Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Undergraduate moral relativism and tolerance

One of the puzzling features of undergraduate moral relativism is that students seem to think that their moral relativism in some way either supports or is required by a notion of tolerance for other people's practices and beliefs. This is puzzling because, after all, if relativism is true, then if I believe or society believes (depending on whether the relativism is individual or social) that someone's variant practices and beliefs should be squelched and the person should be punished for them, then this is the right thing for me or for society to do. In fact, this consideration is a good reason to abandon relativism.

Still, it is a good question why it is that students hold together the doctrines that (a) moral relativism is true, and (b) moral relativism connected with tolerance. Do we just want to say that they are massively irrational[note 1], or that this is just an effect of original sin, or is there a more proximate and specific explanation?

I want to offer two different hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that students confuse together the concepts of culpability and wrongness. A person may do wrong, but not be culpable for it if she does not know that what she is doing is wrong and she is not culpable for this ignorance. Conversely, a person may do the right thing, under at least one description, but still be culpable, if she erroneously believes it to be wrong. A certain tolerance goes together with considerations of inculpability. If someone is engaging in some immoral activity but doing so inculpably, then it makes sense to be tolerant, provided that undue harm to society does not result. From the claim that the Nazis believed what they did was right, the relativist laboring under a confusion between culpability and wrongness concludes that what the Nazis did was not wrong (for them). However, interestingly, in one's own case, what one believes to be wrong and what is culpable come very close (there is still a gap since one can do what oen believes to be wrong but be non-culpable on grounds of internal or external compulsion), and hence the confusion does not significantly affect a lot of first-person deliberative behavior. Thus, a typical individual relativist still tries to figure out what is the right thing to do, and consults with others, even though this makes no sense given that whatever she believes to be right is guaranteed to be right.

The second hypothesis is different. Consider first a relativism about an area of life that does not expressly involve ethics, say esthetic or gustatory relativism (what is beautiful or tasty to me may not be beautiful or tasty to you, and there is no objective, mind-independent beauty or tastiness). This kind of relativism does support quite a bit of tolerance. If Century Sundae is not tasty to you in the way it is to me, I should not impose it on you, and I should be tolerant of your desire to eat the mildly repellent (to me) Chunky Monkey. Here, the relativism is sufficiently limited that it does not undercut, but instead supports, tolerance.

As a result of this, one might conclude that relativism in general supports tolerance about the praxis that is relatively evaluated. However, in the special case where the relativism is moral relativism, this does not hold. The reason that esthetic or gustatory relativism supports tolerance is because of objective moral principles concerning respect for differing preferences and views. But once the relativism becomes moral relativism, these principles are undercut, a fact one might easily miss.

Or maybe they are not entirely undercut. After all, if one is a "nice" person who believes that one should be tolerant of people with differing practices, then individual relativism renders this belief self-justifying. But of course individual relativism would equally render the opposite belief self-justifying.


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I think that the connection between moral relativism and tolerance in peoples minds comes about in something like the following way. People start by believing in religious tolerance. They think that it is wrong to treat other people badly because they hold different religious views. But they don't see how to justify their belief in tolerance if religious views can be true or false in some absolute sense. So they adopt some form of relativism with regard to religious belief. But of course for many people morality is largely a matter of religious belief, and the same arguments against religious tolerance if religious belief is not relative can be applied to moral beliefs in general, which leads people to adopt some form of relativism generally.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That could be. Of course, relativism about religion is massively irrational. :-) The idea that it is true for Fred that the universe was created 10000 years ago while it is true for me that the universe was created between 12 and 18 billion years ago is absurd. Likewise absurd is the idea that it is true for Dawkins that Jesus' body has rotted in the grave while for me it is true that it has been raised into heaven.

Another point of irrationality on your account is not realizing that if one's morality is a matter of religious belief, then by making religion relative, one also makes the duty of tolerance relative.

Anonymous said...

Rawls (somewhere, page something) more or less treats tolerance as a political value. If we remember the wars of religion and wish not to see them repeated, we could do worse (politically) than to declare a moratorium on some kinds of controversies about people's ultimate grounds for their choice of life. Of course, this does leave us in a pretty bad position epistemically. How to adjudicate between these two spheres' claims, or how to connect or harmonize them is itself open to a kind of controversy. It's not clear what would count as evidence (or as reasons) for one or the other solution to the problem. Or rather, it's clear to everyone, but not in the same way.

Heath White said...

I have quite an elaborate theory about this. First, I don't think students are moral relativists because they subscribe to any reasons that favor the content of the position. Rather, they have pragmatic arguments (in the sense that Pascal's Wager is a pragmatic argument for belief in God's existence) for *advocating* or *believing* moral relativism.

The idea is this: the public endorsement of moral non-relativism will have various negative consequences. It will suppress diversity, make people feel bad when they don't conform, license violence against deviants, etc. Consequently, moral non-relativism is not to be publicly endorsed (or, by extension, privately believed). Rather, for the sake of the consequences that follow, we should all be moral relativists.

A consequence of this diagnosis is that it is a mistake to combat students' relativism by presenting "straight" arguments against it. That doesn't touch the reasons for which they hold their views.

Second, I believe students are basically classical liberals, in the sense that they believe in a public/private distinction, where "public" means "affects others" and "private" means "doesn't affect others", and they are willing to not interfere with the private realm and they are willing to lay down norms in the public realm. Now combine this view with the outdated but still influential idea that "cultures" are more or less isolated and non-interacting. The public/private distinction then gets applied to cultures, not individuals.

Students' classical liberalism dictates a policy of non-interference in other cultures (other cultures' business being "private" to them). However, when you bring to their attention the ways in which cultures are not isolated, and in which some cultures have been willing to violate the "public" norms (of mutual respect, the need for consent, non-violence etc.) that would govern interaction between cultures, these actions get roundly condemned.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

Neither moral relativism nor non-relativism requires tolerance. 1) A relativist may claim tolerance is essential because they hold that their beliefs should not be placed upon another's actions 2) A relativist may claim that tolerance is immaterial for the reasons you posed. 3) A non-relativist may claim that tolerance is essential because the authority of their ethics claims it to be (The Bible, for instance). 4) A non-relativist may claim that tolerance is a non-good because the authority of their ethics claims it to be (i.e. stoning sinners ala the OT or Koran).

Without painting all students as moral relativists or all undergrad moral relativists as one thing or another, the ethics of those that think of themselves as relativists are usually because of Cultural Relativity.

Our generation is a global one. We can see that what might be the greatest good for one society may not translate at all to another. Thus, even though tolerance isn't essential to relativism (and what is actually?), several people I know gravitate toward it because they 1) Don't want people telling them what's best and 2)don't want that responsibility/ burden either.

And most of the relativists I know aren't religious. Those that are, read that loving God with heart, soul, mind and body and loving your neighbor means loving them the way that they want to be loved. For some, that translates into listening to the person's needs and then fulfilling them. For other's, they read it as needing to witness to everyone in order to ensure they make it to Heaven.

But for the most part, my relativist friends are agnostic or atheists, finding the concept of a moral authority laughable and unprovable. After all, the main question of relativism is one of authority - who or what has it and why? Many decide there is no authority.

If there's no authority, then they are not an authority (except they have to make decisions about themselves so they do). And if they aren't an authority, then they see no reason to place judgment on other people's actions.


Great topic, by the way.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You might be right. If so, then arguments showing how relativism can undercut the values that they think espousing relativism promotes will help. (I am particularly fond of telling students that relativism justifies an ultraconservative view on which one never needs to reexamine one's views.)

Milk said...

Hi Alex,

I had a couple of points.

1. Point of clarification: I think you intended to say that a person can unknowingly do wrong but not be morally culpable? Because clearly there are practical and legal cases where my ignorance of right/wrong/law does not excuse me from culpability.

2. It's not clear to me that the objective moral principles that supports tolerance in cases of esthetic and gustatory relativism are respect for differing preferences and respect for differing views. It seems to me that the underlying moral principle is a general respect for persons. If this is the case, the principle is not undercut when moving from talk about relativism generally to talk about moral relativism.

3. (This comment does not directly address your philosophical puzzle. It is just an observation that appeals to developmental psychology on why tolerance and moral relativism seem to be popular among undergraduates.)

Most undergrads are living away from home for the first time. Thus, they are (for the most part) "free" of familial norms and praxis. In an effort to establish themselves as distinct from parents and family, they are trying on new personas and identities. They want (perhaps even need) this freedom to create and re-create who they are becoming. This developmental process requires others (specifically family and friends) patience and tolerance while they mature into who they are. Because undergrads need this tolerance, they project it as a value onto others. (Nietzsche actually has some stuff re: projection of values as value-affirmation for self.)


Beancan Tatterpants said...

Maybe it's just the journalist in me or maybe I romanticize Occam, but I find that the best way to figure out what and why undergrads believe what they do is to ask them.

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. Yes, one can unknowingly do wrong without being culpable. Morally culpable, that is. One may still be legally culpable.

2. Moving to moral relativism undercuts the principle of respect for persons by rendering it a relative principle, so that no criticism is possible of intolerant folk who do not accept this principle.


Oddly enough, asking ordinary people about their philosophical views is a nigh impossible task. The problem is that the sorts of questions one needs to ask are quite likely to change the beliefs, and that people by and large are not aware of the connections between their beliefs, and hence of why they believe as they do.

Milk said...


re: #2: If you're a moral relativist whose underlying principle is the respect for persons, you a) know that some folks may not hold this principle (you're a moral relativist of course!) and so know that criticism is impossible of those folks. So I don't see how it's undercuts it for the TRUE moral relativist as she is happy to simply have her own underlying principle.

It seems the problem is not with a true moral relativist, but with a person who claims to be a moral relativist yet still wants everyone to espouse the underlying principle of respect to persons.

However, it may be that I'm missing something and that what you're alluding to is that moral relativism is incoherent and cannot be actualized because humans have reactive attitudes?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, one can just hold to the principle oneself, without worrying about those who don't. But that, I think, will not do justice to one's intuition that there is some special connection between relativism and tolerance. For just as a relativist can be tolerant, equally well a relativist can be intolerant, adopting a principle of disrespect of others. If relativism equally allows both attitudes, it is difficult to see how it is supposed to be specially tied to one--but it is felt to be specially tied to one.

Anonymous said...


Here's my guess at a reason why some people embrace relativism.

Suppose that I have a believe concerning some important issue, e.g., that God exists, and that I also believe that any human adult who rejects this belief is uninformed or irrational (slow-witted, emotionally blocked or intellectually dishonest). There’s something going wrong somewhere morally, intellectually, etc. (or some combination) in every case of unbelief, but this is not to say that it is always culpable. It is objectively mistaken, but it might be subjectively blameless.

Now the problem: every theist has a brilliant – that is, bright, well-read, and honest - opponent. So, the theist must predicate of the opponent some significant insufficiency (and the more important the issue the worse the insufficiency). But the opponent, qua brilliant, seems to have no imperfection of the given sort.

Such predication about the opponent seems arrogant or too bold and self-confident to some people who therefore prefer to be agnostics or relativists; assertive atheists are viewed by this sort of agnostics or relativists as arrogant, too.

Any human adult who rejects, e.g., Christianity is uninformed or irrational (slow-witted, emotionally blocked or intellectually dishonest). There’s something going wrong somewhere morally, intellectually, etc. (or some combination) in every case of unbelief, but this is not to say that it is always culpable. It is objectively mistaken, but it might be subjectively blameless.

Now the problem: every Christian has a brilliant – that is, bright, well-read, and honest - opponent. So, the Christian must predicate of the some significant insufficiency (the more important the issue the worse the insufficiency). But the opponent, qua brilliant, seems to have no imperfection of the given sort.

Such predication about the opponent seems arrogant to some people who therefore prefer to be rather agnostics or relativists; assertive atheists are viewed by this sort of agnostics or relativists as arrogant, too.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for doubling in the comment.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe that has something to do with it, though then the problem appears at the level of relativism. The smart opponent, not unlikely, rejects relativism. Is one, thus, a relativist about relativism, too?

A better solution to the problem is to talk about original sin and grace.