…on ethical relativism


For the Lachs worksheet with Skowronski’s criticism that Lachs’s relativism is actually not very relative, most students got this right and a few did not. Essentially, this was an easy exercise because Lachs kept making claims that sounded remarkably universal and generally objectivist. For example:

“Values vary with the individual’s nature. The good, therefore is not a question of what we think or how we feel but of who we are.”

Here Lachs seem to be making an appeal to a universal good that is attached to human nature, “who we are.” This would be a violation of relativism, since it is suggesting that human-nature leans toward the good, rather than the bad.

“The greatest beneficiary of the universal acceptance of moral relativism would, without a doubt, be human liberty.”

Here again Lachs is explicitly using objectivist language with the key word “universal” in connection to “human liberty” which is yet another objectivist standard. If he were truly relativist, any universal claims would be contradictory to his relativist claim that there are no universal standards, or that there is not a universal human nature. This last claim is something Lachs tried to argue for in the opening arguments of the essay.

Then to the homework on how relativism relates to objectivity. First we must discern the distinction between ethical relativism and what we were calling epistemological relativism. The first type, ethical relativism is what is of interest to us here. The two are related in that epistemological relativism is calling into question objective truth, whereas, ethical relativism is calling into question objective morality. When we speak of objectivity in ethics class, we are usually referring to a standard of truth and/or a standard of morality that we can all agree on.

When we speak of objective morality, we are referring to morality that has normative features of correctness (and incorrectness), propriety (and impropriety), goodness (and not goodness) that can be widely agreed upon from person to person and from culture to culture. We cross-culturally agree, for instance, that people deserve common respect, or that we should not take what is not ours, or that we should be honest with one another. Often, moral objectivity is compared to scientific and mathematical objectivity. The melting point of silver is 1,763°F, there is no dispute over this objectivity, and we might compare this to moral objectivity, whereby we can for instance, safely say that shouting and confrontational behavior toward strangers is typically wrong. Yet, as we learned from Hume, morality does not come from something that “is”. Often such a similarity rests on intuition. In other words, the intuition that the melting point of silver is 1,763°F is assured by way of rational intuition. Similarly, the wrongness of shouting at random strangers is also something felt by conscientious intuition. The question is, are they the same intuition? I would be inclined to say no, they are not the same, given that conscientious intuition has variations of possibility that the melting point of silver does not. Imagine the context of a rock band who yells (shouts and sings) their songs to fans. Here we have an exception to the objective rule, therefore we can provisionally suggest that yelling at strangers does not have the same objectivity as the melting point of silver. So to compare the science/math to the moral is somewhat tricky. The rock band’s yelling could be warmly familiar to their fans who can also be strangers.

This is part of the problem with ethics. We often misunderstand that we are enacting our ethics by reason alone and as we have seen, ethics sometimes has an emotional component that becomes tough to ignore. It becomes tough to pin point at times and it is for this reason that the relativist seizes as a justification for the position that given that we cannot all agree on morality 100% of the time, morality must therefore be relative, or without objectivity.

This gets back to objectivity, we roughly define it as moral objectivity covering the idea that there are standards by which we all (for the most part) agree on as standards by which we can live and cooperate with one another. Sometimes these look like laws, sometimes these look like unsaid codes of behavior. As we noticed, every student walks into class, sits down, cooperates, thinks about, verbalizes questions, writes down and listens to the professor’s lesson. This is an unsaid rule that is also ethical, to not do it would be problematic from the vantage that erratic behavior would be potentially threatening and invasive. It also is problematic for the student who wishes to be absent, and so on. We cannot say that such things are 100% objective, but we can at least say that it’s best to stay close to keeping such things objective.

All this leads to part of the problem and counter arguments against relativism. In your essays, be sure that when you are writing about the problems and counter arguments with relativism that you are not merely ‘describing’ relativism. When a student writes that a problem for relativism is that we cannot agree about what is right and what is wrong. Yes, this is a problem, but it is simply describing relativism and not showing “how” it is a problem. When you place the words onto the page, be sure to show how relativism has counter arguments that expose its problems and how it works.

For example, when we wrote about Pojman threatening to give his students an F, most students immediately recognized that this was problematic because it is morally suspect to randomly give students an F regardless of their performance. In this case Pojman was hypothetically acting on relativism, so as to demonstrate to the students that they also adhere to the ethical standards of the classroom, even if they mistakenly thought they were relativists to begin with. We attend class under the presupposition that we will be treated fairly and that our work will be grading honestly and according to our earnest scholarship. If relativism were true, we would not think of Pojman’s arbitrary grading as morally suspect. This is a relativist position because it challenges the convention that we all objectively agree upon when we sign up to classes. The objective rules of the classroom are accepted ways in which we as students agree to be evaluated, so Pojman’s sudden challenge to this with the threat to award students with an F, and their flat refusal to accept this is a pretty good counter to relativism. It also shows us the intricate way in which we follow objective rules without ever examining the inter-workings of such seemingly straightforward ethical issues of the classroom we all agree to.

So the key is to avoid a description of moral relativism as the position that rejects objectivity, and stick to a way of writing about the counterarguments with the aim of showing “how” relativism is problematic.

…aurelio madrid

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