3

Consider the following attitudes towards Genghis Khan:

  1. He was a murderous monster!
  2. He did some bad things, but he also did some good things (e.g. promoting trade).
  3. He should be judged by the standards of his time, a time when most leaders were murderous monsters.

The first position would be held by a moralist, while the second could probably be labeled utilitarian.

Is there a philosophical term for the third position, or would philosophers simply call it relativistic?

3

Moral realism can handle all three examples. Moral realism I take to be the view that moral judgements can be true or false and that some are known to be true.

So a moral realist can say :

  1. It is true that he was a murderous monster. (This is a matter of moral truth or fact.)

  2. It is true that he did some bad things, but he also did some good things (e.g. promoting trade). (This is a matter of moral truth or fact.)

  3. It is true that he should be judged by the standards of his time, a time when most leaders were murderous monsters. (This is a matter of moral truth or fact.)

In your original examples, 3. can't purely as it stands be a case of moral relativism. If relativism denies the existence of moral truths or facts, it can't be a truth or fact (on a relativistic approach) that he should be judged by the standards of his time.

It could of course be read elliptically as 'according to the system of morality in my culture, he should be judged by the standards of his time, a time when most leaders were murderous monsters'. But then, this too would be a matter of moral truth or fact : it would state a truth or fact about the system of morality in my culture.

The relativistic option for 3. - or one such option - is to read it elliptically in a different way as 'There are no moral truths or facts but only subjective emotional or attitudinal responses, and my response is that he should be judged by the standards of his time'. With that ellipsis supplied, 3. becomes relativistic.

But just as it stands, and without a supplementary context, 3. is not relativistic. With such a context, which you may well intend, it is. Its proper label might be 'emotivist', 'expresivistist' or 'subjectivist'. Others may be able to extend the list.

  • Love it. In fact, I've increasingly been viewing many philosophical issues from two or more perspectives at the same time. – David Blomstrom Feb 24 at 15:58
  • Glad to oblige - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 24 at 16:18

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