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Relativism Notes

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A Discussion of Moral Relativism

When we reach disagreement between moral claims, we frequently resort to some form of relativism. Moral relativism is the view that stands in opposition to moral universalism, the claim that a ‘wrong’ action is wrong in all circumstances, but is not necessarily committed to the whole set of claims that flow from denying universalism.
For instance, moral relativism does not embrace nihilism. Relativists explain away moral conflicts, in two stages. First, they explain why there is no real objective conflict. Second, they explain why it is that it appeared as though there was one.

Relational relativism is implausible. This is the view that ethical conceptions have validity only relative to a society. Wrong. Suppose there is a society of strong tradition and well-established values, isolated from the rest of the world for centuries, which expresses some of its rules in terms of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’. As soon as it is exposed to another culture, with quite different values from its own, it will not be subject to a revelation that there’s something implicitly relativistic in its application of these terms. Rather, they’ll condemn the others as misguided or evil. This is either because they have never had pause to conceive of an alternative to their conception of morality, or because their new situation requires them to see past institutions on which they have built their lives. In short, such a revelation is either too early or too late; something they are either unprepared for or no longer capable of.

Bernard Williams states the argument for ‘vulgar relativism’ on two premises. Firstly,
‘right’ can only be coherently understood as meaning ‘right for a given society’.
Secondly, ‘right for a given society’ is a functional claim, of the sort that should only be understood in terms of promoting a society’s survival/success etc. Hence, the vulgar relativist concludes it is wrong for people in one society to condemn the actions of another.

The argument, Williams claims, moves from an a priori claim that all moral judgements obtain relative to a society, to a universal claim that to condemn the actions/values of another society is wrong. Clearly it does not follow from the truth of meta-ethical relativism that we must be tolerant of other societies.

However, Williams does say that, in coming into contact with another society with different morals, our ethical judgements would be unaffected. This is not necessarily to say that we would change them. “While it is true that [the nonobjectivity of values] does not imply any relativistic attitude, there does seem something blank and unresponsive in merely stopping at that truth”. On the contrary, being conscious of nonobjectivity should mean people are more aware of the limits of their own ethical outlook. An awareness of ethical variation naturally lends itself to reflection on our own ethics. Moral reflection, therefore, will be in some way important to any moral epistemology.

But in what does this moral knowledge consist? Gilbert Harman argues for a priori meta- ethical relativism.

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