philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Dialogue on moral relativity


To: Christopher J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialogue on moral relativity
Date: 24 October 2007 12:32

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 14 October, with your third piece of work for Possible World Machine, a dialogue between the characters Richard, a moral subjectivist and Oliver an moral objectivist, in response to the question, ''It is plain that what different societies view as moral or immoral - as ethically right or wrong - has differed greatly at various times and various places. It is therefore futile to seek for a rational, objective basis for moral judgements.' - Comment on this claim.'

This is a well-constructed dialogue which succeeds in raising the main issues around the clash between the subjectivist and objectivist accounts of the foundations of ethics, in relation to the problem of cultural relativism.

One thing that would have helped the discussion would have been an account of what conditions a 'rational, objective basis' is required to meet. On your account, it appears that a rational basis for ethics would explain why stealing and slavery are wrong, but be permissive on the question of monogamy versus bigamy.

One can understand Richard's perplexity in the face of this stance. A 'rational basis' is a justification, a persuasive reason for holding that P, for some proposition P. If there exists a rational basis for moral judgements, how is it possible that some judgements can be rationally justified, while others are left to differences in personal or cultural taste?

As it happens, I agree with Oliver's stance. But what I am looking for here is an argument which justifies making this distinction, which on the face of it appears an uneasy compromise. Consider how Oliver would argue with Ralph, a fundamentalist Christian who considers the very idea of polygamy abhorrent, or Neville, an atheist who nevertheless believes that there are strong philosophical reasons why one should avoid polygamous relationships, which polygamists fail to see, to their own detriment.

We can look for a rational basis on two distinct levels: on the most basic level, all we are trying to give an account of why, in deciding how to get what I want, I ought to take the interests of any other human being into consideration. This is the absolute starting point of ethics, without which there cannot be such a thing as an ethical judgement. The subjectivist will say, simply, that this is the way we are. Normal human beings (i.e. anyone who isn't a psychopath) have 'natural sympathy'. Failure to express natural sympathy is evidence of serious mental problems. Whereas the objectivist will say that there is an argument which one can give which demonstrates the irrationality of amoralism: as indeed I would hold (see my book 'Naive Metaphysics', Ch 13 'Self and Other', also 'In Pursuit of the Amoralist'

However, this gives a rather thin basis for morality. We are required to 'take others into consideration' but no further guidance is given.

The second level would consist in rational arguments which attempt to prove certain moral principles. For example, according to Kant, if there were no ethical prohibition against lying, then we could not rely on any means of communication, linguistic or otherwise, as a source of information about the world. Because of this, the very idea of an 'acceptable lie' involves a kind of self-contradiction. John Locke gives an argument for the necessity of property, based on the idea that our work is our own -- and hence a rational basis for a moral prohibition against stealing.

However, Kant's claim that lying is always wrong comes up against the 'axe murderer' example ('Which way did he go...?') while Locke's claims about property were challenged by Marx (hence the socialist slogan 'property is theft'). The objectivist will reply that these disputes are indeed indicative of the fact that moral principles are a matter of rational debate, even if the debate turns out to be not so easy to resolve as we first thought. Your example of slavery is a case in point. There are strong arguments against slavery, but it took some time for those involved in the slave trade to listen.

I also feel that in your account the subjectivist does not get sufficient opportunity to develop the subjectivist case. He is forced into an extreme, self-refuting position, whereas contemporary subjectivists amongst academic philosophers like John Mackie ('Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong' Penguin) have a robust and not at all unrealistic explanation of the phenomenology of moral judgement.

However, I agree with you that the objectivist's overall strategy for resisting arguments for subjectivism, based on the observed phenomena of moral relativity involves two separate moves: rejecting alleged claims of relativity by demonstrating that one group are in fact wrong, while allowing other examples of relativity as mere differences in custom which an objectivist ethics can happily tolerate.

All the best,