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Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton. Today Follows the Stephen Law reading Relativism Moral Relativism basics Some available positions.

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Presentation on theme: "Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton. Today Follows the Stephen Law reading Relativism Moral Relativism basics Some available positions."— Presentation transcript:

1 Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton

2 Today Follows the Stephen Law reading Relativism Moral Relativism basics Some available positions

3 Relativism There are no independent truths All truths are relative to some framework or other –E.g. Some person, culture etc. So, what is true for you might not be true for me Time might seem objective… but it’s actually relative

4 The Great Mystica Logical scientific reasoning is not the only system of belief/knowledge Open your mind to what you don’t yet understand! Judged on New Age standards, astrology is a very sensible practice! So, the claims made by astrology are true (relative to new age ways of thinking)

5 Interesting vs. Boring Relativism Boring relativism doesn’t involve contradictory ‘truths’: –Dan likes tofu, so tofu is nice for him –John thinks tofu tastes like rotten eggs, so it’s not nice for him Interesting relativism does: –Dan believes in astrology, so it’s true for him –John thinks its rubbish, so it’s not true for him

6 Is All Truth Relative? ‘All truths are relative’ could be absolutely or relatively true If it’s an absolute truth, then it contradicts itself If it’s a relative truth, then… what do you think?

7 Is All Truth Relative? 2 Dan: ‘All truths are relative (including this one)’ Smart Student: ‘So, whatever I think is true is true… for me?’ D: ‘Exactly!’ SS: ‘So, if I think it’s true that “all truths are absolute”, then it’s a relative truth that “all truths are absolute”… but that’s a contradiction!’ D: Hmmm… Errr… Oh dear… SS: ‘Sorry Dan, but “all truths are relative” leads to a contradiction either way… It’s just not true!

8 Moral Relativism There are moral truths, but There are no independent truths about what is morally right or wrong Moral truths are always relative to some group E.g. our moral beliefs are true for us, but not necessarily for other groups

9 Olaf vs. Mrs Barbery Olaf: ‘It’s obviously true that FGM is morally wrong, because it causes permanent damage to the recipients’ Mrs B: ‘Whose “truth” is this? You must judge the morality of their actions by their own moral truths.’

10 Moral Arrogance Mrs B: ‘It’s arrogant to assume that you know the moral truth for everyone and that they are all wrong!’ Olaf: ‘But, we should spread our moral values because they are so obviously right.’ Mrs B: ‘If you were them, then you would not think that it was so obvious.’

11 Some Positions Moral relativist Moral absolutist –Arrogant –Humble Moral Nihilist

12 Arrogant Moral Absolutist –I know what they are Problem: –How can you be sure that you are right? There is no test! Position: –There are one or more universal moral truths that can be used to determine the morality of actions

13 Humble Moral Absolutist Position: –There are one or more universal moral truths that can be used to determine the morality of actions –I’m not sure what they are Problems: –How can we even discuss this if you don’t know what they are!? –What could they even be?

14 Moral Nihilist Or ‘Ethical Nihilist’ Position: –All talk of morals is rubbish because nothing is morally right or wrong Problems: –Some actions are clearly more or less moral than others –Is there any positive evidence for moral nihilism?

15 Next Time Read –James Rachels: ‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ Get ready to discuss –More objections to Moral Relativism

16 James Rachels vs Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton

17 Position Are there moral facts? Comment Moral Relativist Yes, but only relative ones The truth of moral claims can only be assessed relative to the relevant group or framework Moral Absolutist (arrogant) Yes, universal ones, which are (blah, blah) It’s just obvious that I’m right Moral Absolutist (humble) Yes, universal ones, but I’m not sure what they are Maybe they are harm and fairness, but who knows Nihilist (extreme) No. So, stop talking about them Your parents/ church/society made them up Nihilist (moderate) Maybe, but stop talking about them… …Because you can never be sure what they are

18 Today Follows the James Rachels reading: –‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ Rachels interpretation of an arguments for cultural relativism His general criticisms of the theory

19 Cultural Differences Different cultures are… well… different Importantly, many seem to have different moral codes Callatians eat, Greeks burn Each think the other is morally reprehensible

20 E.g. Inuit Offer wives to visitors Alpha male can drop by any time he likes Grandparents are left out in the cold to die Children (usually girls) are killed at birth at the parents discretion

21 Cultural Relativism A form of moral relativism Moral truths are judged relative to the moral code of the relevant society/culture E.g. infanticide is morally permissible for Inuits because the moral code of their society allows it.

22 What Cultural Relativists Think Societies have different moral codes The codes cannot be rated or compared because there is no objective moral measure Only the moral code of the culture in question can assess what’s ‘Morally right’ in that culture/society Judging other cultures’ moral practices is arrogant we should be tolerant of them

23 The Cultural Differences Argument 1)Different cultures have different moral codes c) Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Morally right and wrong are dependant on the relevant culture’s moral code - (what they believe to be morally right and wrong)

24 Being Charitable Give your opponent as much as possible Make their argument better if you can Show why it’s still wrong Theoretically, this will cut the debate short (with you emerging the clear winner)

25 The (New) Cultural Differences Argument 1)If cultures believe in different moral codes, then there is no objective “truth” in morality 2)Cultures do believe in different moral codes c) Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality; it’s all relative.

26 Verdict on the Cultural Differences Argument The argument does not support the conclusion Therefore the argument does not give good reason to believe the conclusion But, the conclusion could still be true Rachels goes on to discredit the conclusion

27 Taking Your Opponents Conclusion Seriously Philosophers are famous for having their head in the sand Many of our thought experiments are ‘unrealistic’ / ‘plain stupid’ One way you can catch people out is to imagine the (bad/absurd) consequences of your opponent being correct! Reductio ad absurdum

28 Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously 3 absurd consequences: 1)“We can’t judge others” 2)“The standards of our society dictate right and wrong” 3)“There would be no moral progress”

29 Judging Others “We can no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own” Works for funerary practices –Callatians vs Greeks vs us Not so well for: –FGM, Slavery, –Anti-Semitism

30 Deciding what’s Morally Right and Wrong “We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society” Dan: I’m worried that slavery is morally wrong. Southerner: Don’t worry, we all think it’s OK You can’t criticise other societies moral codes or even your own!

31 Moral Progress “The idea of moral progress is brought into doubt” Women are no longer the property of men –They can now vote, own property and even be PM! –This seems like moral progress A cultural relativist must deny many types of moral progress –It’s just moral/societal change

32 Verdict on Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously 1) If cultural relativism is true, then moral progress, comparison and criticism don’t make sense 2) Moral progress, comparison and criticism do make sense c) Therefore, cultural relativism can’t be true (it contradicts obvious facts)

33 Is there Really Moral Disagreement? Remember that difference in moral codes between cultures is a very important part of the cultural relativists argument

34 The (New) Cultural Differences Argument 1)If cultures believe in different moral codes, then there is no objective “truth” in morality 2)Cultures do believe in different moral codes c) Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality; it’s all relative.

35 Is there Really Moral Disagreement? If we look closely, there may not be E.g. Eating cows (grandma) E.g. Inuit baby-killing –Men are the hunters and die more easily –Mums can only nurse/carry so many kids at a time –Adoption (if possible) first

36 The Common values Remember these are morals at the societal level –Without these, the societies would fail Caring for offspring Truth-telling Murder is wrong

37 How Much Moral Difference? So, it’s contentious how much moral difference there is Does this matter? Would a complete lack of moral difference (at a deep societal level) mean that moral relativism is false?

38 Problems with Cultural Relativism It’s main argument has 2 problems: –Believing in a moral code isn’t enough to make it true –There may not be moral cultural differences after all If CR is true, then we can’t: –Compare, criticise or progress morally

39 Lessons from Cultural Relativism It reminds us about cultural differences –and helps us to examine the peculiar cultural rules we follow –Which may well be arbitrary (not morally right or wrong) Be open-minded –Some of your moral beliefs are probably based on cultural influences during your upbringing

40 Next Time Read: –Gilbert Harman: ‘Precis of Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity’ Get ready to discuss: –Probably the best simple account of moral relativism

41 Gilbert Harman’s Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton

42 Recap: Some Positions Moral relativist –E.g. Mrs B Moral absolutist –Arrogant e.g. Olaf –Humble Moral Nihilist –Extreme –Moderate

43 Recap: Rachels’ Problems with CR It’s main argument has 2 problems: –Believing in a moral code isn’t enough to make it true –There may not be moral cultural differences after all If CR is true, then we can’t: –Compare, criticise or progress morally

44 Today Follows the Gilbert Harman reading: –‘Precis of Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity’ Harman’s argument for moral relativism Applying Rachel’s reductio to Harman’s MR

45 Relativistic Truths In some cases, what is true is best understood in relation to other truths (background truths) Is it true that Bill Clinton had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky? That depends on some background facts: –What counts as sexual relations?

46 How a MR Interprets Moral Judgments When someone says: –It’s morally wrong for P to do D –E.g. It’s morally wrong for Bill to cheat on his wife The moral relativist takes them to mean: –In relation to moral framework M, it’s morally wrong of P to D –According to the moral framework of the USA, it’s morally wrong for Bill to cheat on his wife

47 Understanding Olaf? Olaf: FGM is always morally wrong Mrs B: I take it you mean: ‘in relation to Western moral frameworks, FGM is always morally wrong’ Olaf: No, I don’t! Mrs B: Actually, yes you do.

48 Moral Diversity as an Argument Against Moral Absolutism (Again) 1) There are fundamental moral disagreements between groups 2) The best explanation for this fact is that there are no absolute moral facts, just relative moral facts c) Therefore, we have good reason to believe that moral relativism is true

49 Evidence of Fundamental Moral Diversity Some differences in moral frameworks can’t be explained by differences in situational factors or non-moral beliefs –Killing (who can be killed?) –Meat-eating –Liberty vs equality –NZ: Civil unions, abortion, homosexuality

50 Moral Absolutists’ Explanation for Diversity Some people are ‘not well placed’ to discover moral truths Perhaps societies that encourage an open dialogue on ethics are better placed? Perhaps ethics professors in those societies are best placed?

51 Harman’s Other Reply to the Moral Absolutists There is a good reason why some people mistakenly think that there are absolute moral facts: –Their own moral framework is particularly salient to them –The same goes for time/motion But it’s only salient to them because of the culture they grew up in –The reason it’s so obvious to them is totally arbitrary

52 Harman’s Reply to the Moral Absolutists Saying that: –‘Some people are better placed to discover absolute moral truths’ Is the same as saying: –‘Some people are better placed to discover the absolute time’ Remember that time is relative; there is no absolute time But, are moral truths the same as truths about time?

53 Verdict on Harman’s Reply to the Moral Absolutists Harman needs to give us a reason to believe that moral facts are like facts about time (and not facts about mathematics) The moral absolutists do sound arrogant/bias, but we do consult experts about lots of kinds of truth E.g. climate change

54 Moral Frameworks “A system of moral coordinates”, a set of moral values, a moral code Analogy with the law Consider the non-moral facts of the case in light of the moral code Because this is not easy, we get mistaken moral beliefs –That’s when your beliefs don’t follow the moral code like they should

55 Can Harman’s MR Deal with Rachels’ Reductio? If MR is true, then can we: –Compare? (better/worse) –Criticise? (plain wrong) –Progress morally? (internally) Certainly not to the extent that moral absolutists want to –They want to challenge the moral code itself, not just moral beliefs

56 Sort of Summary So far we’ve had: –An argument against moral relativism (Rachels), and –An argument against moral absolutism (Harman), and only –Some very weak arguments to believe either position is true! Should we be moral nihilists by default? –Maybe we just need to think more

57 Next Time Read: –Russ Shafer-Landau: 3 Chapters from ‘What Ever Happened to Good and Evil?’ Get ready to discuss: –Another opinion on this tricky problem

58 Russ Shafer-Landau on Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton

59 More Positions Moral relativist –Cultural relativist = (societal level) –Moral subjectivist (individual level) Moral absolutist (Ethical Objectivist) –Arrogant –Humble Moral nihilist –Extreme (error theorist about morality) –Moderate

60 Today Follows the Russ Shafer- Landau reading: – 4 chapters from: ‘What Ever Happened to Good and Evil?’ S-L’s arguments (in defense of moral absolutism) Summary of the topic

61 Ethical Objectivism Ethical Objectivism = Moral Absolutism Conventional morality = moral beliefs/standards used to govern behaviour Moral truths that are independent of conventional morality do exist Those moral truths can be used to assess the merits of conventional moralities

62 Getting Morality Wrong Some fundamental moral codes are surely mistaken e.g. –cultures that don’t give men and women equal rights –Slavery etc How are they mistaken? Either: –Error theorist’s account or –Ethical Objectivist’s account

63 Error Theory (About Morality) Error Theorist = Extreme Nihilist Every element of conventional morality is mistaken +ve) George Bush, slavers, terrorists & misogynists are wrong -ve) So are saints, abolitionists & freedom fighters

64 Ethical Objectivists on Moral Error 1)If some people/groups have moral codes that are incorrect, then there must be some independent moral truths to judge them so 2)Some people/groups have moral codes that are wrong e.g. Hitler/Nazis, slavers etc. c) Therefore, there are moral truths that are independent of conventional morality

65 Cultural Relativists on Moral Error Internal Critique (allowed) –From inside the culture –Criticises moral beliefs by reference to inconsistencies with the existing moral code –E.g. segregation in South USA External Critique (not allowed) –Criticises moral codes by reference to independent moral facts

66 How Changes in CRs’ Moral Frameworks Happen (Not from Shafer-Landau) Most people believe that an act is morally permissible Some of the other people criticise, protest & try to persuade the majority Criticisms can be ‘internal’ or about the fundamental moral code itself Most people change their mind, so the moral framework changes

67 Is Moral Change A Problem for Cultural Relitivists? (Not from Shafer-Landau) Maybe… Weird result: 30% to abolish death penalty 50% want to keep it The 30% are wrong… until a few more people change their minds, then they are right and the other wrong!

68 Consequences of Moral Absolutism Being False Either our own fundamental moral code is always right or always wrong –Error theory (extreme nihilism) Always wrong –Moral relativism or subjectivism Always right Except under CR if you disagree with the existing moral code, but then you would be irrational

69 Moral Equivalence At the level of fundamental moral code, most theories imply moral equivalence Nihilism –Extreme (error theory) & moderate Moral relativism –CR & subjectivism ME = all moral beliefs/codes are equally in/correct

70 Argument Against Moral Equivalence 1)No one believes in moral equivalence (because donating money to charity is obviously better than organising a genocide) 2)If no one believes in moral equivalence, then some moral codes must be inferior to others 3)If some moral codes are inferior to others, then there must be an objective morality to deem them so c) Therefore, there are moral truths that are independent of conventional morality

71 Shafer-Landau vs Mrs Barbery Mrs B: Every moral judgment is necessarily made from that person’s perspective Mr. S-L: Claims are always issued from a person’s perspective. But, it does not follow from that truism that everyone’s claims are equally correct Mr. S-L: In all areas of inquiry, the default assumption is that one of us might be right

72 Another Argument Against Moral Equivalence 1)In [nearly] all areas of inquiry, the default assumption when there is a disagreement is that one person might be right 2)Morality should be treated like other areas of inquiry 3)There is disagreement about fundamental moral codes 4)The default assumption should be that one person might be right 5)A good reason is required to divert from the default assumption c) Therefore, we need to be given a good reason to believe in moral equivalence

73 Moral Progress Is the abolition of segregation a morally good thing? If you answered ‘yes’, then you are probably a moral absolutist What makes you think it’s morally good? –These might be your absolute moral truths

74 Personal Moral Progress New years resolution time! How can I be morally better? Ethical Subjectivist: –I’m already morally irreproachable Cultural Relativist: –We’re already morally irreproachable Progress is measured against the existing standard Nihilist (Both): Shaddap! Who cares! I wish I had friends 

75 Argument from Dogmatism (against MA) 1)Moral absolutism leads to moral arrogance 2)Moral arrogance is very bad 3)Moral relativism & nihilism avoid moral arrogance 4)Avoiding very bad is very good c) Therefore, moral relativism is very good

76 S-L reply to P1 1)Moral absolutism leads to moral arrogance What about humble MAs? There is a fact of the matter about physics, but humble scientists are not arrogant about their theories Because humble MAs and scientists don’t invent their ‘truths’, then they should not be arrogant about them

77 S-L reply to P3 3) Moral relativism & nihilism avoid moral arrogance Nihilism arrogantly assumes everyone is wrong MR makes everyone right about morality, so everyone could be arrogant

78 Dogmatism S-L’s best point on dogmatism/arrogance: “There is no better check against hubris and arrogance than the recognition that we are not the authors of the moral law.”

79 Next Time Read: –Julian Baggini: ‘Bank Error in Your Favour’ Get ready to discuss: –Essay tips –Summary of Moral Relativism –Intro to ‘Why Be Moral?’

80 Summary of Moral Relativism PHIL104 – 2009 Dan Turton

81 S-L’s Basic Tactics Philosophy can = reconciling our beliefs with the truth Assuming our beliefs are correct –E.g. about Nazism being immoral And, so describes ‘the truth about what is’ in a way that validates our beliefs But, sometimes philosophers conclude that we should change our beliefs!

82 Position Are there moral facts? Comment Cultural Relativist Yes, but only relative ones Something is im/moral for a culture iff that culture’s moral code deems it so Moral Subjectivist Yes, but only relative ones Something is im/moral for someone iff that person’s moral code deems it so Arrogant Absolutist Yes, universal ones, which are… It’s just obvious that I’m right! They are XYZ… Humble Absolutist Universal ones, I’m pretty sure I’m not sure what they are, but some acts are clearly im/moral Extreme Nihilist No. So, stop discussing them Your parents/church/society made them up (moral error theorist) Moderate Nihilist Maybe, but stop discussing them… …Because you can never be sure what they are

83 Summary: The Nature of ‘Moral Facts’ What are ‘moral facts’ really like? –facts about maths or logic, –facts about chemistry or physics, –facts about time, –opinions, –‘facts’ about the boogey man Can you come up with a good justification for your belief?

84 Summary: Reasons to Believe in a Position No position seems to be supported by a sound deductive argument But which position has the best reasons to believe it? Remember to also consider the consequences of the positions being true –These could be reasons not to believe a position

85 DIY Best Position Table Position Best reasons to believe Best reasons not to believe Humble Absolutist No firm commitments required. Lots of potential moral facts to follow up You have to suggest some or you are boring. Why think that those ones are the ones? – try to think up counter- examples. Extreme Nihilist Coolest position by far. (Plus cool mo like Nietzsche) Probably leads to no friends, and possibly jail time Read the readings and fill in the whole table yourself


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