« Kerry Clear | Main | Novak: US Set to Cut & Run from Iraq in 2005 »

September 20, 2004


Eugene Volokh has an expanded version of his original post here. It's very good.

I have no moral relatives. No one in my family does.

Volokh's post is good, but yours offers a more interesting, and in my view explanatory, discussion of why liberals often get hit with the 'moral relativism' charge.

My sense (based only on personal observation) is that given certain initial mistakes about what the alternative to moral relativism involves, liberals are more likely than conservatives to respond by embracing moral relativism, at least theoretically.

I think this is exactly right. I saw this in college all the time. Many people I knew wanted to reject portions of their cultural morality and did so by adopting a moral relativist pose often tied to the idea that each culture had its own morality and none was better than the next. But if pressed on racial discrimination in South Africa, they would admit that it was wrong for that culture to discriminate in that way. But this rarely led them to abandon their idea of relativism.

I have met people who think that if you are not a moral relativist, then you must believe not just that there are right answers to moral questions, but that you know what they are. If you think about it, there's no obvious reason why this should be true: in almost every other area, it's clear that we can believe both that there are right answers to questions and that we don't know what they are.

This is a huge problem and I typically try to address it with an argument that I shamelessly stole from C.S. Lewis (though now I don't now remember which book)and then elaborated on. Imagine a piece of paper with a very complex shape drawn on it. There spaces which are clearly interior space (moral) there are spaces which are clearly exterior space (immoral) and there are complicated border issues which would have to be researched very carefully in order to find out if they were interior or exterior spaces. This would represent the complexity of understanding moral judgments in an ideal state. Now imagine that the intensely complicated shape had been free-hand-drawn by a competent but not excellent draftsman on hundreds of copies. This would introduce a number of errors on each copy, and each copy would have different errors. These copies were distributed to each culture as a morality map. Furthermore, each individual member of each culture copied it again and used it as their own personal map. Some people copied well and got very close to their own cultural map. Some didn't do so well. But we can still identify a huge number of common understandings that refer to the ideal state. Arguments about poor copies and the exact locations of the boundaries shouldn't distract from the fact that we can still locate a large number of things as interior or exterior. Differences in copies shouldn't fool us into thinking there is no right answer, though it should clue us into the idea that none of us have the completely right answer.

Hmm. This analogy works better when I can actually draw it on paper.

This issue has an almost exact parallel with judicial interpretation questions. (Hmm I promised a post on interpretation and I haven't done that yet).

Interesting post (as was Volokh's). I think the comparison with factual questions is inapt but illuminating. We can agree that statement X is right and statement Y is wrong only if we already agree on the framework we'll use to validate the statements. Having already agreed on what we mean by the terms "America," "Asia," and "Kansas," it's possible to assign a truth value to the "Kansas is in Asia" statement. However, if I were to argue strenuously that the continents were misnamed and that North America was in fact Asia and vice versa, then you and I couldn't reach agreement on the truth value of the statement except (perhaps) by retreating to other definitions on which we do agree.

It seems to me that disagreements over morality usually turn on just what framework should be used, rather than what the right result is within an agreed-upon framework.

So, does this make me a relativist?

But if pressed on racial discrimination in South Africa, they would admit that it was wrong for that culture to discriminate in that way. But this rarely led them to abandon their idea of relativism.

Why should they? I don't think that being a relativist means that you can never tell anyone else what to do. It just means that in doing so, you can't appeal to any authority other than your own sense of right and wrong.

kenB: I think it all depends on what you mean by a framework. One possibility, suggested by some of what you say, is that we just need to agree on the meanings of the terms involved in moral claims. This, I think, we already do, at least with respect to relatively straightforward moral claims like "killing is wrong". The need to agree on language does not, in my view, make one a relativist.

Another possibility, suggested by the term 'framework', is that you think that we need to agree on some set of basic moral principles within which more specific claims about e.g. the morality of a particular action can be justified. Here, I think that whether you're a relativist depends on whether you think that any such set of principles can be justified: if so, you're not a relativist, if not, you're a relativist in at least the popular sense (whether you're a relativist in the technical sense would depend on whether you think that moral claims were true or false relative to a given framework, or that this relativity, combined with the impossibility of justifying any one framework, means that moral claims are neither true nor false.)

You're right about South Africa -- a relativist can say that racial discrimination is wrong, she just say that other people might not be as fully justified in saying it's right. (That it's wrong might be 'true for her' but false for someone else.)

When you add flesh to ideas of morality, it just seems to become pointless.

Lets say there is an ethical situation and I observe another human acting against that situation. Ethical standards are meaningless unless we observe people acting contrary to them.

I can now judge that person. I can call that person names. I can make myself and others like myself angry at that person. I can feel superior to that person. Just maybe I and others like me can coerce that person to change.

One problem is that when I observe another person acting contrary to my ethical standards, there are practically always other reasons for our different behaviors.

One example is that for better or worse, I've never felt the urge to have sex with another person of my sex. It is cheap and silly for me to create an ethical system that proclaims the actions of others with different urges immoral.

Another example is that the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, people who have never been in a position to do that can cheaply assert that this violates some ethical standards.

If a society punishes, say, murder and stealing for purely practical reasons, the ethics on the whole just seems superfluous at best.

At worst, ethics seem to be a way people use others to boost their own self images with overall net harmful results.

The comments to this entry are closed.