Ow. It's not that easy to present an in-depth analysis or synthesis of Moral Contextualism (MC for short), when it is a fairly recent development of moral philosophy, and the relevant online literature is available only through a paid subscription. The first (and, to my knowledge, only) international conference specifically dedicated to MC was staged at the University of Aberdeen in 2006 (see here for details.) It doesn't bode well for the rest of this article :-/

MC is an offshot of Epistemic (or Epistemological) Contextualism (EC) which focuses on moral issues (obviously.) You can find general articles on EC on both the IEP and the SEP, and, of course, Wikipedia. To make it short, at the risk of being simplistic, I'd say that Moral Contextualism is born from some moral philosophers' dissatisfaction with Moral Relativism (while opposing Moral Absolutism.)

The discussions and commentaries I've seen so far on this topic are quite technical, with a strong bent towards semantics and information theory. Surprisingly (or maybe not), when I tried to remove most of the jargon and interpret the rest, there was little meat left (I may be responsible for this, I tend to be heavy-handed with cleavers.) So, what I could gather so far about MC, in everyday terms, can be summarized as:

(1) Moral judgments involving qualifiers such as 'good', 'moral', 'appropriate', 'acceptable', etc. are context-dependent.

(2) What varies from context to context are the moral standards that an action or conduct must match to be considered 'good', etc. In most contexts, these standards are low enough to be easily satisfied, but they may be raised when the action or conduct is performed in a controversial context (Hum, I have to say I'm a bit baffled by this, it smells a lot like circular reasoning to me.)

(3) However, it doesn't mean that morality is necessarily subjective: on the contrary, there are unambiguous cases where certain actions are objectively right or wrong.

(4) Moral judgments could be said to be analogous to ascriptions of physical properties such as brightness or bigness. E.g., the truth value of a statement like 'Fido is a big dog' is not directly assessable. Plus, it might just mean that Fido is big for a dog its breed and age. A statement like 'What Mary did is good' should be evaluated in a similar way.

(5) Did I get all the above right? I'm not so sure. Is it sketchy? Certainly. Blame Adriana, she's a tyrant. I should never have let her lure me into writing this.

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You do realize that since you posted a nice discussion I will ask you again to post something else :-)


And I hope you do realize that tyrants are having a hard time at the moment, and that they don't get a second chance to repeat past mistakes :P

Sigh. I've long wanted to see the Pyramids at Gizeh but never made the trip. Maybe tomorrow. Do you think one can see Tahrir Square from the top of Kheops'?

Jaume, did you find any examples of what the moral contextualists think are actions that are objectively right or wrong?


Sorry, can't remember any. I speed-read what was available to me, looking for principles, fundamentals, rules, that sort of thing. I didn't really pay attention to examples.

"moral realists" (which I think is another term for moral absolutists, people who think certain actions are ALWAYS wrong, regardless of context


I may be mistaken here, but I think the difference is that moral realists claim that moral facts exist independently of the agent, and that statements about these facts can be determined to be true or false, or anything in between (e.g., 'mostly true') regardless of moral opinion. So context could still be relevant, depending on the nature of the fact.

You can define 'objective' in a number of ways here. What if we're objectively (in the common sense) programmed to feel this illusion? Or better, what if we're objectively programmed to make this feeling a likely occurrence in most human beings, through the virtues of epigenetics?
In this sense, I agree it is an almost theistic argument. But it's not a very interesting definition of objectivity as far as morality is concerned. Objective as in, 'a DNA-encoded moral compass' is more appealing to me. Opposable thumbs, bipedal walk and pubic hair are also human characteristics that would vanish with the species, yet I don't think it would be a stretch to qualify them as 'objective'.

Morals are not, but note that I wrote 'moral compass'. I'm thinking of all these psychologists who study the 'moral sense' of young children and animals. They do observe behaviors that suggest a grasp of morality (like negative reactions to unfair treatments), and these behaviors appear to be fairly common among species, or individuals within a species.

So there's some reason to believe that this moral sense has its roots in biology, and I think it's not absurd to at least make the hypothesis that there might be something like a low-level, objective moral sense. And maybe even objective morals, which would be the products of this moral sense (don't kill, help the weak, etc.) rather than the diktats of priests, or even moral philosophers.

They do observe behaviors that suggest a grasp of morality (like negative reactions to unfair treatments)


My quibble is in the very essence of that line, how to we jump in definition from "negative reaction" to "morality". To me that is the fundamental philosophical mistake. We all have negative reactions to a great deal of happenings, how is that relevant to "morality" I simply do not see it. When the couple upstairs scream at each other, I suffer a "negative response". If a human bites me and I have a negative reaction, that action was immoral, yet if a bear takes a bite of me, there's simply no moral issue with that. My happiness can mean my neighbour's negative reaction, a country's happiness usually is a direct consequence of making other countries unhappy. The eternal question in human "goodness" is "how much pain can I impose on others to achieve my own happiness and get away with it?" That sentiment, regardless of religious affiliation, has been the driving force of humanity for several millennia, at a personal scale, company scale, regional scale, country scale, and global scale. It permeates every single one of our decisions.


When the USA government invaded Iraq twice, it was not in response to morality, it was because they knew they would get away with it.


Fittingly, Oprah once asked "do you not murder because it's wrong or for fear of being caught?" she followed up "if you could murder by thought and be sure to not be caught, would you do it?"


Most fear being caught.

how to we jump in definition from "negative reaction" to "morality"


"Negative reactions to unfair treatments", that's what I wrote. Here's an example.

Yep, no serious issues with that article, except the title of course :) dogs frowning, that is a little funny. As long as the word "moral" remains absent from such articles, we stand on more or less objective grounds. It all boils down to incentive and social structure.

As long as the word "moral" remains absent from such articles,


True, but in this case the jump is easy to make: a common definition of morality is

Recognition of the distinction between good and evil or between right and wrong

and isn't it precisely what this experiment is about? Figuring out whether or not dogs and monkeys are able to tell 'right' from 'wrong'?

What is tested is capacity/efficiency at establishing efficient behaviour. When one recognises that there is no payment, then why do the behaviour? Other animals are much more efficient than humans in this regard, us humans will repeat inefficient behaviours for ever and ever, such as praying, without any evidence of reward. I am totally unsurprised when researchers provide 'evidence' that animals are often beyond such inefficiency, no pay no play. I see no moral implications in such behaviours, it is sheer efficiency of process. What surprises me is that people have so long assumed that animals were 'less evolved' because their brains had different specialisations than ours. All this research demonstrates is what people should never have assumed in the first place, that we're 'above' the other life forms.


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