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					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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posted:5/24/2013
language:English
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