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Marcus Arvan

Moral relativism is a serious philosophical position--one that can (contrary to what some people think) be formulated in a coherent, plausible way that survives many of the standard (simplistic) objections to it.

As such, I do *not* think we should try to "nip it in the bud", "bypass it", "define and conquer" it, or whatever. I adopt--and would like to advocate for--the following alternative approach:

(1) Spell out, as clearly, coherently, and evenhandedly as possible the most charitable case *for* relativism.

(2) Show how it can be formulated in ways that survive standard, simplistic objections (note: many of my students *do* think even things like friendship are simply a matter of opinion or personal preference!)

(3) Suggest to students that they adopt a "wait and see" approach to deciding whether any positive philosophical defenses of moral objectivity are successful.

To me, this is the most philosophically--and pedagogically--responsible way to proceed. It is not our job to "convince our students not to be relativists." We should present them with all of the arguments--and most charitable formulations of various views as possible--and work through the arguments with them.

Mark Hopwood

Thanks Marcus! I absolutely agree that moral relativism is a serious philosophical position. I probably should have been clearer in distinguishing the kind of "knee-jerk relativism" I'm talking about from the kind of developed, sophisticated relativism that I think you're talking about. I would be absolutely delighted if my students went away from my class committed to the latter form of relativism - what I'm worried about is them never getting beyond the knee-jerk version.

You might say: students are unlikely to come to class with fully developed versions of any philosophical position, so why worry so much about relativism? I think the reason is that in my experience (and in the experience of many others I've talked to), knee-jerk relativism really does seem to have the capacity to end the discussion before it's started. (It's probably worth saying that I think that "knee-jerk objectivism" would have a very similar effect - it's just that I don't see that as often.)

On some level, I think our views on this might actually be very similar. I agree with you that it's not our job to convince our students not to be relativists, and I agree with you that it's extremely pedagogically valuable to lay out and evaluate forms of relativism that survive simple, standard objections. I was actually intending the post to question what I take to be a widespread dismissive attitude toward relativism, but that probably didn't come across clearly enough.

What do I worry, though (as I said in the post), is that it would be hard to do a proper discussion of the different forms of relativism and subjectivism in less than a third or even half of a semester, but I'm not sure that I want to spend that long on relativism in every single moral philosophy class that I teach. Maybe that's something I should reconsider, though!

Anthony Carreras

I've made one change in how I have approached this that I think has been for the better. I used to begin the semester by discussing the merits of moral relativism (as in the "nip it in the bud" approach, though I wasn't trying to nip anything in the bud). Now my meta-ethics section is the very last section of my Intro to Ethics course. I have to say I am surprised that many folks on here and elsewhere often speak as if their students come in with any sort of view at all about meta-ethical questions. More often than not, I find that my students are confounded by meta-ethical questions and are just not sure what to think. The reason I made the change was that I thought that after 3/4 of a semester of grappling with questions in normative and applied ethics, the students would be better equipped to think about meta-ethical questions since these questions have to do with the status of the very moral claims the arguments for which we have been discussing all semester. Now, I can't say that I have used any sort of sophisticated method to see if this has worked, but my sense of things based on the quality of class discussion and essay exams is that this has been better.

I've also found that pairing Rachels' "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism" with Jess Prinz's "Morality is Culturally Conditioned Response" works quite well.

Daniel Brunson

I think what might be more at issue here is what Leigh Johnson has called lazy relativism (http://www.readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore.com/2009/11/lazy-relativism.html). Students might say that values depend upon culture, but they still believe that their values are the right ones. That is, they are only 'relativists' when asked to explain or defend their values. So, the pedagogical problem is overcoming resistance to engaging in the space of reasons.


In intro ethics, I don't like starting with metaethics because I feel like students are likely to be into grabbier applied issues (although many like metaethics too! don't get me wrong), and I think I can teach applied stuff more enticingly. So what I've done in my first lecture is to say that relativism is a serious position but that in order to make progress on other issues we need to suspend that debate for the first part of the term. Then I close with metaethics at the end of the term. If there are students who bring up "lazy relativist" challenges, I can remind them that we'll get to it.


Mark, I'm familiar with what you term "knee-jerk" relativism. When I started teaching as a grad student (15 or so years ago), we were told by some psychologists at our school that this sort of relativism was usually a psychological disposition associated with a certain stage of human psychological and social development, and not a genuine philosophical position. The theory, tentatively offered by some, was that many students lose their mooring when they get to school and find themselves among people who hold very different beliefs than their own. Our discussing the position philosophically with the students (and in other ways for those in other fields) was thought to be part of the process of further psychological/social development.

Anyway, I generally do something similar to your "define", which I think is not unlike what Marcus describes. I also use "bypass", because many students who espouse knee-jerk relativism sometimes do so in part because they aren't aware of the other possibilities yet. This is where I may part ways with Marcus. I'm not sure knee-jerk relativists are committed to relativism at all. In my experience (FWIW) they usually aren't.

But I do think it is useful to explain more sophisticated relativisms. I agree with Marcus that more genuine forms often get short shrift. There isn't much time for this, though, especially in courses that have to cover applied topics in addition to theory. I sympathize, but haven't hit upon a good solution.

I also think it's useful to talk about context sensitivity in various theories, e.g., utilitarianism, Aquinas, and so on. I also talk about reasonable disagreement and suggest that it involves a sort of relativism or perspectivalism that doesn't necessarily imply relativism.


From my experience knee-jerk relativists tend to espouse strong scepticism and distaste for power, authority, and intolerance. They also tend to misunderstand the ways in which non-relativist ethical theories may be highly context sensitive and considerate of differences in psychological features and social context.

Once the nature (and potential) of non-relativist ethical theories is clarified and it is explained that relativism does not provide the sort of responses to intolerance and so on that the knee-jerk relativists desire the passion with which they defend their view tends to die down. Clarifying away the motivations for knee-jerk relativism tends to spark some degree of doubt and open-mindedness which is always beneficial in the philosophy classroom and helps to open the space for fruitful and open minded debate. This does not require niping any particular metaethical view in the bud, nor, I think, dedicating extended periods of time to exposition of the range of positions. It just requires clarification of a small number of common misconceptions of relativist and non-relativist positions.

Michel X.

I structure my aesthetics course as a dialogue with and against skepticism and relativism. The idea is to show students that there are some serious challenges that any viable definition of art has to be able to overcome. And while most historical definitions fail miserably (at least without serious contemporary tweaking), contemporary attempts to define art are aware of these problems and go to great lengths to accommodate or disarm them. The result is a number of highly plausible definitions.

My students have reported strong initial tendencies to relativism (but of the 'knee-jerk' or 'lazy' kind), which are either abandoned (in favour of these highly plausible views) as the semester goes on, or refined (as when, for example, we tackle relativism head-on). I tell them explicitly throughout the semester that the point of looking at all these problems with definitions is not necessarily to make them think that no definition is possible--although that's a viable position that we will explore--but rather to give them a sense of what a proper definition needs to be able to do and overcome.

So far, I'm pretty happy with the results. But it's a more advanced class than intro ethics, and I've basically dedicated it to the issue through something (3)-like. I'm not sure what the best approach is in the context of intro ethics, but (1) hasn't worked so well in my experience.

New Asst Prof

I agree that knee-jerk relativism is a real problem and have struggled to address it quite a bit myself. One technique I have used, in addition to those mentioned in the post, is to encourage students to think about what they themselves will do as they live their lives.

It is easy for students to say that we should "respect others' opinions" about the morality of lying, eating meat, worshiping God, etc. But each student also has to make decisions about whether to do these various things in their own lives. Even if a student wants to respect everyone else's views, that sentiment alone won't usually tell them what they should do in these situations. So, I encourage students to look for reasons and arguments that could at least help them make their own first-personal choices.


One of the virtues of Rachels' "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism" is that it goes out of its way to be charitable and highlight relativism's connection to a desire to be tolerant and non-dogmatic, while clarifying why you don't have to be a relativist to be those things.

So, I think it's helpful with the "nip it in the bud" problem, since it doesn't come off as "relativism's wrong, move along" but as "relativism's not as obvious as we thought, let's be open minded..."

I've tried variations of many of these tactics, and although none is perfect, I have the best results when we directly discuss it early in the semester. If we wait until the end, students don't charitably consider the material, since they haven't yet been given reason to. It doesn't truly "nip it in the bud," but when knee-jerk relativism pops up later in the semester, I only have to remind them of the arguments we discussed earlier.

(One thing I find really interesting--and satisfying--is that when this happens, many students will chime in or sigh with relief, because they were worried they were going to have to listen to the same old kneejerk relativist claims again! One of the problems of kneejerk classroom relativism is that it *bores* the rest of the class! They'd rather talk about the material than listen to why would shouldn't talk about the material.)

While I agree in principle with Marcus Arvan that it's not our job to convert them to non-relativists, I think in practice that attitude is misguided since, as Daniel Brunson points out, most are not true relativists at all, only when its convenient. So we are in the strange position that we must at least convert them to a truer relativism, which can only be done by showing them the problems of knee-jerk relativism.

I think this needs to be emphasized: not only are most students inconsistent or inauthentic relativists. They are often, despite their claims of relativism, closet absolutists. In fact, Mark, I would suggest that at least often, if not always, their relativism is a defense reaction against an independent mind, not a sign of one. They use relativism not to expose "a culture riddled with...bullshit" but to protect the particular spin they've either been brought up in or now find convenient.

Protecting their phony relativism is, then, often protecting them from recognizing what independence of mind really requires.

Though it doesn't work with all students, I usually, for the sake of the most engaged and brightest students who always eat it up with a spoon, drop one of the cute, cheap, one line replies to knee-jerk relativism. You know, of the "Is 'it's all relative' and absolute truth?" variety.

John Williams

I'm curious as to why Thomas Nagel's "The Fragmentation of Value" or David Wong's "Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism" are seldom taught at the undergrad level?

These (and related writings on moral pluralism) seem like a socially healthy way to channel the relativistic impulse of my generation. Or maybe I've just been led astray...

Mark Z

I wonder if knee-jerk relativism is sometimes the novice's (ie our undergraduates') proxy for a version of ethical non-cognitivism or emotivism that they cannot yet articulate. Meaning, they are not sophisticated enough to formulate the thesis that there is no truth in ethics, so they articulate something that indicates that they do not assent to the truth of other's ethical positions and understand if others don't assent to theirs.

I'd worry that dismissing such "knee-jerk relativism" right away and then going straight into talking about Mill and Kant and Rawlsian principles, or whatever will leave the student with the impression that "philosophy thinks" that ethical realism of one sort or another is true. (And I am certain that plenty of people come away from philosophy courses not understanding that philosophy doesn't think anything. . . )

From what I gather from textbooks and colleagues, we spend much time, in class [and as a profession?], talking about different theories of ethics and very little time talking about different theories of why no ethical theory might be correct. We ask our students how a utilitarian or deontologist or virtue ethicist might look at an ethical dilemma. This gives the impression that while we are confused about which one is correct, one of them, or something like one of them, is.

But if our students have intuitions that none of them are correct, there are perfectly respectable reasons for that and we should encourage them to explore those intuitions instead of bullying them by dismissing their intuition with a cheap argument and then spending the rest of the semester explaining how, though we don't know which version of ethics is right, one of them must be.

Admittedly, I have no idea how to do this well, but it would be interesting to see an introductory text that focused on the varieties of moral anti-realism. One hopes of course that a world that did that would not see blog posts that asked how to nip (say) utilitarianism in the bud on the first day of the semester.

Anon grad

Interesting discussion so far; I find myself agreeing initially in regarding the obstacle to overcome as residing in the the 'knee-jerk' attitude towards philosophical theses in general, rather than relativism per se.

But I'm immediately reminded of Sider's 'knee-jerk realism' as a unargued-for presupposition to his case for Four-Dimensionalism and perhaps to his entire program. By his own admission, 'knee-jerk realism' isn't even a precise thesis as much as a vague picture. I don't know what consequences to draw from this observation. Why and whence the asymmetry between the two cases? Can interesting, illuminating philosophy come out of a fundamental presupposition of 'knee-jerk relativism'?

Daniel Brunson

I wouldn't endorse the entire article, of course, but it does speak to the above issues:

"So it's not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period. Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand."


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