Ideas that are doomed to fail

… trying to convince a bunch of guys, some of whom have probably been drinking, in one of those campfire-sorts of conversations at midnight in a youth hostel in New Orleans, that moral relativism is self-defeating. Even if that’s what then conversation calls for at that moment (as someone has just reduced the difference between liberal and nonliberal countries to “that’s just your belief”). It simply can’t work.

(but wow, relativism has gone a long way – if I repeated the example one person gave for someone who just has different beliefs, this blog would me hounded with thousands of illiterate people who think I endorse the claim. Suffice it to say that I am rather more alarmed by moral relativism now than I was before.)


8 Responses to “Ideas that are doomed to fail”

  1. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Meh. As someone quite sympathetic to conventionalism and various forms of moral skepticism, the popularity of an extremely thin, easily-refuted (heh) notion of ethical relativism particularly among undergraduate students is well-known.

    Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, by the time they have completed their studies and established their careers, getting serious thinkers to take ethical relativism and moral skepticism seriously is a difficult task indeed. (Just try getting a moral theorist to acknowledge that one can seriously assess ethics WITHOUT the universalizability criterion).

    I wouldn’t be overly alarmed by ethical relativism — most grow out of the thin versions and/or have it beaten out of them. Too bad, as if one takes the time to actually engage the serious work on the matter, there are some interesting challenges posed therein, IMO.

  2. homais Says:

    I once had a professor who was completely freaked out by that mindset. He was interviewing some college-age people as part of a moral psych project. And at one point, one of the people he was interviewing said “I think abortion is wrong. It’s murder, plain and simple. But that’s just my opinion”.

    My professor still shudders when he recalls that moment. “You’re all nihilists, all of you,” he says of my generation.

    (let’s see if anyone reads this and thinks I myself endorse that particular view on abortion I just quoted)

  3. Isak Says:

    So, why is moral relativism self-defeating? Is moral relativism the same as ethical subjectivism for your purposes? If so, I’d love to hear your argument.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Remind me when I return to palo alto and my non-virtual keyboard and you’ll get it.

  5. Kenny Says:

    Daniel – Moral skepticism is far more defensible than moral relativism, don’t you think? The same goes for moral nihilism or anti-realism. Moral relativism says “there is a fact of the matter about morality, and the fact is that whatever anyone thinks about it is correct for that person.” (Or, “whatever any culture thinks about it is correct in the context of that culture.”) This is obviously, transparently nonsense. (I assume, Paul, that this is the view you are referencing – it certainly is a popular view among people, such as undergraduates, who have only just begun to think about ethics and haven’t got very far. Unfortunately, many people never get very far.)

    Saying ‘there are no facts about morality’ or ‘the facts about morality are not knowable to human beings’ or ‘the facts about morality are socially constructed’ (perhaps adding, like Thrasymachus, ‘to the advantage of the stronger’) is far more defensible than relativism proper. In fact, an objective deontological ethics like the view I endorse faces some problems that these sorts of views don’t. Certainly there is room for debate HERE, but I wouldn’t call any of these view ‘relativistic’ in any important sense, and there is no ‘debate’ with properly relativistic ethics; it’s just nonsense. Most people who endorse it, in my opinion, are really, as homais remarked, really nihilists who are just unwilling to state their position baldly for what it is.

  6. Daniel Goldberg Says:


    Surely, but the relationship between moral subjectivism, moral relativism, moral nihilism, and moral skepticism is poorly understood, IMO.

    I’m not at all sure I agree with your definition of moral relativism, though if that is all moral relativism signifies than it is every bit as silly as Paul suggests. I suppose I might call such a version “strong moral relativism,” but since it is so obviously absurd it barely merits any mention. Mackie argued that morality is subjective but he plainly did not agree that morality is whatever the agent deems it to be. Does that make him a moral skeptic, a moral subjectivist, a weak moral relativist, or all of the above?

    We could go either of two ways: we could agree that moral relativism is as absurd as the strong notion implies, which is IMO by far the most popular view among moral theorists. In that case we can get on to the much more troubling business (for moral objectivists, that is) of accounting for the claims of moral skeptics, moral pluralists, and of late, moral particularists.

    Alternatively, we could agree that the definition of moral relativism commonly adopted by its detractors is a total straw man, since virtually no one who has spent a solitary moment thinking seriously about ethics would bother even trying to defend such an outlandish notion. In this latter case, my suspicion is the notions of moral relativism we would end up discussing would look quite similar to more sensible notions of moral subjectivism, skepticism, nonessentialism, particularism, and the like.

  7. Kenny Says:

    Daniel – I more or less agree with you. My principle reason for taking the first course rather than the second is simply that it seems to me, in our present intellectually climate, that completely non-reflective people are mostly dogmatic objectivists, whereas a great many barely reflective people are ’strong moral relativists’. It’s useful to have a term for the view, no matter how absurd it is because there are all these barely reflective people who believe it, so we have to explain why it’s so absurd.

  8. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Kenny, that’s fair enough.

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