Is Ethics Relative? (Part 2)

(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 12, 2015.)

(continued from yesterday’s post.)

2. CULTURAL RELATIVE

2A    What is Cultural Moral Relativism? 

Cultural moral relativism is 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:

Argument 1 – (from the diversity thesis)

  • Different cultures have different moral codes;
  • Thus, there is no morality independent of culture.

The weakness of this argument is that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. The fact that cultures disagree about morality doesn’t show that morality is relative. After all, cultures disagree about whether abortion is moral or immoral, but their disagreement doesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. 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. Their disagreement doesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. 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:

Argument 2 – (from the dependency thesis)

  • What is often regarded as the moral truths depends on cultural beliefs;
  • Thus, there is no moral truth independent of culture.

The argument commits the fallacy that logicians call “begging the question.” This occurs when you assume the truth of what you are trying to prove. (For example, if you ask me why I think abortion is wrong and I say, because it’s bad, I’ve begged the question.) 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.

Now might we make a stronger case for the relativist if we put the two theses together?

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. 

2B    Critique of Cultural Moral Relativism – Premise 1

This seems better; at least the conclusion follows from the premises. But are these premises true? Let’s consider the first premise (diversity). 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. There simply isn’t enough food for all their children, nor enough backs upon which nomadic people can carry their children. 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. Sometimes they kill a weaker child so that both the stronger and weaker children won’t die. 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. Maybe cultures aren’t so different after all.

Consider that there is more crime in America than in France. Most Americans seem to believe that criminals deserve to be punished for their crimes, that severe punishment brings peace to the victim’s family, that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime, etc. The French are more likely to renounce retribution or doubt that capital punishment brings victim’s families peace or deters crime. But notice again. Both cultures are steered by a principle—act justly—even though they apply the principle differently. So upon closer inspection, there doesn’t seem to be as much disagreement as it first appeared. 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? Wouldn’t that show that morality was not relative to culture? Many scientists claim that there are moral principles common to all cultures.1 For instance, all cultures share: regulations on sexual behavior; prohibitions against unjust killing; requirements of familial obligations and child care; emphasis on truth-telling; and reward for reciprocity and cooperation. If we take these two ideas together—cultural moral differences aren’t as great as they appear, and all cultures share some moral values—then the diversity thesis is false. And if the first premise is false, then the conclusion of the cultural relativist’s argument doesn’t follow.

However notice that even if the first premise is false, that doesn’t prove that moral objectivism is true. Cultures that share the same moral values could all be wrong! So the empirical evidence concerning similarities and differences between moral codes isn’t relevant to the question of whether morality is absolute or relative. And that means that while we haven’t proven the truth of cultural absolutism, we have undermined the cultural relativist. For the evidence about diversity of culture is irrelevant, then we have undermined the relativist’s first premise, and with it the conclusion of his/her argument.

2C    Critique of Cultural Moral Relativism – Premise 2 

While undermining the first premise sufficiently undermines cultural relativism, let’s turn to the second premise (dependency) to see if it fares any better. Now it does appear true that some moral “truths” depend on culture—for example, regulations on sexual behaviors or funeral practices. 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. Ethics may be objectively grounded in reason, the god’s commands, the most happiness for the most people, human nature, or something else.

But rather than trying to contradict all the relativist’s arguments for the second premise, consider the implications of taking cultural relativism seriously. If cultural relativism is true then all of the following (counter-intuitive) are true. 1) We cannot make cross-cultural judgments. We could not consistently criticize a culture for killing all those over forty, exterminating ethnic groups, or banishing children to the Antarctic. 2) We cannot make intra-cultural judgments. 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. 3) The idea of moral progress is incoherent. All you can say is that cultures change, not that one is better than another. The old culture practiced slavery; we do not, and that’s the end of it. The appearance of moral progress is illusory.

But all of this is counter-intuitive. We might think that cultures can do what they want regarding funeral practices, but what about human sacrifice? Aren’t there some things that are just plain wrong, in both other cultures and our own? Don’t you believe that society is better now because it has outlawed slavery? Cultural relativism answers no to both questions. But can  such a strongly counterintuitive theory be correct?

D    Summary and Transition

Thus cultural relativism is as incoherent and unsubstantiated as epistemological relativism. The logical arguments for cultural relativism fail, and we have good reasons to doubt the truth of the premises of cultural relativism. Finally, cultural relativism contradicts our moral intuition. Still, we can’t prove that cultural relativism is mistaken. But we have shown that there are many reasons to doubt the theory, and few reasons to accept it.

We’ll continue the discussion of relativism tomorrow.

1. See, Clyde Kluckhorn, “Ethical Relativity” Sic et Non,” Journal of Philosophy 52 (1955).

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