The ultimate guide to talking with your friends about moral relativism

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The other night I was having one of our usual “virtual aperitivos” (i.e., happy hour, for Americans) with some friends, before watching a movie simultaneously and then reconvening to chat about said movie. My wife and I participate in this about once a week, as part of our efforts to keep a semblance of social life going during the pandemic.

All of a sudden, I don’t even recall why, the conversation turned to moral philosophy, and whether there is such thing as objective ethics. To my astonishment, most of my friends — and, in fact, also most of my students at City College — revealed themselves to be moral relativists! Even some of my most esteemed colleagues, like Jesse Prinz at CUNY’s Graduate Center, profess to be relativists about morality. What the hell?

I will argue below that moral relativism is incoherent and untenable, and moreover that nobody really actually is a relativist in that sense, regardless of how much protesting to the contrary they may do. First, though, we need to be clear on a couple of preliminary points.

What is ethics / morality?

Ethics and morality (or, as fields of study, ethics and moral philosophy) are usually considered synonyms. Which reflects the origin of the two terms: the ancient Greek êthos was translated by Cicero into the Latin moralis. However, some people think of morality as something that is personal, whereas ethics is sometimes understood as a set of community standards of “good and bad.” Here I will stick to the original, and still most commonly employed practice, of using the two terms interchangeably.

In modern parlance, ethics / morality have to do with right and wrong actions. All the major frameworks in contemporary moral philosophy (utilitarianism, Kantian deontology) concern themselves with answering — in universal terms — questions like: is abortion permissible or impermissible? Is lying right or wrong? And so forth.

However, êthos is related to our idea of character, and moralis has to do with habits and customs. Which is why the framework I adopt — virtue ethics — understands those terms much more broadly: ethics, or moral philosophy, is the study of how to live a good life, a life worth living. Issues of right and wrong are subsided into such broad understanding. Moreover, in virtue ethics the answer to whether an action is right (virtuous) or wrong (vicious) depends on the circumstances, including the circumstances of the agent carrying out the action.

For instance, is it right or wrong (or good or bad, if you prefer) for me to volunteer at the local soup kitchen? A Kantian might say that it is good, because we have a duty to help other human beings. A utilitarian may (somehow, don’t ask) carry out his “ethical calculus” and arrive at the conclusion that my volunteering increases overall happiness and decreases overall pain, and so is good.

But a virtue ethicist would want to know why I wish to volunteer. If my intention is to help others, then yes, the action is virtuous. But if it is to add a line to my resume so that I can get a better job, then the action is not virtuous, regardless of the presumably positive consequences.

What do you mean, “objective”?

Another major source of confusion concerns the word “objective.” People seem to assume that objective morality is the same as moral realism (which is the opposite of moral relativism), but that is plainly not the case. Moral realism is the notion that moral truths are not just objective, but universal and mind independent. It is a form of Platonism, if you will, a belief in cosmic truths and the reality of conceptual objects. (Some people, for instance, are mathematical Platonists: they think that mathematicians don’t invent proofs and theorems, they discover them in a way somewhat analogous to how scientists discover empirical facts about the universe. I used to be attracted by this view, but I now reject it.)

In fact, the relationship between objectivism / subjectivism and realism / relativism is a bit more complicated. To see why, consider etiquette, say as it is practiced at the dinner table in diplomatic settings in the UK. The pertinent standards of behavior are obviously culturally relative, as readily shown by the fact that if you move the setting to another culture or time you will be faced with different rules of etiquette. Nonetheless, it is objectively true that such and such are the standards of etiquette in diplomatic settings, in the UK, in the early 21st century. 

Or take another example: the rules of chess. Presumably, these are not mind-independent and “real” in a Platonic sense, as the game was invented by a particular human culture at a particular time (apparently, in India, circa 280-550), and has (culturally) evolved since. The rules of chess, while arbitrary, are nonetheless objective. You simply can’t, for instance, move the King by more than one square at a time, on penalty of violating the internationally agreed convention and been thrown out of a game.

So to say that something is objectively true does not mean that it is universally true, or true in a mind-independent fashion.

Relativism, naturalism, realism

We are now ready to take a closer look to this issue of moral realism vs moral relativism. When I told my friends that I am not a relativist they immediately jumped up and accused me of realism. But I ain’t a realist either, I am a naturalist. Let me explain.

Moral realism is defined as the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective and universal features of the world, some of which may be true or false depending on whether they report those features accurately. For instance, when a moral realist says that genital mutilation of young girls is wrong she means to say that it is always, universally the case that mutilating someone is ethically unacceptable. If particular individuals, or even cultures, allow mutilation they can be criticized for being objectively and absolutely wrong.

Moral relativism, by contrast, is defined as the notion that different moral judgments across peoples and cultures are equally valid. A particular culture, for instance, may have decided to prohibit genital mutilation, and so it would be “wrong” for someone within that culture to engage in the practice. But there is no way to criticize other cultures if they do allow such practice. Although moral relativists usually resist this, it follows that one cannot really criticize someone within a particular culture either, if he engages in “wrong” actions. That criticism would have, at best, the same bite as reprimanding someone for not following the prevalent rules of etiquette, but no more.

As I said above, I am not a moral realist because I don’t believe in any kind of mind-independent conceptual truth, a la Plato. (By contrast, I do believe in mind-independent empirical truths: the planet Saturn either does or does not have rings, regardless of whether any human being was ever able to point a telescope toward them, or send a probe to photograph them). But I’m also not a relativist, because I do think that certain actions are objectively wrong (or right) when carried out toward other human beings (or other sentient animals, or even the environment). So, do I want to eat my cake and have it too?

No, because my position falls in-between realism and relativism, in the general category of naturalism. The position is perhaps best explained by Philippa Foot in her modern classic, Natural Goodness, though it traces back to some of the ancient Greco-Romans, like Aristotle and the Stoics. Naturalism denies that there are universal moral truths, but accepts the notion that there are objective, natural constraints imposed on human ethics by human nature. Not Platonism, but not just etiquette either.

For instance, it is universally true that human beings wish to live, obtain food and shelter, seek mates and friends, and pursue their projects within a social group. This is the case because of the particular type of living organism that Homo sapiens turned out, evolutionarily, to be. This is why anthropologists have documented a good number of universal human practices, and why social psychologists have identified universal, i.e., cross-cultural, conceptions of virtue. Those practices and conceptions do not apply, say, to chimpanzees, a species with a significantly different biology and social structure from our own. Nor would they apply to Martians who had followed a different evolutionary path from that of our species. (They would, however, apply to Martians with a similar evolutionary trajectory, if such thing turned out to be the case.)

That is why Aristotle and the Stoics insisted that in order to figure out what counts as a eudaimonic life (i.e., a life worth living) for human beings, we have to take seriously human nature. Let’s apply this approach to the above mentioned example of genital mutilation of young girls. It is practiced mostly in central Africa, for instance in Mali, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Burkina Faso, and other countries. 

When I say that I think it is wrong, in those cultures, to carry out genital mutilation I am not simply expressing my opinion as a Westerner. Nor, however, am I saying that it is always, universally wrong, to engage in such practice. I am making an argument (which, of course, can be challenged) that genital mutilation of young girls is contrary to natural human desires and inclinations, because it imposes unnecessary pain on other human beings, curtailing their long-term ability to enjoy the sexual act.

If you don’t buy this particular example, then we can up the stakes and talk about, say, murder, defined as the unreasonable and unnecessary killing of another human being. No culture on earth condones murder, because — a naturalist would say — it is a natural inclination of human beings to stay alive and not be subjected to random acts of violence. And so forth. While we can have endless discussions about whether this or that particular example of naturalistic ethical truth holds, all I need is one example to go through for the relativist position to be defeated.

(Incidentally, let me point out that ethical naturalism does not commit the logical fallacy of appeal to nature, which occurs when someone says that whatever is natural is ipso facto good. Ethical naturalists put forth a particular — prescriptive — theory of human nature, according to which we are naturally cooperative, empathetic, social beings. Although violence and aggression, for instance, are also “natural” for our species, they are aberrations to be corrected, because they contravene the more fundamental, prosocial aspect of human nature.)

When I was trying to explain naturalism to my friends, one of them said “this smacks of elitism!” It has apparently become highly politically incorrect in certain quarters of the Left (most of my friends are progressive-liberals) to dare to criticize other cultures. Instead, we should always remember Western Imperialism and “check our privilege.” Agreed, we should remember our history and do the checking regularly. After which, however, we should still be able to criticize both our own and other people’s cultures and individual behaviors. That’s how we make progress, morally speaking. Pace Martin Luther King Jr., the moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice, because there is no such thing as the moral arc of the universe (a realist concept). We need to constantly work to improve justice and fight back against injustice. All of us, all the time. (King, incidentally, was paraphrasing a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker.)

But aren’t you violating the is/ought gap?

At this point my friends raised the specter of the infamous “is/ought” gap, first articulated by 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume writes:

"In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason." (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, book III, part I, section I)

Hume based his take on a more fundamental precept of his philosophy: the notion that there are only two things that are worth discoursing about, philosophically speaking: “matters of fact,” (i.e., empirical findings) and “relations of ideas” (i.e., logical-mathematical statements). He gave the following practical advice to his readers:

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748, Section 12: Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy, Part 3)

Hume was reacting against the medieval Scholastics, whom he perceived as talking nonsense, and who did gingerly move — without explanation — from “is” to “ought.” Thank Zeus, though, nobody took Hume’s advice seriously, or his own book — which contains neither empirical facts nor logical-mathematical truths — would he been committed to the flames, a tragedy for modern philosophy.

More generally, Hume’s is/ought gap is a problem only for moral realists (such as Christian theologians). They do have to explain how they move from facts to prescriptive judgments. But by now you know what I think of moral realism. The gap is not a problem for relativists, of course, because they never engage in prescriptive discourse in the first place, except as analogous to etiquette. But it is also not an issue for ethical naturalists such as myself, because we provide an account linking facts (about human nature) to prescriptive judgments (about human behavior). Such link results in what Foot called a series of "hypothetical imperatives."

The term comes from Kant, and is to be contrasted with his famous categorical imperative. A categorical imperative, such as you shall not lie, applies regardless of motivations and circumstances, universally. It is the cornerstone of any deontological (i.e., rule based) system of ethics, from the Ten Commandments to Kant’s secular approach.

A hypothetical imperative, by contrast, requires a certain action conditionally on the agent’s desires, motivations, priorities, and so forth. For instance, I can say “you should not lie (generally, with specific exceptions) IF you wish to be trusted.” If you respond “I don’t give a damn about being trusted,” then you don’t have reasons not to lie. But you will suffer the consequences, if you live in a society — like pretty much every human society that ever existed — where trust is an essential glue. And trust plays the role of such glue because humans are a particular kind of social animal, capable of reason and language.

Moreover, argues Foot, it is a fact of human psychology (which, again, is in turn the result of evolution) that we naturally do care for other people, feel empathy, have an instinct for cooperation, and so forth. All of these things make it natural for human beings to engage in certain types of ethical behaviors that we consider right, and also makes it natural for us to reject other kinds of behavior that we consider unethical, or wrong.

So, Sam Harris was right all along, then?

Another one of my friends picked up on the line of thought I was endorsing and commented that that’s the sort of thing author Sam Harris wrote in his book, The Moral Landscape. Given that I — like several other philosophers — have harshly criticized Harris, what gives?

Harris’ take is that moral questions are a kind of scientific questions, and that they thus afford empirical answers. This makes him a moral realist, a position that, again, I reject. (Incidentally, at the time of my original review of the book, I professed to be a moral realist. Then I wised up.) Moreover, he seems to think that one can read answers to ethical questions straight from some kind of pertinent empirical information (particularly neuroscientific, not surprisingly, given his own background in neuroscience).

This is nonsense on stilts. While empirical evidence most certainly has to inform philosophical argumentation about morality, the latter is under-determined by the former, meaning that there can be more than one reasonable ethical take on a given issue, provided the same basic facts. That’s why one needs philosophical discourse in the first place. Harris seems to grasp this fact, hence his metaphor of moral “landscapes.” But he doesn’t take the implications of such metaphor seriously enough.

I can still sense your skepticism, so let me give you a taste of why Harris is profoundly wrong here (which is why I always find it puzzling just how much of a cult author he is among self-professed skeptics, rationalists, and secular humanists). At several points in his book Harris suggests that neurobiology will be so important for ethics that we will be able to tell whether people are happy by scanning them to make sure their pleasure centers are activated. He goes so far as telling us that scientific research shows that we are wrong about what makes us happy, and that it is conceivable that “evil” (quite a loaded term, for a book that shies away from philosophy) might turn out to be one of many paths to happiness — understood as the stimulation of certain neural pathways in our brains. But it should be obvious that if what we want to do is to stimulate our brains so that we feel perennially “happy” (yet another philosophically loaded term used casually by Harris). all we need are appropriate drugs to be injected into our veins while we sit in a pod in perfectly imbecilic contentment.

How do you explain cross-cultural variety and individual disagreements?

A reasonable question often asked in the context of this discussion concerns the empirical fact that there is both across and within (i.e., individual) cultural variation in ethical norms and behavior. There are three categories of non-mutually exclusive answers available to counter this objection.

First, the naturalist claim is that human nature imposes some universal (meaning, within-species) constraints on ethics, not that everything that we call ethical has a direct and univocal link to human nature. It is the same for biological traits: while there are human universals (everybody’s got to have the five vital organs, for instance), there is also a lot of variation (e.g., individuals have different eye colors, and distinct populations have different frequencies of individuals with a given eye color). Which ethical implications arise from species-wide constraints and which are amenable to within species variation is an empirical-philosophical issue to be settled by evidence and argument.

Second, recall that I said that facts about human nature under-determine ethical decision making, so it is to be expected that different cultures have come up with different answers to the same question. For instance, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism represent six solutions to the question of how we should live our life (and there are, of course, many others). I don’t know whether they are strictly equivalent, it could be that any one of them is better or worse than any other one. But they all seem viable at first sight. Unlike, say, fascism, which is an ethically unviable answer, given that it oppresses people and curtails their freedom and ability to flourish. The case for other philosophies of life needs to be debated. For instance, I consider Ayn Rand-type Objectivism unviable, but one of my friends doesn’t.

Third, some people are simply wrong about ethics, either because they buy into an unviable philosophy of life, like fascism, or because they don’t reason correctly about specific moral issues. It is, for instance, wrong to enrich oneself by exploiting others, but some individuals don’t get it, implicitly or explicitly endorsing yet another flawed philosophy of life, Spencer-style social Darwinism.

But what about psychopaths?

Yet another objection raised by one of my friends was the observation that very clearly there are people — psychopaths, for instance — who do not feel empathy, are not cooperative, and generally flaunt Foot’s (and Aristotle’s, and the Stoics’) description of the naturally prosocial inclinations of humanity.

Indeed. But psychopathy is a pathology, not a normal human condition. These are sick people, whose brains do not function in the way nature intended. To use their existence to claim that there is no natural goodness (Foot’s phrase) in humanity is like arguing that because people have heart attacks there is no such thing a healthy human heart. Of course there is, and it is the result of evolution. When it fails, we have a pathology, and typically try to do something about it.

In fact, the early second century Stoic Epictetus saw unethical human beings as directly analogous to physically sick people:

This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad — should someone like this be put to death? If you put the question in that way, you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, ‘Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?’ (Discourses I, 18.3)

Unethical people are best seen as dysfunctional human beings. The first thing to do with them is to make sure they don’t hurt others. The second one, if possible, is to make them functional again. This is a far more charitable, and practical, view of ethics than either moral realism (with its absolutisms) or moral relativism (with its “anything goes” attitude) are capable of.

Where are all the relativists gone?

Finally, let me argue that I don’t believe that there are any true moral relativists around (except, possibly, for psychopaths). 

Take my own friends, for instance. While they were all arguing for relativism, they are also very, very passionate about issues like climate change, police violence, discrimination based on gender or ethnicity, wealth inequality, and so forth.

Are they really simply expressing their opinions, which they see as just as defensible as anyone else’s? Do they regard these issues as analogous to questions of etiquette, in which case the most they could say about a police shooting of an unharmed black man is that it is rude?

I don’t think so. And the same goes for my colleague Jesse Prinz, mentioned at the beginning. I happen to know that he cares very much about social and political issues, and that — when he is not distracted by meta-ethical talk about realism vs relativism — he thinks his positions are objectively better than some other people’s. That’s why he argues, usually very convincingly, on their behalf. I think he is right in many cases, right in a far deeper sense than “that’s what you think.” The relativist ought (!) not, ever, to say “this is wrong!” (or “this is right!”), on penalty of incoherence with his own view of the world. And yet plenty of relativists loudly and passionately proclaim things to be right or wrong.

Groucho Marx once allegedly said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.” But that was comedy, and funny precisely because no normal human being would take such a statement as anything but the obvious symptom of a deep pathology.

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