Monthly Archives: November 2016

H. L. Mencken: On Politics (Bayard vs. Lionheart)

“As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” ~ H. L. Mencken

H-L-Mencken-1928.jpg

Henry Louis Mencken (1880 – 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English.[1] Known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” he was one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. On July 26, 1920, Mencken published an op-ed in the Baltimore Evening Sun titled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” which was later included in a volume of his essays: On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe.

Mencken’s essay ponders how it is that political candidates are so often the worst of people—without honor or conviction. As Mencken puts it:

It is not often, in these later days of the democratic enlightenment, that positive merit lands a man in elective office in the United States; much more often it is a negative merit that gets him there.

One of the main reasons that the voters often choose the worst people to lead them is that the masses fear thoughtful people, people with deep and sophisticated ideas:

In the face of this singular passion for conformity, this dread of novelty and originality, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life.

And the voters have themselves to blame for the incompetent and immoral people they choose for public office. Voters are:

 … unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob emotions. … when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. …

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

To be honest, I think that it is every bit as much moral vice as intellectual vice that will doom the American empire in our present moment. I truly fear that we are moving to an even more more fascist, plutocratic state than the one we are already in. I hope I’m wrong. But it is hard just so hard to see how the situation will change without radical intellectual and moral enhancement of human beings.

“Be as a page that aches for a … a theme that is timeless …”

“Be as a page that aches for a word which speaks on a theme that is timeless …”
(words and music by Neil Diamond)

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, 
in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, 
a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

This blog focuses primarily on whether life and death have meaning—the fundamental existential concern of my lifelong intellectual search. The question of meaning, like all philosophical questions I ask, is informed by an evolutionary perspective, without which philosophical answers are incomplete. This perspective has led to my interest in the future technologies that will transform or destroy us, and to the future of cosmic evolution itself.

Nonetheless it is hard to continually discuss such timeless themes. Sometimes we want to discuss current affairs, daily experiences, questions from readers, or important topics not directly related to the meaning of life. Therefore the blog often reflects on these topics, which allows a break from thinking about more substantive questions. Still, regarding any issue, I will try to bring to bear a reasonable amount of analysis and insight.

There are two disclaimers I would issue regarding my blogging on topics other than the meaning of life. First, when I venture in areas in which I lack expertise, my thoughts are less measured and thorough. Regarding issues other than academic philosophy, I can only speak as a reasonably intelligent layperson. Second, I often do not have the time to fully research topics about which I’m not an expert. Many topics I address demand book-length treatment, but I have only limited time and blog space. Thus my conclusions about topics not thoroughly research are provisional.

Still there is something valuable in thinking about topics about which one lacks expertise. First it forces you to keep thinking and to practice writing at the same time. Second such thinking grounds one to reality. For instance, if loved ones ask for practical advice or one reads about some important practical matter, then one should think about these things. Finally, virtually any topic connects to questions of meaning at least in some way, so thinking about almost anything is indirectly relevant. And it is easy to see why.

Consider topics which I sometimes blog about such as politics, society, work, art, education or economics. It is easy to see why the meaningful life depends on a good society and a decent education, as well as on a just political and economic system. It is also easy to see why issues of religion, science, technology, ethics, personal relationships and philosophy are directly related to questions of meaning. In fact these are the primary areas from which most persons derive meaning. So one can connect almost anything I blog about with the question of meaning, no matter how tangential my subject matter may appear from my primary concern.

I hope this explains why I sometimes deviate from writing directly about the most fundamental question for me, the question of life’s meaning. Evolution, transhumanism, science and technology, and all topics that have most influenced me do so ultimately because of my deep concern with life’s meaning. But life’s meaning is not only a theoretical or even existential question, it is a question that demands attention to the details of living. Oftentimes then, I will direct my attention to more mundane matters. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote: “… we could say that man is fulfilling the purpose of life who no longer has any purpose except to live.”

Emotivism

Emotivism: An Extreme Form of Personal Relativism 

The English philosopher A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989) and the American philosopher Charles Stevenson (1908 – 1979) developed a different version of subjectivism. Emotivism is a theory that claims that moral language or judgments: 1) are neither true or false; 2) express our emotions; and 3) try to influence others to agree with us. To better understand emotivism, consider the following statements:

The Earth is larger than Jupiter.
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 1964.

Both are declarative statements that are either true or false; both statement have cognitive content. Now consider the following:

Go Manchester United!
Damn!

Both are exclamatory statements that are neither true nor false, and have no cognitive content. They expresses emotions and try to influence others to share the emotion.

Emotivists believe that moral language expresses emotions and tries to influence others; it has no cognitive content. If I say homosexuality is evil, I’m just expressing my feeling that homosexuality is disgusting! I am expressing my emotions and, at the same time, trying to influence you to dislike homosexuality. The same analysis applies to any moral judgment. If I say that capital punishment is wrong, I’m just expressing my dislike for it, and trying to get you to agree with me. I might as well have said capital punishment, while shaking my head and rolling my eyes.  And if I say that Stalin or Cheney were bad men—which they were—I’m merely trying to get you to agree with what I’m really saying.

Now the difference between emotivism and personal relativism (subjectivism) is subtle. When personal relativists say Gandhi was a good man they report their view of Gandhi. And this report is true or false depending on whether they are telling the truth. But the emotivist claims there is no truth or falsity to moral judgments whatsoever! If I say I hate abortion—assuming I’m being sincere—then this expressed emotion is neither true nor false, it just is. In other words, the emotivist says that different moral judgments are just like differences in taste. I like carrots; you don’t. I like homosexuality; you don’t. But emotivists don’t consider moral judgments as reporting a speaker’s beliefs; they just express emotions. In the same way that cows moo, humans emote. Therefore, according to the emotivists, moral language has no factual content at all and thus cannot be true or false in any way. Now why would one think that moral language is just a disguised emotional expression?

Ayer thought that moral language was meaningless because it couldn’t be verified. If I say that there’s a dollar on my desk, you know what I mean and you can verify or falsify my statement—you just go look. But if I say that lying is bad, how you could verify this? Where would you go to see that lying was bad? Ayer argued that statements that couldn’t be verified were meaningless. There is no meaning to propositions like abortion is immoral because there is no way to show these statements are true or false.

While Stevenson granted that moral language didn’t have factual or cognitive content, he argued that it had emotive meaning. Moral propositions aren’t true or false, but they aren’t meaningless either—moral language allows us to express emotions. Thus he could easily account for our differences regarding ethics—we have different emotions. And when we disagree, Stevenson said we have a disagreement in attitude. But reasons or arguments will not change other people’s attitudes.

Critique of Emotivism 

Do moral judgments express emotions, exclusively? If I say that Mother Theresa was a good woman, I’m expressing my emotions, trying to influence you, and I’m making a moral judgment. On the other hand, aren’t I doing more? Don’t I believe that Mother Theresa was good in comparison with some standard of goodness? After all, I’m not just saying Mother Theresa, and then smiling. So when I say Mother Theresa was good I express my fond feelings for her, and I do want you to feel the same, but that doesn’t mean that’s all I’m doing. I almost certainly believe that Mother Theresa was good in a way that Dick Cheney wasn’t. So while a moral judgment isn’t exactly the same as a factual judgment, it isn’t exactly the same as exclamatory judgments either. Why?

Consider how I would go about persuading you that Mother Theresa was good, while Dick Cheney was not. I might appeal to her selflessness working with the poor of Calcutta, her devotion to her friends, her daily prayer and meditation, or the positive effect she had on strangers. And by doing this I’m giving you reasons for thinking she was a good person. Now you might say that I just happen to like selfless nuns who win Nobel Peace Prizes and that she was not better than Cheney. In response, I point out that Cheney masterminded the extermination and torture of thousands, had a violent temper, was very unpleasant company, was a Nixon operative, has no remorse for anything he ever did, and almost certainly never meditated.  Again my opponents might not be persuaded. Maybe killing  and torturing thousands is a good thing, or being nice is an awful thing.

But notice that you’re asking me for reasons, and I am giving you plenty of reasons why Mother Theresa, or almost anyone else for that matter, was a better person than Dick Cheney—reasons that most rational persons would accept. And whenever I give reasons, I’m doing more than just expressing emotions; I’m assuming that there is more to moral claims than emotions. If not, why try to convince someone? True, I could try to convince someone by merely continuing to express my emotions. But my emoting wouldn’t convince a rational person. So it seems that objective reason must play some role in ethics.

Certainly it’s true that some people might not be convinced by good reasons, but that does not mean that I didn’t give them good reasons or that reasons are unimportant. It might just be that they won’t accept the good reasons I have given them. Thus, if I point out that your disliking me is irrelevant to what I deserve on a test, then I have given you a good reason why I shouldn’t have failed. And we can probably think of many examples when we give others good reasons to do or believe something and they just won’t listen. This appealing to reasons to persuade suggests that we use moral language to do more than merely express emotions.

Therefore, emotivism presupposes that moral disagreements are incapable of being resolved by rational discourse. There is no way to resolve our attitudinal disagreements unless we are persuasive enough (or violent enough). But we have already seen that there’s another way to persuade—using reason to support our position. We can provide good reasons why x is right or x is wrong. If we appeal to reason, we have discovered a way to resolve our disputes that other than by shouting or beating others into submission. And if reason plays a role in ethics, then there is truth or falsity about ethical judgments. And if that’s the case then emotivism is not a sound theory.

Personal Moral Relativism

What is Personal Ethical Relativism? 

If morality is not relative to culture, as we discussed in yesterday’s post, might it be relative to a person’s beliefs, attitudes, emotions, opinions, desires, wants, etc.? Personal relativism is a theory that holds that moral judgments are relative to, conditioned by, or dependent upon, individuals. This theory has ancient roots, but it’s also popular today.2 These remarks capture the basic idea:

  • You have your opinion, and I have mine.
  • Truth is relative to my beliefs.
  • Truth is subjective, truth depends on me.
  • My belief is true for me, while your is true for you.
  • You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.

Analogous to the cultural relativist, the personal relativist claims that there is no objective moral truth. Relativists say that while you may hate homosexuality whereas they don’t, there is no objective truth about whether homosexuality is right or wrong. Instead moral statements merely report opinions, feelings, and attitudes; they just tell  what people prefer. Thus, to say that x is right/good/moral, just means you like, favor, or approve of x. And to say that x is wrong/bad/immoral, simply means that you dislike, disfavor, or disapprove of x. In other words, moral truth is relative, it is subjective. (Personal moral relativism is also called ethical subjectivism.)

But notice that, according to personal relativism, there is a way that a moral judgment can be true or false. If we say homosexuality is moral and we’re telling the truth, then it’s true that we think homosexuality is moral. But if we’re lying, then it’s false that we think homosexuality is moral. Of course moral judgments aren’t objectively true or false according to personal relativism, since there is no standard independent of a person’s feelings, but they are subjectively true or false, if we report our beliefs truthfully.

Critique of Personal Relativism 

Personal relativism is open to the same objections as was epistemological and cultural relativism, as the following questions suggest. What does it mean to say something is true for me? Is the claim that truth is relative to me, relatively or absolutely true? If the former, relativism is inconsistent, if the latter, it’s trivial. Is there as much individual disagreement as it appears, or is most moral disagreements on the surface only? Don’t most people share common moral beliefs? And don’t the consequences of taking this theory seriously conflict with our moral intuition? Aren’t some actions just plain wrong?

Given our previous critique, we should reject personal relativism at first glance. Why then is the theory so appealing?  Maybe personal relativism attracts because it reminds us that not everything we believe is true. Perhaps it helps us be open to new ideas. Or possibly we tend to accept it because others do. Whatever the reason we find relativism compelling, let’s consider it in more detail.

Consider the following. If I enjoy torturing small children in the most painful way possible, do you think that’s ok? Do you believe that whether this is right or wrong depends on me? Or do you think it’s just plain wrong? Remember, if personal relativism is true then there is nothing wrong with torturing small children. But you don’t believe that. And you don’t believe that Gandhi and Hitler were moral equivalents because you think that good and bad are in some sense objective. That’s why you think there is something wrong with torturing children, and any moral theory that suggests otherwise must be flawed.

This critique of relativism relies on our intuition. To believe that torturing children is morally acceptable is counter-intuitive. Of course it is true that our intuition is not always a good guide. For example, it seems intuitive that the earth is flat. But if a moral theory leads to consequences that contradict a strongly held moral intuition, then we are probably justified in questioning that moral theory. If a moral theory advocates torture, and nearly everyone thinks torture is immoral, we should probably reject such a theory unless there is other compelling reasons not to. So the claim that a theory is strongly counter-intuitive doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it counts as a reason to reject that theory.

Consider another intuitive argument against moral relativism. Suppose I gave you an F on your ethics test, even though I admit that your answers were perfect. Puzzled, you ask why you received an F, and I tell you that I don’t like you. Furthermore, I tell you that your friend received an A because I really like her. What would you think about this? Wouldn’t you feel that this was unfair? If so, you’re assuming there is some objective standard of fairness. However, if you’re a relativist, consistency demands that you accept that your grade is relative to whether I like you or not. But you think your grade on the test shouldn’t be relative to me because that’s not fair. So you do think that there is an objective standard of fairness after all.

There is something else peculiar about personal relativism. It is easy to say that you are a relativist, but it is hard to actually be a relativist. If the beliefs of both child-torturers and child-lovers conflict, the relativist says that they’re both correct. And while you can say this, it’s hard to believe it. In fact, when confronted with moral disagreements, we make judgments and debate what we should believe and do. In practice, we act as if what we do matters, as if some courses of action and some beliefs are morally preferable to others. In practice, it is virtually impossible to be a relativist. We do think there it is wrong for a samurai swordsmen to try out his new sword on an innocent passer-by.

Questioning the Connection Between Tolerance and Relativism 

Tolerance is generally a good thing. I don’t want my neighbors to exterminate me because I philosophize too much; I’m sure they don’t want me to attack them because they watch too much TV. Tolerance is good, serving to remind us that we may be mistaken about our beliefs. But what is the relationship between moral relativism and tolerance? Are the two connected? Does the theory of moral relativism lead to tolerance?

In the first place there is a contradiction between tolerance and moral relativism. If you’re a relativist, then you can’t consistently defend tolerance as a universal value. If you do, then you’re not a relativist, you’re an absolutist for whom tolerance is an objective value. So relativism and tolerance are logically incompatible.

Now suppose I am a moral relativist. As a relativist, I may be tolerant of your views, but I may also decide that I can do anything I want to you—say, torture and kill you because there is nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s just relative.  On the one hand as a relativist I might be tolerant of you, but, on the other hand, I might not. My view that the truth depends on me doesn’t seem to be related to how I treat you. There doesn’t seem to be a necessary connection between relativism and tolerance.

Now suppose I am a moral absolutist. As an absolutist, I may be intolerant of your views, but I may also be tolerant of them. So it’s hard to see any connection between moral objectivism or relativism and tolerance. Moral relativism may lead to tolerance or intolerance, as may moral absolutism. In the end, neither moral relativism nor moral objectivism recommends any specific action at all.

In the end we just don’t know the relationship between moral theory and practice, which is probably obvious from your experience. Ethics professors may espouse moral theories, but they may also be horrific people. The religious may espouse charity, but steal the Sunday collection. Theories about how we should act, often don’t translate into action. So even if there should be a connection between moral relativism and tolerance, it doesn’t follow that there is one.

On closer examination tolerance doesn’t appear affected by the content of your belief; rather, tolerance is affected by how certain you are of what you believe. If you’re certain that you know the truth about something, then you will likely be intolerant; if you’re less certain you know the truth about something, you will likely be more tolerant. If we value tolerance, we should be humble.

Conclusion 

Some things are relative—whether carrots taste good to you; and some things aren’t relative—throw this book out the classroom window and it will fall. Some elements of morality may be relative, but surely not all of them—you shouldn’t kill your good friend because he owes you a dollar. Tolerance is a generally a good thing, but there is no special connection between it and relativism. Killing an innocent person could possibly be justified, but are you ever justified in torturing someone for your own pleasure when there is no good reason to do so? As long as you answer no to this question, you aren’t a personal relativist. And few ethicists believe that personal relativism is a sound theory.

Cultural Moral Relativism

Philosophical Ethics 

Ethics is that part of philosophy which deals with the good and bad, or right and wrong in human conduct. It asks questions like: What is morality? Is morality objective or subjective? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Why should I be moral?

We can divide philosophical ethics into four parts. Meta-ethics analyzes moral concepts, moral justification, and the meaning of moral language. Descriptive ethics describes the moral systems of various cultures. Normative ethics considers moral norms, standards or criteria that underlie moral theories. Applied ethics applies normative theories to moral problems in law, medicine, business, computer science, the environment and more. Over the next few weeks we will discuss normative ethics, or moral theories. We’ll begin with relativism.

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? Usually morality is thought to be relative to a group’s or individual’s: beliefs, emotions, opinions, wants, desires, interests, preferences, feelings, etc. Thus, we distinguish between two kinds of moral relativism: cultural moral relativism and personal moral relativism. (I’ll discuss the first one today, and the second one tomorrow.)

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 elseupon 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 disagreementdoesn’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. 

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.

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?

Summary and Transition

Thus cultural relativism is as incoherent and unsubstantiated as epistemological relativism, as I argued yesterday. 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. While we can’t prove that cultural relativism is mistaken—you can only really do this in logic or mathematics—we have shown that there are many reasons to doubt the theory, and few reasons to accept it.