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September 18, 2004

varieties of relativism and particularism

The big guns of the blogosphere are suddenly discussing moral relativism and particularism, topics about which I'm supposed to know something. It all started when Eugene Volokh came to liberals' defense, arguing that we lefties are not the moral relativists that conservatives call us, because we tend to believe strongly in moral principles that apply everywhere. Besides, liberals and conservatives agree that principles "admit of exceptions." Matthew Yglesias (who has good philosophical training) then argued that relativism is a position without any practical consequences; it's a meta-ethical view that tells us something about the nature of our moral beliefs, not how we may or should act. Brian Weatherson, on Crooked Timber, considered all the claims made in the earlier posts and concluded that Volokh was talking about "particularism," not relativism. Furthermore, Yglesias was partly mistaken, since relativism sometimes has moral consequences.

Philosophers love to make distinctions, and maybe these will be useful:

One can be a "moral universalist" about


species cultures the scope of duties the nature of reasoning 
Moral rules are independent of specifically human cognition; they come from God or pure reason The same rules or judgments ought to apply to members of any culture We have the same duties to all human beings. For instance, perhaps we are required to maximize everyones happiness, to the best of our ability, not favoring some over others. What is right to do in a particular case is shown by the correct application of a general moral rule

The opposite is of this kind of universalism is ...


Naturalism: Moral rules are created by human beings and derive from our nature. Cultural relativism: At least some moral principles are particular to cultures (they only bind people who come from some backgrounds). Communitarianism: We have stronger obligations in particular people, such as our own children or compatriots. Moral particularism: we can and should decide what to do by looking carefully at all the features of each particular case. General rules and principles are unreliable guides to action. Any rule or principle that makes one situation good may make another one bad.


These columns are completely independent; you can mix and match answers from the top and bottom rows.

In my view, the distinction in column #1 makes no practical difference. It doesn't matter whether moral principles derive from Reason or from human thinking, because they govern us either way. The distinction only matters if you think that morality comes from God, and God's will is knowable from a source such as the (inerrant) Bible.

A lot of post-modern leftists favor cultural relativism (column #2), to the annoyance of conservatives--but I think that's a mistake. True progressives and liberals have always believed that certain moral principles apply universally, regardless of what anyone may think in the local culture.

Communitarianism (column #3) is controversial on both sides of the political spectrum. However, some neoconservatives and many liberals share a belief in Wilsonian universalism and oppose a narrow commitment to national interests. They mainly differ in the means they favor for improving the world (unilateral force versus multilateralism).

Finally, I don't see a left/right tilt in the debate between particularists and moral universalists (column #4). In the 1960s, there was a fairly silly view called "situation ethics" (which Kevin Drum rightly mentions as a backdrop to today's debates). Joseph Fletcher and other situation-ethicists of the sixties emphasized that moral rules were subject to frequent exceptions; they used these examples to argue against the whole of conservative religious morality. Understandably annoyed, religious conservatives are still prone to see particularism as a threat. But sophisticated particularism is not lax and permissive, nor is it the enemy of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, Jesus was a particularist compared to the Pharisees (see John 8:2-11 and elsewhere).

September 18, 2004 9:22 PM | category: none


As an example of your "ala carte" assertion, consider that modern American common law jurisprudence is universalist as to cultures and the scope of duties (generally), but relativist about species, and somewhere in the middle on the nature of reasoning (in the sense that judges and counsel are almost always looking for ways to "distinguish" the present case from previous ones).

September 18, 2004 10:29 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Jim D

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