Comment on Erler: Speaker relativism and semantic intuitions

Praxis 2 (1):30-44 (2009)
Metaethical relativists sometimes use an interesting analogy with relativism in physics to defend their view. In this article I comment on Erler’s discussion of this analogy and take the discussion further into methodological matters that it raises. I argue that Erler misplaces the analogy in the dialectic between relativists and absolutists: the analogy cannot be dismissed by simply pointing to the fact that we have absolutist intuitions – this is exactly the kind of objection the analogy is supposed to be a defence against. To decide if the analogy works we need to answer the following two questions: (i) Why does it work to say that people refer to relative physical properties (like simultaneity, mass and motion) even though they intend to speak about absolute physical properties? And (ii) does the answer carry over to the moral case? I argue for a specific answer to (i), and argue that it gives us reason to answer (ii) in the negative – so the analogy does not hold. However, looking at the issue more closely also raises questions about a fundamental assumption in metaethical discussion: perhaps we cannot assume that one single analysis holds for everyone’s moral judgments.
Keywords moral relativism  causal theory of reference  metaethcis  relativism in physics
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