Ethical Relativism and Realism

“What makes a man go neutral?  Lust for gold?  Power?  Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?” — “Captain Zapp Brannigan,” Futurama

There is a considerable body of philosophical argumentation pro and con ethical relativism.  However, I harbor the suspicion that the argumentation is irrelevant to what makes people ethical relativists or anti-relativists.  (We lack a really satisfactory term for whatever the denial of relativism is.  “Realism” has the wrong connotation for non-philosophers.  “What’s so ‘realistic’ about your view?  Relativism seems more ‘realistic’ to me!”  I think “realism” also lends itself to the mistaken impression that to be an anti-relativist you have to be a Platonist.  “Objectivism” would be just the right term, except that it has been appropriated by Randians, that cult of pseudo-philosophers.)  Anyway, back to the main topic.  If philosophical argumentation has little effect on one’s belief in relativism or realism, what does?

When I get into an extended discussion of this issue, it becomes clear to me that ethical relativists generally think that relativism is a more open-minded view.  Realism, they think, is the view of people who are judgmental and narrow-minded.  Realists, on the other hand, seem to think that relativists are morally wishy-washy.  “How can you really believe that Nazism is wrong if you’re a relativist?  And if you don’t really believe Nazism is wrong, how will you oppose it?”

When pressed, my experience has been that philosophical realists and relativists will back down from these commitments … at least nominally.  But I’ve had the odd experience of arguing with someone, having them admit that there is no connection between, say, realism and dogmatism, and then listening to them bring that claim up later in the same conversation as an explicit or implicit assumption.

I saw an article online that attempted to establish a connection between a commitment to ethical relativism and open-mindedness.  (I can’t find the url or the citation.  If you’re reading this and know what I’m referring to, please help me out.)  There were a LOT of methodological problems with the study, as I recall.  For one, the author noted a correlation between flexibility in solving mathematical problems and a tendency to believe ethical relativism, and tried to draw a conclusion about that.  However, just because someone is flexible, creative, and “open minded” in mathematical contexts, that does not entail that he is ethically open minded.  (William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, was a notorious racist and advocate of race-based eugenics.)  Nonetheless, I think it is interesting that the author of the study was using as his working hypothesis the claim that ethical relativists would be more open-minded.

My own experience has been that people who advocate most loudly for ethical relativism are generally not open-minded. Indeed, in my years of teaching, relativist students have been positively rabid in rejecting anything that challenges their views.

What about the claim that realists tend to be dogmatic?  My experience has been that if people emphasize “facts,” “evidence,” and “proof” a LOT, they are generally extremely dogmatic.  Maybe it is the “proof” part that is the root of the trouble.  In any case, I don’t find most realists to be dogmatic.  Then again, I might be subject to confirmation bias, since, like most people, I find it easier to sympathize with people I agree with.


About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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