Friday, June 02, 2006

What are you committed to when you deny meta-ethical relativism?

Much out there in the collective hive mind about "relativism". On the one hand, everybody who knows an undergraduate has been earnestly informed that right and wrong depend on your culture. On the other hand, after September 11, right-wing talking heads sternly instructed us that "relativism" will lead to the West's downfall in the struggle against "Islamofascism". The current Pope has even warned about a "dictatorship of relativism", which sounds a bit odd, but may be a precise political description of the European Union.

The analytical philosophy set find all this cultural noise a mess of confusion. At the same time, I find the analytical debates to be a tad frustrating. Everyone seems to be a highly conventional liberal atheist materialist of the affluent, educated North American sort (core Kerry voters), but wild accusations of believing in mysterious entities (on the one hand) and tolerating baby rape on the other abound.

Personally, I am not a metaethical relativist, but I don't feel any need to commit to weird entities or to claim that there would be moral truths if there were no agents. I think my denial of meta-ethical relativism commits me to the following:

1. Deontic logic holds. A course of action is forbidden if and only if it is not permissible and if and only if not doing it is obligatory. A course of action is permissible if and only if it is not forbidden and if and only if not doing it is not obligatory. A course of action is obligatory if and only if not doing it is forbidden and if and only if not doing it is not permissible.

2. There is at least one course of action that is forbidden or obligatory.

3. There is no person or group of persons such that if that for all moral propositions, it is necessary that if that person or persons believes that the proposition is true, the proposition is true.

None of these commit me to the existence of any entities other than moral propositions. Nor do I have to accept a summum bonum or an implausibly rationalist account of how we come to know moral propositions. Finally, they are completely consistent with the permissibility of a course of action depending on the circumstances.

Update: Reading this over, I realized that there might be some misguided souls out there who think that these propositions only deny ethical relativism, and not some higher metaethical relativism. After all, I might believe all 3 of the above propositions, agree that I can't help but believe them, but say that I do so because of certain contingent facts of biological and cultural history. Deontic logic, the capacity to consider some courses of action morally impermissible and a willingness to think anyone might be wrong about moral matters all carry a selection advantage (at least if they are leavened by hypocrisy and self-interested bias, as they undoubtedly are). Or alternatively, they may just be a product of Judeo-Christian development (although I don't personally believe this). Either way, there is a causal story explaining why we hold these beliefs that is unconnected to their truth.

If believing this makes me a meta-ethical relativist, then I am a meta-ethical relativist. But, then, I am a meta-scientific relativist and a meta-common-sense-perception relativist too. All the capacities involved have a historical causal story (if history includes human natural history). How could it be different for a human mind that is a product of history?

But this kind of relativism is completely untroubling to me. It is really just an admission that I, and everyone and everything I know and love, are finite. So it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

DEONTIC? That's it, I'm outta here! No -- seriously?? -- truth is what we make it, sure. That doesn't mean it's all lies. I mean, it's gonna have to do, innit? The alternative is a mumbling, inert, absolutely-not-useful , pseudo-political class -- the SFU English department, basically. If they want to leave the field and the future to we men and women of action, cool. As long as they know we're not gonna fund 'em indefinitely. Maybe philosophers *should* wander.