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Relativism Michael Lacewing

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1 Relativism Michael Lacewing

2 Descriptive relativism Moral codes differ from one society to the next: –Some believe slavery is permissible, some don’t. –Some enforce female circumcision, some don’t –Some hold that everyone should be treated as equals, some don’t This is a factual claim.

3 Normative relativism Aka metaethical relativism, cultural relativism There is no objective moral standard independent of what societies endorse. There is no objective moral truth for all people at all times. So we can’t say that a society’s moral value or practice is objectively right/wrong.

4 Normative relativism ‘Morally right’ = ‘right according to (some) society’s moral code’ We can’t use the standards of one society (e.g. ours) to judge another society’s morality.

5 Normative relativism Descriptive relativism doesn’t imply normative relativism. –Disagreement is not enough to abandon truth –Societies could make mistakes. Relativism is a kind of social non- cognitivism. But for individuals within society, there is a right answer – relativism is not subjectivism.

6 Moral judgements as social conventions Societies are not trying to get at the ‘ethical truth’; instead ethical values and practices are part of a way of living. –Each makes moral claims that are ‘true for them’. Scientific truth v. ethical truth: –Science: discovers how the one, physical world is –Ethics: what would explain ethical ‘mistakes’ or getting the correct answer? There are many social worlds with different conventions, not one world which guides us towards agreement.

7 Relativism and human nature Different societies share many general principles and virtues –E.g. prohibitions on killing, lying, theft –Endorse care of the weak and courage Different ethical practices reflect different conditions, not different principles Aristotle: we all aim to achieve the best life –We all live in some society, and will need similar virtues for this –Some societies endorse traits that don’t help people flourish

8 Relativism and human nature Reply: There is no one ‘best’ life for people – the idea is culturally relative. Not all societies believe everyone is equal, so don’t agree that everyone should be assisted to achieve the best life.

9 Judging abhorrent practices Does relativism entail that ‘anything goes’? It seems to imply tolerance. But this has limits – should we tolerate everything? –How can we continue to hold our own moral beliefs? Does morality become a matter of taste? Does it lack authority? Reply: morality is social – we can still judge individuals by their social codes.

10 Tolerance Relativism does not imply tolerance: Tolerance is a virtue: –‘You ought to be tolerant’ – what if my society’s moral code recommends intolerance? If I disagree with you over morality, I will also try to persuade (not force) people of my views –Morality is important; we find it impossible to restrict.

11 Moral progress Can society progress? –It can change, but if there is no independent objective standard, how is this change an ‘improvement’? Reply: there can be objective improvements in rationality –Discovering new facts (slaves don’t have lower IQs) –Becoming more consistent (applying principles more broadly) –Becoming more coherent (resolving tensions between principles)

12 Moral progress To make a change is to make an improvement, if the new code approves of the change Of course, this is relative to the new point of view –But this is just the old problem of moral disagreement


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