Moral Relativism

Saturday, January 15, 2022 9:57:12 AM

Moral Relativism

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Now you might agree that my previous assault on relativism has been successful, but still claim that while some truths are objective—logical, mathematical, and natural scientific ones for example—other so-called truths are relative—ethical truths for instance. Such considerations lead us to moral relativism, the theory that there are no absolute, objective, and universally binding moral truths. According to the moral relativist, there exist conflicting moral claims that are both true. X is right, and x is wrong. In short, the ethical relativist denies that there is any objective truth about right and wrong. Ethical judgments are not true or false because there is no objective moral truth—x is right—for a moral judgment to correspond with. In brief, morality is relative, subjective, and non-universally binding, and disagreements about ethics are like disagreements about what flavor of ice cream is best.

And what specifically might morality be relative to? Thus, we distinguish between two kinds of moral relativism: cultural moral relativism and personal moral relativism. What is Cultural Moral Relativism? Cultural moral relativism i s the theory that moral judgments or truths are relative to cultures. Consequently, what is right in one society may be wrong in another and vice versa. For culture, you may substitute: nation; society; group, sub-culture, etc. This is another theory with ancient roots. Herodotus, the father of history, describes the Greeks encounter with the Callatians who ate their dead relatives. Naturally, the Greeks found this practice revolting. But the Callatians were equally repelled by the Greek practice of cremation causing Herodotus to conclude that ethics is culturally relative.

World literature sounds a recurring theme: different cultures have different moral codes , an insight confirmed by the evidence of cultural differences. The Incas practiced human sacrifice, Eskimos shared their wives with strangers and killed newborns, Japanese samurai tried out his new sword on an innocent passer-by, Europeans enslaved masses of Africans, and female circumcision is performed today in parts of North Africa. Cultural moral relativism contains two theses: 1 the diversity thesis— moral beliefs, practices, and values are diverse or vary from one culture to another; and 2 the dependency thesis —moral obligations depends upon cultures, since they are the final arbiters of moral truth.

In short, cultural relativism implies that no cultural values have any objective, universal validity, and it would be arrogant for one culture to make moral judgments about other cultures. The thesis of diversity is descriptive; it describes the way things are. Moral beliefs, rules, and practices, in fact, depend upon facets of culture like social, political, religious, and economic institutions. By contrast the thesis of dependency is prescriptive ; it describes how things ought to be. Morality should depend on culture because there is nothing else upon which it is based. Now we might argue for cultural relativism as follows:. It might be that one culture is just mistaken. Consider how cultures might disagree as to whether the earth or sun is at the center of our solar system.

Similarly, societies might disagree about whether they should put their young to death, but that disagreement proves nothing, other than societies disagree. So cultural disagreements are not enough to prove cultural relativism. Consider another argument:. In argument 2, one is trying to show that right and wrong depend on culture. It begs the question to say that right and wrong depend on culture because they depend on culture. Premise 1 — Right and wrong vary between cultures diversity. Premise 2 — Right and wrong depend upon a cultural context dependency. Conclusion — Thus, right and wrong are relative to culture.

This seems better; at least the conclusion follows from the premises. But are these premises true? Nothing seems more obvious than the fact of cultural differences. Eskimos believed in infanticide; most Americans do not. Most Americans believe executing criminals is morally justifiable; most French find the practice barbaric. Clearly, there are different cultural mores. But maybe the differences between cultural values are not as great as they seem.

Consider that Eskimos live in harsh climates where food is in short supply and mothers nurse their babies for years. So Eskimos want their children to live just like we do, and it is the harsh and unusual condition that force them to make difficult choices. We may disagree with the practice, but we can imagine doing the same in similar circumstances. Thus, the underlying principle—life is valuable—has been applied differently in different contexts.

Consider that there is more crime in America than in France. But notice again. Both cultures are steered by a principle—act justly—even though they apply the principle differently. So the differences in cultural values might be more apparent than real. Now suppose we could show that there are moral principles that all cultures share? Many scientists claim that there are moral principles common to all cultures. Cultures that share the same moral values could all be wrong! But it is not self-evident that all moral truth depends on culture. Moral truth may be independent of culture in the same way that other truths are independent of culture. If cultural relativism is true then all of the following counter-intuitive are true. We could not consistently criticize a culture for killing all those over forty, exterminating ethnic groups, or banishing children to the Antarctic.

We cannot say, even within our culture, whether we should send children to their death or to school, whether we should torture our criminals or reward them. According to the moral relativist, all such attempts fail, for they all rest on premises that belong to the standpoint being defended and need not be accepted by people who do not share that point of view. Thus, a critic of slavery could no doubt prove the truth of what she says to anyone who accepts her basic premises—for example, that all races are equally human, and that all human beings should enjoy the same basic rights.

But the argument will not convince someone who denies these premises. The fact that one moral outlook cannot be conclusively proved superior to another does not mean, however, that it cannot be judged superior; nor does it imply that one cannot give reasons for preferring it. A moderate moral relativist like David Wong argues that some moralities are better than others on the grounds that they better serve the needs and purposes that people in all cultures share. But within the parameters imposed by the common human condition, significant variation in moral outlook is possible. For instance, between the individualistic ways of thinking that are characteristic of the modern West and the community-centered outlooks more typical of Asia—to take an example Wong considers in depth—one can express a preference, but one cannot justify it by appealing to neutral criteria of superiority.

Moral relativists typically relativize the truth of moral judgments to cultures, which may encompass an entire society or historical period China, Victorian England but can also designate a subculture within a society the Pennsylvania Amish, urban street gangs. In principle, the standpoint in question could be narrowed to that of a single individual, in which case, the relativism becomes a form of moral subjectivism. But this is not a widely held position since it seems to reduce to the idea that whatever an individual believes to be right is right, and that would seem to undermine the whole idea of morality. The main arguments for moral relativism are not necessarily all compatible. For instance, some relativists presuppose that value judgments are fundamentally different from factual judgments which can be objectively true , while others see the truth of both kinds of judgment as irreducibly relative to some conceptual or cultural framework.

The arguments given here thus represent different routes by which one may arrive at a relativistic view of morality. Textbooks often suggest that relativists argue from the plain fact that different cultures have different moral belief systems to a relativistic view of morality; but this is an oversimplification. The path seems to be more along the following lines. The fact of diversity—if it is a fact, which some question see section 4a below —does not logically entail moral relativism. It does not even entail that objectivism is false. After all, there are diverse views on how human beings came to exist, but that does not imply that there is no single, objectively correct account. Nor can moral relativism really claim to explain the diversity of moral systems, although this claim is sometimes made on its behalf.

For how can the mere absence of something—in this case, an objective and universally binding moral code— explain the phenomenon in question? The suggestion seems to rest on the premise that if there were an objective moral truth, there would not be such moral diversity. Presumably, the idea underlying this premise is that cultures would have by now converged on the objective moral truth. But the absence of an objective truth does not explain this lack of convergence. At most, it is merely a condition that makes diversity more likely. Cultures have different sporting preferences: Brazilians love soccer; Pakistanis prefer cricket; Mongolians are passionate about horse racing.

But no one would suggest that these differences are explained by the absence of a single, objectively superior game that everyone should play. To be sure, an objectivist has to explain why so many people seem to have failed to discover the one true moral code, while relativists are excused from this task. But explanations referencing the usual suspects—ignorance, habit, tradition, unreason, fear, self-interest, and so on—are possible.

Thus, diversity by itself proves very little. Relativists nevertheless see it as suggestive, often pointing to an analogy between moralities and religions. The existence of many different religions does not prove that none of them can claim to be the one true religion. But it obviously does raise the question of how the objective truth of any religion could possibly be demonstrated.

And in the case of moralities, too, the question arises: how is it possible to prove that one is superior to all the others? The untenability of moral objectivism is probably the most popular and persuasive justification for moral relativism—that it follows from the collapse of moral objectivism, or is at least the best alternative to objectivism. The argument obviously rests on the idea that moral objectivism has been discredited. In its oldest and most widespread form, the idea that a moral code has objective validity rests on the belief that it has some sort of divine sanction.

With the decline in religious faith that is a hallmark of modernity, this foundation for morality was shaken. Consequently, much moral philosophy from the 17th century onwards has been devoted to establishing an alternative, secular foundation, one that can claim universal validity without appealing to dubious metaphysical doctrines. But despite the efforts of Kant, Mill , and their successors, many remain skeptical about the possibility of proving the objective truth or the universal validity of moral claims. The fact that the moral objectivists themselves cannot agree about which moral system is correct, or what its philosophical foundation should be, encourages this skepticism.

But it also rests on forceful philosophical considerations. Moral judgments, say the critics of objectivism, have an irreducible evaluative component. They assert, assume, or imply that a state of affairs is good or bad, that an action is right or wrong, or that something is better than something else. But if one accepts—as many do—that value judgments are logically distinct from factual statements and cannot be derived from them, then any attempt to justify a moral claim must rest on at least some value-laden premises.

And these basic moral presuppositions will not be susceptible to proof at all. For example, an argument to prove that a husband should not beat his wife will probably rest on the assumption that men and women should enjoy equal rights. But how does one prove this to someone who categorically denies it? How does one prove that the intrinsic value of happiness should be the foundation of our moral judgments to someone who thinks that family honor is the most important value of all? Or how does one prove that individual rights are a primary good to someone whose theoretical bottom line is that individuals should be subservient to the state? The increase in skepticism towards moral objectivism is one of the most significant shifts that has taken place in moral philosophy over the past two centuries.

This trend has been reinforced by the apparent contrast between natural science and moral discourse. Science is generally thought to describe an independently existing, objective reality; and scientists from all over the world largely accept the same methodology, data, theories and conclusions, except in the case of disputes at the cutting edge of research. Ethics exhibits nothing like this degree of convergence. Gilbert Harman is one of the best-known defenders of moral relativism along these lines. Moral relativism is not the only response to the perceived problems with moral objectivism.

As noted earlier, ethical non-realism, ethical non-cognitivism, emotivism, moral subjectivism, and moral skepticism are other possible responses, for the mere denial of objectivism, like the mere fact of cultural diversity, does not logically entail moral relativism. It does, however, undoubtedly make people more receptive to a relativistic outlook. The majority of moral relativists do not embrace cognitive relativism, which offers a relativistic account of truth in general, not just the truth of moral judgments.

However, some do, and this is another path to moral relativism. One of the merits of this approach to moral relativism is that it can help to clarify fundamental questions about what is meant by talk about the relativity of moral claims. If we are merely saying that what people think about right and wrong is influenced by the cultural environment, then the claim seems banal.

If we are saying that moral beliefs and practices are causally determined by the surrounding culture, then unless one is a strict determinist, the thesis seems to be obviously false; for members raised in the same cultural community can adopt very different moral outlooks. The philosophically interesting claim at the heart of most forms of moral relativism is that moral statements are true or false relative to some normative standpoint, usually one characteristic of some particular culture. From an objectivist or realist point of view, the phrase makes little sense since what determines the truth or falsity of a statement is whether or not it accords with objective reality.

The cognitive relativist, however, argues that this notion of truth is philosophically vacuous since it employs the notion of an independent, objective reality that lies beyond any possible experience. Relativists of this sort are not so impressed by the fact-value distinction. They do not view truth as a property that sentences possess in virtue of their correspondence to an independent reality. There is no essential difference between the two cases.

And in both cases, it is not possible to demonstrate logically the superiority of one standpoint over the other. This is more or less the position defended by Richard Rorty, even though he rejects the relativist label. Rorty likes to describe himself as following in the footsteps of William James and John Dewey, although his interpretation of his pragmatist predecessors is controversial. The idea that moral relativism promotes tolerance is a normative argument. The key idea is that moral relativism encourages a certain humility.

In effect, the argument is that moral relativism entails normative relativism see above. Benedict, in fact, takes the argument a step further, arguing that the relativistic outlook she champions can be positively beneficial in helping to combat bigotry, racism, chauvinism and other forms of prejudice. One reason for thinking that a relativistic view of morality might foster tolerance is that it will also incline us to be more self-critical. As mentioned earlier, however, even some thinkers sympathetic to relativism, such as Harrison and Wong, are suspicious of the claim that moral relativism by itself necessarily entails a tolerant attitude toward alternative moralities.

And critics of relativism, such as W. Stace and Karl Popper, argue that if relativism does indeed imply universal tolerance, that this constitutes an objection to it, since some things—like oppressively intolerant moral systems—should not be tolerated see section 4g below. The objection that relativists exaggerate cultural diversity is directed against descriptive relativism more than against moral relativism as defined above; but it has figured importantly in many debates about relativism. In its simplest form, the argument runs as follows. Every human culture has some sort of moral code, and these overlap to a considerable extent.

There is a common core of shared values such as trustworthiness, friendship, and courage, along with certain prohibitions, such as those against murder or incest. Some version of the golden rule—treat others as you would have them treat you—is also encountered in almost every society. The claim that every society must share these basic commitments thus links up with findings in evolutionary ethics. The project is an internet-based study of the moral intuitions of people from all over the world. Such universalist claims are sometimes cited by those seeking to establish a generally agreed upon set of human rights or human capacities, a foundation for the work of organizations and bodies like the United Nations.

The argument that relativists exaggerate the diversity among moral systems is also advanced in a subtler form, an early version of which can be found in the Dialogue that Hume appended to his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. What appear to be striking differences in moral outlook turn out, on closer examination, to be superficial disagreements masking underlying common values. For example, some nomadic cultures have considered infanticide to be morally acceptable, while in other societies it is viewed as murder.

But those carrying out infanticide may be motivated by the knowledge that they lack the resources to support the child. Their action is thus prompted by a concern for the well being of the community, and perhaps, also, a desire that the child be spared avoidable suffering—values that would be recognized and approved by people in other societies where, since additional children would be less of a burden, infanticide is prohibited. In this case, the apparent difference in values is explained by the different circumstances of the societies in question. Other seeming differences may be explained by reference to the different factual beliefs that people hold. Take the issue of slavery. Some societies have seen nothing wrong with slavery; others view it is a moral abomination.

This would seem to mark a basic and serious disparity in moral perspectives. And defenders of slavery in the United States did indeed used to argue that blacks were sub-human and could therefore legitimately be treated like animals rather than as human beings. The critics of relativism thus argue that before declaring a moral difference between cultures to be fundamental we should look carefully to see whether the difference does not, at bottom, arise out of disparate living conditions or rest on conflicting factual beliefs. The question of whether or not there are universal values has been at the center of many of the debates about moral relativism.

If there are universal values in this sense, then it is an objection to a strong version of descriptive relativism which sees cultural diversity as sufficiently radical to preclude any common ground that all cultures share. It is worth noting that descriptive relativism would also become false in the event of humanity eventually converging on a single moral outlook or of a catastrophe that wiped out all cultures except one. This is a normative universalism. It is likely that most who hold this view see these universal values as constitutive of an objectively correct moral point of view.

Understood in this way, the position is incompatible with relativism. But the view that there are, as a matter of fact, universally shared values does not entail this normative universalism. After all, every society might agree that homosexuality is wicked or that men should have dominion over women. It would not follow that everyone should embrace these values. When relativists say that the truth of moral claims and the rightness of actions is relative to the norms and values of the culture in which they occur, they seem to assume that members of that culture will generally agree about the moral framework which they supposedly share.

This may sometimes be the case; but such homogeneous and relatively static cultures are increasingly uncommon. Given that this is so, which set of norms and values are we supposed to refer to when judging a belief or practice? If the relevant norms are those of the sub-culture to which the person making the claim belongs, then the relativist position seems in danger of spiraling down toward subjectivism, since there can be many sub-cultures, and some of them can be quite small.

From the other direction comes the objection that relativists tend to ignore the extent to which cultures overlap and influence one another. These criticisms are related, as both accuse relativists of presupposing an oversimplified and outdated view of what a culture is. This charge seems to have some purchase on the sort of relativism that treats the validity of moral claims as relative to specific identifiable cultures. It seems less damaging, though, to the kind of relativism that relates moral claims to general normative standpoints without requiring that these be identified with actual communities.

The most serious objection to moral relativism is that relativism implies that obvious moral wrongs are acceptable. The objection is that if we say beliefs and actions are right or wrong only relative to a specific moral standpoint, it then becomes possible to justify almost anything. We are forced to abandon the idea that some actions are just plain wrong. Nor can we justify the idea that some forms of life are obviously and uncontroversially better than others, even though almost everyone believes this. According to the relativists, say the critics, the beliefs of slave-owners and Nazis should be deemed true and their practices right relative to their conceptual-moral frameworks; and it is not possible for anyone to prove that their views are false or morally misguided, or that there are better points of view.

To many, this is a reductio ad absurdum of moral relativism. This line of attack appears compelling against normative relativism, the view that what goes on within a society should only be judged by the prevailing norms of that society. With this view, stoning adulterers is right relative to some moral standpoints for instance, that of ancient Israel and wrong according to others for instance, that of modern liberalism. So relativists who happen to be liberal-minded denizens of the modern world are still free to judge what goes on elsewhere by their own moral norms.

What makes their position relativistic is their denial that there is any neutral, transcultural court of appeal to provide an objective justification for preferring one standpoint over another. To many critics, however, this denial is precisely what renders relativism unacceptable. In responding to this criticism, moral relativists would seem to have three options. However, virtually no one takes this position since it amounts to a form of moral nihilism. This allows for an assessment that avoids judging according to an external standard. However, for the relativists, this line of defense only sets the problem back a step. The critic will next pose the question: Regarding the goals societies set for themselves, do we have any reason for preferring some goals over others?

If relativists allow for no way of appraising such goals, insisting that any preferences we express are arbitrary, then, the critics will say, their position is once more shown to be beyond the pale of common sense. Relativists of this stripe continue to insist that all moralities are in the same boat insofar as none can be conclusively proved in some absolute sense to be true or false, right or wrong, or better than any other available moral outlook. But, they argue, it does not follow from this that relativists cannot consistently prefer some moralities over others, nor that they cannot offer reasons for their preference.

They simply admit that when they appraise moralities, they do so according to norms and values constitutive of their particular moral standpoint, one that they probably share with most other members of their cultural community. Thus, a relativist might condemn laws prohibiting homosexuality in the name of such values as happiness, freedom, and equality.

But she does not claim that she can prove that this normative standpoint is objectively superior to that of the culture outlawing homosexuality. Possibly those she is criticizing might share her values, in which case they may be open to persuasion. But they might have different basic values; for instance, they may favor executing homosexuals in order to realize a certain vision of moral purity. In that case, the standoff seems to be at the level of fundamental values. And when that is the case, the relativist may accept that she cannot demonstrate the objective superiority of her views in a non question-begging way—that is, without making assumptions that those she is trying to persuade will reject.

To the critic, moral relativism implies that one moral view is just as good or as bad as any other, and to take this line is to countenance immorality. But the difference between Western academics who are moral relativists and their fellow academics who criticize them is clearly not a deep difference in moral values. They all are likely to praise democracy and condemn discrimination. The difference is, rather, at the meta-ethical level in their view of the status of moral judgments and the kind of justification they allow. The relativists see this anxiety as mistaken since what it asks for is both impossible and unnecessary.

If the rightness or wrongness of actions, practices, or institutions can only be judged by reference to the norms of the culture in which they are found, then how can members of that society criticize those norms on moral grounds? And how can they argue that the prevailing norms should be changed? If, for instance, a society has a caste system under which one caste enjoys great privileges while another caste is allowed to do only menial work, then this system will necessarily appear just according to its own norms.

So there will be nothing to criticize. One apparent way for the relativist to avoid this objection is to point out that most societies are imperfect even by their own lights; what actually happens usually falls short of the ideals espoused. For instance, an official commitment to equality is belied by discriminatory laws. Thus, a society can be self-critical by noticing gaps between its practices and its ideals. This is a weak response, however, since the sort of self-criticism it allows is quite limited. Often, the most important kind of self-criticism involves a demand that the ideals themselves be changed, as, for instance, when the American and French revolutions articulated new egalitarian values. The answer is that it all depends on the precise sort of moral relativism being espoused.

If the particular standpoint, by reference to which moral claims are appraised, has to be that constituted by the prevailing norms in a society, then it is hard to see how those norms themselves can be criticized. But if the relativist only insists that moral claims are true or false relative to some particular standpoint, then this does not follow. In that case, the prevailing moral norms can be judged wrong from an alternative point of view, which may be the one the relativist favors. For instance, the current treatment of animals on American factory farms could be criticized by an American relativist who adopts the standpoint of a utilitarian committed to the minimization of unnecessary suffering.

A society may change its norms by, say, ending systematic discrimination against certain groups, or becoming less indifferent to the suffering of animals. But if there is no neutral point of view from which such changes can be appraised, how can one argue that they constitute progress? Indeed, from the point of view of the old norms, any changes must appear suspect, since the old norms dictate what is right.

Like the previous objection, this argument has the form of a reductio ad absurdum. Almost everyone believes that moral progress can and does occur within a society. The abolition of slavery is a paradigm of such progress. So, any theory implying that such changes do not constitute progress must be false. By the same token, moral relativism can also be criticized for not allowing the possibility of moral decline, which also presumably occurs at times. One response a relativist could offer to this objection is simply to embrace the conclusion and insist that moral progress is a chimera; but this undeniably goes against what most people view as ethical common sense.

On this view, moral progress is possible, but not relative to objective, trans-cultural criteria. It can only be gauged by reference to some particular moral standpoint that cannot be conclusively proved superior to other points of view. Thus, relativists, like everyone else, will view the abolition of slavery as progress because they affirm values such as freedom, equality, and individual happiness. A standard objection to cognitive relativism, which is sometimes advanced against moral relativism, is that it is pragmatically self-refuting. The basic idea behind it is that moral relativists, whatever their official meta-ethical position, cannot avoid being implicitly committed to certain fundamental norms and values, and they presuppose this commitment in the very act of arguing for moral relativism.

So, the content of the theory is at odds with the practice of affirming or defending it. Relativists, however, are likely to be skeptical about the universality of these alleged implicit commitments. To them, the concept of rationality in question is characteristic of a particular time and place. To be sure, they may, as modern Western liberals, embrace values such as sincerity or open-mindedness.

But they can still plausibly deny that they have an objective duty to do so, or that such values are necessarily embedded in all acts of communication and must therefore be viewed as universal. What does it mean for a moral belief to be true relative to a particular culture? If it merely means that most members of that culture hold that belief, then it is a somewhat grandiose and misleading way of stating a simple fact. Presumably, therefore, relativists mean something more by it. In addition, they cannot be simply making the banal point that someone belonging to that culture who rejects the belief in question is in the minority, or is perceived to be mistaken by the majority.

This raises a number of awkward issues. It seems to imply, for instance, that the majority can never be wrong on moral matters. And a corollary of that is that within a given community, dissidents must always be wrong. These ideas go against our normal ways of thinking. A further problem for the relativist thesis is that it seems not to take into account exactly how the prevailing moral norms in a society were established. If they gained ascendancy over time, shaped by collective experience, then one could perhaps view them as the outcome of an implicit social contract, and in that sense to have some claim to rationality. But what if they were initially imposed on a society forcibly by conquerors or dictatorial rulers?

Does that make a difference? It certainly sounds odd to say that a moral statement that once was false can be made true by the establishment of a new religious or political order and the consolidation of its ideas. Moral relativists are thus under some pressure to explain why they go beyond simple factual statements about what the majority in a society believes, insisting on advancing a philosophical claim about the truth of moral statements. This is one reason some would give for viewing moral relativism as an instance of a more general relativism that sees the truth of any statement as a function of its coherence with a broader theoretical framework. Relativists who base their position on a sharp distinction between facts and values must work with two distinct notions of truth: factual claims are made true by correspondence to reality; moral claims are made true by cohering with or being entailed by the surrounding conceptual scheme.

Those who see truth of any kind as ultimately a matter of inter-subjective agreement may be better positioned to avoid this problem. A good deal of the debate surrounding moral relativism has focused on its claim to exemplify and foster tolerance. There are at least three lines of criticism against this claim. Showing genuine respect for a culture means taking its beliefs seriously, and that means viewing them as candidates for critical appraisal.

It suggests that the beliefs could not withstand critical scrutiny, or perhaps that they are just not worth appraising. Relativists say we should be tolerant of beliefs and practices found in other cultures. This is a normative claim. If it applies to everyone, then it is a trans-cultural moral principle, in which case relativism is false. If, on the other hand, relativism is true, then this principle of tolerance does not express a trans-cultural obligation binding on everyone; it merely expresses the values associated with a particular moral standpoint.

Tolerance is, of course, a central value espoused by modern liberal societies. So for other societies, the fact that relativism promotes tolerance is not a point in its favor, and relativists have no business preaching tolerance to them. It would not be self-contradictory for moral relativists to hold that all moral principles have only a relative validity except for the principle of tolerance, which enjoys a unique status. But the resulting position would be peculiar. The relativistic viewpoint would be significantly modified and some account would be owed of why the principle of tolerance alone has universal validity. For this reason, a more common relativistic response to the criticism is along the lines suggested by David Wong.

Relativists can simply accept that the obligation to be tolerant has only relative validity or scope. It applies to those whose general moral standpoint affirms or entails tolerance as a value; and only these people are likely to be swayed by the argument that relativism promotes tolerance. It even requires us to be tolerant of intolerance, at least if it occurs in another culture. Clearly, this is a problem for anyone, relativist or not, who elevates the principle that we should be tolerant to an absolute, exceptionless rule. But for relativists who do not do this, the problem will seem less pressing. Tolerance, they will argue, is one of the values constitutive of their standpoint—a standpoint they share with most other people in modern liberal societies.

The relativistic stance is useful, however, in helping to make us less arrogant about the correctness of our own norms, more sensitive to cultural contexts when looking at how others live, and a little less eager in our willingness to criticize what goes on in other cultures. The more difficult, practical question concerns not whether we should ever criticize the beliefs and practices found in other cultures, but whether we are ever justified in trying to impose our values on them through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, boycotts, or military force. This question has arisen in relation to such practices as satee in India, persecution of religious or ethnic minorities, female circumcision, and legalized violence against women.

But it is not a problem that only moral relativists have to confront. Over the years moral relativism has attracted a great deal of criticism, and not just from professional philosophers. One reason for this, of course, is that it is widely perceived to be a way of thinking that is on the rise. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century it had become a commonplace among teachers of moral philosophy in the US that the default view of morality held by the majority of college students was some form of moral relativism. Another reason for so much trenchant criticism is that a relativistic view of morality is thought by many to have pernicious consequences.

It typically amounts to little more than a skepticism about objective moral truth, often expressed as the idea that beliefs and actions are not right or wrong per se, only right or wrong for someone. Philosophers like Gilbert Harman, David Wong, and Richard Rorty who defend forms of moral relativism seek to articulate and defend philosophically sophisticated alternatives to objectivism. As they see it, they are not countenancing immorality, injustice, or moral nihilism; rather, they are trying to say something about the nature of moral claims and the justifications given for them.

The main problem they face is to show how the denial of objective moral truth need not entail a subjectivism that drains the rationality out of moral discourse. Their critics, on the other hand, face the possibly even more challenging task of justifying the claim that there is such a thing as objective moral truth. Emrys Westacott Email: Westacott alfred. Moral Relativism Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint for instance, that of a culture or a historical period and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Historical Background a. Ancient Greece In the view of most people throughout history, moral questions have objectively correct answers. The statement declared that: Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole American Anthropologist , Vol.

Clarifying What Moral Relativism Is and Is Not Defining moral relativism is difficult because different writers use the term in slightly different ways; in particular, friends and foes of relativism often diverge considerably in their characterization of it. Descriptive Relativism Descriptive relativism is a thesis about cultural diversity.

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