Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism

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Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism Powered By Docstoc
					Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism

    “Different cultures have different
             moral codes…”

 Among the Etoro people of New Guinea, ‘penis feeding’
  is considered not only morally acceptable, but medically
  and socially necessary for adolescent males.

 According to Herodotus, the Callatians ate their dead
  fathers. The ancient Greeks cremated dead bodies;
  Christians mainly bury them.

 Some “Eskimo” (i.e., Inuit, Yupik, Kalaallit…) groups
                                               wife loaning
  traditionally practiced open marriage and ‘wife loaning’

  Supposedly, some of these same groups also practiced
  infanticide and eldercide (though this is disputed)

How do we know these things?

 Partly on the basis of empirical evidence; partly on the
  basis of testimony.

  Though in some cases, we should bear in mind, these
  claims might be the result of prejudice or fantasy or

 Nonetheless, it’s surely true that, at least when it comes
                 it s
  to specific practices, there is a substantial degree of
  diversity among cultural norms…

Descriptive Moral Relativism

  So, from the perspective of the social sciences, history,
       (    globalized world) even everyday experience, it
  and (in a g               )            y y p
  is perhaps just obvious that this claim is generally true:

  “Different cultures have different moral codes…”

  But what, if anything, follows from the descriptive fact of
  cultural relativism?

 Well, for one thing, if we think that truth is intrinsically
  valuable, then knowing the truth about the variety of
  human norms and practices is valuable for that reason

Consequences of Descriptive Relativism

   Beyond that, coming to know the descriptive truth about
   cultural differences can be morally valuable to us. It

   1. Alert us to the danger of assuming that all of our
      preferences must be based on some absolute moral
       Eating the dead, e.g., may seem horrific to us, yet it may
       be that, despite our strong feelings, funerary practices are
       more like matters of etiquette than matters of morals.
       They may be things about which there could be
       reasonable disagreement…

  2. Similarly, confronting the fact of cultural relativism may
        p           p      p                    p
     help us to keep an open mind—it can provide “an
     antidote to dogmatism” (30).

     We may have been socialized to find repugnant, e.g.,
     public nudity or homosexuality. To the degree that our
     socialization has been successful, we are then likely to
     have strong negative feelings about nudity or

     But feelings aren’t reasons. Our socialization may have
     been morally mistaken. The fact of diversity forces us to
     consider the reasons (if any) underlying that socialization.

Normative Implications?

  But many people have sought to draw further, stronger
  conclusions from the descriptive fact of cultural

  In particular, some people attempt to draw normative
  inferences from this fact, possibly using an argument of
  the form:

  1. Different cultures have different moral codes.

  2. Therefore, there is no objective ‘truth’ in morality. Right
     and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary
     from culture to culture.

   1. Different cultures have different moral codes.

   2. Therefore, there is no objective ‘truth’ in morality. Right
         d              l      tt   f i i          d i i
      and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary
      from culture to culture.

   Logically, the argument as stated is unsound. Its premise is
   true, but its inference is invalid (i.e., not truth-preserving).

   Nothing necessarily follows from the fact of disagreement
    b t     thi
   about anything.

   Compare: Some people think the world is flat. Does it follow
   that the shape of the Earth is merely a matter of opinion?

Normative Relativism:
Unacceptable Consequences

   Moreover, if we accepted normative cultural relativism
         when Rome’
   (the ‘when in Rome view):

A. We could never criticize the customs of other societies.
   They would instead merely be ‘different’. (But what
   about, e.g., oppressive regimes?)

B. We could determine right and wrong in moral matters
   simply by consulting the existing standards of our
   society or culture. (But what if our society is evil, e.g., a
   slave-owing society?)

C. Similarly, there could be no criteria for judging moral
                  non arbitrary
   progress; no non-arbitrary grounds for undertaking
   reform of social norms.

   (If there is no moral fact of the matter about how we
   ought to treat people, then why not continue to oppress
   gay people or ethnic minorities, provided that majority
   culture concurs?)

Moral Criticism of Other Cultures

 Confronting the descriptive fact of cultural relativism can
  teach us the virtues of tolerance (of other people’s
                                    (         p p
  norms) and humility (about the warrants of our own).

 As the preceding arguments suggest, however, all
  cultures, all societies are in the same boat: We may
  have objectively good reasons for some of our beliefs;
  others may be founded on prejudice and/or uncritical
  acceptance of tradition

  None of this, however, implies that we need a perfectly
  objective, neutral perspective from which to criticize the
  norms of other people…

But is moral criticism of
other cultures possible?

  The Argument from Relativity

 For moral skeptics like J. L. Mackie (1917-81),
  such criticism must always be arbitrary (i.e., irrational).

  Consider our earlier argument: When we disagree with
  others about whether or not the Earth is flat, there is an
  objective fact (namely the sphericality of the Earth), and
  plenty of observational evidence for that fact, to which
  we can appeal…

Mackie’s Metaethics I

  …but when it comes to moral disagreement, Mackie
  asks, ‘where in the world’ is there any objective moral
                                        y j
  fact to which we could point? (39)

 Moral claims do not seem to be objective facts (at least
  to Mackie). Instead, they seem simply to be intuitions or
  assertions of ideals.

                                 objective       fact
  If there was anything like an ‘objective moral fact”, it
  would be a metaphysically ‘queer’ sort of thing—
  something “utterly different from anything else in the
  universe” (40)

The Range of Intercultural Disagreement

 While specific cultural norms are obviously diverse, there
        pp                g
  also appears to be a significant core of moral norms
  shared amongst all sustainable cultures and societies.

  E.g., prohibitions against lying; at least some prohibitions
  against indiscriminate killing.

 The general theoretical point: “There are some rules that
  all societies must have in common Because those rules
  are necessary for society to exist.” (23)

  The causal mechanism: Selection? Game theory?

                 Moral Subjectivism

Moral Subjectivism: The Basic idea

 At its normative core, moral subjectivism is really just a
  generalization (to individuals) of the sort of skepticism
  that can be engendered by normative cultural relativism.

  People have different moral opinions. But there is no
  moral fact of the matter. So, really, people just feel
  differently about moral issues. And that’s really all there
  is to it.

 So, at its core, moral subjectivism can be addressed with
  the same objections that we’ve offered for normative
  cultural relativism. But some theorists have linked
  subjectivism to more fundamental claims in metaethics..

Simple Subjectivism

  David Hume (1711-76) raised the possibility
  that purportedly objective reports about
       p p       y j           p
  moral beliefs are fundamentally reports
  about feelings:

  “Take any action allowed to be vicious. Wilful murder, for
  instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find
  that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call
  vice…You can never find it. Till you turn your reflection
                                      y       y
  to your own breast, and find a sentiment of
  disapprobation, which arises in you toward this action.
  Here is a matter of fact, but ‘tis the object of feeling, not
  reason.” (Treatise of Human Nature, 1740)

Simple Subjectivism: Objections

   Simple subjectivism: “X is immoral” = “I disapprove of
   X; X                                 do     I            X
   X”; “X is the morally right thing to do” = “I approve of X”

   This seems clear enough, but it is open to some serious

1. It cannot make sense of disagreement

2. It implies that we are infallible


  Charles Leslie Stevenson (1908-79)
  developed a somewhat more sophisticated
  version of the subjectivist idea: Emotivism.

 Moral claims are not propositions, but imperatives
  which express emotional attitudes. (Non-cognitivism)

 As a metaethical theory, this has some plausibility:
  When we use moral language we aren’t just uttering
  propositions, we are normally also expressing attitudes
  and trying to influence other people…

Emotivism and the Objections

 Imperatives, unlike propositions, are neither true nor
                shut     door! ; fuck off!”),
  false (e.g., “shut the door!”; “fuck off! ), so the problem of
  disagreement is avoided. Famously, people can have
  different, contrary attitudes.

 But just because emotivism holds that moral claims are
  non-cognitive, it (arguably) only partly avoids the
  infallibility problem: We may enjoy privileged access to
  our attitudes and preferences (“I am in pain”; “I prefer
  vanilla to chocolate”), but we can (surely) at least
  occasionally be mistaken in our feelings…

Moral Facts

  Subjectivism does admit that there are such things, yet
  they become facts about our feelings. This may leave
         for b i    i t k    b t
  room f being mistaken about our f li            d ttit d
                                       feelings and attitudes,
  but it doesn’t provide any non-arbitrary way of evaluating
  or revising our feelings.
   “Any statement about any fact which any speaker
  considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as a
  reason for or against a moral judgment.”

  If (or to the extent that) this really is our moral condition,
  it seems to imply or support moral skepticism…

Mackie Redux

  The Argument from Queerness

 Mackie, as we’ve seen, embraces this possibility: Appeal
  to ‘moral facts’ is really an appeal to ‘ways of life’ and/or

 If there really were any moral facts, of the sort that
  actually justified moral claims (as opposed to explaining
                       sentences),          e should
  the effects of moral sentences) then we sho ld be able
  find empirical evidence for them. But there is none. So,
  if they exist, they must be some ‘queer’ sort of thing.
  (Philosophical naturalism)…

…But that’s just stupid

  But why should we assume that morality is like empirical
  science in this respect? Compare science, in this
                     p          p
  respect, the rules of chess, or proofs in mathematics.

  Rachels: “…when proof is demanded (in morals), people
  often have in mind an inappropriate standard.” (43)

  Korsgaard (1996): “It's true that [moral concepts] are
             t f titi         d that knowing th
  queer sorts of entities and th t k                isn't like
                                           i them i 't lik
  anything else. But that doesn't mean that they don't
  exist... For it is the most familiar fact of human life that
  the world contains entities that can tell us what to do and
  make us do it. They are people, and the other animals.”