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Wong, David B. Natural Moralities. A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism.

WONG, David B. Natural Moralities. A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. xviii + 293 pp. Cloth, $45.00--This book brings together and extends relativistic themes from articles David Wong has published after Moral Relativity (1984). He calls his conception pluralistic relativism or relativism with limits. In his own words, in Moral Relativity he mainly argued against universalism, while acknowledging space for moral objectivity, and in Natural Moralities he mainly argues that not all moralities are adequate or true. The former book focuses on relativism; the latter on its limits. Wong characterizes moral universalism as the view that there is a single true morality, and moral relativism as the view that there is none. He singles out his version of relativism (pluralistic relativism) through the recognition of significant limits on what counts as a true morality. But besides relativism, this book deals with many other fundamental topics in moral philosophy, such as liberalism and communitarianism, moral reasons, and comparative ethics.

The two great themes more narrowly connected with the thesis of pluralistic relativism are moral ambivalence and naturalism. Wong maintains that different moralities share core values and are distinguished by their differing priorities on them. He understands moral ambivalence as "recognition of severe conflicts between important values and of the possibility that reasonable people could take different paths in the face of these conflicts" (p. xiv). Moral ambivalence is a way of understanding moral conflict. According to Wong, it arises from the fact that universal moral criteria are too general to guide action and need to be complemented with local criteria. Wong denies that all local criteria are adequate (avoiding extreme relativism), on the grounds of naturalism and a functional conception of morality.

Wong's naturalistic approach starts with the commitment to integrate the understanding of morality with the most relevant empirical theories about human beings and society, such as evolutionary theory and developmental psychology. He offers a detailed review of evolutionary accounts of the emergence of altruism and cooperation. The outcome is a functional conception of morality in terms of human needs, desires and purposes, as well as social cooperation. Wong follows Xunzi's (Hsun Tzu's) genealogy of morality in identifying two main functions of morality: promoting social cooperation and individual psychological order (pp. 39-41). Wong argues that his naturalistic approach, when applied to moral ambivalence, supports the denial of a single true morality and the existence of natural limits on the plurality of true moralities.

Wong is certainly right in accepting both core universal moral norms and a space for pluralism. But it is unclear why this should amount to relativism. Universalism is usually identified with the recognition of universal norms, and relativism with their denial. Universalism is dogmatic when it allows no space for variation, and it is pluralistic when it does. It is odd to refer to shared values with the term 'pluralistic,' and to use it to qualify relativism, which entails plurality. Wong's analysis of moral ambivalence and moralities in the plural arise related concerns. He offers lucid arguments for liberalism to take account of relationship and for communitarianism to respect autonomy, and refers to abortion and distributive justice. Now, moral conflict is as hard within as across cultures or moral traditions. It is odd to talk about different moralities, instead of different views on moral matters. As for action guidance, Wong does not always distinguish clearly between conflicts of norms and conflicts of judgments. What naturalism concerns, the Kantian imperative of treating each person as an end is seen both as facilitating social cooperation, and as a local criterion for the adequacy of morality (pp. 104 ff.). According to Wong, the intrapersonal function of morality appeals to character ideals and worthwhile lives. This does not seem to allow a functional explanation, but to point to the elusive dimension of value, so indispensable for morality and so hard to naturalize.

Natural Moralities also offers, among others, interesting accounts of the problem of confidence (how relativism need not undermine moral commitment) and comparative ethics (mainly Chinese and Western). I can only comment on one point. Wong argues that reasons to be moral are external to the individual, but internal to human motivation. The discussion of rational action builds on David Hume and Bernard Williams (pp. 181-186). In my opinion, it would gain from taking into account other traditions, such as the phenomenology of desire and the will of Alexander Pfander or, within the analytic tradition, the recent discussion of rationality by John Searle.

Wong's book is rich and thoughtful. Those with differing views will be especially grateful, but they may wonder whether Wong's pluralism is a form of relativism, and doubt whether his naturalism can account for the nature of morality and the objectivity of value.--Ricardo Parellada, Complutense University of Madrid.
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Author:Parellada, Ricardo
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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