Moral Relativism, Beliefs and Knowledge

I’m going to offer an argument here that any kind of contextualism, whether orthodox or heterodox, about moral terms, especially “wrong”, does not fit our usage of those terms. The argument is going to be that in order to offer a contextualist-friendly account of the behaviour of “wrong” in belief ascriptions and knowledge ascriptions, we have to suppose that it behaves quite differently in those two settings. But other context-sensitive terms do not behave that way, and we have good theoretical reasons to believe that this is not in general how context-sensitive terms behave. So “wrong” is not context-sensitive, either to contexts of usage or assessment.

At first glance there seems to be very little pattern to the way that contextually sensitive terms behave in attitude ascriptions.

We can find terms, like we, whose denotation inside a belief ascription is not particularly sensitive to the context of the ascribee. So in (1), we is naturally interpreted as denoting the speaker and those around her.

(1) Otto believes that we are fools.

We can find terms, like tasty, whose denotation inside a belief ascription seems to vary quite a bit depending on the sentence being used. Sometimes tasty seems to mean tasty to the ascribee, as in (2).

(2) Vinny the Vulture believes that rotting carcasses are tasty.

And sometimes it seems to denote something like tasty to a contextually salient taster as in (3).

(3) Suzy believes that this kind of dog food is tasty.

It is easy to set up a circumstance where this means that Suzy thinks that the salient dog food is tasty for dogs. So the relevant taster can be the ascribee, but could be given by context.

On the other hand, when we use epistemic modals in belief reports, the relevant ‘knower’ is always the ascribee. Consider, for example, (4).

(4) Jack believes that Smith might be happy.

That can only mean that Jack believes that for all Jack (and perhaps his friends) knows, Smith is happy. It can’t, for instance, mean that Jack believes that for all the speaker knows, Smith his happy. (Unless the speaker is Jack or one of his friends.)

So we have a progression of cases, where in (1) the contextually sensitive term ‘we’ has to get its denotation from the context of utterance, in (4) the contextually sensitive term ‘might’ gets its denotation from the context of the ascribee, and (2) and (3) show that ‘tasty’ can behave in either of these ways. I’ve been putting this all in terms that will make most sense if we are accepting the dogma I called (T), but the same points can be made without (T) if we so desire.

As I said, at first it might look like there is no pattern here at all. But if we look at other attitudes, we see that there is an interesting pattern. The way that ‘we’, ‘tasty’ and ‘might’ behave in belief reports is just the same as they behave in knowledge reports. We can see this in the following examples.

(1a) Otto knows that we are fools.
(2a) Vinny the Vulture knows that rotting carcasses are tasty.
(3a) Suzy knows that this dog food is tasty.
(4a) Jack knows that Smith might be happy.

In each of these sentences, the contextually sensitive term behaves just as it does in the parallel belief report. This isn’t too surprising. It would be a real shock if some term t behaved quite differently in belief and knowledge reports. If that were the case it would be possible in principle to find a passage of the form of (5) that’s true.

(5) S believes that … t …. Indeed S knows it. But S doesn’t know that … t … .

It’s impossible to survey every instance of (5) to see whether they all sound contradictory. But I suspect that they will sound contradictory. So we’ll assume in what follows that context-sensitive terms behave the same way in belief ascriptions and knowledge ascriptions, whether or not the kind of context-sensitivity at issue is orthodox.

The problem for contextualism about “wrong” is that it is forced to violate this principle. Assume that X is wrong means that X is wrong relative to the standards of some salient group G. We’ll leave aside for now the question of whether G is determined by the speaker’s context or the assessor’s context, as well as the question of whether the sentence expresses a proposition involving G, or a proposition that is true or false relative to groups. We’ll also leave aside the question of just what it means for something to be wrong relative to the standards. (Does it mean that G actually disapproves of it, or would disapprove of it under reflection, or that it doesn’t have properties that G wants to promote, or something else?) We’ll simply assume that there have been people whose standards are different to ours in ways that make a difference for the wrongness of actions. If that isn’t the case, we hardly have a contextualism worthy of the name. It’s obviously controversial just what could be an example of this, but I’ll take as my example Jefferson Davis’s belief that helping fugitive slaves was wrong. It seems true to say Davis had this belief, so (6) is true.

(6) Davis believed that helping fugitive slaves was wrong.

Now (6) clearly doesn’t mean that Davis believed that helping fugitive slaves was wrong by my standards. And that’s not just because he didn’t have any de re attitudes towards me. Whatever (false) proposition I would (according to the contextualist) express by saying “Helping fugitive slaves was wrong” is not what Davis believed. He believed something that was made true (if it was) by his moral standards. Now compare (7).

(7) Davis knew that helping fugitive slaves was wrong.

It seems to me that that’s just false. And it’s false because helping fugitive slaves wasn’t, in fact, wrong. That’s not to deny that it was wrong by Davis’s standards. I’m sure by Davis’s standards, helping fugitive slaves was wrong. Perhaps he even knew that about his own standards. But that’s neither here nor there to the truth of the English sentence (7), which sounds simply false in virtue of the rightness of helping fugitive slaves.

Now neither the truth of (6), nor the falsity of (7) is, on its own, sufficient to undermine contextualism about “wrong”. The truth of (6) is consistent with the claim that “wrong” behaves like “might”. So in attitude ascriptions, what matters is the ascribees context. And the falsity of (7) is consistent with the claim that “wrong” behaves like “we”, and (7) is false because what helping fugitive slaves was wrong expresses in our context is false.

Rather, the problem is that an adequate account of “wrong” has to account both for the truth of (6) and the falsity of (7). And that doesn’t seem to be possible. At least it isn’t possible without supposing that “wrong” behaves differently in knowledge reports and belief reports. And we’ve seen some reasons above to believe that that’s not how context-sensitive terms behave.

I can see three ways that the relativist might respond to this.

First, they might object to the data. Perhaps, they’ll argue, (7) really is true. We’re just disposed to hear it as false because we’re all taught that ‘knows’ is factive, and we don’t want to commit to the wrongness of helping fugitive slaves. But if that were right, we similarly should blanch at (2a), or (3a), or perhaps (4a) depending on how we set out the case. It seems to me that typically we know that when we accept a knowledge ascription, we’re may not be accepting the truth of the proposition that would be expressed by the words after ‘knows that’ in a standalone sentence. So this can’t help the contextualist.

Second, they might argue that “wrong” is sui generis. It just turns out that it behaves differently in knowledge ascriptions and belief ascriptions. This is possible, but it seems like a desperate move. At least it so seems in the absence of other examples of the same phenomena.

Third, they might concede that as we use the term, “wrong” is not context-sensitive. But, they’ll argue, there is no coherent way to make sense of all the our uses of “wrong”. Contextualism is not recommended on the basis that it captures all of our intuitions, but on the basis that it captures most of them, and no rival can claim even that. This is an interesting reply, but not one I have the space (or capacity) to evaluate. In any case, this response concedes that the point raised here is a cost of contextualism, though perhaps it is a bearable cost. And that’s really all I wanted to argue.
Three objections
1. Reject the data – will respond to this at length elsewhere
2. Asymmetric theory – looks ad hoc
3. Revolutionary relativism – could be, but should note the cost

3 Replies to “Moral Relativism, Beliefs and Knowledge”

  1. This argument seems to apply only to a limited range of kinds of contextualism about moral terms. I can’t really see how to generalise it much beyond ‘according-to-standards-S’ type moral contextualisms.

    Moral contextualisms not of this type include the one I talked about (inchoately: Daniel and I are writing a paper about it which is much clearer) back here:

    And there’s a kind that people like John Hawthorne and Campbell Brown have been batting around recently, whereby moral terms (esp. ‘ought’) inherit context-sensitivity due to their relationship with the context-sensitive ‘can’.

    Also, I don’t think the Kratzer-Wedgwood-style reasons for being a moral contextualist would be affected by your argument.

    So I think you might want to weaken the claim that the argt applies to “any kind of contextualism, whether orthodox or heterodox, about moral terms”.

  2. I’m not convinced about your judgment with (4a). Whereas (4) seems to fairly uncontroversially treat “might” as depending on Jack’s knowledge, I’m not so sure that (4a) does as well. At any rate, it looks like (4a) is only felicitous if Smith’s happiness is compatible both with Smith’s knowledge and the speaker’s knowledge. Consider the difference between “Jack believes that Smith might be happy, even though Smith isn’t happy” and “Jack knows that Smith might be happy, even though Smith isn’t happy”.

    I think this also works for (3a) – I think I can only assert “Suzy knows that this dog food is tasty” if I can also assert “this dog food is tasty”, whereas the parallel claim isn’t the case with (2a).

  3. Interesting. Couple of quick comments. First, I worry about the argument being question-begging. What seems to do the work is the claim “It seems to me that that’s just false. And it’s false because helping fugitive slaves wasn’t, in fact, wrong.” after (7). But, that’s just denial of contextualism which a contextualist will reject.

    Second point is that maybe there is room for more limited contextualism. So, one could argue that slavery (and thus helping fugitive slaves) is wrong in all contexts. This is because any moral standard has to satisfy certain criteria of equality or respecting persons. One could argue that even the historical standards did so whilst being internally incoherent in not granting certain rights to slaves. But, you might argue that there is more room for variety in moral standards in other respects. For instance, there might be variety in what privacy requires in different countries. As a result I might know that it is wrong to talk on your mobile in train in Japan.

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