Meta-Ethics, Part III: Is Ethical Relativism Self-Refuting?

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This is part II in a series on meta-ethics begun here. See that post for more details.

I was going to treat emotivism next (and possibly some of the other non-cognitivist views if I get a chance to write more than what I covered in the class handout I wrote on meta-ethics that is serving as the basis of this series), but I just finished an email to someone who had made a claim that I see frequently from Christian apologists that just seems to me to be a mistake. In this case, it was about subjectivist views about religion. At least that's what I think is the most likely interpretation of it. The point I want to make applies to that and to subjectivism about ethics, so it's relevant to what I've been talking about. Before I move on to non-cognitivist ethics in my next post, it would be good to point out why I think this objection doesn't succeed against the subjectivist view I covered in my last post. It fails to grasp what the view is really saying and thus is refuting a straw man.

What the person I sent the email to actually said was that it's self-refuting to say that there are no universal truths about religion. Depending on what he meant by 'universal', it's technically not clear if it's absolutism or objectivism, though the context makes it clear that he's talking about those who deny objectivism.

This is sort of an aside, but in the case of ethics the difference is important, and I know too many people who confuse absolutism and objectivism that I want to make clear what the difference is. One of my pet peeves about how Christian apologists discuss these issues is that they confuse the terminology by talking about absolute truth when the issue is really objective truth. An absolutist about ethical statements believes that if something is wrong, it's wrong in all cases. So if lying is wrong, as Kant thought, then it's wrong no matter what, even if the motivation is to save someone's life rather than simply to make yourself look better than you really are, or even worse to try to harm someone who is innocent with respect to the situation in question.

Non-absolutists say that such differences between situations make a difference to whether actions are wrong. Very few people are true absolutists about every type of action, though almost everyone is an absolutist about some actions at some level of description. If you make your description of the action precise enough, you're likely at some point to get an action that you think is always wrong. For instance, it's probably not very controversial to say that it's always wrong to lie out of spite simply to harm someone you don't like that you have no good reason for not liking.

I don't think that's what most people who disagree with relativism or subjectivism mean when they deal with questions about universality in ethics. Sometimes they'll call it absolute truth, but that's not how philosophers generally use that term. When philosophers hear a Christian talking about absolute truth, they generally have no idea what the Christian is talking about. I do, because I was reading that stuff before I knew much philosophy. They mean a certain sort of universal truth -- a truth that's universal to all people.

That's not exactly the same yet as objectivism, since objectivism is a view about what kind of thing the truth is. You could be a relativist and think there are universal truths that happen to be true because they happen to be true for everyone. An objectivist insists that by their very nature certain things are true no matter who it is who considers the proposition in question. To any objectivist, it doesn't even make sense to say such things are true for everyone. It's not true for someone or for anyone. It's simply true. So universalism as I described it isn't the same thing as objectivism, because you can think claims are universally true but not for the reasons objectivists do. Anyway, all that is just to get clear on how philosophers use these terms. I think Christian apologists mean subjectivism when they discuss the view that there aren't universal truths about religion or ethics. They mean that ethical or religious statements have to do with the person making them rather than some independent fact.

So is it true that subjectivism about ethics (or religion) is self-refuting? This is the most common argument against subjectivism, but the answer to the question turns out to be no. It's not self-refuting because the nature of what's being said is not what the apologist who makes the claim thinks. We need to remember that what we're doing here is meta-ethics. If we were doing normative ethics, we would be looking at particular ethical claims and figuring out which ones are true. We'd be doing things like what I was talking about above with the example of lying. Is lying always wrong? What features of lying make it wrong, and are there instances of lying that don't involve those? That's normative ethics. Meta-ethics takes a step back and asks questions about the nature of the terms used in those discussions, the nature of the conclusions of such discussions, what would be good ways to justify or come to know such conclusions, whether those conclusions are the sort of thing that could be true or false, and what makes such claims true if indeed they are true.

Now the subjectivist is making a particular claim within meta-ethics. The claim is that normative ethical statements are subjective. They are not true or false independent of the framework of the individual person. They may not be true or false period, which is what the non-cognitivist will say. The next post in the series will deal with that. The subjectivist I've already considered does believe there are moral truths, but they are only true within a perspective, because those statements are more to do with the person than with some objective subject matter that the person connects up with when making such claims. We connect up with the world through talking about it when we say things about it, but the only thing the subjectivist thinks we can connect up with is our own conceptual framework, our own moral attitudes, etc. Our moral statements are made true or false by those things, according to subjectivism. In fact, on the version I looked at, our moral statements are equivalent to statements about those things.

I've raised some problems for that sort of view, but one problem that just seems to me to misunderstand the view is the claim that the view is self-refuting. The charge is that it makes a statement about ethics -- that all ethical statements are relative. But that statement itself is said universally about all ethical statements, and therefore it's self-referring. The statement can't apply to all ethical statements, because it says that no statement can apply to all ethical statements. It's thus self-refuting.

This is a mistake because it fails to make level distinctions. The level of discussion that is subjective is normative ethics. Statements about particular actions' being right and wrong are subjective. Statements about statements about particular actions' being right and wrong will still be objectively true or false. One particular true statement on the meta-ethical level, according to the subjectivist, is the statement of subjectivism itself. That statement is about normative claims, not about meta-normative claims, so it's not self-referential to begin with, and therefore it's not self-refuting.

Let me give an uncontroversial case to illustrate, so it will be easier to see how something can genuinely be subjective yet have statements about it that are objective. The case I have in mind is how coffee tastes. You could do this about what colors look like (since we know male and female development leads to a slightly different perceptual apparatus among men and women in color perception, and this probably extends to variations among individual people as well). You could do it about at least some aesthetic preference (though some people, including me, think there are at least some objectively good things aesthetically speaking). I'm picking coffee because I hate the stuff and so many people think it's delicious.

Coffee has a different taste to me than it does to some other people. It's not just that I don't like the taste but others do, though that's also the case. My taste buds are arranged differently, and my brain receives the input in different ways. It's not likely that any two people have exactly the same perceptual apparatus when it comes to taste. It's reasonable to conclude that how it tastes from within a person's conscious experience will vary from person to person.

So coffee may probably has a different subjective feel to me than it does to others, which might be part of why I don't like it. To me it tastes bad. To someone else it tastes good. These claims aren't about some objective fact about coffee but about me. So suppose all truths about how things taste are subjective. That seems plausible to me. It's not self-contradictory, because the statement is about truths about tasting, not about particular tastes of things. Only the latter are subjective, and only the latter were included in the content of my claim. There are other meta-taste claims. Perhaps I could try to explain why certain mechanisms in the brain or in the process of sending sensory data to the brain will lead to certain responses from the person experiencing them. Those seem to be objective facts about what's going on in a person. But those aren't the kind of statement my claim was about. My claim was simply about the subjective feel of certain tastes. It's not controversial that those things would be subjective, and it's perfectly consistent to say that statements about how those subjective states feel from within are all subjective while also saying lots of things about statements about such perceptual states, and those higher-order statements could be objectively true or false.

The same is true about ethical subjectivism or religious subjectivism. The subjectivist claim isn't supposed to be about claims about ethical statements, on the meta-ethical level. It's just about the ethical statements themselves, on the normative level. This is a point that's not easy to see, and it took me until someone pointed it out to me a few years back before I realized it. I'm not sure how quickly I would have noticed it on my own, but I've come to see that it's true, and therefore that argument against subjectivist views doesn't seem to me to hold up. Ethical subjectivism is not self-refuting.

There is one sort of claim along these lines that is self-refuting. You can't say, as many undergrads in introductory philosophy classes want to say to avoid the business of assessing arguments, that there are no universal truths whatsoever. That statement is self-referring, because it's a statement that purports to be true. If it's not universally true, then it's false from a universal perspective, since it purports to be a universal claim. For that reason it is self-refuting. I don't think we should confuse this kind of statement with ethical or religious relativism, since those are not self-refuting. I think religious relativism is nonsense for other reasons, and ethical relativism has problems that I think make it highly unattractive, but I don't think either view is self-refuting in their more careful versions. The problems are much deeper than that.

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On a similar note, Jeremy in a comment on this post made the excellent point that true relativism is virtually non-existent (cf. the quote above) and is a term that needs to be wielded carefully (check out his uber-rigorous discussion of ethic theori... Read More

It has to me that whilst ethical subjectivism itself is not self-refuting, it is indeed a nonsense statement. Much the same as if we start talking about square circles. Subjectivism and ethics cannot relate together. Think of it this way. Morality is t... Read More


Thank you for your post. As a Christian myself, I have often felt something wrong with the idea that absolute/objective truths about religion are self-refuting. It's just appeared that is far to simple, and a straw man, though I never have been able to pinpoint exactly how. Thank you for your comments, and I look forward to future posts in the series.

Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking post. I have one question that I hope you can spare the time to answer...

Whilst I understand the position that the statement "that all ethical statements are relative" is not strictly self-referential due to its level, does it not have fairly clear logical consequences that are indeed ethical in nature. I.e. If all ethical statements are true, it implies certain 'oughts' (or indeed a complete lack of 'oughts'?

It shouldn't be surprising that a statement about the nature of ethical statements should have consequences about the nature of ethical truths. I'm not sure why that should be a problem for anything I've said.

I was thinking more along the lines of thinking that if the statement necessarily implies an 'ought', i.e. a right or wrong, then even though it is at the meta-ethical level, it still refers to the ethics level and so could possibly still be self-referential.

I understand what you have been saying, I am just trying to explore it a little further...

It implies things about statements about oughts, but those things it implies are not oughts themselves, not with this particular sentence. Those things with this sentence are that oughts are relative to the person or to the culture. Saying that oughts are relative to the person or culture does not imply any particular oughts. It just says that oughts are relative to the person or culture. Its claim is limited to saying that oughts themselves are relative, and therefore it doesn't mean that statements about whether oughts are relative are themselves relative.


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