An Ethics for ‘Moral Strangers’: Fence Crossing or Fence Mending?

March 13, 2018 - March 14, 2018
Department of Philosophy (Section Phenomenology), University of Graz


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Keynote speakers:

Robert Audi
University of Notre Dame
John Drummond
Fordham University
Sara Heinämaa
University of Jyväskylä


Philipp Berghofer
University of Graz
Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl
University of Graz
Markus Seethaler
University of Graz

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There is a natural tendency in ethics to cover all human affairs and fellow-beings and do so by searching for universally valid principles. This tendency is guided by assumptions of equality whose recognition is considered desirable and legitimate because it is based on our shared vulnerability to the misfortunes of life, on our demands for sustenance, non-harming and (self-)respect. Relating practical difficulties, which curb endeavours to realize equality on a global scale, are varied and well-known. Yet apart from these difficulties criticism and doubt has been voiced concerning the scope and sharedness of the overall aim. This critique is due to different interpretations of “non-harming” and “(self-)respect” which prevail within particular (sub-)cultures and under widely divergent individual and societal circumstances. Taking these differences seriously, it is questionable whether the relating doubts merely refer to the fact that universal principles, when applied under varying circumstances, require adaptation and specification. Rather, it might be the very aim of universal moral principles that is at stake. People who are ignored with regard to their cultural and religious identities are inclined to interpret this non-recognition of their particular collective self-understanding as offending. On this condition, it is very likely that they feel forced to put up with a denial of recognition and respect which seems to directly result from a rigid concern for universal principles.

This workshop explores the clash of ethical universalism and particularism from the point of view of different philosophical traditions and different brands of ethical theory. Promising questions for doing so might be the following:

  • How can we bypass a one-size-fits-all universalism and nonetheless avoid meddling with moral relativism? Is it warranted to insist upon the difference between (historical, cultural, moral) relativity, on the one hand, and downright relativism, on the other?

  • Is it necessary to go for strong moral realism, i.e., an ontologically-based realism, in order to overcome moral relativism? Or might we fare better with moderate versions of moral realism? What could these other versions look like?

  • Are there any feasible methodological conceptions and ideas (e.g. impartial spectator; rules of moral salience; reflective equilibrium) that might contribute to dissolving intercultural value conflicts? Can we rightly assume that bottom up attempts better fit the task?

  • In what ways and to what extent is an interdisciplinary study of human emotions suited to develop new and promising accounts to deal with the juxtaposition of ethical universalism and particularism?

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