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Prinz’s Defense of Moral Relativism

March 26, 2011

As a zealous pluralist when it comes to morality, and to pretty much every other endeavor of the mind, I sympathize with some of the arguments professor Jesse Prinz makes in support of moral relativism. Yes, you read that right. To the extent that morality is the product of thought, it embodies the subjective and that which is relative to time and place. I part ways with relativists like Prinz because, unlike them, I conclude that the subjective—be it culture, or emotions or whatever—can give melodious voice to a silent moral reality. I also brush my teeth.

Prinz has a lot to say in defense of moral relativism, and I’d encourage a reading of his article to those interested in a decent argument for an indecent position. For purposes of this post, I want to focus on one statement Prinz makes:

With morals, unlike science, there is no well-recognized standard that can be used to test, confirm, or correct when disagreements arise.

I agree that when we investigate the morals of individuals and groups throughout history, we’ll never find a single standard to which they all agree. If Holmes and Watson would arrive at a dead end, what hope have we? Even something so fundamental as the recognized difference between good and evil eludes our net. However, within particular moral frameworks, we can ascertain accepted standards that make sense within each way of thinking. A language of virtue and vice has its uniquely valid rules; as does a language of rights and duties.

Whereas Prinz contrasts science with morals at the level of the universal, I propose making the differentiation at the level of the particular. Rather than contrast science in general with morality as a compilation of all moralities, it may make more sense, in this analysis, to juxtapose science with a particular moral framework or set of moral languages. Science is one framework (with particular rules and a particular methodology) for thinking in empirical terms about the empirical world. Strictly speaking, it’s not the only way the human race has drawn conclusions about the natural world in the course of history. Science was born and developed in time, and even since its discovery, not all explanations for natural phenomenon have been scientific. See Bill O’Reilly.

That science is one means among many for explaining the natural world hasn’t given us cause to prize it any less. We rightly put science on a pedestal and shower it with pretty flowers because it reveals truths of the natural world better and more verifiably than non-scientific modes of thought. Similarly, some moralities make better sense of human action and wellbeing than others. Describing prudence as a virtue (habitual disposition), for example, discloses more about prudent action and the prudent person than describing prudence in strictly deterministic terms.

In sum, we don’t need a universally agreed upon moral standard to stand above relativism’s explosive fray. To speak like a postmodernist, which, admittedly, I am, we don’t need a master explanation of morality to sing the praises of some moralities and spit upon and mouth disparagements at others. The disclosures of each petite account of morality suffice for distinguishing between the crops that will yield yummy, energizing food and those that will become little more than water-hoarding, bug-infested weeds.

H/T: Michael Cholbi

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer and editor with a background in literature, language, and philosophy.

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  1. March 26, 2011 10:05 am

    You should read Peter Kreeft on moral relativism.

    Recognizing that our understanding of morality is conditioned by our place in time, our culture and our experiences does not make one a relativist.

    • March 26, 2011 11:17 am

      I read Kreeft’s book on the topic, though I recall being less than satisfied with it. Looking over the transcript to which you link, I notice that Kreeft and Prinz differ somewhat on what the relativist position entails. Kreeft, for example, ties relativism to an assumption that tolerance is good, whereas Prinz clearly states that relativism does not entail tolerance or any other moral value.

      Kreeft doesn’t do justice to the subjective aspect of human knowledge. He acknowledges the subjective in human knowledge, but he doesn’t, in my opinion, follow the consequences of that subjectivity. Where he distinguishes to the point of separation the mind’s power to discover and create, I distinguish the two, but hold that what the mind arrives at in the process of thought is both subjective and objective, created and discovered. Truth is relative, but it’s not merely relative. It’s objective, but not merely so.

      • March 26, 2011 4:30 pm

        “… what the mind arrives at in the process of thought is both subjective and objective, created and discovered. Truth is relative, but it’s not merely relative. It’s objective, but not merely so.”

        I don’t think he would disagree with you on this.

        The culture does not need another voice proclaiming the subjectivity of truth. We have plenty. And generally, it’s poor form for a Catholic to say that moral truth is relative. Strictly speaking, it’s not, and you are likely to lead people astray, thinking that they are free to “invent” their own morality. Relativism also encourages the “but I’m a good person” attitude that so many people justify themselves by.

        This may be an opinion turns heads in the academy, but in the real world it only does harm.

        • phosphorious permalink
          March 26, 2011 5:17 pm

          Relativism also encourages the “but I’m a good person” attitude that so many people justify themselves by.

          I would argue with this, at least to the extent that moral realism presents the same problem. Consider the following:

          The Iraq invasion.

          (This is a controversial example, and I don’t want to open up the usual can of worms, but it really does fit)

          Those who engineered the invasion to this day console themselves with the fact that they acted from “principle.” They did “the right thing” and didn’t care about the consequences. And thousands of people died, others were tortured. . . all things considered, a really bad decision. And yet they are “good people.”

          You can always find some moral principle to cover your behavior. . . Stalin was a patriot, after all. . . so that moral realism is nothing but a a way of salving the conscience of bad men.

          Simply declaring that there is moral truth doesn’t spare us the responsibility of acting properly in the world.

  2. phosphorious permalink
    March 26, 2011 11:47 am

    There’s a parallel with epistemology: just because we cannot prove that, for example, we are not now dreaming, this does not mean that we don’t have good reasons for acting as if we are awake. Foundations are not necessary, in knowledge or in morals.

    And I think this is compatible with Christianity.

  3. Mike McG... permalink
    March 26, 2011 1:23 pm


    Thanks for the link to this provocative article. I particularly appreciated his reference to the ground-breaking work of Jon Haidt.

    But the article begs the question: What are the implications of such relativism for those of us that inhabit this *particular* worldview (Catholicism) that we (presumably) privilege? (Although anyone who has followed this blog for very long might well question my sanity for asserting that we all embrace even closely related worldviews!)

    Let´s avoid, for the moment, the neuralgic issue of abortion and focus on the church´s preferential option for the poor. Let´s say that the predominantly non-poor majority in the U.S. listens to our *best* arguments for the moral vision we share, one that calls for a much more just distribution of the world´s goods. After listening, let´s imagine that the gist of the response is individualistic/libertarian, along the lines of ¨interesting that you should think so, so feel free to redistribute your wealth but keep your $%&/()= hands off of mine!¨

    End of story? Different strokes for different folks? If we refrain from privileging our worldview are accommodation or withdrawal the remaining options? Wouldn´t the relativist position tend to value a minimalist role for government and counsel ´tolerance´ for many behaviors we abhor? Since the zeitgeist is profoundly individualistic don´t communalistic worldviews like ours become every more marginalized?

    I tend to compartmentalize my intellectual attraction for postmodernism and positions such as those advanced by Prinz, on the one hand, and my devotion to a tradition that has traditionally claimed hegemony for certain of its moral teachings. I would really appreciate your wrestling more with this clash and what it means for the Vox Nova reader. Thanks.

    • March 26, 2011 9:01 pm

      It’s hard to say to what political structure relativism would incline one. A live-and-let live libertarianism, perhaps? Or total anarchy? Or maybe an authoritarian system based not on justice, but raw power. Or perhaps a democratic system akin to what we currently practice in the U.S. I doubt two relativists would agree.

      Personally, I don’t have any problem privileging one worldview over another, though I hasten to add that such privilege should result from a democratic process aimed at putting truth and justice into action, and not, say, from the decisions of rulers to which no effective dissent is allowed. So, for example, if Catholics or others wish to impose (or maintain) a particular understanding of marriage on the whole of society, they ought to make a case for that understanding within the public dialogue and allow the understanding to be accepted democratically, but also remain open to future rejection.

      Of course, the democratic process is no guarantee that what’s “imposed” is something true or just, but I prefer it because it allows, in the best of times, for what is false and unjust to be challenged and changed. I may be in the minority around here for say this, but I’m perfectly cool with the court challenges to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, not because I’m necessarily against the legislation, but because such challenges mean that our system works, that those who hold the most power can’t just do whatever they want.

  4. March 26, 2011 8:49 pm

    As a zealous pluralist when it comes to morality

    What do you mean when you say that you’re a “pluralist”?

    • March 26, 2011 9:42 pm

      By pluralism, I mean the following related positions:

      1. Truth, as an object of thought, is arrived at through a creative and productive process of disclosure and discovery. No one has direct access to reality as it is in itself; to get to the objective, we pass through the subjective, but that passage colors, shapes, and gives flavor, fragrance, texture and, yes, substance to the object of thought.
      2. This truth that I know is something that I have made and that has been disclosed to me.
      3. It is therefore neither absolute nor entirely relative.
      4. Truth as I know it will differ from truth as others know it to the extent that the subjective aspects of my conception of truth differ from the subjective aspects of others.
      5. It will be the same as others to the extent that it discloses the same reality.
      6. Truth, then, as an object of thought or knowledge, is both one and many, but its oneness it something beyond our thinking and our knowledge; there is no one way to think or know truth. Rather, we pursue that hoped for unity of truth through a plurality of ways of thinking. And we never arrive at the One, and so we must live with the many.

      Hence pluralism. The biggest difficulty it presents is the realization that nobody knows reality as it is in itself, only as an object of thought, and so we have no standard beyond the many ways of conceiving truth to judge those conceptions. We have to judge conceptions by other conceptions and by the extent to which each conception seems to reveal the way the world really is. I say seems because, as mentioned, no one sees the world the way it really is. Pluralism raises similar philosophical challenges as relativism does, but where relativism denies an absolute truth beyond our relative understandings, pluralism (as I define it) assumes, or shall I say hopes, that there really is an absolute, even if we cannot know it as such.

      • March 26, 2011 11:04 pm

        Pluralism raises similar philosophical challenges as relativism does, but where relativism denies an absolute truth beyond our relative understandings, pluralism (as I define it) assumes, or shall I say hopes, that there really is an absolute, even if we cannot know it as such.

        OK, so the difference between pluralism (as you define it) and relativism is that the latter denies that there is a single moral truth, whereas the former asserts that there is such a truth, but that we can never know it. In practice, how are the two epistemologies different? Pluralism seems to be different from relativism only insofar as the former tips its hat to the existence of truth; in practice it is no different from relativism, because both theories of knowledge allow the subject to be justified in believing whatever he wants.

        • March 27, 2011 8:00 am

          I wouldn’t say that I cannot know truth, but rather that I cannot be certain that I know truth. Instead of certainty, I have hope. I hope that I know the truth, that what I think to be the truth really, if imperfectly, corresponds to the way the world is.

          Seems to me an absolutist can also justify believing whatever he wants by positing absolute truth to be what he believes it to be.

        • March 27, 2011 1:26 pm

          Seems to me an absolutist can also justify believing whatever he wants by positing absolute truth to be what he believes it to be.

          Yes, but unlike the pluralist or relativist, he would be being inconsistent with his epistemic principles if he did.

        • March 27, 2011 8:17 am

          I should add that I distinguish between knowing reality and knowing reality as it is in itself, apart from any mediation or subjectivity. I affirm the former, but deny the latter,

      • March 27, 2011 4:47 pm

        Yes, but unlike the pluralist or relativist, he would be being inconsistent with his epistemic principles if he did.

        I’m not sure this makes much difference in practice. People who want to justify bad behavior or bad ideas will find a way to do so.

  5. March 27, 2011 11:38 am

    I admit to being rather more sanguine about the real possibility of knowledge, so in that sense, I do not share Kyle’s need to appeal to hope. I am also less impressed by the fact of the variety of moral claims, values, and so-called intuitions (so-called since, to properly be an intuition, something must be the immediate grasp of something true, and I fear many things posing as intuitions are, however sincerely held, false). Something can be said to be known, not merely opined or hoped for, and still not be known with divine or angelic knowledge. That is, we need not hold that to know something is to know it exhaustively in order for it to count as true knowing.

    Relevant to the article, and the comparison to knowledge using the scientific method, I think there is more in common between the two than Jesse Prinz allows. It is certainly true that the scientific method can correct false views, expand our knowledge, distinguish right conclusions from right explanations of those conclusions, etc. Indeed, it is also true that, in theory, anyone could come to the same conclusions using the same method.

    However, there’s the rub. The scientific method is not innate. While our knowledge comes from sensory experience of the world as understood by our intellect, there is nothing innate or given about the specific disciplined way of observing and knowing that is requisite for the scientific method to yield right conclusions. One must be taught to do so, and it remains the fact that the number of people with a truly scientific way of understanding the world (distinguished from those who merely accept the conclusions of scientists and their claims to having a reliable method of knowledge) is quite small indeed.

    Now, there are any number of other ways of approaching the world that work perfectly well for human living. Sherlock Holmes’ (in)famous assertion in A Study in Scarlet that he did not know, nor did it make a bit of difference, whether the sun moved around the earth or the earth the sun, while a fictional example, helps to demonstrate the point. There can be, have been, and are highly capable people living perfectly functional lives who need never advert to the scientific method.

    Even so, we tend to think that the conclusions yielded by the scientific method, or other disciplined ways of knowing, are true in a way that other assertions, however true their conclusions, are not, precisely because the other ways fail to give an accurate account of why their conclusions are true, and thus are less reliable in coping with situations or realities not yet considered. The question, then, is why we would suspect that the moral science would be any different. That is, why would the fact of objective moral truth, universally knowable and applicable, require that everyone, everywhere should have the same easy access to it?

    Certainly Christians can give a theological account of why we are blind to many moral truths. Still, philosophically, if the science of moral action is like other sciences, then there is no reason to think that its content as such would be widely known, or easily understood, or even for that matter convincing to those not yet versed in both its method and the right kinds of observations to render the right kinds of conclusions. Opponents to Galileo, after all, has quite good philosophical and observational reasons to find his claims objectionable, quite apart from theological ones. They were wrong, to be sure, as was Galileo on several points. Still, while they might not have been in a position to adjudicate their differences, this does not mean adjudication was not possible. So, could this not also be true of the moral science?

    • March 27, 2011 4:31 pm

      That is, we need not hold that to know something is to know it exhaustively in order for it to count as true knowing.

      I agree.

  6. Kimberley permalink
    March 27, 2011 11:41 am


    How do you reconcile your search for truth with the catechism?

    2465 The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His “faithfulness endures to all generations.” Since God is “true,” the members of his people are called to live in the truth.

    107 The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

    2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.” “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”

    2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

    • March 27, 2011 4:45 pm


      There’s a difference between accenting to a matter of faith and pursuing the truth through philosophical investigation. My pluralism doesn’t prevent me from believing that what the Church teaches is true. In fact, I’d say pluralism is the consequence of taking seriously Paragraph 170 of the Catechism: “We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch.” As a Catholic, my faith is not in a formula, in one of many ways of giving expression to reality, but in the reality itself that my faith allows me to touch. The word “touch” is significant here, for it denotes not a full grasp or an encapsulation, but something closer to the press of a finger or the caress of a hand. Even a singular reality is greater than any formula that can express it (touch it), and so a plurality of formulas for the same reality is not only possible, but beneficial and warranted.

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