Jesse Prinz article at Philosophy Now

I see Jesse Prinz regularly at the Grad Center colloquia where he always asks interesting and articulate questions. So I read a recent article of his on moral relativism “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.” It begins with an exposition exemplifying the variety of human moral values, and asking how there could be such variety if morality is universal.

Odd question. Moral theory is not and never has been an empirical science. It’s prescriptive, not descriptive. Kant wasn’t trying figure out a way to describe morality. He wanted to find a rational basis for action. That his conclusion was consonant with much (though not all) of his local cultural mores, might be a reason to suspect his objectivity, but not enough to stand as an argument against his rational program.

Seems to me the JP’s question mistakes mores for morals. Does any universalist care what strange rites and social conventions hold across the world? If there’s a universal moral law, and they don’t follow it, the worse for them. They ought to get with it and shape up. That’s the essence of universalism, after all. No more clitorectomies! No more hanging queers! No more sex slaves! JP’s question is a sort of question-begging. The answer to “Is there a universal morality that all people should follow” can’t be “No, because not all people follow the same mores.”

JP promotes ‘experimental philosophy’, something I, as an empirical linguist, support thoroughly…in matters of fact, but not in matters of value. He wants to claim that humans show a variety of mores, and that variety is incorrigible, so leave them be.  But that’s not yet an argument for justifying those mores against universal morality. It’s just repeating the fact that there is variety that may be inconsistent with universal morality. One answer is his — let ’em. Another is, convince them they are wrong. JP hasn’t yet argued for the former or against the latter except maybe to indicate that the former is easy, the latter, hard.

He, like all those who distrust the modernist program, point out just how hard it is: we “enlightened” modernists have exploded nuclear bombs on civilian targets, we’ve polluted our environment maybe permanently — there’s a long, long list of our shocking behaviors that fail our own moral bar.

But how does that impugn our moral bar? What difference does it matter to a universalist whether we follow our own moral precepts. She’s there to tell us just how wrong we are. Jesse is careful to describe our failings as viewed from other people’s, the past and the future. But in fact, those are viewed as failings to his audience and to him himself. There’s a hint there towards a universalist, modern morality. And he finds it is his final conclusion.

But first he notes that mores are inculcated in youth as part of our developmental process. Again, that’s just to say that if universal morality conflicts with mores, do not expect humans everywhere to conform. But the constant, harping of the universalist is the exhortation to give over sin and be moral, stop behaving like a selfish beast and be a mensch, stop persecuting others and see that, but for luck, you’d be the victim; get over your developmental blindness and open your eyes. If everywhere everyone behaved alike and in ways that made everyone alike happy, moral theory would have no more interest that whether humans breathe. The question of morality is “How should we behave” not “How do we behave.”

At the end JP reassures the universalist that relativism is not the end of the world. We’ve all got to get along together, so we all behave in ways that get along together, no matter how relative and different we are.

But that is universalist morality.

To me there’s an even stronger claim of universalism, and I think everyone recognizes it. Everyone, regardless of mores, develops in childhood the ability to recognize the notion of fairness. We don’t often apply fairness against our mores. No surprise. We fail to apply our notion of fairness all the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t recognize it.

The argument for universal morality is not that everyone behaves morally, but that everyone can recognize some one notion of how to behave, even if they don’t follow it or object that it conflicts with their mores.

I find that there are several notion of morality. ‘Treat others as they treat you’ is one. It leads often to brutishness. ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you’ is another. It leads usually to kindness and thoughtfulness. The question for universalism is, which is more compelling?

Believers often argue against secular morality on the grounds that our modern world has seen shocking violence. Our morality has not succeeded. Weird claim. Religion succeeded? Of course, if every believer in a kind deity followed kind precepts of the religion, many people would be kind, even sacrificing themselves for others (who in turn would sacrifice themselves for each other). But most members of most religions don’t. So I don’t see a contest here.

The real contest is academic: if people would follow their precepts, would non believers seek justice or mere selfish ‘getting along to get along’? In my experience, some are more brutish than others, some want money, some want fame, some just want to write philosophy, some want to be smart, some want to be considered smart, some just want to get laid. None of them are so stupid as not to understand fairness.

Just don’t expect them to be fair. Either they want something from you, or they don’t care about you. At best, you can win any argument with a claim of fairness. Usually when you win an argument, the beaten is resentful. So morality is not always a winning game.


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