Re: Morality Is Relative

From: Russell Blackford (
Date: Sun Aug 26 2001 - 03:34:34 MDT

Lee said
 I believe that there really are such
>things as bigotry, authoritarianism, harmful condescension,
>collectivism, racism, inconsistency, lack of compassion,
>arrogance, and unfairness, and that they should be exposed
>and demonized. <snip>

 I can't agree that we should agree to say that morality
>exists---that's really going too far. It clearly all comes
>down to what people approve of and what they don't approve of.
>If we attempt to get precisely factual, we simply cannot appeal
>to "moral laws", or "rights" (except legal ones), or any of
>that stuff unless it's clearly shorthand for "I approve" or
>"I disapprove". The purpose of showing someone that he or
>she is arrogant, or lacks compassion, or is a fascist is to
>make him or her feel bad. By **their** own semantic links
>and real connection to the world and to other individuals
>in the world, and their own conscious (and unconscious) and
>unavoidable judgments of others, if one can show a sufficient
>real similarity, his or her own conscience will be activated.

I go along with this to a very considerable extent (I don't know that I'd
think of "inconsistency" as being in the same class as the others on the
list, and I don't think collectivism is *always* a bad thing, just very
often a bad thing). However, I'd be wary of the word "relativist" and its

I'd rather save that term, in the meta-ethical context, for someone who
takes the following kind of "cultural relativist" position, supposed to be
an argument for inter-cultural tolerance: what is "morally right" means what
is considered so by the particular culture concerned; this reflects what is
functionally valuable for that culture; it is "therefore" wrong for one
culture to impose its moral values on another.

As Bernard Williams pointed out many years ago, these propositions are
internally inconsistent, since it may be functionally valuable to culture A
(and hence "morally right" within that culture) for it to develop
institutions for imposing its will, including its views of moral right and
wrong, on culture B. These institutions may include armadas and armies,
colonising expeditions, aggressively proselytising religions, etc.

This might be called "the New Age theory of morality". A variation of it is
to relativise with respect to individuals rather than (or as well as) with
respect to cultures, so that whatever is valuable for me is morally right
for me and "therefore" no one should impose his/her moral values on me.

It is not a theory I hold, in either form.

However, Lee is using terms such as "ethical relativist" more broadly, where
I would use the term "ethical subjectivist" and its cognates, and I don't
think there's a lot that's different in our approaches. At least, I think
our approaches to investigating and discussing moral issues could largely be
translated into each other.


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