Answering Harman's relativism

Date

2011-05-26

Authors

Kalef, Peter Justin

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Abstract

In this dissertation, I propose a new method of dealing with moral relativism. This method, which I call the 'parallel arguments' approach, has the unusual feature that -- if successful -- it neutralizes the force of relativistic arguments in metaethics without making commitments to any particular (or even general) antirelativist position. While other writers have employed this approach in limited ways, I believe that this is the first self-conscious and systematic use of this approach in the particular area I deal with. The bulk of the dissertation is devoted to a demonstration of the 'parallel arguments' approach against the arguments for moral relativism advocated by one of its most famous contemporary proponents, Gilbert Harman.The aim of the introduction is to motivate the overall project by showing why a new approach seems to be desirable in dealing with moral relativism. In the introduction, I clarify and justify the 'parallel arguments' approach that will be employed in the chapters to come. The first chapter sets out the target of the dissertation: the relativistic arguments of Gilbert Harman. In order for the 'parallel arguments' approach to be applied to these arguments, they must first be clarified and cleansed of simpler oversights. For that reason, while the first chapter contains an attempt at an exegesis of all Harman's arguments for moral relativism, that exegesis is accompanied throughout with a critical philosophical gloss. In that gloss, I present and discuss a number of textual and argumentative difficulties in Harman's writings that seem to have been missed by previous critics. The second chapter is the beginning of the application of the 'parallel arguments' approach to Harman's case for relativism. The chapter is devoted to those relativistic arguments for which Harman is most famous: namely, arguments for moral relativism that stem from an analogy or disanalogy between morality and science. I deal with the first of these arguments quickly, and spend the bulk of the second chapter discussing Harman's most famous relativistic argument. This argument of Harman's is based on a disanalogy between the discovery that there is a proton in a cloud chamber and the discovery that the burning of a cat is immoral. After clarifying more clearly what is at issue in this argument, I present and discuss two distinct 'parallel arguments' responses to it. The third chapter deals with the other two arguments Harman presents for moral relativism: the argument from moral disagreement and what I call the 'argument from moral reasons'. I clarify both arguments and, again, present a 'parallel arguments' response to each. In the conclusion, I return to an issue that was raised in the introduction: might there not be ethicists of a particular philosophical temperament such that they could rightly reject the 'parallel arguments' approach as ineffective? I argue in response that, while this is possible, it does not seem to be a problem for my project.

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Keywords

moral relativism, ethical relativism

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