I suspect that many realists are attracted to moral realism because they worry that without it all moral claims are in danger of falling prey to the most destructive forms of relativism. The extreme moral relativist argument is that all values are relative to a particular community, and therefore there is no way to justify the claim that a value held in one community is sounder than a conflicting value held in any other. So, for example, we may consider female genital mutilation to be a particularly brutal form of gendered abuse, but if another community approves of it, the rest of us can have no basis for objecting to it outside our own communities. Moral realism, of course, only saves us from this problem if the objective values are ours and not theirs, and if we have some reliable way of accessing objective values, and I don't see how either of these could be guaranteed, even if moral realism was true. But I will also argue that we can do much better than this with a more plausible ontology of values.
The starting point for such an ontology is the recognition that all values are human products. They exist materially in our heads as individual beliefs or dispositions about, for example, standards of right behaviour – as mental properties of individual human beings. But these beliefs also depend on a causal history of social interaction, and in particular we come to regard some of our beliefs as values because we recognise (whether consciously or not) that they have social backing. We generally accept the rightness of those ethical claims that are backed by people around us – by the norm circles, as I have called them, that we are exposed to. That doesn’t mean that our personal values are entirely determined by our social context – sometimes they diverge, and this is a crucial step in the social evolution of values. Often different values are espoused by different norm circles, and it is the competition between different norm circles that drives the development of values.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Habermas gives one version of the discourse principle in his book Between Facts and Norms: “just those action norms are valid to which all possibly affected persons could agree as participants in rational discourses” (p. 107) (I will assume that we can widen the scope of this principle to apply to value claims in general and not just action norms). For such a discourse to be rational, Habermas argues, it must be open, truthful and undistorted by differences in power. This is not just an arbitrary list of criteria, because it is implicit in any genuine agreement. When some participants have been misled by lies or concealments, or forced to concede a point due to the greater power of another participant in the conversation, we cannot reasonably regard the process as producing a genuine agreement.
One difficulty with Habermas’s discourse principle is that it is an extraordinarily demanding standard – it is doubtful whether it could ever fully be met with regard to an even mildly contentious issue. It is usually the voices of the powerful that are heard most clearly; if we are to hear “all possibly affected persons” then work will have to be done to ensure that the voices of the less powerful are heard equally clearly, and there are few contexts where this occurs. But the discourse principle may help us despite this, if we regard it as a kind of regulative ideal: we may say that values are rational to the extent that they meet this ideal. I think that we can also say that this is the right kind of rationality to apply to debates about values. What matters in discussions about values is the effects that following those values would have on people, animals and things, and it therefore seems appropriate to judge them on the basis of the responses of the people affected when they have been exposed to a full discussion of the issues. (This assumes, of course, that the animals and things are unable to participate in such a process – perhaps, though, they ought to be represented in it?)
This only helps if we can find real cases that have approximated to Habermasian discourses, but I suggest that there are indeed such cases. Consider, in particular, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This was the outcome of a long process of ethical and political debate, conducted both inside and outside the UN, which was strongly influenced by anti-colonial struggles and women’s organisations – by some of those marginalised groups that are often excluded. In that sense it is the product of a process that roughly approximates to Habermas’s principle. Of course, neither the process nor the product are perfect – the declaration, for example, ignores the need for LGBTQ rights, and power politics in the UN mean that the organisation does little to back up the declaration in practice. Nevertheless, it embodies a principle that provides one important basis for further ethical arguments: that all humans should be valued and are entitled to certain basic rights.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Arguments like these give us a coherent basis for critiques of oppressive institutions and ideas. They provide a strong defence against extreme moral relativism, but they do not automatically override the arguments of people from other communities with whom we disagree. Instead, they demand an inclusive dialogue with those communities, including their most marginalised members as well as their official representatives, in an effort to find genuine agreement about how to respect the needs of all. Such agreements are not set in stone, even when they are derived by inclusive rational processes of debate. There are always groups that have not yet made their voices heard. The consequence is that we must retain a certain ethical humility, an openness to the possibility that ethics and critique can still be developed further.
This work by Dave Elder-Vass is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.