Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why I'm Not a Moral Relativist

Moral relativism (or descriptive moral relativism) is the view that... well, let me just quote Chris Gowans' excellent definition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Descriptive Moral Relativism (DMR). As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

(Metaethical moral relativism is the view that the real -- and not just perceived -- truth or falsity of moral claims varies from society to society. Since philosophers generally don't accept metaethical moral relativism unless they accept descriptive moral relativism, I focus on the descriptive thesis.)

Some of my favorite empirically-oriented philosophers of psychology -- Jesse Prinz, John Doris, Stephen Stich, and Shaun Nichols -- have recently avowed moral relativism. But I can't agree.

My argument against relativism is simple. There is no culture with a written philosophical tradition that is farther removed from the contemporary West than is ancient China. Yet the moral thought expressed by philosophers of the period is remarkably similar to our own. Consider, to take an arbitrary sample, the first five passages of Confucius's (Kongzi's) Analects, the most important philosophical text of the period (D.C. Lau, trans.):

I.1. The Master said, "Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals? Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to take offense when others fail to appreciate your abilities?"

I.2. Yu Tzu said, "It is rare for a man whose character is such that he is good as a son and obedient as a young man to have the inclination to transgress against his superiors; it is unheard of for one who has no such inclination to be inclined to start a rebellion. The gentleman devotes his efforts to the roots, for once the roots are established, the Way will grow therefrom. Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character."

I.3. The Master said, "It is rare, indeed, for a man with cunning words and an ingratiating face to be benevolent."

I.4. Tseng Tzu said, "Every day I examine myself on three counts. In what I have undertaken on another's behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say? Have I passed on to others anything that I have not tried out myself?"

I.5. The Master said, "In guiding a state of a thousand chariots, approach your duties with reverence and be trustworthy in what you say; avoid excess in expenditure and love your fellow men; employ the labor of the common people only in the right seasons."

In these passages, Confucius and his school praise honesty, moderation, concern for others, obedience to authority, and humility. They don't say: Kill your relatives for fun, never pay your debts, burn down your neighbors' houses. Nor does any other major school of philosophical or religious thought, no matter how far culturally removed. Indeed, it's hard to see how a society could survive with such a morality.

Though the points of commonality far exceed the points of difference, the ancient Confucian tradition does differ from mainstream U.S. ethics in some important secondary ways -- most notably in demanding a high level of respect for parents and elders and in their emphasis on following ritual and custom. However, other philosophers within the ancient Chinese tradition criticize the Confucians for these very things, such as Mozi and Zhuangzi. So also in the U.S. we have libertarians and fundamentalists, Earth First!ers and yuppies. The real diversity of moral opinion is more to be found within ancient China and within the contemporary U.S. than between the two cultures. (But even that diversity isn't so great, if one keeps a broad view and excludes the deranged and those who merely thrill at being provocative.)


dan haybron said...

Nice post, Eric, and thanks for sharing the reference. I am similarly resistant to relativism beyond fairly modest forms of it. I share your perception of commonality across cultures, and my recollection is that the major religions tend to share a great deal ethically, with similar disputes cropping up just about everywhere. But might this just reflect the common demands facing all civilizations? What about ethics in small-scale societies--pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, etc? The divergence from our own beliefs can seem a lot deeper there (see, eg, the recent discussion of the Piraha, eg in the new yorker, who seem to have a radically different conceptual scheme; or, for that matter, Brandt on the Hopi).

I'd guess that the basics, at some level, are shared even with those cultures--it seems possible to befriend and admire individuals in any culture, and to appreciate most of their stories (and vice-versa).
(Except maybe the ones about lopping little Susie's fingers off with a hatchet after grandma died. But maybe those wouldn't hold up under reflection even locally.) I don't see how this could happen if there weren't a pretty strong shared moral understanding.

Still, I'd guess some significant disagreements (within and across cultures) are going to be fundamental and rationally irresolvable. So, I'm inclined to think, a significant relativity to morality. (Just not as much as many think.) Is this your view as well?

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Interesting post. I have many disagreements though.

First, I'm not sure I agree with the following:

The real diversity of moral opinion is more to be found within ancient China and within the contemporary U.S. than between the two cultures. (But even that diversity isn't so great, if one keeps a broad view and excludes the deranged and those who merely thrill at being provocative.)

I believe the greatest difference of moral opinion between China -- ancient or modern -- and the contemporary U.S. is that of the rights of the individual against those of society as a whole.

Many Chinese, and not only the politicians responsible for sanctioning the rampant human rights abuses in China, believe that notions of the individual and of human rights are western notions that do not apply in China. Do moral disagreements get any more fundamental than that?

Additionally, are you suggesting that morality proper is restricted to the things that are common to all cultures, such as not killing family members _for fun_ (because some permit it for some reasons) and the other outrageous examples you give?

Or does morality include the many other things that do differ from one culture to another, such as whether lying to a customer to appease him is morally bad, or whether species extinction is acceptable for purposes of development, and so on? Once you move past the vaguest of generalities, it's very hard to see how one can argue that morality is not extremely relative to culture and time.

Consider your list:

* honesty: do you believe that this means the same thing in all cultures and that those cultures apply it equally broadly in terms of the recipients of honesty? does a Saudi husband believe he has the same obligations with respect to honesty towards his wife as does a USA husband?
* moderation: do you believe that the extremes between which 'moderation' is defined are the same in all cultures? yesterday's moderate with regard to witch-burning is today's rabid lunatic. And what is moderation with regard to wife beating in cultures that regard women as chattel?
* concern for others: so vague as to be meaningless, so it's hard to argue against, but it is surely not concern in and of itself that matters but ones actions with regard to others. And there are plenty of very substantive differences in the ways that different people treat others; for example, infanticide in China, or leaving elders alone to die when times are harsh in some less developed cultures, or raping the women of conquered peoples in Europe 1000 years ago, or ...
* obedience to authority: what would Confucius say about a peasant having the nerve to protest the actions of our President and arguing that he is wrong to lead us to war under false pretences? I don't know, to tell you the truth, but I wouldn't be suprised if he or somebody else said you should never question authority and should be obedient. Would Confucius have any qualms about Tiananmen Square events of 1989, or would he say they were fully justified?
* humility: American and Japanese notions of humility couldn't be much less alike; a (statistically average) humble American would be considered extremely arrogant by Japanese standards.

I'd appreciate it if you would elaborate on what exactly you believe is invariant across cultures and across what timeframes in terms of our past.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Dan and Joseph!

Dan: I don't endorse the view that all moral disagreements are rationally resolvable, but I think this applies within societies at least as much as between societies; and I think that the broad contours of right and wrong tend to be mostly the same among people (within or between societies), if one sets aside outliers and doesn't distract oneself by focusing on points of disagreement. Points of disagreement tend to be striking and salient just because most people agree about most things, broadly and roughly speaking.

I agree that the demands on smaller, traditional societies may be different enough from the demands on large, literate societies that their moral views may diverge more. But I'm not sure. I definitely don't trust anthropologists' reports of the moral systems of such cultures. I suspect there are academic demands for the societies in anthropological studies to be presented as (a.) having interestingly, even radically, different views from ours, and (b.) having monolithic views of the sort that lend themselves to discussion and analysis as unitary wholes (as opposed to a hotch-potch of disagreement and divergence). In light of these demands, I think anthropologists findings of monolithic and radically different moralities in their target cultures need to be evaluated very carefully. Consider the discrediting of Mead on the Samoans and Turnbull on the Ik.

Joseph: The "rights" issue has received a lot of attention in East-West cross-cultural studies recently, but I think it is overplayed. Did Zhuangzi believe in "rights"? Well, he thought it was perfectly okay not to serve the state if one would rather go fishing. Did he believe in rights in some strong, there's-a-list-of-things-we-can-never-impose-on-anyone sense? Well, probably not, but how many Westerners do? (I don't.) It's more, I think, a difference in emphasis between the two cultures rather than a radical divergence in view. And I think the most fundamental level of morality is not in abstract concepts like "rights" but rather in what sorts of behavior are encouraged and frowned upon. And it's evident from reading ancient Chinese philosophy that much the same behavior is encouraged and frowned upon, even if there are some differences in nuance and emphasis.

Of course I think there are differences in how things like honesty get cashed out between societies, but I regard these as differences in detail, not radical differences of the sort that overwhelm the points of agreement. I suspect in all societies most people tolerate or even approve of white lies, though there will be a minority of purists who reject them; that telling serious lies for your own benefit and to the harm of people in authority will usually (with some exceptions) be looked down upon; etc.

I disagree with your characterization of Confucianism. Confucius and Mencius thought the greatest respect one could give to a ruler is to put the Way before him, which means correcting him (at personal risk, perhaps) if he goes wrong. It's the duty of the cultivated person, then, to question authority when authority is immoral.

Never to my knowledge does any ancient Confucian advocate killing peaceful dissenters, and it seems to me contrary to the general tenor of ancient Confucianism, which held that if the sage and king are models of virtue people will turn to them of their own free will without being forced.

Mozi and Han Feizi did advocate killing people with noxious doctrines. So did Stalin and Hitler. And Hobbes did not think that ordinary people should be allowed to entertain the view that other forms of government are superior to their own (though he didn't advocate capital punishment for it). So, again, it seems to me that the differences within East and within West swamp the differences between East and West.

Justin Tiwald said...

Very interesting post, Eric. I'm quite sympathetic with this view, and I'm also confident that the differences tend to be overstated.

You must know that you've thrown the door open to a lot of wrangling about definitions and metrics, which I'm eager to hear about. There is one that strikes me as most pressing: what makes a significant point of difference “secondary”? Would this apply to differences of opinion about women's autonomy?

Joseph, you raise some good questions. On the individual rights issue I have to admit I'm a bit less certain and more perplexed than you. I haven't found many people in China who are comfortable with the idea of executing the innocent for the sake of a common good (Brad Cokelet had an interesting discussion of this during his turn as guest host here, but I haven't been able to find it). I've also found that people in both the U.S. and China engage in a wide variety of justificatory practices that aren't always consistent with their professed views about individual rights. People in both places will sometimes speak like utilitarians, sometimes like contractualists, and sometimes like ethical egoists. And it's true of China before it had much exposure to the West as well. Try reading The Dream of the Red Chamber and finding even a single character that has a consistent take on the cases that pitch individual interests against broader, social interests. (Okay, you don't have to read it. But take my word for it--the ways they justify their moral claims are just as muddled as anything else).

Anonymous said...

I love these Chinese ethics posts. Thanks Eric!

Here I'd just like to offer my 2 cents on Joseph's very thoughtful challenge, particularly on individual rights. IMHO, the closest we come to the idea of individual rights in ancient Chinese tradition (during the Warring States period) is among the followers of Yang Zhu and Song Xing. From Yang Zhu we get the idea that society should exist for the sake of the person, and not the other way around. From Song Xing, the idea that the true value of a person is independent of society's perceptions of him/her.

Although Yang Zhu and Song Xing are judged to be somewhat marginal thinkers, the above-mentioned strands of thought can be found in the key philosophical texts of the late 4th century BCE, namely Zhuangzi and Mencius. Below are two passage from the Mencius indicating how the ideas get played out (I've adapted them from Lau's translation):

6A16: "There are honors bestowed by Heaven, and there are honors bestowed by man. Benevolence, justice, conscientiousness, truthfulness to one's word, unflagging delight in what is good - these are honors bestowed by Heaven. The position of a Ducal Minister, a Minister, or a Counselor is an honor bestowed by man...."

6A17 "All humans share the same desire to be accorded dignity (gui). But as a matter of fact, every human has in oneself that which is dignified. It's just that one has never reflected on the fact.

"Dignity that man accords is not true dignity. Those Zhao Meng exalts, Zhao Meng can also humble...."

These passages from Mencius, I suggest, are very similar in spirit to Kant's idea that humans have dignity, not just a market price (in contrast to Hobbes, for instance). And in this way, they provide a basis for universal human rights from within the Confucian tradition (using the language of "dignity" rather than rights).

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Thank you for the corrections regarding my ill-founded generalizations about Confucius and China. I agree with you in retrospect that the differences within each are greater than the differences between.

However, that's not to say that I don't still think there are some genuine differences between some cultures.

I do agree with you that 'the most fundamental level of morality is not in abstract concepts like "rights" but rather in what sorts of behavior are encouraged and frowned upon.' And it may be the case, as you note, that much the same was encouraged and frowned upon in China 2500 years ago and the united states today. But what of my other examples of very specific acts that are encouraged in some culture and frowned upon in others? And there are other examples.

For instance, consider honor killing. I don't know very much about the phenomenon, but the little I have heard and read of it suggests that there are some cultures that sanction and even encourage male family members killing a woman of their family who has had premarital sex or committed adultery.

It seems though that the deck is stacked against moral relativism in the Stanford definition, which says that [despite that we all share almost exactly the same evolutionary history, that we all are almost identical biologically, and that we live in similar environments, in order to qualify as there being genuine cultural differences,] the disagreements must be much more than whatever agreements there may be.

The key point in my mind is that differences exist, not that there are many widespread similarities.

Hi Justin,

In general, I do definitely believe that cultural differences have been overstated, and especially by the anthropologists who first came back telling us of wildly alien cultures that share none of our moral judgements. However, saying that the differences have been overstated is very different than saying there are no genuine and significant differences. I think there are some genuine and significant differences, and I'd submit that 'honor killing' -- or treatment of women in general -- in some muslim cultures constitutes one such difference.

I much agree with you that the question of distinguishing primary and secondary points of difference is very tricky, and I'm looking forward to Eric's thoughts about how one might distinguish between them in a rigorous way.

Your point about the inconsistency and messiness of actual human beings -- as opposed to the writings of ethicists and philosophers -- is well taken. Novels are probably as good a way of understanding what people really truly believe about moral issues as any other.

Hi Boram,

Very interesting quotes from Mencius. I must read some more Chinese philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Hi All,

Very interesting discussion!

On honor-killing, it is useful to remember that similar views of honor were once prevalent in the Western world. Schopenhauer has a funny and telling essay attacking practices that we would now find repugnant or even silly. I think this supports the thought that "east-west" differences often simply mirror (synchronic or diachronic) differences within "the west".

This point could also be made about belief in rights. There is debate about whether Aristotle, for example, had a conception of rights or even a conception of morality (my advisor, Richard Kraut, has a persuasive article claiming Aristotle did without the concept of morality -- in his recent book goes further and suggests we will do fine if we follow his lead in that respect)

Finally, I thought I would mention that I talked to Doris when he was giving a talk at Northwestern a couple of years ago and pushed him by arguing roughly in the way that you do Eric. If I remember correctly, he was admirably honest about being unacquainted with Eastern Philosophy.

- Brad

P.S. my old post is here:

Anonymous said...

If anyone wants to read the Schopenhauer (always entertaining for a while...), you can get it here (you will have to paste the link together):

Anonymous said...

Brad C.,

I definitely agree with you regarding the diachronic differences within the west alone.

Additionally, unless we just happen to live at the apex of development, when the moral sense (if there is such a thing) reached its final and most fully developed form, it's a fair bet that some of what the best among us today encourage will be frowned upon tomorrow.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin, I like your point about women's autonomy. It does seem that that varies widely from society to society, and it shouldn't be considered a secondary feature of a moral worldview. The issue might be related to variation between societies in the range of options ordinary people have about their labor. In some societies, people have very little choice of career and in others they have much more choice.

In some way, this seems a different type of issue than keeping promises, caring for the weak (when feasible), restraining violence against other members of the society, not taking more than your (socially determined) share, etc. -- but exactly how it's different I can't put my finger on right now.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting point, Boram. I'm sympathetic with the view that in classical China Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Yang Zhu endorsed something like the idea of individual dignity and choice that might in some way resemble or underwrite our notion of "rights". (The story of the chariot driver playing by or breaking the rules of hunting, and the story of the gamekeeper and the pennon, also fit with your quotes, I'd suggest.) However, I resist the idea (I don't know if you accept this or not) that there's a clear and clean distinction between thinkers who endorse and those who reject the idea of rights, as though it were a simple yes-or-no matter.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Joseph, I wish I could fulfill your expectation for a principled distinction between primary and secondary moral differences. Justin's comment on this point has tripped me up, though, in a way I'll have to think about more!

I suspect that your point about "honor killing" holds up only on an artificially monolithic idea of "what a society endorses". Without knowing the details, I'd wager on the view that honor killing is a disputed notion in most societies in which it occurs (especially if one includes womens' moral thinking), which fits with my view that moral diversity within societies is at least as great as that between societies.

I agree that the Stanford definition is to some extent skewed against relativism. Would Prinz et al. accept a statement that strong? Yet simply to say that there is *some* moral diversity between cultures is far too weak a criterion to count as a relativist. Since relativism is usually seen as a bold, minority position, I prefer the stronger definition.

But maybe one could tinker with the strength a bit. How about: "The differences between societies' moral views are substantial enough that almost no substantive, general statements about moral universals are true"?

One problem with that definition is that it tilts the field against non-relativists like me who think of universal morality in terms of a high degree of family resemblance or clusters of features, rather than codifiable and universally true statements or propositions.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.
Please check out these two related reference which give a unique perspective on the moral and cultural state of the world altogether.


Plus a related essay on how we are "√ęducated" to be incapable of true responsibility for any and every thing.


Also The Realization of The Beautiful

Hagop said...

[How did I miss this post earlier??]

Good topic. As many have mentioned, no plausible ethical theory can deny some degree of relativism. It doesn't even take much to get there. All we need to recognize is that: a) there is a plurality of values, and b) no single, true ranking of these values exists. This much is enough to get you to relativism rather quickly.

Take, as an example, a Confucian community, wherein the preservation of certain relationships embodied in an ideal of social harmony would be very high in determining what the true moral duties are in that community (even while it might embrace other values). This kind of morality can satisfy and coordinate the intrapersonal and interpersonal needs, interests and purposes of its members--something any moral system must do. All the same, such a morality will differ substantially from that of another community, which emphasizes the rights of the individual and the preservation of individual autonomy more than social harmony (even while having harmony among its values). This latter type of morality can also meet the functional requirements of satisfying and coordinating the needs, interests and purposes of its own members. However, in both cases, part of what affords their functionality is the way these moralities rule one another out; indeed, moralities can only work effectively by ruling out several possible moral options, which cannot all be included without rendering morality’s ‘action-guiding-ness’ impotent.

When fundamental ends are prioritized in a certain way (as they are in many cultures), there will be more or less sensible or efficient ways of configuring moral codes to meet those ends. Indeed, some such configurations will be inapt given the culture's value rankings. Hence, the moral truths of one community will be relative to it in the sense that other moralities and other configurations of moral codes will be ruled out for it. In a sense, moral truth has to be relative; when everything is acceptable, nothing is action-guiding. This is partly why I'm a card-carrying moral relativist (thus far).

Regarding the work of anthropologists and other social scientists--I endorse your call to be cautious and careful in using their findings, but I think Jesse has done so to good effect in arguing against moral nativism and for the non-existence of any real universal moral judgments or truths.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the links, Sue -- and thanks, Hagop, for the interesting comment!

Your position is sensible, and here I think that the difference between a modest pluralism (like mine) and a modest relativism (like yours) becomes a rather subtle matter. Are the differences in "weighting" between cultures "substantial" enough to justify embracing the rhetoric of relativism? Or are they minor enough that the rhetoric of universalism is the better choice?

Maybe it depends on what's important to you. As Justin nicely points out, if women's rights and opportunities are a dominant factor in your assessment, that might incline one toward a relativistic position. I do think that's one factor on which cultures vary dramatically.

However, on the general issues of kindness to neighbors, honesty, familial care, loyalty, and so forth, I tend to think the differences are at the margins. That is why Confucius and Mencius seem mostly pretty sensible to us and not alien.

Here's an analogy: Morality between people and cultures varies somewhat as outward physical form varies. On some dimensions (e.g., skin and hair color) there's considerable variation. And between cultures (or races) there are differences in average height, weight, etc. And there are always a few people who are highly at variance from the norms (missing limbs, tiny stature). Whether one is struck by the variability or rather by the similarity depends on one's perspective. But there is a perspective (contra strong statements of relativism) from which human form is pretty similar across cultures/races.

Hagop said...

Your position is sensible, and here I think that the difference between a modest pluralism (like mine) and a modest relativism (like yours) becomes a rather subtle matter. Are the differences in "weighting" between cultures "substantial" enough to justify embracing the rhetoric of relativism? Or are they minor enough that the rhetoric of universalism is the better choice?

Thanks for your response, Eric. I completely agree that the differences become subtle, and that the issue may be rhetorical rather than substantive. There is rhetorical advantage to be gained by denying relativism, as it is often considered subversive or morally repugnant. It's hard being a relativist. But I also think that relativism is highly plausible, and that actual worries about the effects of relativism are largely constrained by widely shared aspects of human nature, and by the constraints arising from the conditions of social coordination. As you point out, it just so happens that many moral traditions and cultures will readily recognize aspects of their own moral codes in other traditions or cultures. But I remain committed to moral relativism, because it seems to best capture whatever variation we do find.

I also have independent reasons to think that embracing relativism may be no worse (in practical terms) than embracing some form of pluralism. And I actually think that certain human tendencies, when combined with a belief in moral universalism, can and have lead to grotesque violations of human rights and dignity.

Anonymous said...

Eric, correct me if I am wrong, but isn't all of this talk of how societies are and how chiense philosophy is similiar to the Greeks all kind of irrelevant? If the thesis of meta-ethical relativism is not that there are no objective moral facts, then what is that particular thesis called? As i see it, meta-ethical relativsm just says that, reguardless of how societies are, there is no objective answers to moral questions such as: is action x morally right? Meta-ethical relativism says that such questions can only be answered within frameworks (such as according to y's rules, action x is right) or something along those lines. Even if all societies practice according to y's moral standards, that doesnt mean that there is anything "out there" which actually grounds moral statements in objective truth. I'm just an undergrad, so if don't mind, explain to me where I am confused.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, Feb. 9: There are stronger and weaker forms of relativism and objectivism. I think one can be an objectivist without being a strong objectivist. On my view, there are culture-independent moral truths (thus cultural relativism is false), but it doesn't follow that there are moral truths that are independent of the human condition in general (thus species-level relativism might be true).

Actually, my preferred meta-ethics isn't even quite species-level relativism. I think we can use species-wide patterns in moral reactions to define a vague-boundaried & open-textured set of moral norms, and then we can "rigidify" such that to be moral just is to act according to these norms. Thus, hypothetical alien species or hypothetical possible variants of the human species still qualify as immoral (though they might have their own set of "schmorals"), rather than (as the species-level relativist would have it) being moral according to their own norms.

I'm not entirely committed to this picture, but it is my present inclination.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel, that is a very good point. I think I might be inclined to accept that view also. I have a question though. Even under species level relativism, what would ground moral judgments or what would make them true or false. It can't be convention, because what if the convention changed. Let me use an example, as a human, it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Seems objectively true, as in every human would agree with it. But what grounds it? What makes it true? I have to be a little skeptical until I have a good answer to that question. Even though everyone agrees, even relative to a human species framework, does it count as true or false? If so, how could we prove it? It doesn't seem analytic and it doesn't seem something we can prove with our senses, so how do we know its true? If I can't answer that question, am I not just being dogmatic?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry for the slow reply. Things have been hectic!

The easiest response is something like a "secondary quality" response: It is just a fact about human beings that they have a pattern of reactions ("moral" reactions) to certain types of phenomenon, and there's no further justification to it than that.

I'm not entirely inclined to that simple a response myself, though; I want to work in an idea of human flourishing as part of the ground -- but without reducing moral facts to facts about (what leads to) human flourishing. But what is "flourishing"? Does the same grounding issue arise for that? I haven't seen through all these issues to my satisfaction....

Anonymous said...

Same person above, just want to respond that I think that answers my question. That is at least one way to defend it that I hadnt seen before. Thanks for the responses.