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Relativism - Issues And Arguments Relating To Relativism

standard moral standards ought

As obvious as it may seem that we ought to be relativists about some things, late-twentieth-century philosophical discussions of relativism spent a surprising amount of time simply trying to state the view coherently. The ethical relativist familiar to most of us, for instance, combines all three above relativist theses in a way that best illustrates the problem. He will begin with the innocent observation of a diversity in moral practices, infer that therefore there is no single universal moral standard, and then confidently wrap up with the conclusion that therefore no person should judge the actions of those from other cultures or times. As Bernard Williams points out, although this crude bit of reasoning is obviously self-contradictory (the conclusion asserts a universal moral requirement the existence of which the premises deny), avoiding this kind of incoherence has proved surprisingly difficult.

Second, philosophers have also been concerned with the extent of defensible tolerance. For any outlook, sincerely holding that outlook seems incompatible with regarding it as merely one among a number of outlooks, each different, but not better, than the others. How, for instance, could morality have the grip on us that it does if it does not lead us to condemn those who, however distant from us in time and place, radically violate its deepest tenets? The normative relativist requirement of tolerance apparently can only be taken seriously by those who have no sincere moral convictions. Thus the basic relativist dilemma is this: either the "ought" in the claim that we ought not to condemn standards radically at odds with our own is a relative "ought" from within our own standards or an "ought" tied to an absolute standard. The former is incompatible with sincerely embracing and living within a standard. The latter is incompatible with relativism.

Third, does relativism about a given F require skepticism? Skepticism about F holds that there are no good grounds for believing anything really is F. The question is whether relativism about Fness undermines any good grounds for believing that there really is such a thing as Fness. Size, for instance, is relative to some frame of reference, such that a given whale might be tiny while a mosquito huge; but this seems compatible with claiming that the tiny whale really is tiny and the huge mosquito really is huge. Suppose what we morally ought to do is relative to the culture or era in which we find ourselves; is this compatible with claiming that what we ought to do is what we really ought to do? Some, such as J. L. Mackie, have argued that it is not. Moral beliefs, in his view, are beliefs about an absolute standard of conduct. If what exists are multiple standards, each no better than the others for its context, then it follows that there really is nothing answering to our moral beliefs. Others, such as David Wong, argue that moral beliefs are not about absolute standards but about prevailing standards. Hence there is something answering to these beliefs in his view.

The most powerful consideration philosophers have mobilized in favor of the claim that there is a plurality of equally correct standards of Fness is that it provides the most satisfying explanation of existing differences over the question of whether something is F. If relativism explains existing differences—differences that persist even against the background of agreement on non-F facts—then we should be relativists about F. Consider the question whether, for instance, C's "thumbs-up" to D was a rude gesture. Suppose A from one culture and B from another agree on all the nonetiquette facts: C gestured toward D with his fist out and thumb extended skyward. A thinks this was rude. B denies it. One explanation for the dispute is that they have yet to uncover some further fact about the gesture, its deeper etiquette nature. But there is a better one available: A is judging relative to standards from his culture according to which the thumbs-up is rude, while B is judging relative to a different standard according to which the thumbs-up is not rude. Indeed, A and B will likely conclude this quickly. B will say "In my culture, the thumbs-up is a sign of encouragement," while A will say in his it is not.

Of course, it does not follow from the fact that different frameworks for judging Fness exist or have existed that no single correct universal standard of Fness exists. Different frameworks might be assessable as more or less close to some all-encompassing universal standard. Perhaps because of its complexity, it is simply difficult to understand or know the correct universal standard of Fness. But it may be that the existence of different frameworks could be explained by the absence of a universal standard. It also does not follow from the fact that there appear to be different frameworks for judging Fness that there are in fact different frameworks. The parametric universalist in moral standards, for instance, holds that diversity is a result of the application of a very general but universally shared standard to locally diverse conditions. If that view is right, then the philosophical relativist position that there is no such universal standard—sometimes referred to as "metaethical" relativism—lacks its main support, as an explanation of moral diversity.

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