We are yet not finished with our critique of conventional ethical relativism. There is an even more basic problem with the notion that morality depends on cultural acceptance for its validity. One person may belong to several societies subcultures with different value emphases and arrangements of principles. A person may belong to the nation as a single society with certain values of patriotism, honor, courage, and laws including some that are controversial but have majority acceptance, such as the current law on abortion. But he or she may also belong to a church that opposes some of the laws of the state.
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We are yet not finished with our critique of conventional ethical relativism. There is an even more basic problem with the notion that morality depends on cultural acceptance for its validity. One person may belong to several societies subcultures with different value emphases and arrangements of principles. A person may belong to the nation as a single society with certain values of patriotism, honor, courage, and laws including some that are controversial but have majority acceptance, such as the current law on abortion.
But he or she may also belong to a church that opposes some of the laws of the state. He or she may also be an integral member of a socially mixed community where different principles hold sway and may belong to clubs and a family in which still other rules prevail. Relativism would seem to tell us that, if a person belongs to societies with conflicting moralities, then that person must be judge both wrong and not wrong whatever he or she does.
For example, if Mary is a U. What is the morally right thing for John to do? The question no longer makes much sense in this moral Babel. It has lost its action-guiding function. Perhaps the relativist would adhere to a principle that says that, in such cases, the individual may choose which group to belong to as his or her primary group.
If Mary has an abortion, she is choosing to belong to the general society relative to that principle. John must likewise choose among groups. The trouble with this option is that it seems to lead back to counterintuitive results. If Murder Mike of Murder, Incorporated feels like killing bank president Ortcutt and wants to feel good about it, he identifies with the Murder, Incorporated society rather than the general-public morality. Does this justify the killing? How large must the group be in order to be a legitimate subculture or society?
Does it need ten or fifteen people? How about just three? Of course, if my partner dies, I could still claim that I was acting from an originally social set of norms. Conventionalist relativism seems to reduce to subjectivism. And subjectivism leads, as we have seen, to moral solipsism, to the demise of morality altogether. Perhaps we might agree for the sake of argument, at least that the very nature of morality entails two people who are making an agreement.
This move saves the conventionalist from moral solipsism, but it still permits almost any principle at all to count as moral. If two or three people decide to make cheating on exams morally acceptable for themselves, via forming a fraternity, Cheaters Anonymous, at their university, then cheating becomes moral.
Why not? Why not rape, as well? The essential force of the validity of the chosen moral principle is that it depends on choice. If this is all that morality comes to, then why not reject it altogether — even though, to escape sanctions, one might want to adhere to its directives when others are looking?
Why should anyone give such august authority to a culture of society? It seems that we need some higher standard than culture by which to assess a culture. Conventionalism seems perilously close to ethical nihilism. However, though we may fear the demise of morality, as we have known it, this in itself may not be a good reason for rejecting relativism — that is, for judging it false.
Alas, truth may not always be edifying. Does any one of these statements seem problematic? Let us consider the diversity thesis, which we have also called cultural relativism. Perhaps there is not as much diversity as anthropologists like Sumner and Benedict suppose. One can also see great similarities among the moral codes of various cultures. Wilson has identified over a score of common features, 10 and before him Clyde Kluckhohn noted some significant common ground:.
But he has also produced evidence that, underneath the surface of this dying society, there is a deeper moral code from a time when the tribe flourished, which occasionally surfaces and shows its nobler face.
On the other hand, there is enormous cultural diversity, and many societies have radically different moral codes. Cultural relativism seems to be a fact, but, even if it is, it does not by itself establish the truth of ethical relativism. Cultural diversity in itself is neutral with respect to theories. The objectivist could concede complete cultural relativism but still defend a form of universalism; for he or she could argue that some cultures simply lack correct moral principles.
On the other hand, a denial of complete cultural relativism i. For even if we did find one or more universal principles, this would not prove that they had any objective status. We could still imagine a culture that was an exception to the rule and be unable to criticize it.
We turn to the crucial dependency thesis. Morality does not occur in a vacuum, but rather what a society considers morally right or wrong must be seen in a context, depending on the goals, wants, beliefs, history, and environment of that society. We distinguished a weak and a strong thesis of dependency. The weak thesis says that the application of principles depends on the particular cultural predicament, whereas the strong thesis affirms that the principles themselves depend on that predicament.
The nonrelativist can accept a certain relativity in the way moral principles are applied in various cultures, depending on beliefs, history, and environment. One Sudanese tribe throws its deformed infants into the river because the tribe believes that such infants belong to the hippopotamus, the god of the river. The tribe differs with us only in belief, not in substantive moral principle. This is an illustration of how nonmoral beliefs e. In our own culture, the difference in the nonmoral belief about the status of a fetus generates opposite moral prescriptions.
The major difference between pro-choicers and pro-lifers is not whether we should kill persons but whether fetuses are really persons. It is a debate about the facts of the matter, not the principle of killing innocent persons.
In spite of this weak dependency on nonmoral factors, there could still be a set of general moral norms applicable to all cultures and even recognized in most, which a culture could disregard only at its own expense. Nevertheless, the relativists still have at least one more arrow in their quiver — the argument from the indeterminacy of translation.
This theory, set forth by B. Whorf and W. Quine,13 holds that languages are often so fundamentally different from each other that we cannot accurately translate concepts from one to another. Language groups mean different things by words. This thesis holds that language is the essence of a culture and fundamentally shapes its reality, cutting the culture off from other languages and cultures.
But experience seems to falsify this thesis. Although each culture does have a particular language with different meanings — indeed, each person has his or her own particular set of meanings — we do learn foreign languages and learn to translate across linguistic frameworks. For example, people from a myriad of language groups come to the United States and learn English and communicate perfectly well. Even if some indeterminacy of translation exists between language users, we should not infer from this that no translation or communication is possible.
It seems reasonable to believe that general moral principles are precisely those things that can be communicated transculturally. The kind of common features that Kluckhohn and Wilson advance — duties of restitution and reciprocity, regulations on sexual behavior, obligations of parents to children, a no-unnecessary-harm principle, and a sense that the good people should flourish and the guilty people should suffer — these and other features constitute a common human experience, a common set of values within a common human predicament of struggling to survive and flourish in a world of scarce resources.
If this is so, then the indeterminacy-of-translation thesis, which relativism rests on, must itself be relativized to the point at which it is no objection to objective morality. What the relativist needs is a strong thesis of dependency, that somehow all principles are essentially cultural inventions.
But why should we choose to view morality this way? Is there anything to recommend the strong thesis of dependency over the weak thesis of dependency? The relativist may argue that, in fact, we lack an obvious impartial standard to judge from. We can reason and perform thought experiments in order to make a case for one system over another. We may not be able to know with certainty that our moral beliefs are closer to the truth than those of another culture or those of others within our own culture, but we may be justified in believing this about our moral beliefs.
Ethical relativism — the thesis that moral principles derive their validity from dependence on society or individual choice — seems plausible at first glance, but on close scrutiny it presents some severe problems. Subjectivism seems to boil down to anarchistic individualism, an essential denial of the interpersonal feature of the moral point of view; and conventionalism, which does contain an interpersonal perspective, fails to deal adequately with the problem of the reformer, the question of defining a culture, and the whole enterprise of moral criticism.
Nevertheless, unless moral objectivism can make a positive case for its position, relativism may survive these criticisms. You must be logged in to post a comment. The Diversity Thesis. What is considered morally right and wrong varies from society to society, so there are no moral principles that all societies accept. The Dependency Thesis. All moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance. Ethical Relativism. Therefore, there are no universally valid moral principles, objective standards that apply to all people everywhere and at all times.
Conclusion Ethical relativism — the thesis that moral principles derive their validity from dependence on society or individual choice — seems plausible at first glance, but on close scrutiny it presents some severe problems. Notes History of Herodotus; trans.
George Rawlinson Appleton, , Bk. John Ladd, Ethical Relativism Wadsworth, , p. This is a statement by Ted Bundy, paraphrased and rewritten by Harry V. The fallacy of objecting to a proposition on the erroneous grounds that, if accepted, it will lead to a chain of states of affairs that are absurd or unacceptable. See James Q. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply You must be logged in to post a comment.
LOUIS POJMAN A CRITIQUE OF ETHICAL RELATIVISM PDF
This means that philosophers strive to make their arguments deductively valid. So what a philosopher tries to do is construct a valid argument form, and then make sure that the premises ARE true. In such a case, the conclusion cannot be false. If so, no better argument for that conclusion can be given. Beliefs about what is right and wrong differ across cultures the Diversity thesis. What is right and wrong is dependent upon, or relative to, culture the Dependency thesis.
Louis Pojman: Against Relativism and For Objectivism
Philosophical arguments aspire to the form of deductive validity. This means that philosophers strive to make their arguments deductively valid. So what a philosopher tries to do is construct a valid argument form, and then make sure that the premises ARE true. In such a case, the conclusion cannot be false.
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