Ethical Relativism Philosophy 4 (Summer 2012) Recap Moral skeptics are those who deny the existence of objective moral standards, i.e. moral requirements that apply to people regardless of their beliefs or desires. We looked at one form of moral skepticism, moral nihilism, which claims that there simply are no moral standards. We will now look at another form of moral skepticism: ethical relativism. Ethical Relativism Ethical relativism is the claim that though there are correct moral standards, these standards are relative to an individual or to a culture. In other words, there are moral standards, but they are not objective. Ethical Relativism There are two kinds of ethical relativism: We will be focusing on cultural relativism. But much of our discussion on cultural relativism also applies to ethical subjectivism. Cultural Relativism Cultural relativism is the claim that correct moral standards are relative to cultural commitments. In other words, what is right or wrong, morally good or bad, and virtuous or vicious is determined by the culture. E.g. Giving up my seat for an elderly person is morally right (in my culture) because my culture deems such acts praiseworthy. Cultural Relativism Cultural Relativism 1) Different societies have different moral codes. Cultural Relativism 2) There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than any other. Cultural Relativism 3) The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many. Cultural Relativism 4) There is no “universal truth” in ethics – that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times. Cultural Relativism 5) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society. Cultural Relativism 6) It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples; we should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures. The Cultural Difference Argument Why might someone be a cultural relativist? Often, it begins with the observation that different cultures seem to hold different views about what is right or wrong (claim #1). Example of Cultural Difference Example of Cultural Difference The Cultural Difference Argument So the argument may go as follows: ◦ 1) The Inuits (Eskimos) see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral. ◦ 2) Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong; for Inuits, infanticide is not wrong, and for Americans, infanticide is wrong. The Cultural Difference Argument Or to give another example: ◦ 1) The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead. ◦ 2) Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong; for the Greeks, it is wrong to eat the dead, and for the Callatians, it is right to eat the dead. The Cultural Difference Argument The general form of these arguments is: 1) Different cultures have different moral codes. 2) Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality; moral codes are true for specific cultures. Objections to Argument for Cultural Relativism There is, of course, a serious problem with this line of arguing for cultural relativism. Objections to Argument for Cultural Relativism For instance: Additional Objections Objection #1: Moral Equivalence ◦ One group’s moral views are as true as another’s. Additional Objections Objection #2: Moral Infallibility ◦ We can determine whether or not our actions are wrong by simply consulting the society’s standards. Additional Objections Objection #3: No Moral Progress ◦ If one culture’s views are no better than another’s, then there is no sense in which our moral views are improving over time. ◦ E.g. no sense in which we made any improvement in abolishing slavery, or in providing equal rights to women. Additional Objections Objection #4: Problem of Contradiction ◦ According to cultural relativism, a moral judgment is true just because it correctly describes what a society really stands for. Additional Objections Objection #4: Problem of Contradiction ◦ Reply: The cultural relativist can respond by saying that when one says “Infanticide is wrong”, one is saying that infanticide is wrong for that person, and so the claim to truth is restricted to that particular culture. Additional Objections Objection #4: Problem of Contradiction ◦ Further Objection #1: We can no longer have any moral disagreements between cultures since I am claiming that infanticide is wrong for me, while you are not disagreeing with me but simply claiming that infanticide is not wrong for you. ◦ Further Objection #2: We are all confused when we say “Infanticide is wrong”; we think we are making some claim about the wrongness of infanticide, but all we are doing is saying that infanticide is wrong for us. Additional Objections Objection #5: How Do We Identify Cultures? ◦ How do we draw the lines between cultures? ◦ Moreover, what should we say about people who span multiple cultures and subcultures with different moral codes? (Seems like most of us are a part of multiple cultures and subcultures.) Additional Objections Objection #6: No Genuine Differences ◦ The motivation for cultural relativism often begins with the observation that different cultures have different moral codes. ◦ But is that really so? Additional Objections Objection #6: No Genuine Differences ◦ Moreover, there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common because those rules are necessary for the society to exist. ◦ For instance, suppose we had no prohibition on lying. We would not be able to trust one another for anything. No loans would ever be given; contracts or promises of any kind would not exist. In short, the society would dissolve. Ideal Observer There is one possible way that an ethical relativist might address these problems: appeal to the desires and choices of ideal observers as the ultimate standard of morality. Ideal Observer Ideal Observer How does the ideal observer help the problems that ethical relativism face? Ideal Observer How does the ideal observer help the problems that ethical relativism face? ◦ There can be real disagreement between different moral views because moral judgments will not be claims about what the culture approves, but rather what the ideal observer approves. ◦ Some actions, like slavery and genocide, will likely not be endorsed by the ideal observer since such actions are often based on ignorance and irrationality. Ideal Observer Two problems with the ideal observer approach: ◦ 1) What if there are disagreements among ideal observers, or if there are disagreements about what constitutes an ideal observer? ◦ 2) What if the actions that the ideal observer approves seems wrong to us? Lessons from Cultural Relativism Even if cultural relativism is false, it does teach us an important lesson: There is a danger in being dogmatic about one’s beliefs because our beliefs are susceptible to bias (stemming from our particular culture) and dogmatism prevents us from seeing this. By observing differences between cultures, we can see our own biases and correct for them.
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