Diversity And Disagreement Research Paper

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The extraordinary variety of ethical belief and practice that is possible within and across human societies, along with the ethical disagreement to which that variety frequently gives rise, has been a rich source of philosophical reflection. Philosophers have sought to understand the nature and causes of ethical diversity and disagreement, as well as what that diversity and disagreement might reveal about the nature of ethical argument and inquiry. They have investigated the similarities and differences between ethical inquiry and other kinds of inquiry, particularly scientific inquiry, and asked what the relevant similarities and differences can tell us about the nature of rationality. They have also analyzed the implications of ethical diversity and disagreement for ethical practice, and for the foundations of social and political life.

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1. The Nature And Sources Of Ethical Diversity And Disagreement

1.1 Philosophical Understandings Of Anthropological And Sociological Evidence

Philosophical awareness of ethical diversity is as old as philosophy itself. It is evident in the ancient Greek beginnings of Western philosophy—particularly in the ethical and political thought of Plato and Aristotle. In the early and middle Dialogues of Plato, for instance, exchanges between the Platonic Socrates and his interlocutors reveal many of the ethical conflicts and debates, and hence the ethical diversity and disagreement, that helped to shape the social and political life of fourth-century BC Greece. A generation later, Aristotle’s sensitivity to the concrete contexts of deliberation and action, detailed in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics, reflected an even richer understanding of social and political diversity, and of the resultant complexity of ethical belief and practice. Neither Plato nor Aristotle believed that ethical diversity and disagreement required us to relinquish a commitment to ethical objectivity. But this stance was in marked contrast to that adopted by some of their philosophical forebears, especially fifth-century BC sophists such as Protagoras and Gorgias, to whom Plato’s philosophy was in part a response. Moreover, the objectivist conceptions defended by Plato and Aristotle were met by the emergence of a powerful current of skepticism. This development culminated in the Academic skepticism of Cicero, and especially the second-century AD Pyrrhonian skepticism of Sextus Empiricus, in which ethical diversity and disagreement inevitably raised the specter of ethical relativism.

The sixteenth-century rediscovery and dissemination of Sextus’ writings coincided with the beginnings, in the West, of a period of extraordinary exploration and economic expansion. Both developments were important in shaping the rise of early modern Western philosophy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. European exploration and expansion produced a body of literature purporting to offer a richer picture of human ethical variety than anything to be found in ancient philosophical texts. These accounts had a profound effect on early modern thinkers who pondered the nature and sources of ethical variety. Thinkers such as Montaigne came to accept the indispensability to philosophy of what we would now call sociological or anthropological explanations of ethical diversity. But, deeply influenced by the Pyrrhonian skepticism he found in Sextus, Montaigne also insisted that fully appreciating the details of human ethical diversity would always lead a reasonable person to accept ethical relativism. Montaigne thus rejected the claims of philosophers, from Plato onward, who believed that one could render the existence of ethical diversity and disagreement compatible with ethical objectivism.

In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, debates about the implications of ethical diversity and disagreement—based primarily on the testimony of explorers, settlers, and economic adventurers—continued to shape philosophical reflection about ethics. That reflection took one of its most interesting forms in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1973), in which Montesquieu’s potentially dangerous criticisms of ethical and political life in eighteenth-century France are presented to the reader as the contents of letters written home by two fictional Persian visitors. But with the rise of modern anthropology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, philosophical reflection about diversity and disagreement took on a new tone. Philosophers were gradually persuaded by the claims of anthropology to provide expert testimony—rooted in theoretically sophisticated empirical research, rather than idiosyncratic personal or economic interests—about the nature and extent of diversity and disagreement across cultures and social groups.

Yet the cultural ascendancy of anthropological claims about diversity also reinvigorated the skeptical challenge to ethical objectivism. Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) provides an instructive and influential expression of this development. Benedict claimed to have given ethical relativism a scientific foundation for the first time. Some philosophers were prepared to accept this account of the matter and to cede authority for assessing the claims of relativism to empirical social science. But, Benedict’s claims of a newly ‘scientific foundation’ for relativism may be difficult to sustain. Her formulation and defense of relativism seem simply to reiterate Montaigne’s argument that we have ‘no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinion and customs of the country we live in.’ Melville Herskovits (1972) went on to argue that modern anthropology finally provided ‘tough-minded’ empirical support for claims about the ‘ethnocentrism’ of objectivist analyses of ethical disagreement. But Herskovits’s efforts to defend charges of ethnocentrism do not go much beyond Montaigne’s contention that ‘each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.’ The fact that so many familiar defenses of relativism predate the rise of modern anthropology has led some philosophers to wonder whether ethical relativism is simply a reasonable inference from ethical diversity and disagreement, or a pretheoretical assumption which determines the way some theorists characterize the data of diversity.

Yet other philosophers have undertaken detailed investigation to show the value and importance of anthropological study to philosophical reflection about ethics. Some have conducted their own ethnographic studies of the ethical beliefs and practices of Native American groups, in an effort to determine the empirical reliability of anthropological accounts (Brandt 1959, Ladd 1957). Others—spurred on, in part, by the late work of Ludwig von Wittgenstein, especially by the concept of ‘forms of life’ in his Philosophical In estigations (1978)—have interrogated the theoretical underpinnings, as well as the broader philosophical implications, of the social scientist’s claims about diversity and disagreement (Wilson 1970, Winch 1972). These efforts introduced important new empirical detail into philosophical discussions of the extent of cultural diversity—details drawn, most famously, from the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard on the Azande, and from the work of Edmund Sapir and Benjamin Whorf on the conceptual variety embedded in human languages. The resulting debates raise new and controversial philosophical questions about the nature of ethical disagreement—particularly the question whether human ethical systems could ever contain wholly incommensurable ethical (or other) concepts.

Philosophical attempts to understand the origins and causes of ethical diversity and disagreement have frequently relied on generally utilitarian or consequentialist accounts of that diversity. On these accounts, ethical practices (and their associated beliefs) come into existence, and continue in existence, primarily because they serve the aims of the groups that develop them. From the eighteenth century forward, such accounts are usually linked with essentially evolutionary hypotheses about the development of ethical practices. The ethical and political thought of David Hume, for instance, attributes the rise of particular ethical practices to unconscious, or unintended, processes that are vaguely akin to natural selection. But accounts of the processes in question usually have more in common with Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution than with Darwin’s claims about the role of natural selection in biological evolution. William Graham Sumner’s Folkways (1909)—which combined evolutionary ethics with a forceful defense of ethical relativism—contains what became one of the most influential expositions of just such a view.

1.2 Methodological Concerns About The Idea Of Fundamental Disagreement

During the mid-twentieth century, many philosophers accepted the claims of relativist anthropologists that the data of comparative anthropology could firmly ground an argument for metaethical relativism: the view that there is no rational method for adjudicating between the conflicting ethical claims of different cultures. Yet, as many of their critics objected, the mere facts of ethical diversity and disagreement within and across cultures cannot be sufficient to establish the truth of ethical relativism (in any form). The objection is that merely from the fact of cultural variability we cannot confidently conclude that any resultant ethical disagreements will necessarily be disagreements in fundamental ethical commitments between which no rational adjudication is possible; and establishing this conclusion is essential to establishing the plausibility of ethical relativism.

This objection points to a way in which ethical relativism may, in fact, be fundamentally underdetermined by all available empirical evidence. For it is at least possible, as the psychologist Karl Duncker argued, that principles of ethical valuation might remain ‘invariant’ across the most diverse cultures, even while the ‘situational meanings’ of the acts, traits, and states of affairs subject to ethical evaluation could vary dramatically across those same cultures (Duncker 1939). In short, cross-cultural ethical diversity might be properly traced not to differences in fundamental ethical principles but to cultural variation in derivative ethical principles—that is, to principles embodying local understandings of how to apply fundamental ethical principles to particular actions, character traits, and states of affairs. Thinkers who claim to identify fundamental ethical disagreement must, therefore, be able to show that they have identified a conflict between genuinely fundamental ethical principles or beliefs, and not between derivative principles or beliefs intended to apply the more fundamental principles or beliefs. Further, as the philosopher R. B. Brandt once noted, it is very difficult to find two cultures, or even two individual people, who can be shown attribute identical non-moral properties to some action, trait, or state of affairs and who nonetheless give the relevant action, trait, or state of affairs different ethical valuations (Brandt 1959, 1967).

Identifying these difficulties does not prove that it is impossible to find convincing evidence of genuinely fundamental ethical disagreement. Brandt, himself, claimed to have found at least one such disagreement, in spite of the methodological difficulties he believed to attend any effort to do so (Brandt 1959). Moreover, the demand for conceptual clarity in defining a disagreement as ‘fundamental,’ rather than ‘derivative,’ is difficult to meet, since distinguishing fundamental from derivative ethical beliefs and principles is no simple matter. In particular, it is not clear how to find a criterion for describing a belief or principle as fundamental or derivative that doesn’t presuppose a commitment to some fairly complex elements of an ethical conception—that is, to ethical notions which may themselves be the subject of considerable controversy and disagreement. Yet in coming to appreciate the methodological and conceptual difficulties inherent in attempts to establish fundamental ethical disagreement, the empirical researcher and the philosophical interpreter alike are reminded that there are important obstacles to surmount if one seeks to draw a supportable inference for meta-ethical relativism from the fact of cross-cultural disagreement.

1.3 Individual Uncertainty And The Roots Of Ethical Pluralism

Reliance on the evidence of cross-cultural variability is not the only means—or even the most important means—by which philosophers have sought to understand the nature and sources of ethical diversity and disagreement. According to some philosophers, the decision-making processes of an individual agent experiencing ethical uncertainty can sometimes tell us as much (if not more) about the nature and sources of ethical diversity and disagreement than the comparative anthropologist’s claims about cross-cultural conflict. On these accounts, when a sincere and reflective agent attempts to choose between equally compelling, but conflicting and even apparently irreconcilable, ethical ends, what that agent typically confronts is the fundamental plurality and diversity (and, on some views, sometimes even the ultimate incommensurability) of available and plausible ethical ends. Pluralists such as Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor believe that philosophers like Plato, along with those of his intellectual descendants who would defend the unity of ethical value, simply fail to understand that plurality and diversity are intrinsic features of ethical value. According to the ethical pluralist, ethically compelling ends and purposes cannot all be reduced to a single measure of ethical value; nor can they all be realized in a single life. This means that even the sincere and reflective agent (or, perhaps, especially the sincere and reflective agent) will eventually confront what Thomas Nagel has called the fragmentation of ethical value (Nagel 1979).

Those who understand ethical value as intrinsically plural and diverse thus have a way of explaining diversity in the beliefs and practices of various cultural and social groups in terms that go beyond any available on the standard anthropological account. On a pluralist conception of ethics, cross-cultural ethical diversity is simply an important—and essentially unavoidable—reflection of the fundamental plurality and diversity of ethical value itself. More controversially, some ethical pluralists go on to assert that neither individual human beings, nor cultures and societies, can escape fundamental ethical conflict— conflict, that is, between irreconcilable or incommensurable fundamental ethical principles and concepts. But some of the same difficulties inherent in the effort to defend the thesis of fundamental conflict across cultural groups, particularly the challenge of defining the contrast between derivative and fundamental ethical principles and beliefs, will attend any effort to show that no individual agent can avoid fundamental ethical conflict.

Following the lead of Isaiah Berlin, some pluralists contend that any individual agent who claims to experience no fundamental ethical conflict is in some way rationally deficient, or else deeply self-deceived. Yet there are many conceptions of human flourishing (both secular and religious) which purport to make fundamental ethical conflicts effectively impossible by identifying or articulating a single ‘dominant end’—as John Rawls has described it—to which all other human ends must be subordinate, and with respect to which the subordinate ends can be unified. Such conceptions, particularly when combined with a willingness to allow other agents to reject them, have often been thought to embody defensible understandings of rational choice and rational agency. Moreover, some ardent defenders of the view that dominant-end conceptions of human flourishing are in some way deficient or irrational actually acknowledge that these conceptions do not intrinsically violate principles of rational choice. But they nonetheless insist that there remains something ultimately incomplete, or perhaps even irrational, about a life lived in accordance with such a conception (Rawls 1971, Hampshire 1983). In response to such assertions, the question of whether a compelling defense of ethical pluralism requires a commitment to the inescapability of fundamentally irresolvable ethical conflicts—across social and cultural groups, or in individual lives, or both—remains a subject of lively philosophical debate (Gowans 1987, Stocker 1990, Moody-Adams 1997).

2. Implications Of Disagreement For Understanding Ethical Argument And Inquiry

Historically, philosophers have held quite differing views about what the facts of ethical diversity and disagreement might tell us about the nature of ethical argument and inquiry. The standard views can be divided up in terms of the position they take with regard to the objectivity of ethics—that is, with regard to the question whether there can be at least some right answers to ethical questions, where the rightness of the answer is independent of human beliefs and practices. But there is great variety within both the objectivist and the nonobjectivist positions, particularly with regard to important epistemological questions (questions of whether and how we can have moral knowledge) and serious metaphysical concerns (concerns about the existence or non-existence of objective value entities).

2.1 Varieties Of Ethical Objectivism And Serious Ethical Disagreement

The most familiar variety of ethical objectivism is absolutist ethical objecti ism, on which there is at most one right answer to any given ethical question, and according to which the ethical correctness of that answer does not depend upon human beliefs and practices. Plato’s Republic contains one of the most fully developed and widely influential versions of this conception. The ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ in Book Five of the Republic, richly depicts the underlying epistemological and metaphysical assumptions. According to the allegory, the inhabitants of a cave who remained chained to a wall, seeing only the shadows of real things by the light of a humanly built fire, are deprived of any possibility of rationally understanding what is real, and their beliefs and practices reflect their ignorance. Only the person who is released from ignorance and illusion by being unchained, and allowed to leave the cave, can become capable of a rational appreciation of the real essences of things as illuminated by the genuine light of the sun. The metaphysical commitments associated with this view—in Plato’s doctrine of the Forms—are developed in surrounding passages in the Republic, and in other Dialogues like the Symposium and the Phaedrus. On the resulting view, what the relativist takes to be fundamental ethical diversity and disagreement is simply a function of moral ignorance rooted in the tendency to our experience of imperfect copies and shadows of the real as though they might reveal the essence of the ethical.

But absolutist ethical objectivism need not involve this kind of metaphysical realism about value entities existing independent of human belief and practice, or even any kind of realism about independently existing value-entities or antecedently given moral facts. Nor need it involve the potentially problematic epistemological assumptions needed to explain how anyone might come to know the Form of the Good, and why so few seem genuinely capable of doing so. Immanuel Kant held a constructivist conception of ethical objectivity, on which humanly constructed practices (and their underlying beliefs and assumptions) are objective when they have been constructed in accordance with what Kant took to be the objectively valid (and already known) supreme principle of morality, the ‘Categorical Imperative.’ In its most basic formulation, the Categorical Imperative directs the agent to act only on those policies (reasons) that he or she could will to serve as universal laws of action. What the relativist identifies as ‘fundamental’ ethical disagreement is for Kant simply evidence that one or more parties to the disagreement has failed to subject the policy underlying a practice or a proposed course of action to the rational scrutiny required by the Categorical Imperative.

Some ethical pluralists believe that ethical objectivism need not be linked with the kind of absolutism found in the work of Plato or Kant. But whether ethical pluralism is indeed compatible with ethical objectivism remains a subject of rich, and ongoing, philosophical debate. How far can the pluralist go in rejecting the absolutist’s ‘one right answer’ approach and remain an ethical objectivist? Many think that the most plausible pluralist candidates for the label ‘ethical objectivist’ are forms of ethical pluralism which recognize the possibility of diverse answers to disagreements involving derivative principles, yet retain the ‘one right answer’ approach to analyse disputes involving fundamental principles. Of course, any such views must confront the problem of reliably distinguishing fundamental from derivative ethical principles. Moreover, while there is no evidence that this problem is not, in principle, capable of a compelling solution, some ethical pluralists avoid the problem altogether by defending a limited and moderate relativism. On these accounts, the relativist rightly posits the possibility—and the frequent occurrence— of at least some fundamentally irresolvable ethical disputes.

2.2 Varieties Of Nonobjecti Ism And Serious Ethical Disagreement

Meta-ethical relativism is, perhaps, the most familiar form of ethical nonobjectivism. Its main claim, as noted above, is a negative thesis about the impossibility of rationally adjudicating (purportedly) fundamental ethical disagreements. But some metaethical relativists also attempt to defend a normative ethical relativism that makes a positive claim about the content of morality and about the nature and sources of ethical disagreement. In its bolder formulations, normative ethical relativism asserts the ‘equivalence’ of all ethical practices and beliefs. This version of the view has some important implications for a relativist approach to ethical practice—most often resulting in a demand to ‘tolerate’ all ethical practices as ‘equally valid.’ According to more modest versions of normative ethical relativism, we cannot confidently assert the superiority of one ethical stance over another with which it somehow conflicts, and we should therefore withhold judgment as a recognition of ethical uncertainty.

Metaethical relativism starts from the facts of ethical diversity and disagreement, but some forms of nonobjectivism posit very different explanations of those facts. One such view is ethical subjectivism, on which ethical claims are fundamentally statements about the individual speaker’s subjective feelings (not about the practices of a particular social or cultural group). What the relativist identifies as a fundamental ethical disagreement is, for the ethical subjectivist, simply evidence of the deep-rooted feelings of the parties to the dispute. Yet both metaethical relativism and ethical subjectivism allow that ethical statements have some cognitive content. On the subjectivist views, ethical statements tell us something meaningful and informative about the feelings of the speaker—and indirectly about the feelings of any similarly constituted persons. On metaethical relativism, in contrast, ethical statements tell us what members of a particular social or cultural group believe to be good—and, ultimately, about the local social worlds in which ethical practices arise and have their (limited) application (Williams 1985).

It is important that some nonobjectivist views find ethical claims to be cognitively substantive, because there are varieties of nonobjectivism which deny that ethical statements have any cognitive content at all. The most influential and controversial such view is the theory of emotivism, first articulated in the early twentieth century by A. J. Ayer (1946). According to Ayer, fundamental ethical judgments (he called them ‘pure judgments of value’) are non-rational, noncognitive expressions of emotion which cannot be true or false. Even the apparently most serious ethical disagreement, for Ayer, is not much different from a round of energetic ‘boos’ and ‘yeas’ for the opposing teams at a sporting event. Ayer’s critics charged that such claims appear to deny that ethical disagreements ever occur. Ayer’s efforts to mollify his critics were problematic: moral disagreements occur, he responded, but only as disagreements ‘without formal contradiction.’ This hypothesis can be confirmed, he urged, by the tendency for the parties to such disagreements to resort to ‘mere abuse’ when arguments fail.

3. The Infirmity Of Ethics Compared With Science?

3.1 Ethical Disagreement As A Source Of Skepticism About Ethical Methods

Yet despite its counter-intuitive claims about ethical disagreement, and its implausibly narrow understanding of what it is to have cognitive content, emotivism was a powerful and challenging embodiment of skepticism about the rationality of ethical argument and inquiry—a skepticism firmly rooted in the frequent intractability of ethical disagreements. There is a special irony in the fact that emotivism seems to deny the reality of the very phenomenon underwriting its skeptical challenge to the methods of ethics. But for many philosophers, even those who would explicitly reject emotivist understandings of ethical language, the emotivist’s challenge to ethics retains a certain potency. The continued existence of intractable ethical disagreements, for these thinkers, is evidence (along with the explanatory and predictive success of science), that ethics, in the words of logician and philosopher of science W. V. O. Quine, is ‘methodologically infirm’ compared with science.

3.2 Alternatives To Skepticism

Yet the conception of science as the arbiter of rationality, capable of supplying standards which must be met by any domain of rational argument and inquiry, has been challenged. Its critics object that it wrongly presumes that all domains of human inquiry might have the same aim. They maintain that ethics and science are fundamentally different kinds of enterprises—one claiming to explain and predict natural phenomena, the other seeking to help us to lead lives worth living—and that there is no reason to expect similarities between the methods of ethics and the methods of science. To be sure, some ethicists continue to search for fundamental similarities between the methods and aims of ethics and science. But their critics urge that such efforts can only make ethics look like a poor and distant relation of science, and that we distort the aims and purposes of ethics by trying to make it conform to structures of argument in science. Still further, these critics reject the notion that the persistence of disagreement in ethics—even intractable disagreement—is intrinsically a sign of the failure of ethical methods. Might it not be, they ask, that in some domains of human argument and inquiry disagreement is an important catalyst for serious reflection, and a crucial stimulus to avoiding smugness and self-righteousness?

4. Implications Of Ethical Disagreement For Practice

4.1 The Merits And Demerits Of Tolerance

The existence of ethical diversity and the persistence of ethical disagreement nonetheless pose important difficulties for ethical practice. How are we to respond to those whose ethical beliefs and practices differ, sometimes quite substantially, from our own? The ethical objectivist will argue that in some or even all ethical disputes, one or more parties to the dispute has made some kind of error in moral reasoning or perception. Ethical relativists, and some pluralists, who argue for tolerance in response to ethical disagreements urge that the objectivist response is too frequently associated with moral smugness and moral self-righteousness, and potentially dangerous and culturally imperialist ethnocentrism. But these associations are not intrinsic, and the demand for tolerance poses its own dangers when it functions (as it sometimes has) to sanction local practices which involve the violent coercion of innocent victims, or murderous intolerance of internal cultural dissent. The demand for tolerance also raises urgent questions about theoretical consistency. If it is intended as a non-relative demand, incumbent on any agent, then it is clearly incompatible with the relativist stance. If it is aimed only at the inhabitants of some societies—say Western liberal societies—then it violates relativist structures in demanding the extension of what may well be a locally compelling principle to a intercultural context. Still further, uncritical tolerance of ethical diversity and disagreement must not be confused with respect for cultural diversity. Many philosophers urge that we sometimes show the greatest respect for diverse ways of life by being ready to engage in open and noncoercive discussion with those who represent them.

4.2 The Dangers And Incoherence Of Ethical Isolationism

Some relativists are so concerned about the dangers of ethnocentrism and the imperialist over-reaching of some cultures that they insist on an ethical isolationism. According to the ethical isolationist, cultural outsiders can never understand ethical practices and beliefs associated with a genuinely unfamiliar way of life, and thus have no rational basis for any kind of critical reflection on—let alone outright criticism of—those practices and beliefs. But, ethical isolationists typically defend their views by detailing their own special understanding of the practices and beliefs of the unfamiliar ‘other,’ richly conveying facts about those practices and beliefs in order to convince other cultural outsiders of the limits of their understanding. This tack shows how difficult it is to defend ethical isolationism except in terms which reveal the inconsistency and implausibility of the view.

4.3 Pluralism And Multiculturalism

Yet philosophers who reject ethnocentrism, relativism, and isolationism must still confront the persistence of ethical diversity and disagreement and the challenges they pose, especially in the culturally complex societies found in large, modern nation-states. An increasingly influential response, associated with some forms of ethical pluralism, is the doctrine of multiculturalism, which recommends that we act and judge on the presumption that the ethical beliefs and practices of every way of life are in principle valuable and worthy of respect. But compelling philosophical discussions of multiculturalism have construed this presumption as, at best, a ‘starting hypothesis,’ maintaining that a final verdict on the worth of any practice must always await the results of respectful, but sustained, critical reflection (Taylor 1992). In response, some philosophers have urged adoption of a critical multiculturalism (as a form of objectivist ethical pluralism) which leaves open the possibility that reflection on almost any practice might generate rationally compelling grounds on which to reject the practice as ethically indefensible (Moody-Adams 1997). The question of how to put this critical multiculturalism into practice—how to articulate and apply plausible principles for tolerating some stances, rejecting others, and intervening in practices deemed intolerable—will be a central topic of debate in the normative ethical and political philosophy of the twenty-first century.


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