Prinz’s Defense of Moral Relativism
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.