Monthly Archives: October 2017

Chapters 7 and 8 Moser and Carson, Moral Relativism: Moody-Adams’ “The Empirical Underdetermination of Descriptive Cultural Relativism” (Ch.7) and Wellman’s “The Ethical Implications of Cultural Relativity” (Ch.8)

Overarching Views of Both Texts

The book Moral Relativism lays out the views of philosophers Michelle Moody-Adams and Carl Wellman on the the broad term of cultural relativity. Moody-Adams argues against descriptive relativism and focuses on the importance of situational meanings in terms of morality. While, Wellman focuses on the the importance of cultural relativity on human nature, ethical reasoning, and value experiences. Granted, each philosopher does delve into different aspects of the term “moral relativism,” there is the common overarching view of shared ethical principles within both chapters. It will be further discussed in the summary the significance of situational meaning, cultural relativity, conflict, and disagreement between cultures; all which root moral relativism.

Chapter 7 Summary

Moody-Adams presents her argument against descriptive relativism, calling to reason primarily the significance of the internal conflicts of cultures and the situational meaning of cultural variances that may not be necessarily different from other cultures’ principles. The primary point to consider is that while an act may seem to drastically contrast another culture’s actions, when considered on a situational basis the principles of the cultures actually align.

The Faults of Descriptive Realism

Descriptive Relativism claims that the general ethical principles of  individuals disagree even in an instance of total agreement on the properties of the object, meaning there is a fundamental conflict. Moody-Adams claims that descriptive relativism cannot be neutral due to the situational meanings of certain acts and is “not a neutral description of the data of cultural diversity” (Moody-Adams 97). The descriptive relativist argues that fundamental moral disagreements are simply conflicting beliefs about the moral properties of certain acts. Moody-Adams calls on the views of both Asch and Duncker to refute this argument. Asch claims descriptive relativism proposes a drastic “alienness” between cultures’ traditions that is ultimately insupportable. Duncker argues ethical valuation is concerned with the situational meaning linked to an act, and that there exists “invariant “inner laws” of ethical valuation.” (Moody-Adams 98) For example, Shi’a Muslims’ ritual Ashura bloodletting consists of men hitting the heads of boys with daggers to spill blood onto the streets. A horrific practice through our western lens’, it would seem this act is far too abnormal and crude to not draw conflict between our two cultures. But, then I mention the ritual is one of mourning and the dissolution of sin, for it is thought that one tear shed for Husayn dissolves a hundred sins. Suddenly, the situational meaning behind the act offers similar moral values to our own of mourning and sin so the two views become no longer alien but instead sympathizing.

Disagreement in Ethical Language Principles

The greatest concern when attempting to compare two cultures is the lack of knowledge and reliable description of a culture’s moral principles and ethics. Moody-Adams raises the point that most moral relativists do not even consider if a culture’s language contains the concept of morality. Supporting descriptive relativism, Brandt attempts to illustrate the ethical differences between cultures in the questions,  “The reader is invited to ask himself whether he would consider it justified to pluck a chicken alive for this purpose”; “Would the reader approve of this [Hopi game], or permit his children to do this sort of thing?” (Moody-Adams 101) The expected answer is no, but Moody-Adams argues that such an assumption can not be made of the absolute moral concern of animals because closer consideration would find that the two ethical principles between the Hopi and western civilization are not so different. A culture’s moral code is highly complex and because of this it makes the plausibility of descriptive cultural relativism highly unlikely, for it can not be positively suggested that ethical differences truly exist between two cultures if the entire extent of the moral practices of each are not known.

Internal Conflict and Criticism

The complexity aforementioned finds its cause in the internal conflict present in a community when a practice is put under criticism. Hampshire claims that morality “has its sources in conflicts” (Moody-Adams 95) Moody-Adams contests that this is due to great stress put on the role of the critic who can spearhead a movement to morph an accepted practice into one that is deemed conflictual with some other deeper commitment of the group. Brandt suggests “the beliefs of “the average member” of a group are central to an adequate empirical study of that group’s ethics” (Moody-Adams 95) However, Moody-Adams refutes this by suggesting that there are certain moral questions that necessitate the views of those that are not average. She provides the example of an attempt at describing the moral significance of homelessness in America by interviewing average Americans. It becomes rather apparent that no true description could be derived from this attempt and thus undermines Brandt’s claim.

Chapter 8 Summary

Wellman in this chapter considers the ten things that he believes anthropologists could deem relative to culture they are as follows, “mores, social institutions, human nature, acts, goals, value experiences, moral emotions, moral concepts, moral judgments, and moral reasoning.” (Wellman 108) Wellman believes there to be consequences linked to the dissolution of mores that encompasses what is right and wrong within a culture. Furthermore it is Wellman’s views of morals that lead to his broad view that, in most occasions, core acting forces in a society are culturally relative.   

Consequences of Disobeying Mores

Wellman begins by warning readers that obeying the mores of a culture is vital for the wellbeing of that society. This can be directly correlated with the culturally relative nature of mores, for the mores were created to “promote the good life for the members of that society.” (Wellman 109) Wellman believes that with the disobedience of mores, a descent into a state of anarchy would ensue; however, he argues that it does not prove that an individual should always obey the mores of a society. Rather, Wellman argues that one should obey the means of their society not solely because of the fear of anarchy, but because “disobedience tends to undermine their existence” and that these mores “give shape and meaning to the life of any people.” (Wellman 109)

The Cultural Relativity of What is Right and Wrong (Mores)

The rightness or wrongness of an act in considered to be culturally relative by Wellman. This is because an identical act could be performed in two societies and could be considered right in one and wrong in another. Wellman provides the example of infanticide within Eskimo culture, an act that is considered to be highly immoral and wrong by western culture. But, Wellman asks readers to consider the consequences of the act in their society, which ultimately lead to different perspectives of what is right and wrong.

Human Nature, Institutions, Acts, and Goals

Some argue that the adoption of a different society’s institutions should not be attempted because it is a holistic expression of the society’s culture. However, Wellman refutes this, stating that some institutions could be adopted with slight modification because “some institutions may be less alien to a given culture than others.” (Wellman 110) He continues to claim that not even human nature exists individually but that it has been affected by enculturation and the nature of those being enculurated. This leads to his argument that both society’s acts and goals are culturally relative because they are derived from human nature.

Value Experiences, Morals Emotions, and Moral Concepts

In addition to the social objects stated above, Wellman also believes that the nature of any experience is influenced by enculturation and thus value experiences are considered to be relative to culture. He further asserts that because one could be considered morally good in one culture and morally bad in another that moral emotions and concepts  are also relative to culture, because for there to be a disagreement between the two cultures the two must be thinking in the same terms and thus using the same concepts.

Ethical Judgment and Ethical Reasoning

Wellman considers the following claims of Ethical judgement:

(a) “Ethical judgments have [limited] objective validity because it is possible to justify them rationally.” There are no universally accepted premises, no universal validity is possible.

(b) “Any ethical judgment is an expression of a total pattern of culture. Hence it is possible to justify any single judgment in terms of its coherence with the total cultural configuration of the judger.”

(c) “Any ethical judgment has objective validity because it is an expression of a moral code.” (Wellman 115)

Wellman concedes that all three premises are false, because their justification are not based on concrete systems and that social stability is not contingent on every ethical  judgment. This leads to the conclusion that moral judgments are relative to culture and have no objective validity. He also argues that moral reasoning is relative to culture because individuals from different societies justify their beliefs in varying ways.


Throughout both chapters Moody-Adams and Wellman propose similar arguments supporting cultural relativism. This can be found in the situational meanings of Moody-Adams’s arguments and blatantly laid out by Wellman. Both authors wish to warn readers of the complexity found within a culture so that whether it be the Ashura ritual or infanticide, we find that the disagreement between our culture and theirs is not as defined as first assumed.

Chapter 4 and 5 of Moser and Carlson’s Moral Relativism: Sumner’s “Folkways” and Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Abnormal”

Brief Summary of Both Articles

In Chapter 4 of Moser and Carlson’s Moral Relativism, William Sumner introduces us to the definition and origin of folkways. In next sections, Sumner describes folkways as being societal influences that are created without purposeful intention. He goes on to claim that folkways are impacted by the pressures of improvement and consistency. In later sections, he provides a definition for ethnocentrism, and explains how folkways originate from false inferences and are capable of causing harm. This leads to the final sections of the chapter, where Sumner defines mores and how these moral folkways shape goodness, badness, and immorality, as well as the diversity in moral codes that are created.

Chapter 5 of Moser and Carlson’s Moral Relativism examines how we observe normality and abnormality, according to Ruth Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Abnormal.” Over the course of the article, Benefit offers several examples of differing cultural notions of what is means to be socially abnormal. Normality, and consequently, morality, are described as a cultural constructs. Benedict characterizes individuals as being largely shaped by the society they are born into rather than having individual agency.

Chapter 4 Summary

Sumner begins with what drives human behavior. In order to survive and service our fundamental needs, humans are constrained by pain and pleasure. The only assumed psychological power that early man had was the ability to distinguish between pain and pleasure, and these forces developed habits, customs, and rituals. External authority and tradition shapes younger generations into abiding by a certain worldview, which maintains the cultural core.

The second section of Sumner’s article demonstrates how these folkways, or these culturally specific human behaviors and mental states, are reinforced by operating within a large group of people. The folkway produces individual habit, which over time, develops into a societal force that continues to impact the ideology and the actions of the people within that society. By becoming part of the societal structure, these folkways becomes an assumed part of life, since they are created unconsciously.

Sumner describes this in the following section, where he states that the development of habits and customs are not manufactured with the knowledge of the consequences these behaviors will create. Rather, these folkways serve to maintain a societal construct, and to serve the need for which the behavior was originally intended for. The products of this process are unforeseen and are a result of natural forces.

Folkways function in order to satisfy human needs and desires, but according to Section 5 of Sumner’s article, they evaluated by the pressures of improvement and consistency. Sumner claims that since folkways are intended to serve a purpose, if the folkway produces pain or is unsuccessful in achieving pleasure, the folkway will be adapted and changed into one that increases the efficiency and success of achieving pleasure. Sumner argues that in order for a folkway to be successful, it must:

  1. Be subjected to the pressure to improve, as long as the current adaptation is producing pain. In other words, the folkway will adapt if not enough pleasure is being achieved from it.
  2. Be subjected to the pressure to be consistent with other folkways and values of a society. The folkways must work together within a societal framework, or else friction and discontentment (pain) will be created. Networks of folkways that support one another produces pleasure and establishes faith in one’s folkway.

Personally, I do not believe in Sumner’s second premise. There are many example of how folkways conflict with one another within a specific society, such as with the Zande belief about witches.

In Section 15, Sumner defines ethnocentrism as “the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and related with reference to it” (Sumner 72). Ethnocentrism strengthens folkways because it causes people to escalate their own folkways in differentiation from others.

Sumner describes folkways as being possibly harmful and based on pseudo-knowledge in Sections 28 and 29. He offers many examples of false inferences that shaped folkways, such as how when a pestilence spread in Molembo after a Portuguese man had recently died there, the people prevented white men from dying in their country again. Sumner also gives examples of how folkways can have negative consequences, like how much waste of capital is created when a deceased man’s goods are burned.

Despite these issues with folkways, Sumner shows how each culture believes folkways to be the “the ‘right’ ways to satisfy all interests, because they are traditional, and exist in fact” (Sumner 74). Because a group’s moral code is based on serving these interests, traditions, and societal constructs, morals are not intuitive.

Sumner defines mores in Section 34 as “the folkways, including the philosophical and ethical generalizations as to societal welfare which are suggested by them” (Sumner 75). People cannot objectively judge the validity of their own mores because they would be using their own standards of goodness and badness, which is the norm circular argument. Doubting or questioning a folkway simply leads to a folkway adjustment. Section 439 emphasizes that there is no universal idea of what is immoral, and the morality of differing cultures cannot be compared. Section 503 reiterates this by stating that “there is logic in the folkways, but never rationality,” and that the folkways of one group cannot be proven to be superior to those of another (Sumner 78).

Chapter 5 Summary

Benedict begins the article by providing a view of the purpose of modern anthropology: to study the similarities and differences between cultures and the consequent products of these behaviors. Benedict questions whether or not “normal” and “abnormal” are culturally determined categories. She provides evidence for this by offering numerous examples of how the notion of abnormality ranges cross culturally.

One of the examples she uses is the status of mystics and their utilization of trance and seizures. While these individuals may be ostracized or regarded as abnormal by our cultural standards, they are people of power and influence in other societies. This demonstrates Benedict’s message that an abnormality of one culture may be foundational to the societal framework of another culture.

Benedict goes on to offer many more examples of differing notions of normality and abnormality across the world. Anthropology demonstrates that over time, differing environments and choices (such as speech communication or other organized behavior) is what affects a culture and its worldview. Over time, slight differences in societies have become increasingly more exaggerated to the point at which different cultures have completely differing views of normality, and consequently, morality as well.

Benedict claims that normality is a variation of morality. What is “normal” in one society becomes what is “good.” Society creates limits of expected human behavior, and actions that fall into this category are “normal” and “good.” If an individual’s actions deviate from this, they may be viewed as abnormal or immoral, even if those same actions may be valued in another society.

Benedict concludes her article by reinforcing a commonly held anthropological message: that individuals are shaped by their society. The behaviors, thought processes, and moral codes of these individuals would be impacted by their society as well. Benedict claims that the issue of figuring out abnormality and morality, independent from culture, is currently unachievable, meaning that there is no current definition of universal abnormality. Morality and normality must be viewed relative to a given culture because we are currently unable to distinguish any universal moral truths. But this, however, does not mean that these absolute truths do not exist.


These articles relate to one another in that morality and normality are described as being societally constructed concepts. Both display support for relativism. Although these articles acknowledge that morality is relative to our local convictions of human behavior, Benedict’s article claims that absolute moral truths might exist, but there are currently no means to distinguish what those possible truths could be.

Also, as a personal note: more recent anthropological studies have indicated that using terms like “simpler people” or “primitive” is ethnocentric. Given that these articles were written decades ago, it is understandable that these terms were used, but it should be recognized that anthropologists and moral relativists should not use these descriptors.

Richard Brandt, Ethical Relativism | James Rachels, The Challenges of Cultural Relativism

In Ethical Relativism, Richard Brandt establishes a framework for the concepts of descriptive, metaethical and normative relativism. In The Challenges of Cultural Relativism, James Rachels illustrates the challenges that these three types of relativism, especially to metaethical and normative relativism, face.

Descriptive relativism

Brandt introduces his first thesis of descriptive relativism that “values, or ethical principles of individuals conflict in a fundamental way” (Brandt, 25). He elaborates that for a disagreement to be fundamental, all ethical diversity cannot be removed and leads to a disagreement about the properties of things being appraised. Brandt provides the case of children’s execution of their parents as an example of a potential fundamental agreement.

Towards the end of the chapter, “Difficulties in the Relativist Positions,” Brandt raises the question whether descriptive relativism is supported by the scientific evidence. In response to the question, Brandt indicates the challenges in concluding that “an act is believed to have identical properties by individuals or groups who appraise it differently,” and that there is “no simple test for showing that groups really conflict in their appraisals” (Brandt 29).

  • What are some other examples that illustrate fundamental disagreements?
  • Can you think of any scientific evidence that can support descriptive relativism?

Metaethical Relativism

Brandt then introduces metaethical relativism, or the “diversity of moral principles espoused by different persons” (Brandt, 27). Metaethical relativists denies the claim that “there is always one correct moral appraisal of given issue,” but they must reject “certain views about the meaning of ethical (value) statements” in order for their thesis to work (Brandt, 26). Consequently, Brandt concludes that certain meanings of ethical (value) statements circumscribe metaethical relativists. In fact, Brandt provides the example below to demonstrate the limitations of metaethical relativism:

If “A is right” means “Doing A will contribute at least as much to the happiness of sentient creatures as anything else one might do,” it is obvious that one and only one of the two opinions “A is right” and “A is not right” is correct (Brandt 26).

Under metaethical relativism, Brandt discusses “whether there is some method of ethical reasoning whose acceptance can be justified to thoughtful people with force comparable to the force with which acceptance of the inductive logic can be justified” (Brandt 26). Some metaethical relativists simply deny the existence of such method while others recognize its existence, but express skepticism in its application.

Further, Brandt clarifies one frequent confusion about what implies ethical relativism. Assuming that metaethical relativism is false and that there is a single correct set of general ethical principles, Brandt presents that “there is a sense in which rightness of an act is relative to the circumstances or situation” (Brandt 27). Even though Brandt utilizes example of white lies to corroborate this principle, it is not to say that it suggests the truth of metaethical relativism.

Later in “Difficulties in the Relativist Position,” Brandt questions whether descriptive relativism support metaethical relativism. Although descriptive relativism cannot neither explicitly define what ethical statements mean nor settle disputes between conflicting ethical commitments, it “may very well have bearing…on whether a justifiable method of reasoning in ethics…could succeed in adjudicating between all clashes of ethical opinion” (Brandt 27). In fact, Brandt presents two groups of people—those who are avid supporters of equality of welfare and those who are indifferent—to demonstrate that certain justifiable methods of ethical reasoning cannot settle all ethical disputes.

  • Compare the concept of metaethical relativism to local relativism. What are the similarities and differences?
  • Granted, metaethical relativism states that the rightness of an act is relative to the circumstances or situation, but does the principle apply to all actions (i.e. homicide, incest, etc.)?

Normative Relativism

After demonstrating descriptive and metaethical relativism, Brandt presents normative relativism, “a general statement about whether ethical principles are ever “correct” (Brant 28). Normative relativism primarily revolves around the concept that the consensus of people or group dictates the blameworthiness of an action.

Brandt presents two propositions of normative relativists:

(a) “If someone thinks it is right (wrong) to do A, then it is right (wrong) for him to do A.”

(b) “If the moral principles recognized in the society of which X is a member imply that it is wrong to do A in certain circumstances C, then it is wrong for X to do A in C.”

Proposition (a) conjures the doubt whether “what is right for a person” really is right for him/her and does not reflect the relativist view point since it lacks a person’s or group’s belief on the action. On the other hand, proposition (b), which is the common belief in modern society, modifies the previous proposition to illustrate that people conform to moral standards of a community.

Like the other relativism discussed in the chapter, Brandt tackles normative relativism through asking the question: “Are cultural and metaethical relativism necessarily committed to any form of normative relativism?” Despite the fact that cultural and metaethical relativists are not committed to any form of normative relativism, Brandt cites proposition (b) to illustrate that normative relativism “presupposes the acceptance of cultural relativism” (Brandt 30).

  • Is there a method to corroborate normative relativism other than the consensus/agreement of belief in a society?

In The Challenges of Cultural Relativism, Rachels offers the cultural conflict between the Greeks and the Callatians as well as the Eskimo customs to demonstrate that different cultures have different moral codes. After displaying controversial cultures, Rachels states that according to Cultural Relativism, “customs cannot be said to be “correct” or “incorrect” for that implies we have an independent standard by which they may be judged” (Rachels 54).

Cultural Differences Argument

Subsequently, Rachels presents the Cultural Differences Argument:

  1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
  2. Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.

Rachels, however, indicates that the Cultural Differences Argument is not sound since “the premise concerns what people believe” while the conclusion concerns “what really is the case” (Rachels 56). Consequently, he concludes that the argument has a logical mistake in its construction and needs something more specific about the kinds of disagreements to make it more sound.

  • Is there something peculiar about moral disagreement that causes it to be more appealing to relativists? 

Consequences of taking Cultural Relativism Seriously
Despite the unsoundness of the Cultural Differences Argument, Rachels recognizes that Cultural Relativism still can be true and discusses the consequences of taking cultural relativism seriously:

  1. We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.
  2. We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.
  3. The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.
  • In what ways can the consequences of taking cultural relativism seriously positively and negatively affect the evaluation of a cultural practice?

Why There is Less Disagreement Than It Seems

Furthermore, Rachels discusses the extent of differences within Cultural Relativism and revises the original argument that the difference lies not in the belief systems but in the values. With the example of cultures that view cows as sacred and Eskimos culture of killing infants, he indicates that cultures do not practice their traditions and cultures out of malicious intent; they are simply upholding the values in a different manner. Additionally, Rachels uses the concept of infant protection to illustrate that “there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist” (Rachels 61).

  • If there are moral rules that all societies have in common, are there certain practices that can be considered right/wrong? If so, what are they?

Rachels then covers the judgement of cultural practices. In the case of female genital mutilation, he states that even though it has no obvious social or health benefits, some communities are reluctant to criticize the practice since it implies applying their standards to another culture. As a result, Rachels proposes the Culture-Neutral Standard to evaluate whether a cultural practice is right or wrong. The Culture-Neutral Standard asks “whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it” and seeks for “an alternative set of social arrangements that would do a better job of promoting their welfare” (Rachels 63). However, he expresses the flaw in the standard that the features evaluated in the standard such as welfare are values that vary from culture to culture.

  • Are there other flaws to the Culture-Neutral Standard? Is it truly Culture-Neutral?

At the end of the chapter, Rachels talk about what can be gain from cultural relativism. He recognizes that people are reluctant to criticize other cultures because they refuse to “[interfere] in the social customs of other people” and to make negative judgements about other cultures (Rachels 63). However, Rachels differentiates between judging and acting against a cultural practice.

Finally, Rachels concludes that even though Cultural Relativism rests on an invalid argument, it can teach two valuable lessons:

  1. We should reject the unwarranted belief of an “absolute rational standard” and recognize that our cultural practices are one among many.
  2. We should keep an open mind towards other cultures since our views might reflect prejudice and predisposed judgements in our society.


Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Epistemology

In Chapter 11: Black Feminist Epistemology, of her book, Patricia Hill Collins explains how the current framework used for gathering knowledge overwhelmingly favors the ideals of white men. She then explains how black women have a different epistemology which, though shunned by the academia, is just as valid as the epistemology of white men. 


Collins begins by explaining that the core of people who defined what ‘acceptable’ knowledge is were all white men (the dominant group). Thus, the experiences of non-white men (subjugated groups) are distorted by the framework put into place by the dominant group. Because black feminist thought reflects the experiences of African American women, their ideals have not been easy to express because, “Black women have had to struggle against White male interpretations of the world.
 In this context, Black feminist thought can best be viewed as subjugated knowledge.” (251)
Collins goes on to say that knowledge consist of three different parts. Epistemology, which is an overarching theory of knowledge. Paradigms, which are frameworks used to interpret social phenomena. And Methodology, which are broad principles of how to conduct research and how to apply paradigms.
For black feminist scholars, there are two different epistemologies they have to deal with; one that has been defined by white-men and upheld as the ‘correct’ epistemology and one that is defined by black women. How accepted these epistemologies are by the academic community defines, “which versions of truth will prevail.” (252).

Eurocentric Knowledge Validation Process

Collins claims that the problem that black feminists face is that the current accepted version of knowledge validation was defined by white men. This power structure is called Positivism and it calls for an objective view of the world. It can be upheld by non-white men and condemned by white men but it is still the system used today.
While black women have disputed the claims made under the epistemology of white men, they have been ignored. This is because black women use different forms of knowledge validation. This means that they cannot express their claims using the epistemic system of white men because the proof that they have gathered is not considered accurate. In short, the way knowledge is justified is different for each group and because of this, the group in power refuses to acknowledge what the other has put forth.
This also means that when a black feminist joins the academia, she must change the system she uses to validate knowledge to the accepted one defined by white men. If she attempts to hold onto the knowledge validation process of a black women then she will not be treated as credible within the academic community. Therefore, any positive change she hopes to work for black women will be impossible to bring into existence.

  • What does it mean that non-white men are willing to support a knowledge validation process that favors white men (and vice versa)?
  • Is Collins claiming that Black Feminists have a different truth or just a different way of justifying truth?

Lived Experience as a Criterion of Meaning

Collins claims that lived experience, ‘wisdom,’ is more important to black women than it is to white men, who value book knowledge. The idea is that a person cannot understand something unless they have had an experience with it and thus gained firsthand knowledge. At the same time, Collins says that, to black women, it is possible to over-analyze something and thus lose part of its meaning. She uses the example of the bible here, saying that bible tales are told for the wisdom they have about everyday life and that it’s not important to worry about where the story came from (258).
Collins also says that this epistemology is not unique to black women but that all women are more likely to rely on lived experience. However, black women have a social framework which supports this whereas white women do not. Collins also remarks that black women teach other black women their epistemology.

  •  Is Lived Experience a good indicator of knowledge/wisdom?
  • How do the lives of black women enable them to be more connected than white women?

Dialogue in Assessing Knowledge Claims

Collins says that dialogue is an important part of black culture that is lacking from white culture. In black culture, both the speaker and the listener have an important part to play and not joining in a conversation is considered ‘cheating.’ Dialogue is used to assess the validity of knowledge claims.
This emphasizes another difference, not only between white and black culture but also between male and female culture. Collins says that women are more likely to seek connection, such as that offered by dialogue, whereas men seek autonomy. Once more, however, black culture provides the social structure to allow black women to be connected whereas white culture does not.

  • Is it true that men seek solitude where women seek connection? What does this say about the two groups?
  • Is it true that white culture does not offer the same opportunities for connection that black culture does?

The Ethics of Caring

Collins says that expression, emotion, and empathy are important parts of the black feminist epistemology. A positive emotional connection is one of the criteria for validity. These three things are in direct contrast with the white male epistemology which dominates the academic field.
Black Feminists want to see the whole of a subject and form a personal connection with it before making a judgement. On the other hand, the white male epistemology seeks a distant, objective, look at a subject which ignores everything unrelated to the current problem. Once more, Collins makes the claim that black culture supports the formation of personal connections and white culture does not.

  •  Should personal connection (expression, emotion, and empathy) be part of the knowledge gathering process?

Personal Accountability

In this section, Collins says that in the black feminist epistemology, there is a higher demand for personal accountability. A person cannot introduce an idea and then back away from it, nor can they distance themselves from the actions they have taken in the past. This means that, when determining if a person’s arguments are worthy, the whole of what they have done is taken into account.
To prove this, Collins uses an example of a class she taught where the student body was comprised of black women. She said that before her class was willing to evaluate an argument, they wanted to know about the past of the man who created the argument.

  •  Should a person’s past action be used to judge the validity of a new argument?

Black Women as Agents of Knowledge

Collins claims that it is difficult for black women in academia to support a black feminist epistemology. If they attempt to use this epistemology to justify knowledge then they will be discredited. If they attempt to use the white male epistemology to justify black feminist knowledge then they will fail because the two forms of knowledge are largely incompatible.
Collins also claims that it is difficult to resist the epistemology of white men because it is so prevalent in academia. It is easy to lose the black feminist epistemology and simply go along with what is accepted.

  •  How could a black feminist academic introduce black feminist knowledge (or use the black feminist epistemology to justify knowledge) such that her arguments would not be condemned?

Toward Truth

Collins argues that there are many subjugated groups with different epistemologies, not just black feminists. There are many similarities between these epistemologies but each of them offers a different way of seeing what is true.
Collins claims that by combining the epistemologies of the different ‘subjugated’ groups, a new epistemology can be found. She says that this epistemology would offer the best version of truth.
She finishes by saying that the white male epistemology cannot allow other epistemologies because doing so would threaten all previously accepted knowledge.

  • Throughout the reading, Collins says that there are various ways to gain knowledge. This seems to be a relativist idea but at the end, she claims that by combining the epistemic systems of subjugated groups a ‘best’ epistemic system would emerge which would offer ‘truth’. Does this make her a relativist or an objectivist?

Neta, In Defense of Epistemic Relativism

In In Defense of Epistemic Relativism, Ram Neta reintroduces us to Boghossian’s best argument against Epistemic Relativity. In Section II, Neta contemplates whether or not Boghossian’s argument against Epistemic Relativism is sound.  In Section III Neta offers the conclusion that a reasonable case for Epistemic Relativity may be made.

Neta begins his paper by stating that Boghossian’s goal in The Fear of Knowledge is “to defend certain allegedly commonsensical ideas against a recent tendency” (Neta 36).  Neta introduces Equal Validity as being this “recent tendency” detailed above. Throughout The Fear of Knowledge, Boghossian characterizes Equal Validity as being “radical” and “counterintuitive”. In Section I of In Defense of Epistemic Relativism, Neta counters Boghossian’s argument through the example that he is a human being, that he lives in North Carolina, that he speaks English, etc. Neta elaborates that he attained this information from means other than science. Therefore, there must be at least two different ways of knowing the world, proving that Equal Validity is not radical and counterintuitive as Boghossian made it seem.

Neta continues by sharing that the “recent tendency” outlined Boghossian’s book is not Equal Validity, but rather, Epistemic Relativism. Neta outlines a reasonable case against Boghossian’s ideas against Epistemic Relativism in proceeding sections.

Neta starts Section II by sharing Boghossian’s best argument against Epistemic Relativism. Boghossian’s strongest argument against Epistemic Relativism is that Epistemic Relationalism and Epistemic Pluralism must be truth-evaluable facets of Epistemic Relativism. Remember that Epistemic Relationalism states that within one’s epistemic system C, information E justifies belief B. Epistemic Pluralism states that there are many fundamentally different, alternative, yet rational epistemic systems (Boghossian 73).  The key argument against Epistemic relativism lies in these concepts- if epistemic systems are simply truth-evaluable principles, then Epistemic Relativism mustn’t be true.

Epistemic Relativism wouldn’t be true if epistemic systems are simply truth-evaluable principles because this leads to the claim that epistemic systems are simply general versions of epistemic judgments, yet still be satisfied by the principle of Epistemic Relationalism. Boghossian proclaims that if epistemic judgments are untrue, subsequently the epistemic system is untrue even if the overall statement is true.

On the other hand, Neta suggests that this statement does not make Epistemic Relativism an implausible way to view knowledge. Neta believes it is perfectly okay that a false epistemic system leads to false justifications, even if the overall belief is true. Neta continues by declaring when epistemic judgments are stated in the form, “According to THIS epistemic system if an agent is in information state E, then that agent is justified in belief B” (Neta 37), the extent to which the epistemic agent’s informational state allows the person to make rational propositions from said judgments is assessed, rather than if the epistemic system is overall correct or incorrect. The extent of rationality in the epistemic system’s informational state can be expressed as “rational to degree n”.  Further, when claims formatted like so, no epistemic system will have a normative force over another.

To illustrate why forming statements in the form “According to THIS epistemic system if an agent is in information state E, then that agent is justified in belief B” proves Boghossian’s argument against Epistemic Relativism false, Neta utilizes the example of “grammatical relativism”. Neta builds the basis for this argument by talking about “grammatical systems”. For clarity’s sake, I will use “dialect” instead of “grammatical system”.  “Dialects” refer to a set of propositions that follow the form, “According to THIS dialect, phonetic strings of the type T are grammatical”. Following this statement about dialects, it is simple to understand that there are no specific rules dictating what makes a phonetic string correct within a dialect. Secondly, it is understood that a phonetic string will not be grammatical in all dialects, rather, correct according to this dialect. Lastly, it is understood that there are many, very different yet correct dialects. These statements can be reflected in the following format:

A’.  There are no absolute facts about which phonetic strings (i.e., sequences of phones) are grammatical.  (Dialectical  non-absolutism)

B’.  If a person, S’s, grammatical judgments are to have any prospect of being true, we must not construe his utterances of the form ‘string S is grammatical’ as expressing the claim phonetic string S is grammatical but rather as expressing the claim:  According to THIS dialect, phonetic string S is grammatical.  (Dialectical relationism).

C’.  There are many fundamentally different, genuinely alternative dialects, but no facts by virtue of which one of these dialects is more correct than any of the others.  (Dialectical  pluralism)

Note that this structure mimics the structure of the Epistemic Relativism principles. If relativism about dialects can be accepted and understood, why can’t Epistemic Relativism in general be understood as a plausible manner to view knowledge? Also, what separates this dialectical scenario to a fictional case? In reality, both circumstances are quite similar. So, why is it so simple for us to understand this dialect scenario, and not a fictional scenario (a case in which the epistemic system and the belief are false, yet the overall statement true)?

To conclude his paper, in Section III, Neta proposes his argument for Epistemic Relativism. We are introduced to the concept of “presupposition sets”. What evidence a particular person possesses at a particular time is relative to a set of presupposed facts. These sets of presupposed facts are called presupposition sets. Presupposition sets help to distribute the confidence a person has over specific propositions. Presupposition sets help determine how rational it is for a person to feel confident in their propositions. There are no fact of matters that confirms what you presuppose, for it is a relativist matter, and presuppositions rely on other presuppositions. For example, presupposition A would not be true if presupposition B were also true.  However, the more evidence you have, the more confident you are about your presuppositions. If you make more confident presuppositions, you can be more confident in your presupposition set. The more confident you are with your presupposition set, the more rational your belief in something will be. This concept is philosophically represented by the general principle of Total Evidence. The principle of Total Evidence follows the structure: “Rationality requires that the degree to which a person S is confident of a hypothesis h is proportional to the degree to which S’s total evidence E supports”. This concept allows for a valid case for Epistemic Relativism.

It is noteworthy to remember that just because Neta claims that Epistemic Relativity can be a reasonable way of viewing knowledge does not indicate that he is disproving Boghossian’s book in general. In Neta’s abstract, he believes that Boghossian is overall successful in proving his claims.

Overall, In In Defense of Epistemic Relativism we are reintroduced to Boghossian’s best argument against Epistemic Relativism. We then learn that a reasonable argument can be made for Epistemic Relativism through the claim of normative authority. Then, we are given a strong argument for a modified version of Epistemic Relativism through the concept of Presupposition Sets and the principle of Total Evidence.

Boghossian, Chapters 6 and 7

In the previous chapter, we read a defense for epistemic relativism. In the following chapter, Chapter 6, the argument against epistemic relativism is presented. Chapter 7 addresses both sides and acts as a tiebreaker. Boghossian concludes by saying that epistemic relativism is false.

Boghossian begins with a traditional refutation concerning epistemic justification. When given the fundamental claim “Nothing is objectively justified, but only justified relative to this or that epistemic system”, we must ask ourselves if that claim within itself is an objective truth. If it is indeed objectively justified, the claim is wrong. If not, we ask ourselves if it is relative. If it is not relative, we go right back to asking ourselves if it is an objective truth. If it is relative, another belief system could make the claim false. Then, Boghossian goes on to say that the claim is justified by principles that are common to both relativists and non-relativists. The first assumption is that to evaluate an epistemic system, an alternative system must be used. The second assumption is that a form of reasoning cannot justify itself through the use of those very forms of reasoning.

Next, Boghossian brings to light that an epistemic system consists of a set of general propositions or epistemic principles which specifies under which conditions a particular belief is justified. In contrast, a particular epistemic judgement speaks of particular people, beliefs, and conditions. Epistemic principles that constitute particular epistemic systems are just general versions of particular epistemic judgements that state the conditions under which a belief would be justified too. However, it is in a much broader sense. If particular epistemic judgements are false, then the general epistemic principles which make up the epistemic system must also be false. One way for a judgement to be untrue is for it to be false.

Another way for a judgement to be untrue is for it to be incomplete. An incomplete proposition cannot be evaluated for truth, and thus must be untrue. A proposition must be completed by reference to an epistemic system to be appraised for truth.

Furthermore, Boghossian deems the pluralist clause “There are many fundamentally different, genuinely alternative epistemic systems, but no facts by virtue of which one of these systems is more correct than any of the others” to be false. If we have one system, C1, which says that “If E, then belief B is justified” and another system, C2, which says that “It is not the case that if E, then belief B is justified” these two systems are directly contradictory. It must be the case that E is enough for the belief B to be justified or it is not enough. As the two contradict each other, they cannot both stand to be true and one must be more correct than the other.

Now, we reach the paradox of having both reasons to accept and reject epistemic relativism. The following three claims are important to note: (Possible) If there are absolute epistemic facts, it is possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what they are. (Justification) It is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are. (Encounter) If we were to encounter a fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system, C2, we would not be able to justify C1 over C2, even by our own lights.

When given an alternative to our epistemic system, we should be able to justify our epistemic system over the alternative system. At the least, the alternative system must be coherent. One way an epistemic system might not be coherent is for it to be inconsistent by telling us to believe both p and not p. This contradiction refutes the epistemic pluralism claim that there are no facts whatsoever which discriminate between all the possible epistemic systems by saying that one of the systems is more correct than any of the other systems.

An incoherent epistemic system is not only limited to being internally inconsistent but also self-undermining by ruling against its own reliability. Boghossian uses the example of the Supreme Court: For all propositions p, it is justified to believe p if and only if the Supreme Court says that p. It would be absurd to believe propositions only if they were granted by the Supreme Court, because they only hold authoritative power in specifically the US constitution.

Now, understanding the significance of coherence, the Encounter claim can be adjusted to the following: (Encounter*) If we were to encounter a coherent, fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system, C2, we would not be able to justify C1 over C2, even by our own lights.

Both relativists and non-relativists can agree that everyone is blindly entitled to his own epistemic system. Everyone is entitled to continue to use their epistemic system without an antecedent justification for the claim that it is the correct system. If no one was entitled to use an epistemic system without first justifying it, then nobody could be entitled to use an epistemic system, because any attempt to justify it depends on being entitled to use some epistemic system. It is inevitable for a fundamental part of an epistemic system to be unsupported or blindly entitled.

Having that in mind, Encounter* no longer seems to stand. One can reason the correctness of the alternative system by using its own epistemic system, just as one would any other subject matter. One would be perfectly entitled to do so. The claim that one cannot justify one’s principles through the use of those very principles is true only in specific cases where doubt is actually presented, but not true in a general sense. Without a reason for doubt, one is perfectly entitled to rely on its own principles to justify a system over another, as it is no different from another subject matter.

Having said all of this, it is possible to come across an alternative system that would have us doubt our own principles. Such an alternative system would have to have actual achievements that impress us enough to doubt ourselves. Thus, the previous claim would be adjusted as such: (Encounter**) If we were to encounter an actual, coherent, fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system, C2, whose track record was impressive enough to make us doubt the correctness of our own system, C1, we would not be able to justify C1 over C2, even by our own lights. Now, Justification must also be adjusted to match it: (Justification*) If a legitimate doubt were to arise about the correctness of our ordinary epistemic principles, we would not be able to arrive at justified beliefs about their correctness.

To conclude, we have found now that there are decisive objections to epistemic relativism. Therefore, there are absolute facts about what beliefs it would be most reasonable to have. Epistemic relativism is untrue.

Chapter 5 Summary: Epistemic Relativism Defended


What is rational?

The chapter begins with an assertion: if the argument from the last two chapters is sound, there must be some facts about the world that exist independently of what we believe, and our beliefs must reflect these facts in order to be considered accurate. Boghossian concedes, however, that these facts aren’t obvious. As a result, we must use evidence to determine the belief that is the most “rational” to have.

This raises some important questions: are there different ways to figure out what is “rational?”  Are there any methods for determining rationality that are true for everyone? As stated by Boghossian, Epistemic Relativists believe that the answer to the second question is that, no, there are no universal epistemic facts, and that people, acting rationally and given the same data, may arrive at contradictory conclusions. Furthermore, Epistemic Relativists have an easier job than Universal Relativists. They don’t argue that all facts are relative, only that facts about rational belief are relative.

To illustrate this, Boghossian presents an example constructed by Richard Rorty- before the 16th century, it was thought that the universe was a spherical envelope, with earth at its center. There was accurate (if incomplete) mathematical evidence of this. However, Copernicus, in his book De Revolutionibus, proposed that the earth rotated around the sun, instead. This view was validated by Galileo, who gathered evidence using a powerful telescope. In response, the Vatican prosecuted Galileo, arguing that the Holy Scripture supports a different view of the universe.

Although it is our instinct to claim that Galileo’s view is more reasonable, Rorty argues that it’s wrong to consider either of these views to be more rational than the other. He poses the following questions: Was it “unscientific” for Galileo to limit his scope of inquiry to observations from his telescope? Why is the Holy Scripture not an acceptable source of evidence? According to Rorty it’s only possible to say, “the Holy Scripture is a bad source of evidence” if you subscribe to the idea that there’s some sort of objective method for determining what evidence is or is not valid (Do you believe him? Perhaps direct observation is more reliable than human work. Perhaps certain kinds of evidence are inherently more accurate than others). Rorty goes on to assert that the “grid” by which we might say the Holy Scripture is a bad source of evidence was only developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that “no conceivable epistemology…could have “discovered” it before it was hammered out,” (Boghossian 2007). He characterizes our reasons for accepting this “grid” as “loyalty,” explaining that our willingness to endorse them does not speak to their validity. Boghossian offers the following summary of Rorty’s position: “According to Rorty, there is no fact of the matter about which of these antagonists is right, for there are no absolute facts about what justifies what. Rather, Bellarmine and Galileo are operating with fundamentally different epistemic systems– and fundamentally different “grids” for determining “what sorts of evidence there could be for statements about the movements of planets.” And there is no fact of the matter as to which of their systems is “correct,” (Boghossian 2007). Boghossian goes on to say that, according to this view, support of a specific epistemic system is merely a preference that cannot be said to be more correct than any other preference. Furthermore, this argument only concerns justified beliefs, allowing it to sidestep criticism aimed at arguments about the relativity of all facts.

The ingredients of an epistemic system.

Before presenting his argument about relativism, Boghossian talks about the principles we use to form beliefs. The first of these is observation- our principles for forming beliefs contain “observational contents” (Boghossian 2007), which can be defined in the following way: “For any observational proposition p, if it visually seems to S that p and circumstantial conditions D obtain, then S is prima facie justified in believing p,” (Boghossian 2007). Boghossian admits that it’s difficult to be precise about “which propositional contents are observational,” but that that some (“there is a book on my desk”) are obviously observational while others (the existence of atoms) are obviously not (Boghossian 2007). I think this is a strange distinction, however, as it’s actually possible to generate observational evidence of atoms if you use a powerful enough microscope. What are the limits of observational evidence? Does something have to be obvious and self-evident to be considered “observational”? I can imagine that, to an accomplished scientist looking through a microscope, atoms would be as obvious and self evident as a book sitting on a desk might be to a philosophy professor.

There are three principles that underpin our epistemic system, grouped into two categories. Observation is an example of a “generation” principle, or a method for generating justified beliefs directly from a person’s perception of the world. He compares this to “transmission” principles that allow people to generate justified beliefs using other justified beliefs (Boghossian 2007). One transmission principle is deduction, the idea that “if S is justified in believing p and p fairly obviously entails q, the S is justified in believing q.” Another transmission principle is induction, that “If S has often enough observed that an event of type A has been followed by an event of type B, then S is justified in believing that all events of type A will be followed by events of type B,” (Boghossian 2007). Together, observation, deduction, and induction (the “fundamental principles”) form most of our epistemic system, and the basis for what we call “science,” (Boghossian 2007). Unlike derived principles, they can only be justified by appealing to themselves. For example, it’s impossible to justify observation without using observation (Boghossian 2007).

Crucially, these “fundamental principles” are unique to our epistemic system (or are they? Can you imagine a society that rejects observation, or deduction?) To demonstrate that different epistemic systems may have different fundamental principles, Boghossian returns to the earlier example of Bellarmine and Galileo. From this perspective of epistemic relativity, the Vatican’s judgement was not irrational, it was simply justified by different fundamental principles. This does, however, leave an important question- what happens when two people with different fundamental principles meet? Is there any way to reconcile two different epistemic systems? Quoting Rorty, in order to engage an opponent with irreconcilable principles, we have to “[use] our language-game as a base…to combat theirs,” and that the question of “who is right” comes down to an ideological debate where nobody can be definitively right or wrong. Boghossian then examines the Azande. He establishes that, in many ways, they perceive the natural world in the same way we do. However, the Azande attribute misfortune to witchcraft rather than natural causes. They employ a very different epistemic system, that “for certain prepositions p, believing p is prima facie justified if a Poison Oracle says that p,” (Boghossian 2007). As the Azande accept contradicting ideas about witchcraft and the natural world, some scholars believe that they “employ a different logic from ours,” (Boghossian 2007). For the sake of debate, Boghossian concedes that he will consider this to be an independent epistemic system.

In support of relativism.

Finally, Boghossian presents his best argument in support of epistemic relativism. He specifies that this argument will only consider epistemic systems that are “genuine” alternatives to ours, that “rule on the justifiability of a given belief in mutually incompatible ways” (Boghossian 2007). He also defines epistemic relativism as the conjunction of, A.) epistemic non-abolitionism (the idea that there are no absolute facts about what some information justifies), B.), epistemic relationsim, (the idea that judgements must be expressed in the form according to epistemic system C, that I, S, accept, information E justifies belief B), and C.), epistemic pluralism (the idea that no epistemic system can be more correct than any other) (Boghossian 2007). Getting that out of the way, Boghossian’s most convincing argument for epistemic relativism is as follows:

“1. If there are absolute epistemic facts about what justifies what, then it ought to be possible to arrive at justifies beliefs about them.

  1. It is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are.


  1. There are no absolute epistemic facts. (Epistemic non-absolutism)
  2. If there are no absolute epistemic facts, then epistemic relativism is true.


  1. Epistemic relativism is true.”

(Boghossian 2007).

Boghossian acknowledges that premise 4 raises significant issues, but chooses not to discuss them in depth. He then turns to premises 1 and 2. He clarifies that premise does not require absolute epistemic facts to be known completely, only approximately. Because of this clarification, premise 1 seems easy to defend: if “some belief is justified on the basis of a given piece of information, we are tacitly assuming that such facts are not only knowable but that they are known,” (Boghossian 2007). What would be the point of absolutism if the truth is impossible to know?

To support the second premise, Boghossian poses the following question- how would you go about convincing someone else that your epistemic system is better than theirs? Naturally, you would use your system to determine that the other person is wrong. But then they would use their system to determine that you were wrong. This results in two self-supporting and contradictory practices. In conclusion, Boghossian presents an argument by Ludwig Wittgenstein- not only is it impossible to evaluate other epistemic systems using our own epistemic system, but it’s impossible to evaluate our own epistemic system using our own epistemic system. As an analogy, you can’t use a word to define itself; that constitutes norm-circular logic. This (seemingly) invalidates absolutism, and proves Epistemic Relativism to be the case.