“Moral Relativism Defended” (1975?) Harman is trying to defend a version of moral relativism comprised of what I’m going to call The Relativity Thesis and The Conflict Thesis.
The Relativity Thesis (RT) says that “the judgment that it is wrong of someone to do something makes sense only in relation to an agreement or understanding.”
The Conflict Thesis (CT) says that “an action may be wrong in relation to one agreement but not in relation to another.”
Together, these two claims amount to the version of moral relativism Harman wants to defend. The interesting thing is that this version of moral relativism is supposed to be just a “soberly logical thesis” that emerges from an ordinary language analysis of the logic statements like, “A ought to do D.” My problem is that his linguistic intuitions are completely bizarre and I think his (explicit) assumption that Humean motivational internalism is to blame.
Here’s how I would sketch his argument out:
(1) The judgment that somebody was wrong to have done something is an “inner judgment.”
(2) It only makes sense to make inner judgments about somebody who is capable of being moved to do something by the relevant considerations.
(3) A person is capable of being moved to do something by the relevant considerations only if he or she has certain motivational attitudes (moral beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.).
(4) So for two people S and A, A is capable of being moved to do D by the relevant considerations C that S offers only if S and A have some kind of agreement between them, namely an agreement in their motivational attitudes (from 3).
(5) Hence, S can make inner judgments like “A ought to do D” only if there is some kind of agreement between them. (from 1, 2 and 4)
(6) Hence, (RT) the judgment that it is wrong of someone to do something makes sense only in relation to an agreement or understanding. (by generalizing 5).
Premise (1) is supposed to be true by definition and (2) looks plausible enough It’s just a version of “ought implies can”. We don’t say “the dog morally ought not to chase the cat” simply because the dog isn’t the kind of creature who could be impressed by the relevant reasons we might be able to give him not to do so. It would indeed seem like a person was committing a sort of category mistake to utter that sentence.
It’s (3) that I think is the problem. Harman is explicitly assuming that Humean motivational internalism is true, and he gives us a little story to pump our purportedly Humean intuitions about the usage of the word “ought”:
“Suppose that a contented employee of Murder, Incorporated was raised as a child to honor and respect members of the ‘family’ but to have nothing but contempt for the rest of society. His current assignment, let us suppose, is to kill a certain bank manager, Bernard J. Ortcutt. Since Ortcutt is not a member of the “family,” the employee in question has no compunction about carrying out his assignment. In particular, if we were to try to convince him that he should not kill Ortcutt, our argument would not provide him with the slightest reason to desist unless we were to point to practical difficulties, such as the likelihood of getting caught. Now in this case it would be a misuse of language to say that he ought not to kill Ortcutt or that it would be wrong of him to do so, since that would imply that our own moral considerations carry some weight with him, which they do not.”
To my ear at least it doesn’t sound like a misuse of language at all to say that the contented assassin “ought” not to kill Ortcutt, regardless of the assassins depraved upbringing. There are two ways we might respond here. (i) We could take issue with the claim that saying someone ought not to do something implies that our own moral considerations carry some weight with that person. Or, (ii) We could take issue with the idea that the contented assassin really does have such a radically alternative set of motivations.
To take the first route, we’d presumably just look to offer our own ordinary language analysis of ought and try to show that when S says that A ought to do D, that this doesn’t imply that S and A have some agreement. Interestingly, Harman thinks it’s possible that there are other kinds of moral judgments such as that such and such kinds of acts are evil that don’t require agreement. This sounds even more bizarre to me: Harman thinks that we can perfectly properly say that it would be evil to kill someone for money, but not it would be wrong of the contented assassin to kill Ortcutt for money.
I’d opt for the second route, though. There are at least two good lines of argument against the idea that we could imagine this contented assassin with such a radically alternative morality. The first line would be to leverage some kind of Davidsonian argument against the idea of “radically alternative conceptual frameworks” to show that there actually must be more moral agreement between us and the assassin than disagreement, on pain of his moral beliefs being simply untranslatable.
The other line you could take would be to adopt a kind of naturalism and say that just insofar as we are human beings there are going to be some desires, goals, or whatever that are hardwired into us. And so, even if Harman were right about the motivational internalism, you still couldn’t get relativism off the ground because you have some moral universals built in.