Moral Relativism and the Basis of Obligation

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The central problem of moral philosophy is to reconcile the universality of morals with the fact that morality arises from and engages our individual motives. Relativism is the view that universalism must be given up because this reconciliation is impossible. Typical strategies toward solving the central problem attempt to base morality on a motivating psychological universal viz. reason, sympathy or self-interest. These strategies assume that the universality of moral rules must be founded upon some antecedent universal element inherent in the psychology of persons subject to them. The implausibility of this assumption is exposed via analogy between morals and game-playing. The games analogy vividly illustrates the relativist's position, but morality is found to resemble not games, plural, but a particular hypothetical game whose description yields several vital distinctions. Insufficiencies of the view that individual commitment creates obligations are corrected by Hume's convention theory of morals. Although convention theories appear to incline toward relativism, attention to the distinctive character of morality reveals the presence of a result-orientated, universalizing rule-regarding rule among the necessary conditions of the existence of moral obligations. The tendency of this rule is to bring about the coalescence of distinct moral conventions, since it requires that the differences in their respective rules of obligation be susceptible of an explanation consistent with the content of each. A conventionalistic analysis of moral obligation incorporating this distinctive rule is stated. An effort is made to reconcile this analysis with the philosophical view known as internalism, which consists of an "entailment" thesis and a stronger, "syntactic" thesis. The entailment thesis is found to have plausible interpretations, none of which undermine the universalism upheld by the analysis. The syntactic thesis is criticized as involving an unconvincing semantics of the moral "ought". The problem of ultimate moral disagreement is examined as a source of support for relativism. On a conventionalistic analysis of obligation, ultimate disagreement upon a subject may be taken to indicate that the conventional underpinning presupposed by both contradictory views is insufficient to support either. Where this indication is given, no "relativizing" move is needed to relieve the logical tension between contradictories

Recommended Citation

William A. Edmundson, Moral Relativism and the Basis of Obligation, Dissertation, University of California Berkley (1982).

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