Is it possible to apply these conclusions to morality, too? In the last section, the passage I quoted from Reisch continues as follows: “… and to avoid being manipulated by unscientific appeals to ‘absolute’ values” (Reisch 2005: 226). “Absolutism” is Frank’s primary target or at least concern in morality, which will be discussed in the following.
One may apply the understanding of relativization involved in modern science to morality, as well, as Frank himself suggested. In fact, in his opinion, it is one of the most important lessons science can teach society. It is not only in the natural sciences but also in morality that concepts must be supplemented and clarified when they are used in a context of complex experience. In the world of a small child, it might suffice to understand “John is wicked” as “John is not obedient to his parents”. “Wicked”, by the way, is a term with many meanings, ranging from “disobedient” to “evil”, a fact which makes this sentence a difficult example. Nevertheless, I will follow Frank’s explanations. In the understanding of a school child, according to Frank, additional information is necessary in order for the statement to remain unambiguous. The language broadens to “John is wicked in relation to his parents”, “John is wicked in relation to his teachers” or “John is wicked in relation to his fellow pupils”. In the meaning of the statement “John is wicked in relation to a certain authority”, the term “wicked” is unambiguous. This kind of relativity does not, Frank asserts, make room for subjective or skeptical interpretations (Frank 1950: 13). Rather, it asks for clarification, in science as in morality.
When someone is confronted with several different and complex systems of authority—in the eyes of many people morality is one of these—many more qualifications and clarifications are needed. Within Frank’s understanding of meaning, if, for example, a claim to God’s will is involved, the statement “John is wicked” must furthermore contain the methods by which God’s will can be legitimately interpreted. Similarly, if the voice of someone’s conscience is taken as the supreme authority, it must contain the way to test the voice of this conscience. Frank emphasizes: “The language becomes now highly ‘relativized.’ A statement of the simple type ‘John is wicked’ no longer has a clear and definite meaning” (Frank 1950: 14). In a complex moral world, “is wicked” will not do in order to keep the language clear and unambiguous. If language is not clarified, problems will arise when we want a statement to give practical guidance.
In the following, I will examine in more detail what this means for relativity and objectivity in morality. Frank presupposes that “wicked” is relative to an authority, which is certainly true when it is taken to mean “disobedient”. When we understand “wicked” as “disobedient”, we may easily recognize that it is short for a two-place predicate, namely “is disobedient to …”. We understand that we have to fill the second place of this term in our characterization of John. Following this interpretation, we are concerned with the already familiar kind of relativity known as clarification in description. Clarification in description does not per se imperil objectivity.
How does our analysis change when we take “wicked” as a term better understood as “evil”? In this case, we inquire after the standard used in relation to the statement, for example, “evil in the light of which standard?” If the answer is “morality”—or, more specifically, “God’s will” or “scientific humanism”—then “wicked” is relativized to a moral standard in reference to God’s will or scientific humanism. Does this kind of moral relativism rule out objectivity? If we use “evil” as an evaluative term, morality is indeed relativized to a certain standard. If the standard is held by a certain group, it is also relativized to a certain group—for example, a cultural or religious group. Here, relativization adds the moral standards of said group, the relevant moral system, so to speak. We can call this kind of relativism “standard relativism”. Standard relativism does not imperil objectivity relative to shared standards, but objectivity in this case does not encompass criteria for the right standards. Although Frank does not endorse moral skepticism, standard relativism allows for the perspective that fundamental moral principles are unknowable.
Frank refers to another kind of “relativism” involving relativization as concretization, which will be important in regard to his criticism of absolute values. If someone thinks, Frank states, that clarification is to be avoided in the formulation of principles, the qualifications become indispensable in the interpretation. Therefore, the “relativism” one tried to be rid of here, comes back there (Frank 1950: 15). When we talk about values, Frank asks us to consider different meanings of “value”. In one sense of “value”, concrete institutions and ways of life are at stake; hence, values are a very concrete matter. They are accepted on the basis of “a general atmosphere of happiness, which for that large group of people is connected with those ‘values’” (Frank 1950: 40). People associate direct experiences of wellbeing with these concrete values. These experiences are valuable, because they make a positive difference in relation to wellbeing. Someone may doubt this but the important point is that these values operate on a very concrete practical level. This is not the case with the second meaning of “value”, which refers to general principles like “freedom” or “democracy”. Although both kinds of “values” belong to the category of preferences, we are confronted with a practical problem in the case of the second category of values, namely that it is not clear how specific decisions could be deduced from such general “values” (Frank 1950: 41). This is unclear not because these values are general, but because they are abstract and have to be made more concrete. Relativization here means concretization. Through the use of grandiose words like “freedom” or “democracy”, tyranny and cruelty might be defended. Today, we can see this in the “war on terror”. In this context, it is especially crucial that the people who use these terms are asked: “What is the meaning of these beautiful sounds?” Frank insists that we should demand to talk sense. By doing so, we want “to know what these sentences containing these words imply in terms of human action, of human behavior and—frequently—in terms of human suffering.” (Frank 1950: 33). Frank is convinced that an audience educated in the “experimental” or “pragmatic” theory of meaning “will not easily become a victim of vicious propaganda” (Frank 1950: 33). In contrast, “idealistic” theories of meaning very often lead to a “worship of words and slogans that has little regard for the human misery it creates” (Frank 1950: 34).
Frank is convinced that every single step towards more liberalism in society, politics, and religion is connected to the advance of semantics insofar as traditional slogans are scrutinized concerning their effect on human behavior, human happiness and human suffering. Words are increasingly interpreted in a pragmatic or operationalist conception of meaning (Frank 1950: 35–36).
Frank tries to show this close connection of the pragmatic theory of meaning and liberalism by using the example of religious language (perhaps in order to address the many theologians in the audience at the conference). If the commandments of Christianity are not given an operational meaning, they will be accepted by the worst criminals, too: “Then the creeds were deprived of any influence upon human behavior and could not harm anybody, not even the ‘Devil’” (Frank 1950: 37). General principles can only be used as meaningful principles of human behavior if they are interpreted on a practical level. Without doing so, no conclusion “can be drawn which would be pertinent to an actual life situation” (Frank 1950: 43). Only further abstract principles would be derived, and one would never address an actual human problem.
Frank takes the general rule “you must not kill” and the definition of “killing” as an example. A person who believes in the absolute obligation to follow this rule will soon realize that she needs further qualifications as concretization in order to know how to react in a specific situation. Is killing in self-defense “killing”? Is the bombing of an enemy city “killing”? Is the killing of a tyrant “killing”? “Under which conditions is a tyrant enough of a tyrant to make the job of ‘liquidating’ him different from ‘killing’ him?” Frank (1950: 44) asks. Even someone who starts with an abstract formulation must finally come up with an operational definition of “killing” if she wants to make a specific practical decision. Frank concludes that for practical purposes, the attitude of an ethical “absolutist” does not differ from that of an “ethical relativist” (Frank 1950: 44). What someone tries to avoid via the formulation of an “absolute” rule once again slips back in during the necessary interpretations (Frank 1950: 44, 97). Therefore, relativity as concretization does not endanger objectivity but makes it easier. Moreover, this kind of relativity does not endorse skepticism.
Referring to Einstein’s theory Frank thus holds: “The most ardent advocates of ‘absolute truth’ avail themselves of the doctrine of the ‘relativists’ whenever they have to face a real human issue. They are in the situation of the physicist who has to avail himself practically of the Theory of Relativity, no matter what his philosophical creed and however much he may dislike the language of Einstein’s system” (Frank 1950: 46).
The choice between “absolute” and “relative” goals or values is, in Frank’s view, a choice between languages. You may either retain the “absolutist’s” language in principle and shift the “relativized” language into the “operational definition”, or you “relativize” the very formulation of the principle (Frank 1950: 47). On the practical level, it is impossible to circumvent relativization for specification and concretization.
What does this mean for Frank’s stance towards “absolutism” in morality or politics? It is unproblematic to regard general principles as absolute as long as an operational definition of the contained abstract terms can be provided. Therefore, not all kinds of absolutism are bad in Frank’s analysis. Without such concretization, however, absolutism might present dangers in practice. Frank warns that the belief in the “absolute truth” of general principles may imperil a person’s goals or convictions: “If we believed in a statement containing the word ‘freedom’ as though the word were an ‘absolute truth’ with no operational definition, we could join the fight on the side of a party we actually dislike.” (Frank 1950: 49). Principles might become a mere banner, then. Totalitarian authorities like the Nazi regime use this misconceived appeal to absolutism in order to preserve the integrity of the banner while arbitrarily changing the content of the practical objectives in order to gather the troops and supplies for war. That its use of the distinction of “Aryans” and “Non-Aryans” was inconsistent did not matter at all (Frank 1950: 113; see also Uebel 2003: 103–106).
Frank’s pragmatic account of morality does not rule out all kinds of absolutism. However, Frank is concerned about absolutism in the form of the claim that abstract moral principles will never have to be relativized and are meaningful without operational definitions. When relativized, objectivity is not necessarily threatened.