Relativism is one of those terms more often used in the pejorative than in any serious philosophical sense. It’s like a cautionary sign at the edge of a cliff pronouncing “Caution! Precipice ahead!” Any argument in ethics that steers towards relativism – or even any argument that steers away from objectivity and absoluteness – sets off the usual slew of anti-relativism klaxons.
Yet as I delve deeper into writing my thesis, I can already hear the klaxons blaring.
Now, those who have read my previous posts on moral ecology might be surprised to hear that I’m beginning to see it as a form of relativism. After all, I suggest that the problems that morality is trying to solve have no single solution, and often it requires multiple approaches working in concert (or in tension) to get the best outcomes.
That sounds relativist. And while I’m becoming more aware of that link, I hasten to highlight the differences between any Moral Ecology Brand Relativism from the more No-Name Brands that gather dust on the back shelf in the moral supermarket.
Relative to what?
Relativism is often construed in a way that says the truth of some ethical claim is not absolute but is indexical. Fair enough. But the question is: indexical to what?
One brand of relativism that gets dredged in lay discourse suggests that moral claims are relative to the individual’s whim. That’s the source of the “who am I to judge” line. It’s effectively a kind of bald subjectivism, in that what’s good is what I subjectively consider to be good.
But such a relativism is to me, and just about everybody who has thought about it for a minute or two, thoroughly untenable. The whole point of morality is to steer the behaviour of not just myself, but of those around me. Such bald subjectivism is impotent in this regard.
If I think stealing is wrong, and that makes me refrain from stealing, that’s all good and well. But if the claim that stealing is wrong is not intended to extend to the behaviours of others, then morality loses a great deal of its punch. I want morality to have punch, and to steer the behaviour of the utterer and the target of the utterance. And for that, I need to appeal to something shared or external, not just my own subjectivity.
That said, I don’t know of anybody who seriously argues for such a relativism. It’s this brand of individualistic relativism that is only ever used in the dismissive or reductio sense, particularly by the theistically inclined, who speak with the comfort and certainty lent by unshakable faith in an absolutist moral dictator.
Another more plausible brand of relativism is offered by Gilbert Harman. He appears to draw inspiration from Einstein’s theory of relativity, and offers an account that says moral utterances are relative to some frame of reference:
I am going to argue that moral right and wrong (good and bad, justice and injustice, virtue and view, etc.) are always relative to a choice of moral framework. What is morally right in relation to one moral framework can be morally wrong in relation to a different moral framework. And no moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality. (Harman, 1996)
This means that within a particular moral framework, things are quite absolute. If your moral framework says stealing is wrong, then you can’t subjectively wiggle out of that with an appeal to relativism.
However, the unpalatable spanner occurs when one considers the question of what moral framework one adopts. And Harman is more than willing to acknowledge that “members of different cultures often have very different beliefs about right and wrong and often act quite differently on their beliefs.”
Thus, all one has to do to slip into a favourable moral framework is to… slip into their desired favourable moral framework. I can see where Harman is coming from – his account might be useful as a descriptive thesis to account for the moral diversity studied by anthropologists – but I don’t find this a very satisfactory account of morality. It allows too much ‘escapability’ from a construct that is supposed to be inescapable (at least to some degree).
David Wong posits a version of moral relativism that I find far more plausible. He doesn’t simply see morality as being relative to a particular moral framework, as does Harman. Wong sees morality as being relative to the different circumstances in which we live:
Human beings have needs to resolve internal conflicts between requirements and to resolve interpersonal conflicts of interest. Morality is a social creation that evolved in response to these needs. There are constraints on what a morality could be like and still serve those needs. These constraints are derived from the physical environment, from human nature, and from standards of rationality, but they are not enough to eliminate all but one morality as meeting those needs. Moral relativity is an indication of the plasticity of human nature, of the power of ways of life to determine what constitutes a satisfactory resolution of the conflicts morality is intended to resolve. (Wong, 1984)
I am far more sympathetic to this view. The starting premise seems to be that human beings have interests, and we wish to live together in order to better satisfy them. However, these interests come into conflict, and so we create morality to help regulate behaviour to minimise these conflicts, among other things.
However, there’s no one way to best do this. That said, there’s not an infinite number of ways of doing this either. So no back door subjectivist individualist relativism here.
But what is the indexical in Wong’s account to which morality is relative? The only thing I have come across is the ‘contingencies of human need,’ but it’s a bit of a fuzzy concept. There are many things that contribute to satisfying human need, and many of them aren’t moral concerns but simple prudential concerns.
I’m no expert on Wong, and while I’m sympathetic to where he’s coming from, I’m not sure he’s quite going the same place I want to go.
Moral Ecology Brand
This brings me to the version of relativism that may emerge from moral ecology – the one I’m going to have to become very adept at outlining rapidly in order to prevent being dismissed out of hand if ever I pluck up the courage to whip out the “R” word.
As I’ve said above, moral ecology states that there is no one solution to the problems of social living that morality is designed to solve. As such, there are many systems of moral norms that might equally solve these problems. And there might also be some value in having multiple solutions swishing around, bumping into each other, to give us more agility in responding to changing circumstances or to new insights into the problems of social living.
As such, there’s a kind of relativism involved. In order to understand it, you need to start with moral functionalism, which defines morality as being (ultimately) ‘to solve the problems of social living so we can advance our interests better as part of a social group’, or (proximately) as ‘regulating behaviour to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour.’
And the indexical to which the relativism is pegged is the environmental circumstances that determine the nature of the problems to be solved. Different environments present different challenges. And the environment doesn’t only include the (relatively static) physical environment, but also the (highly dynamic and heterogeneous) social environment. The world is also rarely fully transparent, so sometimes there’s guesswork to be done about the state of the environment, which allows for further variation in how to best respond to it.
Thus, one moral system is preferable to another if it better serves the function of morality in the environment in which it’s being used. The moral system is relative (to the environmental conditions), but it’s not infinitely so. There is, in fact, some objective yardstick by which moral systems can be measured and assessed – and criticised: the extent to which the moral system satisfies the function of morality in that environment. If it’s sub-optimal, and there’s a more optimal system available, then it can be criticised.
All this depends on people buying into the functional definition of morality. It is binding to the extent that people choose to conform to a moral system at all. That said, I don’t see the latter as really big problem, as most people either want to be moral or will be persuaded by those around them to be moral.
I’m still not 100 per cent sure I want to start bandying about the term ‘moral relativism’ in relation to moral ecology. While I think there is a kind of relativism that might apply to my theory, it is unlike the other more popular forms of relativism, and the term is so tainted that raising it will probably just trigger more straw man arguments against me than I can be bothered defusing.
Thus, I’m inclined at this stage to continue talking only about moral ecology, with an inclination towards moral dynamics (the study of the moral systems that best satisfy the function of morality in certain environments), perhaps with the odd nod to moral pluralism in very specific contexts, but quietly acknowledge that there is a form of relativism that might apply as well. Is that crazy?