How to be a relativist

Moral relativism is often rejected on grounds that it is either descriptively inadequate, at best, or self-defeating, at worst. In this essay, I swim against the predominant anti-relativistic philosophical tide. My minimal aim is to show that relativism is neither descriptively inadequate nor self-defeating. My maximal aim is to outline the beginnings of an argument that relativism is a truth resting on deep facts about the human normative predicament. And I shall suggest that far from being a source of cultural degeneracy, the fact of relativism has the potential to ground a culture that is deeply life-affirming. My argument against the twin charges of descriptive inadequacy and self- defeat turns on a distinction between tolerant and intolerant relativism. I concede that many of the standard arguments against relativism do have force against tolerant relativism. But against intolerant relativism, those arguments are entirely unavailing. The crucial difference between the tolerant and intolerant relativist is that although the intolerant relativist agrees with the tolerant relativist that norms are relative, she insists that agents are sometimes entitled to hold others to norms by which they are not bound. I shall argue that just because the intolerant relativist allows that we are sometimes entitled to hold others to norms by which we are bound but they are not, she is able to escape both the charge of descriptive inadequacy and the charge of self- defeat. In particular, I shall show that the intolerant relativist has a coherent and satisfying account of the nature of moral disagreement and moral argument. Establishing the ultimate truth of relativism, however, would take more than showing that one form of relativism escapes certain standard arguments against relativism. Though I do not pretend to conclusively discharge the burden of showing that relativism is true in the space of this essay, I do sketch the beginnings of an account of what I call the bindingness of norms that has intolerant relativism as more or less straight-forward downstream consequence. If there are independent grounds for accepting that account of bindingness, then there are independent grounds for accepting intolerant moral relativism
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