Friday, March 25, 2005

Relativism - The Argument From Language

What better way to start than on morality? It seems that, as the study of what one should and should not do, it would make sense to at least have the basics sorted before we look at what should and should not be done in law and politics. After all, normative descriptions of them by their nature require some understanding of morality, right?

Firstly, I'm a relativist. And no, contrary to popular belief that does not mean that I have no morals. If I did, I doubt that I would bother with this blog, just to say "do whatever you feel like, it doesn't matter either way." For me, relativism is a belief of fact. I keep my normative views separate. What this means, in essence, is that I don't believe that there are objective, absolute, universal standards of good and evil. Neverthless, I have my own standards, and attempt to convince people of them in order to bring other people in line with them.

To an extent this is a mix of the views of A J Ayer and R M Hare. For them, making an ethical statement like 'murder is wrong' is not actually a truth claim, but a very personal thing. For the former it was an emotive statement, showing disdain for the action of murder. For the latter it was more than this, it was a universal prescription, insisting that everyone follow it. Thus, it would order that no-one murders. The opposing view is of course that there is a universal standard of right and wrong, and that when one makes an ethical statement its validity can be judged by this standard. Thus (probably) "murder is wrong" is a correct moral statement.

So how can I argue against that? Well firstly, the argument is from language. Language is something developed as a means of communication. It conveys information, and does so by shared meanings. Thus if I direct someone to a sheep, the other can rely on the advice based on the shared conceptions of directions and sheep. Language therefore, is based on people's understandings. This leads to a problem. If for example I talk about "an ear," do I mean a human ear, or an ear of corn? Well, I almost certainly mean something, probably one of those things. What I mean is based on what I understand myself to mean. That is the closest we can come to objective understanding of words. They mean what the person saying them meant. So "good" and "evil" will only have the meanings given to them by the person saying them. Just as it would not make sense to call me wrong if I mean "ear of corn" as opposed to "human ear," it does not make sense to call me wrong for a different understanding of "good."

Even if I say "sheep" to describe what most of us call the ear, we can only judge it wrong based on the community standard. We cannot say objectively that there is a universal standard tying the ear to the word "ear," especially as then all other languages would be wrong! Equally, the best we can do is condemn a conception of "good" as being contrary to what is widely understood. That's still relativist, but relative to the culture as opposed to the individual, so that each individual subjects his or her views to those of the group.

That is fine as far as language goes. But what if, as the counter-argument would go, when we make moral statements we are not merely stating our own views, but refering to a universal standard? What if the widely-held conception of moral terms was in regard to this standard? If that were true then we would indeed be making a fact claim. Of course, this requires people to conceive of such a standard, and further for there to be one. Even if the former were true, the latter would be more difficult. If it were true, then the meaning behind the words would refer to something which was fixed regardless of words. It would not be enough merely that each individual had a conception of absolute good, as the meaning would still change with the individual's conception. It requires that there actually is such a set of absolutes. In the next post it will be argued that this view is untenable.

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