In Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, Gilbert Harman argues that the truth conditions of moral judgments are always relative to a choice of moral framework. Objections to moral relativistic theories, such as Harman’s, include the claim that it falls into moral nihilism – the idea that morality does not exist and therefore, moral statements have no truth-value. Although Harman explicitly rejects moral nihilism, I will show how he withstands the charge by holding to moral skepticism – the idea that it is not possible to discover the truth-value of any moral statement, but that moral truth may exist. I will first discuss Harman’s claims that morality is a type of bargaining similar to the convention of law and show how this withstands the charge of moral nihilism. Secondly, I will explain how Harman argues that universal features of morality may exist and show how this may be compatible with Harman’s argument. I will then show how this withstands both moral nihilism and moral objectivity - the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion. Lastly, I will argue that moral skeptics, such as Harman, hold an epistemological position, distinct from the metaphysical positions of nihilism and objectivism.
I will begin with a review of Harman’s argument, which starts with a comparison of morality to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Just as an object’s mass and motion are relative to a spatio-temporal framework, the truth conditions of a moral statement are relative to a context and moral framework. For example, a passenger on an airplane has a different perception of his or her motion and velocity compared to someone from the ground perceiving the plane in flight. Similarly, the truth condition for Person X for an action is dependent on the context and the moral framework of Person X, which may be different for Person Y. It does not make sense to say that the mass of object P is privileged at a particular coordinate in space at a particular velocity over its mass at another. Likewise, Harman argues that it does not make sense that a moral truth condition is privileged in a particular context within one moral framework over another. In other words, as Harman says, “… no moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality.” Next, I will show Harman uses social conventions and a moral skeptic position to reach his conclusion.
Harman is both a moral conventionalist and a moral skeptic. As he states, “…even the most basic aspects of morality are conventional in something like the way in which law is conventional.” He claims that law is also completely conventional but argues that moral conventions are less determinate. This may be due to the smaller, more numerous groups associated with moral conventions such as within families, neighborhoods, and friends. There may even be different moral conventions when one is alone and not in a group. He does say that morality comes about because of social bargaining, much like law. As such, it is more a matter of coming to agreement on the right answer concerning a moral or legal issue versus the recognition of an objective truth. This does not provide support against a claim of nihilism but his explicit rejection of nihilism and his claim that “there are universal truths about moralities just as there are universal truths about spatio temporal frameworks” does support a position of moral skepticism. The following is a review of the premises of his argument:
1. Morality is completely conventional.
2. Truth conditions of moral judgments are made within a context specific framework.
3. Moral skepticism underlies relative moral judgments and can continue to play a serious role in moral thinking.
4. No moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality.
Taken together, this entails his conclusion that moral right and wrong are always relative to a choice of moral framework. Next, I will focus on the bargaining or conventional aspect of his argument to further support that idea that it does not fall into moral nihilism.
Bargaining refers to the process of moral decision-making. If the truth condition of a moral action cannot be reached through rational means, then there still may be value in reaching a decision, which may only come about through bargaining. Harman argues that people care about what they value, which indicates that people care about their moral framework in making decisions. Caring points to what Harman calls an affective attitude, which includes desire, fear, and hope, while cognitive attitudes refer to belief, perception, and doubt. Cognitive and affective attitudes may coincide or conflict in an individual or among individuals concerning moral decisions. Moral relativism may help explain why there are conflicts between people or within us; however, it does not tell us why it is important resolve these moral disagreements. It is important to resolve moral disagreements because we need to know what to do in certain situations. In other words, as Harman states, “moral differences involve conflicts in affective attitude that are resolved only if agreement is reached on what to do.” For example, many disagree on the morality of abortion, which requires an agreement to resolve. Abortion laws in the United States reflect a resolution of the moral disagreement surrounding the issue. It is not legal to get an abortion at anytime over a nine-month pregnancy but it is legal within a certain timeframe. Harman would agree that there may be an objective moral truth to the issue of abortion but since we cannot know what that is, we must not give preference to one position over the other and resolve the dispute through bargaining. This is not moral nihilism but rather a pragmatic view of moral skepticism. I will now discuss Harman’s idea of universals and how they are compatible with moral relativism.
Harman notes that, “there will be universal moral truths just as there are universal truths about spatio-temporal frameworks.” In regards to universal moral truths, this may refer to the morality of killing, harm, and deception. In regards to spatio-temporal frameworks, this may refer to the admittance of motion and rest regardless of relative position or velocity. The existence of universal moral truths neither supports moral nihilism nor does it support moral objectivism. Universal moral truth does not entail moral objectivism because although moral truth may exist, knowledge of its truth may be unreachable. Secondly, universal truth may exist for only certain actions, which would still require bargaining to resolve trivial moral disagreements on other matters between individuals or groups with differing moral frameworks. On the other hand, a moral nihilist may claim that the existence of moral agreement among all individuals and frameworks does not entail the existence of objective truth. It may be explained by coincidence or other reasons similar to those posed by evolutionary psychologists. It may also be explained by a different type of social contract such as that formulated by Thomas Hobbes, which I argue does support the idea of moral nihilism via his theory of a state of nature. The existence of universal moral truth can withstand the charge of universal moral truth because of the difference between moral skepticism and the positions of moral nihilism and objectivism. Next, I will expand on these distinctions.
Moral skepticism is an epistemological position while moral nihilists and objectivists claim a metaphysical position regarding the existence or non-existence of moral truth. Truth conditions of moral judgments are either meaningless or an absolute standard regardless of context or opinion because of this claim. Moral skeptics, such as Harman, make no metaphysical claim and are therefore in a categorically distinct position. Moral relativism, then, should not be viewed as being on a spectrum between moral nihilism and moral objectivism. Arguments that challenge the premises of moral relativism do not easily slide into either of the other positions as a result. This does not mean that the argument cannot be defeated, but from the perspective of bargaining and the possibility of the existence of universal truth, arguments for either position do not seem strong enough to reject moral relativism. Harman says that, “moral diversity is nit a disproof of moral absolutism.” I argue, however, that the best argument in support of moral skepticism is based on the fact that people from different cultures, backgrounds, and educational levels do disagree on certain moral truths. For example, the U.S. Republican Party that represents 55 million Americans supports an anti-abortion position that the procedure is always wrong. The Democratic Party on the other hand, represents approximately 72 million Americans and supports a platform that abortion is not always wrong. If so many people disagree then maybe, knowledge on any moral claim is unknowable. If moral truth is unknowable but one allows for the possibility that objective truth exists, then Harman’s moral relativism provides a good argument and explanation for moral diversity.
In conclusion, Harman’s argument for moral relativism withstands the charge that it falls into moral nihilism both explicitly and implicitly. Bargaining provides a process to resolve moral disputes when rationality makes the right answer unknowable. The unknowable nature of objective or absolute moral truth provides support for both moral relativism and skepticism. This does not mean that morality is not important and should not play a serious role in everyday life because of the possibility of the existence of universal truths. Harman allows for this possibility. This may seem to point to moral objectivism but since what exactly those truths are again unknowable, he withstands the charge that his argument is a case for moral objectivity. It is the unknowable nature of moral truths that is important to remember. It is an epistemological claim, and not a metaphysical that further distinguishes moral relativism from both moral nihilism and objectivism. The argument is difficult to argue against unless one makes such a metaphysical claim.