Thursday, March 24, 2011

A good source for moral relativism

If you teach moral relativism in your ethics courses, as I sometimes do, you may share my frustration about appropriate readings on the topic — particularly defenses of relativism. We're all familiar with some critical work on moral relativism useful for undergraduates, James Rachels' being the best known. But I've found the non-philosophical sources on relativism (e.g., Ruth Benedict) just not intellectually rich enough, while some of the better known philosophical relativists (Harman, Mackie) are too sophisticated for students with little philosophical experience.

So I was pleased to see Jesse Prinz's piece on relativism in Philosophy Now. It offers some of the more philosophically provocative arguments for relativism (appealing to disagreement, how moral attitudes are acquired and reinforced via the emotions, etc.), while still being comprehensible to an attentive undergraduate reader. It also offers some ideas to 'defang' relativism of some its more worrisome normative implications. I'm definitely going to use this the next time relativism is on my pedagogical agenda.


  1. I agree that finding a pro relativism text that fits the level of the course is tricky. Prinz's text might be a candidate. But some things in it are a bit problematic. I find it not explicit enough on the distinction between normative ethical relativism and meta-ethical relativism. Blackburn's "Relativism" in LaFollette 2000 The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is more useful for that.

  2. I have found that the best starting point for introducing moral relativism is the students themselves. I usually begin my ethics courses by asking them to take positions on a controversial issue and to explain why they think different people have different responses. This usually brings up what we all know as 'student relativism,' if Person A believes p then p is true for A. If A' believes -p then -p is true for A'. Once this is on the table then we read Mackie and/or the Sophists and go from there.

    Also, there is a good anthology titled Moral Relativism: A Reader, edited by Paul K. Moser and Thomas L. Carson that contains many good articles that are accessible to undergrads.


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