Ethical relativism is a seriously problematic idea. First ethical relativism may be a self-defeating position if it rests on some kind of relativism about truth. If facts are relative then naturally ethical facts are relative. However if facts are relative then the fact that facts are relative is itself relative. Which means it may not be a fact for some people. But if it isn’t a fact for some people then it is a fact for those people that facts are facts for everyone. And if facts are facts for everyone then they are facts for those people and relativists alike. And thus relativism has just refuted itself. Now ethical relativism does not necessarily require endorsing relativism about facts in general, but it is hard to see how ethical relativism can be given a solid foundation without adopting some kind of relativism about truth. We might consider an ethical relativism that is in terms of facts about the individuals, such as: given your society and desires you should do X. Obviously X would then vary from person to person, making it in some sense relative. However it is an objective fact that X is what you should do given those factors, your society and your desires. And in that sense such a theory is not relative at all, certainly not much more relative than any other ethical theory, because all ethical theories relativize what you should do to the situations you find yourself in, at the very least. (It is OK to kill a person if that is the only way to save a great number of others, but it is not OK to kill a person otherwise. Thus the fact about whether it is OK to kill someone is “relative” to the situation.) The other problem for ethical relativism is the Nazi problem. An acceptable theory of ethics must allow us to claim that the Nazis were, in fact, wrong, and not that it is just our opinion that the Nazis were wrong. If our ethical theory doesn’t allow us to say at least that much then we aren’t really dealing with an ethical theory, but rather a kind of ethical nihilism, which says that there are no ethical facts but only opinions, emotive connotation, or whatever that pretend to be facts. The theory may give a detailed treatment of these facts, and explain why we think of them as ethical facts, why we think of them as giving us a basis to condemn the Nazis, but that doesn’t make them really ethical facts.
Why do I even bother to bring this up? Haven’t the above considerations pretty much decisively refuted relativism? Well, in my opinion they have, but papers keep appearing in support of relativism, no matter how many times it is rejected. Most recent is Kenneth A Taylor’s paper How To Be A Relativist. He claims that there is a version of relativism that avoids both the problems described above, and which is thus worthy of consideration. So let’s examine how his version of relativism responds to the above problems.
Taylor tries to solve the first problem by avoiding endorsing a full-blown relativism about truth by saying that what makes a principle ethically normative is that it is endorsed by competent reflection. Since he doesn’t define competent reflection as ideal or error-free reflection we can admit that what is endorsed by competent reflection may very well differ from person to person. But even a non-relativistic theory about ethics can accept such a claim. In a non-relativistic ethical theory you should do what follows from the objective ethical principles. However, no one reasons correctly all the time, and so such an ethical theory would endorse your acting in ways endorsed by your competent reflection, since that is the closest you can get to acting in agreement with the objectively correct ethical principles. To turn this idea into a form of relativism requires a further assumption, namely that there isn’t an objectively right way to improve our competent reflection. And Taylor does accept this additional claim:
There is no privileged stance, no transcendental ground, fixed once and for all, from outside of history and culture, from which we may determine by whose lights the “truth” is to be measured in such disputes. This is not to deny that we typically do measure by our own current lights and that we take ourselves to be entitled to measure by our own lights. But as dear as our own lights may be to us, they enjoy no antecedent privilege except that of being our own.
But to accept that our competent reasoning can’t be improved, in objective terms, is tantamount to accepting that there is no objective truth in general. For example, consider the simple claim: I am either at the store or I am not at the store. I accept this claim because I accept a certain principle of reason that implies that all statement of the form p or not-p are true. Now it is quite possible that someone else may not accept that fact as a basis for their reasoning, and thus may not come to the same conclusion that I do. But we must accept that it is a fact that the principle of reasoning I am employing in fact tracks the truth while whatever alternate principle they are using, which does not motivate them to deduce the same fact, is objectively inferior in terms of tracking the truth, a fact that would be easy to demonstrate to such a person (I would hope). If Taylor is saying that such principles of deduction are relative then he is throwing every fact into question, and as shown earlier this undermines the relativistic position itself. For the sake of charity then let us assume that Taylor doesn’t want to endorse a position that extreme. Which means that there are claims that we could all agree on, such as: the optimal course of action in order to satisfy your desires in this particular situation is X, the optimal course of action to fulfill everyone’s desires as much as possible is Y, etc, etc. Now of course there is still room for some disagreement. One group of people may call acting in way X ethical, while another may call acting in way Y ethical, etc. We could of course try to settle the dispute of which to call ethical by deciding which course of action is the most normative, or should have the most pull on the individual. But in a sense this is simply a word game. You and I may call different things ethical, but if we both agree on what is the optimal course of action given priorities X then we agree on all that matters. So there is a little room for relativism here, but not much, and probably not as much as Taylor seems to want, as there is nothing preventing us from discussing, under different standards, which priorities are better, given those standards.*
But that is really the superficial problem. Even if we grant that ethical relativism can exist without an assumption of complete relativism about truth Taylor’s position still fails to deal successfully with the Nazi problem. Taylor’s attempted solution is to point out that some of our norms may “travel”, meaning that to accept such a norm is not just to accept that we should act in a certain way, but to accept that others should act in that way as well. But the rub is that even if you endorse a particular traveling norm that doesn’t give me any reason to accept that norm, a point Taylor recognizes. Taylor’s solution to this is to suppose that most of us have come to accept that we should be governed by one another’s traveling norms. But this doesn’t solve the Nazi problem, nor is it a particularly convincing solution. It isn’t very convincing because it is easy to imagine a person or group who have the norm of refusing to be bound by the traveling norms of other people (xenophobes). And there would be nothing we could say to convince these people to drop this attitude, not even appeals to harmony between our groups, because they may not value harmony between different groups. Nor does it solve the Nazi problem, because it seems to imply that the Nazi’s have as much right to expect us to be conform by their norms as we have the right to expect them to conform to ours; as much right to condemn us as we have to condemn them. To endorse this is to admit that one is very confused about what is right and wrong.
Now a moral relativist may object, and argue that the Nazi problem is unfair because it seems to require an objective basis on which we can say that the Nazis were wrong. Is this simply an instance of prejudging the question? It may be, but I contend that there are more than theoretical reasons for demanding an answer to the Nazi question; if we accept an ethical theory as true we need a guarantee that it won’t allow us to become Nazis. This requires more than the ability to condemn Nazis, as even an emotive theory of ethics allows us to do that. A satisfactory ethical theory needs to allow us to improve ourselves, to determine when we are ethically in error**. A relativist theory does not allow such corrections; it supports whatever norms we happen to have. And that is unacceptable.
* How to get back to objective ethics from here, my version: we all agree that we want to lead the good life (the life that maximally fulfills our desires). The best way to lead the good life is to be part of society (if it wasn’t societies wouldn’t stay around long, as people would be motivated by their desires to leave). If you are part of society then it is best to do what is best for society as a whole. And those actions are what we call ethical.
** We can phrase this in terms that make relativism almost self-defeating. Simply make the reasonable assumption that people’s ethical norms include the requirement to ethically improve their norms, which I think is a sentiment most share. Given that, our norms demand that we discover and endorse an objective ethical theory, in order to really improve our norms. We can’t accept a relativist theory, because we don’t want to just have our existing norms validated. Thus the norms of many, although not all, motivate a rejection of relativism. And if relativism says that the norms of these people can’t be rejected then relativism admits that there is nothing it can say against people who reject it in principle.