Free to universalize or bound by culture? Multicultural and public philosophy

Kymlicka-lunchby Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther

The accelerating flow of people (e.g., migration, whether voluntary and benign, or caused by violence and desperation) and information (e.g., the Internet) makes multiculturalism increasingly relevant. We find ourselves exposed to an ever-broader variety of smells, languages, behaviors, and attire in our daily schedules. Some of us seem impervious to this diversity. Others find core identities challenged, or interpret core identities in general as being questioned, and may react with anger, fear or brutality. Yet others experience multiculturalism as a source of exhilaration, as a testament to life’s endless and beautiful variety. To complicate things, these feelings and behaviors may also be inextricably mixed within the same person or group. Here I set aside the direct phenomenology of sentiments in favor of metacognitive reflection on individual and social reactions to multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism requires sustained philosophical reflection, which in turn requires public outreach and communication, as promoted by Scientia Salon. This piece briefly outlines concerns raised by the philosophy of multiculturalism and, conversely, multiculturalism in philosophy. In thinking about philosophy in a multicultural context, we are forced, I believe, to reconsider the role and responsibility of the philosopher. I conclude with a provocative suggestion of philosophy as public diplomacy. (As this is intended to be a piece for a general audience, secondary literature is only referred to in the conclusion. References gladly provided upon request.)

First, let us consider the philosophy of multiculturalism. Second, let us turn to the feedback effects of multiculturalism on philosophy.

Philosophy permits critical thinking about thinking. Philosophical tools can be brought to bear on a number of questions raised by multiculturalism. Why are certain culturally conditioned opinions justified, while others are (considered) merely biased and “subjective”? Which sorts of assumptions must be made for a social, judicial or political structure to be considered appropriate? How could or should cultural disagreements about the nature and role of knowledge and science be adjudicated? How do, could, and should, for instance, Western societies and institutions arbitrate competing claims to religious truth, or conflicting moral injunctions? Philosophy provides ways of interpreting and addressing these cognitive, linguistic, social, political, and normative complexities. Consider the following questions regarding the impact of philosophy on multiculturalism:

  1. How can Kantian, Feminist, Marxist, Philosophical Anthropological, Psychoanalytic, Analytical Metaethical, and Existentialist philosophical frameworks provide explanations and interpretations of, and recommendations for, multicultural realities such as blasphemy laws, calls to prayers, “group rights,” treatment of women in different cultural groups, and territorial rights of first nations indigenous people? Can a single philosophical framework assist in making explicit the assumptions, concepts, and power involved in social and political matters?
  2. How can philosophical investigation provide a glimpse into the way language is used in the constitute social (and natural?) worlds? How do humans, in general and in specific cultures, use metaphor, concepts, and classifications to build and justify social reality? What effects might mistranslation and poor translation have in inter-cultural communication? How does language affect thought and society?
  3. How can philosophical reflection shed light on how the mind itself (e.g., rationality, actual reasoning, and deep narrative mythological/religious structures) is conditioned by culture? Which sorts of data and theories would be required to show, or at least suggest, that feelings, inferences, memories, and perceptions are altered by cultural context, and how can philosophy’s meta-scientific reflection help us evaluate the relevance and weight of such data and theories?
  4. How can philosophical analysis provide insight into the very existence of groups? That is, although it may seem absurd to some, one can ask whether cultural groups even exist. Might there be sufficient intragroup variation, and intergroup similarity, to deflate claims about group identity, or at least to see that such claims might be made primarily for political or economic benefit? Put succinctly, are cultural groups themselves products of exoticization and reification (e.g., orientalism) both from “within” and “without”?

By providing overarching meta-scientific and philosophical frameworks, different philosophical schools can assist scholarly, activist, and diplomatic (see below) work on (1) social and political questions, (2) language, (3) mind, and (4) cultures. Analytical, clarificatory, and critical philosophical work could be done in light of social relevance, and thereby complement ongoing technical work in analytical philosophy. Viewed in this way, philosophy is relevant across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences; indeed, philosophy becomes a family of dynamic tools, not a static systemic end in itself.

Let us now consider the converse effect of multiculturalism on philosophy. Is philosophy impervious to social, political, and economic — i.e., cultural — context? Should it be? Academic philosophy is often criticized for inhabiting an Ivory Tower. As philosophers, we sometimes seem to forget that it is, after all, people who are philosophizing. We are embedded in a body and culture, and live in a tangle of feelings, desires, and dreams. Multiculturalism reminds us that all of this needs to be taken into account in philosophizing about the human condition. We might consider leaving the Ivory Tower, at least sometimes, and also letting others up into it, whether we invite them or they (justifiably, and perhaps forcefully) demand entry. Consider the following questions about the ways multiculturalism feeds back on philosophy:

  1. How does multiculturalism force the philosopher to consider cultural context in her potentially universalizing pronouncements and principles about “the human condition”? How can we develop a philosophy sensitive both to cultural context and to what might be universal about our condition?
  2. How might changes in power and context of the philosophical inquirer her- or himself change the questions and answers on the table? How could shifts in the cultural context (e.g., language, norms, political system) of the inquirer change what is at stake, and which tools are used, in on-the-ground philosophical inquiry? How might a multicultural autobiography affect the work of the single philosopher?
  3. How does multiculturalism invite philosophy to be a broader cultural enterprise, by engaging in comparative philosophy? Philosophy is perhaps no longer a strictly universalist enterprise, exploring the nature, conditions, and dynamics of knowledge, values, and reality sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). Rather, Philosophy is, and perhaps should be, carried on in different contexts, and with “cultural qualifiers”: Latin American, Indian, Chinese, Amerindian, Islamic, etc. Multiculturalism suggests that studying the history of Western philosophy is no longer sufficient for contextualizing philosophy. Synchronic (i.e., geographic, cultural) comparison, in addition to diachronic (i.e., historical) comparison are both necessary for a richer understanding of human philosophy and thought.
  4. How does multiculturalism invite us to reflect on the direct responsibility philosophy has to the public, and on the importance of playing the role of public intellectual? Philosophy can — and perhaps should — contribute to reflective, nuanced, and informed public discussion of the realities and consequences of multiculturalism. Multicultural realities urge the philosopher to engage in public debate. Or at least, so it seems, and so I hope. Some, if not all, philosophers are affected by “globalization” and multiculture. Some are even themselves the direct, autobiographical product of multiculturalism. Again, as multicultural citizens, professional philosophers are reminded of the importance of public outreach.

Thus, philosophy influences thinking and doing about multiculturalism, and vice-versa. We might want to consider cultural context in our philosophical analyses, and be metacognitive about our own biases and presuppositions. Furthermore, the increasing movement of people and information invites professional philosophers (even at elite American institutions) to engage in comparative philosophy and in public outreach. Again, philosophy can do much work in the world.

This essay serves to briefly motivate what is at stake in the philosophy of multiculturalism and the multiculturalism of philosophy.

I conclude with an admittedly contentious suggestion for the role of the (multicultural) philosopher as public diplomat. In his essay, “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie observes:

It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being “elsewhere.” This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal. (1992, 12)

I would like to suggest that here we can replace, mutatis mutandi, “writer” with “philosopher.” Indeed, alienation from time and country, history and culture, via comparison and reflection, allows us to see “potentially every culture as all cultures” (Paul Feyerabend, 1994). The 12th century mystical monk, Hugo of St. Victor suggested that rather than find our homeland sweet (“patria dulcis est”), perfect is he to whom the entire world is an exile (“mundus totus exilium est”). Rushdie, Feyerabend, and Hugo of St. Victor teach that systemic comparison through exile — metaphorical and literal — allows the philosopher to make presuppositions and purposes explicit. By learning which philosophical tools (e.g., logic, feminist critique) are pertinent to which aims, we avoid reifying our philosophical culture, and are then precisely able to “speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.” Multiculturalism thus shatters monoculture’s arrogance, via estrangement and self-examination. It makes us stronger.

Once we become stronger, what shall we do in a multicultural world? Circumstances (and desire?) urge us, as philosophers, to become public diplomats. Diplomacy is a worthy task for reason (Western or otherwise), as Bruno Latour (2002) argues. Reason may yet lose in the ongoing “wars of the world” conflict once the dust settles (and when will that be?), but it is only by directly facing the momentous task and violence ahead of us, that multinaturalism (many alternative ontologies, multiple philosophies of nature; Viveiros de Castro 2004) as well as multiculturalism can be negotiated, and a true peace achieved. The view here advocated on philosophy’s function as public diplomacy is perhaps less cynical, and more optimistic, than seeing philosophy as a foundational general or judge, imposing its will to power and adjudicating knowledge and morals, either through (implicit) combat or through detached and abstract rulings (e.g., interpreting philosophical political liberalism as the handmaiden of neo-liberal Western imperialism). The stakes are certainly high. Philosophy could be a commendable diplomat in the public endeavor of learning to live courageously and ethically, perhaps even peacefully, in a multicultural world.


Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther is a professor of philosophy at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He investigates the structure, dynamics, and functions of scientific theories and models and is currently working on a book (to be published by the University of Chicago Press) entitled When Maps Become the World: Abstraction and Analogy in Philosophy of Science. You can find out more about the Philosophy in a Multicultural Context research cluster here.

Acknowledgments. Thanks to Lisa Clark, Joseph Hendry, Jonathan Kaplan, Helen Longino, Lucas McGranahan, Fabrizzio Guerrero McManus, Ann Lipson, Jan Mihal, Amir Najmi, Richard Otte, Irena Polic, and Mette Smølz Skau.

Suggested Readings:

General suggested readings on multicultural philosophy.

Feyerabend, P. (1994). Potentially Every Culture is All Cultures. Common Knowledge 3: 16-22.

Fraenkel, C. In Praise of the Clash of Cultures. The New York Times on the Web 2 September 2012.

Latour, B. (2002). War of the Worlds: What about Peace? (Translated from the French by C. Bigg). Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Lloyd, G E R. (2010) “History and Human Nature: Cross-cultural Universals and Cultural Relativities.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 35 (3-4): 201-214.

Nicholson, CJ. (August, 1998). Three Views of Philosophy and Multiculturalism: Searle, Rorty, and Taylor. Unpublished paper presented at 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts.

Rushdie, S. (1992). Imaginary Homelands, in Imaginary Homelands. Essays and Criticism. 1981-1991. New York, Granta Books and Penguin, pp. 9-21.

Smith, J. Philosophy’s Western Bias. The New York Times on the Web 3 June 2012.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2004). Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipití. Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2(1): 3-22.


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72 replies

  1. Dantip commented “If I know that my first order moral judgments are merely judgments about what is right or wrong relative to some framework, then I also know that when I say, ‘what that culture is doing is wrong!’ then I am aware that all I am saying is that relative to my culture, what that culture is doing is wrong. I don’t get to convey any kind of normative force, like saying that they ought to stop,”

    If we replace some of the above terms with theological differences between sects, are there propositions about which to have meaningful debate? We outsiders can surely be expressivist when A and B violently disagree about whether images of holy figures are permissible, celibacy of religious, or allowable medical treatment or food or clothing. Given that straight religious arguments underpin morality in much of the world, you have to deflate these to some secular minimum. Even if rights are nonsense on stilts, a lot of people can agree to (act just as if they) believe.


  2. Coel:

    I agree with what you say about realism versus anti-realism being a slippery distinction. I am somewhat fine with talking about “objective reality” but some people understand “objective” a bit differently. For example some people would say objective means we must have some evidence of it that we can show others. So that a recently found moon of Neptune was not part of objective reality until we had the evidence. I would say it was part of objective reality all along. Because it didn’t just exist in our imagination.

    “Further, if morality is subjective (which it is), it does not in any way follow that morality is “pointless”. Our subjective feelings are the most important thing to us humans. (Many seem to overlook that blatantly obvious fact when they regard subjective morality as somehow a second-rate morality that doesn’t actually matter!)”

    You keep asserting that our moral beliefs are not second-rate even if they have no basis in objective reality. But again I ask you do you think the same about beliefs in biology, chemistry, or history? It seems a case of special pleading for moral beliefs. But many of the problems with viewing truth as relative generally apply here.

    Just *asserting* that people should live their lives based on beliefs with no basis in any sort of objective reality is not philosophy. Lots of people have an understandably strong view that beliefs withy absolutely basis in any objective reality are of dubious value. Western secularism proponents needs to acknowledge that if their philosophy leads to such a view it may be intellectually unpalatable and require some (or even quite a bit of) *argument.*

    There are different subjective beliefs about how we should act. If you don’t have any standard to say some actually are correct beliefs then you have no grounds to say they should change. If right is just based on what people believe then you are doing just as much “good” convincing people that the status quo is good as actually changing it to fit your subjective view.

    Don’t fight apartheid you are just as well to convince people it is good. After all if you convince them it’s good through propaganda or however then it *is* good in this relative sense.
    I am not saying that smart people can’t come up with good reasons. But I am saying the reasoning is philosophy. Philosophy is not an agenda for secularism or religion or realism or relativism. It’s an agenda for critically examining reasons.

    “And, I think you’ll find that most people are indeed quite capable of saying that they find the morality of the psychopath “worse”. (Morality is just what people say, therefore they can’t say anything” is another non sequitur.)”

    So it’s just what most people say is right? Or is it that the psychopath has his view and it’s right for him, but not right for others? When you separate the validity of our beliefs from objective reality you run into some real problems.


  3. Coel:

    “Yes, the terms emotivism or expressivism are the nearest to what I’m arguing.
    Yes, so “murder is wrong” means “I have an emotional revulsion to murder and want to live in a society in which murder is deplored”.”

    Not to nit pick but I think getting a handle on these various terms is important. Emotivism and expressivism are generally classified as non-cognitivists views.

    This means that moral claims can have no truth value. Since your sentence “I have an emotional revulsion to murder and want to live in a society in which murder is deplored” has a truth value equating moral claims with this would not quite be expressivism or emotivism.

    Consider the statement “I think rape is morally wrong” The non-cognitivist would say this statement equates to “boo rape!” Notice boo rape is neither true nor false. It has no truth value.

    Anyway this is my last post, please feel free to correct me if I got this wrong. I am glad we are sorting through some of this. And there is some disagreement on some of these terms. I did a blog that sort of outlined some basics of the terminology here:

    Its hard to know what “moral progress” would even mean from a anti-realist or relativist view. From an objective realist view moral progress would mean that our views and actions are better matching objective moral reality.


  4. Brief thoughts: I worry that multiculturalism might get affected by socioeconomic class. We all read more and more about the “borderless” modern world — for those that have money.

    I’m sorry that anybody felt the need to inject a stereotype about a particular religion into the discussion.

    Off topic, but related to my first observation — socio-economic class seems to affect what people get “sacrificed” in Ye Olde Trolley Problem, as does perceived beauty level. I’ve already suggested that Massimo might find this a subject for a future essay.


  5. I didn’t really want to get into the moral/relativism argument; I’m not sure that a multicultural approach to philosophy needs to consider it at the outset, although certainly the topic arises once multiculturalism is properly engaged.

    However, a couple historical notes might be useful.

    First, we should remember that if it weren’t for the world conquest by European colonialism, none of this discussion would be possible. (And I would probably sitting in a farm-house somewhere in Europe reading a Bible, presuming I could read.) And if it weren’t for the global domination of capitalism, none of this discussion would be necessary. That’s not ‘West-bashing,’ that just happens to be history, for good or ill.

    Now, it should be noted that the evidence from anthropology is that pre-civilized (effectively pre-literate) cultures tend to take a social-relative stance to there moral beliefs. E.g.: ‘We of the Gavagai tribe do not beat our children.’ ‘But the people of the Pombie tribe do?’ ‘They are not of the Gavagai.’ So morals were apparently held to be real and true for the community, but considered inapplicable to other communities.

    Such a view could be enlarged, even after the introduction of literacy; so for instances we find statements in classical literature like ‘we Athenians,’ ‘we Romans,’ etc., applied to standards of behavior, with moral implicature.

    Indeed, my own remembrance is that this view was expanded in modern times to include whole nations. So some Americans could tolerate the sexual permissiveness in French films because, well, the French aren’t American. And it was known that in certain Islamic states, adulterers could be beheaded; but that was there, not here, and ‘we don’t do that here.’

    But globalization has brought us to an unhappy moment when such parochialism now seems insufficient. And it would be nice to believe – as so many do, unfortunately – that progress moves entirely in one direction, along a single path. But that’s not the case. Certain people in the Mideast are well in command of modern technology, and seem happy to navigate the politics of the Middle Ages. And the Chinese may well be constructing a successful economics and social order, the internal structures of which may not end up looking like ours.

    So, the confrontations are quite real, and remain perplexing. I certainly have no solutions to offer.

    By I would suggest that, apropos the OP, investigation into multicultural philosophy with an increased public profile of this, might be at least one step in finding our way to some solutions to some of these problems.


  6. @Winther: Thanks for the video link. I enjoyed all of them.

    Dr. Justin Tiwald’s talk on Chinese philosophy is good but not correct. Discounting Chinese culture as “Virtue Ethics” is a cheap shot and will grossly mislead people. In fact, that view did mislead as most of America’s National Security analysts on China take Chinese culture for grant, talking from both side of their mouths while knowing absolutely nothing. My article “Chinese culture and the world security ( ) can: 1) teach them what the Chinese culture really is, 2) show them how wrong and ignorant they are on Chinese culture. How can an analyst of any subject make correct analysis while not knowing the subject he is analyzing? A total big joke, indeed. Most of my East Asia Studies papers were written about 15 years ago, and all my predictions are correct {see my article “Issues of Asia security ( )” on the prediction of Japan’s policy (which is now executed by Abe)}.

    Multiculturalism is now very much a politic issue, not much about philosophy. Thanks for trying to put some philosophy back into that issue.

    Multi-cultures is a fact in the world (humanity). The only way to reduce the bad-effect of this divergence is to understand the sources of the divergence and to find the common ground. That is, we must know what exact each culture is all about, especially at their bases. Thus, I will use a single word (concept, base) to describe the three major culture rivers.

    All these three have two common points.

    P1, recognizing that there is SOMETHING beyond the humanity.

    P2, trying to find a way to RELATE to/ with this SOMETHING.

    One, Christianity: this SOMETHING has two parts: universe (beyond humanity) and the Creator (God) of that universe. Then, Jesus became God. Not being able to make this nonsense meaningful, it simply demands the FAITH or else. {FAITH}, corrosively-demanded-faith.

    Two, Buddhism: not believing that anything (physical universe) outside of humanity is truly the ultimate SOMETHING (US), it searches the (US) with the method of negation (emptying out the false something). It claims that it did FIND that (US), the ultimate emptiness (the ultimate wisdom and the greatest compassion). This ultimate-ness cannot be described with language or any methodology, and it can only be reached by Spiritual ENLIGHNMENT. {ENLIGHNMENT}.

    Three, Confucianism: This SOMETHING is {Heaven and Earth}, arose as a spontaneous process {一 劃 開 天, one stroke created the universe, (see )}. Heaven is all about Morality, Earth all about Providence. Humanity is nourished by the Earth and must live in accordance to Heaven’s morality. So, the key word is {PARTICIPATION}, partake Earth’s nourishment and Heaven’s Morality.

    Now, I think that we can begin to deal with the Multiculturalism issues, philosophically, politically, …


  7. Hi all this seems to be going a bit off topic but I am a sucker for discussions of morality. There have been several replies but due to time/space constraints I am going to focus largely on Dantip’s as a springboard/mirror to deal with the issues raised.

    First, moral subjectivism (MS) falls under the umbrella of moral relativism (MR). I am in fact a moral subjectivist and had assumed Coel was as well (I agree with his call for MR being called subjective morality). So it was a bit surprising for me to see him claim that he is an emotivist/expressivist (EE). That does not seem consistent with discussions I’ve had with him in the past.

    Second, I can’t speak for Coel but I’m not claiming that all things done in “first order” ethics could be performed exactly as they are now as if we were realists. Indeed, I am arguing that by losing some aspects “allowed” by realist approaches performance of ethical deliberation/communication will be improved.

    Regarding emotivism, it is a problematic theory and I agree with Dantip’s criticisms. Basically it treats moral statements as mere catharsis (venting one’s feelings), without any further meaning. To the contrary, moral statements indicate how a person views and will interact with the world.

    Of course I do believe that moral claims include emoting, but that is not their complete nature or function. Moral claims are usually made in an attempt to control the actions of others in some way, while at the same time giving you a window into one’s own interests by which others might control you.

    This is why I am baffled by Coel’s rejection of MR/MS, unless he believes that “true for X, not true for Y” indicates some objective reality impinging on X (but not Y), rather than its being a descriptive statement about X’s feelings (it is true that X approves of that action). In MR/MS people describe their emotional states, in EE they don’t… they just say “yay!/boo!”.

    So to Coel if you believe people use moral claims to describe what they like in order work out agreements on rules, then you are not EE, you would be MR or MS.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “Thus, philosophy influences thinking and doing about multiculturalism, and vice-versa.”

    Philosophy as a category of thought or as an academic discipline? I highly doubt that academic philosophers have influenced the public debate (if there is such a thing) through their philosophical papers.


  9. Cont’d…

    While I think it is true that all moral statements can be reduced to descriptive statements regarding one’s feelings (“I like/dislike X”) that is like saying all forests can be reduced to trees… while true in some technical sense, the reduction misses something important about the world.

    This is why I think Robin’s interesting analysis of Dawkins’s fumble does not affect moral relativism. Yes, Dawkins at heart “dislikes” people having children with Down’s Syndrome (which is not the same as “liking” people aborting them, a confusion which slightly weakened Robin’s point). But as Robin rightly points out that simplistic shorthand doesn’t give us much understanding of his moral outlook. To me, moral relativism reveals how barren realist claims are, because it forces one to unpack the emotional shorthand. Dawkins’s saying it is “immoral” to have children with Down’s Syndrome sounds complete but it isn’t. It has to be unpacked in the exact way Robin did when we had started with “D dislikes X”. Immoral? Why so? What does that mean for him and others?

    So I disagree with your (Dan’s) treatment of relativism as leading to the same problem as emotivism. While one cannot say “by the powers of the universe you ought not commit murder”, you can say “you better not commit a murder around me because I/we don’t like it.” That has a very real meaning, beyond pure venting. Further, you can move beyond simplistic shorthand like “wrong” to consider/address what about murder upsets you and drives you to stop others from committing them. Perhaps in moving beyond shorthand one can find a common interest regarding murder (or at least that specific one) they had not considered and which might convince them to stop.

    And this leads to Paul’s problem. To be honest that meta-ethical MR would not help one make normative moral claims, is not evidence against MR. Perhaps that doesn’t make MR emotionally fulfilling, or easy, but reality doesn’t have to fulfil all one’s desires. In any case, it still makes sense to criticize the actions of others, both to reinforce your preferences and to undercut theirs.

    The normative force will come from understanding an element of their moral outlook you can appeal to, or (barring that) the emotional/physical dynamic of your wanting/not wanting the action to take place. Indeed, when a relativist says they want to you to stop, they are honestly and directly telling you, you ought to stop and why.

    I’m still waiting for a moral realist to explain what additional “force” their beliefs have, that mine (backed with what I just said) don’t have. They can say that “really and truly the rules of the universe say you shouldn’t do that”, but unless others agree they will reply “ok great, thanks for the factoid, mr. realist, but according to the rule book I have (which are the real and true rules of the universe) I wasn’t told that I ought to stop… here just watch me do it.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Joe,

    …. if their philosophy leads to such a view it may be intellectually unpalatable and require some (or even quite a bit of) *argument.*

    I agree! There are no good actual arguments against the idea that morals are human value judgements, rather than being objective and relating to a supra-human standard. But, as you say, people don’t like it, it conflicts with their intuition. But it’s the intuition that’s flawed here, as is obvious if one considers, from an evolutionary perspective, why we have morals.

    It seems that evolution hit on a little trick to make our moral faculties more effective, doing so by programming us to think that morals are absolute. As you yourself say, that makes people think they’re more important.

    But I fully appreciate the intuitional reluctance; indeed my intuition used to tell me exactly the same thing, that morals really must have an objective grounding. But then I told my intuition that it was wrong.

    But many of the problems with viewing truth as relative generally apply here.

    But I’m not arguing that “truth is relative”, that “X is good” is true in one culture whereas “Y is good” is true in another. What I’m doing is saying that *any* application of truth values to moral feelings is misconceived. That’s why your comparison to factual truth about the world doesn’t work. Yes, *truth* needs to be absolute. But morals don’t, because morals are not about “truth”, they’re about feelings. (And if your intuition rebels against that idea, then tell your intuition that it is wrong.)

    It would make no difference to how much I like chocolate if “chocolate is nice” were an objective fact, rather than being my subjective feeling. Indeed our feelings are much more important to us than objective facts, and our feelings are, by definition, subjective. Thus subjective morals are not second-rate compared to objective ones.

    So it’s just what most people say is right? Or is it that the psychopath has his view and it’s right for him, but not right for others?

    Your intuition is not letting you assimilate that I’m saying. You keep trying to map what I’m saying to an objective standard of “what is right”. That is misconceived. Any attempt to attach truth values to morals is misconceived. Moral language properly refers to what someone likes or dislikes, not to any objective standard.

    When you separate the validity of our beliefs from objective reality you run into some real problems.

    There again you’re talking about the *validity* of the beliefs, you’re asking whether or not they match the objective standard. But there is no such standard, and the attempt to map to it is misconceived. Sure, trying to do that leads to problems, but the stance that *any* application of truth labels to moral feelings is misconceived does not lead to any problems.

    Or, at least, only the problem of having to re-jig your intuition. But the reward for that is you solve meta-ethics in one fell swoop. Really, Hume sorted this from the philosophy point of view, and then Darwin explained it all from the scientific point of view.

    As a result, the view I’m giving is fairly widespread in science, because it’s pretty obviously true when one views things from the evolutionary perspective. But it seems to be less accepted in philosophy, which I guess is because scientists are more willing to over-rule and update their intuitions than philosophers are.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi relevant inerlocutors,

    I also apologize that this has gotten off topic. Like dbholmes, meta-ethics and ethics are just too seductive for me.

    I feel as though I have said all I want to in regards to the problems with expressivism and moral relativism in my last post, so I just wanted to address something dbholmes brought up. he said, “I’m still waiting for a moral realist to explain what additional “force” their beliefs have, that mine (backed with what I just said) don’t have. They can say that “really and truly the rules of the universe say you shouldn’t do that”, but unless others agree they will reply “ok great, thanks for the factoid, mr. realist, but according to the rule book I have (which are the real and true rules of the universe) I wasn’t told that I ought to stop… here just watch me do it.”

    -btw I liked the way you (dbholmes) used my own little quote against me 🙂 –

    I actually think that what I am about to say is something similar to what others were saying in regards to your (dbholmes) paper on free will. I recall people were telling you that you seemed to assume that if one is a libertarian, they must therefore hold that there is a soul. Philonous later pointed out that Robert Kane is a counter example- he is a libertarian who tries to give a completely physicalist account (through parallel processing in the brain). In other words, you can be a libertarian without committing yourself to some mysterious thing (the soul).

    Similarly, you seem to think that if you are a realist, you have to hold that there are some cosmological absolute facts that are fantastical and absurd. However, the discussion in meta ethics has moved far beyond that point, and there are much more seductive accounts of moral realism out there now that dont have to require some fantastical “moral properties” to exist in the world or whatever it is you think is so fantastical. I want to outline the view I roughly adopt: the view of Thomas Nagel from his book, “the view from nowhere.” (mind you, this was published in the mid- 80’s, so even *this* account of moral realism is outdated)

    Nagel wants to construct a moral realist view that circumvents a major problem with standard moral realist views. Specifically, he wants to argue that there are objective moral facts (there is an objective fact about whether or not action X was wrong or right) without appealing to moral properties of actions (action X has the property of wrongness). In other words, he wants to circumvent this mysterious and fantastical commitment people think realists must have.

    Nagel thinks the people have a certain perspective of the world and their behavior within it. This is what I call the personal view. For example, we can ask, “what should I eat for breakfast today considering the kind of person I am?” We then could give an answer based on our personal wants and characteristics. However, in addition to taking this view, people are capable of abstracting from their personal view and adopting what he calls “the view from nowhere.” The view from nowhere is taken up not when an agent asks, “What should I eat for breakfast?” but instead asks, “what should *this* person eat for breakfast?”

    The difference here is that you disregard your personal desires and preferences as being relevant to the answer to the question, and instead only consider reasons that are not based on your contingent characteristics (Instead of considering things like how you like cereal or you desire milk, you instead consider things like- cereal is healthy, milk builds strong bones, etc.). Nagel thinks that we can achieve greater degrees of objectivity. What he means by this is that we can take the view from nowhere at a greater “distance.” I can come to exclude more contingent reasons from being relevant to my judgments and come to include more non-contingent reasons.

    (see next post)


  12. (continued)

    So what it means to say, “murder is wrong” is that everybody has at least one non-contingent reason (also called an objective reason since non-contingent reasons are reasons *everybody* has to do or not to do something, regardless of their personal situation). The truth condition for this is that everybody does in fact have a reason not to murder. This is an *objective* truth condition- a truth condition that isn’t a relative one, or any other kind of deflationist thing.

    So when it comes to ethical questions like, “Should I save this drowning person?” We can adopt the view from nowhere and exclude contingent reasons from the judgment we make. We can do this by asking, “What should this person do?” We then exclude contingent reasons from our judgment, e.g. this person is a different race, it is a Tuesday, or I am tired.

    For Nagel, if we were able to exclude all contingent reasons and include only non-contingent reasons, then we would know the true judgment (It is true that this person should do X). However, since we are not perfectly rational beings, and cannot adopt the view from nowhere from the “greatest distance possible,” we can’t know what the true judgments are, but we can achieve a greater degree of objectivity when investigating ethical questions by taking a view from nowhere, and this is what we *try* to do when engaging in moral disagreements etc. Also, the fact that we can’t know for certain what the true judgments are about what everybody has objective reasons not to or to do, that doesn’t mean there aren’t such true judgments.

    One might ask, for clarity, what would a non-contingent (objective) reason be? Nagel argues that an action causing pain is a non-contingent reason not to perform an action that would cause pain. He does this by saying that pain is intrinsically bad. The feeling of pain *just is* bad, independently of what anyone thinks, and so everybody has a reason not to cause pain (there is an objective reason not to cause pain).

    Liked by 1 person

  13. (continued)

    One way to think of what it means for something to be intrinsically bad is to imagine the following thought experiment: suppose a neural scientist captures you and tells you that he is going to operate on you. He gives you a choice: either you can opt to have analgesics and anesthesia administered thereby undergoing the operation without any pain at all, or you can opt to undergo all of the pain that the surgery will bring you without pain killers.

    Since there is no *practical* benefit that feeling pain would bring you in this situation – everybody would opt not to experience pain in the surgery! This suggests that pain is intrinsically bad- absent any instrumental reasons to have it obtain, nobody will want it to obtain. Since pain is intrinsically bad, then everyone has a reason not to cause pain – everyone has an *objective reason* not to cause pain- so it is a moral fact that causing pain absent any instrumental value is bad. Nobody ought to cause pain absent any instrumental reason to do so.

    —side note: You might not like my thought experiment or the claim that pain is intrinsically bad given that there is a condition known as pain asymbolia- this is a condition in which subjects report experiencing pain but they dont mind it. This seems to show that pain isn’t intrinsically bad. However, pain asymbolia can be explained two ways- one way is to say that it does in fact demonstrate that pain isn’t intrinsically bad, and the other way is to say that they are experiencing pain, but they aren’t experiencing the feeling of unpleasantness that typically comes with pain. In this way, we could just say that causing the feeling of unpleasantness is intrinsically bad.—-

    So on Nagel’s realism, An agent’s moral judgments are also true or false; since it could either be true or false that everybody has a reason not to or to do something, there are moral facts. Also, though an agent might not be able to know what these moral facts are for certain, he can achieve a greater degree of objectivity when investigating whether or not an action is wrong or right by taking the view from nowhere, and can have disagreements, make logical inferences on moral propositions, etc. This is a realist position that avoids the fantastical kind of commitment to some properties to actions or some bizarre kind of cosmological grounding of facts, explains moral disagreement, allows for moral progress, etc.

    Additionally, when I say “you ought not cause pain!” I am telling you that you have an objective (non-contingent) reason not to cause pain- and this gives normative force to the moral claim. To make this clearer- imagine someone didn’t think that causing pain was bad. If this were the case, and I showed him that he has an objective reason not to cause pain (by providing him, perhaps, with the thought experiment above), this would be sufficient to motivate him not to cause pain absent instrumental value.

    I hope this has helped.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Dantip wrote:

    They can say that “really and truly the rules of the universe say you shouldn’t do that”

    Why do the “rules of the universe” — if one can even make sense of such a thing — have more force than the rules of people?

    I think inadvertently you have come upon one of the real problems with Ethics — what, really is the force of the moral “ought”? This is related to the problem of “why be moral?”

    I am increasingly inclined to think that the only real force, out there, in this sense, is the force of punishment and reward. To the extent to which moral oughts seem to have force without the belief that there will be some sort of punishment or reward for obeying the ought or failing to obey it, it is because of a kind of subconcious, racial memory, from the days in which we all thought there were divine rewards and punishments.

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  15. Hi Aravis,

    I think you misquoted me. I was requoting dbholmes in the statement you said I
    Made. So really dbholmes said that, and to be clearer, dbholmes also agreed with you about the mystery of the “rules of the universe” and how those wouldn’t motivate one to action either.

    But yeah that is a good point- we have stumbled upon the question of “why be moral?”


  16. Hi dbholmes,

    So to Coel if you believe people use moral claims to describe what they like in order work out agreements on rules, then you are not EE, you would be MR or MS.

    Well, I may be mis-using the terms. As I understand it, “moral relativism” equates to: there is a truth value to the claim “X is wrong”, and that truth value is different in different cultures and times. That, to me, is simply incoherent and a misuse of the term “truth”.

    So my stance is: there is no truth-value to the claim “X is wrong”, and if anyone utters those words then they are properly interpreted as the speaker reporting an emotional dislike of murder. But, that speaker may well do a lot more than just say “yaa” or “boo”, that speaker will likely try to influence others in order to adjust the community to their liking.

    Hi Joe,

    This means that moral claims can have no truth value. Since your sentence “I have an emotional revulsion to murder and want to live in a society in which murder is deplored” has a truth value equating moral claims with this would not quite be expressivism or emotivism.

    To clarify. I regard “X is morally wrong” as having no truth value, in the sense that there is no objective standard of wrongness to measure it against. In that sense I am non-cognitivist. But, if one interprets it and re-phrases to “I dislike X” then the statement does have a truth value, because it is now referring to someone’s feelings, which are real, rather than to an absolute wrongness standard, which is non-existent. .

    (I’ll let others tell me which -ism sums up those last couple of paragraphs, since I’ll likely get it wrong!)

    Its hard to know what “moral progress” would even mean from a anti-realist or relativist view.

    It could be taken as meaning: if you took groups of people, and allowed them to live in two different times/cultures for long enough to fully assimilate both of them, the one that they would prefer is the “better” one.

    Hi dantip,

    (Instead of considering things like how you like cereal or you desire milk, you instead consider things like- cereal is healthy, milk builds strong bones, etc.)

    But this still depends on people valuing good health, or valuing a pain-free state, or whatever. It is thus still grounded in subjective evaluations. On a quick read of your post, all Nagel seems to be doing is making objective statements about people’s subjective attitudes — that is entirely proper, but it does not give you an objective realist morality.

    To be properly objective one would have to establish something as morally virtuous without any reference to human opinion or judgement at any stage. For example, it would have to be possible, in principle, that causing pain was morally virtuous, even if everyone hated pain, because what people like or dislike has to be, by definition, irrelevant to an objective moral-realist scheme.


  17. The moral issue is not off topic at all. The divergence of cultures is indeed caused by the different takes on the Morality.

    Coel: “There are no good actual arguments against the idea that morals are human value judgements, rather than being objective and relating to a supra-human standard.”

    The dynamic equation for morality is isomorphic to the dynamic equation of particles which interact with charges (electric charge, mass charge, color charge, etc.), while the morality equation has only one charge (self-interest). So,

    Morality = F (S), function (equation) of S (self-interest)

    Self-interest = S = G1 (H) + G2 (C)

    G1 is function of human nature (whatever that is, shared by all human), G2 is function (equation) of C (culture)

    The equation of Morality is ABSOLUTE. No, morality has nothing to do with individual human judgement. It is forced upon us (human) by the dynamic of that absolute equation. Any individual human judgement means nothing on the morality which is the result of a massive group interaction on the charge of self-interest. If someone suddenly discovered a great moral truth, it will play no role in morality until it can play a major role in that massive group interaction.

    Yet, with different S, F(S) can produce different values.

    dbholmes: “… moral subjectivism (MS) falls under the umbrella of moral relativism (MR)… emotivist/expressivist (EE)”

    When S is chosen by a C (culture), the morality in that C is absolute. We can argue about the (MR) with mouths but will not be tolerated in any given C. G1 (shared by all human) plays the dominant role in S. So, (MR) is only a phenomenon among cultures and plays a small role, on a superficial level.


  18. Coel,

    I invite you to re-read the part of my comment on Nagel’s distinction between contingent (now known as agent-centered) and non-contingent reasons (known now as objective reasons). I think that will clear up your confusion. Contingent reasons are reasons that we have depending on the kind of person we might happen to be (what values, interests, or desires I might happen to have). Non-contingent, i.e objective, reasons are reasons we have for doing something independent of our contingent needs, interests, values, and desires.

    You also say, “On a quick read of your post, all Nagel seems to be doing is making objective statements about people’s subjective attitudes — that is entirely proper…”

    I recommend you to make a less cursory glance, or just look into better expositions of nagel’s view elsewhere online. Its possible I just havent exposited well. But in a word, no- he is not simply making objective statements about people’s subjective attitudes, unless you think reasons just are subjective attitudes, but there are many reasons (pun intended) to think this is not the case.

    With regards to, ” it does not give you an objective realist morality.”

    I warmly suggest that Daniel Dennet’s frequent citation from Lee Siegel about “real magic” is apt here, and I will leave you to work out how it is applied: ““I’m writing a book on magic”, I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No”, I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic”. Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.”

    Anyway I dont wan’t to abuse my privileged as an assistant editor to post more than 5 comments too badly, so I am going to duck out here. Ultimately I like aravis’ point about the question, “why be moral?” And I hope he will say more about meta-ethics and realism (especially, yes this is a bit selfish, corrective points on my expositions and claims). However, I think expressivism for coel still faces the logical inference problem and disagreement problem, and relativism faces the disagreement problem even if it doesn’t face a normative force problem. For a good reading on relativism, see (he goes over disagreements in moral relativism toward the end)

    Cheers all


  19. I suppose I’ll use my last post to try pull the conversation back on topic. Ethics and morality are the primary function of any culture, as they are the glue tying people into a larger community, but there are reasons beyond differences of opinion in how different cultures interact. When societies find themselves in competition with one another, they are not going to look for points of agreement, but will be emphasizing any and all distinctions and using them to inflame the community. Unless that subject is broached, then the conversation has totally missed the point.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. To Coel, I understand these terms can be slippery. As terms stand now I think you really mean moral subjectivism rather than emotivism/expressivism. You can check out the wiki entries on expressivism, ethical subjectivism, and cognitivism to get a better feel. Here is a relevant entry from the first distinguishing between EE and MS…

    “Expressivism does not hold that the function of moral sentences as used in ordinary discourse is to describe the speaker’s moral attitudes. Expressivists are united in rejecting ethical subjectivism: the descriptivist view that utterances of the type “X is good/bad” mean “I approve/disapprove of X”. Subjectivism is a descriptivist theory, not an expressivist one, because it maintains that moral sentences are used to represent facts–namely, facts about the subject’s psychological states.”

    In MS/MR “true for X” can simply refer to truth about their emotional states (which underpin their moral claim).

    I think the field could use a working over to set more useful terms/distinctions. I liked your idea of subjective/objective morality. In my extended response to Harris I advocated use of the term “antimoralist” but your idea is better. ☺

    To Dantip, well I wrote my last replies in under an hour, while under pressure to get to a movie in time while trying to hit word limits . ☺ I do realize there are other moral schemes out there (sans deities). Technically Harris’s theory fits the bill you mentioned and I wrote an essay on it here at SS, as well as an old site of mine. So I know they are out there. You had a nice review of Nagel, but to give a very short rebuttal to his concept I believe his ideas fall apart under a Humean analysis. It’d be great if we get to revisit this topic in the future.

    Also, I liked your mention of Dennett’s “real magic” to Coel. I’ve often thought that was a good depictive/rebuttal of moral realism. The kind of morality that doesn’t exist is realist, the kind of morality that does exist is anti-realist.

    Sorry my reply is so short, since you put in a lot of effort (and it is always appreciated).

    To Brodix, this is my last post for the thread and I also want to end by returning to multiculturalism. I agree that when nations/cultures are in competition (or come to believe they are) they start emphasizing the differences. In doing so they end up forgetting that there will usually be some points of similarity to reach cooperative ends. The message of the essay I think points to a role philosophers can play in brokering an understanding of potential points of contact (or at least not holding erroneous stereotypes) between cultures.

    If people are interested in my views on moral relativism and multiculturalism, I’ll include a link to a section of my full response to Harris, defending both against his criticisms (which are the one’s I usually encounter from New Atheists or conservatives):

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Patrice,

    “neutral about the differences between Western secularism and Islamic fundamentalism (for example), and not biasing his judgments towards either of the two”

    I think Marko proposed particularly hard topics to describe and compare while staying away from injecting prescriptive ‘solutions’ and emotional biases.

    “So “emotionally neutral” is a “high level of description”, whereas describing bloody killers is not?”

    I didn’t mean to imply you can’t have ’emotionally neutral’ ‘lower level descriptions’ or ‘non-emotionally neutral’ ‘higher levels of description’, and I’m assuming multiple levels of description, and that emotionality here is on a continuum where the poles zero-emotionality and 100% emotionality don’t exist (and my vague use of, or stretching of, terminology easily leads to misinterpretation, not to mention my writing style(s) and skill level).

    “Actually, one cannot be neutral between savagery and secularism.”

    I agree, what I was attempting to point out is that when you changed Marko’s “Islamic fundamentalism” to “bloody killers reading hate literature with murderous orders therein” I felt you were being unnecessarily violent towards ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and where painting all ‘fundamentalism’ with the same brush, and at the same time I felt you had made Marko’s point that it is hard to treat some subjects ‘neutrally’.

    “Emotion is no contradiction to reason. Quite the opposite: it gets reason to move”

    Well said,

    “Thinking correctly requires a minute attention to all available details, and all imaginable perspectives”

    Yes, 🙂


  22. Hi dantip,

    Non-contingent, i.e objective, reasons are reasons we have for doing something independent of our contingent needs, interests, values, and desires.

    I still don’t think Nagel’s scheme works. Examples of non-contingent reasons that you gave were: “… things like- cereal is healthy, milk builds strong bones, etc.”

    Yet, being healthy only matters because people value it and having strong bones only matters because people don’t want them to break. Thus, this scheme is still grounded in subjective values (though, again, one can indeed make objective statements about subjective values).

    If it really were the case that the reasons were “independent of our … interests, values and desires” then it would not be morality. At least it would bear no relation whatsoever to our human-nature moral programming, which is all about human interests, values and desires.

    The feeling of pain *just is* bad, independently of what anyone thinks, …

    No! The reason that pain is “bad” is because people dislike it. Indeed the only *meaning* of the term “bad” here is that people dislike it. Thus it is *subjectively* bad, not objectively bad. There is no such thing as an objective value judgement and thus there is no such thing as “objectively bad”.

    This suggests that pain is intrinsically bad- absent any instrumental reasons to have it obtain, nobody will want it to obtain.

    Well absolutely, but this is grounding the system in people’s preferences and choices — which is the very definition of a subjective system.

    Nagel’s whole scheme seems to be merely an attempt to avoid calling the scheme “subjective” when it blatantly is still a subjective scheme. Why the endless search for the false grail of objective morals?

    Daniel Dennet’s [remark] about “real magic” is apt here, and I will leave you to work out how it is applied

    I’ll happily apply it! To echo Dwayne: Real morality? That’s the subjective morality, the one about our feelings and values, that’s the real morality because it exists. Objective morality is not “real” morality because it doesn’t exist.

    Hi dbholmes,

    OK, so I’m a moral subjectivist. I certainly agree that the basic distinction here is subjective (OED: “Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”) versus objective (OED: “not based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”) morality.

    I also agree with you that Nagel’s scheme sounds similar to Sam Harris’s scheme, and that both are flawed for the same reason.

    Now, if only I could persuade people that subjective morals work just fine, that they are not second rate, and that we don’t need objective morals, that we wouldn’t actually like objective morals anyhow (since, by definition, they’d be unrelated to human desires), and that it’s amazing that the grail hunt is still ongoing, centuries after Hume and Darwin.

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