Therefore three propositions: that ‘right’ means (can

 Therefore although significant disagreements may exist between societies as to what is regarded as courageous, or inhumane, there would be some agreements as to the general principle itself.

This argument was made by Foot (1978), and seems to offer an attractive alternative to the more a priori Kantian style arguments for moral truth and overriding moral codes, whilst still asserting some universality the theory allows some variation of conception on morality between social groups.However if one considers this interpretation in a practical situation perhaps its effectiveness as an alternative to relativism is somewhat diminished. For example a Palestinian suicide bomber and an Israeli army recruit may well agree that courage is the placing of oneself in danger for the good of others, but the means by which this is enacted would be so contrasting as to leave little or no room for agreement. For the Israeli is unlikely to accept the murder of civilians as an act of courage and neither is the Palestinian likely to accept the shooting of stone throwing teenagers as such either.The consistency of an argument is obviously an overriding factor in its practical application and in this case whether in opposition to or support of relativism a consistent rationale perhaps must therefore be apparent. Williams (1972) bases his criticism of relativism on a perceived inconsistency in its fundamental assertions.

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As discussed he takes this further to question the practicality of the theory in circumstances where moral conflict raises situations in which tolerance seems illogical, it is however worth considering his objection to the consistency of relativisms central argument.”[Moral relativism] consists of three propositions: that ‘right’ means (can only be coherently understood as meaning) ‘right for a given society’; that ‘right for a given society’ is to be understood in a functionalist sense; and that (therefore) it is wrong for people in one society to condemn, interfere with, etc. , the values of another society.

Whatever its results, the view is clearly inconsistent, since it makes a claim in its third proposition, about what is right and wrong in one’s dealing with other societies, which uses a non-relative sense of ‘right’ not allowed for in the first proposition.” (Williams 1972 p34) Therefore to make the judgment that passing judgment on another societies morality is wrong is in itself a moral judgment which in not relative but objective. This is perhaps the strongest argument that relativism needs to overcome for it to prove its practicality, and moreover its validity.

For how can people overcome the conflict of interpretation foreseeable on the rightness or wrongness of interfering, what could be considered as the “right” time to intervene?However what is more, even if the relativist is to concede that at certain times intervention in foreign cultures seems starkly necessary (Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, etc. ) to prevent the suffering of a minority or persecuted group, and/or to preserves the rule of international law, how and on what basis could the determination be made as to when it is “wrong” to interfere and when it is “right”, without some form of objective judgment.As Williams states the only answer is to either never interfere no matter what the circumstances or accept the relativist concept as an ideal, but be faced with no basis upon which to determine any objective moral imperative of any kind (despite the fact that the whole theory relies upon one itself, that interference in unjustified, or “wrong”). So which ever way the argument is taken it seems that situations can be envisaged in which, on grounds of both practicality and rational consistency, neither an entirely relativist nor entirely objectivist approach is plausible.The absolutist may assert the existence of moral absolutes, or moral truths, but in reality these may not be practical due to disagreement on their nature (Billington 1988). The objectivist may state that there are grounds for agreement in any situation, such as on the nature of moral virtues (Foot 1978), but find conflicts in which they offer no resolution (Israel-Palestine conflict).

And finally the relativist may state that tolerance and acceptance of the conflict must be applied, but be confronted by a situation in which not to act would be impossible (the holocaust, slavery).So what then can be said of the validity of relativism? Should validity be based upon practical applicability, if so the determination would perhaps be a mixed one. In some situations (polygamy, female circumcision etc) tolerance may be desirable, and as discussed many others where it may equally may be misplaced. Again on grounds of rational or empirical consistency, as discussed, validity would also seem to be uncertain. So essentially relativism is sometimes true, and sometimes not, sometimes rational, and sometimes not, sometimes practical and sometimes not.Equally you could argue the same point for almost any of the opposing theories. Perhaps then the clamorous opposition to moral relativism is entirely understandable, and its truth irreconcilably placed into question. However it is hard to escape the problem which began the whole debate in the first place.

What right have we as advanced societies to impose our moral judgments on others across the world, as in the case of linking aid to abstinence in Africa, or of imposing democracy in Iraq, or free market economics in Latin America?Perhaps then only a compromise on the issue is logical, and several attempts have been made to achieve this. It is perhaps not necessary to outline the varying structures of these mixed arguments, coming as they do from various absolutist, relativist, sceptical and objectivist perspectives. What is key is that many who have participated in this debate over the years have reached, from their different starting points, the conclusion of a mixed position, comprising elements of relativism in absolutism, or in objectivism, etc.It is worth noting however that even Bernard Williams (1981) came to formulate a theory which included this “vulgar” and “unregenerate” argument in a form of compromised mixed position. His “relativism of distance” basically states that relative judgments can be made to notional or non immediate moral determinations, mostly in the historical or theoretical setting, but immediate moral judgments should not be thought impossible and that determinations can be made should the need be great enough.

How much of a compromise this actually is is perhaps debatable, but it is at least a compromise of a kind. Therefore it seems that moral relativism is unlikely to be a valid argument if taken wholesale and without compromise, as it seems unworkable on a range of practical and semantic grounds. However the conception of relativism in morality is perhaps not in and of itself untrue, rather its application, just as the application of moral absolutes and objective determinations, should perhaps, somewhat ironically, be relative to the situation.Or to close the argument perhaps a little more concisely; “Maybe in the end we are relative absolutists some of the time and absolute relativists for the rest. ” (Billington 1988 p39)Bibliography Billington, Ray “Living Philosophy: An Introduction to Moral Thought”, 1988 Routledge, London . Foot, Philippa ,”Virtues and vices, and other essays in moral philosophy”, 1978, Blackwell, Oxford Williams, Bernard “Morality: An Introduction to Ethics” 1972, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Williams, Bernard.

“Moral luck : philosophical papers, 1973-1980” ,1981,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


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