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Ethics
Chapter Three
Is Everything Relative?
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Is Everything Relative?
Is Everything Relative?
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Is morality essentially relative or are there
objective moral truths?
Who are we to judge another culture?
Some actions seem wrong in principle
Torturing, killing the innocent, breaking
promises, lying, destroying others property
Some actions are morally good in principle
Helping people in need, keeping contracts,
cooperating for mutual benefit…
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Is Everything Relative?
Custom is King by Herrodotus
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If one were to offer men to choose out of all the
customs in the world, they would examine the whole
number and end by preferring their own, convinced
their own usages far surpass those of all others
What should we pay them to eat the bodies of their
fathers when they died?
What should we pay them to burn the bodies of
their fathers when they die?
Custom is king over all
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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“Moral Relativism”
Moral principles are based on the common
beliefs and practices of social systems
Since these systems or culture can vary, so can
morality
Modern civilization is not necessarily the pinnacle
of human achievement, but rather one entry in a
long series of possible adjustments
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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Primitive peoples provide a laboratory not yet
entirely spoiled by the spread of a standardized
world wide civilization
We see trances and catalepsy is seen as illnesses
in our culture
In contrast, most peoples have regarded extreme
psychic manifestations not only as normal and
desirable, but even as characteristic of highly
valued and gifted individuals
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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We also regard others as abnormal in our culture
Plato’s Republic the most convincing statement
of such a reading of homosexuality
In the Republic, homosexuality is presented as
one of the major means to the good life and it
was generally so regarded in Greece at that time
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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We also regard others as abnormal in our culture
The American Indians did not hold homosexuals
in high regard, but did not exclude them from
their culture
They took on occupations of women and became
their leaders, married other men, were thought of
as good healers, organized social events
In short they were not excluded from
participation in society
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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We also regard others as abnormal in our culture
A tribe studied by Fortune found a culture quite
different from ours
Tribesmen and women were constantly in conflict
with each other
There was no communality of stores or other
means of helping or sharing with others
The citizen thought of as “crazy” had a sunny
disposition who liked to work and help others
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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We also regard others as abnormal in our culture
The Kwakiutl see death is not to be grieved but
to be wiped out by the death of another person
When the Chief’s wife and daughter died, he
asked the tribe who should wail, not the Chief,
but someone else. So, he found seven men and
two children asleep and killed them
They felt good about their actions
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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So, normality is culturally defined
Every society begins with some slight inclination in
one direction or another carries its preference
farther and farther, integrating itself more and more
completely upon its chosen basis and discarding
those types of behavior that are not acceptable
Morals differ in every society and is a convenient
term for socially approved habits
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case for Moral Relativism by Benedict
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The vast majority of individuals in any group are
shaped to the fashion of that culture
Most individuals are plastic to the moulding force of
the society into which they are born
The deviants, whatever the type of behavior the
culture has institutionalized will remain few in
number
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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Who’s To Judge What is Right or Wrong?
Objectivism, the doctrine that universally valid or
true ethical principles exist
 Is abortion, except to save the mother’s life
always wrong?
 Is capital punishment always wrong?
 Is suicide ever morally permissible?
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Relativism
Moral rightness and wrongness of actions vary
from society to society, so there are no universal
moral standards held by all societies
Whether or not it is right for individuals to act in a
certain way depends on the society to which the
belong
There are no absolute or objective moral
standards that apply to all people everywhere
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Relativism
Moral rightness and wrongness of actions vary
from society to society, so there are no universal
moral standards held by all societies (diversity
theory)
 The ancient Greeks believed stealing was
morally right
 Roman fathers had the power of life or death
over their children
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Relativism
Diversity Theory
 Parricide is condemned by most societies, but
northern Indians committed parricide on those
who were no longer capable of walking
 Homosexual behavior and polygamy are
viewed as moral and immoral
 It is difficult to derive any single true morality,
observing various societies moral standards
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Relativism
Morally right or wrong must be seen in a context
that depends on the goals, wants, beliefs, history
and environment of the society in question
We are simply culturally determined beings
Moral principles themselves are products of the
cultures and may vary from society to society
Society’s views on divorce, sexuality, abortion
and assisted suicide have changed
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Relativism
If there are different moral principles from culture
to culture and if all morality is rooted in culture,
then it follows that there are not universal moral
principles that are valid for all cultures and
peoples at all times
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Subjectivism
Subjectivism says that morality is dependent not
on the society , but rather on the individual
(“Morality is in the eye of the beholder”)
The consequences are that it makes morality a
very useless concept
Hitler and Ted Bundy could be considered as
moral as Gandhi as long as each live by his own
standards, whatever those might be
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Subjectivism
Ted Bundy declared that God or nature has
marked some pleasures as moral or good and
others as immoral or bad
And that there is no comparison between the
pleasure he received from eating ham or the
anticipation of raping and murdering a women
Absurd consequences follow from subjectivism
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Conventionalism
If morality is relative to its culture, then there is
no independent basis for criticizing the morality of
any other culture but one’s own
If there is no independent way of criticizing any
other culture we ought to be tolerant of the
moralities of other cultures
Morality is relative to its culture
We ought to be tolerant of the moralities of other
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cultures
Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Conventionalism
So, morality, whatever its content, is as valid as
every other, and more valid than ideal moralities,
since the latter aren’t adhered to by any culture
Reformers are always morally wrong since they
go against the tide of cultural standards
Jesus was morally wrong for healing on the
sabbath
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Conventionalism
Normally were feel just the opposite, that the
reformer is a courageous innovator who is right,
who has the truth, against the mindless majority
Sometimes the individual must stand alone with
the truth, risking social censure and persecution
The majoirty has might, but right it is not
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Conventionalism
We have a duty to obey the law, because law in
general, promotes the human good
This obligation is not absolute but relative to the
particular law’s relation to a wider moral order
Civil disobedience is warranted in some cases
where the law seems to be in serious conflict with
morality
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Conventionalism
Morality is dependent on cultural acceptance for
its validity
In a pluralistic society like our own were the
notion seems to be vague with unclear boundary
lines
One person may belong to several societies with
different value emphases and arrangements of
principles
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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An Analysis of Conventionalism
A person may belong to a church which opposes
some of the laws of the state
 Abortion (church v state)
 KKK member (KKK, university, society…)
A relativist would adhere to a principle which
says that in such cases the individual may
choose which group to belong to as primary
How large does the society need to be?
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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A Critique of Ethical Relativism
Is there a common ground between cultures?
 Every culture has a concept of murder, incest,
lying, restitution, reciprocity, obligations
between parents and children
 The only major difference between pro
choicers and pro lifers is not whether we
should kill persons, but whether fetuses are
really persons
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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The Case for Moral Objectivism
The absolutist believes that there are nonoverideable moral principles which ought never
to be violated
One ought never to break a promise, no matter
what
Act utilitarianism also seems absolutist for the
principle
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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The Case for Moral Objectivism
Or are there valid rules of action which should
generally be adhered to, but which may be
overridden by another moral principle in case of
moral conflict
There are principles necessary for the good life,
social cohesion and human flourishing
Language itself depends on a general and
implicit commitment to the principle of
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truthfulness
Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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The Case for Moral Objectivism
Human nature is relatively similar in essential
respects, having a common set of needs
Moral principles are functions of human needs,
instituted by reason in order to promote the most
significant interests and needs
Some moral principles will promote human
interest and meet human needs better than
others
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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The Case for Moral Objectivism
Those principles which will meet essential needs
and promote the most significant interests of
humans in optimal ways can be said to be
objectively valid moral principles
Therefore, since there is a common human
nature, there is an objectively valid set of moral
principles, applicable to all humanity
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Is Everything Relative?
The Case Against Moral Relativism by Pojman
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The Case for Moral Objectivism
Hell is the itch you can’t scratch, and heaven is
the itch, that together, we can scratch
There is a decline of religion in Western society
If there is not God to guarantee the validity of the
moral order, there must not be a universal moral
order
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Is Everything Relative?
Judge Not by Elshtain
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We are a society with a number of strategies to
relieve ourselves of responsibility
We need a clear sense of why judging is important
What is involved in judging
We need a way to distinguish between not judging
well and the kind of judging that liles at the heart of
what it means to be a self respecting human subject
in a community of other equally self respecting
subjects
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Is Everything Relative?
Judge Not by Elshtain
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Teaching
Students should be capable of weighting
alternatives with a generosity of spirit and quality
of discernment that makes their subsequent
judgments a least plausible
One should be able to see error and try to put it
right, distinguish the more from the less
important, name the phenomena and act
accordingly
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Is Everything Relative?
Judge Not by Elshtain
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Teaching
One should not treat adults as if they were
children by spoonfeeding them palatable truths,
rather than the harder truths of life and politics
American schoolchildren scored much lower on
math than school children from other countries,
but American schoolchildren were the ones who
felt best about their math abilities
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Is Everything Relative?
Judge Not by Elshtain
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The Culture of Victimization
The triumph of pop psych notions of self esteem
in contrast to a self capable of discernment and
judging well
 Reginald Denny and Mob Psychology
 The Menendez Brothers were victims
 The women in Nashville who starved her baby
was a victim of spousal abuse
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Is Everything Relative?
Judge Not by Elshtain
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The Culture of Victimization
Recognition that we are able to distinguish real
victims from rhetorical ones, evil acts and crimes
from less serious misdeeds
Condemnation of whole categories of persons
that all purpose villain, the dead, White Eurpoean
Male
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Is Everything Relative?
The Enemy of the People by Ibsen
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Who is Peter?
What is his position in the community?
What are his concerns for the town?
How would he proceed?
What is his moral dilemma?
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Is Everything Relative?
The Enemy of the People by Ibsen
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Who is Dr. Stockmann?
What is his position in the community?
What are his concerns for the town?
How would he proceed?
What is his moral dilemma?
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Is Everything Relative?
The Enemy of the People by Ibsen
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What does Peter do to try and convince Dr.
Stockmann to change his mind?
Does Dr. Stockmann have a greater duty to the
town, visitors, his family or himself
Why does Dr. Stockmann compare the town to the
filth and corruption of the baths?
“The discovery that all the sources of our moral
life are poisoned and the whole fabric of our
community is founded on the pestiferous soil of
falsehood”
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Is Everything Relative?
The Enemy of the People by Ibsen
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Is there a difference between power and right?
Who has power?
Who has right?
Is the majority has power, but is the majority
always right?
“The majority never has right on its side. That is
one of these social lies against which an
independent, intelligent man must wage war”
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Is Everything Relative?
The Enemy of the People by Ibsen
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Dr. Stockmann says “These majority truths are like
last year’s cured meat, like rancid, tainted ham,
they are the origin of the moral scurvy that is
rampant in our communities”
Yes, my native town is so dear to me that I would
rather ruin it than to see it flourishing on a lie
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Is Everything Relative?
The Enemy of the People by Ibsen
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How does the community deal with Dr. Stockmann?
Is Dr. Stockmann an “Enemy of the People?
How does the community rationalize this?
 Drunker
 Madman
 Wants to get even with someone because of
his pay
Does Dr. Stockmann give up?
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