Is there such a thing as absolute truth, independent of who is doing the thinking, and where? Or is truth relative to backgrounds, cultures, creeds, times, and places?
Over at the blog Left2Right, the philosopher David Velleman has an interesting post about moral relativism. Prompted by recent news coverage of moral relativism and then Cardinal Ratzinger’s denunciation of modernity’s supposed move toward “the dictatorship of relativism,” Velleman argues that almost everyone who denounces relativism has it confused with some other doctrine. Relativism, Velleman claims, is an extremely implausible doctrine and has precious few serious adherents. Consequently, he claims, “There is little point in campaigning against relativism, because almost no one supports it. Those who issue denunciations of "moral relativism" are usually pursuing some other agenda.” Velleman does have a point – most people who attack relativism confuse it with something else. Moreover, I agree with him that there is little point in campaigning against relativism. But not for the reasons he articulates. Unlike Velleman, I think moral relativism is plausible in the extreme and is, indeed, tied to the deepest challenges of human social life. It isn’t worth campaigning against not because it has no advocates, but because to campaign against it is to deny certain very basic facts about the human situation. This will take some explaining so bear with me. By the way, in case you are interested, check out our own episode on Truth and Relativism. It was first broadcast last November.
Here’s how Velleman defines the doctrine that he thinks almost no one supports, “Relativism is the view that the correct standard of right and wrong depends on (or is relative to) either the person applying it or the person to whom it is applied.” Velleman alludes to without elaborating upon various “technical objections” to relativism, but in his post he mainly objects to relativism on the grounds that relativists deny the universality of morality. This seems to me partly right and partly wrong, but it's going to take some space to explain why.
First, notice Velleman’s phrase “the correct standard of right and wrong.” If you’re inclined toward relativism, you should wonder about this phrase from the very beginning. You should ask “correct for whom?” Velleman acknowledges this question with his distinction between “speaker relativism” and “agent relativism.” The former, according to Velleman, takes “the correct standard” to depend on who is speaking. The latter takes the correct standard to depend on who is being evaluated. Velleman thinks that neither any form of speaker relativism nor any form of agent relativism is plausible. He apparently thinks that neither version of relativism has the requisite universality to count as a theory of morality. As he puts it, “Standards that varied from one speaker or agent to another simply wouldn't be moral standards; they would be cultural norms or personal preferences, not standards of right and wrong.”
What’s wrong with this? Well for one thing I think it’s arguably correct that there’s a sense in which what we think of as moral standards have a certain universal purport. But relativism can give a quite satisfying explanation of the universal purport of putatively moral standards. I defended such a view at somewhat greater length elsewhere and a book I’m working on right now – Toward a Natural History of Normativity – will contain a very lengthy defense of this kind of view. Here I’m going to try to be brief. So I’ll have to skimp on some -- make that a lot -- of the details.
First, I need to talk about what it is for a norm (moral or otherwise) to be “binding” on an agent. When a norm is binding on an agent she has some sort of commitment/obligation to live up to that norm, to govern her life by that norm. Moreover, when a norm is binding on an agent appropriately situated others can be entitled, in various ways, to “hold” her to the norm, to rationally criticize her in light of any failures to live up to that norm, sometimes even to punish her for such failures or even to coerce her into acting in ways compatible with the norm. Saying just when any such thing is justifiable is a very delicate matter. And I won’t try to get into that in any detail here. But it will become clear that as a relativist I have a lot of work to do to explain how this all works. More on that in a bit.
So here’s the first thing I want to say about what it takes for an agent to be bound by a norm – really and truly bound. First, I claim that a norm N is binding on an agent only if the agent would upon what I’ve elsewhere called culminated competent reflection endorse N. "Culminated competent reflection" is a technical phrase of Taylorese that I won't bother to elaborate here. Very, very roughly, you can think of it as a kind of "ideal" reflection. But be careful because the use of “ideal” has certain connotations that I don’t endorse. For example, you might think that under “ideal” reflection all sufficiently reflective rational cognizers are guaranteed to converge on the same standards or norms. Nothing like that follows on my way of thinking about this. I’m also a relativist, by the way, about what kind of reflection counts as ideal reflection. In a pre-literate, pre-scientific society one kind of reflection may be “ideal.” In cultures in which intellectual progress has happened, another sort of reflection may be ideal. There's no saying, in advance, what brand of reflection counts as in the relevant sense ideal.
Maybe you can already begin to see where this is going. Suppose that nothing but our own “culminated competent reflective endorsements” (to repeat that so far unexplicated bit of Taylorese) can make a norm binding on us. And suppose that there are no a priori or logical or rational guarantees that all rational cognizers will or would converge on full reflective endorsement of the very same norms. It follows that the fact that you would endorse N upon culminated competent reflection suffices to make it binding on you -- really and truly binding -- but that doesn't suffice to make it binding on me. I’m bound only by the norms that I would endorse upon culminated competent reflection. You are bound only by the norms that you would endorse upon culminated competent reflection.
Notice that on my way of thinking statements like ‘Joe is bound by Norm N’ can be strictly literally true. What makes any such norm true are facts about Joe. But that doesn’t make them “relative” in any very interesting sense. If it’s true that Joe would endorse a norm upon a certain sort of ideal reflection, then it’s true that Joe is bound by that norm. Full stop. Still there’s a kind of relativism entailed by my view. I may be bound -- really and truly bound -- by norms by which you are not bound. You may be bound -- really and truly bound -- by norms to which I am not bound.
But what about Velleman’s claim that morality is "universal’ and my claim that relativism can account for the sense in which this is true – and the sense in which it is false. To see what I mean, go back to what I said earlier about being entitled to “hold” people to norms. Here’s where it’s gets just a little tricky. First, we need to distinguish between Joe’s being bound by a norm and Pam’s being entitled to hold Joe to a norm. Now comes the important claim. It is possible for Pam to be entitled, in virtue of the norms by which she is bound, to hold Joe to norms by which Joe is not bound. That is because some of the norms that we endorse and by which we are bound, are endorse by us as norms for the entire (rational) order. When one reflectively endorses a norm as a norm for the entire rational order, one, in effect, entitles oneself to hold the entire rational order to that norm. But the fact that I entitle myself to hold the entire rational order to a norm does not imply that the entire rational order is therefore bound by that norm.
This points to a deep problem of human life. When I entitle myself to hold others to norms by which they are not bound, they may entitle themselves to resist my so holding them. Some norms that I endorse as norms for all, may be deeply abhorrent to those whom I would hold to them. So, for example, I may endorse a norm that entails the prohibition of slavery, while you endorse a norm that permits slavery. I may thereby entitle myself to hold you to my abolitionist norm. You may entitle yourself to resist my so holding you. When that happens we have deep moral conflict.
Here's the really crucial point, often missed in easy dismissals of relativism. The relativist need not deny the reality of such conflict. There is a difference, in other words, in my entitling myself to hold another to a norm and the other entitling me to hold her to a norm. This leads me to distinguish two brands of relativism: Tolerant vs Intolerant relativism. Tolerant relativism maintains that there can be no self-generated entitlement to hold another to a norm to which she is not bound. Intolerant relativism allows that there can be self-generated entitlements to hold another to a norm to which she is not bound. It's the intolerant relativist who can most easily accommodate Velleman’s intuition that moral norms have a distinctive character -- they have a kind of universal purport. But the intolerant relativist will say that this comes to nothing more than the fact that one who binds herself to such a norm self-generates, in the very binding, entitlements to hold those who are not bound by them to the relevant norms. Of course, such self-generated entitlements are not necessarily binding on the other.
There’s a lot more to say about this all. For example, it's important to explain how systems of "mutual" norms can happen. By mutual norms, I mean systems of norms that are mutually endorsed by a community of agents. Mutual norms are the basis of what I call normative community among cognizing agents. Over the broad sweep of human history, human beings have arrayed themselves in normative communities of non-monotonically increasing scope and complexity. Some think that trend is somehow inevitable or rationally mandatory. But I tend to view such communities as rationally optional, historically contingent, culturally specific achievements. And one of the things my book in progress is about is explaining some of the factors governing the growth and decay of moral communities over the broad sweep of human hisory.
This post has already gotten rather long. Unfortuanately, I’m really just getting to the interesting part. The fact that we often feel a self-generated entitlement to hold others to norms by which they are not bound – and that they often feel the same with respect to us – plays, I think, a major and under-appreciated role in the growth and decay of human moral communities over historical time. If you want to know more about why I think that, look at the following forthcoming paper of mine: Providence.pdf (warning .pdf). The paper is mainly about what atheists should say about the meaning of life and things like that, but it also outlines some of my views about the subject matter of this post. It's intended for a general audience too, so it's not highly technical.