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Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I

December 2nd, 2008 by Matt

Suppose you asked me what today’s date was and I answered that the Maori Electorate seats in Parliament should be scrapped. You would quite rightly wonder what I was on. The question of what the date is is a completely different question as to whether a particular social policy is just.

Oddly enough, however, when it comes to many questions on social policy or on ethics in general, people offer the date as a justification for their stance. I often hear people justify some ‘progressive’ policy by informing me that is the 21st century or that we no longer live in the dark ages.

Recently in there has been controversy over whether women should be allowed to ride motorbikes down our main street topless to promote a pornography erotica festival. There were predominantly two responses articulated by supporters in the media reports on the controversy: “it’s the 21st century” and “we live in a liberal society.”

Let’s unpack both slogans. The first claims that being topless in public is acceptable because in the 21st century the fashions trends are for acceptance of such activities. In the past people opposed such actions but they shouldn’t anymore because society’s attitudes have changed. Note the implicit assumption here, that right and wrong is determined by what society currently accepts. The same assumption is even more evident in the second slogan. The assertion here is that New Zealand is a liberal society, that is, kiwis today have liberal attitudes towards pornography and public nudity. Suppose this is true; this entails that pornography and public nudity are permissible only if right and wrong are determined by societal attitudes.

This is not an isolated incident. When I was studying the abortion issue for my PhD research I often found people who stated they were personally opposed to abortion but would not condemn others who did it. This, of course, suggests that one can accept a principle opposing abortion, apply it to oneself and yet think it inappropriate to apply it to others.

Similarly, we often hear slogans such as “who are you to judge,” “don’t force your morality onto me,” Both suggest that one person cannot make moral judgments about another and that their moral scruples only apply to those who also hold them.

It is not uncommon to hear people say things like, “if you don’t like abortion don’t have one” or “if you don’t agree with what’s on TV turn it off.” Both responses assume that a person should not apply their moral standards to other people’s actions. They should follow these standards themselves if that is their belief but other people who disagree with them are not required to.

Behind these responses is a position known as ethical relativism. In a series of three posts I want to explore what relativism is, the common arguments for it and provide some reasons for rejecting it.

[This series was developed from my talk on the topic for Thinking Matters]

What is Ethical Relativism?
Frances Howard-Snyder[1] suggests that relativism comes in two forms, cultural ethical relativism and individual ethical relativism. These views can be formulated as follows:

Cultural Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action.

Individual Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person believes that the action is wrong.[2]

Two things follow from this view of ethics; first, humans create right and wrong, either by societal consensus of some sort or by an individual choosing to adopt and/or believe in, certain principles of action. Second, moral principles only apply to people or cultures who accept them. A few of examples will illustrate this.

Consider first cultural ethical relativism. Suppose two cultures have differing positions on the morality of pre-marital sex. In one culture it is seen as a serious sin, in the other it’s a normal courting ritual. Cultural ethical relativism entails that pre-marital sex is wrong for members of the first culture but not wrong for the second. Consequently, if a person in the second culture mocks a member of the first culture for holding repressed ideas about sex or conversely if a person in the first culture criticises someone in the second culture for engaging in pre-marital sex each is making a serious mistake. Premarital sex is only wrong for people in the first culture and denying your sexual urges is only wrong for people in the second.

A similar result follows from adopting individual ethical relativism. If a person believes that pre-marital sex is wrong then it is wrong for him and he should refrain from engaging in it and can be condemned if he does not. However, he cannot apply his own standard of sexual conduct to the behaviour of others who do not accept his views. If a person does not accept his view then pre-marital sex is not wrong for them.

This suggests a corollary that hypocrisy will be seen as the worst kind of evil (indeed the only evil) and sincerity will be highly praised. The hypocrite violates his own views and the sincere person embraces them. (Of course the problem is that an individual or culture might believe there is nothing wrong with hypocrisy and despise sincerity, this would lead to the conclusion that hypocrisy is ok and sincerity is evil.)

A final implication is that as cultures and individuals often disagree on moral questions there is no set of moral precepts which bind all people, regardless of their culture, at all times. Given this, it is not surprising that people commonly respond to ethical and social policy questions by providing the date.

Before looking at the arguments for relativism I want to contrast it with objectivism. In this context objectivism is not a form of Libertarianism expounded by Ayn Rand, it is the view that actions are right or wrong independent of whether anyone believes them to be so.

Robert Adams defends the thesis that ethical wrongness is (i.e. is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.”[3] [Emphasis original] I have defended divine command theories in various places on this blog, in this post, however, I want to simply note that a divine command theory, like other meta-ethical theories, grounds right and wrong in in facts that hold independently of human volition or cognition.

If God exists, he existed before I came into existence and will continue to exist after I die. He does not depend on me in any way for his existence rather I depend upon him for my existence. The same is true for the commands he issues; if right and wrong are constituted by divine commands then, it follows, right and wrong are objective properties of actions and do not depend upon us for their instantiation.

Two implications of objectivism are noteworthy. First, ethical rules are not created by human beings but rather discovered by them. Second, whether an action is right or wrong is a factual question in much the same way as the question is the earth round? The shape of the earth is something human beings have discovered. If some people, such as the 4th century Theologian Lactantius or some culture, such as the ancient Babylonians, believe the world is flat then they are mistaken. Despite what they think Lactantius and the Babylonians lived on a spherical globe; no matter how sincerely they believed otherwise, there was no change to the shape of the earth. Objectivism sees moral properties such as right and wrong as being on par with factual claims about the shape of the earth this is respect.

As the slogans above suggest, objectivist views of ethics are widely disparaged in popular culture in favour of relativism. Of course, the fact that a position is widely disparaged does not mean it is mistaken. To determine this we need to ask whether the arguments in favour of relativism are compelling. It is to this task I will turn in my next post.

[1] Frances Howard-Snyder, “Christianity and Ethics” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing co, 1999) 376-377.
[2] The same basic distinction is found in Pojman who distinguishes between what he calls conventionalism and subjectivism
[3] Robert Adams, “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again,” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 76.

RELATED POSTS:
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism II
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism III
Video of Matthew Flannagan Speaking on Moral Relativism
With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality
On a Common Equivocation
Sunday Study: The Virtue of Judging – Jesus was not a Relativist

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  • I would consider myself an ethical relativist. While some activities are wrong because they harm someone, much of what we regard as wrong is culturally based.

    Boobs on bikes are a good example. Some people regard the public display of women’s breasts as wrong, yet it was quite normal in pre-european pacific island communities and even today it is quite common on many european beaches.

    I look forward to your next post where the matter will be clarified.

  • Mark, first, why is harming other people wrong? Is it always wrong? If you make this claim, then aren’t you in fact an ethical objectivist?

    Second, I believe pornography DOES harm people. It may not leave physical scars, but you seem to be bearing a large burden of proof if you claim it is harmless.

  • CNNZ,

    to the relativist there is nothing objectively wrong with harming people. In fact talking baout things in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is somewhat a misnomer.

    Some relativisist might ascribe to an efficiency type outcome as the measuring stick for determing the acceptability of action. For examply a ‘Heirarchy of needs’ similar to Maslow’s could be developed upon which to base priority. This heirarchy could be informed by empirical study into the life carrying capacity of natural resources. Right and wrong is then determined by how actions would measure up against the achievement of the heirarchical goals. So there is no objective standard, just an efficiency outcome, agreed in advance.

    Whether or not one finds this idea repulsive or not is another matter, but that repulsion would be subject to the relative moral bias of the actor.

    Objectivists have the problem of appealing to authority, which the relativist may not recognise. Relativists have the problem of finding a standard by which authority should be recognised.

    As i the rest of the natural world, I suspect that in either case, objectivist or relativist, in practice the winner is the system that acts with the greatest force. In the end, physics wins ;)

  • Replying to Christian News NZ, to clarify, having reconsidered, some actions are wrong because the facts prove they are wrong. They are not wrong because some authority says so. So to that extent I am an ethical objectivist. However the bulk of the actions we regard as wrong we do so because of our culture. So before I decide whether something is right or wrong I need to consider the facts. I find it more convenient to describe myself as an ethical relativist.

    Yes it is possible that pornography causes harm, but you will first need to define pornography. Nowhere did I mention that it is harmless. I did mention the public display of women’s breasts. Are you suggesting that women’s breasts are pornographic?

  • Mark V. wrote: “Replying to Christian News NZ, to clarify, having reconsidered, some actions are wrong because the facts prove they are wrong.”

    So obviously you are NOT a true relativist of any kind. Otherwise how could you be making such non-relativist claims as “some actions…they are wrong.”?

    Compare and contrast with Pstyle’s comment: “to the relativist there is nothing objectively wrong with harming people. In fact talking baout things in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is somewhat a misnomer.”

    Women’s breasts pornographic? On the back of a Harley-Davidson, yes.

  • Christian News NZ said:
    “Women’s breasts pornographic? On the back of a Harley-Davidson, yes.”

    So you are an ethical relativist. That is fine but it would be of more value if you could state why you believe they are pornographic, as it stands it appears that it is simply your opinion that they are.

    Earlier you asked why is harming other people wrong. Simply it is in the interests of all species’ survival to avoid harm. Harm is contra survival. That is why harming someone is wrong, it lessens their ability to survive.

    The study of what causes harm is at the heart of the study of ethics. Theists muddy the water somewhat by including actions that offend God.

  • Matt wrote:
    Cultural Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action…. Two things follow from this view of ethics… Second, moral principles only apply to people or cultures who accept them.

    Carl:
    This is illogical.

    I have limited myself to discussing cultural ethical relativism, which is the subject of one of your arguments.

    According to the first part of what you wrote, which I quoted above, under a relativistic understanding of morality, “wrong” is defined by a person’s group. You say, “An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action.”

    You then go on to say that two things “follow from” this. But your second inference is illogical. That is to say, it does not follow.

    The logical invalidity of what you wrote is quite clear when we consider the definition of cultural relativism which you first provided. Under that definition, the actor which defines “wrong” is the person’s group, his or her society or culture, etc. Clearly, acceptance by the subject him- or herself is not logically entailed in this. And one could easily imagine a society where one man is a psychopath who thinks his actions are not wrong, but everybody else considers his actions wrong. In such a case — without acceptance by the man himself — there is still “wrong”, which is merely what his society defines as wrong.

    So your argument is demonstrated to be logically invalid.

    You may now wish to find new definitions of relativism, perhaps one which includes the need for an individual to ‘accept’ their society’s definition of “wrong”. Whether there are such definitions or not, the better definition of moral relativism is exactly what you came up with in the first place — that it is defined by a contextual group. Acceptance is superfluous to an understanding of moral relativism.

    You can agree or disagree with what your society is labelling as “wrong”, but that doesn’t change society’s arbitrary and relativistic classification of you.

  • Perhaps Mark’s approach to “ethical relativism” would be more accurately descibed as “narcissism” !

  • N+Mark.V,

    Do you think my wife's exposed breasts in our bedroom are pornographic to me? Of course not. Yet my reading a Penthouse in the same bedroom would be pornographic.

    This "rightness" or "wrongness" is derived from the Bible. As Jesus said, "…looking upon a woman [who is not your wife] lustfully is equivalent to committing adultery with her in your heart…"

    Yet other passages in the Bible tell us that pretty much anything sexual is permissible in the bedroom between a husband and wife. (See Mark Driscoll's "Christians and Oral Sex" video at http://www.marrshill.org for example).

    So this issue is partly context. If anyone puts a stumbling block such as pornographic material in the face of others and causes them to sin against their creator, this would be objectively wrong as it violates God's command to us.

    But this is exactly what Crow and cronies are doing with their boobies on bikes — causing others to stumble.

    Jesus talked about this too in the context of causing children to stumble. He said that it would be better for them if they had a millstone tied around their neck:

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2018:6;&version=31;

    http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/index.php?action=getCommentaryText&cid=1&source=1&seq=i.47.18.4

    You also mentioned "survival" as if it has some intrinsic value. Please explain how you reach that conclusion.

  • Cristian News NZ said:

    “You also mentioned “survival” as if it has some intrinsic value. Please explain how you reach that conclusion.”

    Surviving, as in remaining alive, is important. I would have thought that was self evident. Do you believe that it isn’t? With the exception of the suicidal, everyone wants to remain alive and improve the quality of their lives. The drive to survive and reproduce is in built in all species. The alternative is extinction.

  • Of course Mark.V. perhaps even extinction is neither morally here nor there.

    Who is to pass moral judgement on the sun for swallowing up the earth and obliterating all known life, and its memory. Nature does not teach us that survival is right, it simply shows that survival is a struggle, but that struggle invovles and often requires the deliberate harm, deception and destruction of other life. Nature alone gives us a tough and scary moral framework.

    Social creatures have learned that cooperation can be a successful survival meachnism too, but nature does not objectviely determine whether or not this is a good thing. In fact the final outcome of nature (the eventual destruction of life) suggests that life is not ultimately valuable.

  • Mark.V said: “Surviving, as in remaining alive, is important. I would have thought that was self evident.”

    No. Neither self evident nor intellectually defensible — unless there indeed exists an ultimate reality. Thus the question again becomes one of the existence and being of God :-)

    Why do you think it is self evident? And based upon what Mark?

  • On God:

    “…He does not depend on me in any way for his existence rather I depend upon him for my existence. The same is true for the commands he issues; if right and wrong are constituted by divine commands then, it follows, right and wrong are objective properties of actions and do not depend upon us for their instantiation…”

    You need more research into these ideas. Can’t remember exactly who was the first to proposed it, but I remember C.G. Jung restating that god needed man to experience humanity and balance his dark side and man needed god to forget his mortality and experience the divine. Once you start down this path you can no longer view god as the “all loving god”. Check the book of Job for more on Divine Commands relating to your ideas of right and wrong. There are plenty of early biblical references to an angry god, a jealous god, a god that destroys. There are many apparent contradictions on biblical right and wrong that require serious thought to understand. The most obvious problem is that even though god may provide a divine command on what is right, he leaves man with free will intact: he says what is required and asks man human to choose to do it. There is no gaurantee that doing what he says is right or that reward will follow, merely that the man may gain the mental stability of knowing they are acting on god’s command.

    It’s a riddle and one that relies on faith to answer.

  • Carl

    I think the problem you cite is due to the fact that you snipped the relevant sections from the citation. You quote me as follows

    Cultural Ethical Relativism: An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action…. Two things follow from this view of ethics… Second, moral principles only apply to people or cultures who accept them.

    I agree this argument is invalid but that’s not what I said, what I said (as attested by anyone who reads the original post) is this.

    Cultural Ethical Relativism An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person’s society or cultural group condemns that action. Individual Ethical Relativism An action is wrong for a person, if and only if, that person believes that the action is wrong. Two things follow from this view of ethics; first, humans create right and wrong, either by societal consensus of some sort or by an individual choosing to adopt and/or believe in, certain principles of action. Second, moral principles only apply to people or cultures who accept them.

    So when you read what I actually said without snipping relevant parts of the context. It’s clear that I did not say that cultural ethical relativism entails that moral principles only apply to people or cultures who accept them. When I drew this inference Ireferred back to the *two* different types of relativism I had just defined. On cultural ethical relativism moral principles apply only to cultures that accept them and on individual relativism it only applies to people who accept them.

    That this is my argument is evident when you take into account the very next phrase. I continued by saying “A few of examples will illustrate this” and then I provide examples from both different types of relativism to illustrate my point.

    So in context, when my quotes are not cited to creative editing, it is very clear that I did not argue as you contend.

  • “Do you think my wife’s exposed breasts in our bedroom are pornographic to me? Of course not. Yet my reading a Penthouse in the same bedroom would be pornographic.”

    ??? Only if you think so. Pornography is in the eye of the beholder, as has been established my many court cases as well as philosophical ruminations (perhaps I should call them “philosophical onanism”?). An object, in and of itself, cannot be pornographic, unless it is imbued with specific qualities by an observer. Breasts–as well as any other body part–are not pronographic in any way, except to those that have been raised to believe they are. So, those that do believe so are simply cultural relativists hiding behind a pretended absolute. Hm, reminds me of much of religious thought in general…

  • Matt,

    Thank you for clearing up that ambiguity in your post.

    However, if you are saying that Cultural Ethical Relativism does not entail acceptance by the individal, then you have no grounds for criticism of Cultural Ethical Relativism. It is a quite coherent worldview, wherein “wrong” is wrong because some group considers it as such. And, moreover, it does not require the positing of some weird entity that has “objectivity”.

  • [...] while ago I did a series of semi-popular posts on moral relativism beginning with Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I. These posts grew out of a talk I gave in Tauranga in 2008. Later I presented essentially the same [...]

  • Its interesting reading some of your older items Mattatron. It is nice to see how your writing has developed (when compared to your contemporary articles) and your improvements as a philosopher/theologian. Keep up the good work, you may one day end up being in the same league as such greats as Michel Foucualt, Jacques Derrida or Peter Singer!

  • I suspect that most people uttering such things as “it’s the 21st century, we don’t live in the Dark Ages” aren’t asserting a relativistic slogan. Rather, it seems to me that some-one who says “we don’t live in the Dark Ages” in response to the question “should we allow an erotica festival to be promoted?” are expressing exasperating at a question they take to be obvious. The thought is that no-one (apart from a few religious oddballs with ideas extracted from the Dark Ages) could plausibly have any reason to think that erotica ought to be morally problematic and saying “this is the 21st Century!” is just a way of expressing this exasperation. A good test case, is the fact that we can also imagine people uttering the same thing in cases where, ex hypothesi, they’re not relativist. Suppose I say that some religious fundamentalists want to stone women for adultery. Outraged, my interlocutor exclaims “****! This is the 21st century!” This shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning “people ought to stone adulterers iff not in the 21st century” but rather express strong rejection of the stoning of women.