Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Moral Relativism and Fairness

A college ethics professor made the following point to students before the final exam:

A final note about ethics: [our assigned author], throughout the book, attempts to skirt the problem of absolutism versus relativism. He does this by focusing on those things that he thinks we can agree on, and on those areas where he feels most confident about our ability to argue constructively. You should not leave this reading thinking that it is a good thing to be a relativist, however. Recall what I said at the end of the last class: if you claim that there is nothing beyond us that we can appeal to regarding ethics, then you should be prepared to have your words fall on deaf ears when you say “it’s not fair.”

For instance: if you are an absolute moral relativist, and declare yourself as such on this final exam, I will fail you, regardless of the quality of your work elsewhere. Got a problem with that? Good! How will you make your case? How will you argue with me? You have three choices:

(1) Give up on finding common warrants, and try to use force to get me to agree with you. (I do not recommend this option. It will go badly for you in the end.)

(2) Give up on finding common warrants, and hope that I will simply choose to value your opinion (Again, I do not recommend this option. It will go even worse for you here, unless you are extraordinarily lucky.)

(3) Find some common warrant to appeal to. But note: as soon as you do this, you are claiming that the warrants (i.e. the moral values we appeal to) are not relative to you, but are commonly held. This means you are not an absolute moral relativist.

Congratulations! You’ve now won the right to have me grade your exam fairly, simply by conceding that “fairness” is an appeal to something beyond your ego. Well done.

My point in all this is that absolute moral relativism, besides being a remarkably obtuse case of self-contradiction, is unhealthy and probably dangerous. That being said, we must concede, as does [our author], that we do not always know what is the right thing to do in any given circumstance. But note: saying that we do not know what is the right thing to do right now is not the same as saying that there is no right thing to do right now.

Read it all here.

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