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The Fact-Value Distinction by David Oderberg

February 4, 2011

Professor David Oderberg

The widespread skepticism about ethics today — the idea that there is no knowledge to be had about right and wrong (any more than about art –`there is no disputing matters of taste’, it is often said) — owes much to the empiricist tradition in philosophy. Empiricism places the foundations of knowledge wholly in experience, observation, feeling and sensation. If a discipline cannot be understood — at least ultimately — in those terms, it does not have a claim to objectivity. It is arguable whether, understood correctly, an empiricist philosophy should rule out ethics on this count, but it would take us too far afield to discuss empiricism in general. What I want to focus on is the so-called fact-value distinction which arises out of it and which is responsible for much modern skepticism.

The distinction finds its classic statement in the philosophy of David Hume. He famously remarked: `In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author … makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual … propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.’ And he considered it `altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it’.’ In other words, how is it possible to get from statements of fact — statements about what is — to statements about what one ought to do, or what ought to be? Is there not an unbridgeable logical gap here? If so, then it seems morality is really detached from fact and must be about something else: feeling, taste, emotion, or whatever.

The so-called fact-value distinction embodies various confusions. but only the most important will be mentioned here. The first concerns facts. Proponents of the distinction argue as follows. Facts are the elements of reality that make declarative sentences true. To take a simple example, the sentence `Charles ate a sandwich for lunch’, if it is true, is made true by the fact that a certain individual, Charles, ate a particular thing, namely a sandwich, for his lunch. If reality did not contain this fact (say, because Charles did not exist, or ate ham and eggs for lunch, or are a sandwich, but for dinner rather than lunch), the sentence would not be true.

A similar analysis can be made of any fact, they say. But what about moral facts? What possible elements of reality would make true the sentence `Breaking a promise is wrong’? Ethical sentences — about what is right or wrong, good or bad — are in a different class from statements of fact, since there is no realm of reality in virtue of which they are true or false. Where is this `ethical realm’? How do we know about it? How can we check the truth of ethical statements against it? Are we to say that just as the predicate ‘ … is green’ refers to a property of the real world, namely the color green, so there is a property of the real world, namely wrongness, to which the ethical predicate ‘ … is wrong’ refers?

The above line of argument is a familiar one. Although it has been refined and complicated in various ways, and more subtle versions have been developed, the basic idea is always the same. It is also easily countered in several ways, but only one need be proposed here. The proponent of the fact-value distinction is in the dilemma of having to provide an account of `fact’ that neither begs the question against the believer in ethical facts nor allows such facts to be philosophically respectable after all.

Suppose the Humean (which I shall call the believer in the fact-value distinction) understands facts to be elements of concrete, observable reality that can be used to verify (or falsify) propositions. On such an understanding, it seems ethical facts do not get to first base. One would be hard pressed to say that we could check the statement `Breaking a promise is wrong’ against the fact that breaking a promise is wrong in anything like the way we could check the statement `Charles ate a sandwich for lunch’ against the fact that Charles ate a sandwich for lunch. The Humean is right: Where do we check? How? What do we look for?

The problem for the Humean, though, is that this account of facts simply begs the question against the ethical realist (as I shall call the believer in moral facts). All it amounts to is the insistence that if there were moral reality it would have to be just another part of empirical reality, which is supposed to close the debate. But the ethical realist does not share this insistence. If the only philosophically respectable facts are observable elements of concrete reality, then moral facts seem to be ruled out from the very beginning and nothing else the realist can adduce in favor of moral facts will count. But by claiming that there are moral facts, the realist is not thereby assuming that the empiricist view of facts is correct. If the skeptic about moral facts wants to use the notion of a fact to cast doubt on realism, then, he must not rely on a conception that the moral realist does not share in the first place.

Of course, the Humean is bound to justify his belief that the only genuine facts are observable elements of concrete reality, and he may well try to do so. This would involve a full-blown justification of a view of empiricism that supports such a belief, a view which there is no space to canvass here. The point is simply that, short of doing this, he will need to rely on a less controversial conception of facts, one which does not foreclose the debate against the realist. Again, without going into detail, it should be noted that the more deeply we look for a substantial view of facts as elements of reality, the more we realize how complicated our conception must be and the less probable becomes the claim that there is no space for moral facts.

Where in reality would we look for facts to make true or false statements such as: `If Alan had bet on horse number five, he would have won’; ‘One clay the universe will come to an end’; `Mountain climbing is a dangerous sport’; `Brian is a peculiar sort of chap’; `The joke Alan told me is very funny’; and so on? The more one thinks about such statements, the harder it is to point to an element of concrete observable reality that verifies or falsifies them. Let us leave it to the Humean to try to perform the impossible task of accounting for such cases while retaining a conception of facts that straightforwardly rules out the ethical.

A different way of understanding facts is possible, however. Instead of thinking of them as elements of concrete reality, we might plausibly think of them as true propositions. Part of the motivation for this approach is the notorious difficulty of individuating facts. One theory is as follows: sentences express propositions (for instance, a proposition is what is expressed by two sentences, in different languages, that say the same thing); it is propositions that are the primary entities that are true or false, with sentences deriving their truth or falsity from them; and a fact is whatever it is to which a true proposition corresponds.

We can individuate facts, then, by means of the true propositions that correspond to them. For instance, the fact that snow is white is distinct from the fact that snow is cold because the propositions that snow is white and that snow is cold are themselves distinct. But the problem then is that in order to know whether a proposition is true, you need to know if it corresponds to a fact; but in order to know whether there is a fact to which it corresponds, you need to know whether the proposition is true in the first place! So, in order to know whether the proposition that snow is white is true, you need to know if there is a fact that snow is white. But to know the latter, it seems you need first to know the former. It appears, then, that one cannot really separate facts from propositions.

This might make one move to a view of facts that does not take them to be anything over and above true propositions. (Let us leave aside false propositions, since the point can be made without considering this complication.) The fact that Charles ate a sandwich for lunch, then, just is the true proposition that he did so. If we take this less metaphysically robust notion of facts to be correct, however, moral facts begin to look philosophically respectable. For the fact that breaking a promise is wrong just is the proposition that breaking a promise is wrong, which is true. Moral facts, on this account, suffer from no special metaphysical problems. Just as the proposition about Charles can be asserted, denied, believed, entertained, and argued over, and conclusions can be drawn from it, the same goes for the proposition about promise-breaking. These are intrinsic features of all propositions.

The second point concerning the fact-value distinction can be dealt with more briefly. Proponents of the distinction often argue that morality is about reasons for action. For instance, the truth of `Pornography is morally objectionable’ is a reason not to promote it in any way, say by selling it or financing it. We can look further at the facts on which this reason is based, such as that pornography is a cause of sexual crime; but what about the reason itself: isn’t it over and above the facts that give rise to it? When talking about reasons, are we not also talking about norms or rules of behavior, and not facts? To the extent that this objection is merely a repetition in a different guise of the first one, namely the supposed strangeness of moral facts, we need not go over the same ground. What should be added, however, is that there is nothing peculiar in something’s being both a fact and a reason.

Reasons are about explanation and justification. The reason why Charles got food poisoning, for instance, is that he ate contaminated meat. The fact that he ate contaminated meat is also an explanation of his becoming ill. The fact that the meat was contaminated and the fact that he ate it give a justification for claiming that there is a causal connection between them and his becoming ill. The fact that the meat was contaminated can be used as a premise in an argument to the effect that he became ill because of what he ate. These are all familiar characteristics of the enterprise of giving reasons, but they are no less important for being familiar.

Facts can be reasons for saying certain things, for putting forward certain arguments, for drawing certain conclusions, for holding certain beliefs, and so on. A fact is no less a fact, as it were, for being able to do duty in these different ways. On the contrary, something would not be a fact if it did not have such features. Why then, are moral facts to be discounted because they have precisely the .same features? To say that morality is about reasons for action as opposed to thought, belief, assertion, and so on, is spurious; for these are all kinds of action as well. In short, the so-called duality of facts and reasons is an illusion.

This brings us to the central problem with the fact-value distinction, of which the above points are really just aspects. Taken one way, the distinction does imply an unbridgeable conceptual gap between facts and values — but the cost of forging it, for the Humean, is that he loses his grip on reality. Taken another way, however, there is still a distinction that can be made — this time one we are bound to accept, but not one the Humean can make any use of in supporting his skeptical position.

Consider the following description. Charles picks up a shiny metal object. The object contains several movable parts, one of which can be rotated. Charles rotates it. He then places his finger on another, curved movable part, holds up the object in front of him, and points at another object further away. He then moves his finger towards him while keeping it in contact with the carved movable part. This, is a perfectly coherent factual description. Does it enable us to know what Charles is doing? Not completely; but then no description of any situation can be complete. So why should we ask for any more information? Well, Charles might be doing a number of things — for example, he might be playing Russian roulette with a friend. “To say that this is not important extra information is absurd: it is information of the highest importance, which allows us to realize that Charles is doing something dangerous.

Consider another description. Alan digs a hole in a meadow. Is there anything else of any importance that we need to know? It might be wondered — what else is there to know? But suppose I tell you that the meadow in which Alan is digging a hole is an ancient religious burial site considered sacred by the local inhabitants, and that digging a hole in it is a gross profanation. Does that extra information not enable us to realize that Alan has offended the local inhabitants?

The point that such examples make clear is that there are various ways of describing a situation, ways which are more or less precise and more or less inclusive of important information — important because it may enable us to know what is really going on. It might be thought that no philosopher has cast in doubt such an obvious and vital point, but it is precisely this that was famously denied by Hume in his discussion of whether morality is something which can be recognized by the intellect in factual situations. He supposes:

Let us choose any inanimate object, such as an oak or elm [by ‘inanimate’ he means `not an animal’ as opposed to `not alive’; and let us suppose, that by the dropping of its seed, it produces a sapling below it, which springing up by degrees, at last overtops and destroys the parent tree: I ask, if in this instance there be wanting any relation, which is discoverable in parricide the murder of a parents or ingratitude? Is not the one tree the cause of the other’s existence; and the latter the cause of the destruction of the former, in the same manner as when a child murders his parent?

And he concludes that as the `relations are the same’ in both cases, and `as their discovery is not in both cases attended with a notion of immorality, it follows, that that notion does not arise from such a discovery’.’

At one level of description, Hume’s analogy between a sapling killing its parent tree and a child murdering his parent is correct. Indeed, Hume himself does not describe the case at the right level since he uses the word `murder’, which itself connotes wrongdoing. But if we think of them simply as cases of one living thing killing another, it is hard to see where morality can be `discovered’, to use Hume’s word. The problem is that the only levels of description at which Hume’s point has any force are those that involve a radically impoverished apprehension of reality: not an impoverished conception of morality, but of what exactly is going on. Only if we ignore crucial facts, properties and features of Hume’s analogy, or of the examples I gave above, can we hope to divorce fact from value. Of course there is nothing unusual about such examples — they can be multiplied indefinitely.

Any situation can be redescribed, or described at such a level of incompleteness, that it leaves out precisely those aspects that enable one to ‘discover its moral characteristics. We need not speak of murder — we can instead talk about killing, or perhaps termination. We need not talk about cowardice — we can instead talk about the conscious avoidance of situations involving minimal risk to life and limb. We need not speak of lying – instead we can speak of being `economical with the truth’, as a high-ranking British civil servant told the court in a famous legal case in the 1980s. Indeed, it is bureaucrats who are specially trained to describe situations at such a level of abstraction and incompleteness that they do not actually say anything false — but neither do they tell the whole truth, how things really are.

The proponent of the fact-value distinction, then, can purchase his distinction, but at the high cost of having only a partial grasp of reality. A more complete grasp is called for, but it is not one according to which the Distinction is remotely plausible in the sense that the Humean requires it to be to support skepticism. With a more complete appreciation of reality, there will still be a distinction between facts and values; there will still be a way of describing the world that only pays attention, say, to microphysics, to chemistry, to the movements of particles, to the interaction of objects, to pure cause and effect, and so on. But these descriptions will only capture a segment of reality, one which has a definite but limited place in ethical theory.

More generally, ethics is about good and bad. But goodness and badness are fundamental features of reality as much as any other. Why is it good to look both ways before crossing the road? After all, how can there be any objective goodness in the mere turning of the head while crossing a piece of bitumen? And why is it good to eat green vegetables? Where is the objective goodness in the mere ingestion of organic matter containing chlorophyll which contributes to cell repair and regeneration? The questions need only he posed for their answers to be self-evident. Both actions are good for human beings, because they prevent bodily harm and promote health. And the prevention of bodily harm and promotion of health are themselves good for human beings, which is where the actions which realize them derive their goodness. In this sense, then, the Humean can forge no relevant distinction between fact and value. Indeed, it is value `all the way down’.


Relativism by David Oderberg

January 26, 2011


Truth does not limit genuine freedom, but it does limit license. For instance, one does not have the “freedom” to murder or steal. Why? Because, principally, doing so is against the truth of the dignity of the human person. No sensible person would argue that genuine freedom has been limited by this truth. Find this and more at


Skepticism about ethics is widespread. There is a pervasive belief that there is simply no objective good and bad, or right and wrong. By `objective’ I mean the feature a statement has when it is true (or false) independently of whether anyone believes it to be true (or false). By far the most common form that moral skepticism takes is the espousal of one or another version of relativism.

There are numerous varieties of relativism, but what they all share is the central dogma that moral propositions, instead of having objective truth — truth for all people in all places at all times — are true relative to one standard but not another. While it is impossible to examine all the species of relativism, the doctrine is so common that some of its general features and problems should briefly he stated, problems that affect every specific version.

David Hume, Again
Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity( truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgments with statements of opinion.

It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, `Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint — he will say `Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’

Generally speaking, moral judgments can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgment, `X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativising it to P: The subjectivist says that `X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to `I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, the subjectivist would say, `X is wrong for P, or as far as P is concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, `However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine — they are reports of the opinions (or `sentiments’, to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges – but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument.

More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim `I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed `I disapprove of child abuse’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. They have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of objection that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism should be so widely held.

Arguments Against Personal Relativism
First, there is a semantic problem. A proposition of the form `Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than `P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But `P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to `P believes that doing X is wrong’, since `Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyse the embedded sentence `Doing X is wrong’ in `P believes that doing X is wrong’ as `P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of `Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: `P believes that P believes that P believes … that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would be no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form `Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze `Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that `P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgments that can be true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however.. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

(2) Second, the concept of disapproval is inherently incapable of capturing the various kinds of moral statement that one can make. In particular, there are three broad types of proposition concerning moral obligation: one of the form `Doing X is wrong’ (or bad, impermissible, and the like); another of the form`Doing X is right’ (or good, obligatory, and so on); and another of the form `Doing X is permissible’ (neither obligatory nor it perhaps neither good nor bad). (Note that this is highly simplified)

The personal relativist might analyze ‘Doing X is right’ uttered by P as ‘P approves of doing X’ add thing X.’ He might also analyze P’s utterance of `Doing X is wrong as ‘P disapproves of doing X.’ But what about P’s utterance of Doing X is permissible’? One obvious possibility is `P neither approves nor disapproves of doing X.’ But this is also compatible with P’s not knowing whether doing X is right, wrong, or permissible, which is different from the settled opinion that it is permissible. P might neither approve nor disapprove because he is confused about the issue, or feels he has not gone into it far enough, or simply does not have an opinion.

The relativist might reply that we can indeed analyze `Doing X is permissible’ uttered by P as `P neither approves nor disapproves of doing X’, but also analyze P’s state of uncertainty, confusion or lack of opinion as `P both approves and disapproves of doing X.’ But this will not do, since one cannot both approve and disapprove of something at the same time: it is logically impossible. What about the possibility of mixed feelings? But mixed feelings do not involve simultaneous approval and disapproval; rather, they involve first approving, later (perhaps almost immediately after) disapproving, then perhaps approving again, and so on. But a series of statements of approval followed by disapproval will not do as an analysis of P’s lack of certainty, lack of an opinion, or whatever: for on the relativist view each statement corresponds to a distinct and unequivocal opinion by P: first P disapproves of doing X, then he approves, then he disapproves, and so on.

These are not states of uncertainty, nor do they collectively add up to a state of uncertainty, any more than variations of opinion between people. For the relativist, the varying states of approval and disapproval, both between people and within one person’s mind, correspond to distinct facts about the wrongness of doing X: it is wrong for Alan, but right for Brian, but wrong for Charles; and it is wrong for Alan on Tuesday, but right for Alan on Wednesday, and so on. In short, then, the personal relativist cannot distinguish between an opinion that something is definitely permissible and a lack of opinion or state of uncertainty as to whether it is permissible.

(3) Third, the personal relativist wants to give a complete analysis of all moral statements into statements of approval and disapproval; and he must, or else he will not have given an analysis at all. What, then, does the relativist say about the principle of tolerance, or the freedom of each person to express whatever moral opinion he likes? Relativism is traditionally motivated by this very idea: if morality is simply a matter of personal opinion, then no one can be allowed to impose his sincerely held belief on someone who believes differently. But is the principle of tolerance itself simply a matter of opinion? Alan might disapprove of tolerance: is he then allowed to impose his moral beliefs on others, even by physical coercion? Either the relativist says that he can, or that he cannot: but it is hard to see which view the relativist is logically bound to take, in which case relativism is compatible both with tolerance and with oppression, which is not a conclusion the vast majority of relativists would countenance. Suppose, however, that the relativist bites the logical bullet and says that, logically speaking, tolerance or oppression is open to each individual in respect of others. Then relativism collapses into moral nihilism, the view that there are no objectively valid moral rules whatsoever governing interpersonal behavior. I do not propose to give a critical analysis of nihilism here, merely to note that relativism could not then be seen to be a stable alternative to the view that `anything goes’ in morality, which, again, is not how relativists see their theory. Further, the view that anything goes is quite simply morally repugnant, which should be sufficient to deter rational people from giving it, or any form or relativism that leads to it, further consideration.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the relativist is able logically to resolve the problem of tolerance versus oppression, and opts — one would hope — in favor of the view that you may not coerce others to believe what you believe; and that this is an objective moral truth. Then the relativist will have countenanced at least one objective moral truth, contrary to his own theory that all morality is a matter of opinion. Now he might say, `But tolerance is the only objective moral truth I recognize.’ Why, however, should we believe him? If tolerance is objectively right, this is a big principle to concede — why are there no others? Why should there be only one moral truth? To reply, `But that’s what my theory implies’ is no answer. Rather, it is the theory itself which then comes into doubt. One would need a convincing explanation indeed as to why there is only one moral truth, as much as if a physicist were to say there is only one truth of physics (which would not be the same as saying there is only one `supertruth’, say a grand equation, from which all the other distinct truths can be derived); or the historian that there is only one historical fact. In the words of the philosopher W.V. Quine (himself a relativist of sorts both in ethics and other areas of philosophy, and here speaking about cultural relativism, though his remark apples to all forms of relativism: ‘He (the cultural relativist) cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up.’

The other primary form of relativism is not personal but social (usually called cultural relativism). The social relativist holds that morality is not a matter of personal opinion, but the opinion of society. More precisely, ‘Child Abuse is wrong’, for example, uttered by person P in society S, means `S disapproves of child abuse.’ Often the social relativist will say, `Child abuse is disapproved of in such-and-such a culture’, or such-andsuch a group, or such-and-such a country, and so on. This gives rise to a problem that will be mentioned shortly, but what must be noted at once is that whatever the social relativist’s favorite word, the theories are all variations of one another and of the general theory that morality is relative to a social standard.

Social Relativism The Case of Margaret Mead
Fortunately, we can be brief in our discussion of social relativism, because all the above problems — each one on its own being fatal to personal relativism — apply equally to social relativism. Some further remarks, however, are in order. First, there is a purely factual point worth making because of its historical and continuing importance. The rise of social relativism to its prominent place today was motivated in large part by the huge influx of information this century concerning the behavior, customs and habits of cultures around the world. A prime example of this is the work of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose book Coming of Age in Samoa had a remarkable influence both on social science and on philosophical thinking. It was (and still is) widely thought that she had proven that there was nothing sacrosanct about Western moral standards by adducing evidence of wide divergence from them in the case of the Samoans. She concentrated, among other things, on sexual behavior, family arrangements, warfare and rituals, and she seemed to show that the Samoans were an example for the West of an almost idyllic form of social arrangement – peaceful, trouble-free and unrepressed, lacking the taboos and strict moral code that hindered the personal development of Western man.

Influential though her work was, it has now been effectively demolished. Most notably, the anthropologist Derek Freeman has demonstrated that Mead’s research was shoddy, ill-informed and painted a far from accurate picture of Samoan life, one that was almost patronizing in its depiction of the Samoan as a `noble savage’ (to use Rousseau’s expression ). Contrary to Mead’s alleged findings, for instance, the Samoans condemned adultery and premarital promiscuity, and practiced warfare on a far wider scale than she claimed. Freeman concludes, `We are thus confronted in the case of Margaret Mead’s Samoan researches with an instructive example of how, as evidence is sought to substantiate a cherished doctrine, the deeply held beliefs of those involved may lead them unwittingly into error.’ Indeed, Freeman even goes so far as to claim that Mead was hoaxed by the Samoans, having been fed spurious tales of their sexual .and other behavior!

Problem For The Social Relativist
A grave conceptual problem for the social relativist is the determination of the standard he is using. Is morality relative to the beliefs of a culture, a society, a nation, a country, an ethnic group, a religious group, a tribe? None of these necessarily coincide, though sometimes they do. Certainly, in the world as it is today, with greatly increased migration and multiculturalism, it is even harder to find a well-defined `unit of measurement’ that the social relativist should use. Is the morality of adultery, for instance, to be identified by reference to the common opinion of each member of the UN? Does `the West’ count as a standard, and if so, which countries are included? If Alan is in the United States, does he speak truly or falsely when he says `Abortion is wrong where there is no threat to the mother’s life or health’? This statement might be denied by the majority of US citizens, but it is also affirmed by significant and well-defined subgroups, both religious (for example, Christians of various denominations, Moslems, orthodox Jews) and geographical (large parts of the Southern states).

Does Alan speak falsely when he is in California, but truly in Georgia? Or is his standard the group he belongs to? In which case, if he is an orthodox Jew, does he speak truly even in California because he has the common opinion of the majority of orthodox Jews around the world on his side? What if he is in Africa, where the multiplicity of tribes and systems of belief makes it almost impossible to speak of a single moral standard? Make the relevant unit of measurement small and one result is obtained; larger, and another is obtained. The social relativist cannot dismiss this problem by saying that it shows how moral standards vary greatly: the problem is of identifying a moral standard in the first place, especially in an age of enormous diversity of opinion; and also of avoiding contradiction or hopeless vagueness when someone utters a moral statement. The identification of standards seems, then, to be an arbitrary matter that can yield whatever result the relativist wants. And this is a good reason why the personal relativist insists that all measurement should come down to the beliefs of the individual.

Further, even if a particular standard is identified, what is the quantum of measurement to be? Is abortion wrong in society S if 50 per cent of the population has that opinion? Or 50.1 per cent? Perhaps in grave moral matters a larger threshold is required — say 75 per cent? Do we look at the laws of that society and say that abortion is wrong if it is illegal, because legality best reflects S’s belief system? But it is a common fact that what the law says and what a society thinks often diverge. Do we look at S’s practices as well as stated beliefs (perhaps as expressed in opinion polls)?

There is no sociological reason why practice as opposed to stated beliefs should be excluded — but again, what the members of a society do is often different from what they say they believe (obvious cases being adultery or promise-keeping). Social relativism, then, is arbitrary both with respect to the determination of a standard and the degree of measurement within that standard.


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