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Marcus Arvan

Moti: interesting article by Amini. Perhaps the thing I find most interesting about it is the assumption -- that Amini adopts from Bernard Williams -- that moral relativists are committed to *tolerance* of other cultures' values. My experience with students flies somewhat in the face of this. My experience is that when I press many of my relativist students, they readily give up the tolerance angle. They are happy to admit -- since they really think there are no objective values -- that it may well be *right-for-us* to tolerate other cultures' cultures, but *not* right-for-them to tolerate ours (it all depends on whether the culture in question holds tolerance as a moral value).

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comment, Marcus.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Amini’s piece, but I see it as a dilemma for the ethical relativist.

1. ‘We ought to be tolerant’ is either absolute or relative.

2. If absolute, then ethical relativism is false.

3. If relative, then ethical relativism is devoid of normative content.

4. Therefore, ethical relativism is either false or devoid of normative content.

I agree with you that the relativist can always drop the ethical claim ‘we ought to be tolerant’ and just keep the meta-ethical claim ‘moral truth is relative’.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I see -- but what do you mean by "devoid of content"?

Moti Mizrahi

By "devoid of content," I think I mean what Amini means when he says: "we are still none-the-wiser about the moral relativist’s normative ethics: that is, what is her moral assessment of those variable, incompatible, or incommensurable ethical values? Given her meta-ethical position, normatively she can neither condone nor condemn any particular moral value."

Marcus Arvan

Okay, but if that's what's meant, it seems to me plainly false that relativism is devoid of content.

It's certainly true that we can't *objectively* condone or condemn any particular moral value. But this is exactly what my relativist students actually tend to think. They say: every culture has values about *what-they-can/cannot-condone*, and that's all there is.

I don't see how that's devoid of content. It's just being consistent and holding that all normative content is relative to persons or cultures.

Moti Mizrahi

Suppose relativist A comes from a culture where people value tolerance and relativist B comes from a culture where people don’t value tolerance. Then, A’s relativism contains the claim ‘we ought to be tolerant’, whereas B’s relativism doesn’t contain that claim. (Perhaps B’s relativism contains the claim ‘we ought not to be tolerant’ or the claim ‘we ought to be intolerant’?) So, the content of relativism is itself relative. In other words, A’s relativism and B’s relativism are not the same theory.

Marcus Arvan

Right -- but what's the problem with that?

Marcus Arvan


I don't think it's right to say "A's relativism" contains a claim whereas "B's relativism" contains a contradictory claim (which would be absurd). I think this misunderstands relativism, or at the very least represents it in a less-than-fully-charitable light.

Relativism, as I understand it, is a *descriptive* theory about what sorts of normative phenomena exist in the world. It is not a normative theory per se. It is the theoretical view that the only genuine norms in the world are relative-to-persons and/or relative-to-cultures.

Accordingly, I think a true relativist will should not say that A and B have "different relativisms." They should say that (1) there is only one doctrine -- relativism, (2) that doctrine is true, (3) Different people can accept it or reject it, and finally (4) that doctrine holds that A and B in the case you described have the same *relativism* but different *values*.

I suspect that a lot of the "problems" people have with relativism stem from their taking the doctrine to *be* a normative theory (example: it's often claimed to be contradictory, as it asserts -- as an objective norm -- that there are no objective norms). If this is how relativism is understood, then I agree: it's absurd. But, As I've indicated above, I don't think it's correct to render relativism as a normative theory. A more charitable reading is that it merely purports to *describe* normative reality: that it asserts merely a descriptive there *are* only relative values, not objective ones.

(Note: and how might they make the argument for being a descriptive view? Here's my answer: they want to say, whenever a person says, "X is right/wrong", all they truly accomplish is asserting X is right/wrong-for-them or for-their culture. And why? Not because of some additional normative constraint on what can be a valid norm, but rather a metaphysical constraint on where norms come from: individual persons (valuers) or cultures (collective valuers). Finally, the relativist might admit that *if* there were truly universal agreement on values, *then* there would be an additional metaphysical ground: ground for objective norms for all humankind. But, I take the relativist as saying, there are no such universal norms. So, the only norms that truly exist are individual and cultural).

Dan Dennis

What you both write sounds right to me. Could we reconcile the two main points by saying that relativism, being a ‘descriptive claim’ is devoid of normative content, in the sense that it does not say it is right to act in this or that way, or that persons ought to act in this or that way? It only describes the absence of something (objective normative truth or whatever) and describes what happens in the world (that different cultures claim different things have value).

Thus the relativist can say ‘Culture Z rejects relativism, and puts to death anyone who advocates relativism – and that is right for them’.

Dan Dennis

Where 'that is right for them' just means 'that is what they think is right, claim is right, use as a basis for decision-making etc'. Ie it might look like an objective normative claim but it is not - it is actually just descriptive.

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