Folk Moral Relativism Study


Folk Moral Relativism

http://faculty.baruch.cuny.edu/hsarkissian/Sarkissian%20et%20al%20-%20Folk%20Moral%20Relativism%20%28final%29.pdf

Hagop Sarkissian, John Park, David Tien, Jennifer Cole Wright and Joshua Knobe (2011) in their forthcoming paper “Folk Moral Relativism” claim that philosophers have been guilty of making sweeping claims about the nature of folk intuitions about morality, in particular the assumption that the folk are committed to moral objectivism. The primary target of Sarkissian et al’s claims are the moral philosophers such as David Brink, Michael Smith, who attempt to defend some form of moral realism based on commonsense folk practice or intuitions. These authors claim that folk moral discourse or intuitions presuppose the existence of objective moral facts.

Whilst the folk are not likely to be able to spell out the difference between moral realism and anti-realism in a way that would satisfy philosophers they can be tested on a consequence of moral realism. The study tests whether the folk have moral realist or relativist intuitions by seeing if the folk accept a consequence of moral realism namely whether two people engaged in a moral dispute cannot both be correct but one must be mistaken.

So if the folk think that two moral agents who disagree over whether some action is morally wrong or not entails that they cannot both be correct then this is taken as supporting the claim that the folk presuppose a realm of objective moral facts.

Conversely if the folk think that two moral agents who disagree over whether some action is morally wrong can both be correct then this is taken as supporting the claim that the folk do not presuppose a realm of objective moral facts.

If there are objective moral facts then two subjects who disagree over what the fact are at most one of the disputants can be correct. In the same way that if there are objective natural or social facts such as whether Napoleon rode to battle on a horse then two subjects who disagree over whether Napoleon rode to battle on a horse cannot both be correct. At least one must be mistaken.

Sarkissian et al’s hypothesis is that moral statements are analogous to statements about the relationship between the seasons and the months. We may initially think that statements such as January is a Winter month are universally true, but on encounters with people from other cultures we may see our initial claim as being true only relative to a hemisphere.

In particular their hypothesis is that, when we consider apparently contradictory statements like:

January is a winter month.

January is not a winter month.

And we are then asked to consider that people making the statements are from different hemispheres, we revise our view of the statements such that they contain an indexical (January is a winter month ‘here’) or some kind of implicit reference to different hemispheres (January is a winter month in America). In so doing we no longer treat the statements as contradictory because the two statements in the mouths of different speakers refer to different hemispheres and as such both can be true without contradiction. It is the encounters with others that make us change our views and accept the relativity of our statements.

Sarkissian et al claim that “a similar effect arises in the domain of morality.”

In order to test this hypothesis they present students with the following scenarios and then that one of their classmates and an anonymous person called ‘Sam’ disagree about whether the following transgressions are wrong or not:

A: Horace finds his youngest child extremely unattractive and therefore kills him.

B: Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.

Subjects were then asked the following

Given that these individuals have different judgments about this case, we would like to know whether you think at least one of them must be wrong, or whether you think both of them could actually be correct. In other words, to what extent would you agree or disagree with the following statement concerning such a case

Since your classmate and Sam have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

The responses were then measured on a scale of 1 – 7 to see how much they agreed or disagreed with the above statement.

Sarkissian et al then alter some of the conditions for some students by telling them that the individual who disagrees with his classmate regarding the above transgressions comes from another culture (an Amazonian warrior culture called ‘Mamilons’) or an alien culture (‘Pentars’ who are not interested in love or friendship but only in increasing the number of equilateral pentagons in the universe). Sarkissian et al record the results as follows:

Participants in the same-culture condition tended to agree that at least one person had to be wrong …, those in the other-culture condition were approximately at the midpoint …, and those in the extraterrestrial condition tended to say that both could actually be right….

Sarkissian et al (forthcoming) 2011

This result was replicated with both American and Singapore undergraduates.

In order to disambiguate the difference between thinking that the same type of act was performed in different locations and so being subject to different standards that would be fitting for those locations (a claim consistent with moral realism) Sarkissian et al switched the identity of the agent committing the transgression to one belonging to their own culture (American) and a different culture (Algerian), as well as alternating the identity of the judge.

However, no significant effect was found by varying the identity of the agent who committed the act, but only who judged the act to be wrong/not wrong. This suggests that subjects think that it is the moral framework of the appraiser that at determines whether an act is morally wrong or not rather than the agent committing the transgression.

Subjects were also presented with two other transgressions

C: Jason robs his employer, the Red Cross, in order to pay for a second holiday for himself.

D: Emily promises to take Molly’s sick child to the hospital for an important surgical procedure, but instead decides she’d rather go shopping

And asked whether they thought “Given the particular beliefs that your classmate and the Mamilon have, at least one of them must not have good reason to believe as he or she does.” Here, whilst subjects rejected the claim that at least one of the disputants must be mistaken, they tended to agree that at least one of them must not have good reason to believe as he or she does. So subjects are distinguishing between being correct or mistaken and having good reasons to believe.

Sarkissian et al’s conclusions

1: Sarkissian et al claim that the folk have no deep commitment to moral objectivism. Instead the more they are encouraged to engage with people from other perspectives the more they are drawn to moral relativism. In conversation people may give little thought to the notion that January is only a winter month relative to a given hemisphere until they encounter people from other hemispheres, similarly people may give little thought to the notion that infanticide is only wrong relative to a particular moral code until encountering people from different cultures with different moral codes.

Whilst there are many different psychological variables[1] underlying moral relativism the one factor that is always the same is that “The more people engage with radically different perspectives, the more they are drawn to moral relativism.”

2: Moral realists have claimed that they have an advantage over moral anti-realists in being able to more easily make sense of the assumptions within our moral practice than rival theories. Sarkissian et al do not question whether philosophical theories should try to make sense of ordinary moral practice, only that they have been mistaken in what they took ordinary moral practice to consist in.

Philosophers are undoubtedly correct in their commitment to make sense of ordinary moral practice; the one mistake was to suppose that people’s ordinary moral practice is a straightforwardly objectivist one. So perhaps the real philosophical task here is to make sense of a different sort of practice: one in which people’s views differ depending on the extent to which they explore alternative perspectives.

Sarkissian et al (forthcoming) 2011. Okay I wrote this before it was out.

Sarkissian et al conclude that the answers to philosophical questions such as whether there are objective moral facts or not, are not obvious, and we might add, if they appear obvious, it is only because we have not looked into the matter with any depth.  Conflicts in moral philosophy can be traced back to tensions within ordinary people’s intuitions and whilst it correct to say that philosophy starts with the examination of tensions within our intuitions it does not end there but proceeds to try and find a way out of that tension. [2]

All of this looks very interesting but does it really tell us anything informative. So people tend to adopt a relatvistic framework when they encounter those from different cultures with different moral beliefs from our own, but why do they do this? Sarkissian et al don’t begin to answer this question.


[1] Sarkissian et al also put together an impressive array of traits associated with relativism including “Relativists were higher in the personality trait of openness to experience (Cokely & Feltz, 2010). They scored higher on a measure of ‘disjunctive thinking,’ which is the ability to unpack alternative possibilities when problem solving (Goodwin & Darley, 2010). They were more likely to fall in a particular age range – namely, in their twenties (Beebe & Sackris, 2010). They were more able to explain alternative views (Goodwin & Darley 2010) and to be tolerant of people with opposite opinions (Wright, Cullum & Schwab, 2008; Wright, McWhite & Grandjean, 2010).

[2] It is also worth reminding ourselves that at least 50% of the subjects did not share the relativist intuition in the scenarios that were presented, and so unlike the case of the seasons and their relativity to the hemispheres, what sort of facts make moral judgments true or false is unlike what makes statements about the months and their relationship to the seasons in being something that is essentially contested and something that is not decided by folk moral discourse.

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9 Responses to Folk Moral Relativism Study

  1. JW Gray says:

    Testing intuitions and assumptions involving moral realism seems a bit complex and I’m not yet convinced by this study. Some issues to consider:

    1. Moral realism doesn’t say that moral discourse is always about moral facts. It only says it sometimes is. And one moral fact could be enough for moral realism.

    2. We have to interpret the disagreement among people from different cultures. We need to know what their intentions are. We need to know if they can have genuine disagreement. If genuine disagreement is impossible, then perhaps that would be evidence against moral realism. But that would seem quite strange. Obviously genuine disagreement can exist (at least for moral realists).

    3. It’s not at all clear to me how to “interpret” the data involved to fit into the realist/anti-realist debate.

    4. There are many normative categories. People could be anti-realists about oughts and virtues, but perhaps realists about intrinsic values. The concept of an “ought” in particular seems difficult to narrow down and it has a lot of gray area involved.

    5. Many forms of moral realism are “reductive” and can make moral facts seem very unexciting. Perhaps moral facts are merely about what we ought to do all-things-considered. If so, it wouldn’t seem very mysterious at all to find out that there are actual facts involved with that.

  2. The target of the above paper was Brink, Landeur, Smith who take the view that certain features of ordinary practice are best explained by objective moral facts. The features of ordinary moral practice have traditionally been taken to presuppose objective moral facts and it is this presupposition that is meant to be best explained by moral realism. Yet ordinary moral practice exhibits features contrary to how those writers describe it.

    I suppose we could try to take the ordinary intuitions at face value, there are some objective moral facts and some relative moral facts, and maybe some subjective moral facts. It seems misleading to describe this view as moral realism as it is clearly a mixed view. It is no more moral realism than relativism, or moral subjectivism, and no more any of these than the other.

    However this would face problems as the intuitions in the study change depending on the identity of the agent, so we would have the same scenario with the same outcomes being sometimes objective and sometimes relative. The problem is that if we take ordinary moral practice on it’s own it forms an inconsistent set. It is not clear that genuine moral disagreement can exist, people who believe that there are objective moral facts think it does and those who do not think it does not. It would be question begging to assert that your favorite intuitions must be true and others wrong.

    So the conclusion of the study (there have been a few others with pretty much the same result since this) is that ordinary moral practice consists of an inconsistent set of intuitions with no clear set dominating. As such it does not offer prima facie support any particular meta-ethical moral theory like moral realism or moral relativism, or moral subjectivism. As the intuitions differ among the same set of subjects in different conditions ordinary moral practice contains an inconsistent set of intuitions.

    Thanks for the comment.

    • JW Gray says:

      The target of the above paper was Brink, Landeur, Smith who take the view that certain features of ordinary practice are best explained by objective moral facts. The features of ordinary moral practice have traditionally been taken to presuppose objective moral facts and it is this presupposition that is meant to be best explained by moral realism.

      That’s pretty much what moral realism is. I was saying why the study seems far from being conclusive.

      Yet ordinary moral practice exhibits features contrary to how those writers describe it. I suppose we could try to take the ordinary intuitions at face value, there are some objective moral facts and some relative moral facts, and maybe some subjective moral facts. It seems misleading to describe this view as moral realism as it is clearly a mixed view. It is no more moral realism than relativism, or moral subjectivism, and no more any of these than the other.

      No, the question is only whether one moral fact exists. Moral realists need not say that all moral discourse is based on objective moral facts, and that would not be “a mixed view” rather than a moral realist view. Moral realism does not mean “everything we say about morality is factual. Nothing we say about morality is nonfactual.” Moral realists have made it clear that some people might talk about moral issues in nonfactual ways now and then and there’s nothing about that that debunks moral realism.

      However this would face problems as the intuitions in the study change depending on the identity of the agent, so we would have the same scenario with the same outcomes being sometimes objective and sometimes relative.

      Not necessarily. I have no idea what these people are thinking and they might not fully understand the questions either. The whole thing is a bit confusing. When you ask, “Can two people both be right yet have contradictory positions?” Someone might think, “Well, in a sense, yes.” Or they might just not know what to think. It’s a strange question to ask.

      The problem is that if we take ordinary moral practice on it’s own it forms an inconsistent set. [It is not clear that genuine moral disagreement can exist, people who believe that there are objective moral facts think it does and those who do not think it does not.

      I disagree with that as well. What about fictionalism?

      It would be question begging to assert that your favorite intuitions must be true and others wrong. So the conclusion of the study (there have been a few others with pretty much the same result since this) is that ordinary moral practice consists of an inconsistent set of intuitions with no clear set dominating. As such it does not offer prima facie support any particular meta-ethical moral theory like moral realism or moral relativism, or moral subjectivism. As the intuitions differ among the same set of subjects in different conditions ordinary moral practice contains an inconsistent set of intuitions. Thanks for the comment.

      And I explained why I find the study to be inconclusive for that position. The whole study seems confusing to me and there are so many issues that need to be considered.

      I do think many of our intuitions probably do contradict and I think moral philosophy makes people decide which are moral important. However, there is nothing inconsistent with using moral language in nonfactual ways with moral realism.

      This is not just about picking your favorite intuitions. This is about the meaning of moral realism.

  3. This study is not about the meaning of moral realism, or about whether you find a study conclusive, or whether moral realism is false. It is about non-philosophers intuitions when they make moral judgments.

    • JW Gray says:

      I know that it didn’t mean to debunk moral realism. What I meant to say is that the information provided is not inconsistent with moral realism. The answers are consistent with thinking moral discourse presupposes moral realism. Such a claim does not mean that every moral issue can be answered or that every moral statement is true or false. That’s why the meaning of moral realism is important. When you say the things you said above, then I think it’s time for a reality check.

      The study does not show that moral discourse does not support moral realism when it seems to mis-define moral realism.

  4. JW Gray says:

    It is true that Brink said the following: “It is incumbent on the moral realist… To claim that most moral disputes are resolvable at least in principle.”

    However, it is not clear that his actual meta-ethical theory requires us to accept this. Additionally, he does not say that all moral disputes are resolvable.

    You have not made it clear how exactly the study shows people’s intuitions to strongly conflict with what Brink thinks they are (or how their intuitions are incompatible with Brink’s meta-ethics? What exactly did Brink say that this is against?

    Keep in mind that you earlier said, “Sarkissian et al claim that the folk have no deep commitment to moral objectivism.”

  5. The test for moral realism used in the study was whether two apparently contradictory moral statements could both be true. That looks like a good test for a folk commitment to moral realism and it is a claim that Brink, Smith, Landau say is presupposed by folk moral discourse. The results of the study show that plenty of ordinary people think that there can be contradictory moral statements that are true.

    http://faculty.baruch.cuny.edu/hsarkissian/Sarkissian%20et%20al%20-%20Folk%20Moral%20Relativism%20%28final%29.pdf

    • JW Gray says:

      Claiming that moral disagreement is always impossible is incompatible with moral realism. However, moral realism does not require that moral disagreement is always possible. That was the point I was making.

      I never suggested that the possibility of “two incompatible positions being right” was confirmation of moral realism. I merely said it was consistent with it.

      I don’t know exactly how Brink handles all this, but he agrees that some moral disagreements can’t be resolved. I think his theory is also compatible with the view that we can use moral language in different ways. For example, we could use it in the way that emotivists describe. We need not always use it to attempt to state facts.

      • JW Gray says:

        I should say, Brink agrees that “it is possible that some moral disagreements can’t be resolved.” He never said they all can be.

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