Ethical Relativism and the Problem of Incoherence
8 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 25, 2012
Ethical relativism flirts with incoherence by suggesting that incompatible judgments can both be true. This paper shows that some relativistic theories avoid incoherence while others do not. Some theories ground moral judgments on principles ascribed to social groups while others ground moral judgments on principles ascribed to individuals. Some theories regard the relevant principles as applicable to an individual’s own action (agent relativism) while others regard the relevant principles as applicable to the individual’s moral judgments (appraiser relativism). Some theories regard moral judgments as possessing truth values while others regard moral judgments as lacking truth values. Relativistic theories suffer from incoherence if they allow potentially contrary principles to overlap (typically, appraiser theories), but not otherwise (typically, agent theories). Special attention is given to Hare’s “prescriptivism” and Harman’s theory of “inner” judgments as well as to the question whether the avoidance of incoherence renders relativistic theories plausible.
Keywords: Ethical relativism, incoherence, agent theories, appraiser theories, prescriptivism, cognitivism, Richard Hare, Gilbert Harman, W.G. Sumner, M. Herskovitz, R. Benedict
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