality is a product of a search for those values which best unlock the potential of one's human state.

      It's possible that, depending on how we unpack this definition, it comes very close to expressing my own view about morality--a view which, obviously, I do not call relativism. And so I cannot say whether the search for objective moral values diverges from the search you identify with relativism, since it MAY be that I identify the former with the latter.

      I think that "morality is made for humans, not humans for morality" (to paraphrase Jesus). Hence, I think that we get to the truth about morality through an investigation into ourselves (with a special eye towards discerning the distinctive conditions of our own flourishing), into humanity more broadly (with an eye towards discerning the shared conditions for human flourishing bound up with human nature), and into human social life (with an eye towards discerning the patterns of interaction and engagement that "unlock" our own potential for flourishing while making maximal room for the flourishing of others).

      This sounds a fair bit like what you are putting under the heading of relativism--but there may be differences. First, I'm not sure how the quest to find "those values which best unlock the potential of one's human state" play into the balance of concern for self and concern for others. My own life experience suggests to me that the actualization of my human potential is inconsistent with utter disregard for the comparable self-actualization of others. But were this to simply be a contingent fact about me (as opposed to a universal truth of human nature), would you then conclude that individuals for whom this is not true have no moral call to attend to the needs and interests of others? Or would you in that case hold that there are intellectual reasons apart from one's subjective values for taking into account the the subjective preferences of others in decision-making?

      Second, I tend to believe that there is something about persons (and perhaps not only persons, but also animals) that demands respect and so calls for this kind of investigation into and commitment to promoting the conditions for human flourishing. As such, I'd judge a subjective value system characterized by indifference to one's own flourishing and/or the flourishing of others as unfitting.

      If a person happens to loathe himself in a very deep way, having a self-hatred that not only precludes happiness but underwrites the judgment that all happiness is undeserved, my values would regard this as a tragic underapprieciation of himself as a person, and I would be motivated, all else being equal, to do what I could to inspire this person to rethink his self-nihilistic stance. But, obviously, the person in question would not regard their state as tragic, since the misery brought on by the self-loathing would, by virtue of the self-loathing, be seen as deserved and hence as appropriate. Are these simply different fundamental values, and that's the end of it? Or could it be the case that there is something about him, some potential within him, such that if he adopts something more like my attitude he becomes better positioned to "unlock the potential" that is really there? And if the latter, is that a reason to think that my attitude is "truer" than his?

    2. Hi Eric

      This may be a very old comment I'm replying to. I tend to check the end of a thread, so these comments that come in as fancy little sub threads, I sometimes miss.

      In essence, I suspect my response to the moral aspects of the world is tremendously similar to yours. iI I see the person mired in self loathing, believing they are undeserving of happiness, then I don't believe they are morally mistaken. I do, however, wish to see them happy, because I am happier in a world where happiness abounds. This service to others fits, not my notion of right and wrong, but rather my notion of self, and self potential.

      It is the same when confronted with those who feel no calling to work in the service of others. I still want to change that aspect of them, it is in my own, narrative driven interests, to do so. Again, I don't judge them morally wrong, but their behaviour is, to me, undesirable. And this is the most we can ever say, I think, with regard to ethical stances, that we personally find them desirable or undesirable. And then, by sharing our reasons, we can feed into the narratives of others, and by having access to these evolving, communal narratives, each individual's opportunity for growth (as they would measure it) increases.

      So, in a practical sense, our actions may be identical, and hence I conclude the distinction made between objective and relative morals truths doesn't rest on the oppositions most often associated with it.


  8. "But it seems that one crucial difference between the two is that the objectivist has to be open to the possibility that these normative foundations could be mistaken"

    I don't see this happening alot in practice. Indeed, quite the opposite, in that objectivists take their own system to be objective, whether written in their hearts, in Leviticus, etc. How seriously do even professional objectivists take their "search" for objective morals if the only plausible location to look for them in is in their navels? Just where are they to be looking and where can they be found? Their practice of denigrating others for being relativists is one indication of a superiority complex that doesn't exactly correlate with openness to new accounts of morals, objective or otherwise.

    In the end, the stronger the fallibilism, the more your position looks and quacks like relativism.

    1. Fallibilism about one's moral values requires the existence of some standard of correctness apart from the values themselves, standards against which those values might fall short. Otherwise, there is no sense in which one could be in error about one's values. Hence, fallibilism requires the rejection of relativism. How can it then look and quack like relativism, unless it's just an outward surface resemblance that shouldn't be mistaken for identity? Maybe the proper metaphor isn't a duck but a shrimp (North Sea shrimp look like the ones we get in the US, but they're the result of convergent evolution--phenotypic similaries belie very important differences on a genetic level).

  9. Objectivity can be found in the same place Kant found space/time, namely, the structures of the mind? Or human biology? Or what is necessary for a society to flourish? Objectivism is not realism.

    What I find most interesting is whether I can be a logically consistent relativist. There are several forms of ethical relativism, but all forms maintain that nobody (or no culture) is incorrect about their moral judgments. What is right for one person may be wrong for another, and both are correct (or, at least, neither is incorrect). The controversial claim of ethical relativism is not that people disagree, but that nobody is incorrect.

    Consider this, each of the following statements is inconsistent with all forms of e relativism
    1. Slavery is wrong no matter who does it. If I sincerely believe this, I am inconsistent w/ my rel belief.
    2. Denying women the right to vote is wrong no matter who does it.
    3. It is good to argue about moral matters because it helps one discover what is morally correct.
    4. In some ways, we have made moral progress in this country (progress=things are morally better). For example, slavery is now illegal and women can vote
    5. In the past, I was a selfish jerk, but I’ve reformed my ways. I’ve made moral progress. (Most people make such judgments all the time)
    6. Everyone should be more tolerant and open-minded in our multi-cultural society.
    7. You should not intolerantly judge other cultures as inferior just because they are different
    8. It's wrong to torture kittens for fun no matter who does it.

    Initially, ethical relativism seems true. On further investigation, most people find it inconsistent with their other beliefs.

    This leaves one with three options: 1) Reject Relativism 2) Reject the above beliefs or 3) Acknowledge that one is logically inconsistent and accept both the above beliefs and ethical relativism. If one chooses 3, one should consider the price of giving up logical consistency.

  10. Hi Anonymous

    Yes, I think the distinction between objectivism and realism is very important. I would point out that if one is an objectivist, but not a moral realist, the list you propose is also tricky. Take 'slavery is wrong'. Well, if by objectively wrong, we mean only that any people examining the issue will reach this conclusion, then we're making an empirical statement open to refutation (and sadly enough, the contemporary world is laden with counter examples). Similarly, if we define objectivism in relation to human flourishing, we become open to the counter example of somebody who sees flourishing differently (again, one only has to look around).

    So, the statements you offer are apparently only open to the moral realist.

    For my part, I am a relativist, and so I reject any claims to moral realism in the statements you propose. The error, in my opinion, that many make, is to assume that a relativist can not want to live in a world without slavery, or misogyny, or cruelty to animals. I am against all of these things, for the simple fact that I personally find a world without them far more desirable than one in which they are tolerated. I can even speak of having made progress, in terms of liking the person I am more than a person I once was.

    So, I'm proposing, if we are careful in our further examinations, and don't make the tempting mistake of believing relativists can not ground their values, then many people will find relativism entirely consistent with their other beliefs.


  11. Hi Bernard,
    As to your first paragraph, I would say there is far more objectivity involved for what constitutes human flourishing. For example, a plant is flourishing when it has light and water. The plant next to it (dried out, droopy, etc is lacking these and not flourishing). If plants could talk, the second plant might say it's happy... but we can see it's not as happy as it could be (Aristotle).

    In your second paragraph, you missed the point. I'm not saying a relativist cannot want to live in a world without slavery, only that the relativist is inconsistent to believe slavery is wrong 'no matter who does it' and that you pref for no slavery is a mere preference. If it's a mere preference, you can say "slavery is wrong to me" but not slavery is wrong "no matter who does it." The point is you cannot add "no matter who does it" without contradicting relativism. This is because relativism implies slavery is good if another person prefers it (good for them & bad for you). According to relativism, each person, or culture, creates their own truth.

    The reason I've never met a logically consistent relativist is because most relativists are good people who, deep down, believe slavery is wrong no matter who does it. But, again, if relativism is true, you cannot say that. Slavery is good for some people, and there is no objective way to judge slavery good or bad.

    To further illustrate, consider that "I like green beans" is relative because it may be true for me and false for you, and neither of us is incorrect. If relativism is true then all ethical statements are like "I like green beans." But this is ridiculous. If we are arguing over the dinner table, you can give me all the reasons in the world for why green beans are good, but I still won't like them. However, if we are talking about an ethical matter (say, Hitler did bad things), you could persuade me, but not everyone, by listing all the things Hitler did. Isn't it strange that reasons can change my ethical beliefs, but not my matters of taste? If Ethics is relative, it's not relative in the sense of taste is relative. But then we have equivocation...

    So, if you are a relativist, you can go around saying everyone should like green beans or there should be laws against the immoral practice of slavery. But these statements, at a deep level, are inconsistent with relativism.
    Finally, I think there is a confusion between antirealism and relativism. ONe can be an antirealist about mathematics, but still believe mathematics is objective. Mind-independence is a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition for objectivity. Similar situation in ethics..

  12. Anonymous-

    "The reason I've never met a logically consistent relativist is because most relativists are good people who, deep down, believe slavery is wrong no matter who does it. But, again, if relativism is true, you cannot say that. Slavery is good for some people, and there is no objective way to judge slavery good or bad."

    A relativist can indeed believe that slavery is wrong in a universal way, among humans as we are currently constituted (except where it is better than other alternatives, which one could do thought experiments about). But the criterion is the way she feels about it and empathizes with the victims, etc. The relativist is saying that her personal opinion is that this is bad, not that some cosmic rule says it is bad.

    Relativism is not the same as moral laissez-faire. The fact that morals are human-based and subjective does not validate someone else behaving abominably, from the judging perspective, which is mine in a subjective way.

    Secondly, moral issues are necessarily interpersonal and social. They can not be conveniently walled off as- I like pistacio and no one else needs be (or can be) the wiser. The fact that someone else is suffering doesn't require a cosmic rule to make it bad- I feel it is bad very directly and judge its cause to be bad.

    We are continually fooled by the argument from popularity in this topic. If we all believe slavery is bad, then by some magic of argument, it must be objectively bad. But just a few years ago, being gay was objectively bad. What happened there? If one could point to an objective measurement to be made, then fine, we may be discerning our way to a more accurate moral sense. But in its absence, we are left with a more realistic ground of morals, which is our feelings, whose origin has some logic, indeed, but which are hardly, on the whole, logical or objective.

  13. 1st paragraph: The criterion is not just how a person feels. Thus, people give reasons for why slavery is wrong. Slavery is wrong because it discriminates based on irrelevant differences.

    A common human nature would ground objectivism, not relativism.

    I may say it's wrong to eat a cow because of reincarnation & that cow is grandma. You say it's ok because you don't believe in reincarnation. We share the same primary values (wrong to eat grandma) and differ on secondary values (wrong to eat cow). Reincarnation is either true or false and therefore my ethical judgment and yours is either correct or incorrect. Since there are correct and incorrect answers in ethics, it's not all relative. The fact that feelings are an important part of the equation does not make it all relative. The fact that feelings may be primary does not make ethics all relative. You are using the word relativism much more loosely than the several ethics texts I have read.

    2nd point: I don't see how the interpersonal is relevant. Relativism boils down to the idea that nobody is incorrect because each creates own truth. "I like green beans" captures this nicely (though closer to subjectivism than relativism). Even if ethics is interpersonal, dialogue about fund ethical issues must be manipulation, not reasoning (if relativism is true). Indeed, subjectivism denies the interpersonal, but relativism is inconsistent with moral criticism at all. I feel x you feel y, what's the point in arguing?

    The opposite of relativism is not the belief that there is a cosmic rule in the sky.

    This is not an ad populum fallacy. I don't beleive slavery is bad because most people think so, I believe slavery is bad because it discriminates based on a morally irrelevant difference like race. The reason philosophers reject relativism is because there are correct and incorrect answers to ethical questions (see cow ex above). Also, objectivism is the belief that moral principles have objective validity whether or not people recognize them as such. That is, there are correct and incorrect answers to some ethical

    I still don't see how one can be a relativist and consistently oppose slavery no matter who does it or be a relativist and see the point in arguing about ethical matters. :)

  14. Burk: I think Anonymous would say (correct me if I'm wrong, Anonymous) that you seem to be using the term "relativism" in a different way from the way that Anonymous is. You certainly seem to be using it in a way different from how I am. I say "seems" because your language is a bit ambiguous to me.

    It sounds as if you mean by "relativism" something like the following: "What is moral and immoral is determined by something human-based rather than something 'cosmic'--and, to be more precise, by the subjective feelings/preferences of actual human beings, preferences which might in fact be different than they are."

    But this way of defining relativism is vague enough so that, while it encompasses what Anonymous and I (and most moral philosophers) mean by "relativism," it also encompasses other theories (such as preference utilitarianism) than neither anonymous nor I (nor any introductory ethics textbook author) would regard as relativism.

    For us, "relativism" holds that, for some action X to be morally impermissible (or permissible, etc.) for some agent or community A, it is sufficient that A's prevailing subjective attitudes of approval and disapproval are at odds with (or not at odds with, etc.) X's being done.

    On this definition, if A is an individual and A's prevailing subjective attitude towards the verbal humiliation and physical abuse of gays is one of approval, then the sufficient condition for the moral rightness of such humiliation and abuse exists for A, such that other considerations (e.g., the feelings and preferences of the victims of such abuse, and the feelings and preferences of allies who are appalled by it) are irrelevant to the moral status of this behavior for A. While those who are appalled by this behavior may seek to prevent it, neither their feelings nor the feelings of the victims can be invoked in a way that would warrant a judgment of ERROR on the part of A. Since the sufficient condition for this behavior being right for A exists, A is correct to believe that the abuse is right for A.

  15. I starting composing my last comment before Anonymous posted his/her response--hence the failure to take it into account.

    One other comment about the invocation of the ad populum fallacy. If ethical objectivism is correct, it follows that the majority opinion can be mistaken on moral matters. Thus, if objectivism is correct, appeal to popular opinion on moral matters IS a fallacy. That is, objectivism grounds the fallaciousness of the ad populum fallacy.

    Depending on what species of relativism you endorse, the same might not be said. If morality is relative to prevailing or dominant attitudes inculcated within a particular cultural context, then appeal to popular opinion within that culture is NOT fallacious, but is actually crucial to determining what is right/wrong.

    (It's a bit more complex than this, since being popularly approved is arguably necessary but not sufficient from something to be right on cultural relativism; some would argue that another necessary condition is that the dominant attitude is traditionally held within the culture, and that the culture has established socialization mechanism for perpetuating that attitude.)

  16. Eric-

    Thanks for a careful exposition of the terms. On those terms, I would still defend relativism, with some corrections:

    "... While those who are appalled by this behavior may seek to prevent it, neither their feelings nor the feelings of the victims can be invoked in a way that would warrant a judgment of ERROR on the part of A. Since the sufficient condition for this behavior being right for A exists, A is correct to believe that the abuse is right for A."

    The problem with this formulation is that it uses objectivist language: A is "right", A is "correct". In relativism, such concepts are meaningless. A has his or her moral position, and I in this case strenuously disagree with that stance. If we are in a community, I may try to dissude A by reason, argument, sentiment, etc. Or if others agree with me, we might, in keeping with our shared opinions, restrain A in an active way. We might even search for and find some biological variation/defect which prevents A from being "normal", which is to say in agreement with me and those who agree with me. None of this means I am "correct". Indeed, one can in this system take on various degrees of fallibilism/humility in declining to force one's views on others, for what this is worth, itself a statement of a value one holds in civility.

    On the popularity point, the above argument operates whether I am alone or in the majority. I can make my own judgements on moral preferences, but can only (typically) put them into action when they agree with others. I may call the whole world "wrong", but what I would mean as a relativist would be that I personally disagree, out of sentiment, with its positions and/or the consequences to which they lead.

    So I think our arguments (and actions) function very simarly, only I don't pursue what I believe is the chimera of "correct" and "incorrect" in morals, rather recognizing that they evolve and arise out of our sentiments, which are extensively trainable and alter-able and socially constructed. I don't even think it makes much sense to split hairs about types of utilitarianism and the like, since these are simply restatements of what one's sentiments lead to, whether universal amelioration, or some calculus of most good for the most number, or the differentiation of deserving people over the undeserving, etc. It is a political issue, not so much a philosophical one.

  17. Hi,

    It's true that we may all understand these -isms in slightly different ways – and we should be careful about this. But there remains a significant issue: is there any sense in which moral statements (“slavery is Wrong, no matter what”) are meaningful? Where is the illusive truth-maker? Lacking the latter, what are we talking about?

    Yes, there is the Hegelian approach and I can't do it justice in a paragraph. But, when it was discussed here, as a kind of successive approximation process leading to a world-view that “worked”, it seemed as much a subjective process as anything.

    There is also the question of our biology. It seems quite clear that something like our moral sense evolved naturally, probably in relation to social life. We even find elements of morality in closely related species of ape: empathy, a sense of justice, and so on. There is no doubt something we could call our “core” morality, shared by all or most humans, but a large part of our values is also conditioned by our culture.

    Perhaps there is nothing more to this. We play the morality game because we're made this way. We're horrified by slavery partly out of our biological makeup and partly from our conditioning and culture.

    One could argue that something significant is missing, I suppose. But what are the reasons to believe so?

    The argument that the above would make arguing about morality more difficult is irrelevant. Likewise arguing that we feel so strongly about some moral issues that it can't be just preference does not seem to work: why wouldn't our moral sense be implemented this way?

    One would need to establish that the evolutionary account and its subsequent take over by cultural evolution, that we know is at least part of the story, is not all of it. What is missing?

  18. Hi Anonymous

    I think the problem your argument faces is that the charges you lay agianst relativism apply equally to your definition of objectivism.

    So, to speak of human flourishing, mathematics and green beans...

    You are quite right, any two people might agree upon a definiiton of human flourishing such that it can be objectively measured, and given they also agree this is their moral goal, may then proceed to reason objectively about various ethical stances. How then are they to speak of slavery? Well, if they are to be careful, they will say something like 'given our definition of human flourishing, and the importance we place upon it, slavery is always and everywhere worng. But, we understand others may define and/or value flourishing quite differently (perhaps their goal is the flourishing of the superman), and for them, slavery might quite often be right.

    Now, if this really is what you want to define objectivism as, then the objectivist faces the relativist's problems, and cna not make globla moral statements (because, I would say, you're actually describing relativism, certainly by the terms Eric is using above).

    Mathematics is an apt analogy. If we are not realists with regard to mathematics, we say, given a set of axioms, we can reason to objective truths. But we do not say these truths have any priortiy over those derived from rival axioms (are there 180 degrees in a triangle? Depends upon the geometrical context.)

    Taste in green beans can also be made objective by your trick. Consider a panel of green bean judges at a horticultural fair. By defining first their weightings and criteria, they can reason their way to objective measurements of bean quality (or for a chef's panel, vegetable tastiness). This however is at odds with the definition of relativism Eric is pushing. He employs the term permissable, implying I think that any proper definition of objectivism requires a means of establishing what is non-permissable. Under your definition, choose the appropriate moral axioms, and anything goes.

    So there you are, you have met a consistent relativist after all.


  19. Eric

    Your clarification of relativism is helpful, and by this definition then it certainly is relativism that I am supporting in this discussion. And, to use your example regarding homosexuality, I'm further arguing that the process the relativist and the objectivist use in coming to their stance on gay marriage, for example, is identical. A difference can only occur if the objectivist is searching for a mechanism for understanding moral truths that explicitly anticipates what is morally good will not facilitate the flourishing of their human potential.

    However, if I understand you correctly, it is exactly this flourishing that underpins your sense of moral hope. If this is the case, then you and I, when considering gay marriage, are undergoing an identical process (playing out against different lifelines). And, were you and I to outline our reasons for supporting gay marriage, I think the parallels would be obvious.

    All this suggests to me that the distinction between objectivist and relativist is, as JP suggests, irrelevant.

    Still interested in your take on this.


  20. Hi Bernard,

    To be more precise concerning relativism versus objectivism, I would suggest that what objectivists are tying to do (in the sense of establishing absolute rules like “slavery is Wrong, no matter what” with universal application) is neither feasible nor necessary.

    That it is not feasible is of course open to argument – but it's for the objectivists to present a convincing case. That it is not necessary, I think, you have explained quite satisfactorily.

    There is very long tradition in moral philosophy and up until, say, 150 years ago, it was obviously impossible to take into account evolutionary theory. I don't know enough to judge, but it often seems to me that the tremendous consequences of what we learned of our origins have not yet been appreciated sufficiently.

  21. Hi Bernard,
    I don't think the objectivist faces the same problems because there are stronger and weaker definitions of flourishing. The stronger versions are based on the nature of the thing (plant example earlier).

    As for the horticulutural fair, remember the point is such green bean experts will never convince me green beans taste good, but a person could convince me Hitler is a bad man by listing objective facts about Hitler. You can talk about the texture and greeness of the beans all you want, but I still vomit when I taste them. However, ethics is different, and the rational element of ethics is not sufficiently explained by the interpersonal nature of ethics.

    And then we have this argument as well: I may say it's wrong to eat a cow because of reincarnation & that cow is grandma. You say it's ok because you don't believe in reincarnation. We share the same primary values (wrong to eat grandma) and differ on secondary values (wrong to eat cow). Reincarnation is either true or false and therefore my ethical judgment and yours is either correct or incorrect. Since there are correct and incorrect answers in ethics (at the level of secondary values), it's not all relative. There is a point to ethical argumentation. It's not just about manipulating/persuading others through causes... instead of reasons.

    The fact that feelings are an important part of the equation does not make it all relative. The fact that feelings may be primary does not make ethics all relative. You are using the word relativism much more loosely than the several ethics texts I have read.

    I think I met an antirealist or utilitarian, but not a consistent relativist. :)

  22. Anonymous-

    You sound a little like Sam Harris there. If we could put people in good-enough brain scanners so that their feelings are measurable... And if we could define human flourishing in some objective-sounding way, why then morals would achieve an objective basis.

    I don't think it works that way. I would grant that game theory provides a relatively objective baseline of what makes sense in some social interactions, but the world of morals is far richer. And however well we can scan our way into human consciousness and feeling, the decisions we make as humans still depend on how we feel that feel, not how we are told that we feel.

    Our social lives are far more complex as well than the word "flourishing" portrays. It is an endlessly complex, reflexive, and iterative process. Some people, indeed, thought it was good to eat grandma, indeed an honor and assistence to her immortal influence. As you say, in ethical reasonaing, we work from shared values, and sometimes those shared values can be quite hard to find.

    And anyhow, if feelings are conveniently redefined as objective, you are still left with feelings that really do differ, some people thinking that hate is a wonderful and positive emotion, among much else. So what is objective is different for one person than it is for another, which is not really what I would mean by the word "objective".

  23. Hi Anonymous,

    You wrote in a previous comment that A common human nature would ground objectivism. The reason being that the existence of this “core” morality would be objective.

    If this is your meaning, there are perhaps little disagreement. However, I would say that, in the context of discussing the foundations of morality, this can be misleading. As I understand it, the same formulation (objective moral value) is used by many to refer to something much stronger – rules somehow embedded in the fabric of reality, or whatever. (In other circumstances, if we were discussing the merits of torturing children for instance, I might use normative language, but essentially as a shortcut.)

    There is also (following Burk) the question of what, exactly, constitutes this “core” morality. Very possibly, we would end up with very little, with no agreement on slavery for example.

  24. Burk, even if the ethical judgment involved foundational relative beliefs based on preferences, the point is the judgment does not involve just that. Most ethical judgments are based on reasons and feelings, and most humans share foundational ethical feelings. There is objectivity in ethics because most ethical judgments are not foundational ones. Cow example...

  25. Hi JP,
    I agree there is some ambiguity. I would distinguish objectivism from absolutism, situationalism, and realism.

    Are maths rules embedded into the fabric of reality? I am not a math realist, but I believe math truths are objective.

    As for core morality, I think there is far more agreement among humans than people realize. The differences are often emphasized, but you will find common values in society because certain values are presupposed for society to exist at all and we are all one species on the same planet... except for me... I'm from a distant planet.

  26. I would have to say that there must be different types of relativism. For example, the relativism of a freshman college student is very different from the relativism presented here and in ethics texts. Eric's earlier points:

    For us, "relativism" holds that, for some action X to be morally impermissible (or permissible, etc.) for some agent or community A, it is sufficient that A's prevailing subjective attitudes of approval and disapproval are at odds with (or not at odds with, etc.) X's being done.

    On this definition, if A is an individual and A's prevailing subjective attitude towards the verbal humiliation and physical abuse of gays is one of approval, then the sufficient condition for the moral rightness of such humiliation and abuse exists for A, such that other considerations (e.g., the feelings and preferences of the victims of such abuse, and the feelings and preferences of allies who are appalled by it) are irrelevant to the moral status of this behavior for A. While those who are appalled by this behavior may seek to prevent it, neither their feelings nor the feelings of the victims can be invoked in a way that would warrant a judgment of ERROR on the part of A. Since the sufficient condition for this behavior being right for A exists, A is correct to believe that the abuse is right for A.

  27. Hi Anonymous,

    Concerning math, I would agree with Bernard that given a set of axioms, we can reason to objective truths. This makes mathematic truths conditional to the rules and axioms we adopt.

    Perhaps chess is a good analogy. Given the rules of chess and the initial condition of a game (the axioms?), we can prove “theorems” that would be true anywhere: king and queen win against king, and so on. Are these objective truths? In a sense, yes, I suppose. An interesting question: are there any “chess realists” out there?

  28. Hi Anonymous

    Forgive my tenacity, but this interests me greatly.

    I think we may well just be using different definitions here, and that's fine. I absolutely agree that there is reasoning involved in ethical decisions. My ethical stances are based upon not just my core values, but on the way I reason them out into the world. If my reasoning is faulty, or new evidence comes to hand, then I will certainly change my stance (the same is true of the way my taste for beans has developed over a lifetime, but let's leave the legumes for the moment).

    If we call this ability to reason and apply evidence to ethics objectivism, then fine, I am an objectivist. I suspect we all are. But, I would point out that I am still very much a relativist in the terms that Eric is providing, and which you have repeated above. I am a relativist in the sense that I believe ethical judgements are ultimately grounded in our personal emotional responses. By this I mean, given the right starting values, any ethical position can then be reached by reason and evidence. To use your example, I can only use reason to convince you that Hitler was wrong if we share certain values. If we don't, it will be as useless as trying to convince you that... well that beans are tasty.

    So, if it is objectivism to claim that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong, that different people will reach different conclusions based upon their initial value systems, and we have no way of distinguishing between the relative worth of these value systems, then that's the type of objectivist I am. I think the word relativist captures the essence of this better, but I have no desire to force my language choices upon you.

    Beneath the semantics though lies your original challenge. You claimed the inability of the relativist to state slavery is always wrong poses a problem for us. My counter claim is that this putative problem applies to all except those who believe they have an infallible direct dial to moral realities. And, because I suspect such people are mistaken, it's a problem for all of us. It is often levelled against relativists alone, as you initially did, and I think this is how many people are tricked into rejecting relativism. I'm still interested in your thoughts on this.


  29. Hi All,

    There's two levels. At the foundational level, it might be relative. But, according to objectivivsm, there are correct and incorrect ethical judgments at some level. So, objectivism could be true at the secondary level (wrong to eat cows) and relativism true at the primary level (wrong to eat grandma).

    So, is it really relative at the primary levl? You and JP think it is because moral realism is probably false and our shared ethical beliefs are like the rules of chess or the axioms of alternative math systems. JP seems to argue that "given a set of axioms" we can reason to objective truths, but the set of axioms are arbitrary and so relative. (I really don't think alternative maths support the arbitrary claim, but that's a different matter).

    It is true that we must share fundamental values if you are to convince me Hitler was bad. It is also true we must share beliefs about space, time, causation, multiplicity, mathematical axioms if you are to convince me about truths in math, science, etc. These truths are built in through the evolutionary process; they are shared biological ways of looking at the world. Are space, time, causation, & number real? Does it matter for the objectivity of beliefs based on them? I don't think so. The objectivity of math & science, at a deep level, is not based on realism.

    In short, does the objectivist really have to be a realist to respond to the claim that slavery is wrong no matter who does it? Does the objectivist really have to believe values are out there like we presuppose space/time are out there in order to avoid relativism? I don't think so reasons similar to why a Kantian does not have to be a realist towards the categories of the mind (space, time, causation) in order to be an objectivist.

    O f course, even if you disagree with this line of reasoning, it still seems obvious that there are correct and incorrect ethical judgments at the secondary level (even if the fundamental level is relative). But relativism denies that any ethical judgments can be correct or incorrect in this way. The cultural relativist argues judgments are correct/incorrect based on whether they conform to cult norms, but not the indiv relativists... So this is a real problem for general relativism

    There are correct and incorrect ethical judgments
    Relativism denies this
    Therefore, relativism is false

    I agree diff definitions are at work.

    1. Note: The above argument does not account for cultural relativism. Cult Relativism is just too silly... I'm addressing ind forms of relativism

  30. Hi Anonymous,

    I wonder if it is meaningful to think of moral statements as true or false. I have a lot of trouble figuring out what it could mean. In any case, I will stick to math for the moment and see if you and Bernard can sort this out.

    I introduced the analogy with chess because, as far as I know, nobody is a chess realist - rules are what they are for historical reason, essentially arbitrary (except they must lead to an interesting game). But, at the same time, chess are very much like mathematics: apply rules/axioms and see what happens.

    Can we say there are objective truths about chess? I suppose so, in a sense. For example, no matter what, White will never end up with more than 9 queens (we get 9 by promoting 8 pawns). No ET, anywhere in the universe, can ever get 10 queens by following the rules of chess. Or, something perhaps more interesting: we know that perfect play will lead to one of the following results: White wins, Black wins (unlikely), the game is draw. While we don't know which (and may never know), we know there is a truth of the matter. ETs would reach the same conclusion.

    I'm getting wildly off topic here but I wonder: what kind of truth is that? What is it about? And how can we know the result will be the same elsewhere? Are these “truths” even communicable without a reference to some physical process?

  31. Hi Anonymous

    Well, I would say the opposite, so definitions aside, we still do appear to disagree. I tend towards:
    there are no correct and incorrect ethical judgements, and objectivists deny this, so objectivism is false.

    It is unfair to claim the relativist denies correct or incorrect claims at the secondary level, as these claims are not claims about ethical stances as such, rather they are claims about the logical implications of ethical claims.

    To define a relativist as a person who does not believe in logical implications, and then charge relativists with being illogical, is to my mind a little unfair.

    So, in what sense are you claiming slavery is always and everywhere wrong? You appear to making an appeal to Kant, suggesting this is true in the way maths or scince can be objectively true. Well, in mathematics we don't say a thing is objectively true, we say a thing is a logical implication of a set of axioms. Maths has nothing to say about the desirability of one set of axioms over another, so there is no device in maths for generating 'slavery is always wrong' statements.

    In science, we don't speak of a model being objectively true either. We speak instead of it standing as our best current guess. Furthermore, the hurdle we place before a new guess is clear. Produce a novel prediction not made by the alternative model, and then show this prediction holds in the observed world (hence the hunt for the Higgs particle). The appearance of the previously unexpected suggests a rleationship between the model and reality, even if the fit need not be tight. So, even accounting for a Kantian divergence between the observed and unobserved world, we have good reason to speak of best guesses.

    Now, is there a equivalent to this in the moral landscape? What is the process by which you propose convergence of moral judgements?

    We widely accept the world is round, yet on this sphere we find more slavery than at any other time in history. So, if we use your example, there's precious little empirical sign of convergence. Whatever the proposed mechanism, it's not working all that well.

    There's also a point to be cleared up between you and Eric. You are saying, I think, that objective truth is just convergence, whereas he is explictly stating that for the objectivist, everybody can be wrong in their moral judgement. There appear to be a range of definitions floating about here.


  32. Hey Bernard & JP,
    Bernard, Pojman defines objectivism as the idea that "moral rightness or wrongness does not depend on social approval but on such independent considerations as whether the act or principle promotes human flourishing or ameliorates human suffering" (Ethics, Discovering Right or Wrong).

    JP, I think the earlier cow example shows how one can be correct or incorrect in their secondary moral judgment. As for your other points, I'm afraid I'd get wildly off this topic if I even tried to answer them. So, I'll just say I don't know for now...

    Bernard, Rachels defines cultural relativism as involving the idea that there is no objective standard to judge one's society code as better than another. There are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times. He goes on to criticize it (Elements of Moral Philosophy). He also defines subjectivism and emotivism in the next chapters, which, I think, is closer to what you believe. He criticizes them as well. Basically along the lines that dispute is meaningless in ethics if they are true...

    Anyway, I think there are correct/incorrect ethical judgments and I've already given an example (cow). You might say the correctness derives from the logical inferences not the foundational values, but the point is there are correct/incorrect and better/worse answers at some level of ethical debate. This is a really important counter to various forms of relativism and subjectivism, though perhaps not antirealism.

    This counters especially the freshman student and many others who throw up their hands and say, "Well, who's to say what's right?" It's all opinion and value. Usually, they say this when they cannot win an ethical argument.

    well, what one discovers in the study of ethics is most people do share foundational ethical beliefs and therefore there are consistent/inconsitent answers and I would even say correct and incorrect answers on issues like euthanasia, whether it's good to eat a cow, etc.

    Such a student is not consistent in so many ways, but relativism is a refuge because even if they lose the argument, they can take refuge in the idea that they can change their foundational values.

    As for your deeper points, I hope I am not saying ethics is just convergence. My reasoing is one could have foundational ethical beliefs without knowing it. The fact that we share ways of constituting reality does not mean everyone has discovered these ways. People could believe they believe x when really the believe y. I see it all the time when discussing ethical problems like the trolley dilemma. It's as if they believe space/time are absolute, but on further investigation they realize they don't because said belief is inconsistent with their other beliefs/observations. If I am proposing convergence (I'll have to think about it), it's at a much deeper level than culture or individual... it's at the species level. And it's not a conversion everyone is aware of. So, if we want to keep playing with possible meanings of relativism, I imagine I could be an interspecies relativist in a certain sense. :)

  33. Hi Anonymous

    Thanks for sticking with this. I still disagree, and not quite for the reasons you think.

    The cow example is a good one. On the one hand, people may share ethical beliefs, that it is wrong to eat one's grandmother, but disagree on a matter of physical reality (is there any such thing as reincarnation?) Now, let's say there was a method of objectively establishing the facts of the matter with regard to reincarnation. Does this method itself constitute ethical reasoning? I'd say not at all.

    A person believes it is wrong to kill for entertainment, yet decides it would be mightily entertaining to fire a high powered rifle at a child. Does the process of explaining the physical consequences of this firing constitute ethical reasoning? No, it's simply reasoning about physical cause and effect. So when you say we can be right or wrong at some level of ethical debate, I dispute this. We can be right or wrong about physical realities pertinent to an ethical debate (will drone killings in Pakistan realy reduce the risk of terrorism?) but this is not the same thing at all.

    The objectivism you appear to be supporting (choose a goal, any goal, then reason your way toward the most probable way of achieving it) has exactly the same flaw as relativism. It can not support a universal statement such as 'slavery is always wrong'. To counter the statement, simply change the goal.

    The only way around this is to establish that some goals have a validity independent of personal/cultural influences. Here we can appeal to biology and assert that evolution may have produced some sort of moral imperatives, that are imperivous to cultural influence. People may, as you claim, may share some foundational beliefs. This is objectivity as convergence, and I'm open to its demonstration. I don't think it has ever been demonstrated, however, and your slave example highlights the weakness.

    Furthermore, some of the prime biological suspects (might is right, kin trumps stranger, vengeance is desirable) appear to fly in the face of current cultural mores. We are given our nature that we might rise above it, as the saying goes.

    So, still a relativist and still, I claim, quite consistent. And still not sure how you, as an objectivist, could establish slavery is always wrong.


  34. Bernard,

    It doesn't sound like you are a relativist in the sense Pojman or Rachels defines above. So, we go back to the def game.

    I think one thing we can agree on is that most ethical judgments involve both values and reasons, so one cannot just say it's ok to eat a cow if we prove reincarnation and you hold that belief about it being wrong to eat gma. Ethics is not an anything goes game because there are fund values most people will hold to when honest and their secondary values either in fact do maximize or don't maximize them. Also, their sec values are either consistent or inconsistent with them. There is a point to arguing about the moral permissibility of abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, etc. There are at least better and worse answers, even if you want to avoid the true/false language of the cognitivist.

    I think this is a first and important step for the relativist. It moves us beyond certain crude forms of relativism.

    It's also interesting to explore why cognitive relativism (not ethical relativism) is false. For example, it is objectively false that Michael Jackson was the first president of the U.S. I cannot go back in time and prove it, but I think we all agree that historical methods reasonably support this position in an objective way. It is objectively false that MJ was the first president. I am a realist about the past and I think , based on real and physical evidence, that he wasn't the first president. He was a singer very popular in the 1980's. Right?

  35. Hi Anonymous

    Clearly these types of discussions force upon us a brevity that precludes a full development of our position. Someone with philosophical training may take the short cut of referencing an established school, or 'ism'. I relaise when I choose a word like relativism, I am necessarily misrepresenting myself against these standards. And so, unless we are tremendously careful, there is a certain amount of time devoted to pseudo-disagreements.

    I will try to focus on where I think the fundamental disagreement, rather than the semantic one, lies. I think we disagree about fundamental beliefs being shared. I don't think I have any fundamental values, so much as I have a fundamental goal, which is personal fulfilment.

    I then form beliefs, through a largely instinctive, and culturally informed process of trial and error, about how best to achieve this goal. A value-laden narrative develops, an attempt to make meaning of my life. This narrative is constrained by biology, by physics and by culture, but the process is personal and dynamic. Narrative creates action, which creates consequence, which creates narrative. For this reason, no two people share the same narrative.

    What do I mean when I say an action is right or wrong? I mean the way it fits within my narrative is desirable or undesirable to me.

    Perhaps it is wrong to speak in terms of objective or subjective, and better to think of a continuum of constraint. In the physical world, the constraints are very tight, because these narratives have a predictive component independent of belief (step off the top of a tall building, and watch nature laugh at our cognitive relativism).

    In the emotional world, however, I believe it is quite possible to build internally consistent models that contradict one another, and in this sense I am a moral relativist (subjectivist?) Is it right to eat a cow? This, I suspect, can only be answered in relation to personal narratives, and these narratives are not sufficiently constrained by the outside world to produce convergence.

    In other words, you could put up any argument for eating/not eating cow, and I can construct a counter argument that does not require an appeal to implausible value systems. On this issue, whether we agree or not will depend upon cultural/narrative convergence.


  36. Hi Anonymous,

    Cognitive relativism... Well, we know the Earth is roundish because we can check it out, we know MJ was not the first president because we can check it out, we know there were once dinosaurs because... That's the whole idea of science: we can check things out. Of course, all tentatively, with various probabilities, with ways to detect errors, and so on.

    But how would we know slavery is wrong? Popularity and consensus are no guide, there were times, I suppose, when slavery was considered ok. How can we know that we're right and they were wrong? Why not the opposite? Or perhaps we just have different values?

  37. Hi Bernard,
    I agree they are pseudo arguments, but I also maintain I am using the word relativism in the way it is presented in most ethics books.

    If your goal is personal fulfillment, then you are an ethical egoist, not a relativist. The right thing is not arbitrary, it's whatever is in your self interest.

    Your narrative comments are interesting, but it's really hard to discuss the matter further if we don't even agree on the word relativism. Isn't it?

    consider Eight Alternatives to Ethical Relativism as I use the term:
    1) Intuitionism: One’s intuition tells a person whether an action is right or wrong. Intuition is like a sixth sense that accesses an invisible world of moral values and truths. Intuitionists are not ethical relativists because they use intuition to judge cultural and individual moral codes.
    2) Religious Ethics: Moral values exist as an objective reality at the ground of all Being, and God is the source of right and wrong, whether people recognize it or not. Some people believe God gives an intellect or intuition to people so they can discover these objective values, while others emphasize God’s commands as a source of morality. Whatever the case, this type of morality often conflicts with cultural norms and individual preferences. A religious person is not a cultural or individual relativist, though she may believe all moral judgments are relative to God’s Will.
    3) Utilitarianism: An action is right if it maximizes the greatest consequences for everyone (greatest happiness for the greatest number) and wrong if it does not. In evaluating an action, one should look at the effects on everyone, not merely cultural or individual moral preferences.
    4) Kantian Ethics: An action is right if it is done for the right reason (i.e. from rational duty) and treats every person as an end and not merely as a means. In evaluating an action, one should look at motivation and consider the rights of each individual. One should not simply consult cultural or individual moral codes.
    5) Ethical Egoism: An action is right if it is in one’s self interest. One should act against cultural moral codes and individual preferences if they are not in one’s self interest.
    6) Virtue Ethics: An action is right if a virtuous person would do it and the action maximizes a certain type of happiness or flourishing. Cultural norms and individual moral codes often fail to maximize this type of happiness or flourishing.
    7) Social Contract Theory: An action is right if it keeps the social order in place, which ideally best serves everyone’s self interest. One should reject cultural and individual beliefs that destabilize this ideal order.
    8) Survival Value: Some have argued that an action is right if it leads to the survival of the individual or species. This is an alternative to all forms of relativism since one should reject cultural and individual moral codes that do not maximize survival.

  38. Howdy JP,
    I agree with your first paragraph, but I don't think all knowledge is scientific. However, in the examples above, I agree the objectivity arises from being "able to check things out" as you put it.

    As for your slavery question, it is a great question. I think it is wrong because it violates the principle of equality and discriminates against people based on morally irrelevant differences. There are other reasons why it is wrong as well.

    But, I understand your point. I cannot look through a telescope and see a "wrongness" particle attached to slavery, murder, etc. Somebody can always disagree and live in a world consistent with their disagreement. But I think this implies antirealism, not relativism. However, this is not what I am arguing...

    I am arguing that it doesn't matter why you think slavery is wrong no matter who does it, the point is that , if you believe such, it is inconsistent with e relativism.

    If ethical relativism is true, then “Slavery is wrong” is the same type of relativistic claim as “Green Beans taste good” in that nobody is incorrect. But, why would a relativist get upset about slavery if he really believed all moral claims are relative (like the taste of green beans)? Perhaps, the relativist does not really believe it is all relative? The point is that his relativistic beliefs are inconsistent with his judgment about slavery. He must be basing his moral judgments on something other than mere cultural preferences or individual tastes.

    If moral judgments were like judgments of taste then one could say “Green beans are bad no matter who tastes them just as genocide is bad no matter who is doing it.” The point is that most people do not really believe these claims are equivalent. This is why intelligent people argue about moral matters over the dinner table, but not about the taste of green beans. If you believe this, then it logically follows that you do not believe moral judgments are analogous to matters of taste and, therefore, your moral system is inconsistent with the tenets of ethical relativism.

    Most people are one of the 8 options above, not relativists... in my experience.

    Also, let's just say I cannot prove slavery is wrong, but I still believe it is wrong no matter who does it. Isn't that just as inconsistent with relativism.

    Also, Bernard, I don't think the objectivist faces the same problem. The utilitarian can explain slavery is wrong because it does not max consequences. The egoist because it does not max self interest. and so on...

    Of course, I know there is a great deal of ambiguity and pseudodebate here... but you can at least see in the last 2 posts the meaning I've learned to attach to words.

  39. Hi Anonymous,

    Apparently, “relativism” has a cloud of arbitrariness about it – the way it’s technically used, I guess. I certainly won’t say moral judgments are arbitrary. Perhaps “subjectivism” would be better?

    In any case, here’s the thing. “Wrongness” does not seem to be a property of, say, slavery in itself, but of the conjunction of slavery with an agent. Mathematically speaking, we could say wrongness is a property of the pair (Agent, Action). Different agent, different judgment. Wrongness happens (or not) when a specific agent encounters a specific action. (Similar to beauty, perhaps.)

    Of course, if two agents belong to the same in-group, there is a good chance these judgments will be similar. In other words, the mapping (Agent, Action) => Judgment displays a form of (pseudo-)continuity. Perhaps a peculiar way to look at this though…

  40. Hi JP,
    I agree with that sounding reasonable. I agree morality could be seen as a pair of glasses through which we see the world. The value is not out there, it's added to our thinking by the glasses through which we view the world. This is the view of David Hume.

    Hume argued we cannot logically derive an ought from an is. Sam Harris disagrees, but I read Harris' book, and unfortunately I don't think he bridges the is/ought gap.

    So, yes, we could just be describing how we feel about actions and since we have the same DNA, same planet, etc. , we will probably feel in similar ways. The Moral Realist disagrees and says rightness/wrongness are out there in some way. But in Hume's View, Virtue and Vice are added by the observer (though not necessarily consciously or freely).

    Moore disagrees with Hume and argues we have a sort of sixth sense or intuition to detect real rightness/wrongness. But no explanation is given for how this intuition works...

    The problem with Hume's glasses model is that it cannot explain the possibility of moral mistakes- mistakes that we do make. For example, when I say killing is wrong, I cannot be mistaken because I am just expressing my personal disapproval of killing. If I feel killing is wrong, it makes it wrong for me. If you feel it is right, then it is right for you. We're both correct. or at least not incorrect.

    But this absurd? Surely, we can be mistaken about what's right and wrong? Surely, there's a point to arguing about ethical matters. The cow example, etc. if the glasses model is correct, we cannot be mistaken... but we are mistaken in some cases. Therefore, ethics is not merely subjective.

    Relativism as i defined is obviously false. Relativism as you and Bernard are thinking of it is much trickier. I am inclined to agree with you and Hume, but I know I'm inconsistent because ethics is not just about reporting my subjective whims... it involves reason giving and obj better and worse answers.

  41. Hi Anonymous

    Thanks for the list. I'm not an ethical egoist as you describe it here, but let's leave definitions aside and address the more interesting question, under what circumstances can we say slavery is always wrong?

    Your list is instructive. There are indeed many potential ethical backdrops to choose from, and each of these, in essence, sets a goal for our behaviour (provides our viewing glasses, as you say). With a goal in place, we can reason sensibly about ethics. Does behaviour A help me achieve my ethical goal? becomes an objective question. Hence your cow/grandmother example. I think of these goals as forming part of my personal narrative.

    This type of objectivity does not yet give us licence to say slavery is always wrong, because we acknowledge it will turn out to be right when measured against some sets of ethical goals (the goal of glorifying the King, for example).

    To achieve this meta-objectivity, we need to believe that one set of ethical goals is superior to the others. I can think of three ways we might might justify such a belief. The first is, I might be a moral realist who believes I have been given access to the true set of standards, via intuition, sacred text, tradition etc. The second is, I might believe that pure reason has shown one set of goals to be superior (a la Kant, for example) and the third is, I might argue that human nature is such that any person, possesed of the relevant facts, would plump for the same set of goals (essentially how the scientific case for a best guess is made). A person holding to any of the three above meta-ethical frameworks (and there may be others), can consistently say, slavery is always wrong.

    I don't hold to any of the above, and so say the statement slavery is always wrong is meaningless, as Should only makes sense in relation to a goal (we should clean our teeth in order to avoid tooth decay). If a universal ethical goal doesn't exist, then nor can ethical judgements hold universally.

    In this sense I am a meta-ethical relativist, ethics hold relative to goals, and no one set of goals has priority. Or you might say an ethical sceptic, all ethical claims are meaningless until measured against a set of goals, and these goals do not themselves have ethical status.

    This doesn't imply that we can't reason about ethics, or use normative language. So long as we are dealing in shared goals, both things are possible and by some standards (mine included), desirable.

    I should add that the third method of establishing meta-ethical objectivity strikes me as the most promising, and I'm open to demonstration. Like you, I think Sam Harris fails in this task.


    1. Bernard,

      Glad you enjoyed the list. :)

      Sometimes I think It's as if we were playing chess and you used your pawn to capture 4 of my pieces. I say that's not fair. You say, "Well, the fundamental rules of chess are abitrary, so no objective rules apply at this secondary level either."

      According to this type of reasoning, math is not objective either. But, I think mathematics is objective even though you could create a consistent math that is based on different foundations. It's still objective... one needs only try building a building with a 2+2=5 math instead of a 2+2=4 math. The building will not work. There is objectivity even if the foundations could be shown arbitrary. BTW, I think the goal of math is to predict and control the world and play around with logical consistency and the frameworks of human thinking.

      Again, I could always just disagree with your mathematical foundational truths and create my own consistent math system. But my math system must still be consistent and useful in the world. What makes it useful? It's ability to control and predict and be consistent. So, math is objective, but its foundations are arbitrary. Water is wet, though its parts are dry. Not a problem.

      Your questions are essentially asking me to derive an ought from an is. That is a meta-ethical magic trick I am not capable of. But, again, I don't think we have to resolve those tricky metaethical issues to be an objectivist in normative ethics. See 8 Alternatives.

      I think the reason we have productive ethical discussions in real life is because people do indeed share many foundational values (Whether they know it or not). Also, People change their minds not just because of changing emotions, but because of changing beliefs about facts.

      I don't think slavery is foundational, but I think good reasoning based on the near universal values of wanting to survive and respecting what philosophers call the principle of equality will lead to the conclusion that slavery is wrong. Look at history. Supporters of slavery accepted principles of equality, but they disagreed and supported their biases with pseudoscience. With an appeal to dubious facts about the nature of negroes, so they could avoid the implications of the principle of equality...

      The same occurs in the homosexuality debate...

      BTW, this is why the objectivist is not inconsistent about slavery. The position on slavery is based on principle of equality and facts; so there is truth value that slavery is wrong; it's a moral fact that slavery is wrong for the objectivist.

      Even if someone disagrees, I believe slavery is wrong. I believe the supporter of slavery has not sufficiently worked out his belief based on the principle of equality. Perhaps, he is not even aware he has said belief.

      Now, the ethical realtivist cannot hold that it's true and be consistent. However, I agree with you that the meta-ethical relativist could hold that it is a meaningless statement. But there are interesting logical consequences to holding it is meaningless. For example, why argue about meaningless statements?

      In short, I don't think you have to work out the superiority of a fundamental belief (over other beliefs) in order to get objectivity.

  42. Hi Anonymous

    I've no time this weekend, so briefly:

    You appear to want to have your cake and eat it. You are in fact appealing to a universal ethic (equality in this case) to get slavery over the line. Fair enough, but the burden is on you to show why this equality ethic holds.

    So, although you say you don't have to work out superiority to get objectivity, this is exactly the principle you're appealing to in your above argument. How then do you establish this superiority? I think you're claiming that historically, there is a tendency towards this type of progress re slavery, and equating this to the fact that some maths systems are more real world useful than others.

    Your challenge then is to establish what holds as ethically useful, and convince me this can't be reduced to ethnocentric cant. I find this approach tremendously tempting myself, but I've never seen anybody make a convincing job of it.

    Interested to see you try, though.


  43. Bernard,

    I would say you have shifted the burden of proof. I don't have to prove such to support objectivism, I only have to show moral rightness or wrongness does not depend on social approval or ind preference but on such independent considerations as whether the act or principle promotes human flourishing or ameliorates human suffering" (Ethics, Discovering Right or Wrong).

  44. Anonymous-

    That is already a subjective stance. In many times and places, the promotion of human flourishing and amelioration of human suffering takes a distinct back seat to the promotion of my flourishing and the amelioration of my suffering, with little regard, indeed antagonistic disregard, for the condition of others. My self-interest may eventually turn into a more general sympathy, but that presupposes a lot of social structure and other subjectively cultivated attitudes. Then there are the villains in every Bond film whose highest goal is the promotion of human suffering.

    In any case, your stance is not at all "independent", but is pulled out of your subjective hat, as it were.

  45. But the problem with the relativism we are debating is that it implies ethics is meaningless, but it's not meaningless, so ethics is not entirely relative. There's a point to ethical discussions and there are correct and incorrect answers in ethics; there are moral facts. . . at the secondary level.

    Even the fact that ethics may eventually depend on something subjective, does not mean it only depends on the subjective. Relativism implies nobody is incorrect, but there are correct and incorrect positions in ethics (cow example). It is , therefore, too simplistic to say ethics is relative.

    Here's where I am willing to agree with you two. At a meta-ethical level, some form of deep relativism may be true (assuming intuitionism, religious ethics, and moral realism are false). However, at the secondary level, relativism is inconsistent and false (especially in forms like cult relativism, subjectivism, emotivism, and the freshman student who bows out of ethical debate because he thinks it's all relative).

    Also, the fact that realism implies objectivism does not mean objectivism implies realism (the fallacy of affirming the consequent).

  46. Hi Anonymous

    Well, it seems we are perilously close to agreeing, always a pleasing outcome. Absolutely, if one is to push the relativist into the 'there is no such thing as ethical reasoning' corner, then I see no chance of fighting out of that spot. It strikes me as an odd definition of relativism, as it presupposes all reasoning is fallacious (reasoning about ethics from agreed starting points is just reasoning about cause and effect relative to that starting point) but I'll take your word that some people hold to it and join you in dismissing them as misguided.

    At the meta-ethical level, relativism may hold, and those like me who think it does base this belief upon a rejection of moral realism, intuitionism, bottom up rationality and the like. Something that appears to have been left dangling is this business of slavery being always wrong. If we hold meta-ethical relativism, then we are claiming that the statement 'slavery is always wrong' can not be made. (An appeal to the principle of equality, for example, works only for those who accept the principle, for those who don't, slavery may well be objectively right at the secondary, or reasoned, level). This remains as much a problem for your second tier objectivism as it does for any type of relativist, does it not?


  47. Let's change the subject back to this original point then. If I am an objectivist and I say "slavery is wrong no matter who does it" there is no contradiction precisely because I am an objectivist and I believe I can add the 'no matter who does it.' What supports my objectivism? Well, it could be many things, but the point is that the slavery statement is not inconsistent with this objectivism.

    There are many things supporting my belief that 2+2=4 (but none I think decisively), yet I still hold it in an objective way.

    If I say slavery is wrong no matter who does it and I am a relativist I have contradicted myself because, for a relativist, it may be ok for someone else who chooses it as ok. RElativism at any level will be inconsistent with such claims. Again, that doesn't mean any relativists support slavery, it just means they are inconsistent if they oppose it in such a way.

    There are many reasons why one might be an objectivist, but whatever the reason, the objectivist is not contradicting his ethical position like the relativist is.

    1. There's a difference between lacking full justification at a meta-ethical level (which, BTW, is a difficulty many disciplines face)and presenting an inconsistent theory.

  48. Hi Anonymous

    If you are an objectivist, then absolutely, there is no inconsistency. Now, you claim there's a difference between lacking full justification, and presenting an inconsistent theory. That depends upon the context, and in this context there is an inconsistency.

    Let's say, for sake of argument, you accept meta-ethical relativism. That suggests, when you say slavery is always wrong, you accept that at least some people may have a different set of primary goals/values that will lead them to use an entirely valid line of reasoning and arrive at the conclusion that slavery is sometimes acceptable. (Let's say their primary goal is the glory of the king).

    Now, under meta-ethical relativism, there is no mechanism for holding one set of primary goals has priority. Hence they, like you, are being objective, yet their version of objectivity leads them to a conclusion that directly contradicts yours. It then becomes inconsistent to sate slavery is always wrong, if you hold another person could 'objectively' reason their way to a contradictory conclusion.

    So, it is not the relativist who suffers an inconsistency here, but rather the objectivist who allows the possibility of relativity at the meta-ethical level. Your argument suffers from exactly the type of inconsistency you have been referenced, unless you pul back from the possibility of meta-ethical relativity.


  49. Bernard, the relativist is still inconsistent. I see nothing in the last post showing otherwise

    Also, if your main argument in the last post holds, then mathematics is not objective. According to your reasoning, since there are several objective versions of mathematics, and there is no mechanism for choosing one set of math axioms for another, then my belief that "2+2=4" is relative, not objective.

    Another way to get at the meta-relative nature of math is to consider a Kantian Approach.

    Either way, your argument results in absurdities in math (e.g. it's not objectively true that 2+2=4), so I am forced to reject it.

    I don't believe the meta-ethical status of something necessarily determines its objectivity, though it is important to a realist approach on that matter

  50. Anonymous- re 2+2=4, It sounds a bit like you are saying that if one wants a peaceful life, then war is bad. Or that, if one values freedom and equality, then slavery is bad, always and everywhere.

    Those are true enough, and even objective, by your math analogy, (in the mode of syllogism), but very much begging the basic questions that ethics are about. .. About what we do value, both ideally, and far more importantly, in the realistic setting of countless competing and countervailing values and conditions.

  51. Hi Anonymous

    There's no absurdity in the maths case. Under the axioms of base ten arithmetic, 2+2=4 holds. It is objectively true, given the axioms.

    Equally, under some axioms, slavery is bad holds, whereas under others it doesn't. Hence, we can't say slavery is always wrong, any more than we can say 2+2 always equals four (under base 4 arithmetic, 2+2 = 10. Or consider that two puddles plus two more puddles often equals one big puddle).

    What you haven't yet addressed is how, without resorting to a form of meta-ethical objectivity, you reject the person who claims, according to their meta-goal of glorifying the king, or maximising the satisfaction of their family members, or any other number of potential goals, that slavery is sometimes right. The best you can do, I think, is to argue that their goals are less valid than yours, which makes you a meta-ethical objectivist. Now, that's fine. Many people are. The relativist will of course want to know how you decided your goals were more valid than those of others.

    Upon occasions during this discussion you've referenced the hope that a Kantian framework might rescue you. If I understand you correctly, this is an appeal to a sort of objectivity by nature. Our minds shape the world in a certain way, and this shaping confines us to particular ethical reference points (in the same way that in our descriptions of the physical world, we are forced to reference time and space).

    I'm not sure what the the ethical reference points you have in mind are. Imagining existence beyond time and space appears to be impossible. What are the imaginative impossibilities of ethical discourse you have in mind?

    The relativist isn't inconsistent because, and I'm sorry if I've been at all unclear here, we don't hold slavery is always wrong. We might say, if one values equality of opportunity, then slavery is inconsistent with this goal. Or we might say I personally find slavery abhorrent and wish to live in a world where it doesn't exist. Where is the inconsistency?


  52. But the point is you cannot say "2+2=4" is objectively true under that argument. But it is objectively true, regardless of the arbitrary foundations of math. In my opinion, The arbitrary foundations do not affect the objectivity of 2+2=4.

    As for the meta-ethical foundations, I think I have already explained how I can still be an objectivist. The best analogy is the math one. The second point was the distinction between primary and sec values and how one can believe in obj secondary values (correct/incorrect), but this correct/incorrect implies relativim is wrong because relativism implies no moral truths are correct/incorrect. Truly, it seems you are more concerned with the primary meta-level and I am more concerned with the secondary level (because I think most people feel & believe the same way foundationally), but it is very important to take account of the secondary since it includes ethical judgments that truly are correct or incorrect.... there is a point to debating ethical discussions; ethics is not mere emotional ejaculation at this level. To say ethics is all relative is misleading because it disregards meaningful discourse at this second level. This is why we do make progress when we debate ethical topics, people do change their minds, and so on.

    Now, your last paragraph says that relativists might say "I personally find slavery abhorrent and wish to live in a world where it doesn't exist." If this is the case, and you are arbitrarily ejaculating an emotional preference in regards to slavery, then your statement is neither true nor false, neither consistent nor inconsistent. But to say it's consistent would then be just as mistaken as saying it's inconsistent, because, under your interpretation, your statement has no truth value at all... except in the sense of you truly reporting your feelings of slavery or not. This is because it is like you saying "Booo slavery, and I don't want it."

    So, the reason I never encounter consistent relativists is because, upon further discussion, they do indeed feel and believe that some things really are just wrong... for some reasons they don't fully understand. Both their emotional reactions and beliefs are based on such "objectivist" understandings. If you can consistently live in such framework, then I would admit that you are, at least, not inconsistent (though I wouldn't say you were consistent since emotional pref are neither true nor false, and statements must have truth value to be consistent in the logical sense). The big problem is when I get to know such people, their other ethical beliefs contradict their cult relativism, emotivism, subjectivism, or meta-ethical relativism. It is very difficult to align all your ethical beliefs with such systems.

    In the end, I don't think one has to be a realist, religious person, or intuitionist to be an objectivist. That is my general view. One can be a naturalist, atheist, nonrealist objectivist.

  53. Hi Anonymous

    the maths analogy interests me. I'm not sure the fit is exact, but in terms of a primary and secondary level of reasoning there's a good comparison. So, I'm not sure yet what you mean when you say 2+2 = 4 is an objective fact. I could devise a rule of arithmetic (for addition, count up and round to the next prime) where 2+2 = 5. Or I could envisage a circumstance in the phsical world (a swimmer is completing lengths, and I am measuring their distance from me) where 2+2 = 0. So, by objective fact, do you mean, is true under certain circumstances, or are you trying to make a broader claim? What is this claim? I'm not quite with you yet.

    Now, sometimes you appear to dismiss the primary level relativism. You say you are interested in the secondary level, because people feel and believe the same way foundationally. This is exactly where I disagree with you. It is, I think, a very bold claim and a difficult one to establish. If you think of something like the clash between values of freedom and equality, then we see very different instincts in play in superficially similar societies (The US vs NZ). But without this claim, your claim that slavery is always wrong does reduce to the maths version: slavery is always wrong, under certain systems of belief.

    You've not yet explained to me how you've extended this slavery example to those with different starting points. I suspect you just think their starting points are invalid. But why?

    I don't dispute that one can be a naturalist, nonrealist objectivist. It's a valid position to adopt, I think, but it does require some mechanism for establishing shared foundations. I've never seen that worked through in a way that feels convincing, which is why I reject it. I understand that you find it difficult to imagine living in such a way that ethical statements have no truth value, but that is indeed how it is for me, and it works very well.


    1. Bernard,
      By objectively true that 2+2=4 I mean that the claim is correct and that 2+2=5 is incorrect. The fact that you can devise other maths does not affect this objectivity. First, if you develop an alternative math, it is still objectively true that 2+2=4 within the first maths context. You then have objective truths in the second alternative system.
      Also, your swimmer example is playing with ambiguity, not relativism. The swimmer has traveled 4, +2 from me and -2 from me. It’s rather similar to someone who argues that 2+2=8 because they put 4 reproductive rabbits in a pin and had 8 in the pin some time later. This, again, is ambiguity, not relativism. Once one clears up the terms and expresses them correctly, each possible meaning is either true or false. In short, there is a difference between ambiguity and relativism.
      Again, If I say the pitcher is on the mound, I could mean water pitcher or baseball pitcher. Once I recognize the ambiguity, each possible meaning is either true or false. It’s ambiguous, not relative.
      We are repeating ourselves a bit, but I will restate my position in response to the rest of your post. You don’t need values to be physical or universally agreed upon at the primary level to be objective.

    2. The problem with your form of relativism (at both primary and secondary level) is you cannot believe in progress... Because there is no ‘better than,’ only ‘different than’ under this form of relativism. Such a relativist must believe we have not made progress in Civil Rights, and anything that happens in regards to homosexuals will not be progress.

      It is rather like either liking or disliking the green beans on the table, there is no progress, just satisfaction of arbitrary desires/tastes.
      Also, this relativism of yours implies that There really is no point to rational discussion in ethics since ethical statements have no truth value for such a relativist. Rather, if you are consistent, you must see ethical discussion as a matter or pathos, ethos, manipulation… but not reason. Reasons don’t really apply, only causes. Try to manipulate but not discover rationally for all is arbitrary.
      And so the genetic fallacy constantly arises as people attempt to explain the origins of beliefs instead of their consistency or justification.
      There is no need for logos if ethics is permeated with arbitrariness.
      The objectivist may believe slavery is wrong for any number of reasons. They may take it as foundational. They may derive it from empathy and pref utilitarianism. They may be social contractarians who believe It is needed for the flourishing of society. The objectivist may believe slavery is wrong 'no matter what' for any number of reasons. But the relativist (I mean your form of relativism) does not believe such, cannot believe such. This is because the “no matter what” implies that ethical statements at some level have truth value.
      I know you say it works for you (ethical statements having no truth value), but something could work well for someone and still be inconsistent with their other beliefs or just false. Also, my belief that fairies run my car may work well for me... until I have to fix my car

  54. Hi Anonymous,

    If I may jump in again...

    I believe something like this is the case: morality arose naturally through evolutionary means; it is a very malleable process and can be largely “configured” through culture (and has obviously been).

    Now, a form of empathy is certainly part of our “programming”, so to speak. Does that make empathy “true”? Does that make rules somehow deduced from empathy “true”? It seems to me a very peculiar use of the idea of true and false.

    What may be objectively true, say, is that some form of empathy is “built-in”. But what may not be is the scope of this empathy: does it apply only to our in-group? To all those sharing our lifestyle? To humankind? Does that include animals? And if our built-in moral system can adapt to any of these cases, what would make one more true than the other?

    As a fun experiment, consider this: suppose a very advanced ET civilization sends a starship to study Earth. Now, it so happens that these ET believe slavery is right and, seeing how corrupted we are in condemning it, decide to cure us (see, they are not only advanced, but very nice). Using very advanced technology they succeed in changing our brains in such a way that the only change in us is that we now “understand” slavery is right. They're so good that the change is minimal: our taste in music and art, our culture, etc., stay just the same – except what concerns our idea of slavery.

    Would that make slavery right, no matter what?

  55. JP, I think there is an overemphasis on how much culture molds morality. For example, there are 7 universal emotions in the human species. We have learned to read faces for these emotions, despite cultural differences, we can accurately read such faces. That is, a facial expression means the same in each culture. There is universality of emotion, and, of course, there are also culturally distinct emotions, etc. But don't forget the universal ones in all this. While the 1950s anthropologists emphasized cultural differences, there is much everyone has in common. After all, we are one species, similar genetic code, walking under the same planet, under the same sun. We have common metaphors such as sunlight representing illumination, enlightenment, goodness, or what have you. And we have common values. True, we may weigh them differently, but because we are one species and some values are presupposed for society to exist at all, there is universality at the primary level.So, yes, I believe it is quite reasonable to believe there are shared fundamental/primary values.

    However, my arguments for objectivism do not really depend on this.

    One point all three of you seem to miss is that mathematics is objective even though it's foundations are somewhat arbitrary. For example, I can derive math truths like 2+2=4 from the principle that parallel lines never meet. Let's say you start with a different principle (parallel lines do meet) and you create a consistent and obj math based on that. This does not change the fact that it is objectively true that 2+2=4. It is false that 2+2=5 with the first math context, EVEN though my primary beliefs (parallel lines never meet) may be unjustified and no better than the principle that they do meet (since an objective math can also be based on the latter). The fact that the primary beliefs are unjustified is irrelevant to secondary objectivity.

    So if aliens changed our foundational beliefs (parallel lines do now meet) does that mean our old math was inconsistent or relative? No, there is something about maths that remain objective.

    Likewise there is something about ethics that is objective.

  56. Burk,

    I tried to address your point in the last post.

  57. Anonymous-

    Thanks for working through this.

    The progress I believe in is, to put it bluntly, progress towards my preferred view of how things should work. So the relativist believes in progress perfectly well, but as part of the differing perspectives mix, not by way of some "view from nowhere".

    I recognize that most people have similar aims and thus have similar morals, which is why the jalopy keeps going forward at all. But that is no argument for objectivity, only that, given subjective beings built in certain typical ways to feel certain things, they will have similar preferences and characteristic conflicts, both internally about conflicting goals, and externally about conflicting selfish interests. (But some will take up masochism!) That gives agreement, but not objectivity.

    I certainly agree that, given a common goal, say giving children education, (arrived at by way of other chains of moral reasoning), we can conclude that some kind of professionalized education system would be the objective result getting us from desire A to result B. But the question about morals and ethics always is mostly about how those activating desires really arise and how we juggle their various imperative demands.

    In your terms, the primaty level is by far the most important one.

    1. Burk, I briefly replied in JPs post , but not fully.
      A fuller reply to your post is in Bernard's Reply.

      The word progress is ambiguous and you and I are, therefore, talking past each other. See my reply to Bernard to see why the type of progress that implies better/worse is inconsistent with relativism.

      Also, in Bernard's post, I respond to your argument that objectivity cannot be based on shared values. Esentially, you think my position of objectivism is based on whether I can derive an ought from an is at the most basic level. I disagree with that..

  58. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments - this is a fascinating topic.

    I think you're pushing the math analogy too far. While there is a lot going on behind the scene when we consider a proposition like “2 + 2 = 4” (P), there are very precise and well defined (mathematical) ways of defining and analyzing this and similar statements. Look up “Peano axioms” for one way to go about this. Defining a mathematical truth is very tricky and may not be extendable to objective truth about reality.

    As for your remark about parallels, I don't see what you mean. That parallel lines never meet may be taken as a definition, not as an axiom. Moreover, to the best of my memory, I don't think you can get arithmetic from geometry, that is without adding more axioms (but then you don't).

    In any case my point is that, as far as I can see, there is nothing equivalent for morality – this is why I think the analogy can lead us astray.

    It's interesting you mention progress. I suspect an important reason we see progress, that is we see our time somewhat “better” than what came before, is that we have grown up in it and it became somehow “imprinted” in us. This is similar perhaps to the fact we usually find the place we were born differently than other places.

    One can imagine a Greek form antiquity looking at our times and being appalled by our moral depravation and the way we've totally destroyed the environment he/she learned to love. What we see as progress, the Greek could very well see as a descent to hell.

    1. JP, Thanks for the reply. I don't think I'm pushing the math analogy too far. It's the form,not the details, that are important. Math is based on arbitrary foundations, yet is objective. In the last 200 years, we have discovered more and more just how arbitrary they are.

      But let me address your other arguments...

      You reflect on progress and argue for something like cultural relativism. You are right that an ancient Greek would probably see much of what moderns do as bad, and we see as good. But don't forget that the ancient greek would find much he agrees with now, as well as much he disagrees with.

      Also, let's take Aristotle. If we had a time machine and brought him to the present, there would be much he disagrees with and much that shocks him. However, after some time in the present, Aristotle would begin reading all the volumes of history, physics, ethics, etc. Based on these studies, I am confident he would change his mind not just about physics, but about ethics. This is because ethics is not arbitrary or solely culturally based (culture influences, it doesnt determine ethics). I am confident Aristotle would change his view of slavery and women, for example.

      But there is a simpler criticism of your argument as well...

      disagreement does not support ethical relativism. Of course there is ethical disagreement, but we cannot infer nobody is incorrect simply because we disagree or because cultures mold us in various ways. If one could infer relativism from mere disagreement then everything would be relative, including physics (see flat earth society)

      Burk, I would argue that the shared agreement does support objectivity at the secondary level. This is why one can be INCorrect as to one maximizes a certain value, one can be incorrect at the secondary level in ethics. It's not all relative.

      For example, most people will agree that survival is an important value. Yet some people believe x wil lead to survival when really it won't.

  59. Hi Anonymous

    Sorry, haven't checked this thread for a while, I assumed it had gone dead.

    The accusations you level against my form of relativism don't appear to follow, insomuch as the out you use (it's objectively true, even though somebody starting from different axioms could reach the opposite conclusions) is available to my form of relativism too, and once primary values have been agreed upon, the participants in the conversation can happily speak of progress, reason in ethics and so forth.

    There's a crucial question that you continue not to address, and as I think it sits at the heart of our difference, I'll keep asking it:

    You conclude slavery is always wrong. Somebody, sharing exactly your style of objectivism, but starting from different primary values, concludes rationally that it is sometimes right. In both cases, the supporting reasoning is impeccable. So, under your system, a statement can be both objectively true and objectively false. This, I would suggest, is to push the definition of objective well past it's everyday usage.

    Or, perhaps you think the person concluding slavery is sometimes right is objectively wrong. How can you establish this, without privileging your primary values over theirs? What's the methodology available to you, that doesn't in itself rely upon the assumption that your primary values are simply better? Or alternatively, how do you establish the validity of this assumption? Our difference, I think, is my claim that these last two moves can't be pulled off, or at least not using reason.

    Here is your chance to show me the error of my ways.


    1. I think you miss the point about reasoning and progress. There is, indeed, a deep inconsistency. If values are subjective and arbitrary then there really is no way to judge any action as better or worse, correct or incorrect, progressive or regressive. This is because you believe my opposing values are no more superior than yours. Certainly, you can work to maximize your values/goals, but that is not progress because there is no better or worse if relativism is true. I could say my desire for green beans is maximized because there are green beans on the table or I've succeeded in passing grean bean laws to make them more readily available, but this is not progress because there is no reason to prefer green beans over non green beans. It's arbitrary.

      In short, you really haven't been able to respond to the inconsistency charge in relativism. Either it's not relative at the secondary level, or there is no real progress or point to debate.

      You also seem to think that I have to prove that slavery is wrong. You say someone starting with the same primary values might say it is right. I disagree with that. But that is secodary, your fundamental disagreement with me seems to be that you see no reason for why one value should be primary over another. So, How do I establish the validity of the assumption?

      Let me respond to that in the next post...

    2. Well, I have already given the maths analogy to weaken such an argument. I won't go through that again.

      I think secondary relativism is false, but let me address what you mean by relativism by addressing the slavery issue.

      First, let's say "slavery is wrong nmwdi" is a secondary objective value derived from certain primary values. These primary values are the desire to survive and be happy.

      So, how do I maximize my or everyone's desire to survive and be happy? First, I cannot maximize mine very well unless I help others maximize theirs. So egoism leads to weak utilitarianism if one does not have innate empathy.

      Now, I think history has shown there are better and worse ways of maximizing happiness for self and all. These ideas involve protecting rights, liberties, and freedoms. A society that doesn't do this will not flourish as well as those that do.

      So, as in Eric's original post, I think "slavery is wrong" can be derived from such primary values as the desire to survive and be happy. Empathy, or at least acting empathetically, is also valuable to maximize happiness of self and others in a cyclical way. That is, preferecne utilitarianism leads to the conclusion that slavery is wrong and also to the conclusion that homosexuals should have full legal rights.

      Now, here's the pivotal point that you and Burk will probably bring up: "But why should one value happiness of self or survival?" There are at least a few people who don't. How can you derive an ought from an is?

      First, I would say that's a metaphysical issue, not one that determines the objectivity of ethics.

      In deeper response, all I can say is people actually do value happiness/survival. Indeed, people often find that what they thought would make them happy (lots of money) doesn't really make them happy. They were mistaken about what makes humans and that particular human happy. This is why the ancient philosophers have so much good advice; they understood it's not all relative (e.g. Aristotle's Golden Mean, Epicurus' three goods, SToic mindset of recognizing what's in control and what's not and not worrying about the latter, Buddha's 4 Noble Truths and 8 path).

      Again, your question might be "Why is survival and happiness superior to other values?"

      Again, I have no answer to that. And I don't think Harris has one either, though he thinks it's no problem. I think it is a problem, but it is not a problem for objectivism in ethics.

      Like Aristotle, I believe there is objectivity in ethics. Also, interestingly, I think Aristotle would change his mind about slavery if he lived for 2500 years to the present. He would have changed his mind about many things in physics, biology, ethics, etc. because these areas of inquiry are not entirely subjective, relative, or arbitrary.

      To summarize some points,
      An ethical claim is true when it is logically derived or consistent with primary values. An ethical claims is false when it isn't. There is a point to ethical discussion. If it's all relative, there is no point. My belief that homosexuals deserve full legal rights is just as arbitrary as the guy who believes the opposite. There is no point to discussion if that guy just says it's all relative, these are my desires, and these are what I will maximize.

    3. I would also remind all that objectivists do not believe all ethics is objective, only that there are some objective ethical claims.

      For example, I think the pref of clothing is relative to each culture. But I also think some ethical beliefs are incorrect. The objectivist burden is to prove at least one ethical claim has truth value.

  60. Anonymous-

    We are very much now on the same page, since you base everything on ... "These primary values are the desire to survive and be happy."

    From these desires everything else flows, using a great deal of logic and reason. I agree completely. The point being that everything is on a humanist base, not a cosmic one.

    But suppose you were a committed Christian of some of the more obscure sorts, who deny that these are really the primary virtues. Rather, we should give our lives for our faith, and spread it at all costs. Or perhaps that our happiness is downright sinful and debauched. Better for us to suffer in submission to our god and fate, and not spare the rod to our children either. There are and have been fundamentally different approaches to "what is good", though we typically assume everyone is like us and wants the same things.

    And on the secondary level, the size of the sphere to which we feel allegiance is in continual dispute. Is the happiness of starving Africa part of our concern? Are animals? Does our family count for more than our nation? There are different yet still valid answers to these questions. The various harms they lead to are complex, indirect, and quite difficult to judge.

    We may shake our heads at the culture of Afghanistan, for instance, with its fissiparous tribalism and unfitness for modern, Swiss-style democracy. But internally, there are great Homeric virtues to their cultural outlook that we simply don't appreciate.

  61. Hi Anonymous

    Thanks for taking the time to clarify so carefully. There is much here we agree on, and perhaps that's an interesting way to go, look at where we share assumptions, in an effort to pinpoint where we diverge.

    I think the human mind is constrained by its biology to the extent that statements like 'humans seek survival and happiness' can be made quite valid (particularly if we are careful to define happiness as attaining a deep level of satisfaction, rather than transitory pleasure).

    So, in this sense, I'd be happy to be called a primary objectivist. Some aspects of human nature can, I think, be defined as objectively true, even if we meet individuals who seem hell bent upon their own misery. We define these as suffering from a sort of pathology. And following on from this, I agree that we can be quite mistaken in what will make us happy, and so discussion, reasoning and progress can all be defined against this primary goal.

    As an aside, in making this move, we are making an ought from an is, saying in effect, well that's just how humans are fundamentally built, and that's what we mean by morally right.

    So, where do we differ? Simply in that I can't think of a logically valid argument that leads from 'humans seek fulfilment' to, 'the fully informed human will always chose a society without slavery.' Your attempt above highlights very well my problem with this approach.

    Notice the first step you take on your reasoning path. You say you can't maximise your happiness very well if you don't help others maximise theirs. Immediately I want to call that a cultural assumption. It may be true for you, given the culturally constructed narrative that defines you, but how can we make the claim that no person can carry a narrative whereby the satisfying life is best achieved through depriving at least some of their fellow human beings of happiness?

    Imagine you were brought up a feudal lord in sixteenth century Europe, a believer in the great chain of being. You sincerely believe you are closer to God than the peasants, and that by keeping them in servitude (although, according to your moral code, treating them fairly) you are both enjoying the great gifts God wishes you to savour, and glorifying His name and existence. You are well fed, praised by all you meet, you have a sense of purpose and service, and your life expentancy is considerably higher than the mean. And so slavery makes good sense to you, it is morally right. Furthermore it is derived from the very same primary values you expouse, the desire for happiness and survival.

    And yes, in a broader sense, my position does preclude a belief in objectively measured progress. The best I can say is that a society is moving further toward or away from my current sense of the ideal. And I'm quite all right with that, hence there's no inconsistency. Hoewever, I'm not yet convinced that you are consistent in claiming your abhorrence of slavery has an objective basis.


  62. Hi Anonymous,

    Let me replace the math analogy with something much simpler – and, of course, analogous: tic-tac-toe.

    We can say it's objectively true that best play in tic-tac-toe leads to a draw and that any advanced ET able to understand an apply the rules would agree to this... Now, why can we say so? I would suggest that this is because there is a formal procedure we can explain to our ET friend such that he can apply it (using some physical board perhaps) and verify “it” gets the same result we do.

    I think the analogy breaks down with ethics because, as far as I know, there is no similar procedure – no “truth-maker”.

    With Burk and Bernard, I will agree that, given an explicit goal (like happiness), we can figure out ways to get there. And, perhaps, if we make more assumptions (happiness for all), we can somehow establish that slavery is a no-go.

    Moreover, as I have mentioned, it's becoming quite clear that we are geared for morality and that some moral rules are deeply imbedded in our brains (the incest taboo seems to be one).

    While you probably agree with the above, you also seem to want something more – it's still difficult to figure out what that would be.

    This is not also what moral philosophers are doing. Some don't care about happiness at all – they would rather do the “right” thing than be happy. Or, like Kant (I think), they would do the right thing even if it has bad consequences.

    It often seems to me that many moral philosophers are seeing morality as essentially decoupled from biology – as a mysterious something above and beyond our biological reality. I may misunderstand but, as it is, I can't make sense of this. Perhaps you can help me out here.

  63. Everything is caused by biology, but the study of biology does not necessarily affect arguments. For example, the causes of a logic deduction are "C Fibers firing in the brain" but the reasons for this deduction are unaffected by this biological insight.

    To summarize my view on relativism,
    Relativism opposes thinking and the study of ethics. The point of thinking is to separate truth from falsity, the reasonable from the unreasonable;if nothing is false or unreasonable, thinking is pointless. If nothing in ethics is false or unreasonable, thinking is pointless in ethics. Similarly, if everything that anyone wants to do is good, then nothing is bad and moral discourse has no purpose. And if choosing to do something is a justification for doing it, the laws against rape, child molestation, and murder are an infringement on the rights of the perpetrator.
    The simple test of any perspective is whether it can be consistently applied in everyday life. Relativists can't challenge the correctness of other people's views without contradicting themselves. Nor can they protest genital mutilation in North Africa, genocide in Central Europe, slave labor in the Orient, or racism in North America without denying their own belief that morality is subjective. To overcome relativism, remind yourself from time to time that some ideas, and some standards of conduct, are better than others and that the challenge of thinking is to discover the best ones. (From Ruggiero's Guide to CT)

    Certainly, I am open to some form of meta-ethical relativism or what you might call anti-realism, but this deeper issue is not relevant to the failure of cultural relativism or the various forms of ind relativism.

    I found it interesting exploring said issues with all of you (math anaologies, etc come in), but I thin they are red herrings to the issue of e relativism, mainly based on highly ambiguous words like subjective and relative.

  64. Hi Anonymous,

    I suspect some (much?) of our disagreement is apparent only and this may be related to the different ways we use the same words. Very interesting issues here.

    Anyway, thanks for staying with us so long. Perhaps some other time.

  65. Hi Anonymous

    For my part, I don't think ours is a disagreement of definitions. I think, rather, that you are making a logically flawed leap in claiming that for the relativist, there can be no purpose to moral discourse. This simply doesn't follow from your set up, rather it is a widespread prejudice people apply to relativism, I suspect because they are attracted to the hope that their beliefs are in some sense more righteous than those of others. (If what I want to do is good by definition, then of pressing concern is the process by which I reason my way to achieving that which I want to achieve, and moral discourse becomes vital within this relativist context).

    Simply, the inconsistency you claim doesn't hold. Rather, the inconsistency sits with the objectivist who wishes to claim that slavery is always wrong, despite having no means of establishing why. I hope you choose to pursue this conversation a little longer, because your claim that you can in some sense objectively establish the moral flaw in slavery is central to our disagreement, and as yet you've not had a serious crack at justifying the claim.


  66. Hi Bernard,

    To be sure, I only said that part of the disagreement with Anonymous is semantic.

    It is as you say: the objectivists stands on no ground at all without some means of establishing their claims. It is no good to say there are objective truths and that's it. Moreover, once one has accepted that morality is a natural phenomenon, that it arises out of our biology, that it is an invention of evolution (and Anonymous seems to accept this) – then there is no sense in claiming that moral judgements are True or False in an objective sense. This inconsistency is so obvious I suspect the objectivist may be meaning something else – a charitable interpretation, as Eric says.

    I would add to your first point – that the objectivists somehow see their beliefs as more righteous than others. I think there is a real fear behind the idea that moral values must be objective. That, if it turned out they aren't, then anything goes; that our whole social order is in peril. Which, as you clearly explain, is not the case at all. Relative/subjective is not the same as arbitrary.

  67. Hi JP

    Yes, I think my difficulty stems from understanding exactly what various people mean by objective moral truth. It seems to me that at least four different things might be referred to. At a minimum, sometimes people just mean, 'this thing feels wrong to me. I understand other people feel otherwise, but I'll never be able to feel that way.' Further up the chain, we get the claim that, given a particular set of goals or values, it logically follows that a certain moral stance is incompatible with these goals, and hence is objectively wrong. The stronger claim than this is the one that says a certain set of goals are those most compatible with human fulfillment, and hence only those moral stances that match these goals can be thought of as right. And finally, we see those who claim that rightness is a feature of the wider universe, morally virtuous acts are those of which God approves, so to speak.

    The first two types of objectivism I would tend to agree with, although I find both to be odd uses of the word objective, given they leave room for contradictory views to also be objectively true.


  68. what is the difference between relativism and utilitarianism?