Chapter 12 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Gilbert Harman’s “Is There a Single True Morality?”

The Issue:

Harman addresses the question ‘Is There a Single True Morality?’ he addresses that in philosophy, this issue is still unresolved. He breaks down the issue as being between relativists and absolutists who believe that there is a moral code that applies to everyone.

2 Approaches:

There are two different approaches that can be taken when answering this question.

1. Finding a place of value and obligation in the world of science
2. Ignoring this and concentrate on ethics autonomously of science

Both sides agree that we must begin with our initial beliefs and consider possible modifications that will make these beliefs more coherent with each other. The ultimate hope is to find a reflexive equilibrium between the two sides of the argument. Harman writes that the conflict between the two sides is how values and obligation fit into a world of facts if at all. Harman names the two approaches with the former being referred to as naturalism and the latter as being autonomous ethics.

Harman defines naturalism as “the thesis that moral judgement can be analyzed into or reduced to factual statements of a sort clearly compatible with the scientific worldview” (Harman 167). This perspective stipulates that for there to be a single true morality, it is necessary for it to be consistent with our scientific worldview as this is the way that facts about the world come to be. There are two different views that this can lead to.

1. A naturalistic reduction
2. The view that ethics can’t fit into the natural world

The latter is going to be a much more accepted view than the prior as it is very difficult to form a naturalistic reduction about ethics. The latter represents the view of moral nihilism, which opposes absolutism, as it stipulates that ethics requires the absolute values which have the property that anyone aware of them must be motivated to act morally but since science has no place for these sorts of entities, this is not a tenable view (Harman 167). Naturalism can also lead to a non-cognitive analysis which states that moral judgements recommend a certain course of action.

Autonomous Ethics:
Autonomous ethics is the view that “we attach no special importance to saying how obligations and values can be a part of this world” (Harman 168). This view is the opposite of naturalism and states that moral obligations are not dependent on science. Typically for this approach, an initial assumption of moral absolutism leads to the thesis that there are “basic moral demands that apply to all moral agents” (Harman 168). It claims that “each of us has insight into truths of certain moral principles” (Harman 168). Harman clarifies that there are many ways in which ethics can be pursued as a discipline independent of science. Autonomous ethics does not have to lead to a person being an absolutist but in many circumstances, it does.

Why do we believe what we believe?

Naturalists believe that there are important differences between being our “factual and moral beliefs” (Harman 170). They believe that moral beliefs can be explained in terms of upbringing, psychology etc. without having to appeal to an independent realm of values and obligation. Harman writes that naturalists want to be able to locate value, justice, right, wrong etc. in the same way that they can locate colors and temperature through science. Many naturalists are relativists since most will believe that there is no naturalistic reduction of morals to science and because of this, they will be unable to conceive absolute truths about the world.

Autonomous ethics:
Defenders of autonomous ethics claim that we believe something is good, right or wrong, just because it is. While naturalists argue that ethics can be explained solely through science, defenders of autonomous ethics believe that there are other factors that also affect ethics. They argue that it is more intuitive that there are things that we know are right or wrong than that all morals come from science. For the most part, this approach of having an ethics autonomous of science leads to an initial assumption of moral absolutism which states that there are basic moral demands that apply to all moral agents.

Moral Absolutism Defined:

Harman defines moral absolutism in the text as “a view about the moral reasons people have to do things and to want to or hope for things” with absolute values as being “a belief that there are things that everyone has a reason to hope or wish for” (Harman 171). He also stipulates that for his purposes, he is also going to count an ideal moral code as a form of moral absolutism but that there is not an absolute moral code that everyone ought to follow.

Argument for Relativism:

Premise 1: A person with a sufficient reason to do something might fail to reason in this way only because of some sort of empirically discoverable failure.
Harman lists inattention, lack of time, failure to consider, ignorance of certain available evidence, an error in reasoning, some sort of irrationality, or weakness of will as potential reasons for why a failure to do as one ought could occur.

Premise 2: There are people such as certain professional criminals who don’t act in accordance with alleged requirements not to harm or injure others where it is not due to inattention or failure to consider etc.
There are people such as criminals who clearly do not adhere to these requirements and will rationally decide to inflict harm on others. It follows from this that there are people who do not have sufficient moral reasons to adhere to general prohibition of harm. Harman writes that this does not excuse them of this but rather criminals may just not have sufficient reason to act in accordance with the principle.

Absolutist reply:

Assessing premise 1-
The naturalist argues that it is due to inattention, lack of focus etc. that someone would fail to do something that they have sufficient reason to do. All of the reasons given are instances of failure that can be empirically shown to make someone do something that they have sufficient reason not to do, but an absolutist argues that it does not have to be something that can be attributed to science such as just being irrational, or they could just be immoral. “It appeals to the notion that something is wrong with someone where what might be wrong is simply that the person is bad or immoral” (Harman 175). In essence, the conflict between these two views comes down to the naturalist arguing that the aspects of failure are compatible with the scientific worldview while the absolutist argues that they do not have to be.

Assessing premise 2-
Absolutists allow grounds not reducible to science to explain why someone, a criminal for example, would do something that they have sufficient reason not to do. The naturalist recognizes that there are such people such as criminals who do things that they have sufficient reason not to do and no scientifically grounds for thinking that this is an illusion. The autonomist assumption is that criminals will harm other people because they are irrational, something that is not scientifically calculable, which can account for this illusion.

Example- A criminal could apply the moral that one shouldn’t harm others, but only to his own in group which would still allow him to justify harming others that aren’t within his group.

An autonomist would say that the moral principle that you shouldn’t harm others is universal and wouldn’t apply only to those in the in group of the criminal. The relativist will argue that if rationality is conceived normatively, then it will become a relative notion. In the end, a naturalist will only consider naturalistic aspects of the criminal where the absolutist, as an autonomist will think about an unreduced normative aspect which is something that a naturalist can’t appeal to (Harman 176). Both of these premises depend on an assumption of naturalism and so an autonomist can reject these premises by appealing to autonomous ethics.


Naturalists argue that beginning with our initial beliefs, we are led to develop a view of the world that must be consistent with science while defenders of autonomous ethics argue that we begin with our initial moral beliefs and from there search for general principles. Harman ultimately concludes that one’s answer to the question: Is there a single true morality? depends on to whether one believes that moral judgements have to be consistent with a scientific worldview. Depending on their answer to this answer one can become either a naturalist or a defender of autonomous ethics which Harman concludes, are both acceptable views.

4 thoughts on “Chapter 12 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Gilbert Harman’s “Is There a Single True Morality?”

  1. Micaela Gayner

    “Now it can be argued that there is also a kind of absolute value. The claim is that states of affairs can be good or bad, period, and not merely good or bad for someone or in relation to given purposes or interests. On hearing of pointless painful experiments on laboratory animals, for example, one immediately reacts with the thought that this is bad and it would be good to eliminate’ such practices. Clearly, one does not simply mean that these tortures are bad for the animals involved and that these animals would benefit if such experiments were ended. A heartless experimenter might agree that what he does is bad for the animals without having to agree that it would be a good thing to eliminate this sort of experimentation. Similarly, it seems intelligible to suppose that it would be better if there were no inequalities of wealth and income in the world even though this would not be better for everyone, not for those who are now relatively wealthy, for instance. And this seems to say more, for example, than that the average person would be better off if there were no such inequalities, since an elitist might agree with that but not agree that the envisioned state of affairs would be better, period, than our present situation. Again, we can consider which of various population policies would lead to the best resulting state of affairs even though these policies would result in different populations, so that we cannot be simply considering the interests and purposes of some fixed group. It may seem, then, that we can consider the absolute value of a possible state of affairs” (Harman 177, 178).

    Argument Reconstruction:
    1) States of affairs can be positive or negative, independent of their relationship to other interests or intents.
    2) Different population policies lead to “the best resulting state of affairs” despite arising in differing groups (Harman 178).
    3) Differing group policies indicate that there is no singular group or singular group of interests that the states of affairs are dependent on.
    4) Therefore, states of affairs may be absolute.

    Is it always true that states of affairs are independent of a given group’s wants or purposes? What examples can be provided either for or against this statement?

  2. Michelle Lazzaro

    “The absolutist supposes that the failure to care about and respect others does involve something the absolutist points to by saying this failure is wrong. But what is this thing that is true of such a failure to care and that can give the criminal a sufficient reason not to harm and injure others? The relativist can see no aspect of such a failure that could provide such a reason. This of course is because the relativist, as a naturalist, considers only aspects of the failure that are clearly compatible with a scientific world view. The relativist disregards putative aspects that can be specified only in normative terms. But the absolutist, as an autonomist, can specify the relevant aspect of such a failure to care about others: It is bad, immoral, wrong not to care; the criminal ought to have this concern and respect and so ought not to harm and injure others, and therefore has a sufficient reason not to harm and injure them” (Harman 175).

    Argument Reconstruction:

    1. According to absolutism, there exists “moral demands that everyone has reasons to follow, and these demands are sources of all moral reason” (Harman 172).
    2. It is a moral demand that people ought to care for one another.
    3. Killing shows that there is a lack of care for one another.
    4. ∴The criminal is immoral.

    Does performing an immoral act always make you an immoral person, especially in circumstances where basic moral demands depend on social practices and societal principles (ie people who accept a naturalistic perspective)?

    Under what circumstances may a naturalist also be an absolutist? According to Moser’s definition of naturalism, it seems very implausible to me for an absolutist to accept naturalism.

  3. Haley Glover

    1. Original Text:
    “Mackie supposes that ethics requires absolute values which have the property that anyone aware of their existence must necessarily be motivated to act morally. Since our scientific conception of the world has no place for entities of this sort, and since there is no way in which we could become aware of such entities, Mackie concludes that ethics must be rejected as resting on a false presupposition. That is a version of naturalism as I am using the term.” (Harman 167)

    2. Argument reconstruction:
    1. Ethics requires absolute values which requires everyone aware of their existence to be motivated to act morally.
    2. We have no way to become aware of these absolute values.
    3. Our scientific conception of the world has no place for absolute values
    4. Absolute values are false propositions
    5. Ethics rest on the existence of absolute values
    6. If ethics rest on false propositions it should be rejected
    7. ∴ Ethics rest on false propositions and should be rejected (2,3,4,5,6)

    3. Questions:
    1. Could there be instances when operating under the scientific conception of the world that scientific discovery hinges on the beliefs of a certain epistemic system and thus ethics? Such as, say a group of people believe AIDS to be the conception of God as punishment for homosexual acts. Thus, this culture does not pursue a cure, because they don’t believe it to be a medical issue but rather a moral one. But, the culture that does not view homosexual acts to be deeply rooted in morality and religion view AIDS as a scientific question. The motivation to pursue the scientific conception seems to be grounded in the ethics of a culture and the absolute values of the epistemic system.

    2. Not every culture views the world through a scientific lens, so why is it plausible to claim that ethics rests on false prepositions because it does not correlate with the scientific view held by only some cultures and not all.

  4. Theodore Bronk

    “Now, presumably, someone has a sufficient reason to do something if and only if there is warranted reasoning that person could do which would lead him or her to decide to do that thing. A naturalist will sup- pose that a person with a sufficient reason to do something might fail to rea- son in this way to such a decision only because of some sort of empirically discoverable failure, due to inattention, or lack of time, or failure to consider or appreciate certain arguments, or ignorance of certain available evidence, or an error in reasoning, or some sort of irrationality or unreasonableness, or weakness of will. If the person does not intend to do something and that is not because he or she has failed in some such empirically discoverable way to reason to a decision to do that thing, then, according to the naturalist, that person cannot have a sufficient reason to do that thing” (Harman 173).

    1. There is only a good reason for someone to do something if that person has warranted reasoning supporting the decision.
    2. Certain knowable failures can impede on one’s ability to make a decision back up by warranted reasoning.
    3. If person does not do what they intended out of failure to reason to a decision to do that thing.
    The person did not have sufficiently warranted reasoning for their objective.

    I’m interested in the first premise of the naturalist’s support of the relativist view. Do such empirically discoverable factors not influence and or cloud all of our decision making? If this is the case then how can we ever be absolutely certain of our own intentions? Do we have “true” intentions?

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