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« 'The Power of the Voice in the Age of the Internet' | Main | Sean Kelly on Homer on Philosophy »

October 23, 2011



Hi, PB- I had to listen to this a few times before figuring out what was going on. I think relativism was made into a straw man here, as it if is incapable of using normative vocabulary, and consisting purely of neutral statements of what the ambient moral code is.

This fails to ask where the ambient moral code arises from. The missing ingredient, I would suggest, is a serious engagement with subjectivism. We as subjective, active agents have needs and desires, thus we have moral views. I don't want to be harmed. That is about as elementary as it gets, morality-wise. In a society, the individual moralists then work on an accommodation that provides society-wide rules of engagement so that it can operate on an ongoing basis. As the guest mentioned, this could be done by despotism and power. But it can also be done by peaceful means, setting up golden rules and the like, by our typical social interactions.

Perhaps the guest would balk at calling the resulting moral & legal systems "normative", since while they are broadly (universally) applied to the ambient society, they do not reference an ideal, rather are simply the negotiated modus vivendi among all the moral agents in the society. In that case, the guest is defining his problem conveniently to only accept his chosen solution.

I would call them normative, since the member of such a society regards the developed rules as essential to her own well-being, has a personal stake (typically) in enforcing them, thus takes a subjective position that they are the "right" way to do things. If she opposes the society in some particular, in a legitimate moral system, that would take the form of principled opposition, such as promoting gay rights, through an accepted political and legal process by which she tries to renegotiate the communal moral code so her subjective moral position (arrived at by whatever means, perhaps by utilitarian arguments, or pure feeling) becomes the prevailing one, i.e. normative, or "the norm".

All this can happen without reference to absolutes, and a good thing, too, since times change constantly.


I consider myself a moral relativist but mean it only in a descriptive sense. I believe our values are a function of such things as genes, culture and individual background. I don't think this view obliges me to be more tolerant of other moral positions than I would otherwise be.

Boghossian's arguments for absolutism did little to modify my position.

Here is a thought experiment:

I guess we can agree that various people have had different values at different times and in different regions of the world. This, in itself, is certainly no argument against absolutism. But if absolutism is correct, then either only one of these sets of values are in accordance with the absolute values, or none of them are.

Imagine that we could somehow establish objectively what the absolute values are. Would it not be possible that the absolute values turned out very different from what we would like them to be? Maybe Marquis de Sade was right, for instance?

Let's assume that "torturing children for fun" is actually quite all right as far as the absolute morale is concerned. In that case I'd say that the absolute values are 'wrong' or 'evil', and it would not change my own values one bit. I really don't care what the absolute values or the universe or God or whatever says. I just feel that it's wrong to torture children.

In general, I would simply praise or condemn the absolute values according to how much they agreed with or disagreed with my own. Possibly, if they where only slightly different from my own, I might adopt them for tactical reasons so as to have some extra clout when moralising other people.

Does that make me a bad person?

Thanks for this great podcast, which seldom fails to engage me.


Boghossian's argument depends on the claim that moral judgments are something over and above describing factual matters. He thinks that they essentially involve an "endorsement" component in addition. But there is a well-known difficulty for someone who thinks that moral facts are just absolute, mind-independent facts, in saying how moral judgments can indeed be more than describing. If moral facts exist in a separate moral reality, how can moral judgments be anything more than attempts to describe what that moral reality is like, like other factual judgments are attempts to describe factual reality?

Daniel T.

For morality to be relative, it must be the case that no concievalbe rule can be shown to fail in all circumstances. This is an empirical claim that can be tested. If someone comes up with even one rule that no culture, can successfuly hold to, then morality is absolute.

"It is immoral to allow children to reach maturity, they must all be killed."

The above moral rule is absolutely, objectively, false. There is no concievable culture that can follow such a rule and survive.

Earlier (Nov 2, 2011) tor commented, "... if absolutism is correct, then either only one of these sets of values are in accordance with the absolute values, or none of them are." Such dichotomy is incorrect. It could be that there are lots of value sets that are equivalent, just like there are lots of different diets that are equally healthy. However, that doesn't mean that no possible diet is unhealthy, or that all possible diets are equally healthy.

The analogy between the use of cultural rules (morals) to help maintain culture and personal habits to help maintain personal health is very strong. In both cases, evolution takes hold and poor rules/habits are self-defeating.


Daniel: Surely you are a geographical relativist about facts about the weather, despite the fact that there are claims about the weather that are always false.

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