on May 17, 2004
This is an anthology of papers by contemporary analytic philosophers about moral relativism. It's chalk full of papers in which analytic philosophers do what they do best: clarify the nature of positions, lay out the arguments for and against various positions, relate various positions and arguments to one another, etc. If you want to know just what relativism is, just why someone might defend it, and just why someone might criticize it, this is the place to go.
And, clearly, this is a topic where the clarity and patience you find in this collection is sorely needed. Relativism is something about which there is a lot of discussion in academia, in the media, and in everyday conversation. But rarely, if ever, do people discuss what they think relativism really is. This is where this anthology can be very helpful, for many of these papers go to great pains to spell out just what relativism is and why it may or may not be a defensible position. The way to get at relativism is to look at various common-sense ideas that are connected to relativism: that the same thing can be right for people in one group and wrong for people in another, that morality is relative to a person's group, that there is no single true morality, that morality isn't objective, etc. And it is also important to focus, as many of these papers do, on the fact that moral relativism is not simply a matter of the sociological and anthropological facts about moral disagreement and differences. These facts are often take to suggest relativism, but it is important to recognize that they do not immediately imply it. Relativism is one possible response to these facts about disagreement and differences in moral codes between different groups of people. What we need is a way to formulate something approaching a theory of the status and nature of morality from this response to diversity in moral views and these common-sense ideas about relativism says and implies about morality.
Here's a first pass. The basic ideas of relativism are that the moral facts are somehow constituted by the moral attitudes, beliefs, conventions, standards, etc. of a group of people, and that the truth and falsity of particular moral claims depends upon the moral attitudes, beliefs, conventions, standards, etc. of a group of people. But, as David Lyons points out in his paper, there are two ways to understand this dependence, because there are two different groups that might matter here: the group of the person making a moral judgment and the group of the person whose action is being judged. I'll explain the distinction by focusing on what the two types of relativism tell us about the truth of a particular person's, b's, moral judgment that another person, a, ought not to commit murder. One way of understanding this dependence gives us agent relativism, a view according to which b's judgment that a person a ought not to commit murder is true if and only if people in a's group have a negative moral attitude towards committing murder, or believe that committing murder is wrong, or have a convention against committing murder, or have moral standards that rule out committing murder, or something similar. So, according to agent relativism, what matters is the group of the person being judged, the group of the person doing the action. The other way of understanding the dependence gives us appraiser relativism, a view according to which b's judgment that a person a ought not to commit murder is true if and only if people in b's group have a negative moral attitude towards committing murder, or believe that committing murder is wrong, or have a convention against committing murder, or have moral standards that rule out committing murder, or something similar. So, according to appraiser relativism, what matters is the group of the person doing the judging.
Now that we know what moral relativism is, I can tell you about the selections here. The anthology opens with a section intended to introduce the issues that includes papers from Richard Brandt and James Rachels in which they try to formulate just what relativism is, why people are tempted to think it is true, and what issues its plausibility turns on.
This is followed by a section on the nature and importance of cultural relativity as an argument for relativism. William Sumner and Ruth Benedict defend (fairly crude) forms of relativism by appealing to the facts of cultural diversity. Then there are three responses to this sort of argument: W. D. Ross and Carl Wellman argue that cultural diversity does not obviously imply moral relativism in the way Sumner and Benedict appear to think, while Michele Moody-Adams argues that, regardless of the connection between the truth of relativism and the existence of moral diversity, the evidence for moral diversity of the relevant sort is far from convincing.
The next section is on whether relativism is even a coherent position. The best paper here is the one by David Lyons in which he carefully sets out the different sorts of relativism and argues that appraiser relativism leads to contradictions and so it incoherent. Also included is a subtle and evenhanded paper by T. M. Scanlon. The section following this is probably the one with the most philosophical meat. It includes papers by Gilbert Harman and Philippa Foot in which they attempt to formulate defensible forms of relativism. Harman argues that a certain sort of agent relativism is the appropriate moral theory for naturalists, and Foot argues that a sort of appraiser relativism can be defended for some moral judgments, but not all. These two defenses of relativism are followed by responses from various angles: Martha Nussbaum draws on virtue ethics to dispute relativism, Gordon Graham rebuts arguments from tolerance and pluralism for relativism, and Thomas Nagel argues that a sort of moral rationalism is to be preferred to relativism.
The final significant section concerns relativism and its connection to realism and rationality. Much of this work isn't clearly connected to moral relativism, though it's all interesting. Finally, there is a case study by Loretta Kopelman about the plausibility of moral relativism once we consider the nature of the real world practice of female genital mutilation.
on March 14, 2004
Contrary to the previous reviewer's statements, this is not a terrible introduction to the topic of moral relativism. In fact it is a rather good one. I suspect the previous reviewer was put off with the very slightly technical stage setting that goes on in contemporary philosophical ethics. For those who can't handle this, avoid this book and look forward to a life of conceptual confusion.
Some of the selections of this reader are excellent, tightly (but not necessarily correctly) argued intro-level articles, particularly the pieces by Harman, Mackie, Scanlon, Nagel and Nussbaum (all very accomplished writers in this area). Others are not as well-written or tightly argued, but they nevertheless raise the crucial issues at stake in discussion of moral relativism, and, therefore, have at least a pedagogical value. Overall a solid starting point for those with a serious interest and willing to think about the issues in detail.
on December 8, 2002
A professor of philosophy at the local university recommended this book as a good introduction to the topic of ethical (moral) relativism, suitable for the layperson. It definitely isn't. I read the lengthy introduction, which lays out the landscape of the topic and defines a bunch of terms. Then I read the first essay, which does exactly the same thing. I started on the second essay and realized that these essays just are not suited for a layperson novice in the field.
So I skipped to the final section, which is purported to be "a case study on female circumcision/genital mutilation that vividly brings into focus the practical aspects and implications of moral relativism." It sure looked more "user friendly". But the case study isn't really much of a case study as it is a poorly thought out argument against using moral relativism to defend these practices. It's been 15 years since I took my last philosophy course in college, but even I noticed the glaring logic errors used one after another in this argument.
I don't think I've ever been this dissatisfied with a book, so I felt I had to write a review to warn you to stay away!