I have (in agonistic dialogue with Nick Gall) found a way to distinguish a relative value from a universal moral principle in pragmatic terms. What, precisely, is the difference that makes a difference if we believe in universal moral principles?
My short answer is that if we believe a universal moral principle applies to a judgment, we assign moral value to agreeing with the judgment.
If we believe our judgment is a relative value judgment, we do not assign moral value to agreeing with it.
I initially framed this as a thought experiment. Imagine Witness A who witnesses an act committed by Actor B, and later reflects on the act with Co-witness C.
Witness A judges Actor B’s act as abhorrent. Co-witness C judges it as okay.
If Witness A understands her judgment as one of relative value, she will still see actor B’s behavior as bad, but will view Co-witness C’s judgment as merely different from her own.
However, if Witness A understands her judgment as one of universal morality, she will judge actor B’s behavior as bad, and meta-judge Co-witness C’s judgment as also bad.
The universality of a universal moral principle applies less to the object of judgment than to the judging subject. What is universal is the meta-judgment, the belief that here all competent judges should agree.
Now, of course, what I am saying sets up an infinite regression. But now I’ll get all tricky and say that willingness to keep regressing is also a sign of holding universal moral principles, and refusal to even begin, makes one a value relativist.
We can also do the Rortian move and break apart our naive moral realist reaction from our account of why we are having the reaction. (“I, for one, will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice, even though I know they are just socially-contingent feelings.”) This move seems aimed primarily at weakening our meta-judgments. (“Because my emotions are socially contingent, it is acceptable for you to not share them.”)
The move could be made to work not only on our judgments, but also our meta-judgments (and our meta-meta-judgments). (“I will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice and also tolerance of injustice, even though they just my socially-contingent feelings.”) But now what does this line of thought do?
So far, I cannot see any pragmatic consequence for this move unless it nullifies our meta-judgments. All I can come up with we might adopt this strategy for the sake of conceptual coherence — keeping our understanding of how things hang together hanging together better.
For me, this move is an unacceptable tradeoff — of sincerity for theoretical coherence. I am unable to avoid having negative judgments of nonjudgmental attitudes toward certain clear cut cases of viciousness. However much I call them epiphenomenal, I believe these judgments and meta-judgments are valid, and act on their validity.
I can’t say way — not yet, anyway —but this prioritization of sincerity over coherence strikes me as being a matter of relative values, of philosophical taste. I do not expect everyone to prioritize sincerity over coherence, and I do not meta-judge those with different priorities.