Moral Relativism and the Concrete Universal

by Chris Horner

Photograph taken by author

There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them.[1] Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is  – what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view that  moral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society. Read more »

Transcendental Arguments and Their Discontents

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

KantConsider the nihilist who provides us with an argument with the conclusion that nothing exists, or that there are no norms for reason. Take the relativist who contends that all facts are relative to some perspective. Note the skeptic who consistently criticizes not only our claims to knowledge, but our very standards. Call such views Transcendental Pessimism. An appealing and longstanding reply to Transcendental Pessimism is that it is self-defeating in some way. The nihilist nevertheless avows a fact and relies on norms of rationality to run the argument for his own conclusion. The relativist isn't just saying that it's all relative to her perspective, but that it's all relative full stop. The skeptic's conclusion that we have no knowledge or have no reliable means to assess knowledge purports to be a knowledge-like commitment held on purportedly good epistemic grounds. The critical line is this: Transcendental Pessimist views cannot be consistently thought. Such views, to make sense at all, must presuppose precisely what they deny.

So far, this self-defeat maneuver against nihilists, relativists, and skeptics is but an inarticulate hunch. Transcendental arguments are attempts at making that hunch explicit, not only about how the negative views are self-defeating, but also regarding the positive views worth preserving. That is, we deploy transcendental argumentation not only as a critical line against Transcendental Pessimism, but we also (and perhaps thereby) establish some positive conclusion. Call this objective Transcendental Optimism.

Immanuel Kant is widely acknowledged to be the first to overtly use the argument type. The primary example of Kantian transcendental argument comes in the Second Analogy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. The rough form of argument runs as follows: One can judge a series of representations is evidence of a series of events only if one holds that the series is asymmetric (it must happen in that order, not in a reverse or other order). One can believe that the representations are asymmetric only if one holds that the events represented are similarly asymmetric. If a series of states is asymmetric, the earlier states are causes of the later states. Therefore: One can take a series of representations as evidence only if one takes them as evidence of a causal order. Experience can be a source of information only if there is a causal order.

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More about pluralism and perspectivism

by Dave Maier

PluA couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term “pluralism” in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: “every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness[…. There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues,” i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly “pluralistic” method.

Well, yes – no slam dunk for the “pluralistic” side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm … distinctions …), so let's get started.

What kinds of “pluralism” are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to “the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]”, one could be a “pluralist” by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a “pluralist” might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.

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