On Relativism – Cultural and Ethical

I have done this handout on May 5, 2003; the Ethical Practice class this Spring -- as its last book -- is reading
James Rachels' The Elements of Moral Phuilosophy, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003)

                    This handout attempts to clarify Rachels' Chapter 2: The Challenge of Cultural Relativism
                    Because this topic is so tricky to handle, I postponed assigning it until the class had done
                    nearly a semester on ethics including having read Rachels' chapters 7-14.
James Rachels does not distinguish between cultural relativism (a methodological recommendation) and ethical relativism (a doctrine that is in a sense a suicide pill for ethics – cutting off the grounds to make ethical judgments that are more than what people say.)

Rachels takes cultural relativism to be “a theory about the nature of morality.” (p. 19)  He then goes on to show that at the heart of CR (Rachels’ def.) is a certain form of argument. Rachels then shows that the argument is invalid.  Even if the premise is true, the conclusion doesn’t follow.  Therefore the very form of argument is fallacious.  Here is what the (fallacious) argument would have us believe:

1) Different culture have different moral codes. – [Rachels acknowledges this as true.]
            Therefore, it follows from this fact that
2) There is no objective “truth” in morality.  Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from
    culture to culture.

However, from the fact of differences it does not follow that there is no truth or no grounded value judgments.

                            [Rachels (a) makes the logical point that the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise.
                                He will go on to show that (b) there are good reasons to reject the doctrine.
                                                In short, he is against it and will argue against it.]

(a)  On why the argument is invalid: 

From the fact that some people believe or say that the earth is flat and others disagree,
        it does NOT follow that there is no truth about the matter.

From the fact that some people agree that evolution is the best explanatory scheme to date
    to explain a vast amount of data regarding the emergence of new species and some disagree,
        it does NOT follow that there is no truth in the matter or that there are no good reasons to favor
            one viewpoint over another.

From the fact that some people believe or say that slavery is ethically right and others disagree,
        it does NOT follow that no value judgment is better than any other on reasoned grounds,
        it does NOT follow that we must believe that ethics is nothing but opinions,
        it does NOT follow that there is no grounded basis – in the nature of things – to allow us to make
            value judgments of the form A is ethically better than B
            or to make grounded value judgments of the form -- of two options one is ethically wrong.

Then Rachels goes on to say that if we were to hold CR (Rachels def.) then the following things DO follow:

1. If we held CR (Rachels def.), then we could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally wrong.  (e.g. the Holocaust or perhaps even the way China is implementing their One Child policy)  Why?  Because there is no basis in the nature of things to ever say that A is ethically preferable to B.

2. If we held CR (Rachels def.), then it would not only forbids us from criticizing the codes of other societies,
    it would forbids us from criticizing our own.  (e.g. from making grounded judgments that slavery was wrong
    or that Jim Crow laws were wrong when the majority favored them,
    or forbids us from offering an ethical critique of business practices such as Enron if the majority say that this is OK,
    or forbids us from offering an ethical critique of the war or any other government policy that have majority support.)

3. If we held CR (Rachels def.) then we could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the
        standards of our society.  (As if what MAKES something wrong is the fact that people SAY it is wrong – which
        Rachels and others do NOT consider plausible.)

4. If we held CR (Rachels def.) then there would be no basis for moral progress – Why?  Because under CR there is no
        way to assert that there are any criteria in the nature of things to create reasoned arguments that A is better than B.

However, if all these unacceptable consequences follow from holding the CR (Rachels def.), then we do have good reasons to reject CR so defined.  And Rachels does reject it.

CR so defined is NOT one more ethical theory – like the RED of utilitarian community-enhancing rules or the Gold of Kant’s personal-dignity protecting rights or the Green of virtue theory  (whether of Plato or Aristotle or Kohlberg or Gilligan).  It is the suicide pill for ethics.  It undercuts the possibility of making grounded ethical or value judgments.  Thus, it undercuts the possibility of having any ethics based in ethical criteria such as Good for the Whole and Fair to the Participant-parts.  It undercuts the possibility of making judgments on MP-PAT-NMP.  It undercuts the use of the Traffic Light and Star of David Model as well as our class mission.  It leaves us completely in “Who’s to say” Land.

Thus far Rachels.  
I prefer us to distinguish Cultural Relativism and Ethical Relativism (JGS def.)

Cultural relativism (JGS def.) can be seen as a method in the social sciences that counsels us to seek first to understand and that warns us that if we cannot lay aside (temporarily) our own cultural assumptions, it will be nearly impossible for us to inhabit the thought forms and value systems of another culture.  (Their collective WURTs in my language)

Ethical relativism (JGS def.) is a doctrine that there is no basis – in the nature of things – to allow us to make a grounded value judgments such as A is better than B.  All we can do is say that this or that culture believe some actions are ethically better than others.

I feel that Rachels merges my sense of cultural and ethical relativism under one term.  He does this by maintining that cultural relativism is “a theory about the nature of morality.” (p. 19) Then later, he says that we can learn a few good things (from a bad doctrine-- tolerance, humility and care in examining our own assumptions).

I believe that it is clearer to distinguish cultural relativism as a social science method (bringing good things) from ethical relativism (bringing bad things).  All of Rachels criticisms are now about ethical relativism.

Thus, I would recommend that we say: Cultural relativism, yes.  Ethical relativism, no.
Further reflections -- escaping from "Who's to Say" Land:

The trick here is not to get caught up in what others SAY is good or bad, right or wrong.  Rather to ask what in the nature of things would allow us and other competent reasoners to present a case that X is right or wrong.  Is there an objective basis for ethical decision-making?  To pursue philosophical ethics one must, I think, answer that question “Yes.”  [Recall the “good reason” translation of the sentence “X is wrong.”]

Philosophical ethics stresses five C's:

Philosophical ethics is a method from ethical decision-making and ethical living -- minimal to aspirational ethics.

 Philosophical ethics always revisable on the basis of deepening understanding of the conditions for community flourishing and the conditions for person’s to deepen + the best understanding of the facts of the case.

Philosophical ethics does not ask “WHO is to say? (an authority move) – rather it asks "WHAT can be said for or against such and such an action or policy --- based on criteria and facts and good reasoning."

Caution:  I think we are in danger of fusing religious ethics – usually authoritarian and often absolutist – with philosophical ethics – open to reasoned judgment based on criteria and evidence.
Put differently, ask yourself not “What do people say about X?” but rather "What sort of ethical arguments do they offer and how do we assess them?"

        Actions and policies have consequences. Which actions or policies are on balance more helpful and less harmful?

        People are not to be treated as things to be used. People are centers of worth in their own right with intellects
                and the  ability to choose.

Yet another way in:  Think about what MAKES an action wrong.

SAYING that e.g. rape is wrong does not MAKE rape wrong.  Rather there must be something
in the nature of people and conditions for communal living that make sexual penetration of another human
against his or her will degrading and hence not to be done.

Sidebar:  As in Kohlberg's later stages 3 and 4 and 5, the focus goes beyond external reward/punishment/praise blame and even beyond  internalized conventional roles to a new ability to orient to the intrinsic nature of a relationship -- its valued  point and purpose, to orient to the intrinsic nature of organizations -- their valued deeper purpose and tasks.  Then it is to commit to maintaining and enhancing the best of what they are and can be.  In stage 5, one is coming to have a deeper sense of ethics as preserving and enhancing core values such as what is truly good for the whole and fair to all participant-parts. In stage 5, one deepens a sense of ethical criteria and  continues to widen and deepen the moral circle to the entire web of all life.
There are other issues as well.  For example:
a)  Tolerance and humility are virtues.  And it is also a virtue to have the courage to "speak truth to power" -- to oppose injustice -- as was done by some in Nazi Germany and others in apartheid South Africa.  As one saint put it: "In a non-essential things, respect for diversity.  In essential things, unity.  In all things, love. (or living-kindness)"

b)  It is one thing to say that an action is destructive or ethically wrong = there is reason and reason enough based on ethical criteria and the facts of the case to disapprove doing the action by ourselves and others.
      It is another thing to say that all the people who do the action are blameworthy.  Ethical responsiblity as we learned in minimal ethics is a function of knowledge and free will.  People can be in deep ignorance of the harm of an action and not be blameworthy.  Still the action can be wrong.

For example consider the case that Rachels brings up of female genital mutilation.  We might very well argue that there is reason and reason enough based on ethical criteria (e.g. what is good for the whole and fair to the participant part) and the facts of the case to disapprove of doing female genital mutilation by ourselves or others.  Noetheless, you might not wish to consider all who engaed in such a practice blameworthy.  They might have been under the influence of false beliefs such as if we don't do this the women will be uncontrolable.  Something that is not true.

Again, we might wish to argue that slavery is and was ethically wrong.  Nonetheless, some slaveowners might not have been morally responsible for owning slaves; they might have (falsely) believed that their God sanctioned slavery. [Responsibility = f(K&W)]

c) There needs to be space for ethical development.  The temptation often is to use force rather than persuasion.and example, whereas deep ethical change must be a free commitment to living a larger life.

d) There are often issues of a lingering religious background.  Religions in the West often focus on codes claimed to be authorized by God and often presented in absolutist fashion -- rules of an "always or never" kind.

        Philosophuical ethics is rarely absolutist (Kant is an exception to the rule).  Mostly philosophical ethics argues for qualified positions rather than absolute ones.  There are legitimate exceptions to almost all rules.  Hence, if ethical relativism asks us to present a universal and absolute code that all peoples agree to, this is more than we can do. [Nonetheless, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Rights does show a fairly wide sharing of ethical ideals.]  However, it is not necessary that we present such an absolutist code. What is needed by philosophical ethics, I think, is some features in the nature of things (for example, some features of  humans and other lifeforms and some features of communal living and what supports it and what undermines it) from which we can build criteria [for example, Good for Whole; Fair to Participant-Parts.  Then we can develop tests such as those in the Star of David model. In philosophical ethics, we are building a method of thinking and acting, not a once and for all list of do's and don'ts.

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