Bryan Caplan  

Huemer's "Relativism and Tyranny"

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The latest installment in my lost works of Michael Huemer series is his 1992 essay, "Relativism and Tyranny."  The paper begins with an infamous quote from 1984, then distinguishes nine theses moral relativists (whether self-conscious or by default) routinely equivocate between.
The following are versions of relativism:

(1) Moral values generally are established by social conventions.

(2) All cultures/value systems are equally good.

(3) Cultures/value systems cannot be compared morally.

(4) What is right is identical with what is ordained by whatever society a given agent belongs to.

All of these propositions are different, and all of them are false.  The following are not versions of relativism, at least not for the purposes of my attack on relativism in this paper:

(5) It is good to be tolerant of people with differing practices and views.

(6) Different people/cultures endorse different values.

(7) People tend to value what they are taught to value.

(8) Sometimes, when faced with a choice, there may be multiple different courses of action that are equally moral.

(9) Morals cannot be resolved by some fixed algorithm but must be judged case-by-case.

All of these propositions are to some extent true, and none of them is what I am arguing about herein.  This point can scarcely be overemphasized, that all of the above nine propositions are distinct, and that I am attacking the first four, not the latter five. Obstinate failure to take cognizance of this can lead to extensive arguments both irrelevant and exasperating.
The space Huemer spends linking relativism and tyranny is surprisingly brief, but his essay strongly influenced this essay I wrote a year later on "Hobbes' Foundations for Totalitarianism."  Me:
Moral relativism also tends to support a total state. Only if some things are objectively right or wrong is it possible to rationally critique the existing order. If moral relativism is true, then it isn't wrong for the state to coerce or even kill individuals; for the doctrine of individual rights is a moral theory, and if moral relativism is right, then all moral theories are false or nonsense. Overall, since most of the things that total governments do intuitively seem immoral, a would-be total ruler must undermine morality in order to quell protest against his policies.
If you know Huemer's mature writings well, much of "Relativism and Tyranny" will be familiar territory.  But if you know Huemer's mature writings well, you'll also know everything he writes has great epistemic value-added.  Enjoy.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

Thanks for an interesting post. I have two comments -- without having looked at Michael's paper.


1. I would join Michael in rejecting statements (2), (3), and (4). Does he show people affirming those statements? Who?

2. As for (1), "Moral values generally are established by social conventions:" If we have an supple notion of "social convention" and "establish," one might say that when someone rejects a moral value he does so from some set of sensibilities that, for him and some set of his exemplars, are in a sense a convention. In that sense, I do not reject (1). Adam Smith taught us to see that every instance of moral judgment involves a sympathy. Sympathy can be thought of the mutual coordination of sentiment. From there is not a huge leap to David K. Lewis's idea of convention. Such a way of looking at it makes convention pliant to the implied community context. A fruitful way to see things, I (and my exemplars) feel.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

I think he is getting skepticism wrong, at least in this paper. Skepticism stands opposed to realism, so debunking relativism is a bit beside the point - an error theorist is happily on board with that.

But if someone is an "unregenerate naive realist" like Huemer, I'd point out that evolution does give a pretty good account of the existence of morality, and it does so without requiring the evaluation of truth claims. This isn't relativism, but rather an attack on the justification of moral knowledge. I haven't seen a good answer to that one yet

Anon writes:

I'd like to expand on Ben Kennedy's comment.

Evolution does give a pretty good account of the existence of morality, and applying evolutionary theory and basic logic leads to the inevitable conclusion that moral facts don't, and can't, ever exist. The capacity to feel moral feelings is a subjective phenomenon that only exists because the people/organisms that had the capacity survived and reproduced, and those that didn't, didn't. The content of moral feelings can never be true or false.

It is the *exact same* phenomenon as flavor, or asking if something is delicious or disgusting. The capacity to taste flavor only exists because it helps reproductive fitness. It makes no sense to ask if something is universally delicious because deliciousness isn't an abstract truth, but a function of evolutionary history. To say that taste doesn't "objectively exist" does not mean that everything actually tastes good, or that everything actually tastes bad, it just means that asking that question is meaningless.


In the same way, the fact that moral truths don't "objectively exist" doesn't mean everything is good or everything is bad.It just means we have to deal with the fact that we will never build some objectively true moral system because none will ever exist and cannot ever exist.

Arguments to the contrary are of the form "if morals don't exist, this thing I like doesn't have an objective foundation, which would be bad, therefore morals exist." Nonsense all around.

A Country Farmer writes:

I love Huemer's extra feistiness in his earlier age.

Huemer's argument in section 4 proves way, way too much. For example, it would rule out any indexical statement like "I live in Somerville, MA". It's true for me but (probably) not true for you!

Overall, I'm not very impressed by this paper. It mostly boils down to "If moral realism is true, moral anti-realism isn't" and "Moral realism is true because table-pounding".

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