Folk Moral Relativism
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 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. 
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.
 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).
 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.