Gordon Graham explores the connections between between toleration, pluralism, and relativism. Many argue that the three coincide in opposition to metaethical objectivism and moral absolutism. For example, pluralism seems to support the relativist because relativism would argue that no political or moral belief is more “correct” than another. That also coincides with toleration because if no belief is more deserving of respect, then all must be equally respected. Since objectivism states that there are universal truths, it would encourage suppressing other beliefs. With that, many are encouraged in thinking that relativism is supported even more by toleration. Graham argues in the following sections that the three concepts are largely conflated. There is no valid connection between relativism and tolerance, but objectivism actually goes best with tolerance.
Part I: Objectivism ≠ Absolutism
In the first section, Graham explores the connection between being ethically objectivist and moral absolutism. He introduces Kant’s explanation of moral absolutism. In short, it is the belief that certain actions must never be performed regardless of the situation or the consequences, and said actions would, of course, depend on the moral code. Graham presents another absolutist example of “sexual congress” with children to describe an immoral action that is “always and everywhere wrong” (Graham, 227). Alternatively, the consequentialist would argue that we can always imagine a circumstance where the outcome of NOT performing the “bad act” may outweigh the consequences of performing it. The utilitarianism– a subject of consequentialism– would hold that the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action is determined by the happiness it produces. Since happiness can be empirically determined, right and wrong cant be empirically determined in the eyes of a utilitarian making it an objectivist ethic. The difficulty, however, is that utilitarianism relies on personal preference, causing questions that cannot be answered empirically. Knowing this, utilitarianism is composed of objectivism and the rejection of absolutism. Graham acknowledges there are some complications in this conclusion, namely whether or not the consequences of an action should be judged retroactively or estimated. His response is that this does not affect the general point of separating absolutism from objectivism.
Part II: Relativism ≠ Tolerance
Graham explores the connection between relativism and tolerance. Using Nietzsche, he posits that one can be relativist without believing in equally valid opinions. While Nietzsche did not believe objectivism in ethics, he was in favor of certain moral beliefs “winning” over others. Toleration can be an aspect of subjectivity, but it is not always held. One can believe there is no universal truth, yet be intolerant of the views of another. In the eyes of a relativist, this intolerance is not less justified than the tolerance of others. Objectivism can also involve intolerance. Graham uses math as an example. A realist about mathematics believes in a higher truth, but the process of discovering this truth can be up for debate.
Part III: Arguments for moral relativism and response
In this section Graham argues in favor of the connection between objectivism and toleration. They coincide in two possible ways:
- “ a belief in objectivism is intelligible only alongside a belief in toleration (Graham, 230).”
- “a belief in the virtues of toleration is intelligible only against a background of objectivism (Graham, 230).”
Graham acknowledges that his previous comparison of objective science to objective morality is lacking. He cites J.L. Mackie in the opposing view. He argues that scientific and moral disagreement cannot be evaluated in the same way. On the one hand, the moral relativist would recognize that disagreement on scientific matters does not necessarily negate the existence of objective facts. This logic, in the moral relativist’s opinion, cannot be applied to moral disagreement. Moral codes reflect different ways of life (Graham, 230), meaning one supports a moral belief because they already practice the action, rather than practicing an action because they have evaluated it to be morally superior. Essentially, morality is fabricated to reflect the culture, not discovered (Graham, 230).
The other argument referenced in favor of moral relativism is in Gilbert Herman’s Nature of Morality (Graham, 232). In it he argues that observation does not play the same role in ethics that it does in science. He argues one can only make assumptions regarding one’s moral sensibility (Harman, Graham, 232).
In response to the two arguments Graham acknowledges that there are variations in moral beliefs throughout cultures. He posits that there are fundamental “indefensible” (Graham, 231) moral wrongs, but, as with most things, humans have yet to come to an agreement about it. He states that there is a slow but universal push in the right direction over human history. Atrocities such as slavery and genocide, though they may have been committed more than once, are regarded as indisputably wrong. Regarding Harman’s argument Graham invokes John Rawls’ “effective equilibrium”. He argues that even if we were to agree with Harman, the method used in science and logic that can be used to weigh one moral belief over another. The method does not employ empirical hypotheses or tangible tests, but it does not make them any less rational.
Part IV: Taking stock
Relativists and subjectivists argue that, at a certain point, one cannot determine whether an option is more or less correct. Graham categorizes the four positions on this theory:
1. Subjectivism: There is never a right or better answer. People might in fact agree on some matters, but this agreement subjective. At any and every point, they can disagree.
2. Relativism: There isn’t a right answer for EVERY question. Within a shared framework, we can determine right and wrong, but when disputes arise between frameworks, they are irresolvable.
3. Realism: There is a transcendent “truth” to every question. The issue, however, is that we may not always find it.
4. Objectivism: For question there is the possibility right answer. There is no dispute that does not have a “truth”.
Part V: Conclusion
Gordon Graham holds that moral objectivism is correct and that is incorporates toleration. He asks his audience, “Why should I tolerate, still less believe in tolerating, the opinions of others when I hold their opinions to be false or erroneous? (Graham, 237) He responds that beliefs that have been coerced are not worth having. This is described as voluntarism. There are still cases of a belief in objectivism that is intolerant, but Graham argues that there must be room for the acceptance of false conjectures in the name of discovery.