William Frankena on Relativism

The whole text of William Frankena’s brilliant book on ethics is available online, here is a brief extract.


Reproduced from The Frankena Papers with the kind permission of Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Against any such view it will be argued, of course, that this claim to be objectively and rationally justified or valid, in the sense of holding up against all rivals through an impartial and informed examination, is simply mistaken and must be given up. This is the contention of the relativist and we must consider it now, although we can do so only briefly. Actually, we must distinguish at least three forms of relativism. First, there is what may be called DESCRIPTIVE RELATIVISM. When careful, it does not say merely that the ethical judgments of different people and societies are different. For this would be true even if people and societies agreed in their basic ethical judgments and differed only in their derivative ones. What careful descriptive relativism says is that the basic ethical beliefs of different people and societies are different and even conflicting.

I stress this because the fact that in some primitive societies children believe they should put their parents to death before they get old, whereas we do not, does not prove descriptive relativism. These primitive peoples may believe this because they think their parents will be better off in the hereafter if they enter it while still able-bodied; if this is the case, their ethics and ours are alike in that they rest on the precept that children should do the best they can for their parents. The divergence, then, would be in factual, rather than in ethical, beliefs.
Second, there is META-ETHICAL RELATIVISM, which is the view we must consider. It holds that, in the case of basic ethical judgments, there is no objectively valid, rational way of justifying one against another; consequently, two conflicting basic judgments may be equally valid.
The third form of relativism is NORMATIVE RELATIVISM. While descriptive relativism makes an anthropological or sociological assertion and meta-ethical relativism a meta-ethical one, this form of relativism puts forward a normative principle: what is right or good for one individual or society is not right or good for another, even if the situations involved are similar, meaning not merely that what is thought right or good by one is not thought right or good by another (this is just descriptive relativism over again), but that what is really right or good in the one case is not so in another. Such a normative principle seems to violate the requirements of consistency and universalization mentioned earlier. We need not consider it here, except to point out that it cannot be justified by appeal to either of the other forms of relativism and does not follow from them. One can be a relativist of either of the other sorts without believing that the same kind of conduct is right for one person or group and wrong for another. One can, for example, believe that everyone ought to treat people equally, though recognizing that not everyone admits this and holding that one’s belief cannot be justified.
Our question is about the second kind of relativism. The usual argument used to establish it rests on descriptive relativism. Now, descriptive relativism has not been incontrovertibly established. Some cultural anthropologists and social psychologists have even questioned its truth, for example, Ralph Linton and SE Asch. However, to prove meta-ethical relativism one must prove more than descriptive relativism. One must also prove that people’s basic ethical judgments would differ and conflict even if they were fully enlightened and shared all the same factual beliefs. It is not enough to show that people’s basic ethical judgments are different, for such differences might all be due to differences and incompletenesses in their factual beliefs, as in the example of the primitive societies used previously. In this case, it would still be possible to hold that some basic ethical judgments can be justified as valid to everyone, in principle at least, if not in practice.
It is, however, extremely difficult to show that people’s basic ethical judgments would still be different even if they were fully enlightened, conceptually clear, shared the same factual beliefs, and were taking the same point of view. To show this, one would have to find clear cases in which all of these conditions are fulfilled and people still differ. Cultural anthropologists do not show us such cases; in all of their cases, there are differences in conceptual understanding and factual belief. Even when one takes two people in the same culture, one cannot be sure that all of the necessary conditions are fulfilled. I conclude, therefore, that meta-ethical relativism has not been proved and, hence, that we need not, in our ethical judgments, give up the claim that they are objectively valid in the sense that they will be sustained by a review by all those who are free, clear-headed, fully informed, and who take the point of view in question.

Reproduced from The Frankena Papers with the kind permission of Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

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