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Is moral relativism a coherent view?


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is moral relativism a coherent view?
Date: 3rd April 2008 12:23

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 23 March, with your University of London Contemporary Ethics essay written in response to the question, 'Is moral relativism a coherent view?'

I liked this a lot. In fact, I think it is probably one of the best, most focused and clearly argued essays you have done for me. I also liked the way you have made good use of available references. I saw plenty of evidence that you were really thinking hard about this question.

You are right to start off by raising the question whether relativism about truth -- which claims that a factual proposition can be 'true for me' but false for you' -- is coherent. It is easy to show, using logic, that it is not. If it is true for me that the earth is flat and false for you that the earth is flat then by the principle, 'P' is true if and only if P, it follows logically that the earth is flat and not flat, which is a logical contradiction.

That is not necessarily the end of the debate if you are so committed to relativism about truth that you are prepared to give up classical logic, but this isn't a possibility we need to consider for the purposes of the present question.

Moral relativism is not obviously incoherent in this sense, at least, provided that one does not ascribe truth to moral judgements. What you need here, to cap the point, is simply to say that there is a prima facie difference between relativism about truth, and moral relativism and that you are only concerned with the latter.

However, it is not an insubstantial claim that moral judgements are not appropriate for attributing the predicates 'true' and 'false', given the evident grammatical feature of language which permits us to say, e.g. 'What you said about abortion being sometimes justifiable is false', or, 'It is true that what you did was wrong, but at least you had the courage to admit it.'

What is moral relativism? You are right that philosophers tend to formulate 'a definition of moral relativism in a certain fashion that lends itself to the particular attack they have in mind' (a good opening sentence which will impress the examiner!).

One thing that you seem to have assumed in this essay is that moral relativism entails subjectivism. Is that necessarily the case? Couldn't there be an 'objective core' of morality -- something along the lines of Kant's 'treat others as ends and never merely as means' -- which, however, might be realized in systems of ethics which were deeply incompatible. Is that not 'relativist' enough? The exam question doesn't say, so it would be acceptable to make this point. Relativism with an objective core looks like a good candidate for a coherent variety of moral relativism.

I liked your emphasis on Williams' point which is an important one. However, there does seem to be a certain intrinsic tension or instability in the 'quietist' attitude which forbears to criticize other societies. You never know for sure where relativism might break out. It might appear in your own back yard. It is only a contingent fact that members of a particular society are at any given time agreed what the moral rules are. But if disagreement should break out then 'forbearance to criticize' would lead to wholesale fragmentation. Indeed, in the extreme case, can you even permit self-criticism? Can you even say, 'Yesterday I thought that actions of type X are wrong, but today I realize that they are right'?

Another issue which connects to what you say at the end of your essay concerns the relationship between moral scepticism, moral subjectivism and moral relativism. Scepticism presupposes realism. This principle applies to knowledge of the external world: you can only be sceptical about the possibility of knowing that an external world exists if you allow for that possibility. If I can never know for sure that my moral decisions are correct, that admission of ignorance presupposes the existence of an answer.

By the same reasoning, scepticism about moral judgements presupposes the existence of answers which are not only non-relative but also non-subjective. I would therefore contest your claim that you are a subjectivist. You seem to me more like an objectivist, albeit of the commendably modest, non-arrogant variety.

The only point in your essay where I wasn't fully convinced was your argument against Harman. If Harman is right that moral judgements are analogous to factual judgements about height, like 'short' and 'tall', then surely the conclusion does follow that different societies can have different comparative standards.

Of course, this commits Harman to the view that the standards themselves -- that which makes moral judgement possible -- are not themselves moral judgements. If they were, then according to this analogy we would just have an infinite regress. (The notion of 'a condition which makes something possible' has echoes of Kant's style of 'transcendental argument' in the Critique of Pure Reason.)

All the best,