A Response to The Dunedin School’s “Thinking in Tatters: Moral Relativism and Hidden Objectivist Assumptions”

A while ago I did a series of semi-popular posts on moral relativism beginning with Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I. These posts grew out of a talk I gave in Tauranga in 2008. Later I presented essentially the same talk at Laidlaw College for Thinking Matters Auckland which was posted on You Tube and is available for viewing here. This video drew a response from Dean of The Dunedin School (TDS) blog, which I cannot link directly too as TDS seem to have deleted it for some reason – it is cached here though and a full copy is pasted below. In this post I will address Deane’s critique of my discussion of some arguments for moral relativism. In the next I will respond to his criticism of my arguments against relativism.

Deane’s critique appears to consist of three lines of argument. The first is a string of assertions about my alleged motives combined with pejorative terms to describe my conclusions. Deane insinuates that I am a “frustrated atavistic reactionists who want to take away rights from women, homosexuals, and other minorities and restore power to the patriarchy” and smugly contends that my arguments are “a mish-mash of illogical nonsense and rhetorical scaremongering.”

Unfortunately one does not refute a person’s arguments by simply asserting that their arguments are illogical. Even if Deane’s assertions about my motives were correct, and he offers no evidence to suggest that that they are, this would show only that I have terrible motives in making the arguments in question, not that the arguments themselves were problematic. Hence, this first line of argument can be dismissed as mere rhetoric.

The second line of argument is only marginally more substantial. Deane suggests that I spent more than half my talk “presenting obviously unsound arguments for relativism and then (marvelously!) disproving them to [my] captive evangelical audience”. Deane describes this as a “sleight of hand” on my part. Now exactly what this objection amounts to is unclear. Deane clearly dislikes the idea that my audience were evangelicals (which not all were) but the fact that my audience may hold to a particular religion does not show the arguments I presented to this audience were mistaken; in fact, Deane in conceding that the arguments I criticised were “obviously unsound” seems to agree with my conclusions about the merits of these arguments. Given this, it is hard to know what the problem is. Of course Deane describes my criticisms in a sarcastic tone but simply describing something sarcastically does not constitute an argument against it nor does deeming it “sleight of hand” show that it is mistaken.

What I think Deane is driving at is something more substantial. Some of what he says suggests he is accusing me of attacking a straw-man; he seems to be suggesting that I chose some really bad arguments, which anyone familiar with the discussions on relativism will know are not actually made by proponents of relativism and I criticised these arguments. I got away with it only because my audience are evangelicals, and hence, unaware that a straw-man has been presented.

Now apart from the suggestion that all evangelicals are ignorant, gullible people with no background in ethics and the assumption that the audience was made up of evangelicals (I suspect that the atheists present probably would not describe themselves as “evangelical”) the obvious problem with this claim is that it is false. The arguments I put forward come from the literature on relativism (as anyone familiar with the discussions on relativism can attest to).

In the talk I cite two arguments, an argument from tolerance and an argument from diversity. These arguments are often cited in secular ethics text books. Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, for example, notes that the appeal to tolerance is one of the most common reasons proposed for relativism. The arguments I mentioned are also cited by Harry Gensler in his book Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction,  Louis Pojman notes these arguments in Ethics Discovering Right and Wrong and James Rachels raises them in The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Hence, far from being a straw-man that only an ignoramus would cite in the context of relativism, these are arguments for relativism cited in leading mainstream ethics textbooks.

The third of Deane’s arguments is more substantive. He suggests that one point I make in my talk is circular. Now the first thing to note is that this claim is, to some extent, fairly irrelevant. In the section in question I noted two arguments commonly put forward in favor of relativism and offered several lines of criticism against them, one of them Deane claims is circular. Now even if Deane were correct, pointing out that one line of criticism is fallacious does nothing to address the overall case I made. If one of several arguments are mistaken it does not follow that the rest are.

That said, Deane’s attribution of circularity to me is mistaken. In my talk I noted that one argument for relativism implicitly appeals to the following premise:

[2] All people have a duty to not be intolerant

At one point I made the following comment about this premise, “And notice too that the second premise is making a what? An objective moral statement. It is saying that all people have a duty to be tolerant. But according to relativism there are no objective moral statements”

It is here Deane thinks I have argued in a circle. He states,

Now, indulging Matt for a while, let’s ask this question: if a moral relativist did happen to hold to this premise, what would be the nature of the ‘duty’? Too obvious, you say? Well yes, the answer would seem to be too obvious. The  ’duty’ would clearly be relative for a moral relativist… Matt falsely attributes moral objectivism to a moral relativist, because he just cannot grasp the concept of moral relativism. However, in moral relativism, a duty, even if applicable to everybody in a particular society, would by definition be morally relative. A prevalent problem with moral objectivists such as Matt is that they haven’t ever grasped what a purely subjective morality looks like, how it operates. They keep trying to sneak back in assumptions of moral objectivity – the very thing that moral relativists deny. And so their attempt to raise an argument against it – by assuming the objectivity of morality – is revealed as a piece of illogical and circular nonsense.

Several things can be said about this. First, even if I did (as Deane contends) assume the objectivity of morality in my criticism here, this would not make my argument circular. A circular argument is one where the conclusion is assumed in the premises. To be circular then I would have to be making an argument for the conclusion that moral relativism is correct. But I was not. At this point in the talk I was criticising one argument for moral relativism. But criticising one argument for moral relativism is not the same thing as offering an argument for objectivism. Hence, even if one grants Deane’s substantive point, my argument is not circular.

Second, and more importantly, Deane is wrong to claim that I was, at this point, assuming the objectivity of morality and sneaking this assumption into my interpretation of [2]. If Deane had bothered to listen to the passage he cited in its context he would see that I immediately went on to argue that [2] should be interpreted as affirming an objective principle. What I said was:

if relativism were true [2] would actually be wrong. You would only have a duty to be tolerant if you yourself believed in tolerance. If you were a bigot you’d be perfectly entitled to be intolerant. And if your society was a bigoted society it would be perfectly appropriate for you to be intolerant. So the person who makes this claim actually shows that they believe in objective morality, they believe there is an objective value of tolerance.

Hence it is simply not the case that I assumed moral objectivism and sneaked this assumption into my reading of [2]. What I did was offer an argument that [2] had to be interpreted this way because unless one interpreted [2] in an objectivist manner, [2] would be false.

Now if Deane thinks that [2] can be interpreted in a relativist manner then the burden is on him to show that my argument is mistaken. To ignore the argument and simply state that I assumed the position I argued for and then assert that the position is wrong establishes nothing at all (well, it establishes nothing about my argument).

Ironically, if we accept Deane’s contention that [2] should be interpreted as asserting a relative duty and not an objective duty then, in fact, it is the relativist that is engaging in circular reasoning. Remember, at this point in the talk I was criticising an argument for relativism, [2] was a premise of this particular argument for relativism. If [2], therefore, expresses or presupposes that moral claims are to be interpreted in a relativist fashion then the relativist is presupposing the truth of relativism in the premises of one argument for relativism, and this clearly would be circular.

For the relativist to offer a non-question begging argument for his position he must appeal to premises that non-relativists are likely to accept and hence the premises of his argument cannot be interpreted in a relativist fashion.

There is a final point to make here, Deane makes heavy weather out of the contention that I cannot conceive of what a relativist morality would look like. He states,

Matt’s criticism reveals that he has failed to appreciate what a thoroughgoing moral relativism would look like. He just doesn’t get it. He cannot conceive of moral duties that are not objective. I suspect that this is an all-too-frequent barrier for moral objectivists. Their commitment to moral objectivism is such that they fail to properly conceive of a world in which every moral duty is simply the result of cultural norms.

It is evident that an unjustified leap is being made here. Suppose, contrary to fact, I did err in one criticism I made of one argument for relativism. It hardly follows from this that I cannot conceive of what a thorough-going relativism would look like. All it would show is that on one point I made a mistake. But more importantly, even if it did establish what Deane claims, that I failed to appreciate what a thoroughgoing moral relativism would look like, it is not clear how this would constitute a criticism of my position. After all there are many things which I cannot conceive of that are perfectly rational for me to reject. I cannot conceive of what a square triangle would look like, it does not follow from this that I cannot defensibly claim that anyone who affirms that square triangles exist is mistaken and is uttering a nonsense. So once again Deane’s criticism amounts to nothing at all.

Of course Deane makes his points in a rhetorical, sarcastic, snarky manner and I am sure that for those who dislike evangelical Christianity, such writing is highly entertaining. Entertaining rhetoric, however, is never a substitute for substantive content; notwithstanding the entertaining rhetoric in this instance, the arguments Deane offers fail.

For the original blog post by Deane Galbraith of The Dunedin School click

Thinking in Tatters: Moral Relativism and Hidden Objectivist Assumptions

by Deane Galbraith
10 November 2009

Matt Flannagan, who blogs with his wife Madeleine at MandM, contributes to a New Zealand-based conservative think-tank called Thinking Matters. These ‘conservative think-tanks’ crop up from place to place and the term is usually a euphemism for frustrated and atavistic reactionists who want to take away rights from women, homosexuals, and other minorities and restore power to the patriarchy. Some of the members of Thinking Matters don’t appear to be noticeably different in this regard.

In a talk available on YouTube, Matt Flannagan attempts to argue against that phantom nemesis of all conservative think-tanks, what they term ’moral relativism’. (Everybody together now: ‘Oooooh, yucky!’) His arguments are a mish-mash of illogical nonsense and rhetorical scaremongering. There is much to take issue with in his presentation, so there is no need to dwell on his sleight of hand in presenting obviously unsound arguments for relativism and then (marvelously!) disproving them to his captive evangelical audience – which he does for more than half of his talk.

One thing which is worth thinking about is that, at one point in his talk (Part 4; 5:00ff), Matt’s criticism reveals that he has failed to appreciate what a thoroughgoing moral relativism would look like. He just doesn’t get it. He cannot conceive of moral duties that are not objective. I suspect that this is an all-too-frequent barrier for moral objectivists. Their commitment to moral objectivism is such that they fail to properly conceive of a world in which every moral duty is simply the result of cultural norms. They can’t do it. And as a result, their protests already – circularly – assume moral objectivism.

Matt makes his circular argument when he adduces the following as a premise which he claims is held by some moral relativists:

Now, indulging Matt for a while, let’s ask this question: if a moral relativist did happen to hold to this premise, what would be the nature of the ‘duty’? Too obvious, you say? Well yes, the answer would seem to be too obvious. The  ’duty’ would clearly be relative for a moral relativist.

But Matt doesn’t get it:

“And notice too that the second premise is making a what? An objective moral statement. It’s saying that all people have a duty to be tolerant. But according to relativism there are no objective moral statements.”

Matt falsely attributes moral objectivism to a moral relativist, because he just cannot grasp the concept of moral relativism. However, in moral relativism, a duty, even if applicable to everybody in a particular society, would by definition be morally relative. A prevalent problem with moral objectivists such as Matt is that they haven’t ever grasped what a purely subjective morality looks like, how it operates. They keep trying to sneak back in assumptions of moral objectivity – the very thing that moral relativists deny. And so their attempt to raise an argument against it – by assuming the objectivity of morality – is revealed as a piece of illogical and circular nonsense.

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