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Relativism and Beyond

Excellent . . . David Vellemen's gone and written a useful primer on what "moral relativism" is and isn't that people interested in the Pope's anti-relativist campaign ought to check out. I would just add that there's also a rather esoteric philosophical controversy about the ontological status of morality -- is it "real" or in some sense "not real" -- that often gets collapsed into relativism versus not-relativism. That's a move people ought to resist, since the implications of where you stand on realism about morality are going to have a lot to do with in what sense you do or do not think a bunch of other stuff is real. Most of us, I think, don't think that the entity denoted by "two" is real in the same sense as the entity denoted by "Matthew Yglesias left shoe" is real. Thinking about that you can, if you squint really hard at it, begin to be puzzled about how it can be true that "two plus two equals four" given that there don't seem to be a 2 and a 4 out there in the world for this to be true of. There are difficult questions in that neighborhood, and somewhat similar ones about morality, but nobody is led by this to think that "two plus two equals four" is true for me, but false for you.

My best guess is that Benedict XVI is mostly concerned about moral authoritarianism rather than relativism and anti-relativism. Even Protestants who do think the Bible provides an authoratative account of moral truth accept that nobody in particular has privileged access to the correct understanding of the text. Catholics are all committed to some stronger brand of authoritarianism about this (it's an ugly-sounding term, but this isn't meant to say that they're secretly hankering for dictatorship) and back in the day Benedict XVI was known for trying to strengthen this element of Church operations, thinking it very important to get all the Bishops on more-or-less the same doctrinal page. But I'm not completely sure that's the full extent of his concerns.

The only kind of real relativism that I hear anyone seriously endorsing (as opposed to sloppily seeming to endorse when they're not really thinking through what they're trying to say) is agent-relativism about the past. That is, it seems natural to take a relaxed attitude to, say, George Washington's slave holding or Abraham Lincoln's racism on the grounds that they were "men of their times." People don't go full-bore on this and usually say it was good of Lincoln to have been a racist but people don't really condemn him for it the way they would if a contemporary politician were to turn out to have those views. Probably the best interpretation of that practice is to steer it away from relativism and say it's an effort to try and avoid a wrongful self-righteousness. Lincoln held more enlightened views on this subject than did most of his contemporary and we all understand that beliefs and behaviors are heavily affected by background culture, so it would be pointless to get too up in arms about the fact that Lincoln reflected to a large extent the bad ideas that prevailed during his lifetime. But in an abstract sense, racism wasn't "more okay" in the 1860s than it is today.

April 25, 2005 | Permalink

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» relativism isn't in the eye of the beholder from Left2Right
Moral relativism is in the news, having been roundly denounced by the new pope shortly before his election. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 25, 2005 4:38:56 PM

» relativism isn't in the eye of the beholder from Left2Right
Moral relativism is in the news, having been roundly denounced by the new pope shortly before his election. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 25, 2005 10:37:02 PM

» Here we go again from Battlepanda
Q: What does Santa Claus, God and Moral Absolutism have in common? A: Just because we want them to exist doesn't mean that they actually do. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 26, 2005 2:04:55 AM

» Relatively Relative from The Debate Link
Matthew Yglesias links to and comments on an excellent post by Left2Right's David Velleman on the nature of moral relativism. However, I think that even Velleman over simplifies the issue. He writes: [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 26, 2005 4:21:40 AM

» Only the Young can say from New World Man - put your message in a modem
Writing of "Justice Sunday," Cathy Young condemns a "grotesque religio-political circus," Prof. Bainbridge cites "disparate impact" and Young answers you're inconsistent!! Have you noticed that no one ever comes back at a member of the American left an... [Read More]

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» Moral Relativism from Brad DeLong's Website
Matthew Yglesias writes: Matthew Yglesias: Relativism and Beyond: David Vellemen's gone and written a useful primer on what 'moral relativism' is and isn't that people interested in the Pope's anti-relativist campaign ought to check out.... My best gue... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 27, 2005 9:57:50 PM

» Moral Relativism In Action from The Corpus Callosum
Link skipping this morning, I happened across of tangle of posts about the topic of moral relativism. TO give credit where it is due, I first encountered a link on Majikthise, then Left2Right, then Yglesias. All very erudite, but with something mis... [Read More]

Tracked on May 1, 2005 9:51:37 AM

Comments

Notice that the one kind of relativism which you semi endorse is related to judging people not to deciding what to do. You believe that Lincold didn't do exactly what he should have done, but argue that it would be unreasonable to condemn him, since he went as far in the right direction as we could hope.

I think the way to avoid anacronistic self righteousness is simply to avoid judging people unless we have to decide whether to elect them, wehter to send them to jail (or both). Neither Lincoln nor Washington was on the ballot in 2004, so we don't have to judge them.

Or as the noted meta ethicists Robert Marley said "we are not here to judge who is good and bad but to do the things that are right."

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Apr 25, 2005 3:38:59 PM

"Most of us, I think, don't think that the entity denoted by "two" is real in the same sense as the entity denoted by "Matthew Yglesias left shoe" is real."

That depends entirely on what you mean by "real", as there is sense of "real" where they are both real in the same sense.

Posted by: Trickster Paean | Apr 25, 2005 3:44:45 PM

Well, I wholeheartedly do not believe the entity known as Matthew Yglesias' left shoe is real. And I harbor singificant skepticism regarding the entity known as Matthew Yglesias, as well.

Posted by: flip | Apr 25, 2005 3:52:51 PM

ah, but what about imaginary numbers? are they less real than real numbers?

also, re: the Pope, it strikes me that the logical contortions that gets one to papal infallibility across all times butt up against other Catholic dogma, i.e. this moral authoritarianism thing can't be constant and is therefore relative.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 25, 2005 3:57:15 PM

Presuming for the moment that Matthew has more than one pair of shoes in his wardrobe*, it would seem that "Matthew Yglesias' left shoe" could, at any moment in time, refer to one of several different entites. And, for half of any given day or so (presuming now that he does not sleep in his shoes), the phrase refers to no entity whatsoever.

Whereas 2 is always 2.

*: And even if he does have only one pair, eventually they will wear out, and the same considerations will apply.

Posted by: Jeff R. | Apr 25, 2005 3:59:17 PM

I think that the number two is far more real than MY's left shoe. The existence of two arises from some very simple axioms. If I'm to be certain Matt's left shoe is real, I have to accept that Matt exists and owns shoes. From where I'm sitting, the evidence is kind of scanty.

But I agree that the two are real in very different senses.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 25, 2005 4:02:05 PM

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.

So Judaism is relativistic because it holds one set of moral laws for Jews and another set for non-Jews eg Jews can't eat pork, but non-Jews can.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Apr 25, 2005 4:12:11 PM

As several here have turned Matt's comparison of the relative reality of the number 2 vis-a-vis his left footwear on its ear, it would seem the shoe is now on the other foot.

Posted by: porlockian | Apr 25, 2005 4:14:55 PM

Aristotle's very useful notion of excusability is overlooked with inexplicable frequency: to handle our different attitudes to people in different times, we can assert one standard of good, but maintain that excusability is contextual. This it was just as wrong for Lincoln to be racist as it would be for us, but Lincoln's racism is more excusable.

Frankly, I find the negelct of excusability inexcusable.

Posted by: Charles Stewart | Apr 25, 2005 4:41:17 PM

The problem with Vellman's post is that he reasons from the premise that relativism is logically indefensible to the conclusion that no one believes it. He would see the flaw in the argument if he had to teach undergraduates.

Posted by: Gareth | Apr 25, 2005 4:50:43 PM

There's another strain of relativism that crops up in the judgments of some people regarding aspects of foreign cultures, e.g. the polygamy or cannibalism of some tribe in Papua New Guinea. Some might take a laissez-faire attitude towards such behaviors on tolerance grounds or because it's impractical to stop it. There are, however, some people who really believe in cultural relativism in these cases, i.e., that some of the practices that we consider fundamentally wrong are not wrong even in any fundamental, philosophical sense in the context of the other culture.

Posted by: Foo Bar | Apr 25, 2005 4:52:17 PM

There's another strain of relativism that crops up in the judgments of some people regarding aspects of foreign cultures, e.g. the polygamy or cannibalism of some tribe in Papua New Guinea. Some might take a laissez-faire attitude towards such behaviors on tolerance grounds or because it's impractical to stop it. There are, however, some people who really believe in cultural relativism in these cases, i.e., that some of the practices that we consider fundamentally wrong are not wrong even in any fundamental, philosophical sense in the context of the other culture.

Posted by: Foo Bar | Apr 25, 2005 4:53:03 PM

In the anthropological sense there is also the added problem that relativism is also a tool to be used to understand other cultures. In other words, an anthropologist doing field work must understand what morality means in the context of that particular culture. Said anthropologist may retain some belief in universal morality, but must at least temporarily ignor or suspend that belief in order to understand where her subjects are coming from.

Posted by: catfish | Apr 25, 2005 5:24:19 PM

Take today's Wahington Post headline: "Bush presses Saudis for more oil." I'm sure in the future this barbaric practice will be frowned on...I hope Shrub isn't judged too harshly by historians because, well, we really need the oil right now!

Posted by: monkyboy | Apr 25, 2005 5:27:56 PM

I think Charles has this one right; I don't think the "men of their times" argument really has much to do with relativism so much as it's offered as a kind of mitigating circumstance, in the same way that you might say that violent behavior from someone who had an awful, abused childhood is understandable and maybe, in some cases, deserving of less vehement condemnation than might be due someone with a different history. Not because the violence is any less wrong, but because certain factors can diminish the extent to which we hold people (fully) responsible for acting rightly--the extreme case being an insanity defense.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Apr 25, 2005 5:28:07 PM

Keep in mind that Benedict may have specifically theological relativism in mind: i.e., the idea that religious principles are "true" only relative to an individual believer, so that Buddhism may be true for you and Catholicism true for me. (Or, to put an even more plausible spin on it, that Buddhism may be the right path to God for you, while Catholicism is the right path to God for me.)

Now, you're right that this is not a common position in the philosophic academy (nor even in the theological academy, as far as I know). But it's certainly a pretty common position among regular people, and let's face it, regular people are the Catholic Church's main audience. Hence I think it's a little unfair for you to critique Benedict's use of the world "relativism" as if he were using it in the same way that an academic philosopher would.

Posted by: Chris | Apr 25, 2005 5:45:32 PM

Isn't 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 that our collective lack of a consensus moral framework is a 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 5:58:36 PM

As I posted to the Velleman site, moral relativism is unscathed by your arguments. As a moral relativist, I can claim that what we call "morals" are actually just cultural norms that are for various psychological reasons (probably based in our evolutionary heritage) deeply felt to be universally important and meaningful.

There are still a LOT of us moral relativists out here.

Posted by: msf | Apr 25, 2005 6:05:47 PM

Chris is so right, it hurts not to have been right first. Good comment!

Prof. DeLong must've read "After Virtue" more charitably than I did; I took "Nietzsche or Aristotle?" to be a rhetorical question.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 25, 2005 6:29:34 PM

I tend to be a pragmatist above all, so for me what matters is what Lincoln DID to better the status of blacks (and it was a lot), not what his private opinions were.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Apr 25, 2005 6:38:22 PM

There's another strain of relativism that crops up in the judgments of some people regarding aspects of foreign cultures, e.g. the polygamy or cannibalism of some tribe in Papua New Guinea. Some might take a laissez-faire attitude towards such behaviors on tolerance grounds or because it's impractical to stop it.

I think what enables anthropologists to take a laissez-faire attitude towards polygamy or cannibalism that doesn't involve murdering the meal is not necessarily relativism, but an implicit or explicit, and entirely correct, regognition that who one marries and what flesh one considers fit for eating are not matters of morality at all, but merely cultural norms. You can believe in a universal morality while still recognizing that some things which are labeled "moral issues" are not at all.

Posted by: Katie | Apr 25, 2005 6:44:44 PM

Okay, Katie, I think you're right about the anthropologists' reasoning. I don't think the earlier commenter was right to equate "impractical to stop it" with "relativism"; was Ratzinger a relativist for joining the Hitler Youth?

But what about suttee or a comparable custom? What about studying the ways of Arabs who murder sisters who are raped? Can anthropologists or sociologists study these customs from the same vantage?

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 25, 2005 7:26:31 PM

"Even Protestants who do think the Bible provides an authoratative account of moral truth accept that nobody in particular has privileged access to the correct understanding of the text."

I dunno about that one, buddy. On your next anthropological excursion to the South, be sure and watch some Sunday morning evangelical TV.

Posted by: live | Apr 25, 2005 7:28:57 PM

Why is McIntyre's argument, as related by Brad DeLong, relativist?

P1. We do not have a consensus moral framework.

P2. This is bad (maybe for consequentialist reasons).

P3. It is either not bad to have a consensus moral framework that is false, or it is a lesser evil to not having a consensus moral framework at all.

C. We would be better off with a consensus moral framework, even if it is false.

There's something a bit Straussian about P3, but it isn't relativistic.

Posted by: Gareth | Apr 25, 2005 7:46:01 PM

msf-
I don't know how many moral relativists there are out there, but by your own description, you aren't one of them: You're a non-cognitivist. Your view is left "unscathed" by the arguments at L2R because they aren't arguments against YOUR view.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Apr 25, 2005 7:46:12 PM

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