THE PROBLEM OF RELATIVISM
Jeffrey Stout

Is moral relativism true? That depends on what we mean by relativism. Confusing the various senses of relativism is part of what fuels concerns over the significance of moral diversity . . . . I claim that which moral propositions you're justified in believing depends upon or is relative to where you find yourself in culture and history. All justification is relative in this way-scientific as well as moral. It doesn't follow, however, that the truth of a given proposition is relative. Furthermore, while justification is relative, it isn't relative to arbitrary, subjective choice on the part of an individual.

I maintain that the world isn't flat and that slavery is evil. We are now justified in believing both of these propositions, in holding them true. That is to say, we have good reason, given what else we're taking for granted at the current stage of inquiry and given the experience and wisdom we've accumulated so far, to believe that the world isn't flat and that slavery is evil. Anybody who wanted to deny these propositions in our context would have to bear the burden of proof.

It's clear, however, that people who lived thousands of years ago don't deserve epistemic blame for believing that the world is flat. There's a clear sense in which they were justified in so believing. Given the reasons and evidence available to them, it was rational to believe that the world is flat. Given the reasons and evidence that have since become available, and on which we draw in justifying our current beliefs about the shape of the earth, we would be unreasonable to doubt that the earth is in fact roundish.

We're now justified in believing slavery to be evil. Part of what justifies this belief is a failure, over the long haul of moral reasoning, to make clear what could conceivably justify treating people assigned to the role of slave in ways that we do not tolerate for other people. Some of the beliefs that used to underlie the practice of slavery-such as the belief that no society could survive without slavery and the belief that God had designated certain classes of people as slaves after the Flood--have not survived critical scrutiny. Let us suppose that most of these considerations were sufficiently evident to people even in the American South a hundred years ago that the proponents of slavery in that context weren't justified. Their reasons and arguments just weren't good enough, in the presence of reasons and counter-arguments on the other side, for them to be justified in believing that slavery is morally legitimate. But we may imagine a time, or discover one through historical inquiry, when belief in slavery was justified,, relative to available reasons and evidence.

Justification in morality, as in science, is relative-but relative to one's epistemic circumstance, including reasons and evidence available at the current stage of inquiry, not to the arbitrary choice of individuals. Just as an arbitrary change in scientific criteria wouldn't.make it more reasonable for me to believe that the earth is flat, neither can an arbitrary change in moral principles make it more reasonable for me to believe that slavery is good. Being justified in believing something is a normative relation that exists among a given proposition, the person who accepts it, and a cognitive. context. If I am Justified in accepting a proposition, then the proposition, my context, and I are related in the required way. The relation is as objective as can be, not subject to worrisomely arbitrary subjective manipulation. What may make it seem subjective is that some of the facts about it are facts about the human subject involved. Facts about what my peers take for granted, about judgmental dispositions acquired by members of my society during successful training in the relevant practices, about the history of casuistical precedents in my tradition, about evidence available to me, and so on, all will be relevant features of the context, features open to objective inquiry.

This relativity does not carry over, at least in a case like the proposition that slavery is evil, to truth. What we're justified in believing about the evil of slavery varies according to the evidence and reasoning available to us in our place in culture and history. But the truth of the proposition that slavery is evil doesn't vary in the same way. It wasn't true several millennia ago that the earth was flat. When we say that it was true for people of the time that the earth was flat, we mean only that they believed it was true, not that the earth really was flat and only later became round. Similarly, slavery didn't become evil only when people discovered what was wrong with it. Perhaps it did become blameworthy then, but the discovery involved coming to know a truth about slavery-namely, that it was evil all along.

I hope this makes clear why some authors can sound relativistic for long stretches and then suddenly sound nonrelativistic about moral truth, especially when speaking as moralists. They need not be guilty of contradiction, for we can take them, charitably, to be able to see the difference between justification and truth. The facts of moral disagreement may well give us reason to insist upon the relativity of justification, since that insistence will help us explain forms of disagreement which might otherwise remain puzzling. But this insistence needn't render justification merely arbitrary or subjective, and it can swing free of concerns over moral truth. Notice that a willingness to distinguish justification from truth allows us to be forthright in affirming the truth of our convictions without necessarily blaming previous generations or distant cultures for believing differently. We can say that some of their practices were morally evil and that some of their related moral beliefs were false-for instance, beliefs about the treatment of slaves and women and witches-without implying that they were irrational, unreasonable, or blameworthy for behaving and believing as they did. Saying that slavery is evil is not the same thing as imputing blame for practicing it or supporting it or believing it morally unproblematical. We may disagree with our ancestors' moral judgments and thus hold their judgments to be false, explaining the difference by citing intervening historical developments that have significantly changed the epistemic situation. Reflection on such developments may make us want to excuse our ancestors for accepting false beliefs and hence for acting on them. If so, we shall say that they were justified but wrong.

When I affirmed that the proposition about the evil of slavery is true, always has been true, and would be true in any framework or context, I chose my example carefully. Given my purposes, it would only have clouded the issue to cite an ambiguous sentence, whose truth-value would depend on which of two or more plausible interpretations were assigned to it, such as: "It would be evil for us all to hang together." My interest here is in whether the truthvalue of certain interpreted sentences is relative. The kind of relativity present in all instances of ambiguity is beside the point. By the same token, it would have been inappropriate to cite a sentence with what philosophers call indexical expressions, such as: "I am morally evil," "This is morally evil," or "The current investment policies of our university are morally evil." We are not concerned with sentences whose truth-value depends, for reasons that teach us nothing interesting about morality, on who spoke them, what demonstrative gestures accompanied them, when they were spoken, or the like. No one denies that the truth-value of sentences including indexical expressions is relative to features of context.

Nor does anyone deny that moral sentences often include an implicit indexical element. If I say, "Uttering falsehoods with the intent to deceive is evil," I may be leaving unstated a restriction of the form, "other things being equal" or "under circumstances of the sort being discussed," trusting that this will be clear from the context of the remark. A complete statement of my view would make any such specification of conditions explicit. Thus, the truth-value of a statement with an implicit reference to conditions of this sort will be relative to context; but this is not an issue in the debate over moral relativism. I am stipulating that propositions are fully interpreted, meaning by this that they have already been paired with paraphrases that resolve ambiguity, substitute nonindexical expressions for pronouns, demonstratives, and similar expressions, while making all implicit qualifications explicit.

The proposition in question, then, is that slavery, as defined in the previous chapter, is evil, period. No qualification of the form "under such-and-such conditions" or "other things being equal" is intended. My example needed to be a proposition nearly everyone likely to read this book would interpret fully and straightforwardly, accept without argument as true, and view as moral in content. The point I wanted to make wasn't about the relativity of uninterpreted sentences, the ethics of slavery, or the line between moral and nonmoral propositions. The example also needed to be a proposition whose truth does not seem, intuitively, to be relative in certain other ways. An unqualified proposition about the evil of slavery served my purposes well, for most of us are apt to condemn slavery as evil wherever and whenever we find it practiced, even in cases where those practicing it employ concepts quite different from ours, would fail to recognize our reasons for judging the practice evil, and don't know any better. If, however, you are reluctant to judge slavery as such evil, feel free to add the clause, "other things being equal." The addition will make the proposition weaker and thus perhaps easier to believe without further qualification, but the statement still serves my purposes by providing an example of a fully interpreted moral sentence whose truth is not relative.

Some propositions about the evil of some kinds of institution require more qualifications than does the one about slavery. Slavery, I want to say, is intrinsically evil in the sense that no variations in circumstances could make it good or morally indifferent. Polygamy seems to require different treatment. Many of us believe that while every society requires means for regulating sexual activity, and monogamy may be the best means for us, no single means is necessarily best for all societies. Polygamy may be evil under some conditions-for instance where a widely accepted institution of monogamy is in place and there are roughly equal numbers of heterosexual men and women-but not under others. We are not inclined to judge polygamy evil in a situation where most men have been killed at war and there is ample cultural precedent for taking more than one spouse, a condition that might obtain in a certain Bedouin tribe.

David Wong refers in this connection to environmental relativity, which he distinguishes from both the kind of relativity that denies that there is a "single true morality" and the kind of relativity involved in judgments with implicit qualifying clauses. He is right, I believe, in saying that environmental relativity does not threaten the notion that there is a truth of the matter about which practices are good or evil, morally speaking. It implies only that some practices which are in fact evil under particular social-historical conditions may not be so under others. There is a sense in which "Polygamy is evil" is true for us but not for the Bedouins just mentioned, a sense not captured by saying that we believe polygamy is evil and the Bedouins don't. But putting it in that way is apt to confuse the issue. It would be less misleading to say simply that in truth polygamy is not intrinsically evil, that whether a given instance of polygamy is evil depends on the social-historical conditions in which it is found.

This way of putting it makes clear, however, that environmental relativity differs only in scope from the kind brought out when implicit qualifications are made explicit in ordinary moral judgments. On my view, uttering falsehoods with the intent to deceive is evil, but only under certain conditions (namely, when one owes the truth as a debt of justice). The same holds for practicing polygamy-it, too, is evil only under certain conditions. The case of polygamy seems different only because the relevant conditions are always satisfied, as a matter of fact, in some societies but not in others. To discover that the truth-value of a given proposition is environmentally relative in Wong's sense is simply to discover that, in order to be true, the proposition needs a qualifying clause of the form "under conditions C," where C indicates a general type of social historical setting instead of a type of moral circumstance one might find in any social-historical setting.

Given my beliefs about polygamy, I need to explain how others came to believe differently. Those within my own society who hold that polygamy is intrinsically evil pose one sort of problem. Bedouins who hold that polygamy is always acceptable, whatever conditions obtain, pose another. In each case, I may point to metaphysical beliefs 1 take to be mistaken, beliefs about what way of life God or Allah ordained for all humanity, beliefs whose presence helps account for what I take to be moral error concerning polygamy. Or I may point to ignorance of or insensitivity to social-historical conditions unlike one's own. In any event, however, 1 have differences to explain. Acknowledging environmental relativity is not a way of eliminating moral disagreement altogether. Environmental relatively remains a far cry from the idea that each society has its own moral truth, although it does help explain some of the differences that cause some people to embrace that idea.

Moreover, granting that there is a range of practices and institutions, among which one might be the best, objectively speaking, for a given society to adopt, depending on its social and historical circumstances, does not rule out holding that some practices are simply beyond the pale. Slavery, on my view, is such an institution. It is evil wherever and whenever it is found. Why do I not say, with equal conviction, that all slaveholders deserve blame? Because the truth-value of a judgment about blame is relative to the agent's circumstances in a way that the former judgment's truth-value is not.

In this respect, moral blame is like epistemic justification. People are epistemically justified in believing a proposition if, epistemically speaking, they are doing the best that could be done under the circumstances. They need not necessarily be believing truths, provided they are making proper use of available evidence and concepts, avoiding wishful thinking, and so forth. People are morally justified and hence morally blameless if, morally speaking, they are doing the best that could be done under the circumstances. They may be engaged in practices that we rightly judge to be evil and still be blameless, provided they could not have known the moral truth of the matter, have not been negligent, intend no injustice, and so forth. Before judging a given class of slaveholders blameworthy, we need to know, among other things, what they could have known about the intrinsic evil of slavery. Ignorance on that score, if the ignorance itself is morally blameless, will tend to excuse them for owning slaves.

This helps explain our reluctance to blame people in distant generations and cultures for engaging in practices and institutions we find evil. We cannot assume that their knowledge coincides with ours. Our knowledge about the evil of slavery may depend upon our use of concepts or styles of reasoning they lack; their judgment may have depended on no longer tenable empirical and metaphysical beliefs they had no compelling reason to question. This does not mean, of course, that we may never make judgments of blame across cultural boundaries. It means only that such judgments often require more subtlety, more sensitivity to context, than judgments about whether practices and institutions are evil. Certainly there are some people in every social group-and some actions of every member of every social group-that deserve our moral blame. Ceasing to apply the concept of blame across cultural boundaries is no way to avoid ethnocentrism. But figuring out who deserves blame and in what degree can be a complex matter, much complicated by differences in cultural setting.

In summary, I propose a metaphor. Propositions imputing moral blame and propositions describing people, practices, or institutions as evil fall at opposite ends of a spectrum of relativity. The truth-value of the former, like the truth-value of propositions about epistemic justification, is relative to certain features of the circumstances of the people referred to. The truth-value of the latter is not similarly vela-. tive. The closer you get to the former end of the spectrum, the more sensitivity to context a wise interpreter's moral judgments will need to show in judging members of other cultures. Even at that end of the spectrum, however, sound cross-cultural moral judgment remains possible-and often necessary-provided one is sensitive in the required ways and knows what one needs to know to judge well.