Association News

The upcoming conference in Fremantle is, of course, the big event of the year for the AAPAE. This will be the Association’s 20th Annual Conference, which itself is quite a landmark. There are a number of members of the AAPAE who have been members since the very beginning – and even earlier, at a conference the year before the establishment of the AAPAE, when plans and decisions were made to create the Association. From its beginning, the AAPAE has been concerned not to be merely an academic organisation and to have not merely relevance to the practical world but also a clear involvement with it. This is a tall order.

From the time of the AAPAE’s creation, the annual conference has been its main event of the year. For a number of years now, it has also maintained a list server that has functioned as communicating notes and news, and, occasionally, offering a platform for discussion of issues. In past years, the AAPAE tried to conduct mini-conferences during the year, centred around specific issues, but this proved difficult to sustain.

At its last meeting, the Executive accepted a suggestion offered by its secretary, Peter Bowden, to try to establish blogs for special interests - for example, a blog dealing with whistleblowing (Peter’s passion). The general idea would be that it would create a forum for interested people to discuss issues, concerns, problems, and news around a specific topic. Blogs would be maintained by specific moderators and might (or might not) hang off the AAPAE’s website and might (or might not) have their own subscription lists. Suggestions are welcome at the AAPAE’s email address:

Ethical Relativism

In the last newsletter, I offered a couple of very short discussions. These were of issues that had been bothering me for some time; and I wanted to share my worries and the causes of the worries. Here is a thought about ethical relativism.

We have probably all been present when the relativism card is played. It is usually played as a way of cutting off discussion, argument, or criticism – “it’s all relative, isn’t it?” I believe that there are significant confusions involved when the card is played; and I actually don’t really believe that the professed relativist is really an ethical relativist after all. Ethical relativism per se actually encompasses a package of views, not simply one view at all, and a person might, in fact, subscribe to one of these without the rest.

  1. It might be offered as a description of something: ‘the people’s moral views in that culture are different from the people’s moral views in that other culture’; ‘their moral views are different from ours’. This is a claim about fact. As such, it isn’t really telling us much at all about what we should be doing or how we should be reacting. It is pretty much like a claim about cultural relativism. It is simply asserting that there are, in fact, differences. There are a number of empirical studies that claim to show that there is not, in fact, a great divergence of values at all from culture to culture, and that the core values are pretty well universally subscribed to. Such studies claim to be a scientific refutation of relativism. Whether or not these studies prove their point, notice that it would say nothing about whether a particular cultural view is a good one, a warranted one, one that should be respected, or one that should be even tolerated. They are claiming only that people do, in fact, share certain moral opinions. We might also notice, for instance, that some cultures believe the earth is flat. It is a fact that they do; but this neither says nor implies anything about what we should believe, whether their belief itself is creditable, how we should react to their belief, or what our opinion of them should be in virtue of their holding such a belief.

  2. Normative relativism is a view, according to which ethical views differ from group to group, and those different groups are right to hold their particular views. Their views are right for them. This is separate from descriptive relativism; and, notice, it requires its own argument in order to be established. It certainly isn’t established simply by pointing out that different cultures have different values, even if that is true.

  3. In as much as their moral views are right for them, other people should not criticise those views, because, after all, those views are just as correct in that society as some conflicting views are in some other society. Notice that this is yet a further step; and separate argument would be required for this, as well.

  4. In as much as their moral views have adequate credibility, it is inappropriate for others to interfere with their activities in accordance with those values. Don’t interfere, and don’t criticise. Yet another argument is necessary. And notice, this is a very long way from the claim in 1., that, as a matter of fact, different moral views are held. The important point in all this is that the positions held in 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all separate. Each requires its own justification. 2, 3, and 4 are certainly not entailed or implied by 1. When the ‘it’s all relative, isn’t it?’ card is played, it is always the case (at least in my experience) that the card player does not distinguish these things, and, in fact, believes that in virtue of the establishment of 1, everything else is part of the same package and is equally established by exactly the same evidence.

  5. Who is the ‘they’ in ‘they have views different from ours’? Is it the slaveholders?, the slaves?, Tony Soprano’s crew?, the woman who is being stoned to death because she was raped?, the mob who stormed the embassy because they thought an important religious symbol of theirs had been slighted? If, of course, the ‘they’ refers simply to anyone who holds any view, then this would certainly be an odd position to hold – ‘anyone who holds any moral opinion about anything is as right as anyone else’. Does the ‘they’ simply refer to those who hold the dominant view in the society? In some cases, we can, of course, speak meaningfully and fruitfully of a ‘culture’, which, in other discussions, is a highly contentious notion indeed. There is a lot that could be said here; but I will simply leave it all as queries.

I have a suggestion about what is going on when people make such sweeping claims of relativism. I believe that most often when the relativism card is played, the purpose is to urge that we, who hold a different view, should tolerate that other value; we should tolerate people who hold that other value and the practices associated with it. Very few people would urge that all views and actions should be tolerated; but ‘it’s relative’ is offered with respect to something that we believe should be tolerated. This is much like, I believe, the view about respecting a person’s conscientiously held opinions, whether or not we agree with them, and whether or not we believe those opinions are justified. My suggestion is that most often when the relativism card is played, what is intended to be played is the toleration card, the card that urges respect for seriously different and sometimes unjustifiable opinions; and that is a different matter altogether from urging that ‘it’s all relative’.