Week 2 Rights and Relativism Today’s schedule

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Week 2 – Rights and Relativism
Today’s schedule:

1. The language of rights.

2. The meaning of moral terms.

3. Relativism part I.

(Waluchow, pgs 42 – 58).
‘Rights-Talk’ has become the most common means of expressing our moral obligations toward one another.
One possible historical explanation is the shift from regarding members of a State as subjects, to regarding each as a citizen, i.e., an equal participant in the affairs of the State.
Rights are used in all three dominant normative contexts, i.e., moral, political and legal.
The most influential exposition of rights was presented by Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld. He was tried to distinguish between four concepts that he believed were all often referred to as ‘rights’ by creating a ‘table of juridical rights’. We will be concerned primarily with the first two lines of Hohfeld’s table:

Relation Correlative Opposite

claim-right duty no-right

privilege no-right duty

A claim-right, for Hohfeld, is “an enforceable claim to someone else’s action or non-action”(Waluchow, p. 45). Or, Claim-Rights are claims against others who have duties to respect them (W. p. 50).

Every claim-right is accompanied by a correlative duty in at least one other person.
There are many forms claim-rights can assume, some of which can be identified by relying on the following three distinctions, developed both by Hohfeld and Joel Feinberg:

  1. In Personam vs. In Rem rights

  2. Positive vs. Negative rights

  3. Active vs. Passive rights.

Privileges or Liberties are freedoms to act based on their being no other person that has a right, which impose on the actor a duty to refrain from acting in that way. That is, a privilege just is the absence of a duty.

Claim-Rights and Privileges are what Hohfeld identified as the primary juridical relations. The secondary relations are ‘Powers’.

Relation Correlative Opposite

power liability disability

immunity disability liability

A power or immunity “is the capacity to bring about a change in the existing pattern of rights, duties and privileges”(Waluchow, p. 53). E.g., when we make promises, we grant moral rights to others.

So, the things to which we must be most attentive when we confront the language of rights are:

  1. Is it a claim-right or a privilege?

  2. Against whom is the right being asserted?

  3. Is it an In Personam right or an In Rem right?

  4. Is the right positive or negative?

The Meaning of Moral judgments/utterances

Waluchow, pgs. 58- 64.
What is the truth-status of a moral statement like ‘It is wrong to kill innocent people’.
Cognitivists: Moral statements are presented as true statements, whose truth can be ascertained with the exercise of our cognitive faculties.
But since there is little agreement on any moral matters, how can moral statements be true?
Non-Cognitivism, I: Ayer’s Emotivism

Moral utterances express no truth-values – they only express the emotional state of the speaker.

Non-Cognitivism II: Stevenson’s Emotivism

Moral utterances express attitudes, attitudes intended to persuade those who hear the attitude expressed

Non-Cognitivism III: Hare’s Prescriptivism

Moral utterances do not describe anything (so they cannot be either true or false), but rather prescribe action, i.e., tell us to do some specific thing, instead of telling us how things are.


Relativism. Waluchow, pgs 65 – 71.

Many believe that because of the lack of consensus on moral matters across cultures and between individuals, “there are no universal, generally applicable moral principles, rules and values, valid for all times and places”(Waluchow, pgs 65-6).
The upshots of relativism are that it is the only moral position that can easily account for diversity, and it avoids/undermines moral imperialism.
If relativism is true however, then the ethical theories that we’ll be looking at in the second semester are nothing more than their authors’ opinion, or the state of morality in their society.
Relativism is based on two conclusions:

  1. There are no universal moral standards

  2. The validity of a moral standard is a function of either: i.) social convention (Conventionalism)


ii.) personal opinion (Subjectivism).

These two versions of 2 are the two forms of relativism.

3 Arguments for Relativism

  1. The Diversity Argument:

P1. There are radical differences in moral standards across cultures

C1 (P2): Therefore, there are no universal moral truths.

C2: Therefore, moral standards are a function of the societies that accept them

  1. The Demonstrability Argument

P1: There is no means by which to demonstrate the correctness of any specific moral standard (like the scientific method).

C: Therefore, there can be no moral truth, just matters of opinion or societal standards.

  1. The Argument from Divine Authority

P1: There is no God.

P2: Morality is a set of universal commands issued by an appropriate commander.

P3: Since morality is universal, the only issuer of universal commands is a universal being, i.e., God.

C: But since there is no God, there can be no set of universally objective moral truths.

William Graham Sumner – Folkways

Pgs. 5 – 11 in G&H.

C: The folkways appear in every culture and are the standard of rightness in each. There is no independent moral truth, and as such, “in the folkways, whatever is, is right”(Sumner, p. 5). Morals are historical, institutional and empirical, never intuitive.
P1: Folkways develop from the experiences of actual life, and as such, give rise to all philosophy and science.
P2: Changes in the folkways are a function of changes in actual living conditions.
P3: What we should be doing instead of ethics is Ethology: the study of the evolution, function and application of specific social mores.
P4: Why ‘mores’ as a synonym for ‘folkways?’ ‘Mores’ incorporates social rules as well as the notions of right and truth.
P5: The biggest mistake in moral philosophy is maintaining that morality is above the mores… it is the mores.
P6: The mores are always good for the people of a specific place/time. The only standard of evaluation is the extent to which mores contribute to welfare.
P7: The judgment/rejection of mores are good only for the future or different places, not the past.
P8: Mores gain their status through tradition; alternatives are tested and rejected, and those remaining become entrenched.
So, mores inform the rightness of actions in particular times and places. And because their evolution is a function of changing life conditions, they give rise to a wide variety of standards of right and wrong. It is not possible to extend any one of these standards across all times and places.

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