The label moral relativism refers to at least three distinct claims relating to the diversity of moral principles, values, and practices across cultural groups and time periods. Firstly, moral relativism may refer to a descriptive claim about actual differences between the moral codes of the various cultures. For example, certain groups of people consider the eating of human flesh (cannibalism) to be morally permissible whereas others do not. Secondly, moral relativism may refer to a meta-ethical position according to which there are no objectively true moral principles, only relatively true principles, indexed to the beliefs of particular cultural groups. Thirdly, moral relativism can refer to a normative ethical thesis according to which it is morally wrong to judge or interfere with the moral practices of other cultural groups. Although these three forms of relativism are logically distinct, descriptive relativism is used to argue for meta-ethical relativism and normative relativism.
Discussions of relativism usually begin with the empirical claim that different cultural groups have different moral codes. This empirical fact about moral disagreement is called descriptive relativism. Although reflection on the cultural variability of morals giving rise to descriptive relativism can be traced back to ancient Greece, twentieth century sociologists and anthropologists such as William Graham Sumner, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead have tremendously advanced understanding of the extent and nature of these cultural differences.
Descriptive relativism is simply a claim about how things are; it is not a normative, or evaluative judgment of any sort. It is the claim that different cultures have diverse moral codes. What is believed to be right, virtuous, or good in one cultural context is often believed to be wrong, vicious, or bad in another cultural context, and vice versa. Different cultures have diverse moral codes in the sense that one course of conduct (e.g.) polygamy may be regarded as morally permissible (or required) in one cultural context, but morally forbidden in another. It is important to notice that the disagreement between cultural groups pertains to deep differences of value and not to superficial differences in custom. The fact that Inuits greet with a nose rub, and westerners with a handshake would never be taken to reflect any deep moral disagreement.
Reflection on the implications of cultural differences in the ancient world is traceable to the Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484 B.C.E.–420 B.C.E.), who relates an account of a disagreement between the Greeks and Callatians (a tribe of Indians) over the proper ways of treating the dead. James Rachels presents a nice summary of Herodotus’ narrative:
Darius, a king of ancient Persia, was intrigued by the variety of cultures he encountered in his travels. He had found, for example, that the Calations… customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks, of course, did not do that—the Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and fitting way to dispose of the dead. Darius thought that a sophisticated understanding of the world must include an appreciation of the differences between cultures. One day, to teach this lesson, he summoned some Greeks who happened to be present as his court and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked, as Darius knew they would be, and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callations, and while Greeks listened asked them what they would take to burn their dead fathers’ bodies. The Callations were horrified and told Darius not even to mention such a dreadful thing (Rachels 1995).
This account illustrates nicely the point that what is thought to be right and proper in one cultural group may be held to be wrong and offensive in another. It emphasizes, too, the familiar ethnocentric tendency to judge one’s own moral practices and customs as correct.
Examples of cultural differences such as these can be easily multiplied. Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf provides a particularly powerful example in his book Morals and Merit:
… [A] European peasant, beheading a woman from a neighbouring village whom he happened to encounter on her way home from the fields, would be locked up as a criminal lunatic; whereas in a Naga village a youth returning with a human head captured under similar circumstances earns the insignia of a successful head hunter.
Other instances of differences in cultural codes include the following: Greenland Inuit regard wife-swapping practices as perfectly natural; but an average westerner would usually be morally offended at such practices. Similar disparities in acceptance apply to practices such as suicide as requirement of honor, female circumcision, polygamy, and infanticide, which are in turn regarded as required in some cultures while morally abhorrent in others.
One needs to question whether there is really as much cultural disagreement as there seems to be. This is to investigate the claim of descriptive relativism in the light of examples of moral variability such as those described above.
Some critics of descriptive relativism argue that even if some significant cultural differences in moral codes do exist, there are also important similarities across cultures. James Rachels argues, "that there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist" (1995). Rachels mentions two examples, regarding prohibitions on lying and murdering. In a similar vein, philosophers such as Sissela Bok (1995) and Michael Walzer (1994) have argued that a minimal common morality may be identified across cases of significant disagreement. If these claims are correct then they undermine the argument of descriptive relativism.
Another strategy adopted by opponents of descriptive relativism is to argue that the differences in moral codes across cultures are not really moral differences (differences in value), but are instead due to factual differences (perhaps as a result of a religious metaphysic) or circumstantial differences as might arise in times of drought and famine.
As an example of how a moral disagreement might arise from a difference in fact rather than value, consider how a belief that it is wrong to eat meat might stem from a metaphysical/religious doctrine of reincarnation rather than a difference in fundamental values. A belief that one’s forebears are reincarnated into animals would generate a prohibition on eating meat, but the basic value in question is one which meat-eating cultures share: reverence for the life of (e.g.) souls or persons or family members. The difference in moral belief arises as a result of a factual belief that not everyone endorses, that family members are reincarnated.
Similarly, with respect to disagreement from environmental circumstances, it could be argued that (e.g.) the moral permissibility of infanticide may arise from a general principle concerning the promotion of overall welfare in a harsh environment, rather than a disagreement of value. For example, weak and sickly babies may be allowed to die because the tribe cannot bear the burden of caring for them if they cannot be expected to contribute to the welfare of all (Rachels 1995). On this line of thought, the permissibility of infanticide does not display a lack of regard for human life; rather it exemplifies a concern for the welfare of the majority in a harsh environment where resources are few and only the strong survive.
Descriptive relativism is the claim that as a matter of empirical fact different cultural groups subscribe to significantly difference moral codes. Anthropologists do descriptive ethics when they detail the moral practices of various cultural groups. Descriptive ethics is to be contrasted both with normative ethics and meta-ethics.
Normative ethics is concerned with finding out which actions or things are right and wrong, or which states of being are good and bad. Normative ethics then asks question such as, "Is lying wrong?" or, "Is abortion wrong?" A related aim of normative theory is to provide principles of right action that may be employed as a moral guide to human beings in their lives. These principles will be of the type that can be used to decide whether particular courses of action, or particular types of action, are right or wrong.
Meta-ethics is an inquiry into the nature of ethics. The prefix "meta" suggests "aboutness," as for example in the word meta-psychology, which is the study of psychology—what it is as a discipline—rather than a study in psychology. Simplifying somewhat, it can be said that a meta-inquiry is a study of a study. Meta-ethics is then the study of ethics, which is itself an area of study.
Meta-ethics is concerned with determining the meaning of judgments of moral right or wrong, good and bad. Meta-ethics does not ask whether abortion is wrong. Rather, it clarifies what it means to call any action right or wrong. So a meta-ethical inquiry may ask, what, if anything, makes a judgment that abortion is wrong, true (or false)?
Meta-ethical relativism says that moral principles are relative to cultural groups, and that there is no standard of correctness that may be used to decide between these views. It makes the claim that there is no single true or most justified moral system. Moral relativism therefore rejects the claim that there are objective moral truths.
It is helpful to place meta-ethical relativism in relation to some of its main rival meta-ethical theories. Meta-ethical theories may be characterized in terms of how they answer the following two questions: (1) are there any true moral principles? (2) If there are true moral principles, what makes these moral principles true?
Emotivism is one meta-ethical theory that denies that there are any true moral principles answering "no" to the first question. Emotivism argues that moral judgments are expressions of people’s moral tastes. On this sort of view the judgment that (e.g.) "abortion is wrong" is interpreted as an expression of sentiment or feeling. Saying that "abortion is wrong" is equivalent to saying something like, "down with abortion!" If moral principles are simply expressions of one’s personal tastes (much as, e.g., "hooray for ice-cream") then they cannot be assessed as true or false. For if the claim that "charity is good" means nothing other than "hooray for charity," then it does not make a claim about anything; therefore it cannot be true or false. And this entails that if Emotivism is correct, there are no true moral principles. Moral judgments simply express the feelings of the person who makes the judgment; and this is the end of the matter.
Now consider a meta-ethical theory that answers "yes" to the first question. This is to say that it is committed to the existence of true moral principles. This still leaves open the question of what makes these true moral principles true. In answer to this question, meta-ethical theories may be divided into two groups: (1) Theories which say that moral truths are independent of anyone’s beliefs about moral principles, and (2) theories which maintain that moral truth is in some way dependent on someone’s say-so. The first group of theories may be called objectivist theories, and the second, non-objectivist. (Sometimes the labels "realist" for objectivist and "anti-realist" for non-objectivist are adopted.)
Objectivism says that moral truths are independent of anyone's beliefs or opinions on the matter. Most people are objectivists when is comes to areas of inquiry such as science. We usually think that the mere fact that a person or a group of people believe some claims about astronomy does not entail that they are correct simply in virtue of believing it. Suppose that everyone in the world in 1300C.E. believed that the earth was flat. The fact that they believe this seems perfectly compatible with the possibility that everyone was wrong. In the case of scientific beliefs, at least, the truth as to how things really are seems independent of what people think of the matter.
The objectivists think that something similar is true of moral principles. Just because a group of people believe that an action is morally right or wrong does not entail that it really is. They might believe something unjustifiable, i.e., unsupportable by good reasons. Objectivism says, then, that there are moral truths, and what makes them truths does not depend on anyone’s beliefs about the matter. It is important that objectivism, as described thus far, does not make any positive pronouncement on what makes ethical truths true; it just says that ethical truths are true independently of anyone’s views on the matter. This is no accident. The objectivist is faced with a particularly difficult challenge in answering this question (see Kant; Categorical imperative), since moral truths are not true in the same way as scientific claims. For example, "cheating is wrong" could not be true in the way in which it is true that there are nine planets in the solar system. For this reason, some philosophers prefer not to talk of moral principles as true or false, but rather as justified or unjustified. Someone who believes that it is wrong to wear purple polka dots because her parents told her so does not really have good reasons for her beliefs. Conversely, someone who believes that cheating is wrong because it is unfair seems to have much better reasons for her beliefs. Objectivism says that there are true ethical claims, and that the truth of these claims exists independently of what anyone believes.
Meta-ethical relativism is the thesis that there is no objective truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural codes and nothing more. What does this mean? Firstly, with objectivism, and in contrast to Emotivism, meta-ethical relativism answers "yes" to the question, "are there any true moral principles?" Moral Relativism does not deny that there are moral truths. However, relativism differs from objectivism in its answer to the second question. Objectivism says that moral truths are true (or false) independently of anyone’s beliefs on the matter; it is this claim that relativism denies. Relativism makes the truth of moral judgments dependent on what people believe. This means that in answer to the second question, "what makes moral truths true?" relativism cites the beliefs and practices of particular groups of people.
Meta-ethical relativism is sometimes regarded as a form of conventionalism in meta-ethics. Moral truths are true by convention, and conventions operate only insofar as people actually believe in them. Relativism makes moral truth dependent not on what some individual person believes but on what a given cultural group believes. But moral truth is still person dependent: there is no such thing as moral truth simpliciter. Instead there’s a " true for us or false for us, and true for them or false for them. For example, according to the relativist, "head hunting is wrong" is true for a European but not for a Naga. Conversely, "head hunting is a morally commendable activity," is true for a Naga but not for a Western European.
In summary, then, meta-ethical relativism says that moral judgments are true in virtue of their being predominantly accepted in the cultural groups that create them. (This small qualification acknowledges the probably not everyone in a culture will subscribe to the same set of beliefs.) Moral relativism encapsulates the idea that moral rightness and wrongness are determined by the prevailing beliefs of particular cultures. Meta-ethical relativism does not mean that there is no truth at all in ethics but rather that there is no objective truth in ethics—there are just a variety of local truths. The relativist thinks that truth of moral principles is indexed to the cultural groups in which they occur.
Descriptive relativism is simply the claim that different cultural groups have different moral codes. This is an empirical claim: it is neither a normative ethical claim, nor a meta-ethical claim.
One argument sometimes used in support of meta-ethical relativism may be called the cultural differences argument. The cultural differences argument attempts to infer meta-ethical relativism from descriptive relativism. It goes as something as follows (see Cook 1999 for examples of this argument).
(1) Let A and B be two cultural groups, and let p be any moral judgment. For this example, let p refer to the belief that female excision (circumcision) is morally permissible.
(2) A and B disagree over p. (A thinks that p is true; B thinks that p is false.)
(3) Therefore, (2) p is true for group A and p is false for group B.
Although some philosophers and anthropologists have advanced something like this argument the argument is, as it stands, invalid. The conclusion about relative truth does not follow from the mere fact of disagreement (or culturally different codes and beliefs). If this is not clear consider the following analogous argument: Cultural group A thinks that there are nine planets in the solar system; cultural group B thinks that there are 7. Therefore, "there are nine planets…" is true for A; "there are seven planets…" is true for group B.
The invalidity of the cultural differences argument shows that the path from descriptive relativism to meta-ethical relativism cannot be direct. Meta-ethical relativism does not follow logically from descriptive relativism. However, there are more refined strategies open to the meta-ethical relativist.
One sophisticated relativist tactic is to accept that meta-ethical relativism does not strictly follow from descriptive relativism, but to argue instead that meta-ethical relativism is the best explanation for the actual diversity of moral judgments and the difficulty of rationally resolving disagreements. This sophisticated relativist argument would go something like this: (1) If there were an objective standard of moral truth, then one would expect cultures to accept more or less the same moral codes. (2) If there were not an objective standard for moral judgment then one would expect variation in moral codes. But since (3) descriptive relativism shows that different cultures have quite different sorts of moral codes, it follows that (4) meta-ethical relativism is more probable than objectivism.
Objectivist responses to this argument for relativism would attempt to deny the premises of this argument. This could be done either by denying the claim of descriptive relativism or by denying that an objective standard of moral truth is likely to entail a convergence of moral views because, perhaps, moral truth is particularly hard to achieve (Wong 1984).
Although meta-ethical relativism does not follow straightforwardly from descriptive relativism, it is important to notice that this does not in any way show that moral relativism is false. Establishing that an argument in support of a claim does not work or is not conclusive is quite different from showing that this claim is false. This section explores the framework for claiming that meta-ethical relativism is indeed false.
In his book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels charts out two implications of taking meta-ethical relativism. In each of these cases, Rachels thinks that these implications are sufficiently implausible and allow us to conclude that meta-ethical relativism is false.
Rachels’ first implication of taking relativism seriously is that cross-cultural moral comparisons would be impossible. As he puts it: "we could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own" (p. 25). Consider, for example, the prevailing moral beliefs about the propriety of persecuting Jews in Nazi Germany. Can it not rightly be said that these beliefs were false? Meta-ethical relativism not only says that one cannot, but that the very idea is unintelligible. If moral truth is culturally relative, then persecuting Jews in Nazi Germany was morally permissible—even obligatory. Rachels thinks that this is absurd: part of why many regard the Nazi regime as evil is because they believed and acted on moral beliefs that were patently false.
A closely related complaint is that meta-ethical relativism makes the concept of moral progress unintelligible. This argument is really a temporal variant of the first one about cross-cultural comparisons. Consider the example of slavery in the contemporary southern United States: it is no part of the body of prevailing moral beliefs that slavery is morally permissible. But in 1840, it was part of the body of prevailing moral beliefs that slavery was morally permissible. How is one to characterize this difference? The most natural way to do this is to say that the culture of the southern United States has made progress in its moral thinking. What was once believed to have been true is recognized as being false. But if moral relativism is true, then this claim about moral progress is unintelligible. Since, as according to meta-ethical relativism, moral truth is culturally relative, it follows that it used to be true that in the southern United States, that slavery really was morally permissible. But now it is false. So if meta-ethical relativism is true, then one cannot say the moral beliefs of people in the southern America have progressed: progress can only be described as a morally neutral change. Again, Rachels thinks that this is a very unappealing consequence, and calls into question the adequacy of relativism as a meta-ethical theory.
A second implication of adopting meta-ethical moral relativism is that it apparently conflicts with the possibility of normative ethical inquiry. Suppose we confront the question, "is the death penalty morally permissible?" A natural way to approach this question is to examine what arguments can be offered for and against its permissibility. This is precisely what moral philosophy, in particular, applied ethics, does. But meta-ethical relativism is incompatible with this sort of investigative strategy. If meta-ethical relativism were true, then moral issues could be resolved simply be determining what the prevailing moral beliefs of a culture are. This follows from the meta-ethical thesis that there are no objective moral facts, but only relative facts, which are determined by the social codes and principles inhering in the practices of the group of people concerned. So if meta-ethical relativism were true, then normative ethics would collapse into descriptive ethics. One could determine whether an action is right or wrong by doing sociology or anthropology. These are empirical disciplines which investigate the natures of societies and their beliefs. These disciplines will help to discover what the prevailing moral beliefs are in a culture, which will in turn determine whether the death penalty is morally permissible. The moral permissibility of the death penalty, which seems to be a question in applied ethics, becomes a question of mere sociology of anthropology.
While Rachels is clearly right that meta-ethical relativism does have these implications, it is not certain that they are consequences which a relativist would not, or could not, welcome. The meta-ethical relativist will argue that these implications are not so absurd as Rachels supposes: for example, it is part of the point of the relativists argument that one cannot make the kind of context independent judgments that people think they ought to be able to make. So Rachels' arguments do not really disprove meta-ethical relativism. But it is important to see how radical the shift in thinking about such things would have to be were one to take this step. Accepting meta-ethical relativism involves an enormous cost in terms of how people think about moral judgments, their merits, and weaknesses, cross cultural moral learning, and more.
A third doctrine that is sometimes described as moral relativism is normative relativism. Historically speaking, normative relativism was adopted by some twentieth century anthropologists in response to the attitudes of superiority adopted by Europeans during colonization. Normative relativism argues that it is morally wrong to judge or interfere with the moral practices of cultural groups who have different practices from one’s own. Normative relativism is therefore a doctrine about how to behave toward those who adopt moralities different from one’s own. The most common position of this sort concerns the adoption of an attitude of tolerance. Normative ethics is concerned with specifying rules of right and wrong conduct, which may be used to guide one’s conduct and normative relativism says that one should be guided by an attitude of tolerance in the context of inter-cultural disagreement over the practices such as female circumcision and polygamy.
Since many people confuse some version of meta-ethical relativism with one or other variants of normative relativism, it is important to be clear on the distinction. Consider the following sorts of claims.
(1) It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples.
(2) one should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.
(3) It was wrong of the colonists, such as Christian missionaries, to force their moral beliefs on the indigenous people they colonize, and to assume that their moral judgments were correct and the indigenous ones incorrect.
The important point here is that all these claims are normative judgments, that is, they recommend for or against the adoption of certain practices. But while the sentiments expressed in these judgments may seem to be admirable, what exactly do they have to do with descriptive and meta-ethical relativism? The answer is that some philosophers and anthropologists think that normative relativism follows from descriptive relativism. For example, Alfred Koeber says that descriptive relativism generates "tolerance and … the diminution of ethnocentricism" (cited in Cook 1999). But the attempt to infer normative relativism from descriptive or meta-ethical relativism seems problematic for a number of reasons.
Consider the claim that one should not pass judgment on other cultural groups with substantially different values. What sort of claim is this? It is a normative claim. The moral objectivist might argue, that this claim, if it were true, would be true independently of anyone’s beliefs about the matter. In contrast, a meta-ethical relativist is committed to saying that this normative claim, if true, is true relative to the cultural group in which it is endorsed. But this means that this claim should be endorsed only if it already appears in the moral beliefs of a cultural group. Consider, in contrast, a cultural group which maintains that one should not be tolerant of other cultural groups with beliefs widely diverging from one’s own. According to ethical relativism this claim is true for that cultural group. So the problem for normative relativism is that the adoption of a universal principle of tolerance is incompatible with meta-ethical relativism which says that there are no objective moral truths. It is flagrantly inconsistent for someone who denies that moral principles have universal application to make tolerance the only universal value. On the other hand, suppose that the normative relativist attempts to avoid the charge of inconsistency and says that he only means to present tolerance as a relative truth. This move will allow him to avoid the inconsistency, but at the cost of allowing for the possibility that the judgment, "one ought to be tolerant of those with different moral beliefs" is true in some cultural groups but not in others. If tolerance is accepted in his cultural group, then he ought to be tolerant; if someone else’s cultural group does not endorse tolerance then he has no reason to be so.
Finally, it is worth noticing a point closely related to that presented above: this is that enforcing a moral principle of tolerance, which says, "Everyone must be tolerant!" is apparently self-refuting. For it effectively says that one should be intolerant of anyone who is intolerant, and this is itself not consistent with the consistent adoption of a principle of tolerance. If one lives by the principle of tolerance then one cannot go around condemning the intolerant.
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