Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Martin Benjamin: Moral Pluralism, Vulgar Relativism, What's the Difference and How Can We Teach It.

One of the nice things about going to the same conference repeatedly is that you get to see conversations play out over time. I first went to this conference in 1998, while I was still a graduate student. One of the talks I went to was by this guy (I now know he is Arnie Wilson, but at the time he was just this guy) who talked about the phenomenon of student relativism. Student relativism is a reflex students have to reject ethical discussions by simply saying "well it's all relative" or "its just a matter of opinion" or "it's true for some people but not others." Wilson claimed that this was not a proper philosophical idea, but simply a defense mechanism that lets students blot out uncomfortable issues. We philosophers try to make it more respectable by trying to turn it into a philosophical thesis. Typically the thesis comes out as social relativism: "Ethical statements are only true or false in the context of a given culture." The thesis can be individual, though, "Ethical statements are only true or false relative to an individual." Either way, Wilson thought, we are mishandling our students' concern, because they are not really asserting either of these (obviously false) claims. They are just trying to avoid the nasty conflicts that ethical philosophy stirs up.

Audience members responded very differently to this idea, depending mostly on how much their own philosophy resembled relativism. One person who responded negatively was this guy who was running the graduate student teaching seminar (I think of him as Martin Benjamin, but at the time I mostly just thought of him as the guy who was running the graduate student seminar.) Benjamin was a fan of Isaiah Berlin and a believer in moral pluralism, and he thought that the student relativist was really just a pluralist who hadn't learned to express himself clearly. There were some other interesting ideas from the audience. This woman suggested "It matters that some people are helpless" as an objective moral truth. (I want to say that this woman was actually Adrianne McEvoy, but I'm not sure if I can link up my eight year old conference memory with this other person I've seen around at later conferences.)

In any case, at this year's conference, Benjamin gives a talk that replies in more detail to Wilson. His main point really is about the difference between moral pluralism and student relativism, and a lot of his talk is really just about his brand of pluralism. It's a tricky subject, though, and one of the things that came out of the '98 discussion is that you really can't decide how to teach the issue until you decide what you yourself actually think is true.

So what is moral pluralism? Moral pluralists deny that all real values can be placed in a complete, rational moral system. There are conflicts between "good and important values and principles that cannot be resolved by reason." Benjamin says this is different than relativism because the pluralist recognizes (1) that there are some times when ethical disagreements can be rationally resolved and (2) that there are some actions which are simply ethically unacceptable, like genocide, or "removing someone's arms just to see what they would look like without them."

I'm not sure Benjamin has identified the core difference between himself and the student relativist, though. It looks to me like Benjamin's pluralism is simply a relativism about some ethical issues, but not others. (Which is a perfectly reasonable view.) But there is something else about moral pluralism that Benjamin has downplayed. The ethical relativist relativizes. All ethical statements must always be referred back to a person or culture. This isn't happening in pluralism one bit. All people and cultures can recognize the plurality of irreconcilable values out there.

There is more complexity on the horizon, though. A new catchphrase in analytic philosophy is "Ethical Contextualism." There was even a conference on it recently. I have, for some time, wanted to read up on contextualism, and write a post entitled "Relativism, Contextualism, and Pluralism in Ethics." Some of these ideas also relate back to the distinction between agent relativism and appraiser relativism, which was discussed in this forum here. All of this is more than I can think about right now, though. I've had the link to the contextualism conference in my in box as a reminder to me that I want to read about this. I think I will now use this post as a reminder to myself instead, thus cleaning my inbox and reinforcing the idea that a blog is really just your mind's attic.

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