On Moral Disagreement and Moral Relativism

Peter Seipel, Fordham University


Moral relativists hold that the truth-value of moral judgments is not objective or absolute but rather is tied to cultures. A well-known defense of moral relativism is the relativist challenge from disagreement. This argument moves from premises about the nature and extent of moral disagreement to the conclusion that morality is merely relative. Proponents of the argument claim that the best overall explanation of intractable moral diversity is that the truths in ethics are culture-bound. Moral realists reject this view. Like relativists, they hold that there are truths in ethics. However, unlike relativists, they maintain that these truths are independent of human cultures. In this dissertation, I examine the relativist challenge with a view to defending what I think is a better response to the argument than realists have provided thus far. My aim is threefold. First, I show that moral disagreement is philosophically significant. Second, I argue that realists have seriously exaggerated the strength of common realist methods of explanation. And third, I defend a new realist method of explanation, which I call the methodological explanation. This explanation has two parts. In the first part, I argue that contemporary moral methods inhibit or prevent us from rationally resolving many significant moral disputes. In the second part of the explanation, I show that by adopting a new method we will be in a better position to resolve our moral disagreements. In this way, I show that the relativist challenge is not ultimately successful. Proponents of the challenge argue that the best overall explanation of intractable moral diversity is a relativist account of morality. In response, I show that the methodological explanation is an equally or more plausible explanation. On my view, the reason for disagreement is that there are culture-independent moral truths for us to discover but we lack the right tools for discovering them. By identifying the right tools for the job, we will be better able to complete our work. Widespread and persistent moral disagreement is, therefore, perfectly compatible with a realist account of morality.

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Recommended Citation

Seipel, Peter, "On Moral Disagreement and Moral Relativism" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10125247.