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Relativism - Shared Motivational Attitudes

moral judgments harman makes

Gilbert Harman has argued for philosophical relativism about what he calls "inner" moral judgments. These are moral judgments that imply that the agent has certain motivating reasons to do something, and the person making the judgment and his audience endorse those reasons. For instance, the claim that S ought to do some action is an inner moral judgment. Harman claimed that relativism about such judgments is a "soberly logical thesis" about "what makes sense" and what does not in our moral language (1975, p. 3). The motivating reasons implied, Harman argued, are those that derive from an implicit agreement reached by bargaining between people of differing powers and resources. Such moral judgments are thus relative to this agreement. This agreement, in turn, may differ from society to society, each being different but not better than the other agreements. In a society with slavery but no agreement that speaks against it, for instance, it is false that the slave owners ought to free their slaves. Even if we would condemn such a society, Harman's view implies that it would be "inappropriate to say that it was morally wrong of the slave owners to own slaves" (1975, p. 18). The agents involved are not parties to an agreement that would give them the relevant motivations.

In fact, the claim that slave owners are doing something wrong ought to be a logical mistake, if Harman's relativism is a "soberly logical thesis." But it is hard to see how this could be so. Surely it makes sense to say of slaveholders in a slaveholding society of the sort Harman envisions that they are doing something wrong. Perhaps we should not blame someone for an act if she had no chance to avoid it, and a person brought up in a slaveholding society might have had no chance to see slaveholding as wrong. Perhaps we should not blame her, if saying that she did wrong is a form of blame. But that such judgments, at least under some circumstances, might be inappropriate does not make them contrary to a soberly logical thesis.

In later works, Harman has elaborated his view so that it combines four theses: (1) there is a plurality of moral frameworks, none more correct than any other; (2) moral judgments are elliptical for more complex judgments whose truth conditions include one of these frameworks; (3) morality should not be abandoned; and (4) even if relative, moral judgments can play a serious role in practical thought (Harman and Thomson, pp. 3–19). The second thesis is an important adjustment: Relativism is, he argues, not a claim about "what makes sense" in our moral statements but a claim about their truth conditions. What we are saying when we say the slaveholder is doing something wrong makes sense. It is just that we are saying something false because the slaveholder is not party to an agreement giving him motivation to act accordingly. But the third thesis runs into the relativist dilemma. What sort of "should" would we be invoking in saying that morality should not be abandoned? Suppose "morality" refers to some moral framework: We "should" have some morality or other. Then either there is some absolute framework that makes this "should" true, or there is no standard at all that makes this true. From within the point of view of one morality, it is not true that some other morality should not be abandoned.

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