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)

G. Harman, “Moral Relativism Defended,” in Harman, Explaining Value: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 3–19. Original Publication Date: 1975.

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?

  • 2
    What do you mean by "true or false reports of my preferences within a speech community"? 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. 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? Aug 15 '16 at 22:58

Kind of depends how you define moral skepticism. Seems to be some debate on the precise meaning. Seems to me if youre coming at morality with the presumption that moral knowledge cannot be known with any certainty then youre putting the cart before the horse and are asking a loaded question. If youre coming at it from the perspective that morality doesnt exist innately or that it is just a human construct then you also presuppose the answer to your own question. Or by moral skepticism do you simply mean any moral claim can be questioned or may be contingent on having a greater understanding of circumstance?

Do you want me to regurgitate other peoples philosophy, that could easily be read in a book?

Personally Im of the opinion only one of two things can be true about morality. Either one, it doesnt exist whatsoever and there is no point discussing it. Or two, it exists absolutely/objectively, and is not open to relativism.

I say that because I make a simple observation. Nothing in this universe that exists and that matters outside of the individuals own experience (i.e. has a bearing on others or on nature, i.e. is impactful in any meaningful way) is relative. Everything in this universe that exists is absolute.

Trees, clouds, if you want to be specific. Logic, physics, if you want to be more abstract. Even mathematics and logic themselves. These are arguably man made constructs, if you prefer to think of them as such. But even they are absolutes. The laws of physics. The laws of nature. I challenge you to point out just one thing in this universe that we can all agree exists (even as an abstraction) AND has a meaningful and real impact on the world outside, but is relative/subjective rather than absolute/objective. I challenge you to find me at least one example.

If morality is the sole example to the rule that you can find then one must question why it ought to be so, and whether or not it is so. I see no good reason morality ought to be the only exception to the existence of abstract notions impacting real events and social interactions that just happens to be subjective.

Sure, your tastes in clothing style or flavored ice cream may be considered "subjective". But is it relevant in any way? Does that impact my life? Does it have repercussions to physics, or to human social interaction? Subjectivity of this nature may exist, but it exists strictly confined to the individuals own unique experience, and has no impact on the objective world. One cannot say the same of mathematics or of morality.

Im trying to define a sort of "realness" here. Morality is real because it governs peoples actions and reactions and social structure. It impacts human nature and human interaction. Its fair to say that as an abstraction it is real in some way. Do real things exist subjectively? I dont think so, I have never seen such a thing, except maybe only morality.

If morality is subjective/relative then it cannot exist, because any abstraction that doesnt hold a consistent set of universal rules is completely arbitrary and meaningless. Imagine if logical truth were a cultural or individual phenomenon and conclusions didnt transcend cultures or borders. It would be an absurdity, wouldnt it?

I recognize that different cultures and religions DO have different moral values. But there is a difference between having the rules right, and only believing that you do. Morality is perhaps one of the greatest human intellectual endeavors. Its a work in progress. We are uncovering truths all the time, and we learn and grow and change. Id like to think that we are uncovering moral truths and refining our values and will eventually "get it right", in the idealized distant future. Thats not to say anyone has it right now... perhaps different groups have caught a glimpse of different true parts of the whole.

Point being, being ignorant of the whole truth doesnt make the truth relative. It makes knowledge relative, but that could only result in false conclusions. Saying that the truth is relative because knowledge cant be certain is an appeal to ignorance, and its usually done in order to rationalize the individuals version of morality, rather than to give cause to question it. You see it with the abortion advocates: "we cant know with certainty whether its right or wrong so lets default to the most liberal position with the most dire of moral consequences." Ignorance used as a tool in its own right is, in my opinion, an act of immorality in itself.

The observed existence of relative morality doesnt validate relative morality. It could very well be the case that all cultures are slowly evolving their sense of morality, even independently of one another, gradually converging onto a single moral truth. It could also be the case, if youre of a Biblical persuasion, that all of humanity started with a single morality and our corruption has created the divergence in the first place. The point is, the existence of the various moral norms in no way legitimizes moral relativism as the true way morality should be viewed.

I would argue that moral relativism is rooted in the biases of the individual, and a need they have to feel justified and vindicated in their self-serving interests. The notion of "tolerance" was advocated not by good moral people but by those operating outside the moral norms and demanding their lifestyles be accepted by society.


I very much doubt it. If we are to take practical in its proper sense as to do with the real world, we ought to take cognizance 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 skepticism' - 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, it's not moral relativism to be a moral skeptic 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.


An argument connecting moral skepticism, moral relativism, and speech commmunities might run as follows.

If moral skepticism is true then, all else equal, we have no rational reason to be moral, i.e. to consider except prudentially how our actions affect other people's interests. There is no rational reason why others' interests should intrinsically matter to us.

If moral relativism is true then, all else equal, moral judgements express attitudes.

If, however, we are members of a speech community or more accurately a community in which as a matter of fact we do care how our actions affect other people's interests, 'all else' is not equal and, because we care, we do have a rational reason to consider how our actions affect other people's interests. This is so because it is rational to act in the interests of those with whose interests we identify. Under these social conditions, we have motivating reasons to act other than (merely) prudentially toward other people - at least toward the sub-set of people with whose interests we identify. Such people constitute on any standard use of language our moral community.

This argument shows how moral community and moral skepticism, by suspension of its 'all else equal' clause, can be reconciled. The final member of the triad, namely moral judgement, presents no separate problems. There is no reason why the members of a moral community should not accept that their concern for one another's interests is articulated through moral judgements that express attitudes - their preferential attitudes of identification with others' interests.

You refer to 'true or false reports' - I am not entirely clear where these 'reports' are to figure. It is possible, of course, that I might 'express', through my uttering a moral judgement, an attitude which I do not have. This would count as a false report of an attitude.


Is "ideal" morality not the same for all humans, regardless of ethical background? Think about it: upon honest consideration, do we not all have an inner sense of moral correctness? (Despite many folks desperate attempts to deny it.) Is practical moral skepticism not merely an excuse for immorality because folks would rather not submit to morality? Is practical moral skepticism not a cover-up used by folks that, deep inside, know better but do not want to admit it?

You will likely be asking? If we have an inner sense of moral correctness, where does it come from?

That question will remain unanswered, (In other words, that concept is bound to be rejected.) unless one has surrendered to truth over what they would like to think. If one does surrender to truth, the answer to the last question will be obvious.

Holler if I need to say more. (But I much more expect many folk's emotional responses to be anger, because "The truth hurts."

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