A Refutation of a Refutation of Moral Relativism

First off, I am not a relativist, but there is one refutation of relativism that has always seemed a little fishy to me. Lots of famous people have used this argument including Sam Harris featured several posts ago.

Relativism says that there is no universal moral code, and that all moral standards need to be created within a cultural/social/individual situation. So there are no absolutes in right or wrong, it all needs to be considered in context.

So lets look at the argument against it. It comes from logic. There are no universals. But that statement seems to indicate a universal moral principle: we must always make moral judments based on context. So it is a condtradictory theory in that it proposes a statement that can’t be true or false. “There are no universals” is sort of Godel-esque. If it is true, then it itself cannot exist, and if it is false, then the theory is wrong.

There are a few issues I have with this analysis. First off, I think that we change levels when we talk about that statement. The statement’s truth or false refers to the content of the theory, whereas to talk about the truth or false of the statement is a meta-level higher. For example, you can globally define a variable in programming (not recommended, by the way). You have a universal for your program, but each time it is instantiated it could take on a different or varying meaning. This is like saying relativism can have the universal principle to not harm others, but in different contexts this could be displayed rather differently. Maybe a few people have to be harmed to prevent a lot of others from being harmed. Maybe two people get pleasure out of harming eachother that outweighs the harm. So there is a level distinction, where even if relativists don’t make any of these universal claims, we can see how a universal claim can be implemented relativistically.

Well, I used the term “first” but accidentally did both of my refutations in one. I was going to separate how logically statements involving universals can be done at different levels, and then the second point as how there could be implicit universals in relativism without changing the essence of the theory.

As with any post on ethics, I’m not sure if this has been done before or if this is a good argument, but it has always been something that bothered me since I didn’t think it really had any merit in attacking relativism. (Remember, it is sort of weird that I’m defending it since I don’t subscribe to it for reasons not mentioned here).


4 thoughts on “A Refutation of a Refutation of Moral Relativism

  1. There are similar “disproofs”, eg. is the principle of falsifiability falsifiable?

    I agree — such disproofs don’t really do the work the people making them think they’re doing.

  2. You might be right that this argument against moral relativism doesn’t work but I think there are some similar disproofs that work just fine.

    I heard a couple similar arguments to the one you just gave, but I think they work a lot better:

    Relativism about “truth” says that whatever is “true” is only “true” for a specific person. Here we are saying something “true” objectively, then we deny that objective truth can exist. Therefore, truth can’t be relative in this way. This argument works perfectly fine because one categorical level is denied in the first place.

    Moral relativism is motivated greatly by the principal of tolerance, but not all cultures/people value tolerance. Therefore, relativism motivated by tolerance is self-defeating.

  3. Michael, I don’t think many philosophers are impressed by the principal of falsifiability. Logical positivism is no longer popular. How exactly do you want to defend the principal of falsifiability?

  4. Prescriptions have no objective correct or incorrect truth values; the only forms which have objective truth values are representations and the truth value is the degree of correspondence with what’s being represented. Prescriptions are artificially crafted to help us. Retroactive labels slapped on acts – moral or immoral acts – are based off of the interior of us as subjects and so are subjective.

    Those are my thoughts.

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