In a previous post I indicated why I think that Kwame Appiah is wrong in asserting that not holding a belief entails thinking that those who hold that belief are mistaken. Appiah goes on to argue that ethical relativism cannot be true because, among other reasons, it’s truth would render us unable to discuss matters of belief and value with those who do not hold the same values and beliefs.
“For if relativism about ethics and morality were true, then, at the end of many discussion, we would each have to end up saying, ‘From where I stand, I am right. From where you stand, you are right.’ And there would be nothing further to say. From our different perspectives, we would be living effectively in different worlds. And without a shared world, what is there to discuss? People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”
I am not a convinced ethical relativist but I also don’t find Appiah’s reasoning persuasive. It seems like you and I could have plenty to talk about if we held different beliefs and if those beliefs were, as far as they can be, both true. We would talk about why it is that we each hold the beliefs we do. ‘Better’ can still be a meaningful concept in a world where there is no best; even if there’s no single right answer to a question of belief or value, we can still decide one belief or value to be preferable to another. When we discuss our reasons for holding our beliefs we can persuade the other to adopt the belief we hold even though we do not accept the notion that there is a single truth to the matter.
By changing minds we presumably affect the choices for action that the other will make and that is all that matters. What are meaningful when we talk about beliefs and values are not the beliefs and values themselves, as we hold them in our minds, but rather the manner in which they impact our actions. And we can meaningfully have action-impacting discussions about beliefs without holding one to be decisively true.