Ethical Cultural Relativism

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Cultural Relativism
Moral Objectivism
Subjective Relativism
Cultural Relativism
Emotivism
What is morality about?
Importance!
Good / Bad
(value)
Duty
Right / Wrong
(conduct)
Honor
Praise
Blame
Virtue
Vice
Merit
Forgiveness Mercy
Vengeance
Obligatory / Forbidden
(conduct)
Punishment
Reward
Fairness
Justice
Desert
So on…
Cruelty
Kindness
4 Theories from Chapter 2
Read about these 4 theories in your handout from Doing
Ethics, Chapter 2.
You should be able to answer questions regarding:
• Objectivism = some moral norms are valid for everyone
• Cultural Relativism = an action is morally right if one’s
culture approves of it
• Subjective Relativism = an act is morally right if one
approves of it
• Emotivism = moral utterances are neither true nor
false, but are only expressions of emotions or attitudes
In this PowerPoint we will focus on just one, Cultural
Relativism
What is Cultural Relativism?
What is Cultural Relativism (CR)?:
Cultural Relativism =df Moral rules are valid only for the
society in which they emerge (or are adopted?), and it is the
society’s approval or disapproval that makes something right
or wrong, respectively.
CR is a theory of morality that developed as Anthropologists
noted the diversity of moral practices around the world. Text
books suggested (and many still do) that disagreement about
morality around the world shows that no one is right or wrong
in their moral views … moral views are “cultural.”
What is Cultural Relativism?
Were those anthropologists
correct?
Does disagreement about right
and wrong imply Cultural
Relativism?
What, in general, does
disagreement imply?
What Disagreement Implies
What is disagreement?
 Disagreement =df two or more people
assert incompatible things, at the same time
and in the same respect, of one and the
same object(s)
If I say “I like chocolate” and you say, “I don’t. I
like vanilla,” do we disagree?
In one sense of ‘disagree’, yes: the sense in which
we fail to have the same taste.
But in another sense we do not disagree: I have
accurately described one thing (my likes), you
another thing (your likes) … (neither of us need
be wrong): we have not at the same time
disagreed in the same respect (my claim was in
respect to my tastes, yours to your tastes)
What Disagreement Implies
If I were to say, however, that
“Alaska is landlocked,”
and you were to say,
“No, it is not landlocked; it has a border on the sea,”
we would disagree in a way in which at least one of
us must be wrong: we have said of one thing,
Alaska, that it has and does not have some
feature at the same time and in the same respect
So, if cultures disagree in this latter sense, both may
be wrong, or perhaps just one is wrong, but both
cannot be right
What do cultures disagree about?
Is killing always wrong? Some cultures think so, while
others sanction killing




those born on Wednesday
those who dishonor their family
of wives by their husband for whatever reason he sees fit
those who kill others
Suicide might be
 condemned
 thought to uphold honor
 be regarded as nothing important
Is such disagreement in moral practice genuine
disagreement? It would appear so.
What follows from CR?
Since it appears that cultures
do have genuine moral
disagreements, let’s suppose
that Cultural Relativism is
correct. What follows?
Can the UN, say, legitimately
tell a given culture they are
wrong in some moral matter
and must change?
What follows from CR? (continued)
If we say ‘no’, the UN cannot tell
other cultures what to do, we
lose the UN (what point would
the UN serve if it couldn’t be
right about how others should
behave?).
If we say ‘yes’, the UN can tell
other cultures what to do, then
UN authority is determined by a
vote and by power … the UN
becomes a bullying institution.
Criticism 1 - Culture / Society
seems an Arbitrary Source of Value
Ethical-Cultural Relativism = Moral rules
are valid only for the society in which they
emerge, and it is the society’s approval or
disapproval that makes something right or
wrong, respectively.
What is special about cultures /
societies?
 Why not make the relevant social
group conferring value a club?
 Why not make it the family?
 Why not make it a gang?
Criticism 2 – Approval is Arbitrary
Ethical-Cultural Relativism =df Moral
rules are valid only for the society in
which they emerge (or are adopted?),
and it is the society’s approval or
disapproval that makes something right
or wrong, respectively.
In principle, it is possible to
approve of anything:
Lighting children on fire for fun.
Rape
Murder
Torture
Etc.
Criticism 3 – Agreement Abounds
Ethical-Cultural Relativism =df Moral rules are valid only
for the society in which they emerge (or are adopted?),
and it is the society’s approval or disapproval that makes
something right or wrong, respectively.
ECR arose as a response to the
discovery of deep disagreement
among cultures and no nonarbitrary way to prefer one
culture’s moral rules to another’s.
Disagreement among moral rules,
however, often hides underlying
agreement among moral
principles.


We Westerners have the rule: Don’t
kill your parents
Some Eskimos and some
Greenlanders have the rule: Kill your
parents prior to their becoming
feeble (the reason being, in the
afterlife they will need their vigor
and strength to live well)
While we disagree with their rule

Kill parents prior to their
becoming feeble
We agree with their principle

Honor your parents
Criticism 3 –Agreement Abounds
The difference between rules can be explained by differences of
opinion about non-moral but morally relevant facts.
What are non-moral but morally relevant facts?
A non-moral but morally relevant fact is a fact that can make a
difference for whether something is right or wrong.
 Allison had cereal this morning (typically a non-moral, morally
irrelevant fact, unless she was eating cereal she had promised
to leave for her sister, say … in which case it becomes a nonmoral but morally relevant fact)
 Allison tripped me on purpose (typically a non-moral but
morally relevant fact, unless she and I are playing a game of
‘trip me, trip you’, in which case it becomes a non-moral and
morally irrelevant fact)
Criticism 3 – Agreement Abounds
So much moral disagreement among cultures could be
illusory, and actually be disagreement about non-moral
but morally relevant facts. For example,
• If we believed in an afterlife that required a strong soul
when leaving this life, we might agree completely with
the culture that practices parent killing
• If we believed that enemies we’d killed in battle could
haunt and kill us unless we ate their hearts, we might
eat them just as some headhunters do
Criticism 3 – Agreement Abounds
Disagreement could also be about the relative
values of standard moral properties
Pleasure
Aesthetic appreciation
Personal affection
Self-Determination
Kindness
Generosity
Integrity
Honor
Or about whether a given property is a moral
property at all
Causing pleasure, or pleasure ???
Aesthetic appreciation
Criticism 3- Agreement Abounds
So Criticism 3 has 3 conclusions:
Moral disagreement between cultures may be
1.
explained by divergent rules that still derive from a
common principle (e.g., honor your parents), or
2.
due to difference of opinion about non-moral but
morally relevant facts (e.g., spirits can hurt you), or
3.
about the relative values of standard moral properties
(e.g., honor is better than pleasure)*
*Only this is a genuine moral disagreement
Criticism 4 - ECR Makes Moral Advance
Definitionally Impossible
Ethical-Cultural Relativism = Moral rules
are valid only for the society in which they
emerge, and it is the society’s approval or
disapproval that makes something right or
wrong, respectively.
If only society’s norms make actions
right or wrong, then trying to improve
society makes no sense (look again at
the definition of ECR).
 Every violation of a current rule is wrong.
 The end of slavery was no advance.
 The end of the holocaust was no advance.
Criticism 5 - On ECR, Moral Disagreement
within a Culture Removes All Morality
and Immorality
Ethical-Cultural Relativism = Moral rules
are valid only for the society in which they
emerge, and it is the society’s approval or
disapproval that makes something right or
wrong, respectively.
What constitutes right action
when there is no consensus?
• Without consensus, child murder, rape,
torture of innocent people, as well as
kindness, love, and friendship … all are
neither good nor bad … one is as good
as another
Criticism 6 – Paradoxically, Inconsistent Cultures
can be Morally Flawless
Ethical-Cultural Relativism =df Moral
rules are valid only for the society in
which they emerge (or are adopted?),
and it is the society’s approval or
disapproval that makes something right
or wrong, respectively.
On ECR, we are forced to accept inconsistent cultures: a culture might
value its own advantage, even if it involves inconsistency.
Suppose we take cultural diversity to imply a need for tolerance—
tolerance of a culture with slavery, for instance—and they say
“Right! Don’t be intolerant!”
Then, however, they punish a neighboring culture for, say, its practice
of infanticide. The slavery culture is intolerant while expecting
others to tolerate it.
Can we criticize the slavery culture at least for inconsistency? No, if
ECR is true. Consistency is something we value. If they don’t value it,
it has no value for them. We must simply accept them.
Criticism 7 – Disagreement Means
Nothing Regarding Matters of Fact
Ethical-Cultural Relativism =df Moral rules are valid only
for the society in which they emerge (or are adopted?),
and it is the society’s approval or disapproval that makes
something right or wrong, respectively.
Since disagreement implies only one view is wrong,
individuals in each culture have every right to believe
they’re right, unless proven to be wrong:
There may be true universal moral standards and some
cultures just mistakenly disagree with them…
• The US had slavery
• South Africa had apartheid
• Nazis had their ‘final solution’
Is it surprising that cultures make moral mistakes?
Virtues of ECR?
Ethical-Cultural Relativism =df Moral rules are valid only
for the society in which they emerge (or are adopted?),
and it is the society’s approval or disapproval that makes
something right or wrong, respectively.
Brannigan ends his discussion of ECR with a list of what he calls its virtues:
 Its claim that cultures are diverse is indisputable
 It reminds us that our own views may be expressions of uncritically accepted
traditions
 It encourages toleration that aids in learning
Is this final “virtue” correct? Does ECR encourage toleration, or does it embolden
cultures to stick to their way of life when others tell them they are wrong? If the
world told the Nazis they were morally right (by definition!), so long as they all
approve of themselves and their actions, would that have made them more
tolerant of Jews?
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