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April 25, 2005

relativism isn't in the eye of the beholder

J. David Velleman: April 25, 2005

Moral relativism is in the news, having been roundly denounced by the new pope shortly before his election.   Several philosophically informed blogs have discussed the subject in the past (here, here, here, and here), but I am not satisfied with the treatment that it has received, so here is my two cents.

Despite the warning of then-Cardinal Ratzinger that "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism (una dittatura del relativismo)", there are in fact very few relativists in the world.  And because moral relativism lacks adherents, it lacks active opponents as well. There is little point in campaigning against relativism, because almost no one supports it. Those who issue denunciations of "moral relativism" are usually pursuing some other agenda.

I'll give some examples of the agendas that sometimes masquerade as anti-relativism.  But first let me define what relativism is.

Relativism is the view that the correct standard of right and wrong depends on (or is relative to) either the person applying it or the person to whom it is applied. In the former case, the view is called speaker-relativism, since it says that the correct moral standard depends on who is speaking. In its most extreme form, speaker-relativism amounts to the view that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, since it says that each person is correct in making moral judgments according to what seems right or wrong to him. But speaker-relativism also has less extreme forms, according to which the correct moral standard is determined by the speaker's culture, for example. On this version of the view, each person is correct in making moral judgments according to what his own culture deems right or wrong. Thus, a speaker-relativist might say that whereas we are correct to judge slavery wrong, the ancient Romans were correct to judge it differently, because their cultural standards were different.

The alternative to speaker-relativism is agent-relativism, the view that the correct moral standard depends on the person to whom it is being applied -- that is, the agent.  Like speaker-relativism, agent-relativism allows for different versions, depending on whether the criterion of correctness is taken to be the agent's personal opinions, the standards of his culture, or whatever.  An agent-relativist might say that whereas we would be wrong to hold slaves, the ancient Romans were not.  (The speaker-relativist would require us to say that Roman slavery was wrong, though he would allow the Romans to judge otherwise.)    

Neither view is at all plausible.   Leaving aside the technical objections, we can reject both views  on the grounds that they deny the universality of morality.  Standards that varied from one speaker or agent to another simply wouldn't be moral standards; they would be cultural norms or personal preferences, not standards of right and wrong.

If relativism is so implausible, why would anyone bother to denounce it?

Fanaticism. People sometimes apply the label of "relativist" to anyone with whom they disagree on moral issues, as a way of expressing their certainty in the undeniable truth of their own opinions. The implication is that only someone who denied the existence of universal moral standards altogether could possibly disagree with them. But of course people who agree on the existence of universal standards need not agree on their content.

Authoritarianism. Denunciations of relativism are often used to demand that people defer in their moral judgments to some authority, such as scripture or the clergy.  But it is not relativism to believe that the universally correct moral standards are accessible to the mind of each individual, who is responsible for consulting them and applying them for himself.  To say that each person has the task of figuring out what is right is not to deny that what's right is the same for all persons.

Intolerance. Charges of relativism are sometimes leveled against those who merely believe that we are not entitled to enforce some moral standards.  I believe that cigarette smoking is immoral, but I don't think that I am entitled to prevent others from smoking. This latter view doesn't make me a relativist; I just think that it's wrong to interfere with the wrong-doing of others if it harms only themselves.  Those who want to regulate sexual activity between consenting adults may cast themselves as combatting relativism; what they are actually combatting, however, is tolerance.

Moralism. People disagree about the scope of moral standards -- about the realms of behavior to which the standards extend. People disagree, for example, over whether morality has anything to say about an adult's choice of reading matter. Those who are moralistic about what people read sometimes condemn the alternative view as relativistic.  But thinking that morality is silent about this realm of behavior doesn't make one a relativist -- not unless one thinks that the question depends on who is judging or who is being judged.       

Absolutism. I think that torture is never morally justified, whereas others believe that torture is usually wrong but sometimes justified by special circumstances. Their failure to share my absolutism about torture does not make them relativists. Those who reject absolutism are sometimes accused of practicing "situationist ethics", which is considered akin to relativism. But the belief that a particular kind of behavior can be right in some situations and wrong in others is not a discreditable brand of ethics, and it certainly isn't relativism. Most people believe, with respect to some kind of behavior, that its permissibility can depend on the circumstances. So long as they believe that its permissibility in particular circumstances is the same for all agents, and should be judged similarly by all speakers, they aren't relativists.

My knowledge of Catholicism is too meager to allow speculation on which of these agendas, if any, belongs to the new pope.  I'm just trying to bring some clarity to the discussion.

Update 4:30 pm: This post by Matt Yglesias reminds me of an agenda that I left off the list:

Rigorism: Some people mistakenly call it relativism to forgive behavior in the light of the cultural context in which it occurred.  Even if we blame the Romans collectively for holding slaves, many of us are inclined to forgive individual Romans -- Cicero, let's say -- on the grounds that a person can't be expected to rise very far above his cultural milieu.  But forgiving a person is compatible with (indeed, presupposes) judging his behavior to have been wrong.  Our forgiving Cicero for owning a slave does not entail that our moral stand on slaveholding is less than universal; it just means that we observe the distinction between finding wrongdoing and assessing blame.  Refusing to observe that difference is not anti-relativism; it's just rigorism.      


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Posted by: Sean

A fine, fine ivory-tower post. I'm glad you're bringing clarity to the discussion, and not speculating on Catholics' agenda!

One can be relatively a relativist. One can think that letting Schaivo starve is okay, and then find oneself living in the next step, where Peter Singer is the Sec'y of Health and Human Services. If the next step makes you uncomfortable, then maybe relativism isn't an absolute, it's a trend, and I guess "fanatics, authoritarians, and moralists" want to reverse it.

A lot of relativists--in this broader sense of removing some subjects from the moral realm into personal choice--think it leads to tolerance. It's nice that they think that, but it's probably not true, either in the left's own behavior, or in the newly-unchained right:

"Because these beliefs are equally valid, the modern relativist concludes that everybody has the right to fashion for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy he can muster."

That was Mussolini. Where will we go when all the trees have been cut down? I think your treatment of relativism is a strawman, but of course, I wouldn't speculate on what *your* agenda is!

Posted by: Sean | Apr 25, 2005 1:19:19 PM

Posted by: Will

Interesting post.
The hard part for people concerned with "moral relativism" is sometimes discerning the foundation of these "moral relativists'" standard of good/evil ...
For example suppose that [a hypothetical person] Amy believes that homosexuality is not evil. She doesn't identify herself as a moral relativist because she does have some fixed moral standard. Amy was born into a Christian[or Jewish or Muslim] home. Traditionally these cultures regard homosexuality as profane, and the (traditional interpretations of their) Divine revelations agree that homosexuality is not a good behavior. As someone concerned with the morality of people in the world, perhaps the Pope wonders what foundation Amy has for her moral standard ... her moral standard might appear to him ad-hoc or the result of some mercurial process that might lead to a different moral standard for each person that follows that process. Amy's morals seem "relative" because they aren't derived from a fixed source (such as Divine Revelation or an established cultural tradition).

I would be fascinated to know how people who don't respect cultural norms and who don't adhere to any of the world's revealed religions come to formulate a moral standard -- but I suspect that I might meaningfully label these people moral relativists because, *collectively*, their moral standards are individually derived and distinct. Thus, as a group, what person X considers as good person Y might consider evil. As a group, any action might be either good evil or neutral depending on which member of the group is making the moral judgement. Thus their moral judgements are (speaker?-)relative.

Posted by: Will | Apr 25, 2005 1:19:37 PM

Posted by: Henry

Prof. Velleman:

"Leaving aside the technical objections, we can reject both views on the grounds that they deny the universality of morality."

Isn't this rejection of moral relativism tautological? The most recognizable, if overly simplified, characterization of moral relativism is the belief that morality isn't universal (your formulation -- "Relativism is the view that the correct standard of right and wrong depends on (or is relative to) either the person applying it or the person to whom it is applied" -- strikes me as pretty close to this). So your rejection goes "Moral relativists believe morality isn't universal, and we can deny this because they deny the universality of morality." This rejection only works if we accept that universality is inherent to the definition of morality, which you seem to be implying when you write that standards that varied from person to person wouldn't be moral standards. But isn't the moral relativist's main agenda effecting a redefinition of morality? And one that removes universality from the definition? You could very plausibly argue that this redefinition is wrong -- that it couldn't produce anything that you would recognize as a moral code -- but that's where the argument needs to take place.

Posted by: Henry | Apr 25, 2005 1:29:40 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Will --

People who follow revealed religions disagree among themselves -- between different religions, that is. So why are their views any less "relativist" in your sense? (The sociological fact that people's moral opinions are influenced by their culture is not relativism. Relativism would be the view that people's moral opinions are made correct by their culture.)

It's important not to exaggerate the amount of disagreement among us on moral questions. Our supposedly deep divisions on "moral values" are actually limited to a small number of specific issues. Despite the great diversity in our cultural and religious backgrounds, we converge to a remarkable extent on a basic conception of human well-being and a basic conception of fairness, and these two conceptions account for a very broad consensus on the essentials of morality. Of course, it sounds silly to enumerate all of the moral judgments on which everyone agrees; the disagreements are what we talk about. But arguing over the questions on which we disagree shouldn't blind us to the fact that we share a basic sense of what is humane and what is fair. In fact, if we didn't share that sense of what is humane and what is fair, we wouldn't have grounds for disagreeing about the contested cases.

Now, if you want to talk about where our moral sense comes from, if not from revealed religion -- well, that's what we study in moral philosophy. But as you can see, I've already been criticized for the "ivory tower" quality of my post, so I'm not sure that further detail would be welcome.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 1:50:58 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Henry -- My "leaving aside the technical objections" was meant to indicate that I was intentionally giving short shrift in this post to the argument against relativism. But in response to your comment, I would point out that some moral philosophers have argued that universality is the one essential feature of moral standards.

The basic rule of morality that Jesus taught, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", expresses the thought that whatever is permissible for you must be permissible for others, and vice versa -- which is just the thought that moral standards must be universal. Thus, Jesus thought that we could see what morality requires of us just by seeing that, whatever it requires, it must require universally.

You may be right that the resulting objection to relativism is tautological; but the corollary of this point is that relativism is self-contradictory. In claiming that standards of behavior can be moral but not universal, it contradicts itself.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 2:03:40 PM

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw

I wonder if the question about relativism as dealt with here isn't being aimed at a too high intellectual plane. The ideas of intellectuals sometimes get filtered into the thoughts of the everyone else in imprecise forms. It may very well be that few intellectuals deal in hard-core relativism, but it can hardly be denied that the sociological concept of something being ok "in their culture" has filtered into the modern Western culture. "Who are we to judge?" is a common end to moral arguments nowadays. That statement disguised as a question is definitely in the relativist realm.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Apr 25, 2005 2:31:55 PM

Posted by: pickabone

"I would be fascinated to know how people who don't respect cultural norms and who don't adhere to any of the world's revealed religions come to formulate a moral standard"

-- Will

I hope you aren't implying that the "world's revealed religions" are the only source of "cultural norms." Such an implication would consequently lead to a static culture based on centuries-old scriptural interpretation as "revealed" to humanity via oligarchical authorities with a monopoly on education. That in itself seems like a violation of contemporary cultural norms.

I'll try to explain to you how a secular humanist might determine a moral code: First, establish basic principles of human moral value: say the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Then, with every moral challenge presented to you, commit yourself to honest reflection on how an action or reaction might do damage to these principles, either on an individual or societal basis. Last, when you've reached a conclusion about a specific case, integrate it into your existing moral code so that you develop a general moral reasoning, avoiding the "ad hoc" and "mercurial." All along the way, converse with other members of society so that your morality does not exist in a self-bounded vacuum. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Many of us who reject scripture as revealed divine truth believe that it is rather a product of the above summarized process. But, given the oligarchical monopoly on formal communication and education, it was presented to the masses as having absolute authority that could not be publically interrogated. Believing that religious morality was originally derived from a process similar to the one described above, the humanist might assume that there was a corresponding social function to every moral dictate. For example, in order to become dominant the society of early Christians needed to maintain a high birth rate, both to overcome high infant mortality to outpace competing cultures. Therefore, it was a benefit to the life of the society to channel all sexual behavior into reproductive activity. Hence, no homosexuality or birth-control allowed. This function is now burdensome to most healthy societies where slightly more than a population replacement rate is widely considered optimal. Hence, were one to reflect upon the principle-supporting function of sexual morality, one might be more likely to consider homosexuality and birth control as a channelling of the sex drive into non-procreative activity to avoid burdening the society with overpopulation and therefore perfectly moral.

To bring it back to the general, the secularist might easily reject the idea that static "traditional" morality is superior to one which recognizes and attempts to integrate an evolving environment. To paraphrase Durkheim, morality is the reflection of some necessary social function. Societies create laws and codes to manifest this morality. Unfortunately, these laws sometimes persist long after the social function ceases to be necessary or even beneficial. What's left over is a repressive law that serves no social function.

Posted by: pickabone | Apr 25, 2005 2:42:16 PM

Posted by: miab

One reason that DV's objection to relativism is not tautological is that there is another possible moral view: that there is no such thing as morally right or wrong. Agent relativism holds that a Roman's holding slaves was in fact a non-immoral act, and that a modern's holding slaves is in fact a moral act. An amoral view would hold that neither act was moral or immoral, because there is no such thing -- other than as a description of certain people's emotional reaction to certain acts.

As I see it, DV's objection is that moral relativism simply collapses into amoralism.

I would point out that, alternatively, it collapses into situational ethics.

I do, however, tend to agree with what I take to be Sean's point -- that people aren't really talking about relativism anyway, they are simply using that word and applying it to mean "less-restrictive moral code." (This is how I read "this broader sense of removing some subjects from the moral realm into personal choice").

Posted by: miab | Apr 25, 2005 2:43:26 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

miab -- This is helpful: people aren't really talking about relativism anyway, they are simply using that word and applying it to mean "less-restrictive moral code." I think you're probably right about that. But a less restrictive moral code is not necessarily incorrect just because it is less restrictive; whereas relativism is, I would argue, deeply mistaken about the nature of morality. There can be disagreement about the restrictiveness of morality between people who are equally serious about morality and equally conscientious. To call some of them relativists is to turn a difference of moral opinion into a difference of character or conscientiousness -- which is wrong. People aren't mistaken about the very nature of morality just because they don't condemn everything that you condemn. (Not you personally, of course).

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 3:29:24 PM

Posted by: Will

-- pickabone

I meant to say "people who don't respect cultural norms OR who don't adhere to any of the world's revealed religions ...".
For example one who is raised with a moral standard derived from Confuciunism (though not a revealed religion) would still have an anchor for their moral views and decisions, an anchor that would be shared by all who accepted that culture's norms and essentially providing boundaries on what could and could not be an acceptable standard of morality.

Regarding your proposed process for building a moral standard, you state the following:
"First, establish basic principles of human moral value"
well, there's the rub. How do you establish such first principles? It seems that you could carefully choose first principles such that after sufficient philosophikal ruminations any behavior could be considered moral. A house built upon the sand, in my view.

Posted by: Will | Apr 25, 2005 3:37:06 PM

Posted by: catfish


One does not have to be religious to believe in first principles. The idea of "tradition" or collective experience can furnish many of these principles. Thus, for example, I take the dignity and automony of the individual as a first principle. This I derive mostly from western traditions (including Christianity), which seem to have worked fairly well in creating a society that is prosperous and free. Because it has worked in the past, I am reluctant to abandon specific traditions unless they conflict with other traditions and a change can be justified by reason and evidence. Thus I favor a legal recognition of homosexualy relationships not because I think that anything goes, but because of what the scientific evidence suggests about homosexual orientation, the example of caring marriage-like relationships that I have witnessed between homosexuals, and the principle of autonomy that I mentioned before. Thus, there is a basis for my secular moral beliefs even though they do not depend on an authority figure or the literal reading of a sacred text.

Posted by: catfish | Apr 25, 2005 4:10:22 PM

Posted by: Colin Danby

The post makes the very good point that "relativist" is a common insult or charge, and I can already predict several other terms that are likely to appear as synonyms for it. Indeed, it's hard to find a real-life relativist, and the people who make the accusation usually don't name the relativists or cite chapter and verse from their writings. What one needs to do is take a step or two back and ask what sorts of dichotomies are being set up by the accusation. E.g. one of the things that gets precluded by the dyad judge-them|don't-judge-them is the possibility that they might also have relevant judgments about you.

The charge of relativism gets used sometimes in academia to bat away epistemological challenges - questions of how do you know that the world is really like this get reinterpreted as challenges to truth itself.

Posted by: Colin Danby | Apr 25, 2005 4:33:02 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

In place of "moral relativism" insert "moral flexibility". What is possibly being denounced is an opportunistic application of moral standards to varying situations with no apparent unifying approach, except for perhaps personal convenience. Here is the actual quote:

"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.."

In other words, a moral code reverse-engineered from a highly selfish perspective is not adequate to guarantee the stability of our civilization or to direct ourselves towards a moral [Christian] purpose.

I don't personally agree with that premise entirely, but the argument is not as irrational as this post suggests. I think the headline phrace does need replacing, however.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | Apr 25, 2005 4:35:20 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

In place of "moral relativism" insert "moral flexibility". What is possibly being denounced is an opportunistic application of moral standards to varying situations with no apparent unifying approach, except for perhaps personal convenience. Here is the actual quote:

"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.."

In other words, a moral code reverse-engineered from a highly selfish perspective is not adequate to guarantee the stability of our civilization or to direct ourselves towards a moral [Christian] purpose.

I don't personally agree with that premise entirely, but the argument is not as irrational as this post suggests. I think the headline phrace does need replacing, however.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | Apr 25, 2005 4:40:11 PM

Posted by: J.S.

A recent piece of mine looks at relativism from a slightly different angle and I do think it's a serious problem for the Left.



Posted by: J.S. | Apr 25, 2005 4:46:18 PM

Posted by: JDK Brown


"It seems that you could carefully choose first principles such that after sufficient philosophikal ruminations any behavior could be considered moral. A house built upon the sand, in my view."

Well, it also seems that for any behavior there is a possible set of "revealed" moral principles or a possible set of cultural norms that could justify that behavior. In fact, we've seen actual cultural norms that justify slavery, and actual "revealed" moral principles that justify mass killing. The sands of revelation and culture aren't necessarily any more stable than the sands of rational reflection or sensitivity to moral properties.

[Note that by "moral principles" and "justify" in the above paragraph, I mean something along the lines of "purported moral principles" and "purportedly justify". Given that I'm not a relativist, and that I think slavery and mass killing are morally wrong, I believe that slavery and mass killing are unjustified and any principles that would justify them are false.]

Posted by: JDK Brown | Apr 25, 2005 4:59:41 PM

Posted by: miab

D.V. writes: "To call some of them relativists is to turn a difference of moral opinion into a difference of character or conscientiousness -- which is wrong. People aren't mistaken about the very nature of morality just because they don't condemn everything that you condemn."

The question is, what is Ratzinger (and the other decriers of relativism) doing -- is he mistakenly believing that all/most/many of the people who want to permit certain things he wants to prohibit are relativists, or is he intentionally trying to "turn a difference of moral opinion into a difference of character or conscientiousness"? I would wager that for most of the leaders, the answer is the latter. For most individuals, the former.

I do think that sloppy language on the part of the accused relativists contributes to this. People who strictly speaking should say "you're wrong" say things like "you're entitled to your beliefs." While this may make for a less strident conversation, it leaves an opening for accusations of relativism. Kerry left this opening when he said he wouldn't impose his own views on abortion on someone else. Politically, there are certainly better things and worse things he could have said, but logically, he was saying he wouldn't outlaw murder if other people thought murder was OK.

Posted by: miab | Apr 25, 2005 5:11:32 PM

Posted by: Anderson

This notion that morality is synonymous with universalizability has a Kantian whiff to it, and does seem to beg the question.

A tribal ethic, where what advances my tribe is okay *because it's my tribe,* is "universalizable" I guess, provided that we stick with the neutral noun "tribe" instead of "whatever advances America" or "whatever advances the Achaeans." But I don't think DV would be happy with that.

The notion that a "moral" rule must be universal strikes me as a relative latecomer in human civilization ... or have I been reading too much Nietzsche?

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 25, 2005 5:38:05 PM

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist

"Moralism. People disagree about the scope of moral standards -- about the realms of behavior to which the standards extend."

I don't think I can agree with this. If morality is truly universal, then it should extend to all situations in one form or another. It is possible in some places it may be spread thin. However unlike intolerance or other modes where you are arguing about the facts of a the specific case's morality or the enforcement of that morality, this is a discussion of the limits of morality's fundamental nature. You aren't saying I am moral or immoral. You are saying I am moral or morality is not applicable.

This may not be relativism as you have defined it, but it is definitely not universal morality either.

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | Apr 25, 2005 5:44:25 PM

Posted by: msf

"Relativism is the view that the correct standard of right and wrong depends on (or is relative to) either the person applying it or the person to whom it is applied... Neither view is at all plausible. Leaving aside the technical objections, we can reject both views on the grounds that they deny the universality of morality. Standards that varied from one speaker or agent to another simply wouldn't be moral standards; they would be cultural norms or personal preferences, not standards of right and wrong."

This is facile and totally begs the question.You are assuming that morals are completely distinct from norms since morals have to be universal. I can easily be a relativist and claim that what we call morals are actually norms that mistaken non-relativists feel are universal. If it were only so easy to argue against moral relativism. As a moral relativist, I find your argument beside the point.

Posted by: msf | Apr 25, 2005 5:49:45 PM

Posted by: Brad DeLong

Isn't something like Alasdair Macintyre's argument in _After Virtue_ a relativist argument? Macintyre begins by saying that in modern society there is no agreed-upon set of virtues and hierarchy of goods to guide our moral decisions and to settle our moral arguments--and he says that our collective lack of a consensus moral framework is a very bad thing. It would be better, he seems to say, if we had a consensus moral framework--whether of not that consensus moral framework were in some sense the right one. Better to have a collective consensus moral compass that says that east is north than not to have a collective consensus moral compass at all...

At the end of _After Virtue_, after all, Macintyre appears to be praying for the Second Coming of Someone--but not to greatly care whether it is Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky or St. Benedict who shows up. (Admittedly, in later work Macintyre revises his position and says that only St. Benedict--or is that Benedict XVI?--will do...)

Posted by: Brad DeLong | Apr 25, 2005 6:07:57 PM

Posted by: Stentor

Claude Levi-Strauss has written some interesting things about the phenomenon you describe under "fanaticism." It's not just fanatics who make that mistake -- it's widespread in tribal societies. The more culturally homogeneous your world is, the harder it is for you to understand the existence of a moral system that is universalistic yet different in content from your own, so alternative moral systems look more and more like relativism. (Apropos the Pope, I would suspect that the world of an academic Catholic theologian is relatively culturally homogeneous, being composed of mostly other committed Catholics.)

Posted by: Stentor | Apr 25, 2005 6:15:56 PM

Posted by: joão Galamba

Dear David,
What does it mean to say that a judgment such as killing is wrong is universal? To say that a certain principle is required by reason is, and here I follow Rorty, simply a compliment we pay to ourselves (if that means that we are trying to say something more than "killing is wrong). I just cannot understand what is the role that reason (as something that dictates) plays here? As Wittgenstein wrote “What is this hardness of the logical must” (or something like this).
My suggestion is simply that we consider rightness or truth as a non reductive concept and that things that are right and true (and there are many)are so in virtue of certain considerations or reasons (not Reason)which are what they are because they are part of a holistic ethical whole where words such as "man", "harm", "dignity" and others make sense. But saying that they are the Truth (as if this was a kind of Platonic realm of facts or principles that we apprehend) seems to be simply empty (or bringing in the kind of discussion involving realism or anti-realism that I believe leads us nowhere).
If we become anti-foundationalists (which I believe we must, as authors such as Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Rorty, in my opinion, have convincingly argued for) this universality problem disappears. I think that Heidegger’s “The Essence of Truth” or Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty” have dissolved this urge for permanent essences and made contingency an inescapable issue. It is not that 2+2=4 is relatively true, but that the truth of 2+2=4 can only be established within mathematics and mathematics is a contingent human practice. We could say that 2+2=4 is universally true but we must make it derivative from something which is contingent. Time and contingent practices are simply inescapable in any assertion of truth.
What would it help to say that mathematics is universal? Would it change it? Would it increase its authority?
If we make the different truths (of physics, morality…) internal to different vocabularies, that doesn’t diminish the authority of any of them, and should reconcile us with our desire for timeless essences.

Posted by: joão Galamba | Apr 25, 2005 6:23:45 PM

Posted by: progressivelibertarian

I find that people who are keen on denouncing relativism take relativism to be the view that there are no (or almost no) moral truths which are absolute in the sense that David V. means it. They take it that all, most, or perhaps the traditional panoply of moral truths are absolute (as in: you don't ever torture people, period). Personally, I doubt very many, if any, moral truths are like this, so I guess I'm a relativist in this popular sense of the term.

I'm not sure your average Joe is going to get much out of a standard parsing of the standard philosophical positions/distinctions/debates, above and beyond the distinction between absolutism (and perhaps some different degrees and respects of absolutism) and the idea that there are moral truths -- i.e. moral realism. I find this distinction easy to get across when I discuss philosophy with nonphilosophers.

I'd wager that the new Pope is concerned with people adhering to moral codes that lack very many absolute moral truths (or perhaps certain specific ones that he thinks are obviously true; this is more likely). He may, like many, confuse this issue with that of moral realism in the "there's a truth of the matter" sense of the term.

Posted by: progressivelibertarian | Apr 25, 2005 6:35:44 PM

Posted by: joao galamba

(Cont. from last comment) After dealing with universality and contingency I believe the term relativism can be seen in a new light. We can simply say that truth of a particular proposition (e.g. abusing women is wrong)depends (which is not the same as saying that it is relative) of the existence of a number of holistic concepts that might not be universaly shared, but this does nothing to their truth.
If we remember Winston in 1984 it is not the truth that would save him, but other people sharing the same beliefs to whom he could talk to. Truth is truth, but it requires something besides truth so that it can be acknowledged.So the prior concern shouldn't be the truth, but the conditions under which a certain truth can be known. And we are thrown back to contingency.

Posted by: joao galamba | Apr 25, 2005 6:42:41 PM

Posted by: C. Schuyler

Professor Velleman: how do you define the position of John Mackie ("there are no objective moral values"), and what is its relationship to relativism?

Posted by: C. Schuyler | Apr 25, 2005 6:55:11 PM

Posted by: John Emerson

My pre-existing opinion on relativism and its context is at my URL.

For the moment, may I suggest that "relativism" might be a generic, polemical concept which means different things to different people depending on what they are trying to say?

(I.E., a relative concept. No, I'm not just trying to be snarky).

After I've read the post and thread I may return.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 25, 2005 8:25:52 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Lotta academic references in these comments. When I said that there are not many relativists in the world, I wasn't talking about humanities departments in universities. I was working on the assumption that followers of Rorty, though numerous in certain academic disciplines (not philosophy), are vanishingly few in the population at large. My remarks were about the broad social trends on which the pope appeared to be commenting, not the rarified world of people with 'theories'.

In response to C. Schuyler, I'd call Mackie a nihilist. Unlike nihilists, relativists believe that there are moral truths, although such truths are relative to speaker or agent. Nihilism is a more stable view. (Stability ain't much, of course.)

To msf I can only repeat my earlier comment, that I admittedly gave the argument against relativism short shrift, in order to focus on my main topic.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 8:29:16 PM

Posted by: David

miab (only this first part responds to you): If you're referring to Kerry's response to the abortion question during the second debate, I think he said that he couldn't take what is an article of faith for him and impose it legislatively. I agree that he could have stated principle underlying religious neutrality a bit better, but I don't think he was saying that "he wouldn't outlaw murder if other people thought murder was OK."

I asked others (mostly intellectual Christians)what they thought about Kerry's comment after the debate, and I think they all understood him as you did, Miab. They would respond, "How can someone personally think that an act is a wrongful killing yet think the government should do nothing to prevent it?" So, your interpretation was typical--though, I think, incorrect. I think this misunderstanding is a general one that plagues the public's impression of liberalism's approach to pluralism.

There is no short way of explaining why tolerating moral pluralism is different than affirming moral relativism. But, there is a distinction, and it derives from the priority of the right over the good. Now, liberalism (small "l") takes it as a fact that people will and do affirm different, irreconcilable conceptions of the good life, defined by religious belief in many cases. Now, in the claim "right prior to good," the good refers to each person's conception of the good life, while the "right" refers to the organizing principle that regulates the sorts of relations between these inevitable plural conceptions. The "right" is a kind of meta-conception, or second-order conception, of the good. This meta-conception of the good in liberal thought is in essence a doctrine affirming the equality of persons; each person's conception of the good counts equally from the standpoint of justice--justice basically being the ideal principles of cooperation to govern a pluralistic society. And, importantly, this meta-conception or second-order good is universally binding. No one can complain on moral grounds about its enforcment. As far as Kerry's remark is concerned, he seemed to be explaining the liberal view is that no particular conception of the good (e.g., Christian sexual morality) is favored by these ideal principles of cooperation, because such favortism conflicts with the equality of persons.

Now, this deontological political view is also found in many secular moral theores, which also invites the inappropriate label of relativism at times. Moral theory aims essentially to understand the significance of ought-judgments and, given the answer to that inquiry, what justification of such a judgment would consist in; and, if we could figure that out, we would then be in a position to ascertain justifiable substantive moral principles.

Now, it seems hard to resist the idea that ought-judgments are essentially requirements of practical reason. Just as there are rational requirements on propositions (theoretical reason), there are rational requirements on action(practical reason). Of course, what it means to have a reason for acting is a very difficult question, and any solution I might provide would be quite weak (I'm an amatuer philosopher at best). But, it seems to me, the source of morality--the authority of morality--is practical reason, if anything. Ought-judgments, if they are to be what we believe them to be, must have motivational content. And, if anything cognitive has motivational content, it is the practical requirement of reason.

The problem is that if morality is to contain universally applicable practical requirements, we must develop a theory of rational motivation that is inescapable--that is not contingent on empirical conditions. Given this serious burden, it's natural to feel that morality is doomed. What it is rational to do, we might feel, is dependent upon our subjective situation. It is only rational for me to eat mexican food if I tend to enjoy mexican food, right? And this is dependent upon my natural composition and cultural history. Well, there is more to reason than satisfying simple first order preferences of this sort. There are higher-order goods grounded in a metaphysics of action and of the person. Personal identity over time informs our reflections regarding how to behave. To use Nagel's example, if I will be going to Italy in a month and speak no italian, then it would be perfectly natural to say that I have reason to learn to speak some amount of italian. However, I would at that time have no desire to do the work necessary to learn italian. My motivation for learning italian is based upon an ideal distribution of energy and satisfaction over time--though that is an overly simple way of putting it. And, importantly, this ideal distribution over time is informed by a conception of the person as continuous over time. When we make the decision we imagine an ideal scenario and, if rational, set out to realize it. A similar motivation by ideal provides a foundation for morality. But this is an impersonal ideal rather than a personal ideal. The reasons for action supplied in virtue of this ideal are agent-nuetral rather than agent-relative. Yet, the personal and impersonal perspectives are related; one's personal ideal can only be imagined and realized to the extent that a certain impersonal ideal is realized. Or to put it more simply, it would be quite difficult to pursue a life with a satisfying and interesting narrative in the absence of some level of social cooperation or coordination. I think this gives a logical priority to the impersonal perspective, though this impersonal position of choice is motivated to foster personal fulfillment or self-realization. So, like the liberal political view described above, there are principles of action that are logically prior to agent-relative reasons. But, these agent-nuetral principles (categorical imperatives) are not the sole source of rational motivation. Agent-relative reasons are legitimate reasons for acting. However, they are trumped by impersonal rational requirements where they conflict.

This last point may be illustrated by a final example. Recently, I ran the 10K Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, SC (the last one before the bridge will be brought down this summer). I generally hate running outside the context of a competitive game, but I had sentimental reasons for participating in thelast run on this historic bridge and I also prefer being in decent shape. Well, in order to run the 10K, and in order to maintain a satisfying level of physical fitness, I had to begin running pretty regularly. I hated every minute of it. But, I would say running was the rational thing to do, since it contributed to an ideal version of my life. My time-specific (or dated) reasons while running said "go home and play guitar or watch a movie," but more timeless reasons said "keep going if you want to be the person you prefer." In this case, it was rational to take the course of action motivated by my ideal. Similarly, it was rational for me to quit smoking two years ago, even though each cigarette seemed harmless in itself and withdrawals are a bitch. All of this seems clear in retrospect, but at specific points in time, these decisions seemed unattractive to say the least. Similarly, a social ideal trumps egoistic prudence in many situations. And this social ideal is agent-nuetral and universally applicable. But, this social ideal leaves many decisions to be resolved by agent-relative reasons. This isn't moral relativism or nihilism; it's just a limitation on the scope of moral reasons.

Posted by: David | Apr 25, 2005 8:31:07 PM

Posted by: Russil Wvong

"Leaving aside the technical objections, we can reject both views on the grounds that they deny the universality of morality."

I think that's exactly what most people do: deny the universality of morality. We know that different cultures have different moral standards, and that moral standards have changed over time. There's two obvious ways to reconcile this with the supposed universality of moral standards:

(1) assert that one's own moral standards are correct, and that everyone else's are wrong (call it the fundamentalist response); or

(2) assert that moral standards are _not_ universal; that is, the supposed universality of moral standards is an illusion, caused by parochialism (call it cosmopolitanism or nihilism).

It seems to me that far from being implausible, (2) is much more plausible than (1).

My guess is that when people refer to moral relativism, they're referring to (2), even if the technical definition of moral relativism means something else.

Here's an example. Hans Morgenthau, writing in "The Purpose of American Politics" (1960), links relativism (technically, nihilism) to the power of majority opinion in American society:

"American society, like the great vital societies of the past, was created and maintained by the belief in the universal validity of such objective standards. These standards were deemed to underlie society, this particular one and all others. Society had not created these standards and, hence, could not abolish them. Society could but comply with them to its benefit or depart from them at its peril. The standards themselves were the human formulation of the objective nature of things, and it is irrelevant to this discussion whether theological or secular terms were used to formulate them. The validity of these standards owed nothing to society: like the law of gravity, they were valid even if nobody recognized and abided by them; but society owed whatever it achieved or failed to achieve to its compliance with, or neglect of, these standards. In brief, society was believed to be embedded in, and guided by, self-evident truths, rational and moral, from which society derived whatever truth was to be found in its thought and action.

"Regardless of one's view as to the merits of this conception of society, it is emphatically not the conception that prevails in America today. In the prevailing view of social life, nothing precedes and transcends society; whatever exists in the social sphere has been created by society itself, and the standards by which it abides are also its own. This view of social life can have no room for self-evident truths or for objective standards of universal validity. It can hold no truths to be self-evident nor any moral standards to be absolute, but must limit itself to stating empirically that at a particular time and in a particular place certain people appear to believe that certain statements are true and certain moral standards ought to be complied with. Reliance upon a common sense that is the rational and moral manifestation of a common human nature experiencing a common world makes way for an unrestricted relativism that is no longer limited by objective rational and moral standards and, hence, finds itself at the mercy of the preferences of society. From those preferences there is no appeal to a 'higher law,' rational or moral, aesthetic or economic, political or religious. Man-in-the-mass, the majority of men in a given society at a given time, becomes the measure of all things, and what the majority wants is good because it wants it."

Posted by: Russil Wvong | Apr 25, 2005 8:45:32 PM

Posted by: neruda boy

I agree with Anderson on the idea that the universality of morality is a fairly late arrival, but I'd say that it's not that universalisability is not implicit in morality but that morality *itself* is a fairly late arrival...

Much of the debate over relativism seems to conflate the terms 'morality' and 'ethics.' I'd define 'morality' as being based upon some sort of code or injunctions, most typically being formulated in terms of 'Thou shalt...' In contrast, 'ethics' is based upon some ideal of character and its associated virtues, the most famous example of which is Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics, and which forms the basis of the Good for most 'archaic' societies.

In contemporary society we tend to rely on both, but have a single conception of 'Goodness.' If we were to just rely on moral rules- which in order to be universal must be abstracted away from concrete examples- then EITHER it is the case that 'X is good' OR it is not. One cannot say that in Case Y the rule shouldn't apply, else we quickly get into the slippery slope territory of situational 'ethics,' which, because it relies on notions of entirely free-floating judgement, are arbitrary.

Since universal rules DO in fact lead to absurdities occasionally, it is good that we also have (however implicitly) ethics- i.e. there are character traits that we admire. One can certainly argue that there are moral rules that are generally applicable, but in Case Y it would not be [insert virtue here] to apply them.

Suppose there is a rule that a debtor is morally obliged to repay a creditor the sum he has borrowed. But our debtor D would be utterly destroyed were he forced to repay what to his creditor C is a risibly small sum. Surely it would not be Good for C to insist on this repayment, even though one can easily point to disastrous circumstances if this leniency was universalised. The reason why it would not be Good is surely because it would not be *magnanimous* to demand the money: it would be *cruel.*

Our conception of the Good is a partnership of morality and ethics, yet by conflation of the two it can seem that a rejection of a moral rule in a particular situation= relativism.

However, I submit that it is no accident that the people who worry most about moral rules not being followed to the letter are those who think that humans are naturally vicious; and also that the acceptance of moral rules is dependent on whether or not they fit with our virtues (we would surely reject any moral rule that struck us as cruel, at least if it did not form part of our traditions.)

If the latter is the case then I think philosophy should pay more attention to ethics, i.e. how characters are formed and what kind(s?) of characters are best, and less to moral rules, and also spend less time trying to fend off priests whose views presuppose a conception of human nature that the most people do not seem to share. David, I read your post as working towards that- i.e. virtues of tolerance, anti-authoritarianism, flexibility etc...

If all morality is based on some ethics, it would surely be wisest to think how (or indeed if) the character qualities implicit in that ethics can be developed in ourselves and our fellow citizens so that we have less *need* to rely on absurdity-generating universal moral rules.

Posted by: neruda boy | Apr 25, 2005 8:55:37 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

For another philosopher's take on relativism. See hilzoy at Obsidian Wings.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 8:56:28 PM

Posted by: Russil Wvong

"This meta-conception of the good in liberal thought is in essence a doctrine affirming the equality of persons; each person's conception of the good counts equally from the standpoint of justice--justice basically being the ideal principles of cooperation to govern a pluralistic society."

Does this not give full sway to majority opinion rather than objective standards, exactly as Morgenthau was arguing?

For some context, it may be helpful to note that Morgenthau was a German Jew (b. 1904) who was a young man while the Nazis were coming to power. The first public rally by the Nazis was staged in his hometown.

Posted by: Russil Wvong | Apr 25, 2005 8:57:40 PM

Posted by: neruda boy

"This meta-conception of the good in liberal thought is in essence a doctrine affirming the equality of persons; each person's conception of the good counts equally from the standpoint of justice--justice basically being the ideal principles of cooperation to govern a pluralistic society."

David- (sorry, meant David Velleman in my previous post) doesn't your definition of justice beg the question about the moral desirability of a pluralistic society?

Also, I don't see how you're grounding the doctrine of the equality of selves- if you do so by appeal to theological considerations then surely you're tying the doctrine to some kind of religion, but I think you need to have *some* way of grounding the doctrine, *why* everyone's conception of the good should be treated as being of equal weight. Mere "Existence is not a predicate."

Thirdly, I think you're left open to the argument that 'embryos are ensouled' and thus their presumed preference for life should be taken as equal with the parents' preference to terminate, and it's difficult to see how you could refute someone who argues that, because of the sheer slipperiness of the term 'soul.'

Posted by: neruda boy | Apr 25, 2005 9:16:43 PM

Posted by: David

Russil Wvong replies to me by asking, "Does this not give full sway to majority opinion rather than objective standards, exactly as Morgenthau was arguing?"

Not at all. In fact, justice and political legitimacy are defined by a unanimity criterion under my view (although, this isn't clearly evident from the single sentence you quote from my post.) That is, the primacy of equality requires that the principles of justice be acceptable to everyone, reasoning from their own personal perspective. In my view, a theory of justice that takes seriously the separateness of persons and the equality of all persons will include limitations on the exercise of majority will. Specifically, no one would accept a political arrangement that might permit them to be used as a mere means to the ends of others. If the principles only regard citizens as having instrumental importance, then one could conceivably live a worse life under the political institution than he would in a state-of-nature (One might be used for painful scientific experiment, for instance). It would be irrational for an agent to assume obligations under this quasi-social-contract without the assurance that he will benefit personally (to some extent) from the agreement. So, if the quasi-contract really does count everyone equally--meaning its terms would be agreeable to all rational persons--then its terms must be mutually advantageous, in which case distributive principles would place important limitations on the power of the majority. And it seems that justice would also limit what kinds of reasons are permitted to motivate political decisions (e.g., hostility toward a religious minority would be an impermissible basis for political decisions)

Posted by: David | Apr 25, 2005 9:24:47 PM

Posted by: John Emerson

I have known deadheads and parrotheads (Jimmy Buffet fans, Deadheads lite) who were actual relativists. It's not a viable or sophisticated philosophical position, and it's not even tenable as a practical rule-of-thumb, but it's not a pure straw man. Real people do assert relativism.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 25, 2005 9:27:56 PM

Posted by: David

neruda boy: I didn't use the word "soul." And I don't see how any of my remarks says anything that would support the claim that embryos can make claims on others. In fact, I said almost nothing regarding substantive principles. I only meant to comment on methodological matters. All I can do now is offer a quick word about the standing of embryos and early fetuses. Essentially, killing is a "bad" thing only when it interrupts something with an interest in continuing, i.e., a person. Embryos are not persons. And I see no reason to support a moral principle that obligates moral agents to ensure that all potential persons come into being.

Anyway, I have no time at the moment. I have posted on this topic on the discussion threads for DV's Roe posts. My views are similar to his with regard to this issue, but some differences exist. In any case, I may try to respond later if I have time. Sorry.

Posted by: David | Apr 25, 2005 9:35:19 PM

Posted by: Philo_Student

Prof. Velleman,

You've shown some reticence in responding to questions about your objection to moral relativism, but I'm curious. So here goes another question.

Suppose I make the following three claims.

1. When an American says, "It was impermissible for the ancient Romans to have slaves" he speaks truly.

2. When an ancient Romans says, "It is permissible for us to have slaves" he speaks truly.

3. When an American says,"It is imperssible for Americans to have slaves, but it was permissible for the ancient Romans to have slaves," he speaks falsely.

I take it that by asserting 1 and 2, I thereby commit myself to speaker-relativism. And I also take it that by asserting 3 I assert the "universality of morality". You seem to claim that the thesis of speaker-relativism and the thesis of the "universality of morality" are incompatible. But if that's true, then 1-3, which entail both theses, are also incompatible. But I don't see how 1-3 are incompatible: we just have to assume that the American and the ancient Roman mean something different by 'permissible'.

Now, you yourself in the orignial post seem to make the point that the speaker-relativist is going to want to assert 1-3. So, I assume that you are going to respond to this argument by saying that to assert 3 is not to assert the universality of morality, but only to assert something weaker, somthing which is in fact compatible with speaker-relativism. So my question is: what is the "universality of morality", if it is not something I commit myself to by asserting 3?

Posted by: Philo_Student | Apr 25, 2005 9:37:55 PM

Posted by: neruda boy

David, no need to apologise! We've got into areas we could spend hours arguing over, and you've already made a big contribution to this thread.

Quite right, you didn't use the word 'soul,' but I was just saying that if you don't explicitly say on what basis people are to be treated equally, what constitutes a 'Self' in the liberal conception, then people can declare that a wider range of forms-of-life have Selves, e.g. embryos or (the apparently rather sensitive) pigs, and that these should be regarded as equal to humans; and without a clear conception of what constitutes a Self, and why it has a privileged status with regard to any good, then you'll have difficulty in reaching agreement with people who do in fact argue this.

I wasn't very clear about what I meant about 'left yourself open to' before, and hope I've cleared up the misunderstanding.

Posted by: neruda boy | Apr 25, 2005 9:54:16 PM

Posted by: Tom I.

Thanks for a fantastic discussion. I just want to make one remark about the question of universality. Why not say instead that moral standards are necessarily objective? To take the example of the silver rule, don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself, it seems to me that the foundation of this standard is the (objective) fact that I AM NOT SPECIAL (plus some other details). The problem with saying that a standard is universal is that we seem to be saying "for all x, if such-and-such is the case, then x ought to blah", when no one of us could ever have justification for such a claim. What I know are facts about myself, the world, the people I encounter, and these are objective. Moral standards really count as moral if they're objective.

Posted by: Tom I. | Apr 25, 2005 10:03:29 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

John Emerson -- Oh, sure, real people do assert relativism. A majority of American undergraduates assert it at some point during the first week of Philosophy 101. I once thought that all those undergraduates really believed relativism. In fact, I may have asserted something like that in a very early post on this blog. But then Judy Lichtenberg (who was then a contributor) prompted me to think again -- and I realized that she was right. Those undergraduates who make relativist assertions don't really believe relativism, as becomes evident once they are questioned about the implications of their assertions, which they immediately disown. What they are mostly trying to express is mutual tolerance, resistance to authoritarianism, respect for one another's privacy, and other attitudes that make them reluctant to seeem "judgmental".

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 10:22:10 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Philo Student: Not sure I understand your question. The conjunction of 1 and 2 doesn't distinguish between agent- and speaker-relativism, since these statements differ with respect to both the agent and the speaker. 3 doesn't assert the universality of morality, so it's compatibility with 1 and 2 doesn't prove anything. 3 may be a consequence of the universality of morality, but statements can be incompatible with a thesis without being incompatible with all of its consequences. (EG: ~p is incompatible with p&q; q is a consequence of p&q; ~p is compatible with q)

Of course, if you're willing to assume that the American and the Roman mean different things by "permissible", then you aren't talking about relativism. Relativism is a thesis about judgments of permissibility (or right and wrong), not judgments using the word "permissible" (or "right" and "wrong") with just any meaning. Obviously, if by "permissible" the Roman means "hilariously funny", then relativism about "permissibility" is no doubt true -- since what's funny is indeed relative to the cultural context.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 25, 2005 10:35:34 PM

Posted by: zoeae

While the post provides a helpful taxonomy of objections to relativism, it simply defines away the major challenge to the account of morality as universalism - and the follow-up post dismisses it based on a guess about the number (and status) of its adherents. I would venture that Rorty's account - borrowed from Sellars - that morality is a matter of "'we-intentions,' that the core meaning of 'immoral action' is 'the sort of thing we don't do,'" CIS, p. 59, describes the meta-ethical take of most non-theists/non-rationalists. This position is also not relativism, because the opposing views of others are no less immoral because of this meta-ethical take. It is also not disabling to moral judgment, and may even be a necessary but not sufficient step in moral progress.

Posted by: zoeae | Apr 25, 2005 10:36:24 PM

Posted by: John Emerson

People who assert relativism always do break down at some point, either when faced with actual offenses against themselves, or when asked to justify their views. However, in practice many of them do take unjustifiably noncommital attitudes toward offenses which do not harm them personally, refusing to support the victims or oppose the victimizers.

And only a small percentage of them will ever be asked to justify their views in the face of intelligent argument.

So in a practical sense, relativism is not an imaginary problem, even though philosophically I think that it is. (Though many would call me a relativist.......)

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 25, 2005 11:19:06 PM

Posted by: Philo_Student

Prof. Velleman,

You say that the 1 and 2 differ with respect to both the agent and the speaker.

1. When an American says, "It was impermissible for ancient Romans to have slaves," he speaks truly.

2. When an ancient Roman says, "It is permissible for *us* [i.e., ancient Romans] to have slaves," he speaks truly.

But it seems to me that they only differ with respect to the speaker: in both cases the ancient Romans are the agents (I complicated matters unecessarily by including the indexical 'us' in the sentence uttered by the ancient Roman. Perhaps that is what threw you off).

So a speaker-relativist is someone who asserts both 1 and 2. Or perhaps better for the point I want to make, a speaker-relativist is someone who asserts both 3 and 4.

3. When an American says, "It was impermissible for ancient Romans to have slaves," he speaks truly.

4. When an ancient Roman says, "It is impermissible for ancient Romans to have slaves," he speaks falsely.

Now clearly anyone who holds this view is going to have to maintain that the American and the ancient Roman mean different things by the word 'impermissible'. So it seems that anyone who is a speaker-relativist is going to have to maintain that the American and the Roman mean different things by the word 'impermissible'. But you say that any such person is not a relativist at all. So now I'm confused. I guess I don't understand what speaker-relativism is, according to you.

Posted by: Philo_Student | Apr 25, 2005 11:23:19 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

re: Mr. Velleman on freshman relativism:

Yes, I agree that something which sounds much like relativism is so common as to be nearly universal among freshmen. I also agree that it is less a genuine position than a sort of social defense mechanism.

They are uncomfortable in general with anything other than conformity to their group, and especially uncomfortable with anything that smacks of articulate argument. As a result, at the first hint that others do not agree with them, they lapse into the sad old song of "that's true for you but not for me."

And it takes time, patience, and talent (three things I seldom have enough of), to show them that they can survive the experience of saying that their classmates are wrong, and having others say that they are wrong in turn. Slowly, with luck, they can even come to see that expressing careful, sensitive disagreeement is a far better way to show respect for other people's views than rushing into a rubber-stamp "true for you" babble that glosses over all the differences.

And slowly, and with luck, you can also draw out the fact that they have always held a wide range of robust and non-relativized views on all manner of philosophical issues, which is why I agree with DV and Ms. Lichtenberg that they are not really relativists.

But the social defense mechanisms, and the verbal tics that express it, can certainly create a very convincing appearance of relativism. And I have frequently been struck by the fact that this kind of Valley-Girl relativism is least common among the hard-headed science kids, and most common among the kids who identify themselves as Christians.

The science kids are comfortable with there being one and only one right answer to the problem set. But I have had professed Christians tell me that God exists for people who believe in him, and not for those who don't. I have had them tell me that only those human beings who believe they have souls actually have them--if you don't think you have a soul, then you don't. I have had students who would out-Pilate Pilate in their dismissal of any truth beyond each individual's "personal beliefs", even though they are sure that they personally believe in God.

I sometimes wonder whether much of the rot--and it certainly is intellectual rot, even if it is not precisely relativism--comes from a strain of contemporary theology that defiantly rejects rational argument and makes "personal beliefs" the most important thing. This is certainly not how Christian theology worked throughout most of its history--the assumption was that reason had an important, perhaps indispensable, role in the structure of theology, and that reason was among the means used to find out which views were true and which were false. Those sects that rejected reasoned argumentation in favor of individual experience seem to me to have done a great deal to advance the cause of relativism (or at least what looks and sounds a great deal like it).

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Apr 25, 2005 11:28:26 PM

Posted by: Philo_Student

Prof. Velleman,

Let me put my last point in one more way. Speaker-relativism just *cannot be* the view that (i) when an American judges that it was wrong for ancient Romans to have slaves, he judges correctly, (ii), when an ancient Roman judges that it was wrong for ancient Romans to have slaves, he judges falsely, and (iii) the content of the American's judgement is the same as the content of the Roman's judgement. If *that* is speaker-relativism, then we don't need the thesis of the "universality of morality" (whatever that is) to defeat it; all we need is the view that the same proposition, in this case, that it was wrong for ancient Romans to have slaves, cannot be both true and false. So speaker-relativism must be the view (it seems) that holds on to (i) and (ii), but rejects (iii); they maintain that the content of the American's judgement is different from the content of the Roman's judgement because the American and the Roman have different "concepts" of wrongess (or, to put it linguistically, the American and the Roman mean different things by 'wrong').

Posted by: Philo_Student | Apr 25, 2005 11:52:06 PM

Posted by: Mike

Those commentators who are getting bogged down in the question of whether or not morality must by definition be universal are missing the point of Professor Velleman's post. His point is to distinguish a morality which is on the permissive or "tolerant" side of the spectrum, from relativism, which has no relation to "tolerance" and can in fact be quite intolerant. I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the harsh moral intolerance of the greatest of all relativists, Nietzsche. For Nietszche, moral harshness ("courage") is the proper consequence of his relativism. A relativist isn't necessarily some peace-loving freshman finoccio with room in his heart for all kinds of lifestyles; Hitler is to some extent a viable example of a relativist, certainly no live-and-let-live type. Maybe this is all obvious, but the thread seems to have lost sight of this fundamental point in dwelling on squishier examples about how judgmental enlightened modern man should be about other cultures.

Thanks again to Professor Velleman for pointing out this crucial and frustrating mistake, which tends to hasten the degeneration of discussions with both conservatives and liberals into namecalling ("You relativist!" "You moral absolutist!").

Posted by: Mike | Apr 25, 2005 11:53:04 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

It is probably true that many people without ‘theories’ tend to use the term “relativism” in different ways than those whose vocabulary is shaped by academic philosophy would use it. (Then again, the latter group is fairly notorious for using some ordinary terms in rather extraordinary ways.)

We must assume, however, that the new pope is not one of those folks without a theory. It is also a reasonable assumption that he did not use the term “relativism” carelessly. Since he is reported to be a credentialed theologian and teacher in the Roman Catholic tradition, we can also safely presume he has a sound working knowledge of scholastic (i.e., Thomist) philosophy. It would be helpful if any scholastic theologians or philosophers could perhaps comment on whether or to what extent relativism might be understood differently within that tradition.

I find the discussion of the necessary universality of moral standards curious. (Certainly, that is Kant’s view, but we are not all Kantians or even all mostly Kantians, though I suspect that most people are naively at least partially Kantian in their non-‘theoretical’ moral reasoning.) We might be led by philosophical reasoning and argument to decide that universality is necessarily an element of anything worthy of being called a moral judgment or standard, but it is certainly not self-evident prior to that reflective process that this should be so.

When Mr. Velleman asserts that “[r]elativism is a thesis about judgments of permissibility (or right and wrong), not judgments using the word ‘permissible’ (or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) with just any meaning,” I assume he is asserting that relativism is a normative theory and not merely a casual way of making a claim about the vagaries of terms and concepts. Fair enough, though one might point out that there is no particularly compelling reason for people without ‘theories’ to use theoretical terms as theoreticians do.

Moreover, Mr. Velleman “point[s] out that some moral philosophers have argued that universality is the one essential feature of moral standards” (to which at least one response is “So?”), but also appears to concede that their (stipulative?) definition of morality is tautological. If so, then it appears we have a philosophical assertion something along the lines of “(universal) moral standards are universal,” the relativist rejects this asserted definition and this becomes, in fact, what amounts to a dispute about the proper meaning and use of terms. But in rejecting that assertion, the relativist is not thereby asserting a contradiction unless the philosopher can demonstrate that it is impossible to define morality adequately without including universality in the definition.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 26, 2005 12:22:25 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Brennan writes:

I sometimes wonder whether much of the rot--and it certainly is intellectual rot, even if it is not precisely relativism--comes from a strain of contemporary theology that defiantly rejects rational argument and makes "personal beliefs" the most important thing.

No, Mr. Brennan, it comes from a strain of contemporary politics that defiantly rejects rational argument. And while it is true that there is a conservative strain of this rot, I suggest that its predominant and most virulent form is the liberal strain.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 26, 2005 12:27:51 AM

Posted by: Ralph Wedgwood

This is a terrific post, David -- a beautiful analysis of many of the ideas that get conflated in public discussions of relativism!

One odd thing, though, is that in his homily before the conclave the new pope (then Cardinal Ratzinger) seems actually to have given a definition of relativism. This is his apparent definition:

"Relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be borne 'hither and thither by any wind of doctrine whatsoever'" (il relativismo, cioè il lasciarsi portare "qua e là da qualsiasi vento di dottrina") ...

This makes it sound as though relativism is the vice of changing one's mind too easily about fundamental questions. Perhaps the idea is that relativists don't really have any beliefs (or at least not any firmly held beliefs) about such fundamental questions. This interpretation may be supported by his later remark that the "dictatorship of relativism ... recognizes nothing as definitive and ... leaves as the ultimate measure only one's own ego and one's own wants" (non riconosce nulla come definitivo e ... lascia come ultima misura solo il proprio io e le sue voglie). Whether the new pontiff is right to claim that this is one of the chief ills of our time I leave to other readers of this blog to decide for ourselves.

To change the subject, I couldn't help wondering what Mike meant by the term 'finoccio'. Did he mean to use the term 'finocchio', which is a mildly derogatory Italian epithet for a gay man (a bit like 'fag' in American English although not quite so derogatory)?

Posted by: Ralph Wedgwood | Apr 26, 2005 12:44:06 AM

Posted by: Bret

Well, I think I've learned something from this post & comments: (a) I've had the wrong definition of relativism all these decades, (b) the Pope has had the wrong definition of relativism (or perhaps chose the layman's common but incorrect definition?), and (c) had I not learned (a) and (b), I still would have understood the pope perfectly well.

Oh how I love philosophical discussions - they're sort of like poetry in their own incomprehensible sort of way. Several of the above comments approached the beauty and incomprehensibility of my favorite philosophical passage:

"To mark a date in history" presupposes, in any case, an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are - and I want to insist on this at the outset - only suppositions and presuppositions. For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. The telegram of this metonymy - a name, a number - points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about. Jacques Derrida from "Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida"
David V., when are you going to learn to write like that? What kind of philosopher are you, anyway? Your writing (at least at Left2Right) is way too easy to comprehend.

Posted by: Bret | Apr 26, 2005 12:52:57 AM

Posted by: akp

First: I think that the list of reasons to denounce relativism is spot on. While I do think that there are valid philosophies that could reasonably be termed morally relativist, none of them have the cultural following necessary to make them threatening to anyone. Meanwhile, there are lots of people who are not fanatic, anti-authoritarian, tolerant, etc., and those are the people who are dangerous to some people who are in power.

I did also want to follow up on the question of 'universality', though. I take it from the Golden Rule example that 'univerality' here means simply 'these rules apply equally to all people', no? So if owning slaves is morally wrong, it's morally wrong for me, you, Cicero, and Thomas Jefferson. But saying that something is universal can also be used to imply that it is also objective--that is, that there is some universal standard that can be used to determine something's truth and falsehood. Does a valid morality have to have this kind of universality, too? Because I don't think that most people have problems with the former definition--it's the latter that's going to raise some hackles.

Posted by: akp | Apr 26, 2005 12:58:23 AM

Posted by: Mike

Thanks for the spellcheck Mr. Wedgwood, and you're right about my meaning. Interesting post too, I'm glad you pointed out that what the new pope means be relativism is quite different from what Velleman argues against (or that he argued was being used as a kind of strawman). The new pope's view of relativism as shifting in the wind is also the exact opposite of Nietzschean relativism.

Posted by: Mike | Apr 26, 2005 1:08:41 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Mr. Ridgely--

The hypothesis you put forward, i.e. that relativism is the unspeakable vice of the liberals, is a very popular one. I suspect that it is the hypothesis that Ratzinger favored as well. It is, in short, not an idea completely new to me, or to most readers of this blog.

That is why I thought it worth while to add something I take to be *new* information to this conversation: an anthropological report brought back from the jungles of freshman seminars. What I find there runs exactly counter to the popular hypothesis you refer to.

The line between those who fall into relativistic habits of thought or speech, and those who do not, falls nowhere near the line between liberal and conservative. Each class has a mixture of both conservatives and liberals (at this age they are still primarily reflecting their parents' outlook), and one finds the same brain-dead relativistic cant within both groups. However, I think one finds it rather more often among those who identify themselves as Christians. It is they who start out with the bright, interesting pronouncements about God, the world, and human life, and then automatically append to them the depressing monotony of "but that's only true for me."

As far as I can tell--though I find the details quite mysterious-- they do this because they have been freighted with a variety of positive beliefs--many of them admirable and accurate--without receiving any corresponding help in thinking about how to justify them or organize them into a coherent picture.

Some of them seem actually to have been taught that any challenge can be met by simply saying that it is a matter of faith, and that this justifies all. And at the same time they have taken away the vague sense that faith is a personal matter. And so they conclude that their own personal feelings are the only justification that any positive opinion could ever receive or ever require. And if their classmates seem to have a different array of personal feelings, then, oh well, it's true for you but not for me.

I would find it more plausible that the rot was due to the liberal strain of contemporary politics, if the loudest opponents of us liberals were not so busy proclaiming that liberals are all elitist know-it-alls who tell everyone what to do. That caricature of liberalism--which fits very well with, e.g., the liberal drive to end segregation in the south, or the liberal courts' judicial rejection of miscegenation laws--shows quite clearly that liberalism of this sort embraces some important values as non-relative. When Lincoln wrote "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong", he was not entertaining the possibility that nothing is wrong--he was neither a relavist nor a nihilist.

If you'd like to see some reflections on the hypothesis you favor, i.e. that there is a closer connection between liberalism and relativism, I strongly recommend the post by Hilzoy that Mr. Velleman refers to above. She's a bad old liberal herself--worse, a philosophy professor--but she gives your hypothesis more of a fair hearing than I do.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Apr 26, 2005 1:20:27 AM

Posted by: Abad man

A lot of this seems like a Richard Pryor joke about the freeway. You have the jerks going slower than you, (fanatical, authoritian, absolutist) and the jerks going faster than you, (soulless relativists)

Homosexuality is wrong and homosexuality is OK are both moral judgements. It is hard to see a middle ground. I may have to tolerate someone's view I don't like, but that doen not mean I believe the view is moral. I think on an individual level moral relativism is hard to find. As a society I think it is a lot easier. When the mob decides what is right and wrong, well that is relative. Even outside the church, what universal truths cannot be challanged? They all start with a set of assumptions considered self evident or divinely revealed. Once a society starts treating moral issues like a chinese menu, I'll consider life sacred in a fetus but not in a convict, or vice versa, it is in trouble. Even an issue as basic as the sancitity of life becomes situational. Maybe as DV suggests this is not relativism, I think it depends on how you define your terms

Posted by: Abad man | Apr 26, 2005 1:31:32 AM

Posted by: Colin Danby

I agree with Tad that it's essentially a social defense mechanism. (I also think "who am I to judge" usually means "I've made a judgment, but I'm too polite to say what it is.")

I don't know where it comes from, but part of it may be that students associate debate with people yelling at each other on television. It takes a long time to get past that -- even in senior seminars, I find that students often take even mild disagreement by another student very personally.

Speaking of TV I miss the old W. F. Buckley "Firing Line," in which people were allowed to complete their sentences and a certain level of civility prevailed. Many current students lack a model for civil debate. There are also scant models for thinking about religious difference.

Posted by: Colin Danby | Apr 26, 2005 1:32:27 AM

Posted by: JeffS

Maybe the real problem with Ratzinger's comments is that there ARE no moral relativists; that is, even professed relativists are misapplying the term to themselves,just as the new Pope does. They (mis)take non-relativism to be a form of intolerance, or worse -- a form of arrogant absolutism that not only disagrees with opponents but rejects even the possibility that the opposing view has merit. Dogmatism, something often associated with religion. But this,of course, has nothing to do with the realist (non-relativist) position. Realists just think that their belief that, say,slavery is wrong, or Nazism should be fought, is true - or at least something that it is possible to be right about. It is just to disagree with slavery or Nazism. Even a self-proclaimed relativist,if she has any moral opinions at all (i.e. who is not a nihilist), shares this view, because that's all it means to have a moral opinion.

Other self-identifying "relativists" confuse it with the (more plausible) view that people's moral beliefs are products of their culture/background/biases. But this is not a view about the truth of ethics (whether we ought to, in fact, own slaves); it is merely a belief about how ethical views are formed (how I came to oppose slavery). We may think that Nazism was a result of cultural forces, but we don't think that makes it right; we may think our own repugnance at Nazism is equally influenced, but that doesn't mean we're wrong. In short, I wonder if self-identified relativists are just people with a healthy self-doubt about the certainty of their moral opinions or the reliability of their moral perspective -- not people who believe there are no moral answers to have opinions about in the first place. Yet that's the view -- nihilism -- that the Pope was probably targeting.

Posted by: JeffS | Apr 26, 2005 1:48:23 AM

Posted by: neal

This subject is confusing. How can there possibly be a "Universal morality?"

Isn't morality a human abstraction of some basic survival mechanisms? Same for ethics? No one claims ants, or mallard ducks, or lions are immoral. These animals are what they are. Our "Universal morality" just doesn't apply to a hungry tiger, or the mating habits of a lion which kills the baby cubs of its recently acquired harem.

Using this argument, of course morality is relative, having its roots in the survival interests of the group that has the morality. Given this, morality is just another survival mechanism, and superior moralities are those that are able to ensure the survival of the group, given all the constraints, including human characteristics that warp an optimal choice.

I think what makes people upset is behavior that seems contrary to their self identified group's interests, in favor of aspirations or benefits to other group's interests. For instance, a lot of people were angry when proposition 187, which would stop government benefits for illegal immigrants was struck down by Grey Davis and the CA courts. (Who knows whether this is ultimately in favor of the group, in this case CA voters for 187, or not).

In any event, I don't think it makes much sense to talk about morality except in the context of some group or other.

Posted by: neal | Apr 26, 2005 2:21:24 AM

Posted by: chainlink

Tad Brennan wrote: I would find it more plausible that the rot was due to the liberal strain of contemporary politics, if the loudest opponents of us liberals were not so busy proclaiming that liberals are all elitist know-it-alls who tell everyone what to do. That caricature of liberalism--which fits very well with, e.g., the liberal drive to end segregation in the south, or the liberal courts' judicial rejection of miscegenation laws--shows quite clearly that liberalism of this sort embraces some important values as non-relative.


The liberalism you are describing here is a pre-multiculturalist, pre-identity-politics liberalism. I'd be happy at its resurgence. But even it can support a connection with the postmodern variety of liberalism: liberal elites can insist that Western culture, or perhaps simply white people, are uniquely unsuited to criticize the moral conceptions of Others, since its/their false-consciousness universalism is the the most destructive force in the world.

I find this a very common attitude on the left, and while it may not strictly be relativism, it comes fairly close. Isn't something like this at the bottom of real-existing multiculturalism and anti-globalism?

Posted by: chainlink | Apr 26, 2005 2:28:36 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan


Yes, that particular multi-culti position is almost comically self-refuting (we mustn't condemn anything, except that we strongly condemn all forms of condemnation!). But don't worry--that silliness is blowing past.

I don't really see that relativism motivates the anti-globalism movement--aren't they often the ones agitating for universal labor and health standards or universal ecological standards? It's not a movement whose views I follow much, but from the headlines I would have thought it went into the conservatives Stereotype 1 of liberals, i.e. the hectoring nannying know-it-alls, not into their Stereotype 2 of liberals, i.e. as spineless unprincipled relativists. But you tell me--is there a motivating agenda behind some parts of the anti-globalism movement that relies on relativism? E.g. we shouldn't offer tools for development because that would defile the beauty of their indigenous infant mortality-rates?

Honestly, there maybe some overlap between liberalism and relativism in the areas you mention. But I don't think you'll find many of the liberal readers or writers on this blog occupying that particular crescent in the Great Venn Diagram of Life (Don Herzog, as I recall, has made explicit noises about being ant-anti-globalism).

And furthermore, I find it hard to believe that Ratzinger was worried about the anti-globalism movement, either. The RC church, even aside from its liberation theology wing, has had its share of doubts about the morality of unrestrained capitalist expansion throughout the globe, probably more than such liberals as Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, or most academic economists and philosophers.

I suspect Ratzinger was thinking more of the relativism that he associates (confuses?) with youthful hedonism--see Ralph Wedgewood's translation above of his comments on relativism that "leaves as the ultimate measure only one's own ego and one's own wants". (Though if he really wanted to take a principled stand against relativism, he should have said it in the one true language, English, rather than being blown hither and thither into creeping multi-lingualism.)

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Apr 26, 2005 3:20:32 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Responding to Tad Brennan on the rot in contemporary politics, Mr. Ridgely writes,

No, Mr. Brennan, it comes from a strain of contemporary politics that defiantly rejects rational argument. And while it is true that there is a conservative strain of this rot, I suggest that its predominant and most virulent form is the liberal strain.

In prior comments, Mr. Ridgely has told us he thinks that the critical legal studies crowd is basically right about judges, maybe about law more generally. And he has sometimes expressed other kinds of skepticism about what rational argument can do. Is the view then that some of us overestimate the promise of rationality? or is Mr. Ridgely himself a Victim of Liberal Rot?

Posted by: Don Herzog | Apr 26, 2005 7:27:02 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Brennan:

You may be right (see? a flash of relativism!), but I am suspicious of your database. As I believe I have commented in response to Mr. Velleman’s twenty some years of teaching college students, I don’t think they represent a fair statistical sample of the general population. In any case, the more virulent strain of liberal rot I principally had in mind was the crowd you feel confident are passing from the scene and which Mr. Velleman roughly described as the sort who populate university humanities departments and have ‘theories.’ I do not share your confidence in their early ideological demise and find their particular strain of irrationalism to be increasingly infecting the body politic. (I did, by the way, read, Hilzoy. I’m sorry to hear she is a “bad old liberal” -- as opposed to good old liberals or bad young liberals? -- but I would never hold being a philosophy professor against her. After all, some of my best friends have been philosophy professors and, you know, as long as they know their place and keep to their own kind, why, they’re a credit to their profession!)

Mr. Herzog:

I have, indeed, been suggesting with some consistency that some (here and elsewhere) overestimate the promise of rationality, and I am reminded of an occasion when Judge Posner was accused of engaging in a “diatribe” for blogging a few passing comments to the effect that normative ethics might not be, as the kids say, all that, after all. I have also noted that suggesting that there are limits to the usefulness of rationality is not the same thing as denying that it is useful.

This is an intellectually respectable position especially when it comes to ethical discourse and theory notwithstanding, say, Mr. Velleman’s contention that those who “follow Rorty … are vanishingly few.” Personally, I’d sooner vote the straight Socialist ticket than be described as a follower of Rorty. But as others have noted, there is at least a Wittgensteinian perspective (regardless of what Wittgenstein, himself, thought – as though anyone knows) which suggests that reason permits us to climb the ladder, after which we must, as it were, toss it aside.

Which leads to my final observation, which is that at least part of the fuss and feathers here and elsewhere when the conversation has ventured into these normative ethics topics arises because of a failure to address underlying metaethical concerns. Unless and until there is some sort of consensus about what it is we are doing when we are engaging in ethical discourse, I doubt satisfactory resolutions to those normative ethical questions can be found.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 26, 2005 8:39:38 AM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

I find it hard to take any moral questions seriously when answered by someone who once condemned Harry Potter as evil.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Apr 26, 2005 9:19:35 AM

Posted by: Terrier

"people who don't respect cultural norms and who don't adhere to any of the world's revealed religions come to formulate a moral standard" the exact same way as everyone else - they make a conscious and responsible decision. I happen follow a religion that has a great deal to say about moral issues. One thing it does not do is to remove my repsonsibility for the decisions I make. Nothing is more dishonest and irrelgious that to try to hide behind the cloak of authority to avoid culpability. That is not religion - it is cowardice.

Posted by: Terrier | Apr 26, 2005 11:36:05 AM

Posted by: ya hozna

Relativism is a real danger. Imagine those people whose morals are so relative as to permit them to overlook or forgive the hundreds of years of crimes and unethical behavior of an institution which in effect is based on the idea that those who want to join the blessed must eat a sacred cracker each week and tell all their "sins" to a homosexual priest. Further, consider the moral relativism of priests blessing the nazis or Mussolini: that's a bit more a severe relativism than any santa cruz pagan-leftists or amsterdam hedonists, eh.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 11:48:40 AM

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com

My own take on what the Pope is getting at is really the looming death of the West caused in part by modern/post-modern philosophy which seems to me at least operationally relativist...its the demographics stupid!

As Mark Steyn recently pointed out the Blue States (carried by Kerry) were all at the bottom of the heap in terms of fertility. Liberals are as doomed as the Shakers were unless they can take back the Red States and then of course we are all doomed.

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com | Apr 26, 2005 12:09:40 PM

Posted by: CTW

... "if you want to talk about where our moral sense comes from, if not from revealed religion -- well, that's what we study in moral philosophy. But as you can see, I've already been criticized for the "ivory tower" quality of my post, so I'm not sure that further detail would be welcome."

here's one vote for exactly that "detail" and my (mis?)understanding of the last para of DAR's last comment is that it's another. "universal morality" (and other similar terms) means nothing - at least to the ill-informed such as I - unless the source is identified. as to those who object to "ivory towers", they are, after all, free to move.

Posted by: CTW | Apr 26, 2005 12:20:10 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Consider the "fixed moral perspective" of an institution which believes that a just, omniscient Creator exists who by definition knowingly permits (and indeed cause at some point) tidal waves and earthquakes killing thousands. Tho El Papa y los catolicos may not be relativists, their Padron surely is. Or rather, "He" doesn't do so (since He does not exist, unless you want to claim that God is the greatest mass murderer of all time). Thus talk of any biblical based morality is a joke.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 12:56:41 PM

Posted by: Dylan Barrell

This posting is totally inconsistent...you first write...

"Standards that varied from one speaker or agent to another simply wouldn't be moral standards; they would be cultural norms or personal preferences, not standards of right and wrong."

...and then a mere few sentences later you write...

"But of course people who agree on the existence of universal standards need not agree on their content."

Make up your mind!

Either universal moral standards exist or they do not!

If they exist, how could you divorce them from their content? The universal moral standard IS the content!

And if it is legitimate to argue about the content of the universal standards then universal standards simply do not exist!

Morality is relative...in fact it is by definition relative! I actually conducted a survey - which is still open for anyone to participate on if they want to - which asked what I thought were some relatively clear cut questions on what is moral and what is not...you can see the results here http://www.barrell.com/blog/archives/2005/04/morals_survey_r.html

I think the results speak for themselves...some people even thought killing was moral (if its not under certain circumstances then George Bush and the people in the military are some of the most immoral people on the planet)

Posted by: Dylan Barrell | Apr 26, 2005 1:14:38 PM

Posted by: brodix

However one may wish for universal standards, the fact is that order is subjective. You must have a point of reference from which to start, otherwise the objective reality is that every point is the center of its own universe.
The contradiction in monotheism is that the absolute is basis, not apex. It is the equilibrium out of which reality rises and to which it falls, not a state of grace from which we fell into this world and to which we seek to return. Consciousness and intelligence are not synonymous. Intelligence is a process of distinction and judgement. While theists think consciousness creates order and atheists think order creates consciousness, it would seem that this basic awareness is happy in a chaotic sea of basic forms of order, rather then some tower of universal order.
Reality is fundamentally a bottom up process which forms units of definition that are governed top down, be they individuals, groups, etc.
Communism proposed the economy as a single unit, as such it became necessary to govern it top down. Capitalism proposes the economy as a bottom up process in which individual units rise and fall in constant regeneration.
Human abstractions are an approximation of reality, reality is not a manifestation of the abstract, whether it be math, or religion. Laws, like the reality they propose to govern, evolve from the more basic to the more complex.

Posted by: brodix | Apr 26, 2005 1:28:41 PM

Posted by: Terrier

I want to point out another way of approaching relativism. What about (in the best tradition of whataboutery) the simple fact that every situation is different? Morality is always after the fact. Are people really so simple-minded that they believe all human dilemmas can be solved by a proscriptive set of rules? Do not steal! But if I steal my friend's car keys to prevent him from driving while intoxicated does that make me a thief? I can hear the objections already - well, you know it's not stealing, you know he's drunk! But the truth is that our lives are seldom that simple. When you make decisions every day you do not possess perfect knowledge of everything that leads to that moment. So, like everyone does, no matter how much they protest otherwise, you make choice and, if you are honest with yourself, you accept responsibility. Morality is just the hope that everyone else will act in a way that you can understand and anticipate. If you are capable and willing to make moral decisions for yourself and suffer the results honestly then you don't need a system. The only people that need a system are those who know they cannot be trusted.

Posted by: Terrier | Apr 26, 2005 1:43:55 PM

Posted by: Auros

I will confess that I have not fully read the comments, so possibly the following concern has already been addressed.

However, I am having trouble finding a way to distinguish "situationist" ethics -- in which an action may be justified by circumstance -- from relativist ethics -- in which an action may be justified due to the players involved. This is because I have trouble distinguishing "who you are" from "what you do"; given that I don't believe in a dualistic soul, I have to conclude that a person is, most fundamentally, the sum of their beliefs, desires, and experiences.

For example: One might believe that it is morally justifiable to shoot a man who is trying to kill another man. But is this because of some kind of Utilitarian situationist evaluation (saving the other man's life), or is it because the would-be murderer has rendered their own life less valuable?

This troubles me because I find relativism a difficult position to rationalize with my definite sense that there ARE moral absolutes, and my support of past liberal political efforts at enforcing such absolutes, as cited above (desegregation and the like).

On a separate thread, it strikes me that one feature of situationist ethics we should require is that one's beliefs about the situation actually turn out to be true. If I shoot a man whom I believe is attempting to slit somebody's throat, but it turns out he was actually trying to give them a shave, then my action should be judged not only wrong in retrospect, but definitively immoral. We must place the burden of foresight on those who engage in actions of contingent morality.

However sincere Dubya's belief was that there were WMDs in Iraq, the falsity of this belief renders his actions immoral. (And claiming otherwise is giving in to the "dictatorship of relativism".)

Posted by: Auros | Apr 26, 2005 2:27:33 PM

Posted by: Auros

Dylan Barrell seems to have problems with this statement: "But of course people who agree on the existence of universal standards need not agree on their content."

I think perhaps he has missed the point that these "people" -- the ones who agree that universal standards exist -- need not believe in the CORRECT standards, even if they are correct that universal standards exist.

If we posit, for the moment, that there is a universal standard, it still may or may not be true that the eating of shrimp is an unforgivable moral evil. We could agree that there exists SOME universal standard, but disagree on whether shrimp-eating is part of it.

Posted by: Auros | Apr 26, 2005 2:40:21 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Another varsity ethics-bull session. Hmmm. Choices, consequences, required knowledge etc. Darwin not to say Malthus (or Skinner or Papa Marx himself)--determinism--never enters the picture. That we make some decision is probably true--tho any decision would seem to be dictated by biological needs. (anyone remember biology?). Those who believe there are bases for ethics and actions other than the organism's self-interest (which might include altruism) are living in a dream.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 3:05:59 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

I'm with ya honza on this one. This is a bunch of theoretical nit picking. What're we doing in real-life terms? Can anyone actually claim that the Roman Catholic Church is seriously consistent with actual morality? They're not. What they're consistent with is a drive to enforce doctrine in order to do what they think is best both for the church, and as afar as I can tell, with the temporal welfare of people as a secondary or tertiary objective.

Us folks in the trenches make day to day decisions based on gut feeling. This is why the majority of Americans, including conservatives are "cafeteria catholics". We've got liberal catholics who use birth control and are OK with gay marriage, and conservative catholics who'll push for the withholding of the sacrament from anyone who votes the wrong way on abortion but won't do the same to people who voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq.

Both sides really are relativists. Debating whether they're wrong or right is stupid, because as far as the church is concerned, there are no real non-relativists to speak of. They're a dying breed as far as I can tell.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Apr 26, 2005 4:11:21 PM

Posted by: wml

On a separate thread, it strikes me that one feature of situationist ethics we should require is that one's beliefs about the situation actually turn out to be true. If I shoot a man whom I believe is attempting to slit somebody's throat, but it turns out he was actually trying to give them a shave, then my action should be judged not only wrong in retrospect, but definitively immoral. We must place the burden of foresight on those who engage in actions of contingent morality.


If by "situationalist" you mean "consequentialist", plain vanillia consequentialism does not imply "if and only if X does something wrong, X ought to be punished." Punishment/blame/social stigmatization are actions just like any other and should be judged by the consequences that will come from carrying them out. If hanging an innocent man stops a riot, consequentialism demands the man be hung. And then it might demand that later the judge that ordered the hanging be put on trial for murder - if that action brings about the greatest good (e.g. by preserving social order).

As another example, under many reasonable worldviews, utilitarianism or egalitarianism demands that any given indivdual in a wealthy nation should donate the vast majority of their wealth to the poor. But it also demands, under the same worldviews, that we should never punish or stigmatize anyone who fails to donate their wealth, as such a system of punishment would lead to rebellion or bad work incentives, making everyone worse off.

Posted by: wml | Apr 26, 2005 4:31:48 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Dylan Barrell -- The statement that moral standards are universal is not the sociological claim that moral standards are universally shared, or that they are a matter of universal agreement. (It should have been clear from my remarks about slavery in antiquity that I wasn't making that sociological claim.) The statement that moral standards are universal means that they are universal in application: they apply to everyone alike and are to be applied by everyone alike. When people disagree in their moral standards, what they are disagreeing about is this: what are the correct standards to apply to, and be applied by, everyone alike?

Tad, Ralph, Don and other colleagues: Although I have said, above, that I don't think the pope was talking about Dick Rorty or Stanley Fish, I do think that we academics should acknowledge that the politicization of the academy, which has made us vulnerable to attack from people like David Horowitz, has been greatly aggravated by post-modernist relativism. One of the reasons why instructors in the politically infected disciplines of the humanities feel so free to harangue and bully their students is that, as relativists, they don't believe in rational argument -- all there is, in their view, is rhetoric and politics.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 26, 2005 5:13:07 PM

Posted by: Dylan Barrell

Yes Auros that is correct, I do have a problem with that statement AND with your rebuttal. Not only did your rebuttal not actually add anything to the debate but it (like the original post) misses the two most important points (admittedly very practical points in a theoretical debate)

1) Even if we could agree that there is a universal morality, how do we know what morality is The Morality? and
2) Morality and the law do not have to coincide (precisely because of the issue with point 1) - in fact they serve completely different purposes...

Is eating Pork immoral - the Jews and Muslims think so, is killing a cow immoral? Is displaying your hair in public immoral? Is it immoral to display your breasts in public? Is sodomy immoral?

The problem is that those who use the term "moral relativism" are doing so in a political debate and this is a totally inappropriate place to inject morals in the first place. Just because something is moral (e.g. stoning adulterers publicly without a trial) does not mean it should be legal and just because something is immoral (e.g. adultery) does not mean it should be illegal.

if you want to read a more complete opinion on the subject go to Morality and the Law

Posted by: Dylan Barrell | Apr 26, 2005 5:18:25 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Though ethics discussions tend towards trying to formulate or justify moral "universals" that is not really what ethics is about. What is known as "Ethics" is better placed within decision theory or indeed economics than in philosophy (what philosopher, apart from Singer perhaps, really knows about or addresses the agricultural consequences say of the cattle industry, and of Burgers Inc.). And really that is what ethics should be about--food issues, employment, rights (or limits) to property, environmentalism, economics as a whole--rather than the pseudo-issues and red herrings ( typically raised by theists and conservatives) of abortion, euthansia, "gay" rights, etc.

(The few hypotheticals offered against consequentialism or self-interest are mostly contrived or irrelevant, such as the bogus issue of an innocent hanging man that must die to prevent riot)

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 5:54:38 PM

Posted by: Auros

Dylan, I completely agree with you on the relationship (or lack thereof) between law and morality. But I reserve the right to make moral judgements based on my interpretation of what moral rules are universally applicable, and it remains the case that the statement you quoted was absolutely true.

I do NOT agree that morality has no place in a political debate. Law and morality are different -- and justice is another thing besides -- but I think most people would agree that it is reasonable to pass a law with the aim of making society "better" -- treating more citizens in a more just, moral, and equitable fashion. See above comments on desegregation. MLK Jr employed plenty of moral exhortation, and I don't think this made him a demagogue.

We run into problems when some people get the idea that this means it is reasonable to use law to enforce a morality that is fundamentally coercive, and treats people unequally.

WML: DV brought up situationism in the top post. I think the question of whether a system of morality or ethics is "situationist" may be orthogonal to consquentialism. The latter seems fairly intimately tied to Utilitarianism (in which the morality of an action is judged by its consequences -- if it improves the general welfare, it's moral, and if it harms the general welfare, it's not). A morality that is not situationist says that once an action is determined to be immoral, there cannot be "extenuating circumstances" that make it moral; it might be necessary, and we might even, for pragmatic reasons, decide not to punish it through the law; but it would remain immoral. I think most of us have trouble completely separating those two things, though. I suspect that the systems of implicit ethical judgement that we rely on in day-to-day life -- the gut instincts with which we can make judgements about hypotheticals -- are situationist to at least some degree. One can always imagine a situation in which an "immoral" action seems justified, if regrettable. The question is how much of a "situation" can depend on the identity of the agents involved, and to what degree this implies that our ethical systems actually are somewhat agent-relative.

Posted by: Auros | Apr 26, 2005 6:05:57 PM

Posted by: David

Dylan Barrell, the relationship between morality and the law is more complicated than you seem to think. Political acts are are subject to standards just like other acts. Laws backed by threats of punishment are acts of coersion (in the sense that laws often, in effect, force people to do what they would rather not do). Surely, this kind of force is not immune from the requirements of morality just because political bodies carry out the force. Also, to the extent there is a collective duty to enforce moral standards (and I think there is such a duty in some sense), political institutions (as embodiments of our collective will, or something like that) are subject to moral scrutiny.

You say that morality and law serve completely different purposes. Well, although I do think their purposes are distinguishable, I don't think they are as separate as you suggest. First, though, we have clarify what we are saying when we talk about the purpose of law. Are we referring "purpose" descriptively or prescriptively. If a majority of white men enact and enforce a law permitting slavery, then in a descriptive sense the law would tend to serve the purposes of the white majority. But, purpose in a prescriptive sense is a different story. And it seems to me when you refer to the "purpose" of law, you are referring to what the purposes that law should serve, not the purposes it does serve (what value would the descriptive claim have, really). So, the same headache arise when we realize that determining what purpose the law *should* serve if just as difficult as determining how all people *should* behave.

Like I said, I agree that the answer to these two questions is different in some ways. But the method of determining those answers is very similar. In both instances we are in the normative realm, in search of some ideal framework of cooperation. Why do you think that so many moral philosophers do political philosophy/jurisprudence and vice versa?

Also, do you really think that it's moral to stone adulterers without a trial?

Posted by: David | Apr 26, 2005 6:57:48 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

"Why do you think that so many moral philosophers do political philosophy/jurisprudence and vice versa?"

Yes, the academic philosopher-clerics provide the phony cultural heritage and bogus "gravitas" to the law-student/ cavalier-to-be; most ethics issues are, as soon as they become serious, better addressed in the economics or biology department. As is perhaps criminal "law"............

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 7:13:14 PM

Posted by: Dylan Barrell


good points and I think we are actually in agreement...I think that the debate should center around exactly the question you raise...i.e. what *should* the purpose of the law be?

IMO - in a nutshell it *should* allow people to get along, have equal opportunity and punish those who deprive others of their rights...now I know there is a lot of devil in the details here...but not enough place in this space to elaborate more (although I do plan to post on my blog on the topic in the future though)...

Morality's *purpose* IMO is to guide our own decisions so we can live what we consider to be a good/moral life, be happy and have a clear conscience...it is between us and our faith, our religion and our (G)god(s) - it is personal (and relative)...

And no, I do not think it is moral to stone adulterers with or without a trial...I was just trying to make a point...and that point is that morality really is in the eye of the beholder.

Finally - to be for separation of church and state (i.e. separation between morality and law) is not to be against faith. In fact it is to be in defense of your faith when it is not in the majority.

Posted by: Dylan Barrell | Apr 26, 2005 7:25:03 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

"Morality's *purpose* IMO is to guide our own decisions so we can live what we consider to be a good/moral life"

The "goodness" of any particular choice or decision is not likely to be a matter of philosophy or even morality. The implications are economic and material--as in filling up yr jalopy with gas ---the oil and energy markets are a better topic for ethics discussion than the morality of abortion. Anyways as most phil/law people continually overlook (tho great novelists such as Dostoyevsky or Hugo didn't) , the situation many non-aristocrats (or non-Ivy league students) find themselves is more akin to Jean Valjean than to Jeremy Bentham. Imagine living in say 1920's Chicago when the mafia ruled the city and many judges and cops were on the payola: robbing a bank may not have been great "deontologically", but might be quite pragmatic and in some sense justifiable.....

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 7:38:31 PM

Posted by: ken

David V:

I don't agree with you that no one is a relativist or that relativism is implausible. I'm in fact a relativist. Although you make some very nice and really important distinctions, you don't make enough of them and that's why you fail to see what relativism really comes to. You can be a relativist in a deep and thoroughgoing sense even if you grant your central claim that moral standards are, in a sense, "universal' and don't make any of the mistakes you point out. (Although I'm not at all sure that I agree that nothing counts as a moral norm unless it is appropriately universal -- but we can set that aside for now)

You're going to have to bear with me a bit if I am to explain this.

First, here's a view that I've defended elsewhere about what makes a norm "binding" on an agent. A norm N is binding on an agent only if the agent would upon what I call culminated competent reflection endorse N. "Culminated competent reflection" is a technical phrase that I won't bother to elaborate here unless you want me to. I'll just say it plays a really crucial role for me. Think of it as a kind of "ideal" reflection for the moment. I hold that nothing but our own culminated competent reflections can make a norm binding on us. The fact that you would endorse N upon this sort of reflection may make it binding on you -- really and truly binding -- but that doesn't suffice to make it binding on me.

Here's the first step toward relativism obviously. I may be bound -- really and truly bound -- by norms by which you are not bound. You may be bound -- really and truly bound -- by norms to which I am not bound.

But what about your insistence that morality is "universal.' Here's what I say. Distinguish between x's being bound by a norm and y's being entitled to hold x to a norm. Here's a central claim. y can be entitled, in virtue of the norms by which y is bound, to hold x to norms by which x is not bound. That is because some of the norms that I endorse, I endorse as, as it were, norms for the entire (rational) order. When I reflectively endorse a norm as a norm for the entire rational order I entitle myself to hold the entire rational order to that norm. But that does not make the entire rational order to be bound by that norm.

Now when I entitle myself to hold others to norms by which they are not bound they may entitle themselves to resist my holding. There is a difference, in other words, in my entitling myself to hold another to a norm and the other entitling me to hold her to a norm.

Distinguish two brands of relativism: Tolerant vs Intolerant relativism. Tolerant relativism maintains that there can be no self-generated entitlement to hold another to a norm to which she is not bound. Intolerant relativism allows that there can be self-generated entitlements to hold another to a norm to which she is not bound.

The intolerant relativist can accomodate your intuition that moral norms have a distinctive character -- they have a kind of universal purport. But this comes to the nothing more than the fact that one who binds herself to such a norm self-generates in the binding entitlements to hold those who are not bound by them to the relevant norms.

One consequence of this kind of view is that moral norms aren't really in the business of being true or false simpliciter. What's true or false is that this or that agent is bound or not bound by this or that norm as a function of facts about her own reflective endorsements. What's also true or false is that this or that agent either is or is not self-entitled or entitled by the other to hold or not hold the other to certain norms.

I know this is all very compressed. But I hope at least the spirit of it is clear and clear that it doesn't confuse relativism with any of the things you say it shouldn't be confused with and doesn't make any of the conflations you warn against. But it's still deeply relativistic.

Posted by: ken | Apr 26, 2005 8:05:18 PM

Posted by: Colin Danby

re David V's

"I do think that we academics should acknowledge that the politicization of the academy, which has made us vulnerable to attack from people like David Horowitz, has been greatly aggravated by post-modernist relativism. One of the reasons why instructors in the politically infected disciplines of the humanities feel so free to harangue and bully their students is that, as relativists, they don't believe in rational argument -- all there is, in their view, is rhetoric and politics."

Who exactly are these relativists that you're talking about? Who exactly doesn't believe in rational argument? Which disciplines are "infected" and what does "infected" mean? Who is haranguing and bullying students?

Posted by: Colin Danby | Apr 26, 2005 8:08:42 PM

Posted by: SeanD

ya hozna:

It is a tired rhetorical move to take controversial philosophical positions (in the posts above I think I detect both hard determinism and a very robust ethical egoism), and then dismiss criticism of these and defense of other positions as the result of 'another varsity-ethics bull session.' Breaking news- hard determinism (biological or otherwise) is a highly controversial *philosophical* position, and for good reason. Neither is it (or the egoist conclusion you seem to draw from it) an established fact of empirical science (heard of quantum mechanics?).

Your second comment on consequentialism suffers from similar flaws. Consequentialism (or some prominent forms of it, anyway, including, I think, the variety advocated by Peter Singer) is a general ethical theory, and so should be able to cover all (or nearly all) cases, even implausible hypothetical ones. If you're still not satisfied, consider a more realistic example: the debate over affirmative action. Much of the discussion on that issue turns on whether we should accept the consequentialist arguments for it (promoting diversity and such) , or the deontogolical argument against it (violates absolute requirement of equal protection). I'm not sure how an economist or decision-theorist could settle this sort of issue- some 'varsity-ethics bullshit' may again be called for.

Also, though I happen to agree with you about the relative importance of the moral issues you discuss, I don't agree that the other questions (or abortion, anyway) are not serious ethical matters- it's just that I don't believe that (some) abortions are moral wrongs, and so I'm not too worried that they're going on. Unemployment and enivironmental degradation I take more seriously because I believe that there are widespread moral wrongs here that I think we should do something about. But it seems wrong to me to say that only the pet of issues of *your* (and my, I think) political perspective are serious moral issues.

Posted by: SeanD | Apr 26, 2005 9:31:04 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Hypothesis: Consciousness is a not only biochemically mediated, it is a biological function

Proof: Compared "mind" before and after 1 pint of Jim Beam

As far as holding to a deterministic and materialist position, I think Francis Crick was fairly consistent in arguing that the sensations of "free will" were produced by a specific area of the brain. THere are other scientists who hold
to similiar, materialist positions; Dennett does as well, does he not. (And if I recall my Physics for Reluctant Anarchists course correctly, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle has only very limited application and generally does not realize itself on macro level). Perhaps there are "anomalies" to the brain/mind (unlikely) but that would not attenuate the fact that we are biological and genetically-programmed animals who require food, shelter, sex, etc.--animals with highly developed cognitive and technological skills, sure, but still exhibiting many of the traits of other primates.

People can agree on certain ethical or at least self-interested principles--imagine a retrofitted Hobbes via Darwin and cognitive sci. or something-- but all of those hopes must be predicated on materialist and genetic basis or "ontology." In other words, I think the ethics or social contract of the non-theistic materialist will be quite different than the ethics of anyone who holds either to X-tianity or metaphysics, idealism etc.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 10:27:54 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

In other words, stick cannot be held responsible for his comments.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 26, 2005 10:46:42 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

No, in other words, theists, idealists and most who hold to various forms of Kantian ethics, such as DA Ridgely, are naive, irrationalist sentimentalists who still haven't realized the implications of a hamburger.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 10:54:17 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Well, maybe if the hamburger wrote more clearly....

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 26, 2005 10:59:19 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Are you objecting to the rhetoric or to a specific claim, DA Rithley. Deep thought time, courtesy of that anathema of both left and right, Professor Searle: Consciousness is a biological function. T v F. A person's judgment on that has something to do with how they will view ethics and many other things.

I' m not attempting to be Alexander Pope as some of the would-be fops here are.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 11:31:02 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

No, I'm just objecting to the hamburger.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 26, 2005 11:32:28 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

AH, aesthetics. Howze about then, Signore Cavalieri, we settle it Burr-Hamilton style?

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 26, 2005 11:40:57 PM

Posted by: JeffS

Ken's brand of relativism seems to beg an important question: isn't the whole claim of non-relativists that, upon "ideal reflection," everyone would bind themselves and others to the same norms? Isn't that just what it means to think there's a fact/truth/intersubjective/objective answer about what ought to be the binding norms?

Posted by: JeffS | Apr 27, 2005 12:48:34 AM

Posted by: shippi

'Neither view is at all plausible.'

Maybe not, but Gilbert Harman has powerfully defended a form of agent-relativism in several articles and a book.

Posted by: shippi | Apr 27, 2005 1:00:21 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I dunno, stick, sounds a bit foppish, to me. Besides, dueling is illegal in my state, even if one's opponent wears a little red jacket and carries a tin cup.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 27, 2005 7:58:03 AM

Posted by: Lynn Sanders

David V., could you explain why post-modernism is relativist?

Posted by: Lynn Sanders | Apr 27, 2005 9:41:25 AM

Posted by: David Velleman

Colin Danby: There are disciplines or departments where the consensus is that there is no such thing as truth, that rational argument is just bullying by another name, and so on. Some of the pat slogans are repeated in this comment, above ("reason" is "simply a compliment we pay to ourselves" and blah blah blah). Are you not aware of the Sokal hoax and what it revealed about the intellectual rot in some humanities disciplines?

If you don't believe that students are being subjected to political harangues, then you haven't been paying attention. The stories reported about this sort of thing in the press are not fabrications. And the effects are visible in the behavior of our students -- in the way they initiallly flinch and look at their shoes when certain subjects arise. Yes, a sensitive teacher can soon draw them into discussion of race, gender, and so on, but their initial reaction is to expect a sermon, because that's what they've received in other courses.

Lynn Sanders: I don't think I said that post-modernism is relativist; I referred to post-modernist relativists.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 10:02:58 AM

Posted by: David Velleman

For a blog that collects news items and links about the politicization of the academy, I can recommend Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass. I have found O'Connor to be generally thoughtful and an excellent writer, though I've disagreed with her sharply on some occasions (sometimes in her comment threads) and I suspect that I wouldn't agree with her political views, if she stated them (which she usually doesn't).

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 10:15:05 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Velleman:

Actually, the phrase was “post-modernist relativism,” which suggests at least to me that you were implying (I would say correctly) that relativism is a significant element in much if not most postmodernism. Of course, the term "postmodern" is (intentionally?) broad and vague. But do you not believe it to be the case that much if not most self-identified postmodernist thought is at least implicitly relativistic?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 27, 2005 10:22:06 AM

Posted by: Lynn Sanders

So David, what you said is, "I do think that we academics should acknowledge that the politicization of the academy, which has made us vulnerable to attack from people like David Horowitz, has been greatly aggravated by post-modernist relativism."

My revised question is, then, what you think inclines post-modernists to be relativist? Haven't you implied that they are especially inclined to relativism, and then particularly responsible for the politicization of the academy?

Posted by: Lynn Sanders | Apr 27, 2005 10:24:54 AM

Posted by: David Velleman

Lynn -- I used the phrase carelessly. I take it back.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 10:32:30 AM

Posted by: Lynn Sanders

David, I'm sorry you're taking it back, because I thought you were onto something.

Here are some impressions, that's all they'll be, because I don't have time to work them out.

1- Departments and programs where there were concentrations of self-described post-modernists in the 1980s and 1990s were indeed disproportionately the source of reactions to perceptions of the "politicization" of the academy.

2- In post-modernism there seems to be something akin to relativism, though maybe not the philosophical relativism that's been discussed here. Instead, I see a sort of political relativism, where, because political power is to be found everywhere, no forms of political power are more noxious or more open to challenge than any others. Perhaps I'm clunky, but I think that when what a text does is about the same as what the Justice Department does, this disables political criticism.

3- So I think the problem with post-modernism is (was? is it still a problem anyway?) that it isn't political enough. Or maybe that it is politically licentious.

4- I think it is an interesting possibility to distinguish post-modern political licentiousness - if it really existed or still does - from what may be mere correlates, like racial studies and gender studies.

Posted by: Lynn Sanders | Apr 27, 2005 10:48:51 AM

Posted by: David Velleman

Thank you, Lynn. I didn't take the term back because I thought that it was wrong; I took it back because I realized that I wasn't competent to give an analysis of precisely the sort that you have just given. (You were too generous in thinking that such an analysis might be forthcoming from me.)

I agree that what I called "post-modernist relativism" is a kind of "political licentiousness", based in the view that everything is (just) politics -- just a matter of pushing people around with words. Strictly speaking, it isn't relativism, as I defined the term in my post; it is rather a form of nihilism. It's a view according to which nothing is true or correct, rather than the view that different things are true or correct in the mouths of different speakers, or in application to different agents.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 11:06:46 AM

Posted by: Terrier

Well actually, "pushing people around with words" is exactly what discussions of morality are all about. I think noahpraetorius was on to something when he mentioned the "the looming death of the West." That death will be caused not by relativists but by decadent institutions. The conception of morality fostered by Middle-Eastern religions is adolescent. Overly concerned with retribution (for the other) and grace (for themselves) they offer a foundation for conflict but not a solution for peace. Thus the Catholic Church can enforce doctrine but ignore the actual ruin of people's lives. The Evangelicals can preach Jesus but waste brain cells on 'Intelligent Design.' The 'covenant' is "believe and ye shall be saved!" The adult truth is that belief is useless in everyday life. We are not as a civilization rushing into oblivion because we refuse to cling to the lies of the past, we are doomed because we refuse to learn from the past and lack the faith in ourselves to find a new way for the future.

Posted by: Terrier | Apr 27, 2005 12:38:09 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Though the Sokal hoax effectively mocked deconstructionist jargon and themes, I don't think it's a refutation of ethical relativism. Wasn't it more about showing that post.mod. claims--such as "reality is a text" and that science is as subjective as any other human activity-- were ludicrous. I loved it but don't think it was implying that ethics was necessarily objective; rather that scientific knowledge, logic, and language may, in contrast to the post. mods. claims to the contrary, be used to refer to an objectively existing world. Post. mod may be relativist, but the Sokal hoax was more about the absurd consequences of a linguistic relativity (not an Einsteinian relativity, nor moral subjectivity).

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 27, 2005 12:59:03 PM

Posted by: Colin Danby

To David V:

1. You just repeat your original assertion: "There are disciplines or departments where the consensus is that there is no such thing as truth, that rational argument is just bullying by another name, and so on." There are whole disciplines like this? Please, name them and provide evidence appropriate to the scale of your charge.

2. I'm not sure what the data point of the Galamba posting does for you -- its point about reason seems contextual not general, and I don't find your summarizing someone else'a argrument as "blah blah blah" compelling.

3. Sokal's hoax revealed that _Social Text_ had terrible refereeing. Are you familiar with the Bogdanov hoaxes? Here's a refresher: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bogdanoff/ Here we have serial hoaxing, amounting to five refereed papers *and two Ph.D.s* obtained by people who wrote plausible-sounding rubbish. Here's my question: should this lead us to chide the *entire discipline* of physics for its intellectual rot? I'd say not. (In other words what I'm challenging in your arguments is the tendency to take the marginal case as the typical case.)

4. Re political harangues. You originally posted: "instructors in the politically infected disciplines of the humanities feel so free to harangue and bully their students" which is a specific charge of haranguing by these allegedly "infected disciplines" that you still will not name. Now in your most recent post, you slip from active voice to passive and thus change the point: "If you don't believe that students are being subjected to political harangues, then you haven't been paying attention." So let's be clear. I'm sure the full range of bad pedagogical behavior is going on out there somewhere, in classes of all varieties, and that would include political haranguing. Your original post, though, argued for a causal link from the anti-rationalist beliefs of the allegedly infected disciplines and departments to a pedagogical practice of harangue ("feel so free"). If true, this (very serious!) charge should not be difficult to substantiate.

5. Student flinching is not necessarily a result of what happened in another course -- as Tad and I have noted they come to college unprepared for controversy, period. Any topic they understand as controversial makes them nervous.

Posted by: Colin Danby | Apr 27, 2005 4:09:52 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

Professor Velleman, if I read him correctly, is not making a plea for theist absolutism but for secular and dare one say Jeffersonian standards. What he is objecting to, if ya'll might permit a conjecture, is aestheticism; and I think post.mod. is a type of aestheticism, or produces a strange form of aestheticism among its adherents. Aestheticism reduces all issues to image, to style, to character: ad hominem, however subtle or eloquent, is the aesthete's typical strategy (in that sense it's near to McCarthyism). A Quine is not, to most post.mods., mistaken because of say faulty reasoning (though most post.mods don't have the logical or epistemological skills to point out any of his supposed flaws), it's what he stands for--tradition, rigorous logic, a clear and minimal prose style.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 27, 2005 5:34:28 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Colin -- For evidence of politicization of the classroom, I referred you to Critical Mass. In my experience, Fire is also fairly accurate in their reporting, whether or not you like their politics. I don't keep a file of these things, but I also don't ignore them when they're reported (as so many academics seem to do).

My comments about other disciplines are based largely on talking to some people in those disciplines, talking with my students about what they are taught in their classes, reading Rorty, Fish, and some of their followers. If you don't think anything has gone wrong in humanities disciplines -- well, fine. Everything's hunky dory in the humanities, I guess.

In a very early post on this blog, I presented some informal evidence that race and gender are seriously over-represented as research interests of faculty at my own institution. My College also has required indoctrination on race and ethinicity as part of its undergraduate curriculum -- a requirement that was explicitly justified by its proponents as designed to change the attitudes of our student body. This requirement remains a blot on the intellectual seriousness of the College. The requirement is administered by its own curriculum committee, since the standing curriculum committee of the college somehow couldn't be trusted to judge which courses should satisfy it. And so on. These things add up, but as I say, I don't keep records.

In future I'll stick to assertions that I can document. Sorry to have troubled you.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 6:07:13 PM

Posted by: Paul Torek

John Emerson is right, that people's backing away from relativism when its implications are probed does not show that nobody's really a relativist. Exploring implications doesn't merely measure what a person's beliefs already were, it often changes them.

Lewis Carroll's White Queen bragged about believing six impossible things before breakfast. The White Queen was just a dilettante. Your average undergraduate could trounce her without even trying.

Posted by: Paul Torek | Apr 27, 2005 6:38:28 PM

Posted by: Colin Danby

David V: .

1. Can you give me better references to "Critical Mass" and "Fire"? Again, I don't doubt that bad behavior is out there. The question has to do with imputations of cause and effect,and systematic malfeasance.

2. As you apparently now recognize, "based largely on talking to some people" is not persuasive evidence. I've read bits of Rorty and Fish and can certainly find things to disagree with, but my exposure to Fish suggests that he pays a lot of attention to rigor and care in argument and evidence. While I dislike Rorty's views I have no evidence that he's incapable of giving a proper class. It seems to me a little much to read back from what people say in articles, however mistaken we think it is, to pedagogical practice.

3. Re: "If you don't think anything has gone wrong in humanities disciplines -- well, fine. Everything's hunky dory in the humanities, I guess." I've said *nothing* to this effect -- this is a cheap tactic of overgeneralizing an argument and then going after the overgeneralization. I don't know enough about "the humanities" as an institutional whole to make *any* characterization of them. I'm a simple social scientist, and an epistemological conservative, and I like to have something approaching systematic evidence about an institution before I make sweeping statements about it.

4. Re: "In a very early post on this blog, I presented some informal evidence that race and gender are seriously over-represented as research interests of faculty at my own institution." How do you ground "over-represented"? In other words, by what procedure do you determine what is the appropriate percentage of faculty who should be interested in race or gender? Have you generated a complete list of interests and appropriate percentages for each interest in the ideal English department?

5. Re: "My College also has required indoctrination on race and ethinicity as part of its undergraduate curriculum" is that what the requirement says or is that your gloss?

6. Re "Sorry to have troubled you." Right. Look, you're the guy who made a post about Pope Benedict using a sweeping and unevidenced charge of "relativism" to see off a whole raft of distinct arguments that he doesn't want to engage with more seriously. You then went and did the same thing, albeit on a smaller compass. You're happy to use the term, with loose reasoning buttressed by selected anecdote, to make serious charges of systematic and intentional pedagogical malfeasance by large groups of your colleagues. You still, I note, won't identify explicitly the offenders -- though you insinuate that the discipline of English, and perhaps even the English dept at the U of Michigan, are among them -- or am I mistaken in this interpretation? More generally, you've chosen to depict yourself as a defender of reason against unreason. Striking that pose means that yes, people may hold you to standards of evidence when you make statements about the world.

I'm in the middle right now of writing a chapter in which I criticize Frederic Jameson and others for making statements about "economy" and "capitalism" that are scandalously ungrounded in evidence, so I'm not interested in carrying water for everthing that goes on under the name of humanities or "postmodernism." But as someone who does teach and write about gender and who tries to do it rigorously, and who reads quite a lot about race, I do get tired of broad-brush attacks on entire fields of inquiry.

Posted by: Colin Danby | Apr 27, 2005 7:22:59 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Critical Mass is here. It includes complete information about its author, Erin O'Connor. Fire is here. I don't know what question your have about cause and effect or systemic malfeasance If there are reports of racist incidents on campus, do you stop to quibble about whether it amounts to "systemic malfeasance"? I doubt it. Academics have ignored a constant stream of reports of political abuse of the classroom over many years -- and now we are all paying for it, with attacks from fanatics like David Horowitz. Go on denying that there is a problem, if you like, but students and their parents know better.

My description of the requirement at UM's College of Literature, Science and the Arts is entirely my own interpretation -- based on the faculty debate, in which I was an active participant, reports from some faculty who have tried to have courses approved for the requirement, and reports from some students who have satisfied the requirement. But frankly, the burden of proof is on those who favor such an obviously implausible requirement -- 4 credits of coursework on race and ethnicity. And no one has ever given a remotely valid academic justification for the requirement or the ad hoc way it is administered. I challenge you to find one.

No, I haven't compiled a complete list of the interests of the ideal English department, and I have no idea what that would be, but it is my judgment that race and gender are nowhere near to being the most important topics in the world, although they may well be the most widely studied subjects in my college. I don't object to Colin Danby's studying race and gender; I do object to these topics being studied by 30 - 40% of the faculty across large parts of the humanities and social sciences. Something is out of balance.

I retract my statements about postmodernist relativism. Shouldn't have gone there. There are people who have devoted a lot of time to documenting this stuff, but I'm not one of them. Out of my depth. Say no more.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 9:29:51 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

If you want to know more about my reasons for calling the Race & Ethnicity requirement "indoctrination", they are stated here and here. (I'm not recommending this stuff, mind you.) Looking back at these statements, I'm not entirely happy with them, but I sure as hell am not going to revisit the issue, which was the first big disillusionment of my academic career.

Posted by: David Velleman | Apr 27, 2005 10:43:16 PM

Posted by: Njorl

"Neither view is at all plausible. Leaving aside the technical objections, we can reject both views on the grounds that they deny the universality of morality. "

That is lazy.

Posted by: Njorl | Apr 28, 2005 11:19:43 AM

Posted by: miab

DV writes: "If there are reports of racist incidents on campus, do you stop to quibble about whether it amounts to "systemic malfeasance"? I doubt it. "

Actually, that's exactly what happens. To know what to do about it, it would be necessary to understand whether they were the isolated acts of a racist individual, the coordinated acts of a racist gang, the uncoordinated acts of a student body encouraged by the administration, the official acts of a person employed by the university and instructed by a unanimous vote of the regents to make those attacks, or something else. A racist attack at newly-integrated Mississipi had different implications and needed a different response than a racist attack at Antioch today. How do you know what to do about it if you don't even bother trying to figure out if it's systemic?

I think you're probably right about the overrepresentation of race and gender studies, but I don't know if it has as bad an impact on the college academic experience as you seem to feel. As an undergrad at UM during the time of your first big disillusionment, though these issues certainly dominated campus discussions, I never really came across much of this stuff in class -- maybe in an English class we discussed the changing views on the Wife of Bath over the years, and Carol Gilligan was brought up in psychology or ethics, but I can't think of a single course that was dominated by those issues. My sense was always that if you wanted that type of course, plenty were available, but that you didn't need to get into it any more than you needed to get into the plentiful linguistics or engineering classes.

*But*, in answer to Colin -- the "diverity" requirement from the beginning was always presented as an indoctrination. Even its supporters wouldn't have disagreed with that characterization -- though they would probably prefer terms with less negative connotations (such as "courses educating students on race and gender with the intent of causing the students to finish the class with a viewpoint more sympathetic to the issues faced by the disadvantaged races and gender, and more aware of and antipathetic to the institutionalized racism that perpetuates that disadvantage."). If you define indoctrination as education with the intent of producing particular political opinions, then there were no bones about it -- this was always an indoctrination requirement.

Posted by: miab | Apr 28, 2005 11:45:46 AM

Posted by: CTW

starting tabula rasa (at least in the sense of "formal" education) and having read and reread the posting, the comments, and several of the references in the comments, here's a digest of what I've gleaned:

1. in a given society, there are strictures on behavior: the "shoulds" (morals) and the "musts" (legal).

2. the moral and legal strictures overlap (Venn sense) and interplay

3. some key questions are: where do the moral strictures come from, are they "true" in some sense, is their scope limited to the society or "universal"? when is a moral stricture sufficiently critical to warrant its inclusion in the legal strictures?

4. possible sources for moral strictures are pronouncements by spititual authorities, scriptures, cultural history (both of the specific society and possibly of others), moral philosophers, and perhaps "nature" (genetics? human psychology?). a non-source is some concept of independent personal whim - we all get our moral compass from some combination of these sources, although the weightings on, and interpretation of, the sources and the direction and stability of the pointer will differ.

5. the "truth" of a moral stricture is affected by its source. revelation and scriptures presumably must be definitive (otherwise what's special about them?) and thus their "truth" must be indisputable (altho there is the question "as interpreted by whom?"). the other sources presumably have a lesser claim to "truth" (and there's the rub, from a marketing perspective - more below). scope is similarly affected by source.

6. the transition of a stricture from moral to legal is a political matter.

based on this understanding, I draw some conclusions:

- the condemnation by the pope of "moral relativism" is probably more marketing than philosophy. the formal sense of the term as outlined by prof V doesn't appear to me to be internally logically coherent, but in any case the pope wasn't conducting a theological seminar but was making a public statement on church policy. his personal belief may be "authoritarianism" (per prof V's post) but my bet is that his strategy was based on the observation that it's one thing to say that those who don't follow your authoritarian dictates disagree based on their own considered moral philosophy and quite another to say that basically they are amoral hedonists. the latter sells much better.

- to the extent that the pope limits his scope to the catholic community, his views on morality need not overly concern non-catholics. only if he tries to inject the church into non-church politics, thereby threatening to impact the legal system, must others worry.

- in the US, the conservative political activists are presumably motivated by a combination of the motivators listed in prof V's post. but the marketing ploy is the same - paint your opponents as amoral hedonists. they are clear on the "truth" and the "scope" of their morality - absolute and unbounded respectively. and their objective is equally clear - to move as many of their moral strictures into the legal realm as possible.

- those opposed to that view need to develop a marketing strategy for their "morality" (a tough task, as evidenced by the widespread acknowledgment of this need in leftish blogs and a paucity of promising approaches - "Kant says so" just won't sell). hopefully leftish philosophers such as those represented here can help bridge the gap between abstract concepts and down-to-earth marketing.

Posted by: CTW | Apr 28, 2005 11:59:40 AM

Posted by: cereal breath

if the entire universe became catholic and submitted to the will of ratzinger this point would be moot. it seems much easier that way, it would require less reading and who has the time to read with todays hectic lifestyle? so sign me up and, ratzinger willing, my morals will fall within the guidelines of the catholic church. my only hope is that when i'm a naughty boy and step over the lines, it is ratzinger who personally paddles my heinie raw. and with that, peace out to the relativist horde and may your souls stoke the fires of hell.

Posted by: cereal breath | Apr 28, 2005 1:03:22 PM

Posted by: David

CTW gleaned from the foregoing discussion:

"4. possible sources for moral strictures are pronouncements by spititual authorities, scriptures, cultural history (both of the specific society and possibly of others), moral philosophers, and perhaps "nature" (genetics? human psychology?). a non-source is some concept of independent personal whim - we all get our moral compass from some combination of these sources, although the weightings on, and interpretation of, the sources and the direction and stability of the pointer will differ."

This list of sources does not include, to my mind, the only plausible source of morality: practical reason. Of course, "nature" is sufficiently vague to include just about anything. Indeed, practical reasons--because they arguably must have motivational content--relate in some way to psychology. But, the formal structure of reason is not dependent on any natural phenomena. You mention moral philosophers as a possible source, but that misunderstands what philosophers are/do. They, as people, are not authorities. That is, their status as philosophers does not make their commands binding or persuasive. Rather, they offer arguments that may or may not provide sufficient reasons to act in some way. So, when we way say that moral philosophers are the source of morality, we more accurately describe reason as the source of morality.

Accordingly, the secular position is not "because Kant says so"; the argument is "because the arguments of Kant (or philosopher X) provide sufficient reasons for everyone to follow morality p, p being some kind of altruistic code of behavior." (Here, I am using "altruism" in a weaker sense than encountered in common usage. I am simply refering to acting pursuant to interests other than the agent's interests.)

Posted by: David | Apr 28, 2005 1:59:33 PM

Posted by: ya hozna

What I gleaned from the comments was that in typical Pangloss-fashion philosophers prescribe "oughts," imperatives, policies, claims, more or less implying that reason and ethics are separate from physical necessities. The discussion would have been, with few exceptions, suitable in about 1730. Scripture and Kant are referred to as is post. mod, yet you don't hear Darwin or biology or economics or any specific situation where an ethical rule might be applied. And that's just it--ethics, apart from obvious maxims such as "reduce suffering" or "help the needy" has little to no meaning except in specific situations. In a society ruled by organized criminals, corporate barons, theist hypocrites, not to say pimps 'n whores, a Bakunin's ethics may be as relevant and pertinent as a Kant's.

Posted by: ya hozna | Apr 28, 2005 3:35:43 PM

Posted by: CTW


my unstated assumption was that those who don't unequivocally accept authorities or scripture as their "moral" source process inputs from sources such as moral philosophers, writers, artists, etc (including scriptures - I'm not a "Christian" in the usual sense but I do subscribe to much of what little I know of Jesus's teachings per the gospels) and then apply their "practical reason". so, no disagreement from me with your response, at least on that point.

and I also agree with your observation about "nature". I don't know what "natural morality" is supposed to encompass, but I threw it in because I have encountered that term and wanted to be as inclusive as I could be given my limited knowledge (and put it in quotes for just the reason you stated).

but on the issue of "Kant says so", my point was exactly that statements such as that and also your proposed alternative don't (and can't) resonate with the general public. there needs to be something as understandable and "convincing" as "the Bible says so" ... altho such a simple description of the complex process of "practical reason" may not exist. I certainly have no suggestion, but I'm counting on others with more horsepower to come up with something.

Posted by: CTW | Apr 28, 2005 6:54:46 PM

Posted by: murky

It seems like there would be no quibble about disingenuousness if the Cardinal had simply decried "situationist ethics." That's informing sinners they're sinning despite situational details that suggest a personal exemption for particular instances. It's not telling people to be more or less tolerant of sinners. But decrying a dictatorship of a certain kind of morality implies disatisfaction with enforcement also. So having decried a dictatorship of situationist ethics would have been disingenous: The sins I suppose he was addressing, like buggery, aren't subject to enforcement, so there's no dictatorship of an ethics that says it's OK to bugger if you're born gay or keep it private. Arguably the constitutional requirment for tolerance toward those people is a dictatorship of a certain ethics (the ethics embodied by the US Constitution), but it doesn't strike me as situationist. I suppose the cardinal was calling on the observers of sin or pending sin to hesitate less to name it as such and to resist whatever dictatorial system hinders them from intervening or punishing: to resist by the standard mechanisms of representative democracy I suppose, including constitutional ammendment. Sure is a spin to call the constitution a dictatorship though.

Posted by: murky | Apr 29, 2005 1:04:35 PM

Posted by: murky

I suppose a Catholic would have to see the US Constitution as situationist with regard to ethics, just as I imagine a person subcribing to any set of rules must see any other set of rules that doesn't explicitly address precisely the same behaviors. "Free speech is allowed" is neither right nor wrong when judged against a set of rules saying one shouldn't say hurtful things but saying nothing explicit about institutional or individual tolerance toward what emerges from people's mouths.

Posted by: murky | Apr 29, 2005 1:16:22 PM

Posted by: murky

Hmmm. That free speech example doesn't actually deliver me to the doorstep I had in mind. Must think more....

Posted by: murky | Apr 29, 2005 1:21:23 PM

Posted by: coturnix

Great post. I will come back to it later and probably comment on it on my blog. I have had some embryonic ideas like this before, e.g., :


Posted by: coturnix | Apr 29, 2005 1:33:00 PM

Posted by: murky

It seems in the real world the situationist ethicists among us will be agent- and speaker-relativists in practice at least some of the time, because one never knows everything about a situation (e.g. the mind of the other), and so depending on one's degree of skepticism, one will make no pronouncement or verdict even in one's own mind. A suspect a common sentiment among recruiters for a lynch mob is that those shy to join are being too skeptical or morally too lazy--"reach the verdict and come help us do what's called for." Perhaps an anti-skeptical or anti-apathy motivation is behind the cardinal's statement.

Posted by: murky | Apr 29, 2005 1:42:52 PM

Posted by: murky

So from my understanding of the primer I guess I still think decrying relativism can be sincere and sensible. But in the context of the cardinal's statement, "dictatorship" strikes me as hyperbolic and inflammatory, because the available elements for the dictatorship enforcing tolerance toward buggery include individual disinterest, laziness, skepticism about whether people are born that way or about whether enough is known to judge and either agreement with or respect for the authority of the U.S. Constitution. I don't see how to cobble anything deserving of the label "dictatorship" from those elements.

Posted by: murky | Apr 29, 2005 1:54:26 PM

Posted by: Russil Wvong

Returning to the question of universal moral standards:

"I think perhaps he has missed the point that these 'people' -- the ones who agree that universal standards exist -- need not believe in the CORRECT standards, even if they are correct that universal standards exist."

This may be true, but how satisfying is it to say that universal moral standards exist, but we don't know what their actual content is?

To quote Hans Morgenthau again, in his "Epistle to the Columbians on the Meaning of Morality" (replying to anonymous students at Columbia who criticized his condemnation of Van Doren in the "Quiz Show" case), written in 1959, he emphasizes the degree to which different systems of morality specify the same moral standards.

"You must have smiled indulgently or shrugged with impatience when you saw me refer to the sanctity of the moral law. Is not morality, so you might ask, a relative thing, the ever changing result of environment and circumstances? If this were so, let me ask you, how do you explain that we cannot only understand the moral relevance of the Ten Commandments, originating in a social environment and circumstances quite different from ours, but also make them the foundation for our moral life? How do you explain that the moral ideas of Plato and Pascal, of Buddha and Thomas Aquinas, are similarly acceptable to our intellectual understanding and moral sense? If the disparate historic systems of morality were not erected on a common foundation of moral understanding and valuation, impervious to the changing conditions of time and place, we could neither understand any other moral system but our own, nor could any other moral system but our own have any moral relevance for us. It is only because we as moral beings have something in common with all other men--past and present--that we are able to understand, and make our own, the core of the moral systems of others."

Or to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"The differences between those philosophers who hold that there is a universal morality is primarily about the foundation of morality, not about its content. Neither Kant nor Mill regarded themselves as inventing or creating a new morality. Rather both of them, like Hobbes, regarded themselves as providing a justification for the morality that is [already] accepted by all. ...

"... morality, like all informal public systems, presupposes overwhelming agreement on most moral questions. No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation. In the vast majority of moral situations, given agreement on the facts, no one disagrees, but for this very reason, these situations are never discussed. Thus, the overwhelming agreement on most moral matters is often overlooked."

Posted by: Russil Wvong | Apr 30, 2005 3:30:00 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Alas, surveying the history of our species, “the morality that is accepted by all,” or at least generally accepted by most, has included slavery, the condemnation of homosexuality, the subjugation of women, an almost universal cultural predisposition to discriminate against those deemed “the other” on ethnic or religious grounds, etc. It is an odd universal sense, indeed, that manages to manifest itself in such widely diverse positive moral judgments so wildly different from the prevailing moral sentiments of a handful of western intellectual ethicists who live somewhat sheltered lives. (In that sense, Rawls on the ‘irrationality’ of those who disagree with him pretending to hide behind his veil and Pauline Kael on the ‘impossibility’ of Reagan being elected from the vantage of her friends having drinks at Elaine’s are equally plausible accounts.)

Do most people have some pre-reflective sense of justice and some often unarticulated sense of the importance of consequences in making normative judgments? Sure. But strictly utilitarian ethical accounts tend to offend that sense of justice at the fringes, leading to the not entirely unreasonable question whether we should abandon that sense of justice or the account. Kant’s categorical imperative (rather like his account of numena) is notoriously sketchy and unsatisfying when it comes to the nitty-gritty of solving actual ethical issues. Notwithstanding its psychological attractiveness to those already predisposed to endorse a justification of the welfare state, Rawls’ ideal contractarianism strikes me, at least, as the Rube Goldberg version of Moore’s intuitionism. Is relativism really in such bad shape by comparison?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Apr 30, 2005 9:03:09 AM

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com

I read an account of a speech Scalia gave recently. During the question and answer session afterwards he was asked whether he had ever sodomized his wife.

Similarly Ann Coulter was asked about her virginity.

At the Democratic Underground they applaud when Laura Ingraham is found to have cancer and Zell Miller is hospitalized.

Is this sort of behavior immoral?

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com | Apr 30, 2005 10:09:13 AM

Posted by: Paul Torek

I was a grad student at U Mich at the time the "diversity" requirement went into effect, and I have another take. miab is right that the university made no bones about its intent to produce certain sorts of changes in student viewpoints. At the same time, it denied (truthfully, I hope) that students' grades would be held hostage to the expression of any particular viewpoint. It dared to imply that people with very different starting points could freely and rationally come to similar conclusions by a learning process. I found that downright refreshing, as a confounder to that freshman relativism which DV thinks is just a pose.

I'm almost inclined to say that the actual merits of the particular diversity requirement are secondary. I hope the debate on this issue, and what "indoctrination" really means, continues vigorously at UM. With the requirement in place to give it an immediate personal interest to the students. What an opportunity! Now *that* is what I call educational.

Posted by: Paul Torek | Apr 30, 2005 10:54:41 AM

Posted by: CTW

"Do most people have some pre-reflective sense of justice and some often unarticulated sense of the importance of consequences in making normative judgments? Sure."

but isn't this precisely the problem? if there is such a "pre-reflective" sense, it presumably must be "natural" to humans and hence "universal" within human societies (hopefully I'm interpreting "pre-reflective" correctly), but it clearly isn't as evidenced by the many counterexamples noted.

Posted by: CTW | Apr 30, 2005 5:27:06 PM

Posted by: CTW

"Is this sort of behavior immoral?"

personally, I don't make such judgments, but I'd suggest that the situations are incommensurate.

the fellow who asked scalia the question was certainly rude (altho I'd be less censorious on that point if his wife had not been present) and possibly imprudent, but he was trying to make a point. in scalia's dissent in lawrence v. texas, after making a very well structured legal argument (at least from the perspective of this layman), he goes off into a barely coherent tirade about the "gay agenda" and makes statements somewhat to the effect that homosexuality is a choice just like other "criminal" behavior. the questioner presumably felt insulted and, rightly or wrongly, took the opportunity he had available to respond in kind.

ann coulter makes a (very comfortable) living insulting people, frequently lying in the process - she deserves whatever she gets in kind.

the last example provides evidence that even among leftists there are a few idiots. I am shocked, shocked, since we are typically flawless.

Posted by: CTW | Apr 30, 2005 5:56:54 PM

Posted by: CTW

just remembered one hypothesis someone suggested as the motive of scalia's questioner: if you support the state's inquiring into my sex life, I'll inquire into yours. not to endorse the behavior, but just to suggest that it wasn't entirely gratuitous rudeness.

so without assessing the morality of the three cases, I'd say the first question was rude, but with qualifications; the second was absolutely OK; and the third was totally inappropriate with one caveat: if the hospital in question was mental, given miller's convention speech and especially his later interview with chris matthews (the atavistic impulse to settle disputes mano-mano is persistent, as Mr. ridgely knows from recent experience), perhaps the applause was simply acknowlegment that the streets are safer with him confined.

Posted by: CTW | Apr 30, 2005 8:07:29 PM

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com

So much for universality. Hooray for relatavism!

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com | May 1, 2005 7:18:36 AM

Posted by: Ken

Looks like this topic is pretty much talked out. But just in case anybody is still interested, I've posted a lengthy response to some of what David Velleman says about relativism here.

Posted by: Ken | May 2, 2005 12:08:40 PM

Posted by: m zelvin

A specie of pink or brown monkey, fairly advanced, lacking much body hair, has skirmishes about how to treat each other. Are we chimps (aggressive, often violent, more monogamistic) or benobos (sexual, often bisexual, playful, more social)? Call it what ism you will, the line of social acceptability is always moving, whether locally and/or universally, over short terms or (more likely) over long periods of time.
The constitution is a sturdy behavioral construct. The bible perhaps so. Both are presently being challenged in validity and/or interpretation by those who are fearful or in pain.

Posted by: m zelvin | Jun 13, 2005 1:46:30 PM

Posted by: rob stowell

The relativism of post modern theory comes essentially I think from Derrida. His philosophical arguments, mostly centred on meaning, tend to be obscure, occasionally self-contradictory, and not, I think, particularly original in essence.
But by divorcing word from world, they've led to the view that "it's all just politics", etc etc.
Oddly enough, while this has permeated the (leftist) academic humanities (the tide one hopes is rolling back...) it's most complete political manifestation seems to be the Bush administration itself- those "makers of reality" for whom "my spin" and truth- (and "your spin, and falsity") are more or less the same thing.

Posted by: rob stowell | Jun 21, 2005 8:04:34 PM

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