A different kind of moral relativism

March 16, 2011

Recently I had the fortune of attending an exceptional philosophy discussion hosted by Massimo Pigliucci, with featured guest Jesse Prinz , a philosopher of mind at the CUNY Graduate Center (where Pigliucci also teaches). The topic was an essay Prinz recently wrote in the magazine Philosophy Now, called “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.” Our conversation included exchanges on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sam Harris, the is-ought gap, the connection between emotion and reason, and even abortion and female genital mutilation. But the central theme was Prinz’s position that moral relativism holds sway more than moral objectivism (well, that and the delicious Thai food that accompanied the discussion).

Prinz’s basic stance is that moral values stem from our cognitive hardware, upbringing, and social environment. These equip us with deep-seated moral emotions, but these emotions express themselves in a contingent way due to circumstances. And while reason can help, it has limited influence. It can only reshape our ethics up to a point, and cannot settle major differences between different value systems. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct an objective morality that transcends emotions and circumstance. As Prinz writes, in part:

“No amount of reasoning can engender a moral value, because all values are, at bottom, emotional attitudes. … Reason cannot tell us which facts are morally good. Reason is evaluatively neutral. At best, reason can tell us which of our values are inconsistent, and which actions will lead to fulfillment of our goals. But, given an inconsistency, reason cannot tell us which of our conflicting values to drop or which goals to follow. If my goals come into conflict with your goals, reason tells me that I must either thwart your goals, or give up caring about mine; but reason cannot tell me to favor one choice over the other. … Moral judgments are based on emotions, and reasoning normally contributes only by helping us extrapolate from our basic values to novel cases. Reasoning can also lead us to discover that our basic values are culturally inculcated, and that might impel us to search for alternative values, but reason alone cannot tell us which values to adopt, nor can it instill new values.”

This moral relativism is not the absolute moral relativism of, supposedly, bands of liberal intellectuals, or of postmodernist philosophers. It presents a more serious challenge to those who argue there can be objective morality. To be sure, there is much Prinz and I agree on. At the least, we agree that morality is largely constructed by our cognition, upbringing, and social environment; and that reason has the power synthesize and clarify our worldviews, and help us plan for and react to life’s situations. But there are some lingering questions I have after the article and conversation.

Suppose I concede to Prinz that reason cannot settle differences in moral values and sentiments. Difference of opinion doesn’t mean that there isn’t a true or rational answer. In fact, there are many reasons why our cognition, emotional reactions or previous values could be wrong or irrational — and why people would not pick up on their deficiencies. In his article, Prinz uses the case of sociopaths, who simply lack certain cognitive abilities. There are many reasons other than sociopathy why human beings can get things wrong, morally speaking, often and badly. It could be that people are unable to adopt a more objective morality because of their circumstances — from brain deficiencies to lack of access to relevant information. But, again, none of this amounts to an argument against the existence of objective morality.

As it turns out, Prinz’s conception of objective morality does not quite reflect the thinking of most people who believe in objective morality. He writes that: “Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us.” This is a particular strand of moral realism, but there are many. For instance, one can judge some moral precepts as better than others, yet remain open to the fact that there are probably many different ways to establish a good society. This is a pluralistic conception of objective morality which doesn’t assume one absolute moral truth. For all that has been said, Sam Harris’ idea of a moral landscape does help illustrate this concept. Thinking in terms of better and worse morality gets us out of relativism and into an objectivist approach. The important thing to note is that one need not go all the way to absolute objectivity to work toward a rational, non-arbitrary morality.

Indeed, even Prinz admits that “Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.” That is, there are such things as better and worse values: the worse ones kill us, the better ones don’t. This is a very broad criterion, but it is an objective standard. It seems Prinz is arguing for a tighter moral relativism – a sort of stripped down objective morality that is constricted by nature, experience, and our (modest) reasoning abilities.

I proposed at the discussion that a more objective morality could be had with the help of a robust public discourse on the issues at hand. Prinz does not necessarily disagree. He wrote that “Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground.” But Prinz pointed out a couple of limitations on public discourse. For example, the agreements we reach on “moral common ground” are often exclusive of some, and abstract in content. Consider the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights , a seemingly good example of global moral agreement. Yet, it was ratified by a small sample of 48 countries, and it is based on suspiciously Western sounding language. Everyone has a right to education and health care, but — as Prinz pointed out during the discussion — what level of education and health care?

Still, the U.N. declaration was passed 48-0 with just 8 abstentions (Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). It includes 30 articles of ethical standards agreed upon by 48 countries around the world. Such a document does give us more reason to think that public discourse can lead to significant agreement upon moral values, even if debate will inevitably persist.

Reason might not be able to arrive at moral truths, but it can push us to test and question the rationality of our values — a crucial cog in the process that leads to the adoption of new, or modified values. The only way to reduce disputes about morality is to try to get people on the same page about their moral goals. Given the above, this will not be easy, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too optimistic in our ability to employ reason to figure things out. But reason is still the best, and even only, tool we can wield, and while it might not provide us with a truly objective morality, it’s enough to save us from a complete moral relativism.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.


#1 J. (Guest) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 at 5:31pm

Morality is about must and must not behaviors. Moral objectivists hold that moral ideas are derived from some incontrovertible source. I don’t know of any such source except god. One might expect to see more consistent uniformity, for example say among christian evangelicals and god fearing atheists. Moral relativists acknowledge that their moral notions derive from the societies and cultures of human, oh so human beings which have been developing over eons. Lacking guidance from the celestial commander in chief, relativists have to make do with the example of the consequences which have followed acts. Relativists are not obligated to refrain from acting on and vigorously defending their empathetic and humane values.

#2 gray1 on Wednesday March 16, 2011 at 6:33pm

For what it is worth, I fully agree with Dr. Prinz (which makes him brilliant, at least in my opinion).  Relative morality is all that any two or more people have to work with, each his own.  No, people can not always agree with each other but to each his own cup of reality, and to each his own draft of morality.  Everyone should be rightly convinced of the truth of his own well considered convictions and in fact each determination may represent the truth, or at least a truth, even as hard as that particular paradox is to accept across the board.

That is why we have developed the force of Law in which again many will disagree as to points thereof, yet that is what constitutes the whole of our objectivity, and that is which we have collectively placed in authority of us all.  It is our faith that such will always be just.  Plus the law has the advantage that it can ultimately be changed if force of reason prevails.

#3 Michael De Dora on Wednesday March 16, 2011 at 8:59pm


There are also moral objectivists who trust in science and reason for moral facts (and some who cite neither these nor God). Broadly speaking, the approach is this (from Wiki):

1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
2. Some such propositions are true.
3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion.

I still do not know how I feel about moral realism, but I do believe science and reason are sufficient tools to look at things more objectively, and help us lead rational and good moral lives.

#4 Joel (Guest) on Thursday March 17, 2011 at 6:35pm

I may trust Sam Harris’ sincerity and share his moral values but I have no faith in the provability of his assertion. (Would that it were just a proposition.) Does he even try? Objectivity is more successful in considering the likely consequences of behavior in the light of our experience than in knowing what nature or whatever commands. Besides god what source is reasonably claimed as incontrovertible? Is there any philosophical argument that can’t be contradicted? That some moral propositions are true is still a question. And which moral propositions? Isn’t that just what we’d like to know? If I knew the answer to that I might be able to count the number of angels on the head of a pin. The science and reason of morals has nowhere to go without moral values. In the absence of incontrovertible moral truth I imagine a moral relativism that esteems science, reason, enlightenment, secular society, empathy and humane moral values. It’s the best I can do.

#5 Joel (Guest) on Friday March 18, 2011 at 2:10pm


Sorry I got it wrong. I have it from good authority, Wikipedia. I should have said “dance.” Angels don’t just stand around.

#6 paul_w on Thursday March 31, 2011 at 11:11am

I think a lot of people misread Harris, and that’s largely his fault because he mis-states some of his own claims.

Harris DOES agree with Hume—-and almost everybody else—-that you can’t get “from is to ought” rationally in the sense of starting with no preferences and reasoning your way into actually wanting something.

He doesn’t make that clear enough, but I think that’s one reason why he, too, talks about sociopaths, and acknowledges that no amount of moral understanding will make them moral persons—-they may intellectually recognize what’s right and wrong, but they’re just not wired in such a way as to care in the right way, and be moral.

In an important sense, Sam Harris is a moral relativist in roughly the way (famous meta-ethicist) Gilbert Harman is.

He thinks that saying that something is wrong is to say that it violates certain standards that we would agree on in “reflective equilibrium”—-i.e., if we knew all the facts and reasoned things through fully and flawlessly, but that the standards we’d ultimately agree on depend on having certain basic preferences (or beliefs about preferences) to start with.

Harris is NOT denying that.

What Harris is claiming is that there are some preferences that generally don’t survive in reflective equilibrium, and a few that generally do.

For example, a preference that other people not have gay sex is not likely to survive learning about sexuality and where it comes from and how it works, what homosexuals are like, that there’s no morally authoritative God that says it’s wrong, etc.

On the other hand, some preferences do generally survive in rational equilibrium—-e.g., the preference that, all other things being equal, people don’t go around inflicting grievous harm and suffering on others, for no really good reason.

For example, somebody in Taliban culure may endorse morality police throwing battery acid in little girls’ faces, if they are so uppity as to go to school, like boys do.

Seeing that acid-throwing as a justified response to school attendance is unlikely to survive full reflection on all the relevant facts—-e.g., that girls are not innately very mentally different from boys, such that they are naturally suited only to submissive and menial roles, while men do all the learning and decision-making and are catered to.  (And learning that there’s no god who actually decreed that women should be submissive to to men, etc.)

The basic idea is that strong forms of cultural relativism are wrong—-most people have the same basic moral preferences, which they could eventually agree on, despite their differences in non-basic preferences (acid throwing, gay sex) at any given time.  Most of the glaring differences in moral systems would disappear in fully-informed rational reflection, and people from different cultures would converge to much more similar systems in light of all the actual facts.

I guess you could say that basic humanistic morality is grounded in human nature.

Philosphers disagree on the terminology of such things.  Some would call it relativism, because reflective convergence depends on certain preferences, not some absolute standard given by God or woven into the fundametal fabric of reality.

Others would call it realism and objectivism, because we’re talking about a real natural phenomenon—-morality is an evolved capacity, like respiration, and is a certain “natural kind,” such the nature of informed, reflective morality is another “natural kind”—-something we discovered, not just something we made up.

The terminology of metaethics is very tricky, which is one reason Harris didn’t go into it much.  “relativism” and “realism” and “objective” mean different things in different senses.

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