Evidence of Relativism?

I'm inclined to think most people believe there are truths about morality.  Students may mouth moral relativism, but if I flipped a coin to assign them grades, they'd say that was really wrong, not just wrong by some personal or cultural standard.  Grades should be awarded for work, not randomly. 

But Joshua Knobe & Co have been studying the question experimentally, and they claim to have found evidence that the folk really do incline toward relativism.

Here’s how one of their studies worked.  Subjects were told about a moral disagreement between X and Y about this incident: Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.   X thought that was impermissible, and Y thought it was permissible. The subjects were asked to agree (7) or disagree (1) (or somewhere in between) with the statement "at least one [X or Y]  had to be wrong." 

When the subjects were told X and Y were both classmates, the average score was 5--so they leaned toward the view that at least one had to be wrong. Next they were told X and Y were a classmate and a “Mamilon”—a member of a warlike Amazonian tribe.   Subjects were told the classmate thought Dylan’s action was impermissible and the Mamilon thought Dylan’s action was permissible.  Now the average score dropped down to 4. They were more reluctant to think at least one had to be wrong.  When Y was made even more exotic--an alien, the average score dropped down even further, to 3.

Knobe & Co. read this as showing that subjects assess a disagreement between X and Y relative to the standards X and Y bring to the table, instead of by some absolute, objective standard.  When X and Y are culturally similar, there's one standard, so one of them has to be wrong if they disagree.  When X and Y are culturally dissimilar, there can be two standards, so they can both be right if they disagree.  This is a bit like how if two people are in Texas and disagree about the time, one must be wrong, but if two people are in Texas and Iceland and disagree about the time, then they can both be right.

To which I say: hmm.  There's another way to read the shift from 5 to 4 to 3.  It might just show that the subjects feel a duty to be "nice" about exotic people.  They judge what their classmate says, and suspend judgment about the exotic Mamilon.  And he sure is exotic.  Not only is he a member of a primitive, war-like tribe, but the very bizarreness of his judgment about Dylan attests to his exoticism. The alien is even more exotic. That immediately gets us in our non-bullying, high sensitivity, “I better be tolerant” mood. 

That sort of tolerance is explicitly taught in schools.  I distinctly remember the first time I encountered words like "ethnocentrism" and "cultural chauvinism" in 9th grade.   Even more vividly, I remember a big lecture about tolerance on the first day of a college anthropology class.  These days I think children receive massive amounts of tolerance education starting in elementary school.  The more exotic a view is, the more we're supposed to be nice and not judge people who have it.  The studies done by Knobe & Co. don't seem to tease apart relativism about moral truth and a tolerance reaction that increases as the difference between X and Y gets greater.

Just as we are encouraged to be non-judgmental if people think and behave differently, we are also encouraged not to think about exotic victims.  If people are getting stabbed as people try out their knives, so....what?  So I think it would help if the incident weren't quite so bizarre.  That would quiet down our inner anthropologist.  Plus, it would help to increase subjects' concern for victims.  So here goes--an alternative incident and pair of judges.

The incident is that you (dear subject) are studying abroad in Strangeland. You work very hard all semester, and at the end of the semester Professor Strange flips a coin. Heads, A, tails, C.  When you complain about your C, you discover that in that culture, they believe everything happens for a reason.  So the coin wouldn't have come up heads if you hadn't deserved a C.  It saves time, too.

That's the incident. Now here's the disagreement.  A student from that culture says that way of grading is permissible; on the other hand, your classmate back home says it's impermissible.  Suppose subjects are asked about this Stranger vs. classmate disagreement.  Must at least one be wrong? My prediction: no slide from 5 to 4 to 3.  It's going to be all 5 (or 6 or 7).

I could be wrong, of course (ain't armchair X-Phi fun, and easy too!), but I don't think I have to be convinced by these studies, as done so far. They awaken our inner anthropologist too much and do too little to direct attention to victims.


On further thought, my example needs more work. As it stands, the Strangers just have a strange belief about the facts. They think everything happens for a reason, so they think coin flips reveal which grade students deserve. I should have set it up so the Strangers have a strange moral belief about grading. Maybe they see grading as "degrading" (for the Professor). So they admire the coin-flipping procedure for its dignity. Details needed...but the point remains the same.


amos said...

My impression is that many people are relativists when there is less at stake, and moral objectivists when there is more.

For example, it is easy to be a relativist about whether papers are graded by flipping a coin or not (there is not much at stake),
but it is very hard to be a relativist about

Jeremy has a test on moral relativism, and as I recall, the question of genocide (or the Holocaust specifically) is the one that forces you to contradict yourself if you start out with the anti-moral objectivist position.

amos said...


here's Jeremy's game.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I actually think it's the opposite. When the grading of your own paper is at stake, you're not going to be a relativist. You're not going to think Professor Strange is doing something permissible to you, just because in his culture grades are distributed with the toss of a coin. It's fine for "them" to run around killing or mutilating each other, but once it's an issue of how you yourself are treated, relativism becomes untenable.

amos said...

In any case, even if most people
would not be relativists if it was a case of their own paper (I think that I would), the principle that people are moral objectivists when there is more at stake still holds, since for most people the question of their grade matters more than, say, slave labor in China.

I have a tendency to see myself from the standpoint of the universe which enfuriates everyone around me.

Faust said...

As the resident relativist I will take up the question re: grading:

I would hold that you (or anyone else) flipping a coin to assign me grades is wrong according to me, and not wrong according to you (assuming of course that you really do believe that flipping coins is the correct way to assign grades).

This is because I believe that grades should be awarded according to some sort of fixed standard. That standard could be fixed by relationship to the rest of the class (grading on a curve) or some sort of criteria that are fixed independent of my fellow students but that are agreed to in advance.

But "coin flippin grader" thinks grades should be awarded randomly, because (to make something up) this creates more equality in society. Everyone has an equal chance to get into the best graduate programs because everyone has the same random chance of getting the requisite grades!

My beliefs are "meritocratic," the belief that the best should get the best. "Coin flippers" are "Equalitocratic" and believe that merit is irrelevant to reward. Everyone, regardless of ability should get a chance at the best rewards.

In my opinion there is no objective way to resolve this dispute. One picks a "meritcoracy" or an "equalitocracy" and accepts the results.

One could argue that "merit" is better because it will produce better long term results for society. Of course that's 1. an empirical question that would be fun to study and 2. "better long term results" will fall victim to the same problem: what is the "better" society anyway? According to what normative criteria (see Sam Harris for assistance here)?

An irony of your story, Jean, is that you worry people have been culturally conditioned with an aversion to judging other people which masks their presumably real feeling about the objectivity of reality.

My rejoinder would be that you are likely correct about this, but that there is no "masking" going on. People simply have normative engines running in their heads. There is no "bottom" that is more correct than any other stopping point. Perhaps you could come up with some context where you could successfully strip them of all that tolerance education and reveal the real honest to goodness universal judgment underneath. But that just shows that in THAT context they have a universal judgment. It doesn't seem to me to say anything about all the contexts they could render judgment in.

amos said...


Have you played the game which I linked to above?

If so, I imagine that you, like I, answered that morality is relative to or depends on the culture.

However, when you came to the question about genocide being evil, how did you answer?

I know that you can claim that our belief that genocide is evil
is dependent on us being liberal educated Westerners, but do you really believe that?

amos said...


I've lived in enough different cultures and read sufficent Nietzsche and Marx to see most values debates as a question of interests, of powers or groups in conflict, of personalities seeking to affirm or rationalize their way of life.

I understand that for Swedish feminists, Julian Assange is a rapist, while for the man on the street in Chile (and elsewhere) he is a Don Juan, a positive role model. For biographical and cultural reasons, I side with the Swedish feminists, but I would hardly insist that what Assange did with two women in Sweden is objectively wrong.

However, when I come to the Holocaust, to Rwanda, to slavery, that reasoning no longer functions for me. Those phenomena are evil, as far as I can see.

Is that a philosophically consistent position? Probably not, but is it an objective metaethical fact that ethics have to be philosphically consistent?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think these experimenters see themselves as getting at the nature of the innate moral mind. In response to that, it's fair to bring up tolerance education and the way it interferes with what would have otherwise been people's reactions. It's also fair to ask if the experimenters are asking people questions that make them indifferent or concerned. If I'm the one whose affected by some practice, that ups my concern. So that's what I'm thinking about here--do these studies really show the innate moral mind sees morality relativistically? I'm doubtful...

amos said...

My last answer should read: "is there an objective meta-metaethic fact that says that metaethics have to be philosophically consistent"?

Faust said...

If they believe they are getting at an "innate" moral mind, then I enthusiastically agree. For one thing, they are going to need to make sure they run that test on a bunch of pepole from a wide variety of cultures...

They can't possibly think they are getting at an inate moral mind can they?

Amos: What does it MEAN that they are evil? Evil to the universe? To me evil is always evil TO a "someone." If there are no someones, there is no evil. I'd like to get around that, but so far...no dice.

amos said...

As far as I know, only human beings use language: so "evil" is
always applied by human beings to the actions or character of other human beings.