A Brief Overview of Ethical Theory

Link: What is Ethics? A Quick and Dirty Overview


Taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Moral Realism

Taken at face value, the claim that Nigel has a moral obligation to keep his promise, like the claim that Nyx is a black cat, purports to report a fact and is true if things are as the claim purports. Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.

As a result, those who reject moral realism are usefully divided into (i) those who think moral claims do not purport to report facts in light of which they are true or false (noncognitivists) and (ii) those who think that moral claims do carry this purport but deny that any moral claims are actually true (error theorists).

It is worth noting that, while moral realists are united in their cognitivism and in their rejection of error theories, they disagree among themselves not only about which moral claims are actually true but about what it is about the world that makes those claims true. Moral realism is not a particular substantive moral view nor does it carry a distinctive metaphysical commitment over and above the commitment that comes with thinking moral claims can be true or false and some are true. Still, much of the debate about moral realism revolves around either what it takes for claims to be true or false at all (with some arguing that moral claims do not have what it takes) or what it would take specifically for moral claims to be true (with some arguing that moral claims would require something the world does not provide).

The debate between moral realists and anti-realists assumes, though, that there is a shared object of inquiry—in this case, a range of claims all involved are willing to recognize as moral claims—about which two questions can be raised and answered: Do these claims purport to report facts in light of which they are true or false? Are some of them true? Moral realists answer ‘yes’ to both, non-cognitivists answer ‘no’ to the first (and, by default, ‘no’ to the second) while error theorists answer ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the second. To note that some other, non-moral, claims do not (or do) purport to report facts or that none (or some) of them are true, is to change the subject. That said, it is strikingly hard to nail down with any accuracy just which claims count as moral and so are at issue in the debate. For the most part, those concerned with whether moral realism is true are forced to work back and forth between an intuitive grasp of which claims are at issue and an articulate but controversial account of what they have in common such that realism either is, or is not, defensible about them.

By all accounts, moral realism can fairly claim to have common sense and initial appearances on its side. That advantage, however, is easily outweighed. Indeed, there are a number of powerful arguments for holding that it is a mistake to think of moral claims as true.


Moral Skepticism

“Moral Skepticism” names a diverse collection of views that deny or raise doubts about various roles of reason in morality. Different versions of moral skepticism deny or doubt moral knowledge, justified moral belief, moral truth, moral facts or properties, and reasons to be moral.

Despite this diversity among the views that get labeled “moral skepticism”, many people have very strong feelings about moral skepticism in general. One large group finds moral skepticism obvious, because they do not see how anyone could have real knowledge of the moral status of anything or how moral facts could fit into a physical world. Others see moral skepticism as so absurd that any moral theory can be refuted merely by showing that it leads to moral skepticism. Don’t you know, they ask, that slavery is morally wrong? Or terrorism? Or child abuse? Skeptics who deny that we have reason to believe or obey these moral judgments are seen as misguided and dangerous. The stridency and ease of these charges suggests mutual misunderstanding, so we need to be more charitable and more precise.

Varieties of Moral Skepticism

Moral skeptics differ in many ways, but they share a common core that makes them all moral skeptics. What makes moral skepticism moral is that it concerns morality rather than other topics. Moral skeptics might go on to be skeptics about the external world or about other minds or about induction or about all beliefs, but these other skepticisms are not entailed by moral skepticism alone.

What makes moral skeptics skeptics is that they raise doubts about common beliefs. Moral skeptics then differ in the kinds of doubts that they raise. Since general skepticism is an epistemological view about the limits of knowledge or justified belief, the most central version of moral skepticism is the one that raises doubts about moral knowledge or justified moral belief.

There are two main traditions in epistemological skepticism. One tradition makes the claim that nobody ever knows or can know anything. This claim is sometimes named Cartesian skepticism (although Descartes argued against it) or Academic skepticism (despite other interpretations of skeptics in the ancient Academy). For lack of a better description, we can call it dogmatic skepticism, because such skeptics dogmatically assert a universal claim. In contrast, no such claim is made by Pyrrhonian skeptics. They also don’t deny any claim like this. They have so much doubt that they refrain from taking any position one way or the other on whether anyone does or does not or can or cannot know anything.

Moral skepticism comes in two corresponding kinds. Pyrrhonian moral skeptics refuse to admit that some people sometimes know that some substantive moral belief is true. They doubt that moral knowledge is possible. Still, they do not go on to make the opposite claim that moral knowledge is impossible. They doubt that, too. Their doubts are so extreme that they do not make any claim one way or the other about the actuality or possibility of moral knowledge. Similar views can be adopted regarding justified moral belief.

In contrast, dogmatic moral skeptics make definite claims about the epistemic status of moral beliefs:

  • Dogmatic skepticism about moral knowledge is the claim that nobody ever knows that any substantive moral belief is true. (Cf. Butchvarov 1989, 2.)

Some moral skeptics add this related claim:

  • Dogmatic skepticism about justified moral belief is the claim that nobody is ever justified in holding any substantive moral belief.

(The relevant way of being justified is specified in Sinnott-Armstrong 2006, chap. 4.) These two claims and Pyrrhonian moral skepticism all fall under the general heading of epistemological moral skepticism.

The relation between these two claims depends on the nature of knowledge. If knowledge implies justified belief, as is traditionally supposed, then skepticism about justified moral belief implies skepticism about moral knowledge. However, even if knowledge does require justified belief, it does not require only justified belief, so skepticism about moral knowledge does not imply skepticism about justified moral belief.

One reason is that knowledge implies truth, but justified belief does not. Thus, if moral beliefs cannot be true, they can never be known to be true, but they still might be justified in some way that is independent of truth. As a result, skepticism about moral knowledge is implied, but skepticism about justified moral belief is not implied, by yet another form of moral skepticism:

  • Skepticism about moral truth is the claim that no substantive moral belief is true.

This claim is usually based on one of three more specific claims:

  • Skepticism about moral truth-aptness is the claim that no substantive moral belief is the kind of thing that could be either true or false.Skepticism about moral truth-value is the claim that no substantive moral belief is either true or false (although some moral beliefs are the kind of thing that could be true or false).

Skepticism with moral falsehood is the claim that every substantive moral belief is false.

These last three kinds of moral skepticism are not epistemological, for they are not directly about knowledge or justification. Instead, they are about truth, so they are usually based on views of moral language or metaphysics.

Some philosophers of language argue that sentences like “Cheating is morally wrong” are neither true nor false, because they resemble pure expressions of emotion (such as “Boo Knicks”) or prescriptions for action (such as “Go Celtics”). Such expressions and prescriptions are kinds of thing that cannot be either true or false. Thus, if these analogies hold in all relevant respects, then substantive moral beliefs are also not the right kind of thing to be either true or false. They are not apt for evaluation in terms of truth. For this reason, such linguistic theories are often taken to imply skepticism about moral truth-aptness. Views of this general sort are defended by Ayer (1952), Stevenson (1944), Hare (1981), Gibbard (1990; cf. 2003), and Blackburn (1993), although recent versions often allow some minimal kind of moral truth while denying that moral beliefs can be true or false in the same robust way as factual beliefs.

Such views are often described as non-cognitivism. That label is misleading, because etymology suggests that cognitivism is about cognition, which is knowledge. Since knowledge implies truth, skepticism about moral truth-aptness has implications for moral knowledge, but it is directly about truth-aptness and not about moral knowledge.

Whatever you call it, skepticism about moral truth-aptness runs into several problems. If moral assertions have no truth-value, then it is hard to see how they can fit into truth-functional contexts, such as negation, disjunction, and conditionals. Such contexts are also unassertive, so they do not express the same emotions or prescriptions as when moral claims are asserted. Indeed, no particular emotion or prescription seems to be expressed when someone says, “Eating meat is not morally wrong” (cf. Schroeder 2010). Expressivists and prescriptivists respond to such objections, but their responses remain controversial. (Cf. Sinnott-Armstrong 2006, chap. 2.)

Many moral theorists conclude that moral assertions express not only emotions or prescriptions but also beliefs. In particular, they express beliefs that certain acts, institutions, or people have certain moral properties (such as moral rightness or wrongness) or beliefs in moral facts (such as the fact that a certain act is morally right or wrong). This non-skeptical linguistic analysis still does not show that such moral claims can be true, since assertions can express beliefs that are false or neither true nor false. Indeed, all substantive moral assertions and beliefs are false (or neither true nor false) if they claim (or semantically presuppose) moral facts or properties, and if this metaphysical thesis holds:

  • Skepticism about moral reality is the claim that no moral facts or properties exist.

Skepticism about moral reality is, thus, a reason for skepticism with moral falsehood, as developed by Mackie (1977), or skepticism about moral truth-value, as developed by Joyce (2001). Opponents of such error theories often object that some moral beliefs must be true because some moral beliefs deny the truth of other moral beliefs. However, error theorists can allow a negative moral belief (such as that eating meat is not morally wrong) to be true, but only if it merely denies the truth of the corresponding positive moral belief (that eating meat is morally wrong). If such denials of moral beliefs are not substantive moral beliefs (as denials of astrological beliefs are not astrology), then error theorists can maintain that all substantive moral beliefs are false or neither true nor false.

Error theorists and skeptics about moral truth-aptness disagree about the content of moral assertions, but they still agree that no substantive moral claim or belief is true, so they are both skeptics about moral truth. None of these skeptical theses is implied by either skepticism about moral knowledge or skepticism about justified moral belief. Some moral claims might be true, even if we cannot know or have justified beliefs about which ones are true. However, a converse implication seems to hold: If knowledge implies truth, and if moral claims are never true, then there is no knowledge of what is moral or immoral (assuming that skeptics deny the same kind of truth that knowledge requires). Nonetheless, since the implication holds in only one direction, skepticism about moral truth is still distinct from all kinds of epistemological moral skepticism.

Yet another non-epistemological form of moral skepticism answers the question “Why be moral?” This question is used to raise many different issues. Almost everyone admits that there is sometimes some kind of reason to be moral. However, many philosophers deny various universal claims, including the claims that there is always some reason to be moral, that there is always a distinctively moral (as opposed to self-interested) reason to be moral, and/or that there is always enough reason to make it irrational not to be moral or at least not irrational to be moral. These distinct denials can be seen as separate forms of practical moral skepticism, which are discussed in more detail in the following supplementary document:

Practical moral skepticism resembles epistemological moral skepticism in that both kinds of skepticism deny a role to reasons in morality. However, epistemological moral skepticism is about reasons for belief, whereas practical moral skepticism is about reasons for action. Moreover, practical moral skeptics usually deny that there is always enough reason for moral action, whereas epistemological moral skeptics usually deny that there is ever an adequate reason for moral belief. Consequently, practical moral skepticism does not imply epistemological moral skepticism. Some moral theorists do assume that a reason to believe that an act is immoral cannot be adequate unless it also provides a reason not to do that act. However, even if the two kinds of reasons are related in this way, they are still distinct, so practical moral skepticism must not be confused with epistemological moral skepticism.

Overall, then, we need to distinguish the following kinds of epistemological moral skepticism:

  • Dogmatic skepticism about moral knowledge = nobody ever knows that any substantive moral belief is true.
  • Dogmatic skepticism about justified moral belief = nobody is ever justified in holding any substantive moral belief.
  • Pyrrhonian skepticism about moral knowledge withholds assent from both dogmatic skepticism about moral knowledge and its denial.
  • Pyrrhonian skepticism about justified moral belief withholds assent from both dogmatic skepticism about justified moral belief and its denial.

We also need to distinguish these epistemological moral skepticisms from several non-epistemological kinds of moral skepticism:

  • Skepticism about moral truth = no substantive moral belief is true.
  • Skepticism about moral truth-aptness = no substantive moral belief is the kind of thing that could be either true or false.
  • Skepticism about moral truth-value = no substantive moral belief is either true or false (although some moral beliefs are the kind of thing that could be true or false).
  • Skepticism with moral falsehood = every substantive moral belief is false.
  • Skepticism about moral reality = no moral properties or facts exist.
  • Practical moral skepticism = there is not always any or enough or distinctively moral reason to be moral.

These kinds of moral skepticism can be diagrammed as follows:




Moral Nihilism

(from Wikipedia.org)

Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. Moral nihilists consider morality to be constructed, a complex set of rules and recommendations that may give a psychological, social, or economical advantage to its adherents, but is otherwise without universal or even relative truth in any sense.[1]

Moral nihilism is distinct from moral relativism, which does allow for moral statements to be true or false in a non-objective sense, but does not assign any static truth-values to moral statements, and of course moral universalism, which holds moral statements to be objectively true or false. Insofar as only true statements can be known, moral nihilism implies moral skepticism.

Forms of Moral Nihilism

According to Sinnott-Armstrong (2006a), the basic thesis of moral nihilism is that “nothing is morally wrong” (§3.4). There are, however, several forms that this thesis can take (see Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006b, pp. 32–37 and Russ Shafer-Landau, 2003, pp. 8–13). There are two important forms of moral nihilism: Error theory and Expressivism p. 292.


One form of moral nihilism is expressivism. Expressivism denies the principle that our moral judgments try and fail to describe the moral features, because expressivists believe when someone says something is immoral they are not saying it is right or wrong. Expressivists are not trying to speak the truth when making moral judgments; they are simply trying to express their feelings. “We are not making an effort to describe the way the world is. We are not trying to report on the moral features possessed by various actions, motives, or policies. Instead, we are venting our emotions, commanding others to act in certain ways, or revealing a plan of action. When we condemn torture, for instance, we are expressing our opposition to it, indicating our disgust at it, publicizing our reluctance to perform it, and strongly encouraging others not to go in for it. We can do all of these things without trying to say anything that is true.” p. 293.

This makes expressivism a form of non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivism in ethics is the view that moral statements lack truth-value and do not assert genuine propositions. This involves a rejection of the cognitivist claim, shared by other moral philosophies, that moral statements seek to “describe some feature of the world” (Garner 1967, 219-220). This position on its own is logically compatible with realism about moral values themselves. That is, one could reasonably hold that there are objective moral values but that we cannot know them and that our moral language does not seek to refer to them. This would amount to an endorsement of a type of moral skepticism, rather than nihilism.

Typically, however, the rejection of the cognitivist thesis is combined with the thesis that there are, in fact, no moral facts (van Roojen, 2004). But if moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, non-cognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible (Garner 1967, 219-220).

Not all forms of non-cognitivism are forms of moral nihilism, however: notably, the universal prescriptivism of R.M. Hare is a non-cognitivist form of moral universalism.

Error theory

Error theory is built by three principles:

  1. There are no moral features in this world; nothing is right or wrong.
  2. Therefore no moral judgments are true; however,
  3. Our sincere moral judgments try, but always fail, to describe the moral features of things.

Thus, we always lapse into error when thinking in moral terms. We are trying to state the truth when we make moral judgments. But since there is no moral truth, all of our moral claims are mistaken. Hence the error. These three principles lead to the conclusion that there is no moral knowledge. Knowledge requires truth. If there is no moral truth, there can be no moral knowledge. Thus moral values are purely chimerical.

Error theorists combine the cognitivist thesis that moral language consists of truth-apt statements with the nihilist thesis that there are no moral facts. Like moral nihilism itself, however, error theory comes in more than one form: Global falsity and Presupposition failure.

Global falsity

The first, which one might call the global falsity form of error theory, claims that moral beliefs and assertions are false in that they claim that certain moral facts exist that do not exist. J. L. Mackie (1977) argues for this form of moral nihilism. Mackie, for example, argues that moral assertions are only true if there are moral properties that are intrinsically motivating, but there is good reason to believe that there are no such intrinsically motivating properties (see the argument from queerness and motivational internalism).

Presupposition failure

The second form, which one might call the presupposition failure form of error theory, claims that moral beliefs and assertions are not true because they are neither true nor false. This is not a form of non-cognitivism, for moral assertions are still thought to be truth-apt. Rather, this form of moral nihilism claims that moral beliefs and assertions presuppose the existence of moral facts that do not exist. This is analogous to presupposition failure in cases of non-moral assertions. Take, for example, the claim that the present king of France is bald. Some argue that this claim is truth-apt in that it has the logical form of an assertion, but it is neither true nor false because it presupposes that there is currently a king of France, but there is not. The claim suffers from “presupposition failure.” Richard Joyce (2001) argues for this form of moral nihilism under the name “fictionalism.”


Moral Relativism

Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone. Nonetheless, moral relativism is a standard topic in metaethics, and there are contemporary philosophers who defend forms of it: The most prominent are Gilbert Harman and David B. Wong. The term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons. Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with a normative position about how we ought to think about or act towards those with whom we morally disagree, most commonly that we should tolerate them.

Forms and Arguments

In general, the term ‘relativism’ refers to many different ideas. For example, in anthropology it sometimes connotes, among other things, the rather uncontroversial notion that anthropologists should strive to be impartial and unprejudiced in their empirical inquires. However, in moral philosophy ‘relativism’ is usually taken to suggest an empirical, a metaethical, or a normative position. The empirical position is usually:

  • Descriptive Moral Relativism (DMR). As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

This is often thought to have been established by anthropology and other empirical disciplines. However, DMR is not uncontroversial: Empirical as well as philosophical objections have been raised against it. Hence, it is one focal point of debate.

The metaethical position usually concerns the truth or justification of moral judgments, and it has been given somewhat different definitions. Metaethical relativists generally suppose that many fundamental moral disagreements cannot be rationally resolved, and on this basis they argue that moral judgments lack the moral authority or normative force that moral objectivists usually contend these judgments may have. Hence, metaethical relativism is in part a negative thesis that challenges the claims of moral objectivists. However, it often involves a positive thesis as well, namely that moral judgments nonetheless have moral authority or normative force, not absolutely or universally (as objectivists contend), but relative to some group of persons such as a society or culture. This point is typically made with respect to truth or justification (or both), and the following definition will be a useful reference point:

  • Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

With respect to truth-value, this means that a moral judgment such as ‘Polygamy is morally wrong’ may be true relative to one society, but false relative to another. It is not true, or false, simply speaking. Likewise, with respect to justification, this judgment may be justified in one society, but not another. Taken in one way, this last point is uncontroversial: The people in one society may have different evidence available to them than the people in the other society. But proponents of MMR usually have something stronger and more provocative in mind: That the standards of justification in the two societies may differ from one another and that there is no rational basis for resolving these differences. This is why the justification of moral judgments is relative rather than absolute.

It is important to note several distinctions that may be made in formulating different metaethical relativist positions. First, it is sometimes said that the truth or justification of moral judgments may be relative to an individual person as well as a group of persons. In this article, the latter will be assumed, as in the definition of MMR, unless otherwise noted. Second, that to which truth or justification is relative may be the persons making the moral judgments or the persons about whom the judgments are made. These are sometimes called appraiser and agent relativism respectively. Appraiser relativism suggests that we do or should make moral judgments on the basis of our own standards, while agent relativism implies that the relevant standards are those of the persons we are judging (of course, in some cases these may coincide). Appraiser relativism is the more common position, and it will usually be assumed in the discussion that follows. Finally, MMR may be offered as the best explanation of what people already believe, or it may be put forward as a position people ought to accept regardless of what they now believe. There will be occasion to discuss both claims below, though the latter is probably the more common one.

Metaethical moral relativist positions are typically contrasted with moral objectivism. Let us say that moral objectivism maintains that moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute or universal sense, that some of them are true, and that people sometimes are justified in accepting true moral judgments (and rejecting false ones) on the basis of evidence available to any reasonable and well-informed person. There are different ways of challenging moral objectivism. Moral skepticism says that we are never justified in accepting or rejecting moral judgments. Other views—variously called moral non-cognitivism, expressivism, anti-realism, nihilism, etc.—contend that moral judgments lack truth-value, at least beyond the truth-value implied by the minimalist claim that to assert that S is true is simply to assert S (a related view, the error theory, claims that moral judgments are always false). MMR is often distinguished from all of these views: Instead of denying truth-value or justification, it affirms relative forms of these. However, metaethical moral relativist views are sometimes regarded as connected with positions that say moral judgments lack truth-value, since the relativist views contend that moral judgments lack truth-value in an absolute or universal sense. This is sometimes simply a question of terminology, but not always. If it is said that moral judgments lack truth-value (beyond the claim of minimalism), then there cannot be relative truth-value in the sense that moral relativists usually intend (though it might be contended that there is a sense in which there could still be justification). As will be seen below, there is a debate about the relationship between MMR and non-cognitivist or expressivist positions.

Most arguments for MMR are based on DMR and the contention that it is implausible to suppose fundamental moral disagreements can always be resolved rationally. Both Harman (1996) and Wong (1984 and 2006) have stressed this theme, and it will be considered in some detail in subsequent sections. However, some arguments for MMR have a somewhat different approach, and two of these should be noted here.

First, MMR might be defended as a consequence of the general relativist thesis that the truth or justification of all judgments is not absolute or universal, but relative to some group of persons. For example, this general position might be maintained on the ground that each society has its own conceptual scheme and that conceptual schemes are incommensurable with one another. Hence, we can only speak of truth or justification in relative terms. This position might be thought to have the disadvantage that it can only be put forward as true or justified relative to some conceptual scheme (the suggestion is usually that this scheme is our own), and many find it implausible with regard to common sense judgments and judgments in the natural sciences. However, this is one avenue to MMR. But most proponents of MMR focus on distinctive features of morality and reject general relativism. In fact, they often contrast morality and science with respect to issues of truth and justification. For example, Harman (2000b) and Wong (1996 and 2006) both associate moral relativism with naturalism, a position that presupposes the objectivity of the natural sciences.

Second, a metaethical moral relativist position might be defended by emphasizing aspects of morality other than, or at least in addition to, disagreement. For example, Harman (2000a) has argued that a moral judgment that a person ought to do X (an “inner judgment”) implies that the person has motivating reasons to do X, and that a person is likely to have such reasons only if he or she has implicitly entered into an agreement with others about what to do. Hence, moral judgments of this kind are valid only for groups of persons who have made such agreements. An action may be right relative to one agreement and wrong relative to another (this combines agent and appraisal relativism insofar as Harman assumes that the person making the judgment and the person to whom the judgment is addressed are both parties to the agreement).

Harman’s relativism is presented as a thesis about logical form, but the relativist implication arises only because it is supposed that the relevant motivating reasons are not universal and so probably arose from an agreement that some but not all persons have made. In this sense, moral disagreement is an important feature of the argument. But the main focus is on the internalist idea that inner judgments imply motivating reasons, reasons that are not provided simply by being rational, but require particular desires or intentions that a person may or may not have. Internalism in this sense is a controversial view, and many would say that a moral judgment can apply to a person whether or not that person is motivated to follow it (see the section on psychology and moral motivation in the entry on moral epistemology). However, internalism is not a standard feature of most arguments for moral relativism, and in fact some relativists are critical of internalism (for example, see Wong 2006: ch. 7)

It is worth noting that internalism is one expression of a more general viewpoint that emphasizes the action-guiding character of moral judgments. Though Harman and others (for example, Dreier 1990 and 2006) have argued that a form of moral relativism provides the best explanation of internalism, a more common argument has been that the action-guiding character of moral judgments is best explained by a non-cognitivist or expressivist account according to which moral judgments lack truth-value (at least beyond the claim of minimalism). In fact, some have claimed that the expressivist position avoids, and is superior to, moral relativism because it accounts for the action-guiding character of moral judgments without taking on the problems that moral relativism is thought to involve (for instance, see Blackburn 1998: ch. 9 and 1999, and Horgan and Timmons 2006). By contrast, others have maintained that positions such as non-cognitivism and expressivism are committed to a form of moral relativism (for example, see Bloomfield 2003, Foot 2002b, and Shafer-Landau 2003: ch 1). For a discussion of non-cognitivism and related positions, see the entry on Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism.)

Finally, the term ‘moral relativism’ is sometimes associated with a normative position concerning how we ought to think about, or behave towards, persons with whom we morally disagree. Usually the position is formulated in terms of tolerance. In particular, it is said that we should not interfere with the actions of persons that are based on moral judgments we reject, when the disagreement is not or cannot be rationally resolved. This is thought to apply especially to relationships between our society and those societies with which we have significant moral disagreements. Since tolerance so-understood is a normative thesis about what we morally ought to do, it is best regarded, not as a form of moral relativism per se, but as a thesis that has often been thought to be implied by relativist positions such as DMR and MMR. Despite the popularity of this thought, most philosophers believe it is mistaken. The question is what philosophical relationship, if any, obtains between moral relativism and tolerance.


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