Moral relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 03, 2023, from

4. Relativism and moral confidence

A reason why relativism has been feared is the thought that it could easily slide into moral nihilism. Could one continue living according to one’s moral values, which sometimes require significant personal sacrifice, if one can no longer believe that they are truer or more justified than other values that require incompatible actions? One relativist response is that one may reasonably question the importance of certain features of one’s morality upon adopting a view of their conventional origin. Consider that duties to give aid to others are commonly regarded as less stringent than duties not to harm them. Gilbert Harman (1975) has proposed that this difference results from the superior bargaining position of those with greater material means in the implicit agreement giving rise to morality. Those with lesser material means may reasonably question this feature of morality, if they are persuaded of Harman’s explanation. Notice, however, that it is not merely the supposition that this feature arose from convention that may undermine one’s confidence in it. With regard to other features of one’s morality, one may adopt a relativist view of them and continue to prize them simply because they are as good as any other and because they help to constitute a way of life that is one’s own.

Admittedly, people who condemn torture and unremitting cruelty as an offence against the moral fabric of the world may possess a certitude not available to relativists and may find it easier to make the personal sacrifices morality requires. Moral certitude has its own liabilities, however, and has itself contributed to the unremitting cruelty that human beings have inflicted upon each other.

Citing this article:
Wong, David B.. Relativism and moral confidence. Moral relativism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L099-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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