Saturday, 7 March 2009

How do you deal with an undergraduate moral relativist?

I do all of my teaching on a Friday. The idea is to get it all done in one solid block, go home, have a bath, then go out and get drunk. One day I will develop more sensible strategies for managing the work/life balance, but just at the moment this arrangement suits me just fine.

I try to do all of my work relating to teaching (apart from the teaching itself) on evenings and weekends, to allow myself the weekdays free for PhD work. On Thursday night I was desperately cramming for the next day's tutorials, when microsoft works crashed, wiping all of the prep that I had done. The combination of PMS and a flu bug made this seem a lot worse than it probably actually was, and I was sat at my computer, with unattractive streaks of make-up running down my face, until 1.30am to make sure I was ready for the next day. The combination of red eyes, aforementioned black eyeliner trails, tears and a temper from hell, meant that probably even Marilyn Manson would have found me scary. Ethics boy however responded with hugs and regular cups of tea.

I think it probably takes a saint to live with anyone in academia, whether it is a lowly postgrad like myself, or one of those venerable professors, whose wives seem to maintain constant good humour despite the fact that their husbands' meticulous attention to detail does not extend to the new haircut, the fantastic meal on the table, or any other signs of the effort that they put in. All that we can do is remember that not everyone lives the weird esoteric type of lives that we do, and try to appreciate the sacrifices that other people make to enable us to do so.

Anyway, enough of that particular ramble. As it turned out, the tutorials went reasonably well as usual, and the students did not seem to notice that I was menstrual, flu-ridden, and by this point sleep deprived. However, in one of the tutorials, it was incredibly difficult to get anywhere. The tutorial was supposed to be on the concept of evil: how we understand it, and whether it has a useful role in moral theory. The difficulty was that one student kept pressing the claim that none of this mattered because all concepts of good and evil were relative in any case.

I guess this is one of those perennial problems for anyone doing tutorials in moral philosophy. I could have spent the entire tutorial delving into questions about ethical relativism. This student's own views were rather incoherent and hazily formed, and they would probably have benefited from clarification. But this would have been unfair on everyone else and would not have been relevant to the topic of the tutorial. So I pretty much responded by listening to what he had to say and then changing the subject. This felt very unsatisfying, and possibly gave the student the impression that I could not answer his points, but the purpose of tutorial is not to get sucked into combative disputes with individual students, it is to encourage them to discuss the questions, elucidate their understanding and try to allow everyone to bring something to the table.

The problem was that the student kept reiterating his views as though this was supposed to be some kind of conversation stopper. Because he understands all values to be, in some sense, relative, no further discussion is necessary or possible. How in hell's name are we supposed to deal with this issue? It is something I have encountered before, but haven't yet found a satisfactory solution to, and I have heard from others that the 'freshman relativist' is one of those very common bugbears.

I wonder if it might be good to restructure the way that ethics courses are taught. Rather than starting, as many do, with ancient philosophy or classic moral theories, what would happen if the first lecture began with a presumption of no moral truth? If the lecturer began with these issues, and then explained the different things that this could mean, and brought out the difficulties with theories that are relativist, subjectivist, non-cognitivist etc., then this might be a good way to start introducing alternatives, and would challenge the freshman relativist from the outset. Thus these students, who are undoubtedly intelligent and switched on, would be given something to get their teeth into and struggle with, rather than simply calling for a stop to all ethical dialogue.

In my case, the ethical dialogue ceased at the point that I entered the pub. A good time was had by all, and the frustrations of the previous couple of days forgotten.


  1. The first thing I like to do with the relativist is point out that the view makes everyone who tries to reform the fundamental moral values of their society automatically wrong. If there's nothing more to moral truth than what your society says, anyone who says that their society is wrong and needs to move away from (for example) racist or sexist moral standards is automatically in error. Most undergraduate relativists haven't thought of that before, and anyway it should get everybody else on your side.

    If you think that students can handle a simple version of the argument from the possibility of cross-cultural disagreement, give that a go. Ask, "Do you think that different cultures can disagree about morality?" and of course they say yes. Ask, "If I say 'My name is Ethics Girl' and you say 'My name is Undergraduate Relativist', are we disagreeing?" and they say no. Then you show them that if "X is wrong" just means "My culture disapproves of X", two people from different cultures are no more disagreeing than two people stating their names, since the indexicals set it up so they're describing two different cultures.

    I teach that second argument whenever I can find an excuse to do so.

  2. The most frequent courses I teach are ethics courses. And I've found that I have the most success by using a three point approach.

    First, I assure them that to say that morality is not relative is not to insist that "our" morality is always the right one, but merely to suggest that there is more to morality than mere relative opinion.

    Second, I describe heinous pratices and obviously harmful abuses that other cultures engage in. So Genocide, Patriarch, Cannibalism, Slavery, etc. . . Human rights stuff. I stress that we can think some suppossd moral customs really can very from cutlure to culture perhpas, but clearly there are some things that are fundamental questions of human rights.

    Third, I explain that relativism invovles some bizzare consequences, like the denial of moral progress. A true relativist could not say for example that the United States of 2009 with no Slavery nor Jim Crow, with women being allowed to vote and go to grad school and own business is better than, Say the united states in 1852. We can merely say that culture was different. That's bizzare!

    In any case that's the basis of my approach.

  3. I appreciate both of these answers, and have put some of these to good use in the past.

    The problem though is getting past the relativism swiftly when you want to discuss something else. It is not really fair on the other students to spend all the tutorials talking about relativism when there are other topics to cover.

  4. Yes! It's a pain in the ass to deal with it! Takes so much time away from real issues.

  5. I wonder what these students would think of the following case:

  6. Hey Matt, I was reading about that story the other day. It really made me angry. To answer the question that somebody asked on your blog, the stepfather has not been excommunicated. It was judged that what he did was less bad than the taking of life involved in the abortion. These are the bizarre counterintuitive results that you end up with if you see all moral situations in such absolute terms (all cases of taking human life are always worse than all cases of rape...)

  7. Like Matt I point to extreme cases, often with a bit of humour. EG "Torturing Babies for no good reason is wrong". SO, you really want to deny that this statement is true? If you came across someone torturing babies for no good reason you think that by interfering all you would be doing would be imposing your own values?

    I do think that moral relativism is a conversation stopper though, and I point this out. Make the analogy with taste -- it really doesn't make much sense to study "right taste", and if you are deeply committed to relativism, and I can't persuade you otherwise, this course just isn't going to make any sense to you. That isn't my problem -- its yours.

  8. I've only ever seen ethics courses structured in the way you suggest. The first day is:

    a definition of philosophy
    a definition of ethics (preferably "What does one have most reason to do or want")
    Possible sorts of answers to that question (in order: nihilism versus its negation, relativism versus objectivism) - going through various sorts of relativism

    Pretty much puts a lid on metaethical discourse for the moment and lets the class go into a month of theory unmolested.

  9. I have to agree about absolutism. How can one hold such an extreme position? I think absolutisim may be as much of a problem in ethics as relativism!

  10. Quite right. Probably good to think of them as two poles to navigate between.

  11. Yes Ethics girl! I'm on the same page. The task, I think, is to avoid absoluts, avoid "moral dogmatisim," while at the same time avoid relativism.

    I'm wondering how this might be done. I suspect that Aristotle and the Eudaimonisitic position might point the way.Equally I'm impressed with Noddings emphasis on Caring (natural and ethical) and a way to ground eudaimonism.

    that at least is a possible way of navigating the extremes that I think is worth looking into.

  12. I'm pretty keen on the ethics of care altogether. I feel that moral philosophy for a very long time diverged a great deal from moral life as it is actually lived, so approaches like this are a very good thing.

  13. Yes! I think that most of the history of moral philosophy is divorced from our actual moral lives. And I think we greatly mistake the role of emotions if we don't put them center stage. In this sense, I find Hume a prophet.

  14. What the fu^k is wrong with you people that you don't understand that "human right"s are themselves relative to our current cultural and political history?