Monday, April 25, 2005

Why speaker-relativism is all screwed up

David Velleman, whose excellent seminar on practical rationality I took in the fall, explains what moral relativism is. He concludes, rightly, that moral relativism is a wildly implausible position that denies the universality of morality. Since morality has to be universal, speaker-relativism fails to give us the meaning of moral terms. If you're up for more relativism-bashing, take a look at this argument for why speaker-relativism is a totally disastrous theory of what moral terms mean. If you accept speaker-relativism, you end up having to say that people from different cultures can't even disagree with each other.

First, so we're all on the same page, let me quote the good professor:

In its most extreme form, speaker-relativism amounts to the view that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, since it says that each person is correct in making moral judgments according to what seems right or wrong to him. But speaker-relativism also has less extreme forms, according to which the correct moral standard is determined by the speaker's culture, for example. On this version of the view, each person is correct in making moral judgments according to what his own culture deems right or wrong. Thus, a speaker-relativist might say that whereas we are correct to judge slavery wrong, the ancient Romans were correct to judge it differently, because their cultural standards were different.

Imagine the following short conversation between present-day Bob and an ancient Roman:

Bob: "Slavery is wrong!"
Roman: "Slavery is okay!"

These guys are disagreeing, right? I certainly think so. Slavery can't be wrong and okay at the same time, at least if we're talking about the same instance of slavery. But look what happens when we apply the speaker-relativist's translation of moral terms:

Bob: "Slavery is forbidden by 21st Century Western culture!"
Roman: "Slavery is permitted by ancient Roman culture!"

Here we don't have a disagreement anymore. These guys are talking about two different things, and it's possible for both of them to be right. (In fact, both of them are right.) Let me make clear that the problem here isn't that we can't determine who is right, or that we can't resolve this disagreement. The problem is that speaker-relativism presents people as making compatible claims when they're actually disagreeing. As a result, it's a bad theory of what moral terms mean.


Blue said...

Well he doesn't "conclude" it, so much as "assume it", but yeah.

Also it seemed his list of anti-relativisms was pretty homogenuous, but I guess either a) I'm just cynical or b) their fundamentals are more separate.

But very sad how much various faiths are banging on relativism. In its most extreme form no one believes it or desires to defend it. Do you think orthodoxans think all us liberals truly believe there is no morality and all is relative? Maybe they do.

Anonymous said...

"Slavery can't be wrong and okay at the same time, at least if we're talking about the same instance of slavery."

But the whole point of the argument is that we're NOT talking about the same instance of slavery, NOR are they talking at the same time. They're seperated by about 2,000 years.

I guess I'm that least popular of creatures, the speaker-relativist. There is no right or wrong inherent in the Universe, or in human nature. "There's no justice, there's just us!". Any other position is simply an attempt to claim universiality for whatever position you happen to believe.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Sometimes we aren't talking about the same instance of slavery. But sometimes we are. (People can talk about things from times other than theirs.) And when we are, speaker-relativism delivers disastrous conclusions.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Maybe that's what happens when two absolutists meet, or maybe it isn't. (I personally think it isn't, and I don't see why either semantic theory leads to more decapitation.) But if you're trying to figure out what moral terms mean, it's not especially relevant. And that's all this debate is about.

Anonymous said...

Since morality has to be universal
Please explain.