EMP Ch. 2 Cultural Relativism:
A “Midas Touch” Morality
We want to:
- Understand what Cultural Relativism is. If you accept CR, then what exactly do you believe?
- Identify and evaluate some reasons that people might give in favor of CR: why might they accept CR?
- Identify and evaluate some arguments against CR.
- On the basis of 1-3, decide whether there are better reasons to accept CR or reject it.
The take home message:
To respond to a moral issue, “That’s ‘their culture’, so you can’t criticize them!” seems to be based on poor reasoning. So, if anyone says this, we will say, “So what? Yes, that's what their (or our culture) accepts, but they might be mistaken. So what are their moral reasons in favor of this practice? Are these reasons part of sound arguments or not”
1. A general truth: “Believing something don’t make it so!”
In general, there’s a difference between:
· someone’s believing something to be the case, and
· something being the case.
There’s a difference between believing a claim to be true and that claim being true. (Examples?)
Also, there’s a difference between:
· the majority of people in a culture believing something to be the case (or some claim true), and
· that thing being the case (or that claim being true).
2. Cultural relativists deny this general principle:
They think that a cultural majority’s believing something to be morally permissible [MP] (or impermissible) makes it MP or not MP.
CR’s think this:
An action is morally permissible if, and only if, the majority of a culture approves of that act, i.e., believes it to be morally permissible.
· If the majority of a society approves of an action, then it’s MP (group approval is a sufficient condition for MP).
· An action is MP only if the majority approves of it (group approval is a necessary condition for MP).
This definition of CR clearly implies Rachels’ claims (2), (3), & (4), but the core idea is (2): (3) and (4) are implications or consequences of (2). (EMP, p. 18-19). Whether it supports (5), the claim that we should be tolerant, is something that needs to be discussed. And (1) – since everyone accepts it – is not part of CR. Indeed it seems to be a premise in an argument for CR.
3. In light of the logical implications of CR, why would someone accept CR? What might their argument(s) be?
1. An argument from disagreement
2. An argument from the idea that we should be “tolerant”
3. …. What else?
4. What are some arguments against CR? (see also the discussion in RTD)
The argument from error:
1. If CR is true, then if someone’s moral views are in the majority, then they cannot be mistaken.
2. But someone’s moral views can be mistaken, even if they are in the majority.
3. So CR is false.
The argument from moral progress:
1. If CR is true, then the majority’s moral views must always right (no matter what!).
2. If the majority’s moral views must always right, then “reformers” – who are in the minority – cannot be right.
3. If “reformers” cannot be right, then moral progress – widespread changes for the better, the majority coming to adopt the (formerly) minority view – is impossible.
4. But moral progress is possible.
5. So “reformers” can be right.
6. So the majority isn’t necessarily right.
7. So CR is false. (multiple modus tollens)
The argument from moral methodology:
1. If CR is true, then the way to find out what’s really MP (not just what people believe to be MP) is to do a survey.
2. But surveys will not reveal what’s really MP (they only show what people believe to be MP).
3. So CR is false. (MT)
The argument from the ability to evaluate cultures:
1. If CR is true, then we can never truthfully say that a majority-approved of practice in another culture is wrong.
2. But we can truthfully say that a practice in another culture is wrong, even if the majority approves of it.
3. Therefore, CR is not true.
4. So what are the arguments for CR?
1. Cultures disagree on the morality of some actions. (What if the premise said all actions)?
2. Therefore, an action is morally permissible if, and only if, the majority of a culture approves of that act, i.e., believes it to be morally permissible.
3. Therefore, Rachels’ claims (2), (3), & (4) are true (EMP, p. 18-19), including “there is no universal truth in ethics,” i.e., there are no true moral principles that everyone should follow, wherever they are.
Rachels calls this argument unsound (p. 21); we first can be nice and add the missing premise to make it logically valid:
1. Cultures disagree on the morality of some actions. (T? F?)
2. For any topic, if there is disagreement on it, then there are no universal truths about it. (T? F?)
3. Therefore, there are no universal truths in ethics.
Another argument (it needs to be expanded to understand it, but are these expansions sound?):
1. We should be tolerant. (Of what? Everything, all actions? Some actions? Which things?)
2. Therefore, we should accept CR.
Some thoughts about (1): If (1) is true and so we should be tolerant of all actions, then there is a universally true moral principle. But if there is a universally true moral principle, then CR is false!
If CR is true, we should be tolerant of a wide variety of actions (even those that harm others) if and only if the majority of people in our society are tolerant of a wide variety of actions (even those that harm others). But our society is not tolerant in this way, so if CR is true, then we should not be tolerant either. And if there are some things that should not be tolerated in any society, then CR is false.
So what should we “tolerate”? What kind of diversity should we be respectful towards?
Rachels’ proposal for a universal moral principle: Actions that promote the welfare of people affected by it are morally permissible; actions that hinder the welfare of those affected are morally wrong.
Important points that CR can help us see: many! See Rachels’ discussion!
- Some cultural differences do not matter morally. Others do matter: we can morally evaluate them.