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September 7, 2016 - The Relativist Challenge
• Metaethics: the investigation of what ethical thought and talk is really all about
– Central questions: Can ethical claims be objectively correct or incorrect,
independent of what people happen to think about them?
– If so, how can we determine whether or not an ethical claim is correct?
• Many people are tempted towards the view that there are no objective ethical truths
– Ethical Relativism: Different cultures just have different ethical views, and none
of these views can be more correct or accurate than any others
– Why might this seem plausible?
• Disagreement (just say it is due to culture), lack of objective support (no
good model to get objective ethics?), tolerance (not judging others for
their ethical morals)
The Argument from Disagreement
• The argument from ethical disagreement
– (P) Different cultures have different views about what’s right and wrong, good
and bad, etc.
– \ (C) There is no culture-independent fact of that matter about what’s right and
wrong, good and bad, etc.
• But does the mere fact that people disagree about something mean there’s no fact
of the matter about it?
• E.g. climate change,
• Any descriptive thing there
• The argument from geographical disagreement
• (P) Different cultures have different views about the shape of the earth (us –
‘round!’; them – ‘flat!’)
• \ (C) There is no culture-independent fact of that matter about the shape of the
• There is still a fact of the matter, we have the evidence to prove it, don’t want to
go from individuals disagree to the fact of the matter… How do we figure out the
truth of ethics?
Is Ethics Different?
• In the case of earth-shape, history, biology, etc.
– We have methods of resolving the disagreement, even though applications can
be variant, and challenges to the evidence. But there is a realization that evidence
must be presented for these claims.
– Views seem to reflect some common fact of the matter, even if we don’t know
what it is. Empirical study vs. normative study. Beliefs can latch onto the effects,
no concrete reality in ethics.
• In some cases, might seem to be no way of showing one side’s ethical view to be
– Cremating the dead (Greeks) vs. funerary cannibalism (Callatians)
– There can be situations where neither side has plausible objective support…
Overall theme is similar. The objectively right view is to respect the deceased by
whatever conventional method is best.
• But are all examples like this?
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– Here, it’s plausible that we have different conventional ways of meeting a shared
objective – namely respecting the dead
– Cf. driving on right vs. left, shaking hands vs. bowing
– If you confuse your convention for showing respect as universal, then you risk
offending other cultures by not showing respect that they do.
Is There No Method for Ethics?
• Maybe both sides are wrong that theirs is the only permissible funerary practice
– Why would showing respect by eating be worse than by burning?
• Actually found: eating can transmit prion diseases
– All can agree that suffering and deprivation of future goods by death should be
– Seem like plausible basic categories of things to avoid (i.e. suffering and
• But suppose eating the dead didn’t risk prion disease
– What would be wrong with using it to show respect?
– Seems implausible that eating per se – independent of harm or disrespect – should
be a basic category of wrongful act
• Might try claiming: “it’s just unnatural to eat dead loved ones”
– But what does “unnatural” mean? Just “not typically done (around here)”? “not
done for most of history”?