Explain the distinction Harman draws between the "ought" of inner judgements and the "ought" of judgements about states of affairs.

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Moral relativism entails that what individuals consider to be "moral" or "proper" behavior is entirely relative to their cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds.

The "ought" of inner judgement, according to Harman's essay "Moral Relativism Defended" in Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (1982) what motivates the "oughts" of inner conflict are entirely moral agents. This means that these "oughts" are based on motivation, and not logic; on want, and not as a direct result of action from the causative agent. Hence, the person and the object that is being judged must have a pre-disposed "agreement in motivational attitudes". In Harman's own words:

A spy who has been found out by a friend might say, "As a citizen, you ought to turn me in, but I hope that you will not." In these and similar cases a speaker makes a moral "ought" judgment that is explicitly relative to motivating attitudes that the speaker does not share ...

This basically means that the "ought" is more motivational than moral when we utter it. However, when there is no such agreement between the individual and the agent being judged, a double standard surfaces.

If reference is made to attitudes that are not shared by the speaker, the resulting judgment is not an inner judgment and does not represent a full-fledged moral judgment on the part of the speaker.

Arguably, the historical, social, and psychological (cognitive) nature of what constitutes a moral construct varies from group to group, and circumstance to circumstance. It is the adherence to the norms of the group what ultimately determines what should be considered "right" or "wrong". This is what Harman is ultimately trying to say: that all of these constructs must have a pre-condition of agreement. In not so many words: we consider what "ought" to be right or wrong if it matches our background, motivation, and schema. Other than that, are we actually being "moral" or just "agreeable"?

When it comes to a social or historical event, Harman takes a bold (and rather risky) step at choosing the Holocaust as an example of a state of affairs "ought". In his hypothesis, he claims that "genuinely moral judgements cannot be made" because the "ought" that we would use for this situation "Hitler ought to have not tried to exterminate the Jewish race". In Harman's own words

..it sounds odd to say that Hitler should not have ordered the extermination of the Jews, that it was wrong of him to have done so...Yet we can properly say, "Hitler ought not to have ordered the extermination of the Jew," if what we mean is that it ought never to have happened;

Hence, what Harman is saying is that, for our convenience, we use the "ought" for states of affairs as a way to say that we feel that it is more convenient for our world that these eventsĀ  had ever taken place at all. It is not a matter of personal feeling because we do not feel like Hitler did, and we do no have a problem with Jewish people. It is just our way to give closure to a horrid incident to which we have no connection.

In conclusion, Harman feels that the inner judgement "oughts" are certainly more reliable than those referring to state of affairs. The inner judgement ones still rely on personal motivation. However, those of state affairs may have nothing to do with us, in the first place. Hence, Harman gives more leverage on the inner judgement "oughts" than those of external issues that we cannot control.