Moral Relativism Defended by Gilbert Harman — A Summary

Harman, Gilbert. 1975. “Moral Relativism Defended.” The Philosophical Review 84 (1). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 3–22.

Morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement about their relations with one another. This agreement is made in the relevant sense when a group of people intend to adhere to a set of principles based on the understanding that the rest also similarly intend.

Most moral judgments make sense only in relation to such an agreement. ‘Most’ because this thesis is only about “inner judgments” which say that S ought to or ought not to have done D and not about judgments that say S is evil or unjust.

I. Inner Judgments

Inner judgements are relevant only within the relevant moral considerations of the agreement. To illustrate, it would be odd to make the judgement that a conquering alien race which does not harbour the slightest concern for human life should not attack us or to say that their actions are wrong. The same goes for a band of cannibals eating the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Or even a person brought up in such a way as to have only contempt for people outside the family who kills a non-family member.

It will be correct to say that the aliens are dreadful, that the cannibals are inhuman, and that the murderer is a criminal. But it would be inappropriate to judge their actions as wrong or to state that they ought not to have done what they did since our moral considerations are clearly not relevant to them.

The use of the moral ‘ought’ with the qualification ‘to do’ should be differentiated from it use in the form ‘ought to be’ to indicate expectation (“My girlfriend ought to be here soon”), rationality (“My girlfriend ought to be in the 2 PM train”) or normative judgment (“My girlfriend ought to be faithful”[1]). Similarly, for the word ‘should’.

Also, the use of ‘wrong’ in an evaluative sense (“My girlfriend’s infidelity was wrong”) should be differentiated from its use in a descriptive sense (“It was wrong for my girlfriend to be unfaithful”).

II. The Logical Form of Inner Judgments

Inner judgments have two important characteristics. First, they imply that the agent has reasons to do something. Second, the speaker in some sense endorses these reasons and supposes that the audience also endorses them.

If someone S says that another person A ought to do action D, S implies that A has reasons to do D and S endorses those reasons.[2] The reasons that A has and are endorsed by S are assumed to be “goals, desires, or intentions”.[3]

As such, there are certain motivating attitudes M which are shared by S, A, and S’s audience. These attitudes are intentions to keep the agreement. The argument is that inner judgments are relative to such an agreement. In other words, when S says that A ought to do D, S assumes A’s sincere intention to observe a certain agreement composed of motivating attitudes M that S, A, and S’s audience share.

Putting these together, the moral “ought” can be formulated as a four-place predicate, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” which relates an agent A, a type of act D, considerations C and motivating attitudes M. The relativity of this formulation lies with C and M.

Any action of course is relative to considerations.[4] This relativity does not make the thesis a version of moral relativism. Rather, it is the relativity to motivating attitudes that makes the thesis as such. This relativity to motivating attitudes is visible in moral “ought” statements where a speaker invokes attitudes that he does not share. For example, “As a Christian, you ought to turn the other cheek; I, however, propose to strike back.” Here, the moral judgment is explicitly relative to motivating attitudes.

Put differently, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” means that given considerations C, if A has motivating attitudes M, D is the best, or ‘moral’, course of action. Any such ‘ought’ statement necessarily has the first characteristic of inner judgments (see first paragraph in this section). If such an ‘ought’ statement makes an explicit or implicit reference to shared motivating attitudes, the statement satisfies the second characteristic too and is hence an inner judgment. But if reference is made to attitudes that are not shared, as in the example presented in the previous paragraph, the statement is not a full-fledged moral judgment.

III. Moral Bargaining

The further argument here is that motivating attitudes M derive from an agreement i.e., intentions[5] to adhere to a particular agreement on the understanding that others also intend do so.

Consider the following puzzle: even if we believe that doctors ought to help as many patients as he can, we would object to the suggestion that he should cut up a patient and use his organs to save five others. Helping others ranks lower than not harming others.

A way of navigating this puzzle is to consider the hypothesis that morality derives from an agreement among people with varying powers and resources. Everyone would benefit if there is a rule against harming each other. But if there is a rule in favour of helping as much as one can, the rich would lose out. The compromise then would be a strong ‘no harm’ principle and a weak ‘help’ principle.

This compromise agreement is not and need not be explicit. It is reached through mutual adjustment and implicit bargaining i.e., some form certain conditional intentions while others with other interests form other conditional intentions which are then resolved into an agreement though bargaining.

Most of our moral views can be given a utilitarian explanation. And utilitarian explanations can also be accounted for using an implicit agreement.  The reverse is however not possible. Examples would be the one already cited, the distinction between harming and helping, and the feeling that everyone has an inalienable right to self-defence and self-preservation.

IV. Objections and Replies

O. It does not follow from having an agreement that we should therefore keep that agreement.

R. But we intend to keep it. Intention to keep it on the condition that others intend similarly too is what makes the agreement relevant.


O. What you think, or even agree, is right may not be actually what is right.

R. That’s true. But the thesis is not about what is right. It’s about how what we understand to be right can be made sense of in reference to agreement in intentions. It does not eliminate moral disputes or, otherwise, preclude inconsistencies.


O. Not all agreements are morally binding.

R. This would imply the existence of a prior principle to the effect that agreements made under compulsion are inadmissible. This objection assumes that the agreement is made through a ritual in which one indicates that he agrees. The agreement here is clearly an agreement in intentions. And the argument here is that it is only with reference to an existing agreement in intentions and not from “prior” principles that such a principle about compelled agreements makes sense.


O. When and how did we come to the agreement? What of those who don’t want to agree and what if they don’t?

R. As mentioned earlier, the agreement is not based on a ritual but on intentions. In this sense of ‘agreement’, the questions of when and how the agreement came to be (there is no given moment at which one agrees) and what to do with those who disagree (they will clearly be outside the agreement) are rendered idle.


O. People are often unable to give systematic and precise definition of their moral views. On what understanding then can they form the agreement?

R. Many understandings are of precisely this sort. For example, the understanding among members of an orchestra or a team of acrobats. Also, moral understandings are never absolute. The principles agreed to are generally vague. For example, that respect should be shown wherever possible.

Moral reasoning is a form of practical reasoning. It has to be coherent in the sense of generality and lack of arbitrariness. But it also involves the maintenance of conservatism and the satisfaction of basic needs and desires. One tries to make the least change that will best satisfy one’s desires while maximizing the overall coherence of one’s attitudes.

Someone can reach an agreement with himself i.e., the membership of the group is one. It is perfectly possible to make inner judgments about oneself. Consider the pacifist who judges that it would be wrong of him to participate in killing but is unwilling to hold the same judgment for others even though he is willing to say that it is bad that they participate. Individual morality of this sort is extremely common.

“My conclusion is that relativism can be formulated as an intelligible thesis, the thesis that morality derives from an implicit agreement and that moral judgments are in a logical sense made in relation to such an agreement. Such a theory helps to explain otherwise puzzling aspects of our own moral views, in particular why we think that it is more important to avoid harm to others than to help others. The theory is also partially confirmed by what is, as far as I can tell, a previously unnoticed distinction between inner and non-inner moral judgments. Furthermore, traditional objections to implicit agreement theories can be met”


[1] The use of ought in this normative sense is ambiguous. Is it the ought of expectation (that I expect her to be faithful), of rationality (that it is in her interest to be faithful), normative judgment (that it would be a bad thing for her to be unfaithful) or moral judgment (that it is wrong for her to be unfaithful)? In any case, Harman is concerned only with the last.

[2] But if S says that B is evil in what B did, S does not imply that S endorses the reasons that made B do whatever B did; rather, these reasons were not relevant to S.

[3] These “goals, desires, or intentions” are assumed to be Aristotelian or Humean as opposed to being Kantian. In other words, the source of these ‘relevant’ reasons is not ‘rationality’.

[4]Considering that you promised, you ought to go to the board meeting, but considering that you are the sole surviving relative, you ought to go to the funeral; all things considered, it is not clear what you ought to do.” Quoting Donald Davidson, “Weakness of Will, in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Moral Concepts (Oxford, 1969).

[5] “I will use the word “intention” in a somewhat extended sense to cover certain dispositions or habits. Someone may habitually act in accordance with the relevant understanding and therefore may be disposed to act in that way without having any more or less conscious intention. In such a case, it may sound odd to say that he intends to act in accordance with the moral understanding. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will count that as his having the relevant intention in a dispositional sense.”



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