Why I am not an ethical relativist.

Ethical relativism and skepticism have become fashionable again, and are usually deeply ingrained in the minds of young people especially. There are, of course, both naive and sophisticated versions of these metaethical positions. The appeal of all versions of these skeptical doctrines for many people seems, paradoxically, to be their association with values such as tolerance and openness to different points of view. Often adherents of ethical relativism may fail to realize that a consistent application of this stance may undercut their own values too. It is often taken for granted, for example, that openness and tolerance are “good” things by people who deny that anything is really good or “good-in-itself,” without appreciating that such a position is self-contradictory.

Mary Midgley provides amunition for those who continue to insist, as I do, that moral values are more than mere subjective whims or preferences, like a taste for oysters or a fondness for strawberry ice cream. In a lively and provocative recent book, she describes an all-too typical classroom conversation: “But surely it is always wrong to make moral judgments?” This is almost a creed among young people especially, and Professor Midgley was not surprised by this student’s question:

“This is the manifesto I once heard someone lay down in an argument about the duty of toleration. It was spoken ardently and confidently, with no expectation that it might be questioned. It was not said as a new discovery, but as a moral platitude, something so obvious that it need only be mentioned to be accepted. And the speaker was not being at all eccentric in so pronouncing it; this confidence is normal today. In the last few decades the word ‘judgmental’ has been especially coined and is used, along with an older word ‘moralistic,’ to describe and attack this particular form of wrongdoing.”

Among philosophers, however, ethical relativism and the various forms of skepticism remain highly controversial positions. As usual in philosophy, the opposite position – which is sometimes called ethical objectivism or absolutism or universalism – also has its critics. Intelligent people who are not particularly philosophical simply take it for granted that some things are right and others wrong. My guess is that most of us, even those of us, who profess otherwise, really know that there is a difference between good and evil, and can tell right from wrong in our own lives. More on this later.

My experience debating these issues is that people are highly emotional about whatever position they take and usually lash out at those who challenge their premises.

So what is all the fuss about? What are the considerations on both sides in this debate? Can these matters be discussed calmly and rationally, without resort to mutual insults? Is there any chance that they can be resolved?

In what follows, I shall attempt to resolve these matters for myself, being as fair as I can be to those who disagree with me. Something which is not easy for any of us. To do this, I will attempt to set forth the strongest arguments for relativism that I know, along with some rejoinders along the way. A brief statement of my opinion is offered by way of a conclusion.


At the outset it will be necessary to define, by consulting a standard “Dictionary of Philosophy,” the key terms that will be used in this essay. Although this method will slow down the discussion a bit, clarity requires it: “To be a relativist about value is to maintain that there are no universal criteria of good and bad, right and wrong. One difficulty is to avoid saying that what is right is whatever is actually commended wherever and whenever one happens to be. For, whatever its other faults, the general maxim ‘When in Rome do what the Romans [do]’ expresses not unbridled individualistic idiosyncrasy, but a specific and categorical universal standard. To be relativist about fact is to maintain that there is no such thing as objective knowledge of reality independent of the knower. The parallel difficulty here is to eschew the inconsistent claim that the relativistic thesis is itself an item of objective knowledge.”

Absolutism is the “opposite of relativism” holding that “the criteria of right and wrong are absolute or universal where they apply.” Perhaps there is a more important distinction to be noticed between “subjectivism” and “objectivism.” These are two metaethical views that can always be discussed together, since an argument in favor of one is an argument against the other: “Subjectivism [is,] in its simplest form, the position held by someone who believes that all moral attitudes are merely a matter of personal taste. ‘Eating people is wrong,’ for example, and its contradictory become not true or false statements but simply expressions of the dietary preferences of the speaker. … [If] we encounter someone who does not share our tastes, then there is no form of proof by which we can demonstrate this error.”

On the other hand, there is objectivism: This is the “belief that there are certain moral truths that would remain true whatever anyone or everyone thought or desired. For instance, ‘No one should ever deliberately inflict pain on another simply to take pleasure in [that other’s] suffering’ might be thought of as a plausible example. Even in a world of sadists who all rejected it[,] the contention remains true, just as 5 + 7 = 12 remains correct even if there is no one left to count.”

These metaethical positions, then, differ over whether to hold a moral position is to: 1) know or claim something to be true; or 2) merely to state a subjective preference regarding human activity. Relativists usually rely on one or both of two general arguments, either the epistemological and/or the anthropological arguments, or some combination of the two. Needless to say, there are many subtle variations on these two basic themes. Fans of relativism should look to Plato’s work. Although Plato is an absolutist, at the beginning of “The Republic,” he presents the classic statement of the position that he wants to reject. Also, Cicero’s dialogues contain a defense of Natural Law doctrine which amounts to a powerful attack on relativism, a position which is quite clearly explained in preparing for that attack.

In one trivial sense, of course, everyone accepts relativism. For instance, relativity to circumstances: If there is a moral requirement to the effect “Whenever you are in situation A, always do X,” then the wrongness of doing Y instead of X will depend on the circumstances, that is, on whether I am in fact in situation A. But when someone says, “What you should do depends on your moral principles,” this involves a much more radical kind of relativism. It implies that moral principles can vary as much as circumstances can. It is this second position that I find unacceptable.

What are the arguments offered for this more radical skepticism?


The first and most popular argument offered for this attitude today, usually by people who do not have much use for the appropriate philosophical terms, is the argument from skepticism or the epistemological argument. This is an argument that relies on some crucial metaphysical assumptions, such as: 1) that there are no moral truths; and 2) that even if there were moral truths, we cannot know with certainty what they are. The first of these claims is part of a familiar general skepticism about truth recently associated with the work of popular philosophers, such as Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. It implies a thorough “anti-essentialism” in metaphysics such that moral truths or entities, like “Good,” simply do not exist. Moral qualities are, accordingly, dismissed in J.L. Mackie’s term as “queer metaphysical entities.”

Relativists also say that even if Plato was correct in claiming that moral essences exist or if Kant was right about the categorical imperative, we cannot know these claims to be true. This is because of our limited and finite perspectives as human beings. We can only know what is right for US or, perhaps, for our own societies. We cannot have knowledge of what is universally true or right.

A difficulty to notice here is the classic example of what philosophers call a “self-referential paradox,” known more prosaically as the “relativist’s paradox.” Here is a succint statement of the paradox: “Acts are not made right or wrong simply by people believing that they are right or wrong. … [R]elativists … think that moral absolutism is a bad view, encouraging intolerance and so on. But I ask them: Is absolutism only bad in a relative way – only wrong for them and not necessarily for others? If so, then it might not be wrong for me. I can believe in it and act on it. On the other hand, if it is wrong for everybody, then it is absolutely wrong, which contradicts the relativists’ [own] position. So moral relativism is either self-refuting or it has no claim on my moral beliefs.” (I owe this argument to Colin McGinn.)

If we say that there are no moral truths, then we are asserting at least one moral truth – that there are none. And yes, such a claim is necessarily a moral claim. Indeed, it is impossible that it could not be one, even an attempted and tendentious cleavage or division of the conceptual universe into the cognitive and non-cognitive, ethical and non-ethical, will not avoid the problem; for these attempted divisions and distinctions are themselves subject to moral assessment. Morality or the ethical has jurisdiction over all.

At this point, the relativists begin to pound their fists on the table. They attempt to make an exception for this one moral truth or to deny that it is moral. Yet by making such an exception they allow the “cammel’s nose into the tent” – for soon other exceptions will be discovered and allowed, establishing the relativists’ own ethical preferences as somehow required by the order of things. If there can be one moral truth with regard to morals, then there may be others – and soon will be, until the entire cammel is in the tent. Merely saying that something is not a moral claim does not establish the point: Experimenting on old people in horrible ways, allegedly, to “gain neutral scientific knowledge” and not for the purpose of causing anyone harm, does not absolve the experimenter of moral responsiblity for any harm that is so caused. This is true whatever knowledge is gained by the experiment.

Philosophically sophisticated relativists and many other contemporary ethical skeptics, especially the pragmatists, have sought to avoid this quagmire by deploying the doctrine of “fallibilism.” This is a theory presented by C.S. Peirce describing inquiry as “an activity generated by a state of unease” and aiming to obtain a “state of rest through finding the right answer to a question.” But rest is never assured, since no one can know what fresh evidence might present itself to necessitate a “change in position.” In other words, one cannot know whether there are ethical truths and even this claim itself may be wrong, so that there may be ethical truths, but they are simply unknown to the speaker. The cautious and intelligent relativist gives up some epistemological ground to the objectivist or universalist, yet clings to a more secure foundation, simplifying the skeptical position by admitting that relativism cannot be known to be true or correct nor objectivism false from his or her own premises, but only that this relativism seems to be the most “plausible” position in light of the available evidence.

An important objection to this response, however, is that it implies an external measure of the validity of these arguments, either in the evidence presently existing or in the possiblity that such evidence may be found, which is the very point denied by relativists to begin with. It is also a tacit admission by the relativist that, on fallibilist foundations, he or she may be wrong and objectivists may prove to be right – or even to be the holders of the more plausible position themselves once all the evidence is in. Needless to say, gathering all of the evidence is something which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

This is a humbling concession which relativists are rarely willing to make.

Does the fact of disagreement prove that there are no universal values? How about the allegation that if there were universal values, then they would have been discovered already?

Well, of course, universal values pretty much have been discovered already. Many are embedded in our organic documents in the Western democracies and elsewhere. They are central to such documents as the United Nations’ Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What will always remain – and quite properly too – subject to debate and disagreement, however, is what those values require in new and unforeseen circumstances. For example, given our respect for the dignity of every human life, is it morally permissible to clone a human being? This division between “theoretical reason” which is concerned with the discovery of value; and “practical reason” which has to do with the interpretation of values, or evaluation, is fundamental to the objectivist position.

“The postmodern hatred of value simply compounds a cultural attitude that has been dominant since the birth of the social sciences at the end of the last century. This attitude stems from a tendency to confuse values with evaluation, which, in turn, arises from the reduction of the world to ‘the-world-for-me,’ [subjectivism] the fundamental inversion of human consciousness away from the world and toward the self who experiences that world.” (Hugh Mercer Cutler)

This leads to the question of whether values are changed by the need for, and the fact of, interpretations. I think not. I think that they are clarified through interpretation – clarified to our human and oh-so flawed understanding and, thus, better enforced. It may be that the very need to interpret values serves to establish their reality, like the reality of ideals, as “the stars by which we navigate our moral lives.”


So much for the epistemological argument, but relativists also deploy the so-called anthropological argument. They say that societies obviously differ on fundamental values and that there is no universal agreement on right and wrong. These terms are merely “labels” attached to conduct of which a particular society either does or does not approve. A great deal of scholarship in the social sciences seems to support this view. A number of prominent anthropologists and psychologists deny that there can be any absolute or objective moral values on the ground that moral values are the products of individual cultures, which differ from one another in such a fashion that the values of each society must differ too. Two of the leading authorities for this view are Ruth Benedict (an anthropologist) and B.F. Skinner (a psychologist).

The views of Benedict and Skinner resonate with ideas with which we have all become acquainted and that to many people, especially many college students, seem quite correct – that “good” must always mean “good for him” or “good for them” or “good for me,” but never just good. What is good for one person or culture is not necessarily good for another, and therefore there can never really be any genuine moral reasoning, only acknowledgment of others’ goods. But this assumes that it is “good” for each person or society and not others to decide what is for his or her or its own good, and that this autonomous decision-making is itself a transcultural “good.”

This easy-going campus relativism runs into even more severe problems when we confront questions like this: Must we withhold moral judgments about Nazi atrocities on the grounds that we are not members of a Nazi culture and, therefore, have no right to judge? Exterminating 6 million people may be good for Hitler, but not for me. The same applies if we throw in 3 million Gypsies and 2 million or more “others.” This “different strokes for different folks” approach seems pretty hollow to me. Notice that advocates of ethical relativism or nihilism or absolute skepticism, each to a different degree, often confuse two distinct claims: 1) “there are no universally held moral values”; and 2) “no value or set of values can be recommended to all people.” I think that both of these claims are mistaken.

Despite Benedict and Skinner, there is one UNDISPUTED universal characteristic of human societies with regard to morals: They all have some kind of a morality; they all have some set of values; some things that are admired and rewarded and others which are punished as reprehensible. There is no human society on record anywhere without any values at all, with no values of any kind. Also, distinguished anthropologists and psychologists challenge the relativistic conclusions drawn from their fields, contending that beneath surface differences there are indeed universally cherished values common to all human societies. (Kroeber and Kluckholm) For instance, as I say, there is no society that dispenses with morality as an institution or set of beliefs about right and wrong, nor with the concepts of right and wrong themselves come to think of it, however they may be defined.

The social psychologist Solomon Ash claims that every society despises cowardice and honors bravery. In every society modesty, courage, hospitality and generosity are encouraged. They differ in how they define these values and apply them. Even in cultures where acts that are horrible to us are routinely performed, it is often possible to find that the disagreement is really a debate about apparently empirical "facts’ and not a debate about “values.” The existence of universal values, if granted, will never diminish the need for evaluation. An example is the abortion controversy: The parties may agree that human lives or persons are sacred or to be cherished, yet disagree about whether the fetus is a human life or a person. Relativists tend to find the distinction between values and valuation frustrating because they wish to infer from the fact of moral disagreement, the impossiblity of moral values. This is not a valid inference; and the premise may actually support the opposite of what its proponents believe. If one can conclude that people disagree about what the right thing to do is, then they may well be making a tacit appeal to higher values that determine (if properly understood) what the right answer is or who is correct with respect to that disagreement.

The principle that no value or set of values can justifiably be recommended for all people cannot be the conclusion drawn from a legitimate scientific investigation. Even if, contrary to the foregoing discussion, it did turn out that no values are universally held, it would not follow from this that no value is worthy of adoption by all. To argue that it would be is to succumb to the “is/ought” or “fact/value” controversy. Even if we found that all people enjoyed inflicting suffering on others, it would not follow that they ought enjoy it or to inflict suffering on others. Hume’s Guillotine is a double-edged blade. In this sense, anthropology as science has nothing to offer to ethics as philosophy.

Deciding what is a fact or a value, or that we should bother distinguishing between the two, is a judgment that already involves value choices and the exercise of imagination as well as intelligence. As I have suggested, it is impossible to step out of our moral awareness in order to examine that moral awareness itself, so as to then decide whether it is “moral” to do away with morality.


Forget about the fancy theory and the scholarly references for a moment. Let us pause to consider: What do I really believe about all this? What would I say in the silence of my own conscience?

I think that we all know that there is a difference between right and wrong. Once again, it appears that your mother was right. These terms designate powerful alternatives in all of our lives. I am certain that we all recognize an obligation to choose between them at difficult moments. I think that we know in our hearts when we have acted immorally. Screwing up is a great reminder of the “bite of conscience.” (Nietzsche) Moral values are just as real as rocks and trees. We bump up against them or ignore them at our peril. The Holocaust was certainly and obviously unspeakably evil, despite the collective madness of the culture that endorsed it, and this is true regardless of anybody’s culture or perspective. If we are honest, then I think we all know this much already.

Can anything be said about the content of objective values, if it turns out that there are some after all? Kant’s philosophy is very helpful on this issue. As rational agents we discover the requirements of sociability, of what it means to be a rational agent in a practical sense, which at the most fundamental and public level must mean something like the categorical imperative: “Act so that the maxim of your actions can be willed as a universal law.” My grandmother was not Kant, but she figured out this much too: “Treat others the way you wish to be treated.” If something hurts you, then do not do it to others. As a religious person, she believed what many scientists are now telling us is true on non-religious grounds. Everything that exists shares in a fundamental quality or essence, the ur-stuff of the universe, and participates somehow in a cosmic order that we are only beginning to understand, so that this participation of each one of us is needed and is implicated in the actions of all others. Call this the “butterfly effect.”

Perhaps the poets have also always known this. “What you do to another, you do to yourself.” (Oscar Wilde) And it is fundamental to our religious traditions as well: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me.” (Jesus Christ) Similar quotes can be found in Judaism and Islam.

I am suggesting that beyond philosophies and principles, beyond theories, is a kind of simple humanity. I can look at another person and see an abstraction or a social category or a race and so on; or I can try to really see that other person, to give her or him the “attention” (Simon Weil) or respectful regard accorded only to that unique locus of rights and responsibilities in our moral universe that we call: a person. Someone who feels, hurts, cries, needs, dreams, imagines and most of all, loves.

We are such predatory creatures, sure we are “survival machines” (Richard Dawkins), but we cannot forget that we are also something more. We are beings capable of love, needing to love others, seeing ourselves in others, whose confirmation and affection we also require to become the persons we are, to become persons at all. To admit this, is to acknowledge that morality is a condition of being human, comparable to language and sociability. It is inescapable for us.

I will give the final word to a child, since my views are sometimes dismissed as childish. I agree with Anne Frank, who wrote after experiencing some of the worst aspects of human nature: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

In my simplicity and ignorance, I do too.

mmhh…I’ll try to be coincise and simple…I’m sorry that my answer will be in no way make justice to the extent of your article…

What I’ve seen in many absolutists, and also in many relativists, is a confusion between moral truths and meta-ethical truth.

A statement as “there are no absolute moral truths” is a meta-ethical truth, but this does not mean that as a human being I’m not inserted into a moral system or that I do not make moral Judgements. All that it means that I’m aware of the contingency of what I hold as moral truths, and of certain ralations that moral theories have: being all of equal status, being discontinuous, not being isomorphic for example.

I hoping I made this point clear let’s see to a couple of what I consider meta-ethical axioms:

a) Every moral reasoning is based on a deductive reasoning as no empirical evidence can change a moral judgement.

That’s it, let’s see the consequences:

  1. As every deductive reasoning, even moral reasoning is based on a set of axioms that in this case they are called principles.
  2. As aristotle taught us: axioms are posed as true in order to avoid an infinite process of questioning every principle.
  3. Thus you can question a set of axioms only by posing anothe set of axioms.
  4. Thus given any moral theory we cannot decide it’s truthfulness in any other way than posing an external set of axioms.
  5. Such new axioms can again be doubted and examined for their truthfulness. This causes an infinite process.
  6. As you may have immagined the effect of all this is similar to the ladder argument of wittgenstein. We climbed the ladder but now we can throw it away. We can doubt the same premesis (a) that brought us here. But by doubting it all we can do is getting in agreement on which other axiom(or set of axioms) should subtitute the above mentioned, having the same problem of being uncapable to decide wether those are correct or not.

I also find naive that you state that the Human Rights Declaration is an universal set of undoubtable principles.

I hope that you found my comments interesting. I’m waiting a response.

  1. “There are no absolute metaethical truths” is a self-contradictory statement and self-refuting.

  2. I never said that the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are perfect or infallible or anything even remotely like that. Take another look at what I did say.

I’m not saying that either…

What I said is:

  1. Making a meta-ethical claiming that all moralities are equal doesn’t stop you from choosing one for what-ever reason. i.e. Cultural Relativism doesn’t stop me from judging.

  2. Assuming (a) you come to the conclusion (7) i.e. that there is no canonical structure to which all other structures are isomorphic. This means that given any 2 structures you cannot decide which is more correct by relating them to a bigger universal structure because we cannot determine which is this structure. What I’m denying here is what putnam calls God’s eye point of view: a neutral standpoint from which judging. This point is not that different than the one stating which geometry is the best one (euclidean or any of the non-euclidean).

I also remind that my only assumption is (a) and the rest are mere conclusions. Now in case you don’t like them you either have to find a logical error in my reasoning or refute the assumption.

But beware, the fact that all moral reasoning is deductive in nature. That means its starting point are always a set of principles.

Refuting such an assumption means that you are refuting as contradictory all deontologically based ethics.

I am afraid that I find the claim that “all moralities are equal,” not only false, but absurd on its face.

I believe that some moralities, like some views of empirical reality, are true, while others are false. Hence, the morality of, say, Stalin (as opposed to his ostensible self-avowed politics) is not “equal” to the morality of Mother Theresa.

I am not persuaded that by making this claim I am also undermining the basis for all deontological ethics or, indeed, any other type of ethics. What is undermined is the absurd suggestion that “all moralities are equal.” This is because they are not equal.

Thanks for the comments.

You are still confusing my conclusions for my assumptions.

I don’t know wether it’s my fault or not.

Still, let’s try again. Step by step.

My reasoning starts from thie meta-ethical assumtpion:

a) Every moral reasoning is based on a deductive reasoning as no empirical evidence can change a moral judgement.

i.e. Moral reasoning works in a deductive way from a set of principles(the universal declaration of human rights, categorical imperative) to its conclusions.

Do you agree?

No, I don’t agree.

Your first postulate suggests that “empirical conditions” cannot determine or bear on value choices. This is to accept without argument some version of the fact/value distinction – which is subject to severe attack these days and which has always been controversial.

I am certain that deciding what is an objective “empirical” condition or “fact” is itself a value-laden determination, as is the the need for the distinction itself.

The next step in your analysis is so vague as to be nearly meaningless: I grant you that true moral judgments certainly have something to do with deductions, but also with the application of principles or EVALUATIONS. This is as much an interpretative process as an analytical or deductive one. What is required is creativity and imagination as much as intellectual rigor.

Much of our moral thinking – and the same goes for scientific thinking and theorizing too – involves the manipulation of symbols and interpretation, again, which does NOT make it unrigorous or purely subjective or some such nonsense. Thus, I am afraid that we do not agree on much and that I reject many of your assumptions and postulates.

But thanks again for taking the time to comment.

Even radical contemporary critics of Western capitalism and of the United States, specifically, acknowledge the reality of ethical principles:

"I am intentionally using here moral, philosophical terms, values: ‘bad’, ‘false’. For without an objectively justifiable goal of a better, a free human existence, all liberation must remain meaningless - at best, progress in servitude. I believe that in Marx too socialism ought to be. This ‘ought’ belongs to the very essence of scientific socialism. It ought to be; it [p. 176] is, we may almost say, a biological, sociological and political necessity. It is a biological necessity in as much as a socialist society, according to Marx, would conform with the very logos of life, with the essential possibilities of a human existence, not only mentally, not only intellectually, but also organically. "

                                        -- Herbert Marcuse.

I do see traits of your newly adopted phenomenological method, Freddy, in determining what moral truisms might exist. I like the idea of the “theory-laden” terms in which we make evaluations and judgements. This is a way to consider what ‘a priori,’ if you will, conditions exist for objective moral truths. If we keep in mind that it is the rationality employed in making moral decisions that is common among all people, we can see that subsequent empirical circumstances, or, “the unique context with which the choice is made,” does not suggest that morality is relative. In other words, given the case that a moral action has “negative” effects, this is only to say that it resulted in unsatisfactory “empirical” conditions, but not that the individual intentionally sought those conditions. Only that the rationality failed to produce a positive result in the empirical “world.”

More thoughts to come. I’ve ran out of time on this computer.

I have always been a phenomenologist, whose sources are, ultimately, Kant and Hegel. Take a look at my essay on Paul Ricoeur or the one on Husserl in the Journal of European Philosophy.

Who do you think those guys were relying upon?

My position has not changed on this issue.

I’ll check it out. While we’re at it, have a look at a book called “Things As They Are” by Michael Jackson.

It is a collaboration of the work of thirteen contemporary ethnographers who explore and raise questions regarding the importance of phenomenology and existentialism in various human cultures around the world.

A sort of hermeneutic anthropological study. You’d love it.

Michael Jackson??? THE Michael Jackson??? :astonished:

Obviously, Friedrich, why must you ask? Clearly there are atleast thirteen inquiring etnic individuals trapped in Mike’s body. I mean the guy don’t know if he’s white, black, purple, man, woman, or child…some say he even ponders the possibility of being an alien.

If there were ever an anthropological quest to be had, it would be to find the self inside Michael Jackson.

The objective of my axiom was to determine moral systems as top-down, from the universal to the particular or if you wish principle-based. In fact I agree with you that moral decision is a matter of evaluation of principles, but that’s also true for every system as all language has to be interpreted.

But let’s drop this for the moment…

I’ll just say that I’ve taken the time to read all over again your essay, and that I feel that my objections are still unanswered.

Yet I don’t think that writing a long essay, in order to comment yours will help me understand your thought any better and vice versa.

So I’d like some more of you time while I’ll engage in a maieutical approach.

you stated:

I believe that it is obvious that there is difference between the two as there is a difference between an euclidean geometry and a non-euclidean one.

So I’ll assume that by different, you mean that one of the two morality is better. (this would also be coherent with your argumentation)

I would like to ask: On what did you base your judgement?

I base my argument on what comports with human sociability and flourishing over the long term: Stalinesque assassination and hatred tends to produce the same in response, which is not likely to produce much in the way of social cooperation and mutual reinforcement – so as to yield the maximum benefit for the maximum number in the community. (Much of this is straight out of Kant, with a little concession to the utilitarians.) In addition, there are arguments from rights, of course, from human dignity, etc.

So you tend to base your judgement on Kant’s Cathegorical and a bit of Utilitarianism, justifying those principles by stating that they lead to the development of Human Sociability and it’s flourishing.

You also justify this principle by claiming that it leads (if well used) to the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people.

Yet, how do you know what really benefits humanity?

I am afraid that you are misunderstanding me again. I am basing my claim on a descriptive observation as well as on prescriptive claims. In addition, I begin from the utter bankruptcy of the relativist and skeptical position. Relativism is incoherent. This leads to a new interest in the alternatives. Sociability is not simply a requirement of human flourishing, but a necessity for persons to be human beings. No one can be fully human in isolation. This necessity of sociability, as Kant would insist, implies a full logic of association, which is pretty “objective,” and this leads us to something like the “categorical imperative” and the recognition of what has been called the “ontological uniqueness of the human being” (Ernst Cassirer). This in turn leads directly to a formalization of the requirements of “practical rationality” in “organic groups” (the second Critique), then to policy considerations, to a theory of politics and law.

Hence, your question is not relevant to my response nor to the point that I am making.

The problem is that I don’t take moral relativism as an assumption, but as a conclusion of the incoherence of Deontological moralities. Maybe instead of incoherence I should speak about aphasy. As aphasy is what happens when they meet with a different form of thought that denies at the root thei capability of speaking. (Foucault)

For example after your last post I could start questioning wether sociability is really indispensable for human beings. At this point you’ll create a new discourse in order to keep speaking. You’ll quote Aristotle, maybe a couple of anthropologists as geertz. But as soon as you state their opinions I’ll be questioning again their assumptions, forcing you to build another discourse in order to keep speaking again, creating this cycle that reminds Hegelian Dialectics with the only exception that there is no Aufhebung, no synthesis, no going to a superior state but just the growing of a thesis that assimilates more and more elements until it feels strong enough to ignore the other, i.e. anything that it’s not part of the system, as a mistake. It is in this rejecting the other as something that has to be assimilated in the universal logic of the theory or rejected as a mistake, that philosophers as Levinas saw a root of intollerence or a negation of life (Nietzsche, Deleuze).


The fact that you found relativism contradictory doesn’t surprise me, as I’ve become a subjectivist exactly because till now, no one has been able to build a working structure for moral judgement; this lead me to think that morality is a structureless way of thinking. If relativism would have done the trick I would have become suspicious of it myself.

So now that I’ve fully explicited my thought I’ll just drop the topic and wish you good luck with your future as a philosopher. :slight_smile:

Ps. How old are you?

sociability is a requirement of human flourishing. I quite agree with that. What I don’t know is how you get from that to all this other jargon… ants require sociability to flourish… can no ant be fully an ant in isolation? probably… from an ants perspective… using an ants perspective to define being an ant…

now to begin talking about the “logic of association” and using funny hazy words like “objective”… to claim that sociability forms the basis of some “objective” “ontological uniqueness”… well that seems like a massive jump in reasoning… at best an arbitrary one…

can’t you just say that sociability seems vital to being a human, in the sense of humanity which you wish for us… and therefore it would be good for the ends of our happiness to recognise sociability as vital for an acceptable existence…

and that it would therefore be something to bear in mind in our social policy, law, thought etc…

to act like that is something magical and philosophical, warranting a whole lot of strange phrases and mumbo jumbo rather than some basic social science and a caution about a-social conceptions of agents in our thought… well I don’t see why you would…


Thanks for the comments.

Although we disagree about this and I doubt that I will ever persuade you or – and this is even more disturbing – that we will ever even understand one another, I do respect your contributions which are genuinely philosophical, I think, even if they are mistaken.

You say:

"For example after your last post I could start questioning wether sociability is really indispensable for human beings. At this point you’ll create a new discourse in order to keep speaking. You’ll quote Aristotle, maybe a couple of anthropologists as geertz. But as soon as you state their opinions I’ll be questioning again their assumptions, forcing you to build another discourse in order to keep speaking again, creating this cycle that reminds Hegelian Dialectics with the only exception that there is no Aufhebung, no synthesis, no going to a superior state but just the growing of a thesis that assimilates more and more elements until it feels strong enough to ignore the other, i.e. anything that it’s not part of the system, as a mistake. It is in this rejecting the other as something that has to be assimilated in the universal logic of the theory or rejected as a mistake, that philosophers as Levinas saw a root of intollerence or a negation of life (Nietzsche, Deleuze). "

We begin to philosophize in what is laughingly called, “the real world.” There is no other. To ignore the reality of being human is to turn philosophy “into a museum for loafers in the garden of knowledge.” (Hegel)

We both know that human beings can only really live or floursih in communities. To deny this is absurd. It doesn’t take philosophy or Aristotle to figure this out, just look around you. If human beings require sociability, then those things which make sociability possible, the logic of human social living, will become important. By the same token, breathing is essential to human beings, so that knowing what air is breathable or whether an atmosphere is breathable becomes important too.

Sociablity means durable social arrangements. There is a logic to cooperation and the forms of organic sociablity in political and pre-political units, like families, that is inherently ethical. Ethics arises at the moment when there are two human beings. And there can be no human being in the full sense of the word unless there are two of them. What it means to be human is always a matter of context and then of right. You can plug in both Kant and Hegel here.

There is also the inherent features of the human in a post-social situation. Human beings simply have a different ontological and ethical status a priori than, say, a shoe. I defy anyone who claims not to believe this to treat his or her grandmother like a lampshade. It may be possible for a Himmler, but not for most of us – who already know these things, which it is now fashionable to deny.

I understand why you are denying all of this, but how serious are you really?

Yep, we have to agree to disagree. …