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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor | [ssba]


Few ideas are as divisive as “moral relativism” — the belief that morality, rather than being a universal constant, varies from context to context. Moral relativism has never enjoyed widespread support in academic philosophy, but it has had a few very prominent defenders — among them Gilbert Harman, and Bernard Williams, widely considered one of the greatest moral philosophers of the last half-century.

The moral relativism that Williams and Harman defend is quite different from the common conception of moral or cultural relativism, the idea that each culture or group has their own morality and we ought to respect the moral rules of other cultures even if we disagree with them. Williams calls this “vulgar relativism,” and notes that it is “seriously confused, since it takes relativism to issue in a non-relativistic morality of universal toleration.” Instead, both philosophers defend slightly different formulations of moral relativism.

Williams is famous for his critique of moral theories like Kantianism and utilitarianism, which seek to systematise ethics and to reduce the incredibly complex phenomenon of morality into a simple formula. Williams believes that people acquire moral knowledge through what he calls “thick ethical concepts” — words like “cowardice” or “brutality.” These are words that contain both a descriptive component and an evaluative component — calling someone a “coward” involves both a factual statement about how they have behaved, and a value judgement about that behaviour. Moreover, these words gain their meaning from the way they are employed in specific cultures and contexts. It is through understanding these contexts, and the correct applications of these words, that people gain moral knowledge.

Williams therefore embraces a very moderate form of relativism that he calls a “relativism of distance.” He argues that we can and should make critical ethical judgements about other cultures, when those cultures are at least somewhat similar to ours, such that our criticisms can make sense. If another culture is totally and completely different from ours — for example, the culture of a medieval samurai or an ancient Spartan — then we may have nothing to say to inhabitants of that culture, just as we have nothing to say to the amoralist who rejects morality altogether.

Harman defends a different form of moral relativism: he believes that moral judgements only make sense when they are made with reference to a collective standard or agreement.

For Harman, when we say that someone was wrong to act in a particular way, we are making an inner judgement about that person: we are saying that they acted contrary to their reasons. But it makes no sense to say, for example, that Hitler acted contrary to his reasons in ordering the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe. Hitler simply did not care about moral considerations; the fact that his actions were monstrously immoral meant nothing to him. “He was,” as Harman writes, “in the relevant sense beyond the pale.”

So, Harman says, it makes sense to say that what Hitler did was wrong, but not to say that he acted wrongly; the former statement is an application of our moral standards, and the latter statement is an inner judgement about Hitler.

Having argued that moral “inner judgements” about someone require the presence of some “motivating attitude” in that person — essentially, some sense in which our moral judgement can move that person — Harman is ready to complete his argument for relativism. These motivating attitudes, he says, come from our participation in some moral agreement or standard. If we did not participate in such an agreement, moral judgements would not matter to us. Therefore, moral judgements must be made relative to some collective agreement, and are not universal.

These arguments for moral relativism are complex and ingenious; they are quite unlike simple appeals to “vulgar relativism.” Nevertheless, they do not convince the majority of moral philosophers, many of whom are drawn to the simple position of “moral realism”: that moral facts exist and apply universally.


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