Chapter Three: Relativism

Section  5. Pluralism and Realism

Realism is simply the opposite of nihilism -- it holds that it makes sense to speak of such things as obligations, and right actions, and that such talk connects with a significant aspect of reality. Moral obligations are not myths, they are not just symbols, they are not merely verbal expressions, and they are not just different types of psychological delusions. Furthermore, moral discourse is not fundamentally and intellectually mistaken -- the result of some drastic conceptual error.

According to moral realists, the universe has lots of properties -- the universe has physical properties, it has conscious properties (after all, we are conscious, and we are part of the universe), and it has moral properties. And those moral properties are just as real as the physical ones.

Furthermore, realists hold that the moral aspects of the universe are what they are independent of human opinion. Realists deny relativism, because relativists think that obligations are rooted in human opinion. Realists think that people can simply be wrong or mistaken about what their obligations are. Relativists cannot make sense of that.

Pluralism is the position that there are many (or at least more than one) moral values or sources of obligation. It is in contrast with the position that requires that all values and obligations can be fit into nice tidy, neat little boxes, and so arranged that these things can never be in real conflict. Conflict, in this position (let's call it "heirarchicalism"), is nothing more than the result of human limitation. -- our inability to see what our obligations really are.

The film "A Few Good Men" concerned two enlisted marines who were on trial for murder or manslaughter or something. They pleaded "not guilty." Not because they didn't do what they were accused of, but because they simply followed the order of their commanding officer. Their obligation is always to do whatever their commanding officer tells them to do. Obeying orders is, in the military (in the movie) the consummate and ultimate military virtue, and whenever this virtue seems to conflict with another of their perceived obligations, obeying orders always trumps the others. According to this position, the conflict is really an illusion. It just seems like there is an irresolvable conflict, but in fact there is not, because following an order is always the most important obligation one has. This would be an example of "heirarchicalism". Pluralism, in contrast, is the position that there can be conflicts, because there are multiple real moral values, and these values are neither reducible to one another (in the way that fidelity to one's spouse might be reducible to love) nor are they commensurable.

It might be tempting to see relativism and pluralism as the same thing. They are not. Pluralists do not need to believe, as relativists do, that values are grounded in the beliefs of the people who hold them. Here are a few moral principles or values: autonomy, justice, well-being, authenticity, and peace. A relativist will say that people are obligated to seek justice if and only if their society values justice, or if and only if this particular person values justice. But a pluralist can believe that everybody ought to work for justice and peace, even though a person (or a society) may think that they are under no such obligation.


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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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