is it a maze or plague?
is Silver Professor of Philosophy and the director of the New
York Institute of Philosophy. He is the author of Fear of
Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (2006)
and Content and Justification: Philosophical Papers
about morality has come to play an increasingly important role
in contemporary culture. To many thoughtful people, and especially
to those who are unwilling to derive their morality from a religion,
it appears unavoidable. Where would absolute facts about right
and wrong come from, they reason, if there is no supreme being
to decree them? We should reject moral absolutes, even as we
keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right
and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right
and wrong per se. (See, for example, Stanley Fish’s 2001
we decided that there were no such things as witches, we didn’t
become relativists about witches.
it plausible to respond to the rejection of absolute moral facts
with a relativistic view of morality? Why should our response
not be a more extreme, nihilistic one, according to which we
stop using normative terms like right and wrong altogether,
be it in their absolutist or relativist guises?
is not always a coherent way of responding to the rejection
of a certain class of facts. When we decided that there were
no such things as witches, we didn’t become relativists
about witches. Rather, we just gave up witch talk altogether,
except by way of characterizing the attitudes of people (such
as those in Salem) who mistakenly believed that the world contained
witches, or by way of characterizing what it is that children
find it fun to pretend to be on Halloween. We became what we
may call ‘eliminativists’ about witches.
the other hand, when Einstein taught us, in his Special Theory
of Relativity, that there was no such thing as the absolute
simultaneity of two events, the recommended outcome was that
we become relativists about simultaneity, allowing that there
is such a thing as “simultaneity relative to a (spatio-temporal)
frame of reference,” but not simultaneity as such.
the difference between the witch case and the simultaneity case?
Why did the latter rejection lead to relativism, but the former
the simultaneity case, Einstein showed that while the world
does not contain simultaneity as such, it does contain its relativistic
cousin — simultaneity relative to a frame of reference
— a property that plays something like the same sort of
role as classical simultaneity did in our theory of the world.
contrast, in the witch case, once we give up on witches, there
is no relativistic cousin that plays anything like the role
that witches were supposed to play. The property, that two events
may have, of “being simultaneous relative to frame of
reference F” is recognizably a kind of simultaneity. But
the property of “being a witch according to a belief system
T” is not a kind of witch, but a kind of content (the
content of belief system T): it’s a way of characterizing
what belief system T says, not a way of characterizing the world.
the question is whether the moral case is more like that of
simultaneity or more like that of witches? When we reject absolute
moral facts is moral relativism the correct outcome or is it
moral eliminativism (nihilism)?
answer, as we have seen, depends on whether there are relativistic
cousins of right and wrong that can play something like the
same role that absolute “right” and “wrong”
is hard to see what those could be.
essential to right and wrong is that they are normative terms,
terms that are used to say how things ought to be, in contrast
with how things actually are. But what relativistic cousin of
right and wrong could play anything like such a normative role?
moral relativists say that moral right and wrong are to be relativized
to a community’s moral code. According to some such codes,
eating beef is permissible; according to others, it is an abomination
and must never be allowed. The relativist proposal is that we
must never talk simply about what’s right or wrong, but
only about what’s right or wrong relative to a particular
trouble is that while ‘Eating beef is wrong’ is
clearly a normative statement, “Eating beef is wrong relative
to the moral code of the Hindus” is just a descriptive
remark that carries no normative import whatsoever. It’s
just a way of characterizing what is claimed by a particular
moral code, that of the Hindus. We can see this from the fact
that anyone, regardless of their views about eating beef, can
agree that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of
it looks as though the moral case is more like the witch case
than the simultaneity case: there are no relativistic cousins
of right and wrong. Denial of moral absolutism leads not to
relativism, but to nihilism.
is no half-way house called moral relativism, in which we continue
to use normative vocabulary with the stipulation that it is
to be understood as relativized to particular moral codes. If
there are no absolute facts about morality, right and wrong
would have to join “witch” in the dustbin of failed
argument is significant because it shows that we should not
rush to give up on absolute moral facts, mysterious as they
can sometimes seem, for the world might seem even more mysterious
without any normative vocabulary whatsoever.
might be suspicious of my argument against moral relativism.
Aren’t we familiar with some normative domains —
such as that of etiquette — about which we are all relativists?
Surely, no one in their right minds would think that there is
some absolute fact of the matter about whether we ought to slurp
our noodles while eating.
we are dining at Buckingham Palace, we ought not to slurp, since
our hosts would consider it offensive, and we ought not, other
things being equal, offend our hosts. On the other hand, if
we are dining in Xian, China, we ought to slurp, since in Xian
slurping is considered to be a sign that we are enjoying our
meal, and our hosts would consider it offensive if we didn’t
slurp, and we ought not, other things being equal, offend our
if relativism is coherent in the case of etiquette why couldn’t
we claim that morality is relative in the same way?
reason is that our relativism about etiquette does not actually
dispense with all absolute moral facts. Rather, we are relativists
about etiquette in the sense that, with respect to a restricted
range of issues (such as table manners and greetings), we take
the correct absolute norm to be “we ought not, other things
being equal, offend our hosts.”
norm is absolute and applies to everyone and at all times. Its
relativistic flavor comes from the fact that, with respect to
that limited range of behaviors (table manners and greetings,
but not, say, the abuse of children for fun), it advocates varying
one’s behavior with local convention.
other words, the relativism of etiquette depends on the existence
of absolute moral norms. Since etiquette does not dispense with
absolute moral facts, one cannot hope to use it as a model for
we take this point on board, though, and admit that there have
to be some absolute moral facts. Why couldn’t they all
be like the facts involved in etiquette? Why couldn’t
they all say that, with respect to any morally relevant question,
what we ought to do depends on what the local conventions are?
trouble with this approach is that once we have admitted that
there are some absolute moral facts, it is hard to see why we
shouldn’t think that there are many — as many as
common sense and ordinary reasoning appear to warrant. Having
given up on the purity of a thoroughgoing anti-absolutism, we
would now be in the business of trying to figure out what absolute
moral facts there are. To do that, we would need to employ our
usual mix of argument, intuition and experience. And what argument,
intuition and experience tell us is that whether we should slurp
our noodles depends on what the local conventions are, but whether
we should abuse children for fun does not.
relativist about morality needs to decide whether his view grants
the existence of some absolute moral facts, or whether it is
to be a pure relativism, free of any commitment to absolutes.
The latter position, I have argued, is mere nihilism; whereas
the former leads us straight out of relativism and back into
the quest for the moral absolutes.
of this is to deny that there are hard cases, where it is not
easy to see what the correct answer to a moral question is.
It is merely to emphasize that there appears to be no good alternative
to thinking that, when we are in a muddle about what the answer
to a hard moral question is, we are in a muddle about what the
absolutely correct answer is.
Stanely Fish, in the
New York Times opinion page, responds to Paul Boghossian.