Vulgar Relativism – Bernard Williams & Charles Taylor

Williams views “vulgar relativism” as a disgusting moral view in philosophy. Normally referred to as moral relativism, this moral view holds that what is right can only be determined as what is right for that specific society at that specific time, whichever the time and society may be. Williams uses three propositions when defining what “vulgar relativism”. His first proposition is that a ‘right’ can only coherently be understood as meaning what is “right for a given society” and then his second proposition is that what is “right for a given society” is to be understood in a functionalist sense.[1] His third proposition, the conclusion which follows from the first two propositions, is that “vulgar relativism” precludes people from one society to condemn and interfere with the values of another society.[2] To come to the conclusion that no society ought to interfere with individuals from another society in order to confront them on specific practices of their society, Williams takes to be a vulgar moral position. He does not think that such a conclusion can be a consequence of the nature of morality.[3]

In Williams view, a large objection to “vulgar relativism” is the difficulties which surround the identification of “a society”.[4] If society is defined partially through the values of a cultural unit, then Williams claims that the functionalist propositions will become nothing more than bare tautologies, self-contradictory in other words.

Furthermore, there is the problem with just what exactly it is we should take to constitute as a society. How many people must be involved and in what sort of an arrangement needs to be addressed under this “vulgar relativism” which it is not. For example, are the people in Ghana who still follow the Ashanti tradition a society, or would it be more proper to classify them as simply a group of people who are part of the Ghana society but are practicing the Ashanti tradition. As Williams previously pointed out is there even a distinction between society and the practice of a tradition or are they both one and the same. Even if it were the case that those following the Ashanti tradition in Ghana do make up a specific society of their own, Williams questions whether or not due to the size of the society and the high degree of relational integration between the two groups, both in values and future dependency, should it not be the case that to some extent it is acceptable to intervene and/or condemn specific practices of one or the other.

Williams further into the article notes that the idea of morality as only existing to each specific society without overlap is in at least a minimal degree false. There is, in fact, Williams believes, some aspects of morality which seem to cross over societies and cultures. The example Williams provides is that of the element of universalization, found in any morality.[5] It seems that many of the most fundamental aspects of morality can be found in each society and it is merely the way in which that society extrapolates what should and should not be permissible is what differs.

[1] Williams, Morality (Harper and Row, 1972): pg.20

[2] ibid

[3] ibid pg.25

[4] ibid pg.21

[5] ibid pg.23

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