Widespread and deep moral disagreements are persistently resistant to rational solutions and thus allow for continuing debate over the validity of moral judgments. This paper will discuss prominent positions regarding whether moral judgments may be true and false in an absolute sense or a relative sense, in light of the diverse and intense disagreement in moral judgment. This paper will defend the pluralistic conclusion that if there are not specific universal values, there is at least a minimum value of humanity without which a society could not survive. Moral judgments may be true and false in the absolute sense of this minimum.
There are two main categories to classify different positions regarding moral judgments. Normative Moral Relativity is the view that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not absolute, but is relative to the convictions, practices, or traditions of some group of persons such as a society or culture. This answers the question “How should I live?” by saying that one should follow the values of your society or culture. Richard Shweder, in his “The Astonishment of Anthropology”, defends an anthropological relativism that stresses the importance of tolerance and moral diversity. Shweder’s position allows for difference in moral opinion among different cultures. Terence Tanner’s anthropological view, in his “Human Rights, Human Difference”, is like Shweder’s in it appreciation for diversity, however Tanner calls for “transcultural” principles of justice or, allowing people to be different so long as they allow other to be different as well.
Moral Objectivity is the view that morality would be objective only if moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute sense, many moral judgments are true, and persons are often justified in believing true ones and disbelieving false ones. Thomas Aquinas defended a version of Moral objectivism in his “Natural Law and Moral Disagreements”, claiming that natural law is universal and that disagreements regarding the universal natural law can be explained by mistakes, developing understanding of that universal natural law or the need for divine intervention. In her “Non-Relative Virtues: an Aristotelian Approach”, Martha Nussbaum examines different daily and universal human experiences in which most people must participate. Through this examination Nussbaum defends a version of Moral Objectivism, this one heavily supported by Aristotle, that there is indeed a single objective account of the human good based on our common humanity. However, it is Isaiah Berlin’s version of pluralism in his “Pursuit of the Ideal” that fully encompasses the nature of moral judgments, calling for a base level of absolute moral judgment and then allowing for relativism in other areas of moral judgment.
Throughout this essay, we will assume that there is a world of objective values, that is to say, there is a world of those ends to which individuals strive simply for the sake of those ends,...