Am I Really a Moral Relativist?

Published by timdean on

Relativism is one of those terms more often used in the pejorative than in any serious philosophical sense. It’s like a cautionary sign at the edge of a cliff pronouncing “Caution! Precipice ahead!” Any argument in ethics that steers towards relativism – or even any argument that steers away from objectivity and absoluteness – sets off the usual slew of anti-relativism klaxons.

Yet as I delve deeper into writing my thesis, I can already hear the klaxons blaring.

Now, those who have read my previous posts on moral ecology might be surprised to hear that I’m beginning to see it as a form of relativism. After all, I suggest that the problems that morality is trying to solve have no single solution, and often it requires multiple approaches working in concert (or in tension) to get the best outcomes.

That sounds relativist. And while I’m becoming more aware of that link, I hasten to highlight the differences between any Moral Ecology Brand Relativism from the more No-Name Brands that gather dust on the back shelf in the moral supermarket.

Relative to what?

Relativism is often construed in a way that says the truth of some ethical claim is not absolute but is indexical. Fair enough. But the question is: indexical to what?

One brand of relativism that gets dredged in lay discourse suggests that moral claims are relative to the individual’s whim. That’s the source of the “who am I to judge” line. It’s effectively a kind of bald subjectivism, in that what’s good is what I subjectively consider to be good.

But such a relativism is to me, and just about everybody who has thought about it for a minute or two, thoroughly untenable. The whole point of morality is to steer the behaviour of not just myself, but of those around me. Such bald subjectivism is impotent in this regard.

If I think stealing is wrong, and that makes me refrain from stealing, that’s all good and well. But if the claim that stealing is wrong is not intended to extend to the behaviours of others, then morality loses a great deal of its punch. I want morality to have punch, and to steer the behaviour of the utterer and the target of the utterance. And for that, I need to appeal to something shared or external, not just my own subjectivity.

That said, I don’t know of anybody who seriously argues for such a relativism. It’s this brand of individualistic relativism that is only ever used in the dismissive or reductio sense, particularly by the theistically inclined, who speak with the comfort and certainty lent by unshakable faith in an absolutist moral dictator.

Moral frameworks

Another more plausible brand of relativism is offered by Gilbert Harman. He appears to draw inspiration from Einstein’s theory of relativity, and offers an account that says moral utterances are relative to some frame of reference:

I am going to argue that moral right and wrong (good and bad, justice and injustice, virtue and view, etc.) are always relative to a choice of moral framework. What is morally right in relation to one moral framework can be morally wrong in relation to a different moral framework. And no moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality. (Harman, 1996)

This means that within a particular moral framework, things are quite absolute. If your moral framework says stealing is wrong, then you can’t subjectively wiggle out of that with an appeal to relativism.

However, the unpalatable spanner occurs when one considers the question of what moral framework one adopts. And Harman is more than willing to acknowledge that “members of different cultures often have very different beliefs about right and wrong and often act quite differently on their beliefs.”

Thus, all one has to do to slip into a favourable moral framework is to… slip into their desired favourable moral framework. I can see where Harman is coming from – his account might be useful as a descriptive thesis to account for the moral diversity studied by anthropologists – but I don’t find this a very satisfactory account of morality. It allows too much ‘escapability’ from a construct that is supposed to be inescapable (at least to some degree).

Human needs

David Wong posits a version of moral relativism that I find far more plausible. He doesn’t simply see morality as being relative to a particular moral framework, as does Harman. Wong sees morality as being relative to the different circumstances in which we live:

Human beings have needs to resolve internal conflicts between requirements and to resolve interpersonal conflicts of interest. Morality is a social creation that evolved in response to these needs. There are constraints on what a morality could be like and still serve those needs. These constraints are derived from the physical environment, from human nature, and from standards of rationality, but they are not enough to eliminate all but one morality as meeting those needs. Moral relativity is an indication of the plasticity of human nature, of the power of ways of life to determine what constitutes a satisfactory resolution of the conflicts morality is intended to resolve. (Wong, 1984)

I am far more sympathetic to this view. The starting premise seems to be that human beings have interests, and we wish to live together in order to better satisfy them. However, these interests come into conflict, and so we create morality to help regulate behaviour to minimise these conflicts, among other things.

However, there’s no one way to best do this. That said, there’s not an infinite number of ways of doing this either. So no back door subjectivist individualist relativism here.

But what is the indexical in Wong’s account to which morality is relative? The only thing I have come across is the ‘contingencies of human need,’ but it’s a bit of a fuzzy concept. There are many things that contribute to satisfying human need, and many of them aren’t moral concerns but simple prudential concerns.

I’m no expert on Wong, and while I’m sympathetic to where he’s coming from, I’m not sure he’s quite going the same place I want to go.

Moral Ecology Brand

This brings me to the version of relativism that may emerge from moral ecology – the one I’m going to have to become very adept at outlining rapidly in order to prevent being dismissed out of hand if ever I pluck up the courage to whip out the “R” word.

As I’ve said above, moral ecology states that there is no one solution to the problems of social living that morality is designed to solve. As such, there are many systems of moral norms that might equally solve these problems. And there might also be some value in having multiple solutions swishing around, bumping into each other, to give us more agility in responding to changing circumstances or to new insights into the problems of social living.

As such, there’s a kind of relativism involved. In order to understand it, you need to start with moral functionalism, which defines morality as being (ultimately) ‘to solve the problems of social living so we can advance our interests better as part of a social group’, or (proximately) as ‘regulating behaviour to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour.’

And the indexical to which the relativism is pegged is the environmental circumstances that determine the nature of the problems to be solved. Different environments present different challenges. And the environment doesn’t only include the (relatively static) physical environment, but also the (highly dynamic and heterogeneous) social environment. The world is also rarely fully transparent, so sometimes there’s guesswork to be done about the state of the environment, which allows for further variation in how to best respond to it.

Thus, one moral system is preferable to another if it better serves the function of morality in the environment in which it’s being used. The moral system is relative (to the environmental conditions), but it’s not infinitely so. There is, in fact, some objective yardstick by which moral systems can be measured and assessed – and criticised: the extent to which the moral system satisfies the function of morality in that environment. If it’s sub-optimal, and there’s a more optimal system available, then it can be criticised.

All this depends on people buying into the functional definition of morality. It is binding to the extent that people choose to conform to a moral system at all. That said, I don’t see the latter as really big problem, as most people either want to be moral or will be persuaded by those around them to be moral.

I’m still not 100 per cent sure I want to start bandying about the term ‘moral relativism’ in relation to moral ecology. While I think there is a kind of relativism that might apply to my theory, it is unlike the other more popular forms of relativism, and the term is so tainted that raising it will probably just trigger more straw man arguments against me than I can be bothered defusing.

Thus, I’m inclined at this stage to continue talking only about moral ecology, with an inclination towards moral dynamics (the study of the moral systems that best satisfy the function of morality in certain environments), perhaps with the odd nod to moral pluralism in very specific contexts, but quietly acknowledge that there is a form of relativism that might apply as well. Is that crazy?


John S. Wilkins · 9th August 2012 at 10:28 pm

Putnam once said “I should use somebody else’s value system?” The indexical is found in the fact that we index all our statements at least implicitly.

Mark Sloan · 10th August 2012 at 3:44 am

Tim, I agree that the term relativism is so tainted and ambiguous that adopting it will be more confusing than clarifying.

I would like to talk about Wong’s brand of moral relativism as you have described it. It is the most sensible I have heard formally proposed, but your moral ecology work may be consistent with an even more restrictive relativism that better matches reality.

Relying only on your description, Wong first mistakes proximate needs (or functions of morality) “to resolve internal conflicts between requirements and to resolve interpersonal conflicts of interest” with ultimate needs (or functions of morality) which I describe as “increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups” and Phillip Kitcher describes as something like “overcoming altruism failures”. Getting the ultimate function of morality right, as I assume your moral ecology does, provides a more restrictive (and accurate) brand of moral relativism than Wong’s.

But worse than mistaking proximate for ultimate functions, Wong is silent on the ultimate goals of morality’s function. Yes, social morality is about resolving internal conflicts, but in order to further what goals? He says “These constraints (on morality – which he defines as norms to resolve internal conflicts) are derived from the physical environment, from human nature, and from standards of rationality, but they are not enough to eliminate all but one morality as meeting those needs”. This seems consistent with the absurd claim that resolving internal conflicts to further the goal of committing genocide on outside groups is as ‘moral’ as resolving internal conflicts to further the goal of feeding hungry people on the other side of the planet.

A moral relativism I could buy into, and that might be consistent with your moral ecology, is defined by:

These constraints (on morality – defined as norms to increase the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups) are derived from the physical environment, from human nature, from standards of rationality, and from the group’s ultimate goals, but they are not enough to eliminate all but one morality as meeting those needs. However, this purely descriptive statement about the constraints on the variability of moral behavior is, in a sense, devoid of moral content without specifying what ultimate goals acting morally is in aid of. Applying rational thought to identifying immoral goals, such as exploitation of women and other out-groups, can put further powerful constraints on social morality.

Interestingly to me, if rational thought is fundamentally unable to identify ‘immoral’ group goals (as I expect most relativists would claim) then Wong’s moral relativism (with the correction to morality’s ultimate function) becomes my descriptive definition of evolutionarily moral behavior.

GTChristie · 14th August 2012 at 4:29 pm

You are on the right track. Yes, your theory is relativistic but that is in no way fatal. After years of wrestling with the “problem” of the relativism inherent in my own developing theory, “relative to what” became the key. Simply recognizing that anything “relative” must be relative to something is a major step (exactly the step missed by purely subjective relativists). See “Relativity in Theory, Not in Practice.”

So your problem is only “To what is morality indexical?” — not “Oh no, my moral theory is a form of relativism.” Take your implied relativism for granted and be right about everything else around it — you’ll be fine.

Morality is relative to culture. The reason this is so hard to get a handle on, is that culture is so hard to get a handle on. Cultural processes are at work to shape what counts as a moral response to the problem of social living — culture is the creator of ethics. My problem in life has always been to understand the process well enough to build it into a meta-ethics (I know you love that word –LOL) and describe the whole thing. Relativism reared its ugly head but I finally said “So what? Culture is relative, ethics is a product of culture — if that’s true, then you can’t avoid it; therefore embrace it.”

In my opinion, the concept — the process — of culture is the key to solving your problem (and the problems of the other writers cited above). I just hope you don’t drown in it, as I nearly have. LOL.

GTChristie · 28th August 2012 at 7:39 pm

I’m willing to bet you’ll love this. There’s even a “chicken and egg” problem mentioned in the interview. As you know, I have always held an “anthropological” view of ethics and long ago came to admire the philosophical anthropologists such as Cassirer.

See what you think. Offered as a mind-jogger. It will make you appreciate your own work all the more.

Tim Dean · 30th August 2012 at 4:49 pm

Just read that interview. Great stuff. And a fascinating and knowledable chap, especially given he’s still a postgrad.

Robert Hess · 26th October 2012 at 5:35 am

This is only my second post on your blog. For a little information about me, see my first post in response to your latest entry re the preface to your thesis.

I agree with Mark and GTChristie that though you may not want to use moral relativism as a headline for your view, you should not worry that your moral ecology theory is relativistic. It is, but so what?

To disarm the objectivist, I would argue that the intuition that morality is objective, that there is only one single moral standard that applies across all people, in all places, at all times, and under all circumstances, is at the core of the problem with what you appropriately labeled “inside-out” morality. It builds a moral theory on top of intuitions which modern science has shown are themselves a product of evolution.

At the time our moral intuitions evolved, the environment, including social/cultural environment, was such that demanding adherence to the in-group’s moral standards by out-groups was adaptive or at least not maladaptive (as it is arguably today). If so, and you’d need to hunt down some sources to back up this claim if you haven’t already, there is good reason to think that our intuitions that morality is objective do not necessarily track true facts, but rather are merely functional strategies for enforcement of in-group moral norms. In other words, moral objectivity is but an illusion that helped our ancestors make more babies.

Another point I’d make is that the burden of proof rests on the objectivist, not the relativist. It is undisputed that there are a myriad of different moral systems around the world today. And it is also undisputed that every culture/social group inevitably believes, or rather intuits, that its own moral standards are the “right” ones, and in that sense are objectively true. Since not all moral standards can ultimately be objectively true, the burden of proof that a particular moral standard is the right one can only rest with its proponent.

Needless to say, the objectivist has not met this burden of proof yet, nor does it seem likely that he will succeed in doing so in the future. The basic dilemma of the moral objectivist, it seems to me, is that if he pursues a naturalistic program that is based on, or at least takes into consideration, actual human nature, moral objectivity will be hard to come by. After all, everything we know about human nature points in the other direction. And if the objectivist divorces his theory of morality from human nature and pursues a more abstract program, e.g., some sort of rationalist or utilitarian view, moral objectivity may be gained at the cost of what Joyce calls “moral umph.”

I am pretty sure these are not really new points for you. In your preface you certainly touch on some of them and, at any rate I know that you are quite aware of them. It’s just a matter of how to best incorporate them into the structure your argument. As I said in my first post, much depends on what the thrust of your thesis as a whole will be.


Russell Edwards · 15th November 2020 at 11:26 pm

Hi Timothy, I’m trawling your site having just come across your thesis – this could be the first of a few comments coming here and there. I’m really enjoying what I have read so far.

Are you familiar with Val Plumwood’s works? A common theme in her work is dissing moral universalism, advocating in its place for context-sensitive ethics. Sounds like a brand of relativism to me, akin to Wong’s and yours. In her view, insistence on the universal applicability of a normative moral theory is a form of cultural imperialism. That rubber actually hit the road for her and other ecofeminists when debate exploded over whether meat should be served at international ecofeminist conferences.

Apart from the problem of different sociocultural contexts, there is also a problem of applying moral theories from the human social context to the realm of natural ecosystems. The latter is the context of our relationship with the organisms we eat, particularly when it comes to wild food. In extending social moral thought to ecosystems, one ends up rejecting the food web. Moral frameworks are designed to optimise human outcomes through co-operation. But ecosystems aren’t co-operative. They are interdependent, but appropriative and competitive. The so-called ‘predation problem’ is a manifestation of this conflict. In my mind this leaves us with two options: reject the natural world, or adopt a perspective that seems fairly akin to the functionalism you talk about in Chapter 1. Now, time to read the other chapters !

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *