Friday, 28 October 2011

Moral Relativism

An essay written for an assignment earlier this year. As a post-positivist, I do respect the doctrine of moral relativism considerably. However, there is much to be said for Kant's objective moral values. More on that later.

What are morals? Can they be said to exist in a universal and absolute form? The doctrine of Moral Relativism suggests not. This philosophical position holds that there are no moral absolutes, that all ethical values we hold are merely a product of our culture and have no universal truth in themselves. Morals are contextual. There are several arguments proposed in opposition to this view, but ultimately they do not stand up; Moral Relativism is a valid doctrine, and any illusions of universality between cultures (as suggested by Rachels1) can be explained by a Darwinist interpretation of morals, rather than by any true universal moral truth.
But what does moral relativism mean? If we are to accept that all morals are derived from culture, rather than some universal source, then there are several implications to consider. Firstly, moral critiques. If moral judgements are derived from cultural values, then an individual from one culture cannot judge the actions of another, outside the context of the latter's culture. Harman gives several hypothetical situations to illustrate this, the most extreme being that of the employee of Murder Incorporated, whose culture informs him that there is nothing morally wrong about killing members of society at large2. Any 'moral' critique of this man's action would always be based on the cultural values of an external observer, not on the values of the culture of Murder Incorporated. Moral Relativity creates a distinction between internal and external moral critiques; the internal evaluation of an action based on the values of the culture, and the external critique of the values themselves. Such external critiques, however, are ultimately futile, as cultural values cannot be objectively evaluated except by the standards of another culture34.
This can be seen as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as Rachels points out, it can encourage open-mindedness and tolerance5. We can no longer criticise other cultures based on our values, and hold them as 'inferior'. If Arthur loves bacon, and Brenda is Jewish (and thus finds eating pork to be morally wrong), there is no real ground for disagreement; each must simply accept that the other's views are morally correct in the context of that indidividual's culture6. However, at the same time, it raises a serious issue. If we cannot judge an individual's actions by the moral standards of our own culture, then even actions as heinous as the Holocaust can be justified away as morally right, according to the moral values of the time7. The only valid critique could come from within Nazi Germany, by comparing the actions of the Nazis to the higher moral values held by the country. Unfortunately, in this example, one of the highest moral values held by the culture was the supremacy of the Aryan race and the inferiority of all others, thereby justifying all the horrors of the time.
Under moral relativism, the concept of moral progress also becomes invalid. While it seems through modern eyes that slavery is an immoral practice, this in itself is an external critique. We are prejudiced by our own cultural values to disagree with the cultural values of another society, even our own society at an earlier time period. In the Eighteenth century, Western society saw slavery as a perfectly acceptable moral practice in the context of their cultural values and beliefs (the superiority of the European race) and we must tolerate this8. Even though this practice seems repulsive to modern observers, if we accept moral relativism, then we must accept this practice as moral within that society. There has been no social progress, from immoral slavery to moral equity, merely social change.
This then is the doctrine of moral relativism. But does it hold up in the real world? The basic argument for relativism can be laid out quite simply;
    1. If different cultures have different moral codes, then there is no universal morality
    2. Different cultures do have different moral codes
    3. Therefore, there is no universal morality
The first premise is clearly sound; if there were a universal moral truth, then it would be found exhibited universally, in many varied cultures. Rachels uses several examples that apparently illustrate (2), from Inuit Infanticide to the classic excerpt from Herodotus's Histories of the burial rites of the Greeks and Callatians9. However, it is this premise that comes under attack the most when discussing moral relativity, not least by Rachels himself. While on the surface different cultures do appear to have very different moral values, if so much as one universal moral value can be found, then moral relativism is necessarily false.
So, is there some universally agreed upon value that every culture holds as moral? If so, then morals are not necessarily relative. It would appear at first glance that there is no such universal value; there are simply too many differing and apparently conflicting standards of morality in the world. Trying to distinguish a universal core value underlying these differing cultural practices seems impossible.
Rachels, of course, holds that there are universal values, the primary being the survival of the greater unit10. He examines the case of Inuit infanticide, an accepted and moral practice within that culture that seems at first glance so alien to our own values. However, he argues that the underlying principle is not so different; an Inuit will only practice infanticide if the alternative is less favourable to the survival of the family or community. Inuit children are dependant upon their mothers for up to four years, draining the family's resources in a harsh and unforgiving environment, and according to traditional divisions of labour female children are less productive to wider society, as it is males who perform the role of hunter-gatherer. Rachels argues that "drastic measures are sometimes needed to ensure the family's survival."11
So is this so radically different to values in our society? While at first, the practice of infanticide seems cruel and barbaric, unacceptable to our values, there is a deeper-lying value that is shared between both cultures, the survival of the greater unit (family or society). It is this deeper value that prompts an Inuit to practice infanticide to save their family, and that prompts individuals in our society to practice abortion, go to war, or enter a burning building in the line of duty. In both societies, the life of an individual is sacrificed for the good of the family, the nation, or the community.
Is this, then, an example counter to the argument of moral relativism? Here we have a seemingly universal moral value, shared by many different cultures, that explains many of the supposedly exclusive practices of those cultures. Rachels believes that this effectively invalidates the relativist argument, and goes on to give two more demonstrations of this universality; for the effective functioning of society, lies and murder are considered morally unacceptable12. His argument is that a society that considers lying or murder to be morally acceptable would fall apart, thus all societies share these moral values in commonl they are universal13.
The counter-argument to the doctrine of moral relativism, as laid out by Rachels, is that there are some moral rules that all societies have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. Cultures may differ in interpretation and application of this underlying value, as in the example of Inuit infanticide seeming repulsive to a Western observer, but ultimately every culture draws its 'differing' moral values from what is most beneficial to society.
Rachels makes a mistake, however, in assuming that the values derived from this principle of 'the greater good' are themselves universal. He states that "we do find these rules [against lying and murder] in force in all viable cultures"14. His reasoning is appealing; a society that finds murder and personal harm morally acceptable will fall apart into violence and internal strife, as there is no value for human life, just as in a society that finds dishonesty to morally acceptable communication is impossible. By the same logic, we could expect theft to be considered universally immoral, as permitting it would undermine commerce and production.
However, contrary to Rachels' claims, none of these values are universal to all cultures. In ancient Sparta, for example, young boys were removed from society and encouraged to steal, lie, even kill if they could get away with it15. If caught, they were punished, not for committing the crime, but for failing to commit it successfully. Here all of Rachels' assumed universal moral rules are seen breached, but Spartan society was far from inviable; as a result of this brutal upbringing, Spartan men were considered the greatest warriors of the Greek world. The reason that Spartan culture considered the acts of murder, theft and lying to be morally acceptable was because it created stronger warriors; in short, the practice was for the greater benefit of society.
So can this be our core and universal moral value, with which to disprove the relativist argument? This is not so much a moral value in itself, however universal. Rather, this self-interest of a culture can be said to be the common source of all morals. A moral in a viable culture, as Rachels asserts, is present because it benefits that culture, but contrary to Rachels' argument, it does not necessarily follow that the morals derived from this self-interest are themselves universal.
This view of moral values can be seen as analogous to Darwinistic evolution. In this 'Moral Darwinism', we see genes (the biological agents of evolution) replaced by moral values; it is morally acceptable to practice infanticide, given the circumstances, for example. A culture that holds moral values that are not beneficial to its own self-interest is, in Rachels' terms, inviable; it will wither away. However, a culture or society that holds moral values that are beneficial will prosper and spread.
The diversity of moral views in the world are a product of the differing circumstances in which cultures develop. If a land-dwelling mammal were to be born with gills, it would not be viable and would die without spreading its genetics. Likewise, if the infanticidal practices of the Inuit culture were transplanted to a less hostile environment, the Mediterranean for instance, then children would be killed for no good reason, and the society would suffer due to the low infant survival rate. Infanticide in Greek culture makes as much practical sense as gills on a mammal. The moral values of societies are products of their environments, just as the genetics of a species is the product of its own environment.
If a moral value does not serve the best interests of its society, it will not be incorporated into that society. But what implication does this have for relativism? There is no universal moral value for the same reason that there is no universal genetic trait; circumstances dictate otherwise. Ultimately all morals serve the interests of the society that holds them, just as all genetic characteristics serve the interests of the species.
As for critiques of moral values, there is still a distinction between internal and external. An external critique of a moral value within a culture must always be based upon comparison to one's own culture, and as such is of limited validity. If the only ultimate and universal condition for a valid moral position, even one as seemingly extreme as infanticide, is that it serve the interests of the culture that holds it, then any critique by comparison is futile. If a moral is held by a viable society, it is there for a reason.
Relativism is sound. There are no universal moral values, as all values are created and held out of utility. As such, there is no use making an external critique of a moral value, such as infanticide, murder or cannibalism; all stem from an ultimate benefit to the society that holds them, and any disagreement stems only from comparison to one's own values. As Quintelier concludes, we must tolerate moral values that are incompatible with our own, simply because we must respect that within that culture they are both correct and useful16. Morals are relative, despite their universal purpose.


James Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," in Reason and Responsibility: readings in some basic problems of philosophy, ed. Joel Feinberg. California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1996

Gilbert Harman & Judith Jarvis Thompson, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996

Gilbert Harman, "Moral Relativism Defended" in Relativism: Cognitive and Moral, ed. Krausz and Meiland. Illinois: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982

Katinka Quintelier, "Feiten en normen in het moreel relativisme debat" (Facts and norms in the moral relativism debate, self translated). Algemeen Nederlands Tijdshrift voor Wijsbegeerte 102, 2010

Humfrey Michell, Sparta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964

1James Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," in Reason and Responsibility: readings in some basic problems of philosophy, ed. Feinberg (California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1996), 492-3
2Gilbert Harman, "Moral Relativism Defended," in Relativism: Cognitive and Moral, ed. Krausz and Meiland (Illinois: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 191
3Ibid, 191-3
4Katinka Quintelier, "Feiten en normen in het moreel relativisme debat," Algemeen Nederlands Tijdshrift voor Wijsbegeerte 102 (2010), 27
5Cited in Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism", 494
6Quintelier, "Feiten en normen in het moreel relativisme debat", 27
7Harman, "Moral Relativism Defended", 192
8Quintelier, "feiten en normen in het moreel relativisme debat", 27
9Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," 488
10Ibid, 492
12Ibid, 493
15Humfrey Michell, Sparta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 164
16Quintelier, "Feiten en normen in het moreel relativisme debat" Algemeen Nederlands Tijdshrift voor Wijsbegeerte 102 (2010), 35

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