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David Morrow

Yeah, I've always wondered about that claims of Hare's. I can't recall now where I read it, but I vaguely think that he made the claim after he'd taught in Florida in the '80s and '90s.

In my experience, most students can be talked out of their initial, naive relativism. There are sometimes a few holdouts, I suppose, although in some cases I think they're just grandstanding.

I was just talking with a colleague today about possible responses to the student who bites the moral bullet on relativism. One is to point out that the view is strangely voluntaristic, with all of the attendant problems: Why would a culture's declaring something right *make* the thing right? Why ought you to do what your culture says you should do?

Since I suspect that much of the sympathy for cultural relativism results from a confusion of subjective obligation with objective obligation, disentangling those (and disentangling wrongness from blameworthiness) might be helpful, too.

At any rate, I'm talking about cultural relativism in my ethical theory course on Thursday. Maybe something new will turn up this semester.


I've found that they tend to embrace a mix of cultural relativism and subjectivism, since in cases where they disagree with their culture, they rarely want to just say that they must be wrong. In my experience, at least, the most intractable holdouts tend to take a "right for you" sort of attitude. But being in a room full of people who insist that slavery was right for 19th century Southerners makes me want to start with Rorty: maybe we don't have a moral position outside convention, but if we are going to talk about these things at all, we have to start with something, and our conventions are the only starting point we can take. (But I suspect one problem is that the stronger responses to relativism rest not on the claim that there are universal norms, but on the claim that reasoning itself is norm-governed, and this is something intro students often can't really grasp yet.)


Ask them if there is anything morally wrong with you failing them all regardless of the quality of work they turn in.

Marcus Arvan

Anon: Clever -- but I have little doubt about what they would say. I think they would say *they* would consider it morally wrong, and that *society* would consider it wrong...but that it's "right for me".

Anthony Carreras

Maybe my students are atypical, but I actually have not experienced very strong support for relativism of any kind among them. There are always some who take the hard line, but they've been a minority in my classes. And a lot of the ones who seem to start out as relativists discover that they really are not. For example: last semester I had a student who very strongly believed in marriage equality, and he felt that "objective morality" stood in the way of progress with respect to marriage equality, and so considered himself to be a subjectivist or relativist of a certain stripe. I think I got him to see that his gripe was not with the existence of objective moral values per se, but rather with certain views of what those moral values actually are.

Also, I regularly teach Rachels' "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism", and have had a lot of success with it. I have found that the example of female circumcision that Rachels talks about in that article always hits a chord with the students, even with those who take relativism seriously.


I'm impressed that you got students to take Rachels seriously. My sense with teaching it has always been that, while my students are overwhelmingly knee-jerk relativists, they really haven't thought about it at all. So when they read Rachels, they don't recognize their views in the view he is discussing; it just doesn't sink in for the most part. And yes, I'm pretty sure that most of my students are relativists. Aside from explicit discussion in ethics classes, issues of value often come up in other classes. For example, Susan Wolf argues that meaning in life requires one to engage with "objective value." Many of my students--in class and in papers--simply assume that her argument is wrong because it involves society telling us what to care about. So the implicit connection between "value" and "what society cares about" is pretty clearly there.

Moti Mizrahi

Your students are in good company: http://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Conditioned_Response

Marcus Arvan

Moti: Thanks for the link! I actually agree with Prinz that the stock arguments against relativism are awful. They almost always rely on intuition-mongering about relativism's "implausible implications" -- implications that, to the contrary, many of my students evidently find entirely *plausible*.

Because relativism (and its implications) seem to come so naturally to so many people, I believe the only truly philosophically respectable way to argue against relativism is to give convincing substantive arguments for the existence of objective moral truths. And that, of course, is easier said than done.

David Morrow

Reporting back from the front: I think I talked most of my students out of being cultural relativists today. It's hard to tell, though, because I haven't yet broken their Southern aversion to disagreeing with the professor.

For the record, my approach was to show them that neither the value of tolerance nor the fact of moral disagreement provides a good reason to accept cultural relativism. Then I did some intuition mongering, mostly using Rachels, to try to convince them to reject cultural relativism.

Roman: I emphasized that the argument against cultural relativism undermined a pattern of reasoning that we'd seen several times already this semester--viz., "It's part of S's culture to do X, so X is right-for-S." Students recognized that as a move that they (or their classmates) had made.

Marcus: I agree that the stock arguments aren't conclusive. In fact, I'm a moderate cultural relativist myself. But I would rather my students reject relativism altogether than accept the wholesale relativism that many of them bring into the course. I'm always careful, though, to phrase my claim in the following way: "If you accept cultural relativism, then you must accept the following implications. If you want to deny any of these implications, then you must reject cultural relativism." As long as those conditionals, I'm okay with their using either modus ponens or modus tollens.

Robert Seddon

I found it easier to get students to question the 'cultural' part of cultural relativism than relativism per se: cultural membership/identity can be a very fluid notion, especially when someone can be a member of multiple cultures simultaneously. I used to set some reading from Mary Midgley's work which involved the lack of neat borders around cultures.

Marcus Arvan

Hey David: when you did the Rachels-esque intuition-mining, did they buy it? For my part, whenever I discuss those arguments with students, many of them just don't. (By the way, I totally appreciate the way you leave it with them -- with conditionals, "*If* you accept relativism, then...").

Anyway, because a lot of my students seem really skeptical of the stock arguments, I try to begin by helping them make sense of why relativism seems so attractive to them (Here's the rough picture: the very idea of objective value seems hopelessly *queer* to them. The world seems to have tables, chairs, and *valuers* -- but the valuers in the world often value different things (most of us don't value murder, but murderers do!); hence, when they tally up all the things they think are in the world, objective values are nowhere to be found. There are only the *valuings* of different persons and cultures).

Anyway, once I discuss this stuff with them, I try to help see that Rachels-esque intuitions don't seem to speak to their worries (this is, I think, Prinz's point). Rachels-eseque arguments appeal to intuitions that "we" have (about moral progress, etc.). But all of those intuitions are actually consistent with the reasons my students find relativism attractive to begin with. For some of my (relativist-leaning) students are happy to admit that *we* have Rachels' intuitions. What they deny is that our having those intuitions makes them correct. They want to say they are merely our intuitions, and not everyone has them (hence, once again, relativism).

Anyway, I know this comment is rambling (long day in class!), but at the end of the day, I think I tell them the same thing you do, David: the intuition-based arguments are inconclusive -- and in order to determine which view there is better evidence for (relativism or objectivism), we have to do a lot more work! ;)

David Morrow

Marcus: I would guess that most of my students objected to some, but not all, of the "unappealing implications of cultural relativism," as I call them. I emphasize to them that cultural relativism entails all of those things, and so if they reject *any* of them, they're committed to the falsity of cultural relativism.

Today, my students seemed less concerned about the "no rationally persuasive criticism" and "no moral progress or decline" implications than the others. The ones that concerned them most were (a) that CR makes morality arbitrary in the same way that divine command theory does, and (b) that CR entails that opinion polls settle questions of right and wrong. I pushed (b) harder than I usually do, drawing out implications like, "If your culture says that abortion is morally permissible, you could *make* it morally forbidden with a sufficiently good ad campaign." (One student helpfully pointed out that you could make it wrong by killing enough of the people who disagreed with you.)

One thing that differed between my lecture today and my usual presentation of Rachels' argument is that, although I alluded to Rachels, I didn't say, "Here's Rachels' argument against cultural relativism. What do you think of it?" I just said, "Here are some implications of cultural relativism that some people find unappealing. Do you accept them?" This might help avoid the reaction that Rachels is trying to tell them what to believe.

Marcus Arvan

Hey David: love the student's example -- very clever. Anyway, I think I actually present the arguments in roughly the way you do (as implications that many people find unappealing). For what it is worth, I was actually going through this stuff too today and had a number of students vehemently defend the "opinion poll" move. They said: "Look, if a majority thinks X is right, then x is right-for-then. But of course it's also true for the minority that thinks that X is wrong that it's wrong-for-them.". We even discussed Nazis taking over the world (similar to your student's example), and my relativist students still held this line! I have to admit: my class this semester is out of the ordinary. I usually have some relativists -- but the sheer willingness of so many of them to accept *all* of the relativist implications this term was striking to me. Fortunately, I've already begun to make some in-roads against them using some different arguments! Fun discussing this by the way, sharing classroom experiences. It's really cool to hear how everyone deals with these issues!

Dan Dennis

I suppose the student referred to above could generalise his argument as follows. If he holds that ‘it is right to kill everyone who disagrees with you’ then once he kills everyone who disagrees with him, then his views - including the view that killing those people was right - will be the majority view, and hence right. :-)

Actually I think that students claiming to be cultural relativists are concerned not usually with what the majority in the culture thinks, but about what a person thinks being what ‘makes it right for him’. (Hence the willingness to then split into subcultures - refered to above - in order to maintain the 'right for me' view).

I agree with what David says about it being useful to attack CR and similar views with the charge of arbtirariness. I find it helpful to focus on the student’s individual decision-making, and ask them whether their decision-making is just arbitrary. If it depends upon the upbringing they chanced to have then it seems like it is. Ask whether that means it does not matter what they do , that they could just as well toss a coin to decide whether to jump out the window or stab someone, or change their views about stealing from friends. It is pretty difficult to seriously embrace being arbitrary in your decision-making, but if that is what being a CR or subjectivist is about, then that shows its difficult to embrace those things too….


I worry a lot about the point David made above: that presenting the arguments without explicitly attributing them to Rachels avoids the students' resistance to Rachels telling them what to think. This is a general issue: every time I have taught ethics, at least one student desperately wanted to know whether Aristotle was happy. If he wasn't, they reason, then there's no reason to listen to this guy telling us how to become happy. I know this changes the topic a bit, but does anyone have good strategies for avoiding the sense, on their part, that every philosopher they read is just telling them what to think?

Dan, I'm not sure about that last point. If I have an upbringing that (along with other things) determines my moral views, then surely it does matter to me what I do, and so I cannot use a coin to decide what to do because the coin my tell me to do something that I consider wrong. You could, of course, ask: "But if your views are arbitrary, why should you stick to them?" But it seems plausible to respond just that it makes sense for me to stick to them just because I cannot do otherwise and still feel good about myself. (If this sounds silly, we can always beef it up with language about violating my practical identity or my integrity.) That is: unless we can show that some values really are grounded in something incontrovertible, students don't have a reason to think the arbitrariness of their values is a problem. And this brings us back to Marcus's point that what we need is a convincing defense of moral realism (although I suspect some form of constructivism is stronger).

Marcus Arvan

Roman: I've found that one way to combat students' feeling that every philosopher they read is just telling them what to think is to investigate whether the philosopher in question *actually* has a good argument. In many -- and probably most -- cases, students come to see that there are legitimate and compelling ways to resist the arguments they are reading. Rachels, I think, is a perfect example. As I discuss above, *I* don't think Rachels' intuition-based arguments are very compelling -- in large part because I've come to believe that his intuitions don't even speak to students' actual reasons for finding relativism attractive.

Anyway, I think that if we help students see that there are reasonable ways to resist many of the arguments they read, they can come to see philosophy as a critical enterprise worth doing, instead of an enterprise where they experience themselves as being "told what to believe."

Dan Dennis

Roman, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t see how anyone can be attached to or identify with values – and retain integrity – once he realises they are just arbitrary.

Imagine John and Jack are twins who were adopted. The nurse tossed a coin to decide who to give to which family. It happens that Jack was adopted by a slave owner and came to share his values. John was brought up by a liberal who fights against slave ownership, so adopts his values. The twins meet as youths. Are they both to just say, well this is right for me? I will carry on as before because that’s my personal identity, these are my values?

I think anyone who does that is being blinkered. Just fooling himself. Failing to face up to the implications of his values etc being arbitrary. He should rather realise that his current values have no more value than any other values he could chose by tossing a coin. The alternative is to reflect and question and try to learn – with the aim of finding some firm grounds upon which to build his life.


Dan, let's say I value honesty. Now I realize quite well that I value it because I was brought up to be honest. I can happily tell myself that there are also good reasons to be honest, of course, but I doubt these reasons would make much of a difference unless I already valued honesty to start with, and I'm sure that I, like everyone else, have plenty of values I live by that really are just arbitrary. Blinkered or not, we can't just give up our values because we realize that they are arbitrary. Their arbitrariness is second-order; their guidance is first-order. But of course we aren't stuck with specific values, because yes, we can "reflect and question and try to learn", although I doubt that in so doing we are "finding some firm grounds": anyone who thinks they have such firm grounds for all their values is, I suspect, much worse than blinkered. What we can do is extend our values, perhaps give more weight to some values we hold than others, and so on. But the position from which we start is always arbitrary, and I doubt there is a way to escape the arbitrariness, though we may lessen it (keep in mind, though, that the questioning and learning we do is also likely guided by techniques and values that are arbitrary).

Marcus: I agree that if students can both *understand* the arguments they are reading and critically evaluate them, they are much less likely to think of philosophers as telling them what to think. But at the beginning of the semester, at least, virtually none of them can do this, especially if they're reading Aristotle. (Which, incidentally, is one reason to doubt the benefits of teaching the history of philosophy in intro classes.)

Dan Dennis

Hi Roman

Can you clarify what you mean when you say ‘I doubt there is a way to escape the arbitrariness, though we may lessen it.’

Is it not the case that in order to lessen the arbitrariness of your decision-making you need something other than the arbitrary? Arbitrary starting points and arbitrary changes will leave you no less arbitrary.

Do you think that there is a qualitative difference between you and John and Jack in my example above? Are you each stuck as you are with your particular arbitrarily selected decision-making, apart from perhaps arbitrary changes to it?

I doubt anyone thinks we can completely escape arbitrariness. (Wouldn’t that imply always making the right decision?) But many – Kantians and moral realists most obviously – think we can substantially reduce the arbitrariness of our decision-making.

Best wishes


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