Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why I am not a utilitarian (any more).

A utilitarian, briefly, is someone who believes that ethical action is about making the world a better place, in terms of the sum-total of human happiness. Utilitarianism says that a person should act so as to maximise the expected amount of happiness (‘utility’) in the world. That is, they should try to pursue “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, as the point is sometimes, a little misleadingly, put. Sometimes achieving this result might require doing some harsh things – locking up someone in prison for instance. But doing so would be justified, says utilitarianism, if such an act would maximise the sum total of human happiness (for instance, by preventing a violent criminal from harming lots of other people by putting him in the prison cell). For the utilitarian, then, the end justifies the means. Indeed, for the utilitarian the end is the only thing that can justify the means; the rightness of any given action is evaluated solely by the consequences of that action for the net total of human happiness (or, more broadly, the happiness of every sentient creature).

For many of my early years in academic philosophy I was a utilitarian. I suspect, indeed, that I had somewhat of a reputation as a very determined – if not intransigent – utilitarian. One of my first published papers, in Cambridge's Utilitas in 2009, was a defence of utilitarianism against the objection that one cannot know enough about the future consequences of actions or others’ happiness to make utilitarian judgments about what to do. (I still the think the argument of this paper is right, and that when making this type of objection against utilitarianism, as John Stuart Mill put it, “Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment.” If you can’t figure out that a children’s birthday party is likely to have more happiness in it than a Nazi concentration camp, then I hope you never get in a position to make policy decisions. Or organize kid’s birthday parties.)

So I was a utilitarian.

But I changed my mind.

My reasons for doing so were straightforward enough; I began to worry about the cogency of some of the positive arguments for utilitarianism that I had hitherto accepted, and I began to take more seriously several of the objections to it that I had previously believed could be deflected. So there were a variety of reasons I had for coming to reject it. But there was one particular thought-experiment that did keep me up at night throughout this period of philosophical doubt, and it is the concern I wish to relate here.

From the outset it is important to emphasize that I don’t expect every utilitarian to find what follows to be a decisive objection to their theory. Utilitarianism has been around for hundreds of years; it has many different philosophical variants, and there are many different philosophical reasons a person might have for being a utilitarian. Some, like me, might worry about the forthcoming objection. Others will not; and they will have their reasons. For one thing, the following thought-experiment is very fantastical (i.e. weird and unlikely). There is a substantial literature on the extent to which utilitarians need to take seriously thought-experiments that conjure up ‘fantastic situations’ in order to try and demonstrate that the ethical theory gives counter-intuitive results in those situations. I was always of the view that, as an ethic with universal pretensions, utilitarianism did indeed need to engage with such scenarios. If it could be shown that a utilitarian in pursuing the greatest net happiness would do something seriously unconscionable, even in an extraordinary situation, then that was a strike mark against that theory. It’s a bit like a good scientific experiment that tests a hypothesis in an extreme situation to see if it holds true. If it doesn’t hold true in that special case, then you have reason for thinking the hypothesis might not even be true in more ordinary cases, and that something else is at work.

So here is the fantastical – and it really is fantastical – thought-experiment.

Imagine you are some sort of inter-dimensional space-time traveler, and you wind up in the following situation. You can create a better world than Earth in a new parallel universe (maybe you can do this by time-travel, or creating a mirror-universe somehow, or some other possibility). Now the new world is not an exact copy of our Earth. It is very similar, and has the same population, but it has different individual people in it. More importantly, there is some important and concrete way in which Earth Mark II is plainly superior – from a utilitarian perspective – to our Earth. Maybe in Earth Mk.II Hitler never existed, or racism, nationalism or religious intolerance never really took hold for some reason. As a result, there is more peace, trust, prosperity and diversity in the new world, and as a result more happiness. Or maybe there are just better supplies of safe drinking water in Africa, or terrific alternative energy-sources that don’t inject carbon into the atmosphere. Choose whatever you like that would make our world and its prospects better if we had it.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that to create that world you need to destroy our world (imagine that we need to demolish this planet in order to perform the mapping process that creates the almost mirror-image of Earth in the other universe).

Should you do it?

The utilitarian answer here is that of course you should. The Earth Mk.II is exactly like our Earth, only better in some respect for net human happiness. So you should trade in our Earth for the new Earth for exactly the same reason you might act to prevent a war or assuage starvation; namely that to do so increases the sum-total of human happiness. (Perhaps you might be worried whether you can guarantee that the new Earth comes into existence with the promised happy features. This risk would be a reason for a utilitarian to avoid the trade. If so, then let’s change things so that the new Earth comes into being five minutes before you have to do any destroying. You can check out the new planet and make sure it’s all good. Once the five minutes is up you can choose which one to destroy. So you can’t lose.)

My judgment is that it would be unconscionable to make the trade. To destroy the lives and hopes and dreams of all the world’s people is genocide with a vengeance. The fact that one creates an entirely new world with lots of happiness is terrific, but it cannot justify the devastation required.

Suppose you share that judgment. Is this really a good reason for doubting utilitarianism? After all, it’s not as if any of us are ever going to have to confront such a crazy scenario in our lives. But the reason the thought-experiment worried me was that the very reason I had for being a utilitarian was that utilitarianism seemed an appropriate way to respond to and respect the projects, desires and hopes of other people in the world.
But by that I mean actually existing other people.

It worried me that the reason the utilitarian had for trading in our old world was exactly the same as the reason they would give for improving our current world. For the utilitarian, there is no morally relevant distinction to be made between improving the lives of currently existing people or annihilating those people and replacing them with happier ones. But that meant that if I really felt morality was committed to responding appropriately to other people’s projects and hopes, then I could not be a utilitarian. Indeed, any type of ethical system that relied solely on consequences to evaluate acts would be subject to the same problem, namely, that such a system viewed trading people’s lives as something that did not in itself attract any moral concern. So even if we imagined a ‘utilitarianism of rights’, where we were obliged to work towards the sum-total of human beings in the world who had their rights respected, it would still be open to this same concern that it failed to give the proper respect to actually existing, rather than potentially existing, persons.

In sum, then, I came to believe that utilitarianism was not – as I had felt it to be – an ethic in principle built around improving the world and the lives of the people and animals in it. To be sure, improvement of actual people’s lives is what a utilitarian will usually do in our world, because trading those people’s lives for other, better lives is usually not an option (or, more carefully, it is not an option that does not involve other consequences the utilitarian can rightly avoid). But improvement is not in principle what they are committed to. In principle, the utilitarian is as happy to trade up as to improve.

And that looks wrong.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Types of Duties

Duties come in a wide variety of types. Everyone is pretty familiar with the distinction between legal and moral duties, and between negative duties that constrain our actions, and positive duties that require us to act in a certain way. But these are very broad-brush distinctions. As always, the real world of everyday morality and law is more complex. In fact, differences between duties can be drawn on a host of distinct dimensions. Sometimes it is appropriate to skate over these subtleties in making an argument or propounding a position. Sometimes it is appropriate to conflate the categories, and presume that all imperfect duties are not stringent, say, or that they can’t be made legal. For the other cases, though, taking some time to make the appropriate distinctions can be fruitful. With this in mind, here is an attempt at a comprehensive taxonomy of duties, distinguished over seven dimensions (meaning that an exhaustive description of a duty would require plotting its location in seven-dimensional space!).

Where there is an orthodox term for the type of duty I have used it; where there is not, I have selected one, or coined one. For the most part orthodoxy does not prevail in this arena, so be aware that many of the terms below (especially ‘imperfect duty’) are regularly invoked in opposition to the meanings I stipulate below.

One. The Legality-Morality Dimension: Some duties are legal – to fail to perform the duty is held to be a breach of law, and to make one the object of legal sanction or punishment. Other duties are only moral; one should definitely do them, as a matter of proper moral conduct. However, one is not subject to legal sanction if one fails to comply with them. One further and special form of moral duties is supererogatory duties. These duties are not required – they are moral ideals to aim for, but one does not fail morally by not performing them.

As always, the situation is a little more complicated; for instance there are quasi-legal duties: duties where the legal status is not entirely clear. These commonly arise in the context of international law under the rubric ‘soft law’. In that context it is, for example, quite possible to have a duty that is accepted as legally required, but for there to be no court that can or must adjudicate on it, and no legal mechanism for sanctioning states or individuals that fail such duties.

Two. The Stringency Dimension: This dimension tracks the ethico-political importance of the duty. A stringent duty is one that implies a high degree of wrongdoing if one fails it. For example, it is widely held that failing to respect a right (actively assaulting someone, for example) is worse than failing to help them (say as a Good Samaritan). The Stringency Dimension is linked to the legality-morality dimension, but it is distinct from it. For instance, betraying a friendship or having a marital affair are widely thought much more morally serious than getting a fine for speeding or littering, those these latter are legal duties. Equally, there is an obvious different in stringency between some crimes (assault) and others (jaywalking).

Three: The Agent Dimension: This dimension tells us who the duty-holder is. A universal duty applies to everyone all the time. A circumstantial duty applies to anyone who finds themselves in a particular situation (such as an emergency when a young child falls into a pool).

A special duty, on the other hand, applies only to one person or one class of people. Often (though not always) a special duty is held because of some historical relationship between two people. For instance, the special duty from Amy to Bob can have arisen out of Amy’s consent or contract, or the role she has assumed (as Bob’s adopted parent, say), or because of her prior violation of Bob’s rights, or perhaps simply because she and Bob are from the same community or otherwise have a shared identity.

Four: The Subject Dimension: This dimension delineates who the duty-recipient or beneficiary is. A general duty is one owed (all other things equal) to everyone, such as the duty not to murder. In contradistinction, a specified duty is one owed to just some specific person or class of people. A specified duty might be created along the same methods as the special duty above: Amy’s promise to Bob creates a special, specified duty from Amy to Bob. But other cases are possible. An important set of specified duties are the ones owed by state authorities to all their citizens, or more broadly to all those in their territory or under their control. A state’s bill of rights, or constitutional guarantees, or commitments under international human rights law are (for the most part) specified in just this way.

Institutions apart from the state will often take on board specified duties in order to keep their operations tractable and focused – for instance the UNHCR has specified duties to refugees and internally displaced persons, while UNICEF has specified duties to children. More generally, it is often held that we all have distinct specified duties to children, because of their vulnerable nature.

Five: The Discretion Dimension: Duties can differ in the types of discretion they allow the duty-holder. Duties that have very little discretion are perfect duties. But for many duties, duty-holders have substantial discretion over how, when, where and to whom they fulfil their duties. When there is a significant level of discretion, these duties are termed imperfect duties. (Note that this dimension is quite separate from the legality-dimension; in particular, imperfect duties are not (necessarily) supererogatory.) Discretion can appear in some respects but not in others. For example, if there is a parental duty to work towards the happiness of their children’s lives (a duty my children, at least, propound) then there is wide discretion in how this is performed; I might take them to the movies tomorrow, or play with them down at the creek this afternoon. It is up to me. But there is no discretion regarding the agent or subject of this duty– it is I who owe the duty to my children. When there is a fairly determinate goal set down, and the duty-holder and duty-recipient are determined, then this type of imperfect duty might be called a responsibility. So the imperfect duty of parents to bring up their children well is a responsibility.

Imperfect duties themselves can be understood in a variety of ways: consider the different ways we might have an imperfect duty of charity. First, we might have an imperfect duty to develop certain sorts of emotional dispositions, for example; to develop the traits of character known as virtues. In this case we are required to work towards having a charitable emotional character. Second, we might be required to achieve a quite determinate goal – such as the alleviation of the situation of the homeless people in our neighbourhood – but be allowed to do so in a wide variety of ways. Third, the imperfect duty might require us to take on board, as one part of our larger life-plan, an open-ended goal of alleviating poverty. Here we are required to become serious about helping needy others in the same way we might say a person is serious about a relationship or serious about a vocation. Fourthly and finally, we might have to perform a certain number or threshold of charitable acts – such as duties of almsgiving or paying tithes. All these are imperfect duties of charity, in that they all aim to better the situation of the needy, and give the duty-holder discretion over precisely how this is done. But they are each somewhat distinct from one another, and an actor following one duty rather than another would respond differently to different situations.

One further word on imperfect duties is worth noting (at least, I hope it is worth noting, as I am currently working on the topic). ‘Discretion’ is an ambiguous word. Often it connotes judgment. In such cases there may be criteria for what the result of the judgment should be. Observers looking in from the outside may not be able to tell if those criteria were judiciously acted upon, but there may nevertheless be an objective answer as to what the result of the judgment should have been in a particular case. In these cases, even though you have discretion, you can get it wrong. Other times ‘discretion’ can mean subjective choice. Here there is no judgment and no criteria – you can literally choose whatever you want, and cannot possibly be wrong. Any time ‘discretion’ is used in the context of a moral duty, it is often worth thinking for a moment about whether judgment or subjective choice (or a subtle mix of the two) is being implied.

Note however, that discretion about how to perform an imperfect duty is not discretion about whether to perform an imperfect duty per se. An imperfect duty is still a duty, and should not be assumed to be supererogatory (an all-too-familiar error in both theory and practice).

Six: The Directedness Dimension: Some duties are owed to specific others, and others are not. A duty that Amy owes to Bob, arising from her promise, is a directed duty. It is not merely that Amy should do what she promised, it is that Amy owes it to Bob in particular that she do it. If she doesn’t do it, then it is Bob that is wronged, and in such situations it will usually be Bob that is owed compensation or apology. Other duties are non-directed because the duty-recipients are unclear or diffuse. Amy shouldn’t pollute the air with her smokestacks, but she doesn’t owe that duty to Bob, even if he is a suffering asthmatic. (Coming at the issue of duties from the perspective of rights, we might also speak of non-directed rights, where it is clear that street-urchin Amy is not having her right to education provided, but it is unclear who exactly is failing in their duty to Amy. There is a rights-claim, but it does not match up neatly with any vested duty in any particular person.)

Note that directedness is related to, but not quite the same as, the special-specified properties noted above on dimensions three and four. Amy might have a duty to better Bob’s situation (so the duty is special to Amy and specified to Bob), but she might not owe that duty to Bob – she may owe the duty to Connie. This might happen, for example, if Amy promised Connie she would help Connie’s father Bob around his house while Connie was away on holidays.

Seven: The Mode Dimension: This dimension determines the basic type of action that the duty-holder must perform. It may also be called the ‘directness’ of the duty, as it describes how close the duty is to the effect it is designed to achieve, or the threat it is hoping to assuage.

The most basic distinction on the mode dimension is of course the distinction between negative and positive duties. A negative duty is an ‘action constraint’ – it precludes a person from acting in a particular, determined way. Very often, negative duties foreclose acting in ways that harm others, and for this reason are often stringent and legal. A positive duty, on the other hand, propels a duty-holder into action, requiring her to perform some action or to pursue some goal.

Positive and negative duties come in a variety of modes. Approaching duties from the perspective of rights, theorists and lawyers have distinguished duties of (i) respecting rights: negative duties not to violate rights; (ii) protecting rights: positive duties to protect against rights-violations by third parties; (iii) promoting rights: positive duties to undertake specific actions to structurally contribute to a rights-respecting environment; (iv) facilitating rights: negative duties to alter one’s other actions to structurally contribute to a rights-respecting environment; and finally duties of (v) providing rights: positive duties to give people the necessities of life (these may also be called remedial or restorative duties, since when people do not have these necessities it is usually of a prior rights violation).

Any given duty may thus be mapped onto the seven-dimensional space. So we may say, to give a (contentious) account of the duty to rescue a drowning child by way of example, that this duty is a moral, stringent, circumstantial, specified, perfect, directed and rights-providing duty.

Of course, there are linkages between each of the dimensions. If a duty is imperfect, then that will make it harder (though not impossible – think of holding a ‘duty of care’ or a legal responsibility) to impose legal sanctions for its failure. The linkages, however, are only rarely conceptual in nature. We should be careful about swift assumptions that presence in one category of one dimension determines the duty’s properties on another dimension.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Morality as the exercise and demonstration of personal power

It is of course well known that people can have self-interested reasons for promoting a particular political morality – namely, when under that moral regime those people can be expected to flourish, especially in material ways, as compared with other rival political systems. The point cuts both ways, of course. A rich, hard-working, well-educated or talented person benefits personally from a libertarian or meritocratic regime, where they will be protected in their wealth and rewarded for their efforts and talents. Contrariwise, a poor, less-talented, less-well-equipped person benefits personally from a more welfarist or egalitarian political regime, where they are able to benefit more from the talents of others.

All this is well-known, and can seem to furnish a good reason to respect in particular rich, talented people who are egalitarians and welfarists, and poor, down-trodden people who are fiercely conservative. After all, these people are adopting a political morality that cuts directly against their material wellbeing; they are following their principles even when it comes at a cost to them. And this same fact can seem to provide a sort of intuitive evidence for the political morality in question. That is, if lots of poor and down-trodden people were right-wing, say, even when it cut against their material wellbeing, then surely that would suggest they were tapping into some sort of deep moral truth. What other reason could they have? (One could say they were simply indoctrinated into a capitalist ideology of course, but I’m not keen on hypotheses that require that one segment of the population to be blind dupes of ideology, while the privileged few can rise above them. Though I suppose the logic could be applied to both sides, with rich egalitarians similarly cast as mindless dupes of socialist rhetoric.)

So, what other reason could they have? What follows is one possibility. It is not proffered as a singular answer to this question, but I think it does play a role.

The possibility is that people use their moral views as expressions of their power. By this I do not mean what is often connoted by this phrase, namely either, a) people use their power to get more power or to sustain their power, or, b) people use their power over other people to control those others, and allow their arbitrary will to be the law for those people. These are expressions of power. But they are not what I mean. In fact, I mean the opposite.

Discussing punishment in the second essay his Genealogy, Nietzsche observed that as the power and self-confidence of a community increase, they are able to become more merciful and tolerant to those who visit harms on them. In so doing, the community expresses its power in the most profound fashion – they no longer need to requite for a crime against them, though they have the power to do so. Indeed, they no longer even need to recognize a harm has been done them at all. They have become so powerful that what would have been a harm against another community amounts to nothing against them. They rise above it. The same idea arises in the memorable scene in Schindler’s List where Oskar Schindler speaks with the sadistic Nazi Goeth on the nature of true power. “Power,” Schindler says, “is where we have every justification to kill, and we do not.” (If one is trying to persuade a Nazi to become merciful, one supposes that Nietzschean arguments are not an entirely unapt method.)

It seems to me that there is something in this idea more generally. That is, it applies when it comes to selecting and propounding a political morality. To be egalitarian when one comes from (or is on one’s way to) power and money is to express one’s personal power. It says, ‘Others will thus take from me what would otherwise be mine. But what of that? It is no harm to me; let them take it.’ And so too – and perhaps all the more, because they stake much more basic needs than the surfeit wealth of the rich egalitarian – for the libertarian poor. They can say, ‘You need not give me your help or a slice of your riches. And what of that? I do not ask for your help or your largess; I perceive no harm in your keeping these to yourself.’

That is power.

Or, at least, it would be power if it were a personal morality. For the libertarian poor who will not ask for help in times of need, or the egalitarian rich who gives away their wealth with an easy magnanimity, it is a demonstration of power. (The latter – the magnanimous charity of the rich – has long been seen as impressive, but I daresay it is the prideful independent poor who are more extraordinary; again, because the stakes for them are so much higher.) In both cases it is clear that the person could acquire or preserve more power for themselves, and is deliberately deigning not to do so. That is a real show of power. It is the very plumage of the soul. 

And this applies, I think, to tolerance of all stripes, when one's power to requite - if one chose to do so - is unquestioned.

But to simply hold the view as a political morality, and one that is not likely to have any real impact on political outcomes, is perhaps a faux-power, a capacity to have one’s cake and be egalitarian too, or to accept welfare but declaim against one’s need for it. One acquires the impressive cachet of wishing others could be entitled to the fruits of one’s talents, without in fact making the personal choices that would see that wish realised.

Now I’m not saying this is the only thing going on when people select political moralities. Heaven forbid. It is in general a grim and snarky business finding less-than-noble reasons why people might adopt more-than-noble moral stances. And one should of course immediately apply the same logic to one’s own political choices, at least if one has a penchant for preening oneself in public with them (and here I am with a blog on political morality…). So doubtless this is as much a factor in my own thinking as the next person’s. Perhaps moreso, since the idea occurred to me. But if I am at least somewhat right about this, the idea is worth keeping in mind, at least for Schindler’s reason. The virtues of generosity, mercy, grace, tolerance and independence tend to need all the help they can get in our world, and appreciation of these as expressions of personal power in others and oneself may be one more way it is possible to bend the darker sides of human psychology towards the light. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

What relativism isn’t

Moving from a pure philosophy environment to the social sciences and law can be a disconcerting experience. One of the first things that I had to get my head around is the significance of relativism and postmodernism in these domains. Of course, both relativism and to a lesser extent postmodernism are found in philosophy departments, but they do not amount to orthodoxy. Then there was the perplexing assumption that, because I am a philosopher, I must be a relativist or postmodernist. The idea that one could have deep-seated philosophical reservations about these positions was not one they had hitherto confronted in any sustained way. Finally, there was the issue of what exactly they thought relativism amounted to. It seems to me there can be a lot of confusion about this question, and it is the one I want to discuss today.

The title of this blog echoes an excellent 1998 article by William Max Knorpp, Jr., which I highly recommend. However, Knorpp’s treatment is quite technical and at points heavy going, and so I think the basic points are worth explaining and augmenting in a more informal manner.

Here goes:

To begin, relativism is roughly speaking the view that some (perhaps all) facts, truths or claims are relative to a particular standpoint, person or society. It is contrasted with objectivism, which holds that facts, truths and claims can be true or false in an objective sense – that is, in some sense independently of the perspective taken. They are true or false because of how the world actually is, and not (merely) because of how the world is understood by the person or community. An immediate complexity is, of course, that at least some facts are definitely relative. What counts as etiquette in a given society is plainly constructed by that society, and so any claims about proper polite behaviour must be relativized to a particular community. Equally, it is arguable that some facts must be objective – at the very least, one might think, the fact that all (other) truths are relative must itself be an objective fact, if relativism is to be accepted. If it is only a relative fact, then it does not foreclose the possibility that there really are objective facts out there, and the relativist is only telling us something about their own perspective and not something about facts in general. Potential paradoxes loom here, but these are not the focus of this blog. Here I only want to distinguish relativism, so understood, from a host of quite different views with which it can be confused, and which are sometimes (mistakenly) marshalled in support of it.

First, and most emphatically, relativism is not falliblism. Falliblism is the awareness that one’s beliefs may be mistaken, and is associated with having an open mind to weaknesses in one’s own position, and to the possibility that opposing positions or new perspectives may ultimately turn out to be correct. Far from fallibilism being opposed to objectivism, on the usual understanding fallibilism requires objectivism. The fallibilist is someone who is concerned that their beliefs may be mistaken – that they do not accord with the way the world actually is. The relativist has no such concern – the relativist is not worried their beliefs, or the beliefs of their society, may be false, because there is no test for falsity independent of their own perspective, or that of their society. It is impossible, for any given belief X, that they are wrong about X and another society is right in believing not-X, because there is no standard (such as an independently existing world) that for the relativist can substantiate such cross-cultural rightness and wrongness. Fallibilism is opposed to dogmatism, which is a fervent belief that one is right and a consequent unwillingness to consider criticism of one’s own views or the attraction of alternative perspectives. It is of course possible to be a dogmatist about one’s belief in objectivism (‘relativism is so patently false it is not even worth thinking about’), and equally about one’s belief in relativism (‘objectivism is sooo modernist and last century’).

The same follows for being critical. Relativism does not provide a standpoint with which our society’s values can rightly be judged. It denies the existence of any such standpoint. If we have relative-to-us values of critical thought, then we will of course use them. If not, then not. The person who rationally critiques her own views and her own society has her own relative values, and the person who blindly accepts everything his society tells them has his own relative views. Nothing more can be said by the relativist. Relativism provides no resources whatsoever for recommending the former over the latter, and no reason for the latter to think they should become more like the former.

Second, relativism is not scepticism. Scepticism about a belief is the view that we have important reasons to doubt that belief. Philosophical scepticism is of a stronger stripe than ordinary scepticism; it usually entails the view that we have important reasons to doubt widely accepted views about, say, the existence of the world or of other minds. Scepticism does not say that the truth of a belief is relative to the standard of the believer or her community, it says that the belief’s truth is unknowable. Scepticism has objectivist roots. It claims that there are objective standards about what justifies belief and that because these standards are not and cannot be met, we are required to doubt what hitherto were seen as common-sense beliefs. If standards for belief were relative, then scepticism would not be justified in any such blanket or over-arching sense. Each society would have different standards for belief, and some of them would be justified by their own standards in holding their beliefs.

Third, relativism is not pluralism. Pluralism is roughly speaking the position that diversity and individuality (of perspectives, ways of life, societies etc) are good things. On the ordinary understanding, pluralism is an objective moral viewpoint; it says that such diversity is, objectively speaking, something to be valued and facilitated. It says that, objectively speaking, very different life-plans are worthwhile, and that something profound would be lost if each person were cut to the same mould. John Stuart Mill is the best example of an objectivist (in this case a utilitarian) mounting a case for pluralism. But this is not to say that a relativist cannot be a pluralist. For instance, if Bob’s society happens to value pluralism, and has constructed it as a value for him, then Bob will be pluralist. There is however no conceptual link between relativism and pluralism. From the claim that all viewpoints are equally true and valid (because there is no over-arching objective standard from which to judge them) it does not follow that we ought to respect them all equally. No such over-arching ‘ought’ can possibly be justified by relativism because no over-arching ‘ought’ can be justified by relativism period. All that follows from relativism is that we will do what our relative values require of us. Perhaps we will be born and inculcated into a pluralist society, in which case we will be pluralist. Or perhaps we will be born and inculcated into Nazi Germany, in which case we will not.

Inter-relatedly, relativism is not about tolerance. Many undergraduates in ethics courses in my experience often say that we should be relativist because to do otherwise is to be intolerant (or arrogant, etc). It is hard to credit this argument. If tolerance is objectively a good thing, then the argument is contradictory, for it posits an objective value as a basis for believing a relativist conclusion. If tolerance is only relatively a good thing, then the argument simply begs the question, by implying a relativist conclusion through the assertion of a relativist premise.

In any case, from the fact that our views are not objectively correct it does not follow that we ought not impose them on others, forcefully if we desire. As observed above, no such over-arching ‘ought’ can be derived from relativism. We will act on our culturally-relative views because there is nothing else we can do. If those views are invasive, fundamentalist, belligerent and colonialist, then so be it. For the relativist there is no objective value of tolerance that stands in our way.

Inter-relatedly again, relativism is not necessarily a way of respecting the beliefs of other peoples and cultures. To be sure, relativism is an improvement on parochial dogmatism, which will aver that on every point of dispute, our culture is right and other cultures are wrong. But relativism still has something to say about the views of other cultures – namely, that they are relative to that culture. If the culture believes that X really exists, as an objective fact about the world, then the relativist will think the culture is mistaken in representing their beliefs as objectively true. For people from that culture, someone declaiming that no objective facts whatsoever exist may be perceived as far more demeaning than someone agreeing that objective facts do exist, but arguing that their specific belief in X is objectively wrong.

To conclude, none of this is to say that relativism is  wrong (objectively wrong?). The point is merely to be clear about what relativism is. All too often, fallibilist, sceptical or pluralist arguments are made, and then relativist conclusions appear. To the contrary, fallibilism, scepticism and pluralism are not only distinct from  relativism, they are often directly and conceptually linked to objective standpoints.