‘Moral Relativism’ is Equivocal

In yesterday’s post I suggested that there are two quite distinct sources for ‘moral’ judgements: value-egalitarianism (whatever matters to one person matters to everyone) and value-authoritarianism (a judgement made intuitively by one person is invested with the force to overrule all competing judgements).

In a form of ‘morality’ mainly associated with the political right and with religious or traditional systems, the two are blurred together; in a form of ‘morality’ mainly associated with the political left and with modern-era rationalism, value-egalitarianism is maintained on its own, in ‘pure form’.

Now having these two quite different things both being called ‘morality’ is tricky, especially when it comes to the idea of ‘moral relativism’. I’ve experienced this personally in that I know a lot of people with whom I agree on most things, but who identify as ‘moral relativists’; I very much don’t, and yet in discussing it I often feel that we’re arguing at cross purposes.

(I should warn readers, this post makes a lot of distinctions of meaning, and weird terminology abounds. Hopefully it is all adequately explained.)

So the idea I’m going for here is that ‘moral relativism’ can mean either the rejection of value-authoritarianism (a reasonable and sensible position, which fits very neatly with the acceptance of value-egalitarianism), or the rejection of value-egalitarianism as well (a chaotic position that makes a lot of discussions very difficult to have).

Actually, there’s a third thing it can mean, which is that any given moral principle can apply in different ways to different situations because the circumstances are relevantly different, which is a fairly obvious and easily-accepted principle for most people. E.g. the action of shooting someone in the head has different moral significance in peace, unjust war, just war, and self-defense. I’m not going to talk about this, just note it for clarity.

Anyway, in these two sorts of ‘moral relativism’, which I’ll call ‘intersubjectivism’ and ‘pure subjectivism’ for reasons that will become apparent, such terms as ‘absolute’ and ‘objective’ signify quite different things.

For someone who is an ‘intersubjectivist’, i.e. rejects value-authoritarianism but accepts value-egalitarianism, saying that ‘no moral values are objective’ means that no moral values have any source or foundation outside individuals-who-value-things themselves. However, moral values are still ‘objective’ to the individual in that they rest in other individuals. For example, the fact that killing, cooking and eating my grandparents is ‘wrong’ is objective for me because the (very intense) negative value it has for them is independent of what I happen to think. It just has no foundation that’s independent of all of us – apart from the purely formal principle of generalisation, that what’s bad for my grandparents is also ‘bad for me’ (i.e. I should avoid it).

It’s probably also important to distinguish different senses of ‘valuation’. In sense 1, valuing something is something like a ‘feeling’, in that whatever I fear, or whatever hurts me, or whatever I desperately don’t want to happen, is ‘negatively valued’ by me (and similarly for positive values). In sense 2, valuing something is something like an ‘opinion’, in that I form a ‘remote’ judgement about it, independently of how it affects me.

Now for straightforward logical reasons, value-egalitarianism can only take as ‘inputs’, valuations in sense 1. That’s because it produces valuations in sense 2 (all-things-considered-opinions) as its outputs. If its outputs were also its inputs, then this would create an infinite feedback loop that would make moral rasoning impossible. E.g. I have to weigh up the harms of different courses of action to me and to another person, but as soon as I have done so, and reached a final judgement (that, say, action X is right), that then becomes a new ‘datum’ that has to be added in, as though now action X would ‘benefit me’ more.

This allows us to say that valuations in sense 1 are ‘relative to the individual’ (if I enjoy homosexual acts and nobody is harmed, they are therefore ‘good’ for me) but that valuations in sense 2 are not (the fact that I happen to find homosexual acts disgusting is simply a reason for me not to engage in them, but not a reason to judge them in general ‘bad’ for everyone else).

Anyway. By contrast, for someone who is what I called a ‘pure subjectivist’, rejecting both value-authoritarianism and value-egalitarianism, saying that ‘no values are objective’ means that there’s nothing objective to me as an individual. When I make a decision about how to act, not only do I get to dismiss as irrelevant supposed ‘transcendent’ values deriving from God’s mighty commandments and such like, I also get to dismiss as irrelevant whether or not it will drive other people to miserable gibbering insanity, and whether or not it will starve anyone to death.

The upshot is, the only things I have to decide upon are my own personal preferences and valuations (in both sense 1 and sense 2). One consequence is that it becomes impossible for me to really be ‘wrong’: whatever I decide to do is, therefore, right (unless I come to change my mind). Another consequence is that morality becomes very hard to ‘communicate’, because saying ‘action X is wrong (in situation Y)’ can’t be either true or false, it will be true for some people and false for others.

We might say that the two senses of ‘objectivity’ being used are, on the one hand, ‘ontological objectivity’ (in the sense of wanting there to be a fact or entity independent of all sentient beings, that generates moral truths, like a divine author), and, on the other, ‘practical objectivity’ (in the sense of moral judgements admitting of ‘correct/incorrect’).

As may have emerged, I am an ‘intersubjectivist’: I think that ‘morality’ (value-egalitarianism) is practically objective, but not ontologically objective. In this it might be compared to logic or mathematics: there are no ‘entities’ existing ‘out there’ that make mathematical statements true or false (well, some people think there are but whatever), but nevertheless mathematical statements can be true or false, mathematical reasoning can be correct or faulty, and in general from within the totality of rational beings mathematics functions as though it existed independently of us.

Anyway, the point is that all these equivocal words provide a lot of room for misunderstanding. For me, the misunderstanding is, I think, that often other people come to associate ‘morality’ with ‘value-authoritarianism’, reject this, and call themselves ‘moral relativists’, meaning simply intersubjectivism. They then make statements about ‘objectivity’ and ‘relativity’ and so forth in the senses appropriate to that.

I, however, have been depraved by studying philosophy. My associations with the word ‘morality’ are coloured by what kinds of things moral philosophers talk about, and that’s mainly ‘value-egalitarianism’. I therefore take ‘intersubjectivism’ as a matter of course, and when people say ‘moral relativism’, I hear ‘pure subjectivism’, according to which I get to decide whether it matters that the person I’m having sex with does or doesn’t want it, and I reject that strongly. I then attach appropriate meanings to terms like ‘objective’ and ‘relative’.

Then me and the aforementioned people get into a pointless dispute where we’re both intersubjectivists, but they think I’m a value-authoritarian, and I think they’re pure subjectivists. It becomes very confusing.

This confusion, as a final note, is encouraged by actual value-authoritarians. The various arseholes who want to impose their personal inclinations and whims about what is and isn’t ‘natural’ or ‘holy’ as transcendent moral judgements, are keen to identify this as the be-all and end-all of ‘morality’, and accuse those intersubjectivists who rightly reject it as incoherent on the level of moral philosophy, not to mention as immoral, of being ‘moral relativists’ in the strong sense of ‘pure subjectivists’.

Now properly understood that’s obviously stupid. It amounts to not distinguishing “different people like the tastes of different foods, there’s no ‘objective’ tastiness or nastiness, so let everybody eat whatever food they want” from “there’s no ‘objective’ tastiness or nastiness, so it doesn’t matter what people are eating, so force-feed people with whatever you decide to force-feed them”.

6 Responses to “‘Moral Relativism’ is Equivocal”

  1. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I think your mathematics example is an interesting comparison. There is a core of mathematics which everybody agrees on, arithmetic pretty much. Go much beyond that though, and there start to be different factions. Most mathematicians accept the axiom of infinity which is necessary to talk about infinite sets, but the finitists and ultra-finitists reject it. Most mathematicians accept proofs by contradiction, but the constructivists and intuitionists don’t. More controversial is the axiom of choice. This axiom is too technical to explain here, but it makes quite a significant difference to mathematics whether or not you accept it. On the one hand, one wants to accept it because it makes many proofs considerably easier, and some things that mathematicians feel ought to be true can’t be proved without it. On the other hand, many strange and counter-intuitive results can be proved if you accept it, such as the Banach-Tarski theorem which challenges our intuitions about the nature of space. This is not a minor issue in mathematics, and while most tend towards allowing the axiom of choice, there is a significant minority of mathematicians who don’t. And there is no hope of settling the issue either – it can be proved that the axiom of choice is independent of the other axioms of mathematics. It cannot be proved either true or false.

    This looks to me like a parallel of the discussion we were having earlier about abortion. Whereas some moral principles are intersubjective (e.g. no killing, paralleling arithmetic), others are not (e.g. no aborting, paralleling the axiom of choice). I don’t think the case of abortion can be sorted out by making distinctions of the sort you’ve made in this entry. We all agree that killing people is bad, we disagree about what counts as a person, and the distinction between value-egalitarianism and value-authoritarianism doesn’t speak to that.

    So I would say that in neither mathematics nor morality is there practical objectivity in the sense you’re using it. However, this doesn’t have to be too big a problem because despite there being genuine differences of opinion, there is considerable overlap. In mathematics, people who do and don’t believe in the axiom of choice can agree and work together on large parts of mathematics. Similarly, two people, one of whom believes that life begins at conception, the other of whom doesn’t, can agree on 99% of moral propositions (they may not, but they can in principle).

    There is of course a strong drive to have unified, consensus theories. This manifests itself strongly in mathematics. During the 20th century, there was intense debate about the axiom of choice amongst other things. A key point in that debate was when Cohen proved the independence of the axiom of choice in 1962. But surprisingly, the debate didn’t end there. The discussion moved on to talking about which axiom was a more sensible one to adopt, even though there could be no proof one way or the other. There were very interesting discussions about what the appropriate meta-mathematical grounds might be for deciding one way or the other, and those debates continue to this day (some still hope that a consensus will be reached). The interesting thing for me though, is that if a consensus is reached it won’t be based upon one or the other being true, but about a community decision about what we want to consider as mathematics. Similarly in the case of abortion, both sides want a consensus. Unlike mathematics though, this isn’t just an idle intellectual game – it really makes a huge difference to many people’s lives which is settled on. The stakes are much higher.

    My question is (I don’t have an answer): what should our attitude be towards this drive towards consensus? On the one hand, if there really isn’t a ‘correct’ answer, surely a diversity of opinions is what you would expect and a consensus an artificial outcome. On the other hand, difference of opinions makes communication more difficult (you need some shared foundation to make communication possible). If there are only a few fault lines of opinion, this isn’t too big a problem, but what if it spreads until nobody can talk to anyone else? I guess this is the worry partly underlying the rejection of ‘moral relativism’. My feeling is that it can be managed, we can live together even disagreeing on basic things about what constitutes morally valued life. We can even, in many cases, engage in constructive cooperation with people we disagree with. When disagreements about the ideas affect the political reality, problems can be resolved through political means.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I think it’s true that even a system which is largely independent of an individual’s choice can still have ‘holes’, little twisted areas where things can’t seem to fit together and disagreement may not be reconcilable. Perhaps the best example in values is ‘does the end justify the means?’ – saying yes, and saying no, both seem to lead to unacceptable conclusions. As you say, this is probably not the end of the world because most of the time it doesn’t arise in its full form.

    I’m not sure that abortion or infanticide are quite analogous to this. The issue there is who is and isn’t a mathematician, so to speak – and that may be a question that brings in non-mathematical considerations. But anyway.

    As for the drive towards consensus, I think it depends on what that consensus is. Often people just want an answer which is consistent, and get it by ignoring one half of why there disagreement is so difficult. At the same time, the desire to be consistent is basically the core of being rational, so we need to distinguish between that and the aforementioned ‘chopping off’ of one half of the problem.

  3. Francois Tremblay Says:

    You seem to slide into a bad equivocation here. First you define value-egalitarianism as “whatever matters to one person matters to everyone.” Then you define it as meaning that our “values rest in other individuals” (??) and that without it, “whether or not it will drive other people to miserable gibbering insanity, and whether or not it will starve anyone to death” is irrelevant.

    So is your position that anyone who does NOT believe that “whatever matters to one person matters to everyone” (which I consider to be an extremely arrogant statement) means that one does not care about other human beings? If someone does not share your values, he is completely irrelevant to your moral judgments? Is that what you’re saying, or did you express yourself badly?

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I was with you until the last but one sentence. If you think I’m saying that value-egalitarianism means I assume everyone else shares my moral judgements (i.e. “is in agreement with me”), then no, I don’t mean that. I mean in the sense that if my personal not starving to death matters to me, then other people should also consider it important and relevant that I not starve to death (this I what I was trying to say with senses 1. and 2. of ‘valuation’).

  5. Francois Tremblay Says:

    “if my personal not starving to death matters to me, then other people should also consider it important and relevant that I not starve to death”


  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    That’s a good question and not one I’ve tried to answer here. I’m just saying, the word ‘bank’ may refer either to a financial institution or to the side of a river. That still leaves an open question whether those financial institutions, say, are a good idea, or whether there are any rivers in the world.

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