In any society influenced by a plurality of cultures, there will be widespread, systematic differences about at least some important values, including moral values. Many of these differences look like deep disagreements, difficult to resolve objectively if that is possible at all. One common response to the suspicion that these disagreements are unsettleable has always been moral relativism. In the flurry of sympathetic treatments of this doctrine in the last two decades, attention has understandably focused on the simpler case in which one fairly self-contained and culturally homogeneous society confronts, at least in thought, the values of another; but most have taken relativism to have implications within a single pluralistic society as well. I am not among the sympathizers. That is partly because I am more optimistic than many about how many moral disagreements can be settled, but I shall say little about that here. For, even on the assumption that many disputes are unsettleable, I continue to find relativism a theoretically puzzling reaction to the problem of moral disagreement, and a troubling one in practice, especially when the practice involves regular interaction among those who disagree. This essay attempts to explain why.
1 Bernard Williams is an exception, by his own stipulation, in “The Truth in Relativism,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 137–38. He continues to focus on differences between entire cultures in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 156–67.
I do not mean to suggest, of course, that cultural differences are the only source of deep moral disagreements, or that there cannot be such disagreements in a culturally homogeneous sodety. But cultural differences are one prominent source of such disagreements, and are often taken as central in defenses of moral relativism.
2 Wong, David, “Relativism,” in Singer, Peter, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 442; Wong, David B., “Moral Relativism,” in , Lawrence C. and Becker, Charlotte B., eds., Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992), p. 856.
A similar tension appears to shape Richard Brandt's presentation of relativism in “Ethical Relativism,” in Edwards, Paul, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: MacMillan, 1967), vol. 3, p. 75. He defines “meta-ethical relativism” as the denial “that there is always one correct moral evaluation” on a given issue. But as written, that makes too many of us relativists: about a given action, one moral evaluation might be that it is right, another that it is good. (If the moral judgments they supply need not conflict, belief in more than one true morality is commonplace.) Am I being unfairly literal? Two sentences earlier Brandt speaks of “incompatible” evaluations, so perhaps that is supposed to be implicit in the definition of relativism. However, the examples he then gives of relativist views (E. A. Westermarck's, Ruth Benedict's) all insure that moral opinions which appear to conflict, don't really. Is it to be required, then, that the equally correct evaluations at least appear to conflict? He doesn't say. In an earlier definition in Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Giffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959), he requires that the conflict be genuine (p. 273); but relativism is there formulated as the view that conflicting moral opinions can be equally valid, where validity is clearly a kind of justifiability, not truth (p. 272). So no contradiction threatens. Thus, his formulations carefully steer clear of committing relativism to contradictions, but in consequence leave it unclear what it is committed to.
3 Wong, David, Moral Relativity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
4 Mackie, J. L., Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 36–38.
5 Strawson, P. F., Introduction to Logical Theory (London: Methuen, 1952), p. 175. Strawson takes a statement p to presuppose a statement q if q must be true in order for p to be either true or false.
6 What I call “nihilism” could also be called “skepticism,” and sometimes is. I prefer to reserve the latter term for an epistemological stance such as doubt or the view that we do not know which of the conflicting positions, including nihilism, is correct. But there is some precedent for applying the label “skeptic” to anyone who either “doubts of everything” or “who denies the reality and truth of things”; see Berkeley, George, First Dialogue, in Armstrong, David M., ed., Berkeley's Philosophical Writings (London: Collier Books, 1965), p. 131.
7 Foot, Philippa, “Moral Relativism,” The Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas, 1978; reprinted in Krausz, Michael and Meiland, Jack W., eds., Relativism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982); references are to the reprinted version.
8 Compare just the four discussions by Wong and Brandt cited in note 2; also Harman, Gilbert, “What is Moral Relativism?” in Goldman, A. I. and Kim, J., eds., Values and Morals (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1978), pp. 143–61.
9 Lyons, David, “Ethical Relativism and the Problem of Incoherence,” Ethics, vol. 86 (1976), pp. 107–21; reprinted in Krausz, and Meiland, , eds., Relativism; references are to the reprinted version. Lyons initially distinguishes agent's — from appraiser's — group relativism, but quickly generalizes to consider versions that focus on the individual's rather than the group's norms (pp. 211–13).
10 To be precise: In “Morality and Art” (Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 56 ; all references are to the version reprinted in Honderich, Ted and Burnyeat, Myles, eds., Philosophy As It Is (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979], pp. 7–28), and in “Moral Relativism,” Foot defends moral relativism against some common objections, and maintains that it might be true, not about all, but about a large number of moral issues, if they prove unsettleable. But at the conclusion of the latter article she explicitly declines to endorse it, because she thinks it premature to say how much is settleable. For brevity I shall sometimes refer to her as a relativist, always thereby alluding only to the portion of her argument in which she defends that view.
11 For Harman's views, see his “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review, vol. 84 (1975), pp. 3–22; reprinted in Krausz, and Meiland, , eds., Relativism; references are to the reprinted version. See esp. pp. 192–95. See also Harman, , “What is Moral Relativism?” and “Relativistic Ethics: Morality as Politics,” in French, Peter A., Uehling, Theodore E., and Wettstein, Howard K., eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), pp. 109–21; and Harman, , The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 91–124.
12 The view defined by Stevenson, Charles L. — in “Relativism and Nonrelativism in the Theory of Value,” in Facts and Values (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 71–93— does not fit either category; but as Foot points out, in “Moral Relativism,” p. 153, Stevenson's definition is decidedly strange, and he has not been followed by other writers. Another that does not fit is what David Wong, in “Relativism” and “Moral Relativism,” calls “normative moral relativism.” In Brandt, “Ethical Relativism,” and Harman, “What is Moral Relativism?,” this term names some kind of agent relativism, but Wong reserves it for a doctrine that condemns condemnation of those with irreconcilably different values and prescribes noninterference. I confess to not seeing what is relativistic about this view, as opposed to the agent- or appraiser-relative premises from which it is sometimes defended.
13 Wong, David's phrase, in Moral Relativity, p. 1.
14 The four survey discussions by Brandt and Wong, cited in note 2, all count nihilism or near relatives as a kind of relativism. Brandt does note, in Ethical Theory, that the “methodological relativist” who denies that there are any “correct” ethical judgments, might better be called a skeptic than a relativist (p. 275); and Harman explicitly refrains from classifying such a skeptic as a relativist (“What is Moral Relativism?” p. 148).
15 Lyons, , “Ethical Relativism and the Problem of Incoherence,” p. 211. Noncognitivism takes the primary function of moral language to be the expression of favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward the items evaluated, rather than the expression of beliefs capable of truth and falsity. (Some contemporary noncognitivists will regard my characterization of their view as misleading, on the grounds that they can in a principled way mimic everything a cognitivist might say about the truth-values of moral opinions. I doubt that they can. But if they can, then noncognitivist versions of relativism will after all fall under my definition, so long as the definition is expanded to cover mimic-truth as well as truth.)
16 Of these two reasons for bracketing noncognitivism, the first is sufficient for ignoring it when saying how, on a relativist view, moral opinions can be right. Relativists should speak of truth. But I have already indicated my view that, at another level, a sophisticated relativist should be a nihilist. So might not noncognitivism serve at that level? It could promise an account of how disagreements can be in a way genuine (by being disagreements in attitude) without involving inconsistent beliefs. We might then have a position similar to A. J. Ayer's in the introduction to the second edition of Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover, 1946), pp. 20–22: truth-values can be assigned to appraisers' moral judgments on the basis of their own basic moral principles; disagreements among appraisers with the same principles will thus involve genuinely inconsistent beliefs; but disagreements among those with different basic standards will be merely noncognitive. Here my second reason is needed: This is a possible solution, but one that, for good reasons, none of the writers I am focusing on wishes to adopt. Opposition to noncognitivism is a recurrent theme in Foot's writings. For Wong, see Moral Relativity, pp. 10–16; for Brandt, , Ethical Theory, pp. 203–40. These latter two discussions, with Foot's “Moral Arguments” and “Moral Beliefs,” both in her Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), provide a good introduction to difficulties with noncognitivism — though one should see in addition Geach, Peter, “Assertion,” Philosophical Review, vol. 74 (1965), pp. 449–65.
17 Brandt, , Ethical Theory, p. 272.
18 For example, Harman, , The Nature of Morality, pp. 113–14; Foot, , “Moral Relativism,” p. 157; Brandt, , Ethical Theory, pp. 279–80. On David Wong's view, see note 35 below.
19 Except that we will not count relativism true because of the uncontroversially indexical features (tenses, overtly indexical terms) common to moral and other assertions.
20 Harman, , “What is Moral Relativism?” pp. 143–45. Only one variety, because he denies that what Brandt formulates is any kind of relativism, whereas 1 take it to be one version of agent relativism.
21 Brandt, , “Ethical Relativism,” p. 76.
22 By assuming that in every set of moral demands some are fundamental.
23 Harman will presumably not allow us to say that this is wrong, for a given agent, unless we also endorse the demands in question or else explicitly cancel the endorsement. See above.
24 Brandt, Richard, “Toward a Credible Form of Utilitarianism,” in Hector:Castañeda, Neri and Nakhnikian, George, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963), pp. 107–43. Brandt defines rule-utilitarian views as those “according to which the lightness of an act is not fixed by its … utility [relative to alternative acts], but by conformity with general rules or principles; the utilitarian feature of these theories consists in the fact that the correctness of these rules or principles is fixed in some way by the utility of their general acceptance” (p. 109).
25 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan , ed. Macpherson, C. B. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 191–93, 268.
26 Clarke, Samuel, A Discourse of Natural Religion , in Raphael, D. D., ed., British Moralists 1650–1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), vol. 1, pp. 194–95, 221–24.
27 We will have it if, but only if, we have promised or covenanted to keep all our promises and covenants.
28 And Harman clearly recognizes this; for in “Moral Relativism Defended,” he insists that although the coordination in moral intentions that agents arrive at through implicit bargaining is a kind of “agreement,” it is not an agreement “in the sense of a certain sort of ritual indicating that one agrees” (p. 199)—that is, not a promise or covenant. Similarly, when he describes the relevant sort of moral intention as the agent's accepting a moral demand “as a legitimate demand on him or herself” (“What is Moral Relativism?” p. 154), he cannot mean that this should be understood on the model of the agent's making a vow or promise, for the view that vows or promises can create obligations is hardly relativistic.
29 Though, I should note, Brandt himself says that his view admits a “kind of relativism” in implying “that an act might be right in one society which would be wrong in another society” — a relativism, however, that “most philosophers” would view as “innocuous” (“Toward a Credible Form of Utilitarianism,” p. 135). He is certainly right that it would be viewed as innocuous; I doubt that most would think it relativism.
30 Any utilitarian view will of course attribute derivative importance to such differences insofar as they contribute to different consequences for actions or (in this case) moral codes.
31 Harman, , “What is Moral Relativism?” p. 154. See note 28.
32 Foot, , “Moral Relativism,” p. 193.
33 Ibid., pp. 155, 157; Foot, , “Morality and Art,” p. 19.
34 See, for example, the introduction to Krausz, and Meiland, , eds., Relativism, p. 3.
35 Wong, , Moral Relativity, pp. 40–73. Wong sometimes describes his relativism as a theory of “morality as social creation” (e.g., p. 61), but this is at least misleading. It is not obvious that there is anything in his view that actual systems of moral norms have evolved in response to human needs for resolving internal and interpersonal conflict that a nonrelativist need reject. What makes his view relativist is his skepticism about the possibility of settling disagreements about which possible systems are adequate, and his view that, in many of these (apparent) disagreements, both sides, appealing to different standards, are right. That is why, despite the talk of “social construction,” his view can easily accommodate individual appraiser relativism.
36 Roderick Firth proposes a nonrelativist theory in “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 12 (1952), pp. 317–45. Richard Brandt favors a relativist version in his subsequent discussion with Firth (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 15 , pp. 407–23) and is hospitable to a similar idea in his Ethical Theory, pp. 279–84, and (with a very different idealization) in A Theory of the Good and the Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 194. Harman also considers this sort of relativism in The Nature of Morality, pp. 44–46. Other alternatives if observers differ, of course, would be (a) to refine the idealization, or (b) to say that there is no (moral) truth about moral issues on which observers differ. Brandt mentions (a) in his discussion with Firth (p. 409); I explain below why this option will rarely be available to a relativist. I have been unable to find in this literature more than passing attention to (b) — that is, to my question, “Why not nihilism?” — though see Brandt, , Ethical Theory, pp. 279–80.
37 Foot denies emphatically that judgments of taste are “descriptions of reactions” (“Moral Relativism,” p. 53); but her target in this remark is Stevenson, who has relativism equating value judgments with descriptions of “de facto approvals” (“Relativism and Nonrelativism in the Theory of Value,” p. 82), something no ideal-observer theory does.
38 Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, philosophical ancestors of this view, speak regularly of “approval,” “approbation,” and “a sense of virtue.” In Ethical Theory, pp. 173, 248, 265–66, Brandt invokes emotions including indignation, and feelings of obligation, as well as mere preference, depending on the question being decided; in A Theory of the Good and the Right, he asks only about willingness to act in a certain way. Harman (The Nature of Morality, p. 43) suggests that we would need to know what an observer would approve of morally.
39 There are at least two readings of this latter view, a stronger and a weaker. The stronger would say that desire malfunctions whenever it is guided by anything but moral value, an absurd view. The weaker would say only that it is misdirected if it fails to accord appropriate weight to moral value. This may accord with some ordinary understandings, but I shall put no weight on it.
40 I put this roughly. But even on Roderick Firth's careful (and thin) formulation (“Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” pp. 337–38) impartiality will preclude discounting someone's interests simply because she is “not one of us,” and that is enough for my purpose.
41 That is, if you are going to evaluate the truth of someone else's views by standards she would reject, you had better think that your standards are correct and hers not; you can hardly be thinking that yours are no closer to the truth than hers.
42 I believe he allows that an insider-morality will be (objectively) inadequate if the outsiders are in a position to make trouble about their exclusion; such a moral system will then not do a good job of resolving many interpersonal conflicts. But there is, he thinks, no objective way to fault a system of moral norms that ignores outsiders who cannot fight back. See Wong, , Moral Relativity, pp. 55–57, and Wong, , “On Moral Realism without Foundations,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 24, Supplement (1986), pp. 107–11.
43 See Brandt, , A Tlwory of the Good and the Right, pp. 193–95, 225–28, for an idealization that abandons many of the familiar constraints, criticizing them partly for assuming things that are in dispute. For the suggestion that these constraints are part of what mark the idealization as a moral test, see Harman, , The Nature of Morality, p. 43. For Firth's view, see references in note 36.
44 When an ideal-observer theory is advanced as an analysis of the meaning of moral assertions, the attribution of moral beliefs to the observer can be rejected as making the analysis circular (Firth, , “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” pp. 326, 328; though this seems an objection only to requiring the observer to have such beliefs, not to allowing her to do so). But even those who do not take the proposal as an analysis commonly say that the observer will use no moral beliefs; see Harman, , The Nature of Morality, p. 50. Brandt (A Theory of the Good and the Right, p. 203) makes explicit what I take to be the basic idea behind the restriction, that any reaction by the observer that is founded on a moral view “is based on what is at this stage a groundless belief”: “at this stage” because, if every observer reacted the right way, the belief could turn out to be objectively justified.
Note that Brandt reserves the term “ideal-observer theory” for views like Firth's and does not apply it to his own, with its very different idealization; I am using the expression more broadly. Also, everyone realizes that having had various moral beliefs may influence how an observer reacts even when he no longer relies on them; but the hope appears to be to minimize this effect.
45 See Brandt, , “Ethical Relativism,” pp. 74–75, and Wong, , “Moral Relativism,” pp. 856–57, where the suggestion, more precisely, is that versions of moral relativism will be uninteresting unless there are at least moral disagreements that would survive possession of complete nonmoral information. This weaker claim also seems wrong about agent relativism.
46 And the term “normative relativism” is often reserved for some version of it; see note 12.
47 He does appeal to differences in what people accept as moral demands. But these will involve no disagreement when agents accept these only as demands on themselves; and when appraisers disagree about what demands an agent is subject to, he regards the disagreement as resolvable.
48 Harman, , “Moral Relativism Defended,” pp. 189–90.
49 Harman, , “What is Moral Relativism?” pp. 159–60.
50 Harman, , “Relativistic Ethics: Morality as Politics,” pp. 113–14, 117–20.
51 See Boyd, Richard N., “How to Be a Moral Realist,” in Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey, ed., Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell, 1988), pp. 212–13; Miller, Richard W., “Ways of Moral Learning,” Philosophical Review, vol. 94 (1985), p. 509; and Brink, David O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 202. I understand moral realism to be the view that there are objective moral truths, independent of our beliefs and of our evidence for them, and that we have some knowledge of these truths. See Brink, ch. 2, for a discussion of problems in defining the position.
52 Foot, , “Morality and Art,” pp. 14, 21; Wong, , Moral Relativity, pp. 190–97.
53 See note 42.
54 Foot's terminology in “Moral Relativism” can at least appear to suggest an alternative relativist line, which would allow that the assertions genuinely contradict one another, but would ascribe to each of them not truth but only “local truth,” truth-by-the-appraisers'-standards. This would allow genuine disagreements while keeping the relativist from endorsing contradictions. However, this proposal creates enormous logical difficulties; and it fails in any case to accommodate Foot's clear view (p. 161) that those who make the first-order assertions, using no truth-predicate, are claiming only local truth for their views, and so not contradicting one another. Thus, I take her talk of “local truth” or “relative truth” to be shorthand for talk of the truth of local or relativized propositions, as explained in the text.
55 Foot, , “Morality and Art,” p. 15.
56 Foot, , “Moral Relativism,” p. 154; emphasis in original.
57 Strictly, to fit Foot's schema, the agent should believe herself morally required to have the abortion. But this makes no difference to Foot's point or to my comment on it.
58 Foot here cites Aquinas, Thomas, Sumnta Theologiae, 1a, 2ae, Q6, A8, and Q19, A6, apparently with approval, agreeing that on a nonrelativist view the moral truth “is there to be seen by anyone who wants to see it” and that ignorance of it is therefore always culpable (“Moral Relativism,” p. 160). This is surprising. At the end of the same essay, she turns to the question of whether persistent moral disagreements might in fact prove settleable, and argues that a negative answer is premature. She believes that we might make progress on many of them if we knew more of the nonmoral facts of human life than any of us now does, and had better philosophical theories than any now available on such key topics as value and happiness (ibid., pp. 164–66). But it seems clear that if that is what it would take to settle some disputed moral issue, then it certainly does not follow, about anyone who is mistaken about it, that his error is culpable, a simple neglect of “what is there to be seen.” And I believe that Foot is right the second time about how difficult settling a moral issue can be. People can be as obtuse or as willfully blind about morality as about anything else, but there are many other ways to go wrong.
59 Foot, , “Moral Relativism,” pp. 159–60. Foot does not say why a relativist is required to agree that no one acts badly in following her conscience unless she should have known that her action was wrong. Perhaps this is supposed to be one of those objective principles to which relativism does not apply.
60 Wong, , “Relativism,” p. 449.
61 Appraiser relativists sometimes compare moral terms to indexicals like “here” and “now” (Foot, , “Morality and Art,” p. 19; Wong, , Moral Relativity, pp. 44–45). Imagine telling someone who has declared “I've decided to live here for a while” that this project will be immeasurably complicated by the fact that “here” is an indexical, so that there is no one place that is here. Precisely because it does function as an indexical, “here” in our agent's declaration picks out a single place, within the usual limits of vagueness, and there is typically no difficulty in settling what the place is. The implications of relativism for someone determined to do the right thing for a while, or for a lifetime, will be similar.
62 Wong's views on this issue are more interesting than this one (uncharacteristic) passage suggests. A fuller consideration of his reasons for thinking relativism a complication to our moral lives would have to examine his detailed argument (Moral Relativity, pp. 179–90) that, because of contingent features of our moral outlook, relativism speaks for tolerance by us of those who do not share it. As he explicitly notes (p. 189), his argument can appear to make the slip I have attributed to Foot, of appealing to nihilism in a way that is actually inconsistent with relativism. On his own understanding the argument appeals instead to an explanation of how moral disagreements between parties with very different standards can appear genuine. His explanation is that although there is no semantic disagreement in such cases, there is nevertheless a pragmatic one, in that different people who correctly attach a moral term to conflicting actions will then see reason to act in conflicting ways (pp. 44–45, 64). But I do not see in Wong's position adequate support for the postulated connection between moral judgments and reasons for actions. His account of moral judgments is, as he notes, externalist (p. 15; “On Moral Realism without Foundations,” p. 112), as it appears it must be. Perhaps further explanation would fill this gap.
63 Williams, , Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 156–57. Williams actually speaks only of “relational” relativism in the second sentence quoted, but he clearly doubts that any form of appraiser relativism escapes this difficulty.
64 Ibid., pp. 160–62. Compare Williams, , “The Truth in Relativism,” pp. 137–42.
65 Williams, , Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 220 (n. 3 to ch. 9), 165–67. In “The Truth in Relativism,” Williams had endorsed this form of ethical relativism without qualification. As Samuel Scheffler points out, Williams's exception for judgments of social justice is not due to his thinking those judgments objective; see Scheffler, , “Morality Through Thick and Thin,” Philosophical Review, vol. 96 (1987), p. 428.
66 Williams, , Ehics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 142–48. If the unreflectiveness does not by itself disqualify the hypertraditionals' outlook as a real option, note that no limit is placed on the content of their “thick” concepts: so we may imagine their values to be as different from ours as we please.
67 See notes 49 and 50. It is unclear to me whether Harman thinks the problem he addresses in “What is Moral Relativism?” pp. 159–60—the problem of genuinely conflicting judgments both taken to be true by the relativist—can arise on his own agent-relative theory. It is hard to see how it could, except (possibly) in the rather special case in which an agent accepts conflicting demands; for no matter how different the moralities accepted by two appraisers, they cannot on Harman's view make a true judgment about an agent except relative to the moral demands accepted by the agent (p. 158). So Harman may be offering his suggestion simply on behalf of appraiser relativism.
68 Putnam, Hilary, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” Philosophical Papers (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), vol. 2, pp. 215–71, and other essays in that volume; Kripke, Saul, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); Boyd, Richard, “Metaphor and Theory Change,” in Ortony, A., ed., Metaphor and Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 356–408. Putnam's article is the source of the claim that meanings “ain't in the head” (p. 227); he means, as the history of science examples are intended to illustrate, that the truth-conditions for a speaker's statement may be set by factors the speaker would not, and perhaps could not, recognize as playing this role. This is the suggestion I am supposing a relativist might want to exploit. Of course, the relativist will nominate for this role factors that, in another sense, certainly are in the speaker's head: namely, certain of his response-states or other subjective reactions.
A relativist who takes this line might see herself as turning the tables on recent moral realists, who have taken “externalist” or “causal” accounts of reference of this sort to be crucial to the defense of their own view. See, in addition to the works cited in note 51, Adams, Robert M., “Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again,” in The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 133–43; and Sturgeon, Nicholas L., “Moral Explanations,” in Copp, David and Zimmerman, David, eds., Morality, Reason, and Truth (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1985), pp. 49–78.
69 Strictly, and for the record: I doubt that counterfactuals like these must be true of every speaker whose remarks we are entitled to evaluate for truth by our own (as we think) improved standards. (For a writer who appears to think that they must apply, see Miller, , “Ways of Moral Learning,” p. 516.) It may be enough that there is a sequence of positions intervening between that of the speaker we are interpreting (Lavoisier, say) and our own, which looks to us like a series of successive improvements, and such that a better-informed Lavoisier would have accepted the reconstrual provided by the first, a better-informed proponent of the first would have accepted the reconstrual of her view provided by t he second … and a better-informed proponent of the last would have accepted our reconstrual. The same would apply to any reconstrual of moral assertions. This complication makes n o difference to my argument in this essay, however, for in any sequence of reconstruals that begins with a nonrelativist moral understanding and ends with a relativist one, there must be one that makes the transition from nonrelativism to relativism, and the argument that follows in the text will apply to that step. I am grateful to Geoffrey Sayre-McCord for pressing me on this point.
70 Harman, (“What is Moral Relativism?” pp. 159–60) relies on the nonrelativist construal in determining whether appraisers disagree, but the relativist one in assessing truth, and thus gets the striking result that appraisers who genuinely disagree can both be right. But, of course, on the construal on which they disagree, the relativist will say neither is right, and on the construal on which both are right, they don't disagree.
71 By analogy, notice the complication to my practical life if the borderline organism of my example is edible and I am a vegetarian; I will need somehow to refine my practical commitment. And notice that there would not be this complication if my use of the term “plant” merely referred to what fit my own standards for planthood, as relativism would suggest, for in that case my determination to eat only plants had and has a determinate reference, and discovery that there are other equally good ways of drawing the line would not be troubling. See note 61.
72 See note 61.
73 There may also be a temptation to play with the formulation of relativism. My objection could be avoided if relativism took the truth-conditions for an appraiser's views to be fixed, not necessarily by her current standards, but by the most recent standards she has held bearing determinately on the issue. There is an air of ad hoc desperation about such a suggestion, however. This is not what relativists have in general meant to say about appraisers whose standards are in transition. Even if basic standards are not objective, relativists allow that they may change. So imagine someone who has always held standards by which abortion is wrong, but who is now quite uncertain about this issue, and whose standards have adjusted to cohere with this uncertainty. No appraiser relativist wants to say that, when she contemplates her former confident view that abortion is wrong, this appraiser's thought still counts as true because of what she used to think.
74 Foot, , “Moral Relativism,” pp. 153–55, 161.
75 As Roderick Firth notes, in “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” p. 328.
76 Ibid., p. 327.
77 Brandt, , A Theory of the Good and the Right, p. 194. In reporting this proposal I correct for an obvious misprint (“permitted” for “prohibited”) and ignore the even less plausible suggestion that it might be “your” reactions—that is, those of my audience—that make my judgments true or false.
78 Would this be agent relativism? It fits Harman's definition, though we know that his is too broad; it escapes my initial proposal, but, as I have conceded, mine is too narrow. Perhaps it is an indeterminate case.
79 Wong, , “On Moral Realism without Foundations,” p. 106; Foot, , “Moral Relativism,” p. 163.
80 Foot, , “Morality and Art,” pp. 15–16:
My suspicion is that the existing use of “true” and “false,” and the choice of an objective form of expression (“It is right”) does have a role but a rather disreputable role. When we say that something “just is” right or wrong we want to give the impression of some kind of fact or authority standing behind our words, though by hypothesis both are here ruled out, maintaining the trappings of objectivity though the substance is not there.
Note, in a similar vein, that the discovery that one's standards are the only feature of the world that has been regulating one's judgments is likely under even the best of circumstances to undermine confidence in the judgments, not to convince one that it is the standards that are making them true. It will certainly have this effect if only some of one's moral judgments receive this subjectivist explanation.
81 Wong, , “On Moral Realism without Foundations,” p. 109.
82 For relativism about taste, on the other hand, there may be such arguments. Even on this topic, I regard the point I make here as highlighting a reason for retreating to relativism only as a last resort.
83 See Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 626–27n.—though I would suspect that the culprits were more broadly scattered across political and other spectra than he suggests.
84 The fault is not all theirs. Academic philosophers could also do a better job of comparing the implications of the competing positions. In their introduction to Relativism, pp. 1–3, Krausz and Meiland distinguish three possible responses to deep moral disagreements, especially between societies. One is relativism; a second is skepticism, defined to include nihilism; and the third, which must be intended to do duty for objectivism or realism, is to think that our views are “advanced” or “civilized” and the others' “backward.” Realists can think such things: about slavery, one of the authors' examples, the result would not be such an extravagant conjecture. But one would have thought there were other alternatives: for example, thinking that they are more advanced and our view the backward one, or else simply thinking that, if competent people disagree this deeply, we must have something to learn from one another. A realist can also think either of these latter two things; a relativist, it should be noted, cannot.
* I am indebted to the members of two graduate seminars on this topic at Cornell University. I am also grateful for suggestions from the other contributors to this volume. I have benefited especially from discussions with David Phillips and Ki Jun Sung in the former category, and with David Brink, Gilbert Harman, and Geoffrey Sayre-McCord in the latter. Terence Irwin also provided very helpful comments.
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