restricted access Sophism and Moral Agnosticism, or, How to Tell a Relativist from a Pluralist
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Sophism and Moral Agnosticism, or, How to Tell a Relativist from a Pluralist


Is it possible to recognize the limits of rationality, and thus to embrace moral pluralism, without embracing moral relativism? My answer is yes; nevertheless, certain anti-foundational positions, both recent and ancient, take a cynical stance toward the possibility of any critical moral judgment, and as such, must be regarded as relativistic.1 It is such cynicism, I argue, whether openly announced or unknowingly implied, that marks the distinction between relativism and pluralism.2 The danger of this cynicism is not so much that it renders the categorical acceptance of a particular moral view unattainable, but that it renders categorical condemnation of any particular position (or action) impossible.3 Two paradigm examples of this form of cynicism are to be found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and of Richard Rorty. Both philosophers offer critiques of rationality that lead to a deeply pluralistic understanding of the world; both philosophers attempt to address the challenge of relativism while embracing moral pluralism. Yet, both philosophers allow their respective positions to devolve into a cynical critique of rational form itself, ultimately resulting in moral relativism. Nevertheless, in championing nonfoundational pluralism, both MacIntyre and Rorty influentially herald a necessary fact: rational moral disagreement is a permanent feature of modern society. In this capacity, both thinkers merit the attention of anyone wishing to trace the curious border between moral pluralism and moral relativism. In this article, I will argue that moral pluralism derives from an understanding of rationality's epistemological limitations, while nevertheless remaining committed to the standards of rational justification integral to the very practice of philosophical inquiry.4 I will propose that this same understanding and commitment were displayed by Socrates, in his stand against the popular [End Page 87] sophistical relativism of his own time. I maintain there is a distinction to be made between justification and judgment; such a distinction, I will argue, allows us to condemn certain moral claims decisively, even if we are otherwise unable to justify our comprehensive claims in a non-circular fashion.

More specifically, given the reality of pluralism, it is necessary to identify exactly what is at stake in moral relativism and its relationship to pluralism. Consider, for example, a clash between two distinctive moral doctrines. One doctrine commends the enslavement of a foreign group. For the sake of argument, let us assume that this first sect takes a literal interpretation of the following passage from the Judeo-Christian Book of Leviticus: "Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves" (25.44). Assume the tradition in question interprets this passage in a coherently rational manner consistent with the tradition's metaphysical first principles. Now consider a second, competing point of view, which holds categorically that slavery is wrong. Perhaps the adherents of this doctrine take a literal interpretation of the following verse from the Christian Epistle to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3.28). Assume this latter tradition interprets this biblical passage in an equally consistent and rational manner regarding its metaphysical first principles. If one cannot provide a non-circular argument as to why one of these positions is condemnable in contrast to the other, then one runs the risk of relativism.

If reason cannot adjudicate against specific behaviors (such as enslavement), then force remains the natural arbitrator of values. Such is the real danger and challenge of relativism. Thus, it is not a question of whether one position is non-circularly justifiable over the other, for any number of incommensurable moral viewpoints may be justifiable in terms of rational coherence following from specific first principles; on the contrary, as I will show below, this is simply the reality of moral pluralism. The abiding danger of relativism, as opposed to pluralism, is that competing moral views may equally defy attempts at categorical condemnation. In other words, pluralism lies in the inability to defend any position categorically; whereas relativism, I will maintain, lies in the...