Harman (2000a) argues that a moral judgment that a person ought to do X (an “inner judgment”) implies that the person has motivating reasons to do X, and that a person is likely to have such reasons only if he or she has implicitly entered into an agreement with others about what to do. Hence, moral judgments of this kind are valid only for groups of persons who have made such agreements. (SEP entry on Moral Relativism)

I was wondering if practical moral skepticism (there is no rational reason to be moral) combined with subjectivism (moral judgements express attitudes) entails something like Harman's relativism, true or false reports of my preferences within a speech community.

Or must practical moral skepticism entail something closer to error theory?

  • 1
    What do you mean by "true or false reports of my preferences within a speech community"? – Isaac D. Cohen Aug 15 '16 at 22:27
  • IIRC that an expression i mean, such as don't steal my car, obliges everyone who agrees with it @IsaacD.Cohen i'm asking if this could be a form of "relativism" – user6917 Aug 15 '16 at 22:44
  • Well, why do they agree with it? Is it because of some rational reason? Then the reason they don't steal your car is not because they agree, it's because of that rational reason. But if the reason they agree is because of some emotion they have, then it depends on whether or not you believe that emotions obligate people to do things. – Isaac D. Cohen Aug 15 '16 at 22:52
  • i don't follow, either the logic of what you say or what it has to do with the question. i can be motivated to do as i've agreed to, whatever reason it is i agree @IsaacD.Cohen so i disagree, at least – user6917 Aug 15 '16 at 22:56
  • So you mean agreement as in a contract. But what obligates people to follow contracts? The fact that they agree to do so through a contract? – Isaac D. Cohen Aug 15 '16 at 22:58


Let's take a moral judgement :

'S ought to do A'.

On Harman's account, if I make this judgement I assume that S has motivating reasons to do A. Not just any motivating reasons, of course, but sufficient motivating reasons. This means something like :

S's motivational attitudes are such that, in his or her circumstances, A is the action supported by the best reasons, X.

This assumes agreement between myself and S that A really is the action supported by the best reasons and that these reasons are X.

Harman assumes the possibility of a moral community united in a consensus that A is the action supported by the best reasons, X. The consensus will extend to a range of other actions, B, C, D ... , all of which the community agrees are supported by the best reasons. There is also agreement on what these best reasons are in each case.

There is a problem here. Harman specifies only a vague level of consensus. Such a community is formed only when 'each of a number of people intends to adhere to some schedule, plan, or set of principles, intending to do this on the understanding that the others similarly intend' (G. Harman, 'Moral Relativism Defended', Philosophical Review, 84, 1975, 4).

It is hard to see how such a vague agreement can yield anything so precise as 'the best reasons' to support any particular action. Something far more circumstantially specific is required. That's my first problem.


But assume, what motivates the question, that the 'schedule, plan, or set of principles' is specific to the group; and that S is a member of the group by virtue of an implicit contract (though it could be explicit). The group's morality is relative to the group. They have adopted it; and no-one outside the group has, all else equal, sufficient motivation to act on that morality. This gives us a form of moral relativism.


Grant practical moral skepticism : there is no rational reason to be moral.

Grant moral subjectivism : moral judgements express (nothing but) attitudes.

I can't see how entailment would work. This is my second problem :

1 There is no rational reason to be moral.

2 Moral judgements express (nothing but) attitudes.

3 Moral judgements, such as S ought to do A, apply only if the agent who is the object of them has contracted into a group every member of which intends to adhere to some schedule, plan, or set of principles, intending to do this on the understanding that the others similarly intend.

1 and 2 do not entail 3.


There is a third and final problem. Unless I am much mistaken, Harman believes that under the contractual conditions he describes, it really is the case that 'A ought to do S'. Whatever this is, it is not practical moral skepticism - or moral subjectivism.


I very much doubt it. If we are to take practical in its proper snse as to do with the real world, we ought to take cognisance that individuals do not live in an aery vacuum where they can make up their own moral rules; they generally live in an already established society which already has an established set of mores, customs and a legal framework.

Another sense of 'practical moral scepticism' - which you do not broach - but which is of immense practical significance is the question of evaluating the truth claims of some-one who is to be in an official position of great power and which has a bearing on his ethics, morals and worldview. If sensible questions, established by previous protocol, are simply brushed aside, its not moral relativism to be a moral sceptic here (it might be moral stupidity or just plain stupidity!) but properly sensible to ask questions about their motivations and so on - and then investigate how otherwise these questions can be answered if they themselves are not forthcoming.

note: the 'might' in 'it might be moral stupidity or just plain stupidity' is for politeness sake. Were I writing an article or a book for wide distribution I certainly would not feel the need to be polite, and indeed I would feel it wrong to do so, it would be incumbent to give such a statement its due weight. I'd call it criminal negligence or criminal moral negligence.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy