Everyone with experience as a humanities professor is aware of the "it's all relative" mantra of college freshmen. Justin McBrayer believes that their moral relativism in particular -- the fact that they don't believe in "moral facts" -- is attributable to lapses in their K-12 public schooling.
I doubt it.
Like the philosopher Michael Sandel, I see such relativism as an unintended consequence of liberalism; not, like Sandel, as a logical consequence, but rather as a function of the natural tendency of the liberal ethos, and the open mindedness it requires, to decompose into their opposites. Attempts to embody a skeptical suspension of judgment at a political and cultural level (separation of church and state, freedom of speech, etc.) are easily lost in democratic translation, and transformed culturally into "man is the measure of all things." There is the further factor here that how we can say that normative claims are true or false is intuitively far more puzzling (and traditionally has been the greater epistemological challenge in philosophy) than grounding non-normative claims. So it should be no surprise that moral claims seem less epistemologically secure to students than empirical and scientific claims: many philosophers believe the same thing.
"It's all relative" is just the way that college kids try and fail to live up to their egalitarian (and proto-skeptical) impulses. As exasperating as it can be to philosophers, it's also salvageable: not by demanding that students yield unquestioningly to the dogma that there are such things as moral facts (because it is not obvious that there are); but by leading them to see that moral relativism is just as philosophically problematic as moral realism.
McBrayer conflates moral anti-realism and moral relativism, and I didn't attempt to untangle this distinction in this post. Suffice it to say it's moral relativism I'm referring to as standing in opposition to open-mindedness, which I connect with a certain kind of skepticism ("zetetic skepticism," associated with Pyrrhonism) involving the suspension of judgment (and what Keats called "negative capability"). That's because the outcome of relativism is that any assertion I like will do, leading to a kind of lazy dogmatism. Moral anti-realism, however is a coherent philosophical position that I allude to toward the end of the first paragraph. The point is that there is a psychological relationship between moral relativism and positions like liberalism, zetetic skepticism, and moral anti-realism: moral relativism tends to get conflated with them. This does not mean I'm endorsing this conflation. Relativism is actually a dangerous foe to liberalism. So it's an unfortunate irony that liberal impulses so easily degrade into relativistic ones.
Wayne Schroeder says
Evan Hadkins says
Excellent article, Wes.
This will be a bit elementary, but: what reading would you recommend regarding the problematic nature of relativism?
Wes Alwan says
Aristotle Metaphysics Gamma IV.
This short book: http://www.amazon.com/Fear-Knowledge-Against-Relativism-Constructivism/dp/0199230412
Or articles by the same author here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/the-maze-of-moral-relativism/?_r=0 ; http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/1153/whatisrel.pdf
You could also look at articles on moral anti-realism — beginning the the Stanford Encyclopedia article. Not the same thing as moral relativism, although ultimately implied by it; McBrayer runs them together (and I didn’t clarify the distinction in my post). Moral anti-realism, unlike relativism, is a coherent position.
The Boghossian book is probably a good place to start for a recent philosophical critique of relativism, it’s short and easy to read, but it isn’t terribly nuanced in its characterization of “social constructivism.” You could also look at Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?
Wayne Schroeder says
There seems to be an almost universal reaction to objection to (false) morality as if it is going to result in people running amuck and destroying society. Well those would not be good outcomes, but perhaps they are false opposites, and that there is another way besides law, justice, rationally derived theories of behavior–which will even provide better intersubjective objectivity (a concept developed by kant by the way.) Is there a pathway to found more human solidarity by means of an intersubjective objectivity that is not tied to the categorical imperative, but to the full picture of man as more than the rational, as equally founded on the personal and interpersonal with better outcomes than the claims to what morality promised in the past? I don’t think the problem is relativism but false ideology.
There’s this view of anthropological (cultural not moral) relativism
Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive
anthropological—that is to say, methodological—
procedure. It is not the moral argument that any
culture or custom is as good as any other, if not
better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in
order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and
ideals must be placed in their own historical context,
understood as positional values in the field of their
own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by
categorical and moral judgments of our making.
Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own
judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in
the historical and cultural order that made them
possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.
Marshall Sahlins – Waiting for Foucault
or for example:
On moral relativism see for example:
Roger Scruton: A relativist is asking you not to believe them – so don’t.
That’s one way to look at it.
Imad Zaheer says
Susan Haack’s book “Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate” is probably the best take down of relativists and post-modernist views I’ve read so far.
Alan Cook says
Michael Krausz has produced a series of good anthologies on the subject:
The first lesson to be taken away: Relativism can mean a lot of different things, and the doctrine comes in many varieties. Don’t assume that its proponents and its opponents are talking about the same thing. Beware of simple definitions, and simple refutations.
Jake Z. says
I suggest you read Stanley Fish’s response to Boghossian’s New York Times article. It’s an effective rebuttal to Boghossian’s argument and a knockdown of the whole moral realist/antirealist debate.
Wes Alwan says
Sorry, but I see Fish’s argument here as entirely confused (and Fish in general as philosophically naive). His first objection is — in language that shows his totally unfamiliar with the current philosophical conversation — to accuse Boghossian of not being aware of the distinction between relativism and his Rorty-ized skepticism (which he calls “epistemological relativism” and defines needlessly in terns of “assent”). Which is really an absurd claim and makes it clear he hasn’t actually carefully read or thought about Boghossian’s arguments. He then goes on to say that whether one believes in moral absolutes is irrelevant to solving particular ethical problems in daily life. And besides, people will behave as if there is right and wrong regardless of what the know about the theoretical question around moral absolutes. He expands on this by going on a rant about then general uselessness of philosophy: it doesn’t travel to the domains of policy, military strategy, etc. So he’s making the philistine’s tried and true attack on a certain kind of intellectual activity by pointing to its uselessness. But philosophers don’t do metaethics because they think it’s answers will help them — or others — decide who to marry and what party to vote for. They do it because they’re curious about the nature of moral truth. It is typical of Fish — and academics like him with the thinnest of philosophical backgrounds and unfortunate helpings of pragmatism and critical theory — that they can’t comprehend engaging in truth-seeking for the sake of truth-seeking. Or truth-seeking for the sake of feeding one’s curiosity. That’s right, Stanley: studying Milton doesn’t produce iPhones, and studying philosophy isn’t a substitute for a good upbringing or a therapist. So what?
Meanwhile, he ignores the indirect but important effect that moral relativism — or shades of it — have upon the way people live. The way Europeans lead their lives today is radically different from the way they led their lives in the 18th century. A change in the perceived absoluteness and religious basis of moral norms is entirely responsible for that. In some ways it’s beneficial, in some ways not so beneficial. The benefits are improvements in liberty and equality. The detriments, as Nietzsche noted, involve a crisis of meaning: they are nihilism and spiritual sickness. (And we can point like Sandel to a loss of community around shared norms). (Note once again that I see relativism as a necessary outcome of liberalism requiring statism as a remedy; but as an unfortunate by-product and treatable malady; the treatment involves the intellectual discipline required for skeptical openmindendess, meaning that the treatment is not available to all; hence a liberal society requires intellectuals who are advocates for this middle ground and help preserve it, so that it shows up more generally in society as, for example, an attachment to freedom of speech).
While moral relativism is an unfortunate by-product of liberalism, its true political kin is antiliberalism. Fish is defending moral relativism because it squares nicely with his anti-liberalism — an axe he’s been grinding for years. So it’s pretty disingenuous to talk about the practical irrelevance of moral relativism when it is precisely relevant to his anti-liberal project. And the relevance is this: it allows one to be unprincipled. It allows one to make justice secondary to tribal affiliation (also Sandel’s project); to say that right and wrong change according to the power dynamics — or history of oppression — between certain groups; or to say that rights must be sacrificed for larger utilitarian goals. It allows one to consign us to the Orwellian farm: to say that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others; as long as such lack of principle is in the service of rectifying past wrongs. It allows us to condemn bigotry not because it is in all cases wrong, on principle; but because it is wrong only in those cases where the power dynamics run a certain way. In the end, it supports the ethos not of justice but of vengeance. (For the record, what I’m defending here is liberalism, not “neoliberalism” — a favorite epithet of antiliberals — and not libertarianism or capitalism; just the traditional concept of liberalism that asserts the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings and has its historical origins in the struggle for freedom of conscience).
Wow, that last paragraph is a pretty good summation of Wes’ view and is clearly a deeply felt position. While I fundamentally disagree with it, I wonder what other members of the PEL team feel about the issue [if I remember right they were more persuaded by Sandel’s communitarianism, for example]?
Jake Zielsdorf says
Wes, maybe the philistines are right? Maybe it is unnecessary to maintain a metaethical stance to be able to give moral opinions. After all, philosophers don’t agree about what metaethical position is correct or even what the practical implications are for subscribing to any given metaethical position. And they don’t even agree whether there is a truth to be sought after. I admire your admission of the uselessness of philosophy, but biting that bullet effectively means Fish is right to dismiss Boghossian’s argument. It doesn’t matter whether there are moral facts or not. It’s merely a rhetorical flourish whether you choose to throw in your metaethical stance during any given moral argument. And I suspect that these flourishes only affect philosophy buffs (probably by delighting the ideological allies and disaffecting the enemies).
Fish can be forgiven for not knowing what the current terms are for the different positions in the ethical debate. There’s moral realism, moral irrealism, moral antirealism, moral absolutism, moral nihilism, moral relativism, metaethical relativism, moral error theory, moral noncognitivism, and moral incoherentism, and then there are subpositions within each of those. Do you really think philosophers are ever going to come to agree on any of these positions? The principle that we ought to seek truth for the sake of truth-seeking would have us figure out how many birds are currently flying over South America.
With regard to your European point, I don’t know how you could determine that Europeans are “spiritually sick” because of a decline in religiosity. This sounds like pure armchair sociology. What would it even mean to be spiritually sick? I presume people in Europe have friends and family that give them meaning just like everyone else.
I don’t know what you mean by intellectuals holding the middle ground, but I certainly don’t think we need intellectuals to defend free speech. There’s plenty of zeal for free speech among the plebeians.
I don’t know Fish’s shtick because I don’t read him, but his having an ax to grind doesn’t undermine his argument in that article. Besides, I’m sure you have an ax to grind too and so do I if by that we mean bias. Your claim that moral relativism leads to unprincipled behavior is entirely unwarranted. That was exactly Fish’s point, which I thought yout agreed with based on your admission of metaethics’ irrelevance. Moral relativists can use moral language just like moral absolutists.
As for your last point, I couldn’t tell if this was some oblique condemnation of affirmative action. It would have been nice if you gave an example of the problem you see with so-called anti-liberals. I like classical liberalism (or neoliberalism as the lefties call it) so I might agree with you about this phenomenon but I couldn’t gather what exactly you were referring to.
Nice back and forth between Wes and Jake. Here’s my scorecard. Jake misunderstands Wes’ claims about the importance of philosophy. Wes does not believe that philosophy (or metaethics specifically) is useless, and does not bite any bullet. He is simply saying that philosophers need not do philosophy for any obvious, practical end other than truth-seeking or curiosity. This does not imply that truth-seeking philosophy leads nowhere practical. One can easily argue that all of modern science is the end result of a bunch of early Greeks and Arabs doing nothing other than truth-seeking. Yes, it is far down the line, and the practical ends could not be envisioned, but they occurred nonetheless.
Jake is right to point out Wes’ intolerance of Fish’s lack of ‘connection’ to current philosophical terminology. Wes himself has many times criticized current analytical philosophy for its reliance on formalized technical terminology and sterile methods. Most PEL citizens are not up-to-date on the latest ‘correct’ terminology in certain debates, but we understand the difference between an ontological claim and an epistemological claim, even if we don’t know the right buzz word. Wes is essentially putting down most of PEL’s audience when he criticizes Fish on this one point.
Wes is right to criticize Fish’s (and Jake’s) belief that lack of agreement says anything philosophically meaningful. Philosophy has nothing to do with reaching a consensus on a topic—to think that philosophy aspires to agreement misses the point of the entire endeavor. Put another way, if everyone agreed upon moral matters, moral philosophy would not even exist! “Killing is bad,” said Jack. “Yes, Killing is bad,” agreed Jill. “Helping people is good…” “I agree”… There would be no drive to debate morality if everyone agreed. So long as there is moral disagreement, moral philosophy is quite relevant.
I can see how moral relativism is a treatable by-product of liberalism, but Wes does not make it clear how statism is the treatment for such a malady, or what this ‘middle ground’ is that intellectuals must uphold to prevent the decay to anti-liberalism.
Good points each way. In reading about Stanely Fish and his views, I experience him as a self-serving Douchebag.
Jake Z. says
Marc, I don’t think you can easily argue that “all of modern science is the end result of a bunch of early Greeks and Arabs doing nothing other than truth-seeking.” Insofar as this knowledge was useful to scientists, we could call it science or proto-science. But I doubt much of the ideas were useful to scientists at all. I don’t think we’ve learned anything from Plato’s theory of the forms, Aristotle’s ethics, or Descartes’ navel-gazing.
You didn’t really defend the idea that metaethics is relevant to ethical debate. You just asserted that Wes was misunderstood. But admitting metaethics’ impracticality is tantamount to admitting that whether or not philosophers ever “discover” the truth or falsehood of moral realism/irrealism (whatever that would mean), it would have no implications for normative ethical debate.
I find it strange that you appeal to the disagreement among philosophers as a mark of their relevance. Wouldn’t their agreement on an ethical matter signify their expertise on the subject? Their familiarity with the ethical literature, combined with their agreement, would grant them authority. If all ethicists agreed that killing animals was wrong, we laypeople would presume they must have some ironclad reasons for adopting vegetarianism. This is precisely why scientists have so much cachet in our culture. They agree on certain things. The stuff they don’t agree on the public ignores until it is settled. So I think if moral philosophers agreed on ethical issues, they would be extremely relevant to ethical discussions, not the other way around. Without this agreement, moral philosophers merely provide opinions which may or may not be interesting.
I’m getting so pissed off at friends who say “he’s got a right to his opinion” when I criticize that same opinion. As if the only question that can be answered is a formal one, (“is it an opinion?”) and the actual content is irrelevant and untouchable! I’m getting upset just thinking about it!
Evan Hadkins says
Yes, it is a change of the terms. From rights to validity. It may be worth coming up with a way to highlight the change. In the US something like, “Yes, I defend to the death his right to his opinion; and it is both wrong and harmful”.
I confess to being a philosophical dilettante and not knowing the current jargon. I also come from an academic tradition which has frequently conflated the ontological and the epistemological focusing on the latter, recent “ontological” craze notwithstanding:
Still, I continue to find Wes’ defense of liberalism quite troubling. My initial impression that he was arguing from a position of misguided ethnocentric individualism still seems correct. His insistence that identity politics rests on bigotry or an ethos of vengeance, and his inability to see alternative ways in which “tribal affiliation” (a term creaking with baggage) is central to ethical political discourse is problematic to say at least, especially when dealing with minority rights or the political and economic influence the West has on countries with so called “traditional” or holistic political structures persisting alongside modern or individualistic ones.
As I understand it, Rawls too had to backpedal and agree that his postulation of an “original position” was applicable only within a certain historically contingent political tradition of Western democracies, and was not universal. As long as what rights exactly we are talking about remains vague, as I think Jake Zielsdorf pointed out, it’s very hard to proceed. Wes has appealed to “bare minimum” in reference to Rawls, but has also made very broad claims of common humanity trumping various group affiliations and social boundaries. (Btw. Jake Zielsdorf wondered if Wes was referring to affirmative action in his last paragraph, and I have previously pointed out that Wes’ exact line of argumentation has been used to critique such social policies. What Wes’ politics actually are in regards to this I don’t know.)
Obviously I agree with James Clifford that “there is no doubt that group identity narrowly defined and aggressively sustained can be a serious obstacle to wider, more inclusive solidarities; and the ideological work of clearly defining a sense of community or people hood often violently erases historical experiences of entanglement, border crossing, and coexistence.” Nevertheless I see ignoring the positive role that identity plays in actual political processes disastrous. And if I should be afraid of a potential Orwellian anti-liberal nightmare, I am also concerned with the inequalities and affront to human dignity that blindly naturalizing liberal values results in.
Perhaps I am Philosophically naïve to think that power dynamics or group identities matter in determining what is just, but the effects of same action can be drastically different depending on the social reality. Defining rights divorced of such considerations doesn’t seem wise. But maybe I am just subordinating rights to my larger utilitarian goals.
Perhaps I am misreading what Wes intends, and if so fair enough. Around the Sandel episodes Wes said he would expand on his position and make it clearer in the future, but I don’t think he has (unless I missed it).
Just to be clear, I consider myself a cultural relativist but not a moral relativist (though I’m probably a moral anti-realist or an anti-foundationalist).
Wes Alwan says
Nicely put Harri, and as always your contributions are much appreciated. Although attributing my arguments to certain motivations is the kind of ad hominem to which I object (and my objection here is related to my objection to identity politics in general). Incidentally, our politics are much closer for practical purposes than you think. And I support affirmative action to the extent that it works, and I don’t object to utilitarian considerations that don’t override rights. I just don’t believe that affirmative action is actually a violation of anyone’s rights. Admittance to schools and jobs is not in any sense fair; nor is a system in which people are forced to pay (or borrow) hundreds of thousands of dollars before they can get the certificate that allows them to get a good job. If I had it my way I’d send all the worst students to the best schools and all the best students to the worst schools — that would be far fairer. No one actually deserves a better education, job, and life because of the current state of their abilities (a Rawlsian argument). So you see, I’m more of an old fashioned bleeding heart liberal and socialist than a libertarian. As for whether affirmative action works, some on the American left that has been making the argument for some time that it doesn’t. I really don’t know, but I do know that programs to help the poor (and generally disenfranchised) would also help minorities to the extent that they are disproportionately represented in those groups; and they would garner far more political consensus; and they ought to be the larger goal. But as far as I can tell there is very little political energy expended by the American left on the poor: they focus instead on gender and racial politics and the notion that they are going to reeducate the general public to share their exquisite sensitivities over such things as “microaggressions” — a ludicrous fantasy. I wrote most of my Sandel essay but haven’t published it yet (I’m enormously ambivalent about doing this kind of writing). I should say that the communitarian goal of course one in many ways I like — who wouldn’t?; and there are real detriments to liberalism. It’s just that establishing the extent of those detriments, and balancing them against benefits; and establishing the extent to which their causes are liberalism or other factors, such as the development of technology, or a market-oriented ethos (that I see as distinct from liberalism) — that’s an empirical matter. Sandel thinks he can derive a relationship between liberalism and a breakdown in community a priori, and in doing so he conflates logical implication with empirical causality. So my beef with him is primarily the poor quality of his argument, and secondarily his support of certain anti-liberal ideas (for example government prohibitions on certain kinds of speech).
Thanks for the reply Wes. I wasn’t attributing any motivations to your arguments (if you mean political). I would have probably been surprised if you were against affirmative action, which is why I mentioned it. Generally my impression has been that the PEL crew is a fairly lefty and socially conscious bunch.
There seems to be once again a backlash against PC culture that your jibe about the left trying to get the public to share their “exquisite sensitivity” to “microagressions” appears to reflect somewhat. I agree that a certain political hypervigilance can be both annoying and counterproductive, and can lead to very bad research. I’ve previously lamented power functionalism, where complex social phenomena are reduced to power relations (generous helping of Foucault is usually a bad sign). Still it doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to worry about, and the general tone of the backlash is almost always much more obnoxious and frightening. I also think gender and racial politics are rather obviously tied to questions of poverty, but I understand what you are getting at.
I wouldn’t necessarily align myself with a communitarian perspective beyond the general critique of the individualism underlying liberalism. This gets at the deeper philosophical question I have referred to in the past about the way in which society is conceptualized, not to mention personhood, agency, power, rights and obligations and so on. Encountering the rich variety of human cultures tends to have a relativizing effect on your most basic assumptions.
I hope you do finish the text on Sandel. Also a “history of ideas” type look at liberalism might be interesting (if anyone is willing to do the work) and shed light on how liberalism is entwined with other ideological strands one might object to.
For anyone interested in the question of equality as a value from an anthropological perspective, who is not afraid of some ethnography, and who has access to Jstor I recommend this superb article:
Robbins has also written about value pluralism:
Billie Pritchett says
Regarding liberalism and associated ideas, there’s a book called “The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism” by George H. Smith. It’s a good history of ideas because it shows how a lot of the ideological differences in Western liberal democratic societies can be traced back to some of these debates that were taking place within liberalism. Contrary to the current line of thinking, liberalism isn’t committed to neutrality, per se, but a suspicion of authority and power, and the assumption is that authority or power bears the burden to justify itself. From almost the beginning of liberalism, there was a split among liberal thinkers about how best to put this principle into action, and the split was aggravated by changes in the real world. There came be called what was Old Liberalism and New Liberalism. Old Liberals (OLs) wanted government to get its hands out of the affairs of individuals and communities as much as possible, and was pretty much exclusively focused on government power. New Liberals (NLs) saw threats from other kinds of power, like economic power, for instance, or wealthy elites, and thought those power centers should be offset. Even within the current American political frame, the sorts of debates that take place can be made intelligible within this OL-NL debate. OLs want to reduce government to the smallest possible functioning in order to allow the individual to maximize his potential whereas NLs tend to advocate a robust welfare state in order to offset economic and social centers of power.
The problem with Sandel’s conception of liberalism is only briefly remarked upon in my review of his book “Democracy’s Discontent” as well as what I see are some of the other problems with Sandel’s views, and that review is available here, if you’re interested: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2014/08/29/stories-we-tell-a-review-of-michael-sandels-democracys-discontent/
Thanks for the links, the review was interesting. It brought to mind Weber’s distinction between power and domination and their relationship to modern legal-rational authority (and Weber’s own notorious writings on liberalism),
The conflict between values at the heart of liberalism that seems central to me is between liberty and equality. What is of most interest to me here is the historical emergence of different conceptualizations of the relationship between the individual and society. In this regard I can recommend Louis Dumont’s German Ideology (though the Marx one is a good read too).
There is a tendency for my disagreement with Wes to be sidetracked into messy themes of social justice, though it is of course these themes that gives the arguments their sense of urgency. Since I think our political hopes diverge only trivially, what I was really poking at was a deeper problem of how we understand human social existence. This is much harder topic to grapple. For example, if I remember correctly, there was some confusion initially what notion’s of personhood have to do with Sandel’s argument. On that note I’ll recommend again this book:
Billie, thank you for your clear statements about what is at stake in the liberalism debate. I confess, I have had little interest in political/social philosophy before coming to this podcast, and while I am able to follow the podcast for the most part, many of comments–at least to me–go right into technical issues that do not appear important to a newcomer. Your review of Sandel’s book gave me a better foundation.
I see how getting the definition and history of Liberalism right helps to clarify current positions in political philosophy, but part of me still says “Let’s stop quibbling about definitions”. Let us put more time into describing the current political/judicial scene as it is now (independent of historical definitions), and from there, let us decide how we want it to be into the future. This line of approach requires a scientific objectivity (as far as that is possible) for the first part, and a moral approach for the second. If classical Liberalism was more about suspicion of authority–ok. If someone says, ‘no it wasn’t, it was about neutrality of values’–then again, I say ok. Whatever, that is for historians to unravel. I want to know if our current ideology is one of suspicion of authority now? And do we need more suspicion of power or less? And this takes me to questions “It is good, is it right?, a position you do not agree with. But I agree that taking the conservative approach may be applicable to interpreting current laws; but I do not agree that this approach works on a meta or broader ideological level. Activism must have a place on some level of society, but perhaps not in the court room.
Thank you for your comments. Hey, do you know what Wes means by “A thin conception of the self”, or something like that. He kept harping on that in his criticisms about Sandel, but again, that criticism does not carry any weight to a newbie like me.
Billie Pritchett says
Actually, I think it has less to do with definitions in the strict sense and more to do with conceptions. So as soon as you make clear the conceptions you can see more clearly what’s at issue. If it’s true that Republicans, for instance, have something resembling more of an Old Liberal conception and Democrats a New Liberal conception, never will the twain meet regarding real and practical problems. Like, if you fundamentlaly believe that government bureaucracy is bad, then you won’t want to endorse social security, for instance. So it’s not really about definite; it’s about conceptions, and pushing a certian conception literally changes the world.
Regarding “thick” and “thin” conceptions of self, they only make sense in the context in which the debate is played out, namely a particular topic in political philosophy. The topic concerns whether, how, and if a government should endorse some conception of selves, people. So Rawls says that people can have all kinds of quality but whatever the case, we can bet that human beings are going to be self-interested and that they’re not going to want to be the worst off people in a society. Because he believes these two things (this “thin” conception of self), he thinks people would be fine with inequalities in a society provided that the society does, among other things, works toward the advantage of the worst off. Sandel on the other hand thinks that because human beings have several different features that make us human, it would be better if a society were created so that it helped us perfect these multiple and various higher qualities. That is, a government ought to promote a “thick” conception of the self.
Sandel often writes of Rawls as if Rawls is making some sort of serious ontological claim, as if human beings were *only* self-interested people who don’t want to be the worst off in the society. But if Rawls were still alive, he’d tell you that it’s not an ontological claim. Rawls isn’t saying people are only self-interested and don’t want to be the worst off. The way I’ve written it above makes the problem more salient, I think, about what ends government ought to promote. I actually believe that government ought to work toward a thick conception of the self but tenuously, skeptically, and also endorse a principle to protect the worst off but that among other noble principles. This is just to kind of show you how the thick and the thin conceptions of self square off against one another.
Very helpful Billie! I’m moved to take on some of the primary literature.
Adam S says
I believe moral relativism is a logical conclusion, not a consequence of anything other than reason. As a moral relativist, i believe you can successfully rely upon moral relativism to contain common morals with the rest of any community. We are all influenced by the people around us, its called living. We interpret what we observe and act upon it based upon previous experience to get a result we desire. As we are raised within a usually common culture and react to the behaviors of others with a common upbringing, certain “moral absolutes” do tend to appear. However, there is no reason to assume that moral absolutes will always appear. People are confined within a social contract, but oneself is oneself, meaning they can convince themselves of morals applied to themselves only that may contradict moral absolutes. The fact that morals affect individual behaviors to me clearly makes morals relative, as how else can you judge someone if not by observable actions? Ones morals are always presently correct, but may be incorrect a second later once you revise them to something else. The idea of revising your morals is also contradictory to moral absolutes, along with the idea of having a debate on morals. Or am i misunderstanding the terminology here?
I’m interested in hearing the other side of this point, what do you think? Sorry if I’m doing something wrong, i’m new here.