Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some comments on the PhiloGym Ethical readings by Giovanni De Grandis

Reproduced with permission of and some comments on the readings
by Giovanni De Grandis - Saturday, 22 March 2008, 02:55 PM

my highlights in green. The readings for the PhiloGym at Oxford University unit "Is Morality Relative" are:

‘Into the lair of the relativist’ and ‘Is morality like a pair of spectacles’ plus the first five pages of ‘Can we have morality without God and religion?’ in The Philosophy Gym.

Introduction to Philosophy by L Pojman, 4th ed., pages. 483–98 (Herodotus, ‘Custom is king’; Ruth Benedict, ‘In defence of moral relativism’; Louis Pojman, ‘Ethical relativism vs. ethical objectivism’).

Our readings on relativism are somewhat unbalanced, since the two pieces supposedly advocating moral relativism do not really provide any sustained philosophical argument for ethical relativism and therefore moral objectivism seems to have benefited of a better treatment than its rival. On top of this even Stephen Law’s treatment of relativism, especially in chapter five (Into the lair of the relativist) is not particularly sympathetic with this position.


Keeping this in mind I will try to summarize and comment the main points raised in each reading and then I will try to introduce a few considerations and distinctions that may help to think more clearly about these issues and that may also help to have a fairer appreciation of some merits and attractions of relativism (that does not mean that I am advocating relativism, but only that I think that it deserves to be portraied more charitably than it has been done by Law and Pojman).

The selection from Herodotus does not make any definite ethical claim, it is simply an illustration of cultural diversity and of its impact on values and norms. However, ethical relativism did become a vital position in 5th Century BC in Greece. This position was advocated by several sophists, and most notably by Protagoras (Plato’s dialogue The Sophist is an excellent illustration of the ancient debate on relativism).

The selection from Ruth Benedict is a good illustration of the diversity of the social standards of acceptable and praiseworthy behaviour. Through ethnographic examples she illustrates how extreme such variability could be, but not much is said about the possibility of assessing the different standards.

However three ideas of hers seem to me to be of particular philosophical relevance:

I. No culture can develop the whole range of human potentialities and abilities, hence any culture selects some and develops certain possibilities and overlooks others. (‘No one civilization can possibly utilize in its mores the whole potential range of human behavior’ p. 487, rc).

II. What is considered normal or abhorrent is culturally determined and therefore is highly variable among different groups.

III. Traits of character that are not given a role and an acknowledgement in a society will be strongly discouraged, under-represented and considered deviant. That means that every culture is successful in moulding after its own standard the majority of the population (‘The vast majority of individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion of that culture’, p. 489, rc).

From these points some interesting philosophical considerations can be drawn.

From I we can appreciate the fact that there is a great variety (perhaps an infinite variety–remember that an infinite set is not necessarily an all embracing set: odd numbers make an infinite set, but they do exclude an infinite number of even numbers) of ideals and ways of life that can be recognised as meaningful and praiseworthy by human beings accustomed to them. The awareness of this fact often leads to an ethical conclusion: value pluralism, that is the view that there is irreducible multiplicity of potentially conflicting values and ideas of what is good, meaningful and praiseworthy. A further inference which is often made is that pluralism accounts for the possibility of moral conflicts, and sometimes of tragic moral conflicts where ideals and values that can genuinely claim human allegiance clash and cannot be reconciled. The final conclusion of this line of reasoning, which is well exemplified by the works and ideas of Isaiah Berlin, is that a world without moral losses is not possible, is just a delusion and that it is inevitable that at some points, morally speaking, something’s got to give.

II and III taken together are not only a healthy reminder of the need of being open-minded and not too confident in one’s own moral convictions, but they also underline the fact that our moral sensibility is thoroughly shaped through education and upbringing. No human being grows and develops in a moral vacuum and therefore nobody is entitled to take for granted that what appears sound and evident to her/him must necessarily look the same to anybody else. Cultural diversity and social conditioning and pressure explain why there is moral disagreement among different groups and cultures. From this one can draw the conclusion that nobody occupies a position of moral neutrality: we all speak, see and judge from a definite and culturally laden moral point of view. Even the reformer and the dissident are reacting against a definite set of moral rules and prejudices and their reaction would have been different in different circumstances. From the ethical point of view this means that, even granting that moral objectivity is possible, it may be hard to reach it and even harder to be sure that we have succeded in doing so. Only if we are aware of our own inbuilt partiality we can strive for impartiality with intelligence and without arrogance. In short the conclusion that we can draw from accepting the observations made in II and III is that our moral judgments and moral powers are fallible and always open to some perspectival distortion. Fallibilism in itself does not amount to scepticism or to relativism, but suggests an attitude of alert suspicion towards our moral feelings and beliefs, an awareness that they may be biased in some way or another.

It may be helpful to introduce a taxonomy of different versions of moral relativism.

  1. The thesis that we cannot expect agreement in moral judgments. Descriptive relativism. This can take two versions: a limited version (1a) that claim that we should expect different judgments from members of different groups; and an extreme version (1b) that states that disagreement is to be expected also among members of the same group.
  2. The thesis that it is difficult to be detached and impartial when making moral judgments, since these latter are influenced by upbringing, culture, interests etc. Epistemological relativism.
  3. The thesis that moral judgments are influenced by the context in which they take place, in particular they are strongly influenced by the conceptual and normative frameworks of the author of the judgment. Conceptual relativism.
  4. The thesis that, even if we grant that values are objective, our attitudes and responses to values are influenced by external circumstances, to the effect that we are not always in the position to respond adequately to, or even to recognize, all values (for instance if we live in a particularly hard and unforgiving natural environment we may be forced to overlook some values). Environmental relativism.
  5. The thesis that moral values exist only in the judgments of people, that they are not parts of ‘the furniture of the natural world’, but that they are constructed by human beings through the social attribution of meaning to certain natural properties or entities. We call call this Ontological relativism about moral properties. We can note further that we may have a restricted and an unrestricted version of this kind of relativism depending on whether any restriction is imposed on the kind of properties that can be given moral meaning.
  6. The thesis that values are plural and potentially conflicting so that they cannot all be included and harmonized in a consistent ethical system. As a consequence several conflicting arrangments are possible that are rationally defensible (up to a certain point) but at the same time open to sensible criticism. Normative relativism (or moral pluralism).
  7. The thesis that one should not pass moral judgments, because these are not susceptible to being objectively true or false and hence they are just unfair and arrogant. Prescriptive relativism. Of this thesis we can find a moderate version and an extreme version.
    (7a) Moderate prescriptive relativism: it is wrong to judge people or societies according to moral standards alien to them.
    (7b) Extreme prescriptive relativism: it is wrong to make moral judgments, period.

I think that these different theses can be combined in many different ways and that some of them are rather plausible and defensible, while other are much more objectionable. For instance I find 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7a rather convincing and I tend to assent to them. I have doubts about 2 and 5 and I reject 7b.

What kind of relativism we find expressed in the selections from Herodotus and Benedict?

I think that in Herodotus we don’t find more than 1, 2 and 3. I don’t think we can attribute him 6 because it is well possible that the disagreement between different systems of morality is not about values, but only about the proper way to express or promote them.

I think that Benedict besides accepting 1,2, and 3 (and probably 4) also accepts 6, in virtue of the idea that I have reminded in point I (from the sentence quoted by Pojman (on p. 493 lc) we can also ascribe to her 7a).

Which of our 7 theses are accepted by Pojman? My impression is that he accepts 1 (he grants cultural relativism in the initial pp. 490-1), 3 and 4 (when he accepts ‘a certain relativity in the way moral principles are applied in various cultures, depending on beliefs, history, and environment’, p. 494, lc), 6 (since he grants that objective moral principles are prima facie and moral conflicts can occurr). Unsurprisingly, given hi objectivist stance, he needs to reject 2, 5 and both versions of 7.

I have said that on the basis of the textual evidence that we are given in the two selected texts Herodotus and Benedict do not express any sustained ethical claim. Things are quite different with Pojman who is clearly presenting arguments that are meant as contributions to a better understanding of the nature of morality. It is thus useful to make a few remarks about his general line of argument. First of all we can notice that his defence of objectivism is largely based on his attack on relativism. His strategy is first of all to reject the alternative between absolutism and relativism, and to introduce a third intermediate possibility: objectivism.
He claims that the great attractions of relativism spring from the rejection of ethnocentricism and from the rejection of absolutism. Relativism gains support because it looks like the only way to escape moral parochialism or imperialism on the one hand, and moral absolutism on the other hand. Ethnocentricism, together with its parochial and imperialistic implications, is considered flawed and to be avoided and Pojman does not feel the need to spend much time in showing that (and to this I don’t object). Absolutism is taken a bit more seriously, but it is dismissed quite quickly. Here a few observations are called for. First of all, I am not so sure that Kant is to be considered an absolutist, and if he is his position cannot be dismissed so quickly. Second, absolutism unusually is not completely indifferent to the context in which rules are to be applied and to its consequences (since up to acertain point the consequences can alter the description of an action). Usually together with absolutism we are given a casuistry. Now one may have some well grounded worries about the abuses of casuistry (Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters are still an unsurpassed exposition of the degenerations of casuistry), but the fact that something can be abused does not represent a condemnation: perhaps some guidelines to avoid the pervertion of casuistry may be worked out. Finally I have the impression that Pojman comes very close to falling into the same vices often found in casuistry when he explains how his objectivism can make some concessions to relativism in the application of objective principles. Especially when he mentions the case of the tribe that throws deformed children to the hippopotamus (p. 494 lc) it is hard to resist the impression that the dangers of sophistical casuistry, or of all-forgiving relativism, are back with us.

Some doubts can be raised about Pojman advocacy of objectivism. In particular it seems to me that he really says very little about how objective principles can be known to be objective and about what makes them objective. In short he completely evades the serious epistemological and ontological problems that moral objectivism faces. He gives us a list of objective moral principles and one that he considers so undisputable that is enough to refute relativism (here I think he has in mind prescriptive relativism–both 7a and 7b). But he does not say anything to justify the objectivity of such principles. There is no argument at all, but there is not even an explicit claim that it is self evident. As a matter of fact it seems to me that Pojman does not want to commit himself to such claims, but that he hints at the fact that his favoured principles are conditions necessary for the establishement of societies that promote the quality of life of its members. (This interpretation is suggested by many passages: from his repeating again and again a list of the tasks or functions of morality [pp. 492 rc; 494 rc; 497 lc], from his comparison between moral principles and dietary principles [p. 497 lc], and finally form his statement that it is in our interest to promote moral principles [p. 498, rc]). However I think he should be much more explicit about what are his ground to offers his preferred principles. For instance if my impression is right and these principles are considered those most fundamental and effective to promote the welfare of humanity, shall we conclude that human welfare is the highest good and that whatever promotes it counts as a moral principle? This would be completely different from saying that moral principles are self evident. In the first case moral principles have only instrumental value and could vary if our circumstances change greatly; while in the second case they are eternal and fixed and are intrinsically valuable.

Another topic about which he is much too cavalier is the difficulty of applying a plurality of objective rules. He says that they are prima facie rules (rules that have a valid claim on us at first sight, but are not absolutely binding) and that they are thus overridable in case of conflict, but he does not say anything about how conflict between different rules and obligations are to be solved. He does not offer a hierarchy of rules, or criteria for weighing principles, or rules of priority between principles. It is clear that a very large latitude is allowed in the interpretation and application of principles and that this can allow almost as much disagreement as relativism.

I have attached two other document with further comments. One is an attempt of articulating a reply to Pojamn’s rejection of relativism from the point of view of a moderate relativist. The other features some critical remarks about Pojman’s conception of the nature and function of morality. They are are not offered as the right answers, but as a further invitation to critical reflection.

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