Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Context and Relativism

Peter discusses 'kinds of relativism': "surely every ethical theory recommends different actions in different circumstances, and so in a way their recommendations are relative." I think it is helpful to distinguish such context-sensitivity -- whereby the truth is fixed by the particular circumstances -- from relativism strictly speaking. As I wrote in this essay:
I take relativism to be the view that the truth-value of a token claim varies depending on who assesses it. This should be distinguished from contextualism, according to which different tokens of a sentence type may have different contents, say depending on the speaker. Indexical content, for instance, is context-dependent in this way. But the resulting claims are typically not relative, because any token utterance will be absolutely true or false, no matter who assesses it. “I am RC” may be true when spoken by me but not you, yet even you must agree that my token utterance is a true one. So it is not 'relative' in the above sense. Similarly, whether bright colours (for example) enhance an artwork may depend on context, i.e. the rest of the work. But this aesthetic quality will only count as a relative value if a token instance of it varies in value across viewers – say, if two critics can, without error, disagree over the qualities of a single painting.

Similarly for ethics: any adequate theory must be sensitive to the morally relevant features of a situation. It would be morally obtuse to claim that lying (for example) is always wrong, no matter the specific context. But this isn't relativism, so long as we agree that there's an objective fact of the matter in any particular case. Some lies are permissible and others aren't; but there's no one particular (token) act of lying that is at once both right and wrong, "relative" to different observers.

Note that, on this understanding, the claim that people ought to abide by the norms of their culture is not actually a form of relativism. It's presumably an objective fact what your cultural norms are, after all. So even if someone in a different culture would - due to the change in context - be bound by different norms, they won't (if they accept the above claim) dispute which norms apply in your particular situation.

Cultural relativism should be understood differently. In contrast to the above "cultural command theory", relativists will claim that cultures have no special authority over their members. They simply provide one standard of assessment, and others may provide alternatives, and there's nothing to decide between them (after all, any such assessment would itself be made from some arbitrary perspective or other). The mark of relativism, recall, is that one and the same particular act merits conflicting assessments. It is both right (from one viewpoint) and wrong (from another).

[Of course, we should reject both these views. Arbitrary opinions don't magically become true simply because they're endorsed by "the culture" in general. And, contra the relativist, some perspectives are more reasonable than others -- differences aren't necessarily arbitrary.]

In sum, I agree with Peter that "there are some objective facts about societies that ethics must take into account when making recommendations as to how individuals should act." Context matters, and cultural context is part of that. But I don't think we should consider this any kind of relativism, "bounded" or otherwise.

[See also my old post on 'objective moral relativism'.]

Update: I should clarify a respect in which the quoted analogy to contextualism may be misleading. The semantic content of an indexical like 'I' depends on who utters it. The respect in which morality is context-dependent is not semantic in this way. The semantic content of 'morally right' doesn't vary. It is rather a substantive fact that the term extends to some tokens of a type but not others. See my more recent post: Moral Principles, Objective Generalizations.


  1. I don't think this complete serves to make the distinction. Let's consider a relativist theory of the form that "whether people become ethically obligated to act upon hearing a claim depends on the feelings of the person hearing it". There is nothing stopping somone from charachterizing this as contextual, specifically claiming that who is ethically obligated to act by an ethical claiim is determined by the contextual fact of who is listening to it and their feelings about it (instead of, say, their ability to act on it). Thus I don't think we can rely on whether a theory makes its judgements based on context to seperate all relativistic theories from non-relativistic ones, although it probably can seperate some of them out.

  2. "It would be morally obtuse to claim that lying (for example) is always wrong, no matter the specific context."

    I think Kant would disagree with you.

  3. Peter - what you describe sounds to me more like subjectivism than relativism. Again, from my linked essay:

    "Relativism should also be distinguished from subjectivism, according to which there is no gap between truth and opinion. On one form of subjectivism, an assertion is true just in case the speaker believes it. So defined, subjectivism is a species of contextualism rather than relativism. (Your believing-that-p is an objective fact about your psychology. If this fact provides the truth conditions for your utterance, then your utterance is absolutely true. I can hardly dispute that you hold the opinion you do.)"

    This is perhaps a merely terminological dispute. But it seems to me that this way of dividing up the terms is cleaner and clearer than any alternative.

    Willis - yes, I had Kant (and the "inquiring murderer") in mind when making that claim ;-)

  4. Subjectivism has always been portrayed to me as a subset of relativism. Again, because it makes the truth of the claim "relative" to individual beliefs and opinions. Which is simply an elaboration on the doctrine that there is no objective ethical truth, not necessarily a seperate claim, and that is perhaps the classically defining claim of relativism.

  5. "Objective" is ambiguous. The subjectivism described above remains "objective" in the sense that there's one definitely correct answer in each particular case. Psychological facts are perfectly objective, in this sense. They just aren't mind-independent.

    "Again, because it makes the truth of the claim "relative" to individual beliefs and opinions."

    That's just a misleading way of talking, though. For subjectivists the truth depends on particular psychological facts, just as other truths may depend on particular non-psychological facts, but in neither case is this fruitfully described as "relative", since the truth is fixed and absolute (no matter our outside "perspective") once all the contextual details are specified.

  6. Generally when we say that some fact is objective we mean that it is true for everyone. This is the sense in which physical laws are objective. Now it is true that under the subjectivism descried above the laws of sujectivism itself are objective. However the truth of particular ethical claims is made subjective because they vary form person to person. When I say that something is objective I mean that it is true for everyone. So if I claim that ethical facts are objective I mean that they are true for everyone, not that they might vary from person to person in some systematic way. Of course you might use these words differently. But that is how I use them, and that is why I describe such theories as relativistic, and thus why I distinguished kinds of relativism as I did.

  7. But it is true for everyone that Bob dislikes murder and thus was wrong to kill Sally. There's no relativity at the level of assessing token acts.

  8. But "it is wrong to kill Sally" is not objective, and it is statements like that I call ethical facts. Whether that statement is part of a statement that is ojective is tangental to deciding whether the statement is objective or not.

  9. It's not objective because it's underspecified. There are lots possible killing-Sally act tokens; it should come as no surprise that they may differ in moral status. To call this "relativism" merely obfuscates the issue.

    So, I think your choice of focus is misguided. We get a clearer understanding by focusing on the more specific base facts as I've suggested, rather than higher-level generalizations.

  10. As I see it ojective and relativistic are opposites, that is how I use the terms. A use I justify by appealing to general relativity. Why is it called relativity? Because the physical facts (at least some of them) differ in a systematic way from one frame of reference to another they were said to be made relative by the theory (instead of being objective, as they used to be). In your terms the theory should be called general sujectivity I suppose.

  11. No, I think my account of relativity captures that just fine. Even once you fully specify two particular (and fine-grained) token events, there may be no objective fact of the matter as to whether they occurred simultaneously. It's relative to a frame of reference, as you say. Whether Bob's token killing of Sally was wrong, on the other hand, is NOT relative to any frames of reference whatsoever. The moral fact remains the same no matter where you look at it from. That's why I insist that it is not "relative" in any meaningful sense. By your own definition, you ought to agree with me.

  12. But in what you call subjectivism it is relative to bob's opinions, or so it is claimed. Which is why I call what you call subjectivism relativism. You took my invocation of relativity too literally; I didn't mean to imply that it had any direct consequence for ethics, I'm just explaining my use of terminology.

  13. In what I call 'subjectivism' the facts depend on Bob's opinions. You needlessly confuse the matter by adopting the 'relative to' locution to describe this.

    A good moral theory must tell us on what morality depends, i.e. what non-moral base facts "fix" the moral facts. If you insist on saying that that perfectly objective facts are true "relative to" their truthmakers, you're apt to confuse people into thinking that the metaphysical status of these truths is somehow akin to Einsteinean relativity, which I've already shown is a mistake.

    The key point to note is that psychological truthmakers can be perfectly objective in the Einsteinian sense. It is worth adopting terminology that makes this clear.

  14. Well obviously I can't force someone to use the term "relative to". My point however is that when facts A depend of facts B, and facts B vary from observer to observer, then there is a long history of describing this situation by saying that facts A are relative to facts B. And I don't think that this confuses many people into thinking that we are talking about relativity; I have never heard anyone with half a brain seriously argue for moral relativism because of general relativity.

  15. Again, I must emphasize that whether Bob disapproves of his Sally-killing act is not, actually, a fact that "varies from observer to observer". Hence, on a subjectivist theory, the fine-grained moral facts (e.g. whether Bob's killing of Sally was right or wrong) are quite simply not relative.

    (The confusion about general relativity that I spoke of was your own, from earlier in this thread. You still don't seem to have acknowledged that psychological facts are objective, and do not "vary from observer to observer", so long as they are observing the same thing -- e.g. Bob's attitudes.)

  16. You are misinterpreting my claim:
    claim: "it is wrong to kill Sally" (A) is an ethical fact.
    claim: "Bob thinks it is wrong to kill Sally" (B) is not an ethical fact.

    In what you call subjectivism and I call relativism B is objective. But the truth A type claims, the ethical claims, are relative to opinions. A type claims thus have no truth value by themselves. And I call this state of affairs relativism. And I justify that use of language by an appeal to the relation between Newtonian physics and relativity. (Newtonian:Relativity::objective-ethics:relativistic-ethics)
    Because in relativity the A type statements "X is before Y" no longer have truth values by themselves and are true or false only relative to a frame of reference. This is how I justify my use of terms by appealing to relativity, by analogy.

  17. Re-read the above thread, we've already covered this. The more fundamental ethical facts are ones like:

    (C) The particular (token) act of Bob's killing Sally was wrong.

    You must agree that C is an ethical fact. And, on a subjectivist theory, it is non-relative.

    A-type claims are not "relative", but underspecified; they generalize over tokens that differ in moral status. You might as well say that "cats are tabby" is 'relative' because some cats are tabby and others aren't. But it's nothing especially to do with "frames of reference", and nor is problem with (A), so your analogy is inapt.

  18. In other words, generalizations like (A) are not proper facts. It's the (fine-grained, particular) C-type ones we should be looking at.

  19. But in a subjectivist theory Bob may approve of "Bob's killing Sally" while Charlie may disaprove of it. Thus there is no fact of the matter in such a theory whether C type facts are right and wrong either, except relative to Bob and Charlie's beliefs about them. Or, in other words, you can simply replace A by C in my argument, it makes no diffference to me or to my argument.

  20. Now you're changing the subject. We were previously discussing a kind of subjectivism according to which "whether people become ethically obligated to act upon hearing a claim depends on the feelings of the person hearing it". That is, whether the actor is obligated depends upon his own feelings, not anybody else's. This was meant to provide a counterexample to my post's account of relativism. I argued, on the contrary, that my account is correct in denying that this variety of subjectivism is relativistic.

    Of course, other subjectivist theories (e.g. "whether a person is obligated to act depends upon the feelings of whoever is morally assessing him") may be relativistic. But in such a case, my account will correctly classify it as such, so you no longer have a putative counterexample.

  21. But Bob may think that Bob is not obligated while Charlie may think that Bob is obligated, thus making whether Bob is obligated relative to Bob and Charlie's opinions. Again, a state of affairs I would describe as ... relativism. Although obviously you wouldn't. Since this is a terminological issue why do you care so much, I'm just explaining why I label things as I do, I'm not forcing you to?

  22. I care about being clear and avoiding misunderstandings, is all.

    Now, I agree that the situation described in your most recent comment is indeed relativism. It's a relativistic form of subjectivism, and would be diagnosed as such by my original criterion (namely, whether "one and the same particular act merits conflicting assessments"). That's not in dispute at all.

    Instead, as a test case for my restrictive account of 'relativity', consider the following form of subjectivism: "the moral status of an act token is whatever the actor thinks it is." That is, suppose that whether Bob is obligated depends only on Bob's opinion, and not anybody else's.

    Now, I claim, this form of subjectivism is not any kind of relativism. Do you agree?

    I've offered an account of relativity that clarifies the key issues. It dissolves your initial worries that "every ethical theory recommends different actions in different circumstances, and so in a way their recommendations are relative." I have shown how to draw a very clear and principled boundary between objective (but context-sensitive) and genuinely relativistic moral theories.

    Yet, in your initial comment, you wrote: "I don't think this complete serves to make the distinction."

    I am left wondering why you disagree (if you still do).


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