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John (Trip) Adler

Moral Reasoning 72
Shorter Paper #1
Williams’ Vulgar Relativism

In Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, “Interlude: Relativism,” by Bernard

Williams, the topic of “vulgar relativism” is discussed, and it consists of three

propositions. The first is that when talking about what is right, this means what is right

for a given society. The second is that what is right for a given society must be

understood in a functionalist sense. Lastly, in vulgar relativism, because of the first two

propositions, it is wrong for people in one society to condemn or interfere with the values

of another society.

Williams criticizes vulgar relativism, calling it “absurd.” It is clearly inconsistent

because of the third proposition. In this case the word “right” is being used in a

nonrelative sense, which is not allowed because of the first proposition. Another problem

with vulgar relativism is that there are difficulties in identifying a society. Is the survival

of a society based on the survival of its values, or of its people? When considering the

interaction between two societies, sometimes one society is integrally related to a larger

group, which makes things more complicated. Another reason for the absurdity of vulgar

relativism is that there is an element of unversalization in any morality. In other words,

certain reactions and motivations are internalized, and are not going to disappear just

because two different societies interact. Williams is basically trying to say that although

there have been times when one society has wrongly interfered with another or wrongly

criticized another for being different, it cannot be included in vulgar relativism that the
reason it has been wrong is a consequence of morality itself.