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I have to say that I've been lucky enough that I've only had a handful of relativist students over the years. I've also found through experience that introductory level ethics courses just go much better if you don't bother discussing relativism, egoism, etc. and just start with utilitarianism.

David Morrow

Clayton: I'm not sure I'd describe them as full-fledged relativists. Rather, when discussing or thinking about the actions of people in other cultures (or the fairly distant past in the United States), they will use arguments like "It wasn't wrong for him to do that because it's part of his culture." As I said, this kind of relativism is often inconsistent with other views that they hold.

Marcus Arvan

David: good issue! However, I'm not at all convinced that students' relativism is based on any sort of misconception, or that it is surprising that they often fail to respond to standard "refutations" of relativism.

I'm with David Velleman on this. I think students are justified in assuming relativism as a defeasible theoretical assumption, one that we philosophers must be able to defeat. Let me explain why.

Here's my feeling. When students look at the world, they see ordinary empirical facts (i.e. the physical world). Among the things in that world (the world of physical facts) are *valuers*. Individual human beings are valuers, and so too, in some sense, are groups of human beings (viz. "the values of the Catholic church").

Here, in other words, is what they are doing. They are being epistemically humble. They are not going beyond their evidence. Their evidence indicates that values emerge either (A) from individuals, or (B) from groups of individuals. They think it burden of proof falls on the philosopher to show that there are objective values, not merely relative ones.

And I think they're right to do this. They're the ones who are being epistemically humble. It's we -- the philosophers who contend that our refutations of relativism succeed so quickly -- who are begging the important question. The burden of proof properly falls on *us* to show that morality is not relative -- because, again, when we look at the natural world, values only seem to enter into it at two levels: (A) individuals, and (B) groups.

If we, as philosophers, are going to contend that relativism is false, we had better be able to show how values (including moral norms) can be objective. But that, of course, is a project that philosophers are still embarking upon -- and for which there is no widely agreed upon answer.


"When discussing or thinking about the actions of people in other cultures (or the fairly distant past in the United States), they will use arguments like 'It wasn't wrong for him to do that because it's part of his culture.'"

I just taught Moody-Adams, "Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance," in my Intro to Philosophy class -- it worked well for this topic, even though it isn't directly about relativism.

David Morrow

Marcus: The question isn't whether students are initially justified in accepting relativism. Given Ambrose's meaning of "misconception," the question is whether they are *correct* in doing so. And even though I'm sympathetic to some kinds of relativism, but the kind that students somewhat regularly deploy is far too simplistic to be correct.

Trevor: What do you mean by "worked," exactly? It's easy enough, I find, to get students to say (or write) that they think relativism is false, etc. But that's different than dislodging the misconception. As far as I'm concerned, what would count as "working" here would be causing the students to stop using (simple) relativistic arguments, both in the short run and the long run. You say you "just taught" Moody-Adams; I'd guess it's too early to tell whether it really worked, in my sense, but I'd be happy to hear otherwise.


True enough -- when I said that it worked, I meant that it inspired a great discussion. But her point that if we look at other cultures as "fundamentally other" and immune from criticism, we're viewing them as less than fully human, seemed to resonate with them. She also helps show that if people in other cultures are immune from criticism, the same goes for people in different subcultures within our own community, and the students were less comfortable with that. Plus there are lots of good examples, e.g., the Milgram experiments.


I agree with David. The kinds of relativism and subjectivism that one confronts among intro students bear little to no resemblance to the sophisticated views one finds in the literature. Rather, they are often, as David puts it, based on misconceptions. They think that *other* views that they hold drive them towards relativism, whereas, in fact, it is precisely these other views that should make them wary of relativism. Moreover, they are often surprised to realize that relativism can rule out or make mysterious aspects of their moral thinking that they didn't even realize were linked with a meta-ethical position (e.g. disagreement, moral progress, etc.).

I agree with Marcus that some philosophers can be dogmatic in their opposition to relativism (one finds this among some of the realists, in particular). But I think that issue can be distinguished from the one's surrounding the misconceptions of intro student.

Marcus Arvan

David & AE-CP: I disagree. I think students have misconceptions, but I don't think their attractive to relativism is based on those misconceptions. I think it tends to be based on an epistemically reasonable burden of proof: that given that the only "valuers" they see in the world are (A) individuals, and (B) groups, the burden of proof falls on the philosopher to show how morals can be objective.

Simply clearing up misconceptions about relativism doesn't do that. At most, it shows students that they may have misconceptions. What it doesn't do is show what they really want to know (and reasonably so): which is how morals can be objective. This is, I think, why they continually fall back on those same misconceptions. In the absence of a better theory -- one that substantively disproves relativism -- it's easy for students to fall back on lazy thinking. But none of that shows that their root *reason* for holding relativism isn't a good one: namely, that there are only individual valuers and group valuers in the world.

In order to address that -- their "deep" reason for finding relativism attractive -- we need to do a lot of normative and meta-ethics.

David Morrow

Marcus: I understand what you're saying, and it might explain why students' relativism is so hard to dispel (for those who want to dispel it) but I think we're talking past one another. Let me try to tease apart the various issues here to see if we can agree on them.

Many students seem to have a deeply entrenched model of morality of which one element is:

(R) "x is right (wrong) for S if and only if S's culture actually (dis)approves of x."

Note that (R) doesn't even impose consistency constraints on cultures' moral beliefs. If (R) is true, then it seems to me that most of moral philosophy rests on a mistake (but not the one Prichard thought): Exposing inconsistencies and pursuing reflective equilibrium will not lead us to the moral truth; it will lead us away from the moral truth, which can be discerned only by anthropology. Most moral philosophers, I assume, reject (R); it would be hard to explain what they're doing otherwise. If (R) is false, then it meets the following conditions to be what Ambrose et al. call a "misconception":

(1) It is false.
(2) It is deeply entrenched in students' thinking.
(3) It interferes with their ability to learn ethics.

It simply doesn't matter, for present purposes, whether students are justified in accepting (R). It doesn't matter whether their acceptance of (R) is based on reasonable or unreasonable inferences. It also doesn't matter whether, e.g., people from different cultures would arrive at different sets of beliefs in reflective equilibrium, or whether each of those sets would be true relative to that culture. What matters here is whether (R) satisfies conditions (1) – (3). I think it does.

If (R) does satisfy (1) – (3), and so is a misconception in Ambrose's sense, then we should aim to dispel it through the kind of "carefully designed instruction" that Ambrose mentions. Where you and I agree, I think, is that the standard treatment of relativism in introductory ethics courses (e.g., a reading and discussion of Rachels' chapter on relativism) isn't sufficient to dispel it. You're insisting that it *shouldn't* be sufficient, philosophically, and you may well be right. But that's a separate question.

Does that all seem correct? If not, which part(s) do you disagree with?

David Morrow

Marcus's comment reminded me of a nice piece by Dan Callcut in Teaching Philosophy a few years ago, "The Value of Teaching Moral Skepticism." His basic thesis is that the standard treatments of relativism, skepticism, etc. end up confirming students' initial skeptical views, but that deeper engagement with skepticism, etc. can produce better results. (This is compatible with Clayton's experience that skipping the standard treatments altogether works well.) Dan's seminar on moral skepticism was the first moral philosophy class I took as an undergrad, and I still think of it fondly. You can download the paper from the PhilPapers archives: http://philpapers.org/rec/CALTVO-2

Marcus Arvan

David: cool - I think we are in almost entirely in full agreement. First, I agree that (R) is a "misconception" in all three ways. Second, I agree that standard Rachels-style arguments against relativism aren't sufficient to dispel legitimate relativis concerns. Third, I completely agree with your point on the importance of taking relativism and moral skepticism seriously. I find that my students really appreciate that I don't reject their relativist concerns out of hand on Rachels-like grounds (as I've seen some other philosophers do). So, we're in agreement on a lot! :)

I still have one small concern, though, and it's this: I actually haven't met many (if any) students who truly claim to believe the misconceived type of relativism expressed in (R). In my experience, students tend to believe one or both of the following two forms of relativism:

(S) "x is right-for-S iff it S approves of it", and
(R)* "x is right-for-culture-C iff C approves it"

The difference between (R) and (R)* is that (R) states (absurdly) that cultural views make things right/wrong for *individuals* in those cultures. But again, I've met few students who think this. They think individuals define what is right/wrong for *individuals* (viz. (S)) and cultures define what is right/wrong for *cultures* (viz. (R)*).

And neither of these forms of relativism is absurd, or necessarily based on some kind of misconception. My students think the Catholic church defines "what is right for Catholicism", and that it defines what is right for *individuals* only insofar as that individual "buys" into Catholicism. Etc. Which isn't a silly idea like (R).

David Morrow

Marcus: I agree that most students wouldn't assert that they believe (R). But they might still (and I think do) operate with an implicit model of morality that implies (R). And this reveals itself when they object to "It is wrong for S to do x" by saying "But x is part of S's culture!"

Also, I'm curious what "right-for-culture-C" means if not "right-for-members-of-culture-C."

Marcus Arvan

David: I just don't tend to get the "But x is a part of S's culture" response from students. My relativist students tend -- when prodded -- to explicitly distinguish "right for a culture" from "right for an individual", in more or less the manner in which I stated in my previous comment. They tend to say that (for example) Catholic values only apply to the individual to the extent that the individual identifies their values (as an individual) with the values of the group.

This speaks to your question about what "right-for culture-C" means if not "right-for-members-of-culture-C." Someone can *be* a member of, say, an Islamic society without *identifying* with its Islamic values. In these cases, my students tend to say, "What's right for the individual who doesn't like their society's values is different from what's right for the society."

This is the kind of sophisticated relativism that almost all of my students claim to find attractive when prodded. They tend to say that:

(1) Individuals define what's right-for-them.
(2) Groups define what's right-for-the-group, and finally
(3) Individuals *can* identify what right-for-them (as individuals) with what's right-for-a-group by *identifying* their values as individuals with the values of the group.

This is sophisticated position, in that it forges a contingent link between individuals' values and group-values (the group values only apply to the individual if, and to the extent that, the individual identifies with the group). It is also the position, that when I fully spell it out to my relativism-inclined students, they tend to say, "Yep, that's what I want to say. Individuals define what's right-for-them. Groups define what's right-for-the-group. And individuals *may-or-may-not* identify their subjective values with the values of the group."

Make sense? Anyway, if this is the view that most students really gravitate towards -- and in my experience it is -- if one's class discussion on relativism ends at simplistic versions of relativism (such as (R)), one really hasn't grappled with the (much more sophisticated) view that they ultimately find most attractive.


Teaching in the bible belt I'm often amazed that students will often hold with both a simplistic version of cultural relativism AND a commitment to some form of divine command theory. So, according to them, we should all follow the 10 Commandments (ignoring the others), we should love love love the teachings of Jesus (usually republican Jesus), but we should not judge people's morality as morality is relative, merely opinions, or in the case of other cultures a matter of social values. In the meantime, they continue to believe, we should not forget to condemn homosexuality and fear the Islamic overtaking of the US.

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