welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

The Death of Morality

Making An Effort To Understand

David Wong illustrates moral relativism with some telling examples.

Is it wrong to open gunfire on a crowd of innocent people? Unfortunately we know that not everyone in the world has the same answer to that question. But there is another kind of question that can be asked, no matter which answer is given to the first question. Psychologists Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley have investigated everyday attitudes about the objectivity of moral judgment (see eg Cognition 106, 2008, and Review of Philosophy and Psychology, published online Dec. 17, 2009). Participants in the studies were laypeople who don’t philosophize for a living and therefore don’t have big theoretical axes to grind. When presented with a moral belief such as that opening gunfire on a crowd is morally wrong, they were asked whether they thought there was a correct answer – in other words, whether the belief was either true or false – and whether another person who disagreed with them would be mistaken. Most (68%) thought that there was a correct answer, and that a person who disagreed with their own position would be mistaken. But there was a substantial minority who did not regard such a seemingly straightforward moral belief as objective in the first place.

Goodwin and Darley also found that people tend to vary their estimations of whether moral beliefs are objective in accordance with the subject matter of the belief. While a fairly large majority was willing to say of the belief that it is wrong to open gunfire on a crowd, that it is true or false, far fewer people were willing to say so of beliefs about the morality of stem cell research (only 2%), assisted death (8%), or abortion (2%). It may surprise some readers that there is such great reluctance to assign truth or falsity to beliefs about an issue that is so intensely debated as abortion. Goodwin and Darley’s results make us realize that small minorities can create a lot of noise about issues on which they are passionate. While most people may have a position on abortion, many of them may not be so confident that their position is uniquely correct. It should also be noted, however, that Goodwin and Darley’s studies involved undergraduate and graduate students, so their findings may reflect a generational shift in attitude about the objectivity of beliefs about abortion. In my teaching of over three decades, I have lately detected more ambivalence and self-acknowledged complexity of response among my students, both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’. In fact, many are uncomfortable with those labels at the same time that they adopt them for the sake of taking a position for political purposes.

Many moral philosophers may feel disconcerted by Goodwin and Darley’s findings. They tend to assume that laypeople are typically objectivist in their attitudes about morality. [Objectivism is the belief that ideas are true or false regardless of anyone’s belief about their truth or falsity.] Furthermore, most moral philosophers assume that the objectivity of morality stands or falls in wholesale fashion: that there are correct answers on the truth or falsity of every moral belief (or virtually every, for those who want to admit to a few outliers) and that in all (or virtually all) moral disagreements at least one side must be mistaken. Those who believe that moral objectivity stands or falls in such wholesale fashion believe in a single true morality, or they believe that all morality is false or is neither true nor false. The former are objectivists. The latter are moral skeptics. Those like me, who deny that moral objectivity stands or falls in wholesale fashion, are relativists.

Objectivist philosophers should also feel challenged by Goodwin and Darley’s findings on what sort of thinking accompanies more or less objectivist stances. They found that those less likely to take an objectivist stance showed a disposition to try to explain why there is disagreement over an ethical issue in terms of the parties holding different values, while those who tended to take the objectivist stance were less interested in explaining disagreement and tended either to disbelieve that someone else could disagree with them or to put the disagreement down to some moral defect of the other. Again some readers might be surprised that the great majority of people in the studies didn’t take this attitude towards those who disagree with them about abortion. The fact that the participants in Goodwin and Darley’s studies were college students may partly explain this, since higher education does strive to elucidate the different sides of an issue. In any case, the great value of studies like Goodwin and Darley’s is that they put our conventional armchair expectations to empirical test.

The reason why objectivist philosophers should feel challenged by this finding of Goodwin and Darley is that the lay objectivists sound dogmatic. Objectivist philosophers don’t like to think of themselves as dogmatic. They would acknowledge in principle that an account of morality must satisfactorily account for significant diversity in values across human societies and history (‘values’ being used here in a very broad sense to include types of rights, obligations and duties, as well as morally desirable ends). But, while most moral philosophers would recognize the need to account for diversity, they fail to do so in practice. They typically expend much energy in devising abstract arguments for why relativism is false, but make little effort to examine particular cases of serious disagreement, especially ones that illustrate cultural differences.

Why do they fail to act on what they acknowledge to be a requirement? The desire to defend the existence of a single true morality often takes the status of a fundamental commitment: it will be among the last to go in the face of contrary evidence that requires change in the body of one’s beliefs. To the extent that diversity of moral values threatens the commitment to a single true morality, moral objectivists will try to defuse it. They do so with abstract arguments against relativism that neglect to address specific cases of moral differences. Let me explain why I think these defusing strategies ultimately fail.

One strategy is to call attention to similarities of basic moral beliefs in different cultures and historical periods and to explain away examples of moral differences by claiming that they hinge on differences in factual belief that don’t involve people having different basic values. I would not wish to deny that factual differences are sometimes decisive, but when such cases are relied upon in a defense against relativism in general, this is ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias is a strategy we all tend to employ when we want to preserve what we already believe. We look in places where we are likely to find supporting evidence and don’t look in places where we are likely to find contrary evidence. Yes, some important moral disagreements do turn on factual disagreements, but that does not eliminate the existence of other disagreements that hinge on basic differences over values.

Mainstream moral philosophers avoid this question by focusing on the prevalent moral values of contemporary democracies in the West: individual rights, autonomy, and social utility (often spelled out in terms of aggregated welfare or happiness). Those of us doing comparative work in Western and Chinese philosophical traditions, by contrast, find moralities that give a central place to values of relationship, community, and attunement to the natural order. Most mainstream moral philosophers simply fail to address this apparent difference in values.

Confirmation bias also shows up in what we pay attention to closer to home. Some of the most challenging cases of fundamental value differences involve values that are shared but prioritized differently by different people. Consider again the disagreement in the United States over the moral permissibility of abortion. It seems not so much to be a difference in the ultimate moral principles held by opposing sides as a difference in scope of a commonly held principle requiring the protection of human life (specifically, whether the fetus counts as a human life unlike, say, an appendix) as well as a difference in the relative weight to be given to another widely held principle requiring respect for individual autonomy. Or consider conflicts between individual rights to liberty and privacy versus moral duties to prevent very serious harms. For some, the prospect of increased security given a genuine threat of terrorism would justify shrinking the scope of rights to privacy; for others, no increase in security could compensate for the compromise of those rights.

Meanwhile, some of my fellow relativists also engage in confirmation bias, by making out value differences across cultures to be too stark and dramatic, and by doing so unnecessarily weaken their case through exaggeration. Consider again the contrast between moralities that are focused on relationship and community versus moralities that are focused on autonomy and individual rights. It is often the case, especially in the contemporary era, that moralities of one type contain values that are central to the other type. It is just that, as noted above, the priorities are different. It is not unusual for a society’s moral tradition to include mixtures of autonomy- and community- oriented themes. In the American moral tradition, civil liberties are often conceived as protections for the individual against intrusive measures to advance the public interest. This autonomy-oriented interpretation is dominant, but co-exists with a community-oriented interpretation that construes civil liberties as empowering protections enabling the individual to contribute to and participate in the common life of her society. In contemporary Japan civil liberties receive both autonomy-oriented and community-oriented interpretations, but arguably the latter interpretation is comparatively dominant.

Empirical cultural psychology has produced results that point to pervasive, subtle, yet fundamental differences in value priorities. A study by Miller and Bersoff in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1992 found that Americans and Indians alike tended to give priority to justice over interpersonal obligations when judging life-threatening transgressions, but it also detected marked cross-cultural differences in attitude to non-life-threatening cases. For example, whereas all U.S. respondents judged that it was morally wrong to steal a train ticket, even if this was the only way to fulfill the interpersonal responsibility of attending a best friend’s wedding, a majority of the Indian respondents judged that it was morally required to steal the ticket if it was necessary to attend the wedding.

The difference in how relationship and community are valued shows up in the way that people think of themselves. In many East and South Asian societies, people have a greater tendency to think of themselves as interdependent beings, with identities tied to their social roles and relationships. In Western societies, and at the extreme end the United States, people have a greater tendency to think of themselves as beings with internal characteristics and traits that can be specified independently of their social roles and relationships to particular people (see for example, Shweder and Bourne in Cultural conceptions of mental health and therapy, ed. A.J. Marsella & G.M. White, 1982). The greater tendency to understand people in terms of their relationship with each other may be related to a broader tendency to understand things holistically, in terms of their relationships and contexts as opposed to their non-relational properties. The contrasting mode of understanding is analytical in seeking to understand a whole by breaking it into its constituent parts. Again, it is important not to overstate the contrast. Each of these ways of thinking is employed by individuals in both Western and Eastern cultures, but the difference lies in one way being the dominant and first approach applied rather than the other way.

Perhaps the objectivist will want to say that someone is mistaken or is misperceiving the facts in the case of such differences. But to simply wave one’s hand towards the abstract possibility that someone is in error is another form of confirmation bias. To really make a case, the objectivist should say which side in this set of differences is mistaken, and why. Anthropologists and psychologists who are more interested in comparative empirical studies have discovered that there is at any rate no easy way to convict one particular party to moral differences of an error or of ignorance. For instance, in their comparative study of people in Orissa, India, with American undergraduates in Chicago, Shweder and Bourne found that Oriyas (people from Orissa) were more likely to concretely describe people in terms of specific contexts and relationships to others. Objectivists pondering this difference might claim that Oriyas are simply misperceiving the nature of persons. But Shweder and Bourne found that the difference between more or less contextualizing in conceptions of persons isn’t related to differing levels of education; it isn’t that the more educated tend to view people less in terms of context and relationship. The difference in contextualizing held when Indians and Americans of similar levels of education were compared. In fact, there was no difference in the concreteness and contextuality of descriptions of persons given by Oriyas of varying levels of education and different socioeconomic statuses (castes). Nor did Shweder and Bourne find evidence of some cognitive or linguistic deficit that would hinder more abstract thinking by Oriyas about persons. Shweder and Bourne concluded that the most plausible explanation is a value difference: Oriyas were disinclined to ascribe intrinsic moral worth to people in abstraction from their relationships to others because one is not fully a human being without relationship to others.

The similarity in theme to Confucian ethics is striking. In Confucianism, to be a person is to connect with others by acting in relationship with them. Participation in ceremonial rituals helps one to cultivate the ethically-appropriate emotional attitudes towards others as they instantiate certain roles, as when one pours wine for the elder villagers in the order of their seniority in the village drinking ceremony (Mencius 6A5). Consider the Chinese character for ren, which stands for one of the central Confucian virtues and is variously translated as goodness, caring, and human-heartedness. It is composed of the characters for person and for the number two, and is often taken to convey the idea that there is no person until there are two. The striking similarity in theme between rich and intellectually-sophisticated cultures in India and China should give pause to anyone who thinks to lightly dismiss moralities oriented towards relationship and community.

The kinds of examples I have just given show that objectivists have not successfully defused the challenge of moral difference: there are significant similarities in values across cultures, but also significant differences that don’t reduce to differences over relevant nonmoral facts. Objectivists often overlook whole moral traditions of great civilizations that are centered around values different from the ones they highlight in their conceptions of the single true morality. They also overlook significant differences among those who share values over which values should be prioritized.

It is important to note that relativists do not need to say that moral judgment is an uncritical and unreflective application of the norms adopted by one’s group or by oneself as an individual. Relativists can acknowledge, as well as anyone else, that criticism of accepted norms is a regular part of moral discourse. It’s just that relativists dispute that the second-order norms by which the accepted norms are criticized are universal (most of them clearly reflect the values of the cultures from which they arise). In other words, relativists deny that when pressed for justification of one’s position, one can get to a stopping point where every reasonable person agrees. Rather, the stopping points are in the area of the fundamental moral differences mentioned earlier.

Where do the (varied) moral norms come from? One relativist answer (David Wong, Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism, 2006) is that morality is a cultural invention that has interpersonal and intrapersonal coordination functions in human life. The interpersonal function is to promote and regulate social cooperation. The intrapersonal function is to foster a degree of ordering among potentially conflicting motivational propensities, including self- and other-regarding motivations. This ordering serves to encourage people to become constructive participants in the cooperative life and to live worthwhile lives. Moral norms emerge as participants discuss what forms their cooperation should take. The key claim of my version of relativism is this: because cooperation can take different forms and fulfill different ideals (for example, some ideals emphasize relationship and community; others emphasize the protection of individual interests against collective interests), there is no single true morality. To clarify, I am not saying that cooperation is valued in all moral traditions merely for its instrumental value to individuals who are seeking to assure their life, liberty and pursuit of their own happiness. What I have already said about Asian traditions and certain strands of Western traditions indicates that cooperation, relationship, and community are often valued as ends in themselves. And the differences in the extent to which they are valued as ends in themselves is one of the main sources of plurality in true moralities.

Such a conception of morality need not imply, as critics allege, that relativism permits anything and everything. Because moral norms have functions, the content of norms can be assessed on the basis of their effectiveness in enabling the fulfillment of these functions. The content of moral norms is constrained not only by the functions they must fulfill but also by the nature of the beings they govern. Consider the strength of self-regarding motivations in most human beings. Curbing the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest is obviously something that moral norms have to do, and that already is a constraint on the content of moral norms. But furthermore, an effective morality should provide outlets for the expression of self-interest consistent with the expression of other-regarding motivations. By making other-regarding behavior less costly, moralities can increase the degree to which individuals feel they can afford to indulge their concerns for others.

The sort of functional conception of morality advocated here is a reasonable form of relativism that is not often considered in the philosophical literature. Progress might actually be made if the debate were not so often framed in terms that eliminate complex and nuanced positions.

© Prof. David B. Wong 2010

David Wong is the Susan Fox Beischer and George D. Beischer Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He writes mainly in ethical theory and comparative ethics (Chinese and Western).

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X