Chapter 15 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Gordon Graham on Tolerance, Pluralism, and Relativism


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:

  1. “ a belief in objectivism is intelligible only alongside a belief in toleration (Graham, 230).”
  2. “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.

4 thoughts on “Chapter 15 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Gordon Graham on Tolerance, Pluralism, and Relativism

  1. Erika Nakagawa

    “The best known form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, but utilitarian ethics is as objectivist as any ethics can be. Because it holds that the rightness of wrongness of an action is a function of the happiness it produces or fails to produce, and because consequences for happiness are in principle empirically determinable, whether an action is right or wrong is, for utilitarianism, a question of empirical truth and falsehood. If there are difficulties with the notion of happiness, the same point can be made about the variety of utilitarianism that operates with preference satisfaction; what the relevant preferences are and whether they are satisfied or not are empirically determinable questions. but if this is correct, it follows that objectivism does not imply absolutism, because utilitarianism combines objectivism and the rejection of absolutism. There are, it is true, complications here. A question arises as to whether the judgement that an action is right or wrong is to be based on estimated likely consequences or on a retrospective assessment of actual consequences. This is a very important issue but, depending on what we say about the estimation of probabilities, it need not affect the general point about separating absolutism and objectivism.” (227)

    1. Absolutism is inflexible because it holds that certain acts must never be performed regardless of the consequences or context.
    2. Consequentialism is flexible because it holds that there are circumstances when the consequences of not performing an immoral act outweigh the consequences of its performance.
    3. Utilitarianism is the best known form of consequentialism.
    4. Utilitarianism is objective as it holds that the rightness or wrongness of an act is a function of the happiness it produces or fails to produce.
    5. Consequences of happiness are empirically determinable.
    6. ∴ Utilitarianism holds that whether an act is right or wrong is a question of empirical truth and falsehood. (From 4-5)
    7. What relevant preferences are and whether they are satisfied or not are empirically determinable questions.
    8. ∴ Utilitarianism combines objectivism and the rejection of absolutism. (From 1-7)
    9. ∴ Objectivism doesn’t imply absolutism. (From 8)

    Should one determine that an action is right or wrong based on predicted consequences or a reflection of actual consequences? Graham acknowledged this question but didn’t address it because it doesn’t affect his point of separating absolutism and objectivism, but I am curious to see the class thinks.

  2. Leila Markosian

    “Clearly, subjectivism as characterized renders such reasoning about matters of value otiose; if we can say at the outset that there are no better or worse answers in this case, we cannot sensibly deliberate about finding them. Of course, as the emotivists observed, this does not mean that there is nothing to say; expression and propagation of opinion is still a possibility. But it does mean that what we say to each other is not part of a reflective discovery but of a moral shouting match. In the terminology Kant uses in the Critique of Judgement, quarreling is possible but disputing is not. On the subjectivist view, then, any attempt at deliberation is misguided. But as communicating agents, we still have to decide what to say, and this in turn raises the question of what it would be best to say. From the point of view of the deliberator, therefore, the a priori claim that there are never any right answers is of as little interest or use as a belief in metaphysical determinism is to someone faced with a dinner menu” (Graham, 236).

    P1: If we say that subjectivism renders equal value in all answers, then we cannot sensibly deliberate about finding the most correct answer.
    P2: If we attempt to debate the value and worthiness of opinions, then we will not engage in reflective discovery but instead create a moral shouting match.
    C1: Therefore, any attempt at deliberation is misguided.
    P3: We are communicating agents who must engage in discourse.
    C2: If deliberation is misguided yet we must debate our views, then the subjectivist claim that there are never any right answers is useless to us.

    Question: Even if the subjectivist theory says that the values of all answers are equal, why does this necessarily exclude the possibility of debate? I’m confused about the assertion that the inability to be more correct than someone else renders a view pointless. Can’t a moral society still host productive discussions about a variety of views and still glean valuable insights from these different perspectives?

  3. Eric Masinter

    “But rather obviously, the intelligibility of this defense arises from there being religious truth and error and from there actually being different ways of the mind’s arriving at it. If all such beliefs are subjective or in the end relative to time and place, all that can matter is convergence and conformity for some other end-social cohesion or the maintenance of public order. It does not matter whether this is brought about by coercion or propaganda; no value attaches to voluntarism. If so, it is in this way that the connection between objectivism and toleration is to be made; the justification of toleration lies in voluntarism, and voluntarism is intelligible only on the presumption of objectivism.” (237).

    1 If beliefs/morals are subjective then all that can matter is some form of conformity
    2 If conformity is all that matters then it is unimportant how people conform
    3 Since it is unimportant how people conform no value is attached to voluntarism
    4 Toleration derives from voluntarism
    5 Objectivism supports voluntarism
    6 ∴ Toleration is linked to objectivism and not relativism (1-5)

    Graham makes the claim that objectivism is linked to toleration in a way that relativism is not. But he goes on to say that objectivism is also consistent with an attitude of intolerance. Could this not be construed as two equally valid moral systems, and thus be consistent with relativism instead of objectivism?

  4. Clara Loftis

    “In explaining the observations that support a physical theory, scientists typically appeal to mathematical principles. On the other hand, one never seems to need to appeal in this way to moral principles. Because an observation is evidence for what best explains it, and because mathematics often figures in the explanations of scientific observations, there is indirect observational evidence for mathematics.” (232)

    1) Because an observation is evidence for what best explains it
    2) Mathematics often figures in the explanations of scientific observations
    3) Math figures in the evidence for what best explains it
    ∴ 4) There is indirect observational evidence for mathematics (1-3)

    How can we evaluate the disagreement between moral disagreement and science when morality and science can interrelate? For example, stem cell research and animal testing are part of science but also are debated because of moral disagreement.

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