The moral irrelevance of indifferent relativism

But toleration, which is often, although not always, a good thing, is not the same as relativism, which is never a good thing; and it is vital to understand the difference.
– Simon Blackburn

Simon Blackburn is an interesting thinker — he denies the existence of moral truth at the same time that he dismisses relativism, at least in its extreme forms, as irrelevant to moral argument.

Like Jesse Prinz, whose ideas we looked at last time, Blackburn believes that our moral stances are fundamentally sentimental, expressions of strong emotions rather than professions of absolute rules. Unlike Prinz, he rejects the notion that there is nothing really at stake in moral disagreement.

Part of Blackburn’s “quasirealism” is that while moral judgments are subjective beliefs grounded in certain strong emotions, we believe and act “as if” they are true. In other words, moral debates are real debates but their contents have no truth values.

For Blackburn, the chief fault of relativism is that it denies not only the reality of truth but also the reality of the disagreement.

Blackburn believes that relativism doesn’t take moral disagreements seriously enough, treating them as any old kind of disagreement — I prefer Blackberry, you prefer iPhone; I think the movie starts at 3, you think it starts at 4. These arguments, one subjective and one empirical, do not excite strong emotions. In contrast, moral disagreements have an intensity and a practical import that make them significant. As Blackburn puts it, “morality is a deep expression of personality.”

Blackburn’s criticism of strong relativism is precisely this tendency to belittle the importance of the argument by insisting on not only tolerance of all opinions but their equal status. In practical terms, this is of course nonsense. We can differentiate between empirical and subjective assertions, for example. While our smartphone preferences may well be merely competing and equal opinions, in empirical terms the movie doesn’t start at 3 for me and at 4 for you. What really happens is that we believe different things, and it is really true that we believe differently — but that doesn’t mean that the things we really believe are really equally true.

In “Relatively Speaking,” Blackburn puts the different world views of the “moral truth” and “moral relativism” factions this way:

There are philosophers (‘absolutists’) who like to stress truth, objectivity, rationality, and knowledge. Then there are others (‘relativists’) who like to stress contingency, mutability, culture, historicity, situatedness. The first group think that the second group have no standards. The second group are accused of encouraging ‘postmodernism’, or the licentious thinking and bullshitting that goes on in some parts of the humanities. The second group think the first group are conservative and complacent, and that their words simply mark fetishes.

In “Does Relativism Matter,” Blackburn suggests that both absolutists and relativists mistake the essential nature of moral argument:

It is as if each participant sees talk of truth, (together with its partners reason, proof, evidence, probability) as something with which we clothe ourselves, an extra layer which we like to put on. Then the absolutist thinks that truth gives us, as it were, clothing of state. Truth and the rest are the symbols of authority. … In contrast, the relativist sees the clothing as a mask. We put it on in order to disguise the naked realities of power and persuasion, rhetoric and ideology, spin and agendas.

Our present subject is relativism, and the arguments against absolutism are well-known (and have already been well-covered here), so we will follow Blackburn’s lead and concentrate on how relativism distorts our understanding of moral argument.

Blackburn explains the negative effect of the relativist predisposition on moral argument:

[The relativist’s] ear is cocked so as to hear only ideology or politics, not the intended claim to absolute truth. It is no good insisting upon truth, objectivity, or reason when ears are so cocked, for such ears only hear more of the same, but louder. Those who think of claims to truth and objectivity as masks … may find the masks hateful … this is particularly so when it is supposed that the appeal to objectivity and the rest disguises colonial or patriarchal or other takeover bids.

Like the absolutist, the relativist “assumes that talk of truth and the rest is a kind of optional extra.” Blackburn takes a more concrete position when considering moral arguments:

Our only problem is set by what we say. It is the issue that is the issue, not anything further. … To make an assertion at all is to put a view into public space, up for acceptance or rejection. That public space will be replete with more-or-less articulate norms: things that count for acceptance or rejection. … There is no question either of putting on a mantle of robes of state, or of seeing the same mantle as nothing but a mask. There is just the question of when it is high tide at Newhaven, and our best methods for settling it.

And moral judgments are the same — we need to apply practical methods for settling our disagreements, or else sink into a powerless pessimism, a posturing postmodernist irony that leaves us without hope of resolution, or worse, disengaged.

The disagreement in a moral argument is real, whatever the truth or falsehood of the points in dispute. For Blackburn, the relativist devalues the argument by mistaking its context for its content. In other words, whatever the subjectivity or limited truth of the proponents’ actual positions, that they are in disagreement is the essential condition of the exchange. To say “that’s your truth” or “that’s just one way of looking at it” is merely to restate the obvious, and to disrespect the real emotions behind the expression of a moral position. Blackburn puts it this way:

When I voice some commitment. I expect my audience to engage with the commitment itself. To hear my saying just as a symptom, perhaps of my class or race or history, is failing to do this. It is regarding me as a patient. It is to think of me, in Peter Strawson’s wonderful phrase, as someone to be “managed or handled or cured or trained”. It is relativism itself that is here dehumanising.

In an important distinction, Blackburn contrasts subjective and empirical truths, using the “Science Wars” of the previous decade as the background for his caution that relativism should stay where it belongs, in the arenas of taste and disposition, and not venture into the milieu of real facts:

In good relativistic fashion the sociologists and historians and cultural critics bracketed science’s claims to objectivity and truth, and regarded the enterprise purely in an anthropological spirit. Scientists became a tribe whose structures of authority, of peer group acceptance, of prestige and funding, were to be investigated in the same spirit as those of the medicine men of the Azande or the Navaho. In particular the historian or sociologist had to eschew any issue of truth or falsity.

Blackburn continues with a scathing characterization:

In other words, the posture of neutrality means that the sociologist appears like the kind of nightmare psychoanalyst who looks for the causes of my believing that there is butter in the fridge in my childhood or my parents or my sex life—everywhere except in the fridge.

How does the reality of facts, of empirical truth, affect ethics?

Many of you will be thinking that this is all very well when it comes to simple physical measurements like the height or time of the tide. But can we say the same when values swim into view? It is essential that we can. If I hold that capital punishment ought not to be allowed, and you hold that it can be, we disagree. Once more the issue is the issue: should we or should we not allow capital punishment? We might find the issue hard, and we might find ourselves entangled in uncertainties when we pursue it. … But as we pursue it, the relativistic voice (who’s to say? That’s just your opinion!) is once more purely a distraction.

Like the neo-Humean he is, Blackburn gives moral discourse a way, if not to truth, at least to common belief:

I do not voice my mind in the spirit of a poetry reading or still less as a way of manifesting medical symptoms. I voice it with the intention that we come to one mind about this, and this is the way I would like our one mind to be. Given that this is the project, the relativistic voice is merely a nuisance or a distraction, and can subside into the shadows.

Moral arguments are real arguments, with real consequences. If their contents are only “as if” truths, the arguments themselves are important, for they express the strong feelings of sincere people who should rather seek ways of coming to agreement than lapse into ineffectual silence.


Next time, John Teehan’s In the Name of God. Then, as promised, I’ll wrap up this extended look at metaethics with a short exposition expressing what I think is the most useful way of looking at morality. You’ve already seen most of the ideas, but I want to try to put them together in what I hope will be a coherent whole.