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Internet Philosophical Resources on Moral Relativism

Last updated on May 24, 2002

 

Lawrence M. Hinman, "Ethical Relativism," University of San Diego, 1997.  RealVideo. Get the Real Player

Hugh LaFollette, "The Truth in Ethical Relativism," Journal of Social Philosophy, 1991, 146-54.

James Fieser,  ed. University of Tennessee, Martin, ."Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Moral Relativism" 

Steven Darwall,  University of Michigan, "Meta-Ethics IV: Relativism

Charles Ess,  Drury College, "Reason, Revolution, Relativism, and Reactionaries"

Michael Huemer, Rutgers University, "Moral Objectivism".

Stephen C. Angle,  Wesleyan University, "Cognitive and Ethical Pluralisms"

Noam Chomsky, "Force and Opinion"

Chad Hansen, University of Hong Kong, "Do Human Rights Apply to China? A Normative Analysis of Cultural Difference

Patricia S. Greenspan, University of Maryland, "Moral Responses and Moral Theory: Socially-Based Externalist Ethic." Originally published in Journal of Ethics

Gilbert Harman, Princeton University, "Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error" and "Reply to a Critic"

Ronald Dworkin, "Objectivity and Truth," Philosophy & Public Affairs 25, no. 2 (Spring 1996).

Richard Rorty, "Moral Universalism and Economic Triage," The Second Unesco Philosophy Forum, 1996.

Peter Unger, "Contextual Analysis in Ethics"

Yael Tamir, "Hands Off Clitoridectomy: What our revulsion reveals about ourselves." The Boston Review, 1996.

NPR's Talk of the Nation: "Cultural Relativism." Join Ray Suarez and his guests for a discussion of the problems of political asylum seekers who, instead of fleeing war or famine, are leaving their countries because of cultural practices. An immigration judge denied asylum in the case of Fauziya Kasinga, a refugee from Togo who fled her tribe to escape genital mutilation, and then jailed her as an illegal immigrant. Kasinga is now free, awaiting a decision in her appeal, in part because of an international outcry in her defense. How should the United States decide these cases? When a culture engages in practices that Americans find abhorrent, should the U.S. provide asylum? Are we then condemning that culture? May 9, 1996.

A Bibliographical Survey of Ethical Relativism

Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory

(Bibliographical essays are drawn from Lawrence M. Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, 2nd Edition (Harcourt, Brace, 1997) © 1997)

A Survey of Selected Philosophical Literature on Ethical Relativism

Anthopology and Relativism

Ruth Benedict’s "A Defense of Moral Relativism," The Journal of General Psychology, Vol. 10 (1934), pp. 59-82 is one of the most influential and often-reprinted contemporary defenses of ethical relativism by a leading figure in twentieth century anthropology. It is reprinted in numerous anthologies, including Everyday Life, edited by Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers, 3rd edition (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1992). Also see Vice and Virtue in Edward Westermarck, and Development of the Moral Ideas (London: MacMillan, 1912) and, much more recently, Richard A. Shweder, "Anthropology's The Origin Romantic Rebellion against the Enlightenment: Or There's More to Thinking than Reason and Evidence," Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion, edited by R. A. Shweder and R. A. Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). For a fascinating study of the history and morality of bribes, see John T. Noonan, Jr.’s Bribes California Press, 1984).(Berkeley: University of University of California Press, 1984).

Introductory Anthologies on Moral Relativism

There are several good introductory anthologies containing a number of the basic articles on moral relativism, including Relativism: Cognitive and Moral, edited by Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), which contains essays by Philippa Foot, Bernard Williams, Gilbert Harman, David Lyons, and Geoffrey Harrison; and Relativism: Interpretation and Conflict, edited with an Introduction by Michael Krausz (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) contains an excellent selection of articles primarily by philosophers but also contains articles by two eminent anthropologists, Clifford Geertz and Richard Shweder. Also see Objectivity and Cultural Divergence, edited by S. C. Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), which contains a number of insightful papers on the possibility of objectivity (including, but not limited to, moral objectivity) in light of cultural differences. For an excellent survey of recent work on moral relativism, see Robert M. Stewart and Lynn L. Thomas, "Recent Work on Ethical Relativism.," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 28 (April, 1991), pp. 85-100; also see the extensive bibliography on relativism in Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987).

Relativism and Tolerance

On the relationship between relativism and tolerance, see Joshua Halberstam's "The Paradox of Tolerance," Philosophical Forum, Vol. 14 (1982/83), pp. 190-206; Geoffrey Harrison’s "Relativism and Tolerance," Ethics, Vol. 86 (1976), pp. 122-35; Max Hocutt’s "Must Relativists Tolerate Evil?", The Philosophical Forum, Vol. 17 (Spring 1986), pp. 188-200; Nicholas Unwin’s "Relativism and Moral Complacency," Philosophy, Vol. 60 (1985), pp. 205-14; Jay Newman’s "Ethical Relativism," Laval Théologique et Philosophique, Vol. 28 (1972), pp. 63-74 and his "The Idea of Religious Tolerance," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 15 (1978), pp. 187-95. Also see J. Budziszewski, True Tolerance. Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgment (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992) for a critique of the liberal notion of tolerance and Nick Fotion and Gerard Elfstrom, Toleration (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992) for a strong defense of the moral importance of tolerance. On the related notions of compromise and accommodation, see Martin Benjamin, Splitting the Difference: Compromise and Integrity in Ethics and Politics (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1990) and David Wong, "Coping with Moral Conflict and Ambiguity," Ethics, Vol. 102, No. 4 (July, 1992), pp. 763-84.

Moral Disagreement

One of the more persuasive arguments in favor of relativism from the fact of moral disagreement is to be found in J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1976). Also see Thomas L. McClintock’s "The Argument for Ethical Relativism from the Diversity of Morals," The Monist, Vol. 47 (1963), pp. 528-44; Judith Wagner DeCew, "Moral Conflicts and Ethical Relativism," Ethics, Vol. 101 (October, 1990), pp. 27-41; Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, "Moral Conflict and Political Consensus," Ethics, Vol. 101 (October, 1990), pp. 64-88 and their Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); Kai Nielsen, "On the Diversity of Moral Beliefs," Cultural Hermeneutics, Vol. 2 (1974), pp. 281-303; Carl Wellman, "Ethical Disagreement and Objective Truth," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 12 (1975), pp. 211-21; James D. Wallace, Moral Relevance and Moral Conflict (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988); and Michael Stocker, Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). For a defense of a middle ground on moral realism, see Richard W. Miller, Moral Differences: Truth, Justice, and Conscience in a World of Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

For critical assessments of Mackie’s position, especially in regard to the question of moral realism, see David O. Brink’s "Moral Realism and the Skeptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness," Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 62 (1984), pp. 111-25 and William Tolhurst, "The Argument from Moral Disagreement," Ethics, Vol. 87 (April, 1987), pp. 610-21. The anthology Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie, edited by Ted Honderich (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985) contains essays by Blackburn, Foot, Hare, Hurley, Lukes, McDowell, Sen, Wiggins, and Williams on the issues raised by Mackie. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord’s Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell, 1988) contains a number of excellent essays (including one by Mackie) for and against moral realism. Also see Robert L. Arrington, Rationalism, Realism, and Relativism: Perspectives in Contemporary Moral Epistemology (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989) for an overview of recent work in this area.

Some of the most interesting work on the issue of ethical relativism stems from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, 2nd edition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). He has carried this work forward in two later books: Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), which examines competing conceptions of moral discourse, and Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), which is devoted to an examination of changing conceptions of justice and rationality. Also see his "Relativism, Power and Philosophy," Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association, Vol. 59 (September, 1985), pp. 5-22. In this same tradition, also see Jeffrey Stout’s Ethics After Babel. The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988); and James Boyd White's When Words Lose Their Meaning. Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Gilbert Harman has offered a vigorous defense of ethical relativism in Gilbert Harman’s "Moral Relativism Defended," Philosophical Review, Vol. 84 (1975), pp. 3-22; his "Relativistic Ethics: Morality as Politics," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 3 (1978), pp. 109-21; and his "What Is Moral Relativism?" in Values and Morals, edited by Alvin I. Goldman and Jaegwon Kim (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1978). Steven Darwall’s "Harman and Moral Relativism," The Personalist, Vol. 58 (1977), pp. 199-207 and Louis P. Pojman’s "Gilbert Harman's Internalist Moral Relativism," The Modern Schoolman, Vol. 68 (November, 1990), pp. 19-39 present some insightful criticisms of Harman’s position. For a recent defense of a version of causal relativism, see S. F. Sapontzis, "Moral Relativism: A Causal Interpretation and Defense," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 24 (October 1987), pp. 329-37.

For a subtle account of the ways in which philosophical theories are connected to certain contexts of questions, see Virginia Held, Rights and Goods: Justifying Social Action (New York: The Free Press, 1984). For a variant of the spotlight metaphor, see Dorothy Emmet, The Moral Prism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979). On the checks and balances metaphor, see Amélie Rorty’s essay, "Two Faces of Courage," in her Mind in Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988) where this metaphor is used to a different purpose, and her essay, "The Advantages of Moral Diversity," Social Philosophy & Policy, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 38-62.

Ethical Pluralism

For a number of perceptive essays on ethical pluralism, see the Symposium on Pluralism and Ethical Theory in Ethics, Vol. 102, No. 4 (July, 1992), especially Susan Wolf’s "Two Levels of Pluralism," pp. 785-98 and David B.Wong’s "Coping with Moral Conflict and Ambiguity," pp. 763-84. I am indebted to Wolf’s essay for the reference to Gert and his "best hitter" analogy. Also see John Kekes, "Pluralism and Conflict in Morality," Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 26 (1992), pp. 37-50 for an insightful discussion of this issue, as well as his The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983) develops a pluralistic approach to distributive justice; for further discussion of Walzer's position, see Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, edited by David Miller and Michael Walzer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). Neil Cooper’s The Diversity of Moral Thinking (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) presents a justification of the rationality of altruism within the context of a theory of diversity in moral judgments. Michael Stocker’s Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) presents a subtle account of the relationship between pluralism and conflict in morality and a perceptive analysis of the reasons why contemporary moral philosophers find such conflict so disturbing. Nicholas Rescher defends a pragmatic version of pluralism in Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

 

Discussion Questions

  1. A friend of mine taught English as a second language to a group of Southeast Asian students in Southern California. Over the months she developed an excellent rapport with the students. When she became pregnant, they were all happy for her and her husband, even having a baby shower after class one night. My friend was delighted when she delivered a beautiful, healthy seven pound girl. She was shocked and puzzled when, several days after the students in her class had heard of the birth, she began to receive cards of condolence from them! It soon became clear. In their culture, having a son as a first child is a matter of great joy, and they all sympathized with what they presumed was her sense of deep disappointment that she had given birth to a girl.
    Discuss the issues that this example raises about moral relativism. If you were in my friend's position, how would you deal with the situation?
  2. Near the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, native Americans for centuries have considered Blue Lake, on the slopes of Mount Wheeler, a sacred place, as holy to them as a church is to Christians. During the 1970’s, residents of the Pueblo engaged in a long and ultimately successful judicial and legislative battle to regain control of Blue Lake. While Blue Lake meant one thing to native Americans, it meant something quite different to most non-Native Americans. How do you think such differences should be resolved? What principles to you appeal to in deciding who should have control of the land?
  3. In some countries, thieves are still punished by having a hand chopped off. In the United States, we punish thieves quite differently. In light of our discussion of ethical relativism, how should we proceed in a discussion of the morality of punishments such as chopping off a hand?
  4. In Peter Weir’s movie Witness, we find an interesting clash of two cultures: the pacifist world of the Amish and the violence-ridden world of a Philadelphia police detective played by Harrison Ford. What would the normative ethical relativist have to say about their interaction, and especially about how Harrison Ford should behave while living with the Amish? Do you agree with the relativist’s normative recommendations? Why or why not?
  5. The movie The Mission opens with a startling scene: a Catholic priest is being tied alive to a cross and then is pushed out into a river that eventually goes over a huge waterfall, killing the priest. What would the normative ethical relativist have to say about this event? Was it just another case of ‘when in Rome¼ ,’ or did it violate some basic principle of morality that we should all uphold? Why or why not?
  6. In The Mission, Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit missionary in South America and Robert de Niro depicts a slave trader who gives up his former life and becomes a Jesuit as well. Both bring foreign values to the native inhabitants. What would the normative ethical relativist say about Jeremy Iron’s activities among the natives as a missionary? What would the same relativist say about Robert de Niro’s slave trading among the natives? In the eyes of the relativist, are there any morally relevant differences between the two? If so, what are they? If not, why not? How would you assess the behavior of both men in light of our discussion of moral relativism?
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Internet Philosophical Resources on Moral Relativism

Last updated on January 16, 2002

 

Lawrence M. Hinman, "Ethical Relativism," University of San Diego, 1997.  RealVideo. Get the Real Player

Hugh LaFollette, "The Truth in Ethical Relativism," Journal of Social Philosophy, 1991, 146-54.

James Fieser,  ed. University of Tennessee, Martin, ."Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Moral Relativism" 

Steven Darwall,  University of Michigan, "Meta-Ethics IV: Relativism

Charles Ess,  Drury College, "Reason, Revolution, Relativism, and Reactionaries"

Michael Huemer, Rutgers University, "Moral Objectivism".

Stephen C. Angle,  Wesleyan University, "Cognitive and Ethical Pluralisms"

Noam Chomsky, "Force and Opinion"

Chad Hansen, University of Hong Kong, "Do Human Rights Apply to China? A Normative Analysis of Cultural Difference

Patricia S. Greenspan, University of Maryland, "Moral Responses and Moral Theory: Socially-Based Externalist Ethic." Originally published in Journal of Ethics

Gilbert Harman, Princeton University, "Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error" and "Reply to a Critic"

Ronald Dworkin, "Objectivity and Truth," Philosophy & Public Affairs 25, no. 2 (Spring 1996).

Richard Rorty, "Moral Universalism and Economic Triage," The Second Unesco Philosophy Forum, 1996.

Peter Unger, "Contextual Analysis in Ethics"

Yael Tamir, "Hands Off Clitoridectomy: What our revulsion reveals about ourselves." The Boston Review, 1996.

NPR's Talk of the Nation: "Cultural Relativism." Join Ray Suarez and his guests for a discussion of the problems of political asylum seekers who, instead of fleeing war or famine, are leaving their countries because of cultural practices. An immigration judge denied asylum in the case of Fauziya Kasinga, a refugee from Togo who fled her tribe to escape genital mutilation, and then jailed her as an illegal immigrant. Kasinga is now free, awaiting a decision in her appeal, in part because of an international outcry in her defense. How should the United States decide these cases? When a culture engages in practices that Americans find abhorrent, should the U.S. provide asylum? Are we then condemning that culture? May 9, 1996.

A Bibliographical Survey of Ethical Relativism

Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory

(Bibliographical essays are drawn from Lawrence M. Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, 2nd Edition (Harcourt, Brace, 1997) © 1997)

A Survey of Selected Philosophical Literature on Ethical Relativism

Anthopology and Relativism

Ruth Benedict’s "A Defense of Moral Relativism," The Journal of General Psychology, Vol. 10 (1934), pp. 59-82 is one of the most influential and often-reprinted contemporary defenses of ethical relativism by a leading figure in twentieth century anthropology. It is reprinted in numerous anthologies, including Everyday Life, edited by Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers, 3rd edition (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1992). Also see Vice and Virtue in Edward Westermarck, and Development of the Moral Ideas (London: MacMillan, 1912) and, much more recently, Richard A. Shweder, "Anthropology's The Origin Romantic Rebellion against the Enlightenment: Or There's More to Thinking than Reason and Evidence," Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion, edited by R. A. Shweder and R. A. Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). For a fascinating study of the history and morality of bribes, see John T. Noonan, Jr.’s Bribes California Press, 1984).(Berkeley: University of University of California Press, 1984).

Introductory Anthologies on Moral Relativism

There are several good introductory anthologies containing a number of the basic articles on moral relativism, including Relativism: Cognitive and Moral, edited by Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), which contains essays by Philippa Foot, Bernard Williams, Gilbert Harman, David Lyons, and Geoffrey Harrison; and Relativism: Interpretation and Conflict, edited with an Introduction by Michael Krausz (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) contains an excellent selection of articles primarily by philosophers but also contains articles by two eminent anthropologists, Clifford Geertz and Richard Shweder. Also see Objectivity and Cultural Divergence, edited by S. C. Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), which contains a number of insightful papers on the possibility of objectivity (including, but not limited to, moral objectivity) in light of cultural differences. For an excellent survey of recent work on moral relativism, see Robert M. Stewart and Lynn L. Thomas, "Recent Work on Ethical Relativism.," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 28 (April, 1991), pp. 85-100; also see the extensive bibliography on relativism in Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987).

Relativism and Tolerance

On the relationship between relativism and tolerance, see Joshua Halberstam's "The Paradox of Tolerance," Philosophical Forum, Vol. 14 (1982/83), pp. 190-206; Geoffrey Harrison’s "Relativism and Tolerance," Ethics, Vol. 86 (1976), pp. 122-35; Max Hocutt’s "Must Relativists Tolerate Evil?", The Philosophical Forum, Vol. 17 (Spring 1986), pp. 188-200; Nicholas Unwin’s "Relativism and Moral Complacency," Philosophy, Vol. 60 (1985), pp. 205-14; Jay Newman’s "Ethical Relativism," Laval Théologique et Philosophique, Vol. 28 (1972), pp. 63-74 and his "The Idea of Religious Tolerance," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 15 (1978), pp. 187-95. Also see J. Budziszewski, True Tolerance. Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgment (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992) for a critique of the liberal notion of tolerance and Nick Fotion and Gerard Elfstrom, Toleration (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992) for a strong defense of the moral importance of tolerance. On the related notions of compromise and accommodation, see Martin Benjamin, Splitting the Difference: Compromise and Integrity in Ethics and Politics (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1990) and David Wong, "Coping with Moral Conflict and Ambiguity," Ethics, Vol. 102, No. 4 (July, 1992), pp. 763-84.

Moral Disagreement

One of the more persuasive arguments in favor of relativism from the fact of moral disagreement is to be found in J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1976). Also see Thomas L. McClintock’s "The Argument for Ethical Relativism from the Diversity of Morals," The Monist, Vol. 47 (1963), pp. 528-44; Judith Wagner DeCew, "Moral Conflicts and Ethical Relativism," Ethics, Vol. 101 (October, 1990), pp. 27-41; Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, "Moral Conflict and Political Consensus," Ethics, Vol. 101 (October, 1990), pp. 64-88 and their Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); Kai Nielsen, "On the Diversity of Moral Beliefs," Cultural Hermeneutics, Vol. 2 (1974), pp. 281-303; Carl Wellman, "Ethical Disagreement and Objective Truth," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 12 (1975), pp. 211-21; James D. Wallace, Moral Relevance and Moral Conflict (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988); and Michael Stocker, Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). For a defense of a middle ground on moral realism, see Richard W. Miller, Moral Differences: Truth, Justice, and Conscience in a World of Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

For critical assessments of Mackie’s position, especially in regard to the question of moral realism, see David O. Brink’s "Moral Realism and the Skeptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness," Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 62 (1984), pp. 111-25 and William Tolhurst, "The Argument from Moral Disagreement," Ethics, Vol. 87 (April, 1987), pp. 610-21. The anthology Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie, edited by Ted Honderich (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985) contains essays by Blackburn, Foot, Hare, Hurley, Lukes, McDowell, Sen, Wiggins, and Williams on the issues raised by Mackie. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord’s Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell, 1988) contains a number of excellent essays (including one by Mackie) for and against moral realism. Also see Robert L. Arrington, Rationalism, Realism, and Relativism: Perspectives in Contemporary Moral Epistemology (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989) for an overview of recent work in this area.

Some of the most interesting work on the issue of ethical relativism stems from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, 2nd edition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). He has carried this work forward in two later books: Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), which examines competing conceptions of moral discourse, and Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), which is devoted to an examination of changing conceptions of justice and rationality. Also see his "Relativism, Power and Philosophy," Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association, Vol. 59 (September, 1985), pp. 5-22. In this same tradition, also see Jeffrey Stout’s Ethics After Babel. The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988); and James Boyd White's When Words Lose Their Meaning. Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Gilbert Harman has offered a vigorous defense of ethical relativism in Gilbert Harman’s "Moral Relativism Defended," Philosophical Review, Vol. 84 (1975), pp. 3-22; his "Relativistic Ethics: Morality as Politics," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 3 (1978), pp. 109-21; and his "What Is Moral Relativism?" in Values and Morals, edited by Alvin I. Goldman and Jaegwon Kim (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1978). Steven Darwall’s "Harman and Moral Relativism," The Personalist, Vol. 58 (1977), pp. 199-207 and Louis P. Pojman’s "Gilbert Harman's Internalist Moral Relativism," The Modern Schoolman, Vol. 68 (November, 1990), pp. 19-39 present some insightful criticisms of Harman’s position. For a recent defense of a version of causal relativism, see S. F. Sapontzis, "Moral Relativism: A Causal Interpretation and Defense," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 24 (October 1987), pp. 329-37.

For a subtle account of the ways in which philosophical theories are connected to certain contexts of questions, see Virginia Held, Rights and Goods: Justifying Social Action (New York: The Free Press, 1984). For a variant of the spotlight metaphor, see Dorothy Emmet, The Moral Prism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979). On the checks and balances metaphor, see Amélie Rorty’s essay, "Two Faces of Courage," in her Mind in Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988) where this metaphor is used to a different purpose, and her essay, "The Advantages of Moral Diversity," Social Philosophy & Policy, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 38-62.

Ethical Pluralism

For a number of perceptive essays on ethical pluralism, see the Symposium on Pluralism and Ethical Theory in Ethics, Vol. 102, No. 4 (July, 1992), especially Susan Wolf’s "Two Levels of Pluralism," pp. 785-98 and David B.Wong’s "Coping with Moral Conflict and Ambiguity," pp. 763-84. I am indebted to Wolf’s essay for the reference to Gert and his "best hitter" analogy. Also see John Kekes, "Pluralism and Conflict in Morality," Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 26 (1992), pp. 37-50 for an insightful discussion of this issue, as well as his The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983) develops a pluralistic approach to distributive justice; for further discussion of Walzer's position, see Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, edited by David Miller and Michael Walzer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). Neil Cooper’s The Diversity of Moral Thinking (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) presents a justification of the rationality of altruism within the context of a theory of diversity in moral judgments. Michael Stocker’s Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) presents a subtle account of the relationship between pluralism and conflict in morality and a perceptive analysis of the reasons why contemporary moral philosophers find such conflict so disturbing. Nicholas Rescher defends a pragmatic version of pluralism in Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

 

Discussion Questions

  1. A friend of mine taught English as a second language to a group of Southeast Asian students in Southern California. Over the months she developed an excellent rapport with the students. When she became pregnant, they were all happy for her and her husband, even having a baby shower after class one night. My friend was delighted when she delivered a beautiful, healthy seven pound girl. She was shocked and puzzled when, several days after the students in her class had heard of the birth, she began to receive cards of condolence from them! It soon became clear. In their culture, having a son as a first child is a matter of great joy, and they all sympathized with what they presumed was her sense of deep disappointment that she had given birth to a girl.
    Discuss the issues that this example raises about moral relativism. If you were in my friend's position, how would you deal with the situation?
  2. Near the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, native Americans for centuries have considered Blue Lake, on the slopes of Mount Wheeler, a sacred place, as holy to them as a church is to Christians. During the 1970’s, residents of the Pueblo engaged in a long and ultimately successful judicial and legislative battle to regain control of Blue Lake. While Blue Lake meant one thing to native Americans, it meant something quite different to most non-Native Americans. How do you think such differences should be resolved? What principles to you appeal to in deciding who should have control of the land?
  3. In some countries, thieves are still punished by having a hand chopped off. In the United States, we punish thieves quite differently. In light of our discussion of ethical relativism, how should we proceed in a discussion of the morality of punishments such as chopping off a hand?
  4. In Peter Weir’s movie Witness, we find an interesting clash of two cultures: the pacifist world of the Amish and the violence-ridden world of a Philadelphia police detective played by Harrison Ford. What would the normative ethical relativist have to say about their interaction, and especially about how Harrison Ford should behave while living with the Amish? Do you agree with the relativist’s normative recommendations? Why or why not?
  5. The movie The Mission opens with a startling scene: a Catholic priest is being tied alive to a cross and then is pushed out into a river that eventually goes over a huge waterfall, killing the priest. What would the normative ethical relativist have to say about this event? Was it just another case of ‘when in Rome¼ ,’ or did it violate some basic principle of morality that we should all uphold? Why or why not?
  6. In The Mission, Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit missionary in South America and Robert de Niro depicts a slave trader who gives up his former life and becomes a Jesuit as well. Both bring foreign values to the native inhabitants. What would the normative ethical relativist say about Jeremy Iron’s activities among the natives as a missionary? What would the same relativist say about Robert de Niro’s slave trading among the natives? In the eyes of the relativist, are there any morally relevant differences between the two? If so, what are they? If not, why not? How would you assess the behavior of both men in light of our discussion of moral relativism?
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