Thursday, March 8, 2007

Moral Relativism and Really Bad Papers

I'm in the middle of grading one of the worst batches of papers I've ever graded. Somehow, out of all the TAs I'm the one who ended up with most of the really bad ones - vast confusions and misunderstanding, gross failures to actually read the text they are writing on, neglect in actually following the directions given by the topic prompt, rambling and incoherent paragraphs (or pages) with little or no apparent point, incomprehensible prose, lack of critical thought, lack of arguing for their own opinions, use of obviously circular or question-begging arguments, treating this as a book report rather than a philosophy paper, ignoring what was actually said or argued in class, and so on. And all this on almost all my students' papers!

I was especially dissappointed with the papers on the first paper topic. The students were asked to take a look at the part of Russ Shafer-Landau's article on ethical subjectivism where he presents and then destroys arguments for NES - normative ethical subjectivism (the view that an action is right for me if and only if I approve of it/believe it is right). They were then supposed to turn one of the arguments for NES into an argument for Cultural Relativism (the view that an action is right for me if and only if my culture approves of it/believes it is right) and then see whether Shafer-Landau's objections to the analogous argument for NES work here as well and whether the argument for CR ends up showing CR is true. Over half of the students on this topic supported CR but half of them did not even take into account Shafer-Landau's devastating objections which would work against CR just as well as NES and the rest either misunderstood Shafer-Landau, made a reply to him that we explicitly showed in class did not actually work, or said basically that Shafer-Landau's replies don't work because CR is true. So basically these were awful papers. Unsurprisingly, those advocating CR didn't actually have any good reasons to believe CR and they basically said that it was true because CR is correct. Ugh!

It's awful that so many students buy into NES or CR when they have so many problems and there's really no good reason or argument in their favor. Here's one sort of argument against these kinds of moral relativism (MR):

(1) Morality is not arbitrary.
(2) If morality is not arbitrary then MR is false.
(3) Therefore, MR is false.

Evidence for 1: Morality is a fundamentally rational, reasoned thing. People reason and argue and deliberate about moral matters and there are certain patterns to moral reasoning and justification - it's not just willy-nilly or anything goes nor is it completely random. It has all the hallmarks of non-arbitrariness, unlike something like, say, norms of etiquette or whether one likes chocolate ice cream or not.

Evidence for 2: Since morality is based on patterns of reasons and reasoning and people and cultures do not simply arbitrarily approve or dissapprove of actions but do so for these very reasons, it seems that these reasons, which explain these patterns of approval and dissapproval are what make something right or wrong, not the approval or dissapproval itself. And so if approval and dissaproval are not what morality directly depends upon, then MR must be false since it claims the opposite. So good-bye, MR.

I'm quite fond of this sort of argument. Down with MR!

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Careful man, how many PhD grad students in philosophy at UC Davis can there be?