This blog entry will be about attacking a position I’ll call “pseudo-relativism.” Although I address it in part 3 of my series on the moral argument, I thought it deserved its own entry since it seems I’ve seen it or something like it popping up often enough. What is pseudo-relativism? Suppose Adolph thinks that torturing infants just for fun is a morally right action for him and Oskar thinks that would be a morally wrong action for Adolph to do. Pseudo-relativism says that morality is relative in such a way that Oskar and Adolph are both right. Before attacking this view I’ll recap a few things about morality is and why someone might be motivated to accept pseudo-relativism.
To recap a few things about morality, an action is morally wrong for subject S only if S ought not to do it, and an action is morally right for subject S only if S ought to do it. Moral objectivism says that morality holds independently of human opinion. For example, a popular belief among moral objectivists is that torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong independently of whether we humans believe it to be so.
An atheist might want to reject moral objectivism on the grounds that if God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist, but finding an intellectually viable alternative to moral objectivism can be a bit tricky. One might balk at accepting “there is nothing morally wrong with knowingly torturing infants just for fun,” but to maintain that there is something morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun without accepting moral objectivism, one would have to accept some form of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism (or moral relativism) agrees with moral objectivism that morality exists but unlike moral objectivism says that moral truths are relative to human opinion. For example, a belief called cultural relativism (which goes by various other names, such as conventional ethical relativism and conventionalism) says that morality is relative to cultural opinion in such a way that the culture believing that a certain action is morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. makes that action morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. for that culture. If for instance a culture believed violent anti-Semitism to be morally right, then it becomes morally right for that culture to do it. Someone else might think the culture is doing something morally wrong, but such a person would be mistaken because the culture thinks it is morally right and that is enough to make it morally right for that culture.
Another version of moral relativism called ethical subjectivism (which also goes by various names, e.g. subjective ethical relativism) says that the individual believing an action to be morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. makes that action morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. for that person. So if Adolph thinks that killing Jews is morally obligatory, then it is morally right for Adolph to do it. If Oskar believes killing Jews is morally wrong, then it is wrong for Oskar to do it. Under ethical subjectivism, Oskar can believe it is wrong for Adolph to kill Jews, but that belief would be mistaken because Adolph thinks otherwise, and so on ethical subjectivism Adolph has a moral duty to kill Jews.
It’s understandable then why someone might want to reject both ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism; who wants to say that e.g. it is morally right for Adolph to kill Jews? That wouldn’t make for a very plausible system of ethics. Examples of unfavorable implications could be multiplied. If someone believed torturing infants just for fun is morally right and, after killing everyone who disagreed with him, he tortured infants for the sheer fun of it, then according to ethical subjectivism there is nothing morally wrong with the man torturing infants just for fun. If a community of men believed torturing infants just for fun was morally right and, after killing everyone who disagreed with them, they tortured infants for the sheer fun of it, cultural relativism says that there’s nothing morally wrong with such torture.
Help From Some (Painless) Symbolic Logic
Symbolic logic helps to get a view of the structure of the sort of arguments being used against ethical relativism. Some quick symbolic logic stuff:
|If p is true, then q is true||p → q|
|If p were true, then q would be true||p □→ q|
|Not-p (p is false)||¬p|
That there is a difference between “If p is true, then q is true” and “If p were true, then q would true” can be revealed by observing that one can believe “If Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, someone else did” without believing “If Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, someone else would have.” A useful rule of logic:
|In English||In Symbolic Logic|
|If p then q
p → q
The above arguments against the alternatives to moral objectivism take the following form, where P is some challenged proposition (e.g. “ethical subjectivism is true”), T denotes a thought experiment (e.g. a man who believes it is morally right to torture infants just for fun, does such torture, and has killed everyone who disagreed with him), and R denotes the questionable result of the thought experiment (e.g. the man torturing infants just for fun isn’t doing anything morally wrong):
- P → (T □→ R)
- ¬(T □→ R)
- ¬P 1, 2, modus tollens
Consequently, it’s difficult to convincingly attack “If a man believed it was morally right to torture infants just for fun…” type arguments. One wants to avoid promoting an alternative with unacceptable consequences. One also wants to avoid the apparently unacceptable consequences of denying moral objectivism. For example, a quick case for moral objectivism could go like this:
Consider this hypothetical scenario. The only humans who ever existed are a community of men and infants, both of which are grown in a lab. To replace the men who die, the community creates fully grown men in the lab. Throughout all time, every human has agreed that both torturing infants just fun and killing them are morally right. The community of men grow infants in the lab and then torture them to death just for fun. As these men sadistically torture infants for the sheer fun of it, would this action be morally wrong in spite of their opinion to the contrary? Would that action be morally wrong independently of their opinion?If the answer to both questions is “Yes” that would seem to suggest that there is at least one objective moral truth. To see why, first we can ask ourselves this question: would moral objectivism be true in that scenario? If the scenario were actualized, every existing human’s opinion would be that the act of torturing infants just for fun is morally right, and so for that action to be morally wrong regardless of their opinion, it would have to be morally wrong regardless of any human opinion that exists (bear in mind we are talking about human opinions that exist in this scenario). But if in that scenario the action’s moral wrongness would hold independently of any existing human opinion, the only way to prevent the action’s moral wrongness from holding independently of all human opinion in that scenario is if the action’s moral wrongness were somehow dependent on nonexistent human opinion, which doesn’t seem very plausible. Since in that scenario the action’s moral wrongness would hold independently of human opinion, moral objectivism (a moral property existing independently of human opinion) would be true in that scenario. Yet if in this scenario the moral wrongness of torturing infants just for fun would exist independently of human opinion, it seems that the moral wrongness of such torture would hold independently of human opinion in the real world also.
In spite of the above argument, one might still be tempted to say that if this community actually existed alongside dissenting opinion like ours, the action would be morally wrong relative to our opinion, but it would be morally right relative to the hypothetical community of baby torturers. Hence pseudo-relativism, where Oskar can correctly say it is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun but the “it is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun” is a relative truth rather than an objective one. Adolph thinks it is morally right for him to torture infants just for fun and Oskar believes it is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun, and the beliefs of both people are true relative to their opinion.
The Problem with Pseudo-Relativism
But this form of ethical relativism doesn’t work. Contrast pseudo-relativism with ethical subjectivism. If Adolph thinks that torturing infants just for fun is morally right, then it is morally right for Adolph to do it. If Oskar believes torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong, then it is wrong for Oskar to do it. Whether ethical subjectivism is correct, it at least produces a non-contradictory answer to the question “Should Adolph torture infants just for fun?” In this way ethical subjectivism is a coherent form of ethical relativism. But what is not coherent is the belief that right and wrong do exist, where Adolph thinks its morally right for him torture infants just for fun and Oskar thinks it is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun and have them both be right. Pseudo-relativism cannot give a coherent answer to question “Should Adolph torture infants just for fun?” It might be able to reiterate the beliefs of people about whether Adolph should torture infants just for fun but it cannot answer the question. Pseudo-relativism is not a coherent ethical system.
To drive the point home further, imagine that Oskar is a pseudo-relativist who is incapable of lying. Adolph comes to believe that pseudo-relativism is true but isn’t quite sure he understands it, so Adolph asks Oskar, “I believe I am morally obligated to torture infants just for fun, but should I do it?” What can Oskar as an honest pseudo-relativist say? Oskar can’t say “Yes” because he believes Adolph shouldn’t do it, but Oskar can’t say “No” because Adolph believes Adolph should do it. On pseudo-relativism, there doesn’t appear to be any coherent answer to Adolph’s question and thus no coherent fact of the matter as to what Adolph should do here. When it comes to moral obligations, pseudo-relativism is an incoherent mess. In contrast, both cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism handle the “moral obligation is relative to a given framework” notion in a coherent manner.