Moral knowledge and mass crime: A critical reading of moral relativism

Philosophy and Social Criticism 36 (2):131-156 (2010)
Abstract
In this article I ask how moral relativism applies to the analysis of responsibility for mass crime. The focus is on the critical reading of two influential relativist attempts to offer a theoretically consistent response to the challenges imposed by extreme criminal practices. First, I explore Gilbert Harman’s analytical effort to conceptualize the reach of moral discourse. According to Harman, mass crime creates a contextually specific relationship to which moral judgments do not apply any more. Second, I analyze the inability thesis, which claims that the agents of mass crime are not able to distinguish between right and wrong. Richard Arneson, Michael Zimmerman and Geoffrey Scarre do not deny the moral wrongness of crime. However, having introduced the claim of authenticity as a specific feature of the inability thesis, they maintain that killers are not responsible. I argue that these positions do not hold. The relativist failure to properly conceptualize responsibility for mass crime follows from the mistaken view of moral autonomy, which then leads to the erroneous explanation of the establishment, authority and justification of moral judgments
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