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Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism II

December 5th, 2008 by Matt

In my previous post, I set out the differences between relativist and objectivist views of ethics. I noted that objectivist views were widely disparaged in our culture in favour of relativist ones. I now want to raise what, I think, is an obvious question, why should we accept the relativism assumed in much cultural ethical discourse? The fact it is popular shows it is fashionable but what reasons are there for thinking it is true?

Arguments for Ethical Relativism
There appear to be two main arguments for relativism. The first appeals to the existence of diverse mores and traditions amongst cultures on particular issues. The second is a cluster of ethical concerns about such things as tolerance, avoiding bigotry, open mindedness, etc. I will examine both below.

Argument from Diversity
One argument for relativism, going back to the time of Herodotus, is based on the fact that different cultures and groups often appear to have radically different ethical norms and values. In some cultures, for example, homosexual conduct is permitted even mandated, in others it is condemned.[1] Some cultures practice polygamy, others monogamy. Many cultures have practiced infanticide allowing the parents a choice whether to kill a child after birth,[2] other cultures strongly disapprove of this. I could go on.

Further, within the same societies ethical judgments can appear to change over time. Fifty years ago abortion was illegal in New Zealand, now it is paraded as a woman’s choice. Four hundred years ago people were executed for witchcraft in Europe, now we watch “Sensing Murder” and “The Ghost Whisperer” for entertainment.

It is not uncommon to find some cross-cultural anthropological studies making claims such as the following,

[1] Ethical principles differ from culture to culture and from age to age.

Given that [1] is essentially the thesis of ethical relativism, it is suggested that cross-cultural studies demonstrate relativism. [This is clearly an argument for cultural ethical relativism. However it is clear that an analogous argument could be constructed for individual ethical relativism; it would not be hard to show that individuals often differ radically on moral issues, particularly in highly pluralistic societies.]

Two things can be noted in response. First, while it is true that different cultures come to different ethical conclusions, in and of itself, this does not mean they disagree over ethical principles. Sometimes this outcome is due to factual or non-ethical disagreements.

Consider witchcraft. Rodney Stark notes that one reason the execution of witches occurred was because of certain non-ethical beliefs that were prevalent at the time. In the 14th century, many educated people believed in the existence of witches. It was believed witches met together secretly and sacrificed children to the devil and then ate these sacrifices in a ritual feast. After this feast these people bound themselves by oath to the devil to use supernatural powers to inflict harm and kill innocent people.[3]

Now given these beliefs, it is quite understandable why some in that society felt this way. If, in our culture, people randomly killed and ate babies and then conspired to arbitrary kill, harm and maim innocent people, many would support their actions being subject to the death penalty. The point is that it is factual, not ethical claims, which are the major source of disagreement between cultures.[4]

The second and more important point, is that the argument is invalid. Frances Howard-Snyder notes[5] that [1] is ambiguous it can mean,

[1a] Beliefs about what is right and wrong differ from culture to culture and age to age.

Or it could mean,

[1b] What really is right and wrong differs from culture to culture and age to age.

To provide grounds for affirming relativism, anthropological studies would need to establish [1b] but they do not. At most, they establish [1a]. To get [1b] from [1a] one would need to assume that what a society believed was right was really right for that society. This, however, would be to assume relativism was correct. The argument would then be circular; one would assume relativism as a premise in order to establish it as a conclusion.

Argument from Tolerance
The second major argument proposed in favour of relativism appeals to virtues such as tolerance, absence of bigotry, open mindedness, etc. The idea is that if you apply your ethical standards to other people or other cultures, you are arrogantly assuming that they are wrong and you are right. In claiming that other people are mistaken or wrong you are failing to show them tolerance and are rather, imposing your morality upon them. This is, arguably, the major driver behind the appeal of relativism in culture today. This argument has the following structure.

[1] It is intolerant to claim that other people’s opinions are mistaken or wrong.

[2] People should not be intolerant.

From which it follows,

[3] People should not claim that other people’s opinions are mistaken or wrong.

Let me examine each of these claims.

Is it intolerant to claim that other people’s opinions are mistaken or wrong?
Contrary to [1], it is not intolerant to claim others are mistaken or wrong. Two line of argument show this.

First the person who proposes this claim seems to misunderstand the meaning of the word tolerance. Suppose you asked me what I thought about my wife’s cooking and I responded that I “tolerated it.” This would entail that my wife is not a good cook (and would probably make her mad). If she were a good cook, I would not say I tolerate her cooking, I would say she is a great cook. In the same way I can only tolerate other people’s behaviour and or opinions if I think there is something wrong or bad about them. If I do not think this, I would not tolerate their behaviour or opinions, I would endorse them.

Second, [1] is itself refuting. Note that the person who makes this claim is criticising the behaviour of objectivist. The claimant is asserting that the objectivist in “telling other people that they are wrong or incorrect” is doing something wrong or incorrect. Can you see the problem?

If [1] is true then the person who utters this argument is themselves intolerant by their own definition. It would also entail that any position based upon or committed to this view is also intolerant. However, [2] entails that the relativist should not utter this argument and if uttered, we should reject any view based upon this argument and any position committed to castigating others as intolerant.

Do people have a duty to be tolerant?
Turning to the second premise [2], despite often being expounded in contemporary society as a self-evident truth, [2] is clearly false.

First, in many contexts, intolerance is appropriate and is a virtue. Imagine a society that tolerated rape, child molestation, infant sacrifice or spouse beating. Such a society would be “tolerating other people,” after all, rapists, paedophiles, child killers and wife beaters are people… However, this society would be wrong to do this. Hence, tolerance is not always a duty, sometimes it is a vice. Secondly, if unqualified, the assertion that people have a duty to be tolerant entails that one should tolerate intolerance, something deeply paradoxical.

Third, in the context of an argument for relativism, [2] seems to put the proponent of this argument into a contradiction. Remember that according to relativism there are no objective ethical principles. On cultural ethical relativism, an action is wrong for a person only if that person’s culture condemns that action. On individual ethical relativism, an action is wrong for a person only if he or she believes the action is wrong. However, it follows that, if relativism is true, there is no objective duty to be tolerant. Any culture that accepts and practices intolerant and bigoted practices is permitted to do so. Any individual who believes that certain intolerant practices are permissible is justified in being intolerant. The relativist, then, cannot consistently ask the objectivist to give up the intolerant position that they believe on the basis that doing so is wrong. If relativism is true then the fact that objectivists believe in an intolerant position means tolerance is not wrong for them but in fact permissible.

Many of the arguments behind relativism are thoroughly confused. In my next post I will argue that there are good reasons against accepting it.

[1] David Greenberg The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
[2] Lalia Williamson “Infanticide: An Anthropological Analysis” in Infanticide and the Value of Life ed. M. Kohl (New York: Prometheus Books, 1978) 61-73.
[3] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) 201.
[4] The witchcraft example comes from C S Lewis’ discussion of relativism in Mere Christianity.
[5] Frances Howard-Snyder “Christianity and Ethics” in Reason for the Hope Within ed Michael J Murray (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999) 378; see also James Rachels Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1986) 19.

RELATED POSTS:
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I
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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13 responses so far ↓

  • You are not representing the better form of the argument from diversity. It does not use a priori logic, like you require of it, and so there is no vicious circularity.

    What is often being argued with the appeal to diversity is some a posteriori argument, such as:
    1. If there is objective morality, one would expect certain ethical standards to hold across all cultures.
    2. The certain ethical standards do not hold across all cultures.
    3. Therefore, there is no objective morality.

    It’s obviously a powerful argument against those who already agree with (1). But many, especially Protestant, positions argue from ‘total depravity’ or the like that diversity is to be expected. So the argument has no force against such positions.

    I don’t think there is an decisive argument to be made for or against the existence of ‘objective morality’. It does ask us to posit the existence of some ‘weird entity’, so there is at least special pleading. But special pleading is not logically invalid — it’s just a waste of time(!)

    In reality ‘objective reality’ is nonsense, and it is insane to hold to it. But its existence or nonexistence is not something to be demonstrated. What might be able to be said about it is that such understandings of morality occur within certain cultural contexts, and we may be able to trace its history.

    On the other hand, there is no good argument against moral relativism, and accepting it is the case does not involve special pleading, the positing of weird entites such as ‘objective morality’.

  • Carl Marks wrote: “…there is no good argument against moral relativism…”

    Did I miss something here Carl? I thought Matt just spent 1500 words showing that moral relativism is self refuting?! To be morally relative, doesn’t a person or culture have to accept the views of the moral objectivist as being just as valid as his own view.

    Simple logic seems to ensure that:

    1. If moral objectivism is true, then moral relativism is false.

    2. If moral relativism is true, then moral relativism is false.

  • Carl Marks 1. If there is objective morality, one would expect certain ethical standards to hold across all cultures.

    Or that people don’t know them, or don’t know them very well, or know them but don’t want to do them.

    And there is evidence for some fundamentals in many cultures.

    Further, even if there is disagreement, the existence of morality per se is an argument for an underlying objective morality.

    Christian News NZ 1. If moral objectivism is true, then moral relativism is false.

    2. If moral relativism is true, then moral relativism is false.

    Rather 2. If moral relativism is true then there is not such thing as morality.

    There is no ought. Everything is preference.

  • Carl

    Thanks for your comments.

    As regards to the argument I misrepresent. I got the argument from the literature, specifically the discussions of relativism by Rachels, Pojman, Beckwith and Howard-Sydner and others, perhaps you can take it up with them.

    Turning to your revised argument:
    First, even if what you say is correct I criticised 2 in my post. It’s not clear that when you take into consideration disagreement over factual and non moral questions that ethical standards are radically different across cultures. To demonstrate that they one would need to show that when two cultures agree on the facts and don’t make any mistake reasoning from these facts they still come to radically different conclusions about morality. Second, it’s not clear to me that mere objectivity of moral norms would entail that all cultures agree upon them. So as you suggest in the absence of a reason for this 1 holds no force.

    As to your other arguments, you claim that “no good argument against moral relativism” I dispute this point, in my next post I offer some arguments against relativism moreover the literature is full of such arguments.

    Second you state objectivism asks “us to posit the existence of some ‘weird entity’ actually I am well aware of this argument, the reason I did not mention it is it’s irrelevant from my purposes. Those who object to “objective morality” because such entites are “weird” (such as J L Mackie) usually do so for two reasons. First they believe that naturalism: the postion that “the only things that exist are those things postulated by our best scientific theories” (Craig 2008) is true. Second they believe that moral properties such as rightness and wrongness if they existed would be “nonnatural in the sense that they cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology.” (Adams 1987)

    I am inclined to agree that *if* you accept both Naturalism and the claim that moral properties are non natural moral properties are weird. The problem is I am not a Naturalist. I am a theist and hence even if one grants that moral properties are non-natural in the above sense (which I do) that provides me with no reason for thinking such entities are weird. The weirdness objection applies only if you accept Naturalism, and I am inclined to say that if Naturalism does have this implication, if it implies that it’s not objectively wrong to rape and torture women for entertainment for example then so much the worse for naturalism.

  • Matt,

    Are you aware of a new book called “MORAL RELATIVISM” by Steven Lukes?

  • Interesting blog — please continue with more on “cultural confusion.”
    Thank you,
    Jonathan Kroner, JD, MBA
    http://jonathankroner.com/

  • Hi Jonathan, we are always open to more suggestions for future topics. What do you mean by cultural confusion – more working examples?

    Matt’s third and final post in the series in up now, did that suffice or did you have in mind development of a different angle?

  • Christian News wrote:
    Did I miss something here Carl?

    Carl:
    You sure did. You missed the reason that Matt’s argument fails.

    Christian News wrote:
    I thought Matt just spent 1500 words showing that moral relativism is self refuting?! To be morally relative, doesn’t a person or culture have to accept the views of the moral objectivist as being just as valid as his own view.

    Carl:
    You are incorrect. Acceptance of moral relativism does not entail acceptance of anybody else’s (different) view as “valid”. “Validity” is a red herring when talking about morality, which does not rest on logic but on whim. Things are “wrong” because we do not desire them. This is so, whether or not one has a “valid” reason. Reasons can be adduced to defend one’s position, or to attempt to convince others, but moral “wrong” is a product of whim. I can say that stoning homosexuals is wrong, and I can appeal to reasons of compassion. But there is no rationale at the basis of any moral claim — that is, of the claim that it is “wrong”. Moral objectivists may well claim there is a rational basis, but this is an imaginary claim, pure projection onto ‘God’.

    Christian News wrote:
    Simple logic seems to ensure that:

    1. If moral objectivism is true, then moral relativism is false.

    Carl:
    The two concepts are opposite. This is true, but trivial.

    In fact, moral objectivity is insanity; a delusion.

    Christian News wrote:
    2. If moral relativism is true, then moral relativism is false.

    Your statement is self-contradictory, complete nonsense. Nothing can be both factually the case and not factually the case.

    You are obviously confused.

  • Carl (partially quoted):
    1. If there is objective morality, one would expect certain ethical standards to hold across all cultures.

    Bethyada wrote:
    Or that people don’t know them, or don’t know them very well, or know them but don’t want to do them.

    Carl:
    My statement was citing a typical a posteriori argument. I was not making this argument. And I made the same criticism of the validity of such argument as you did.

    Bethyada wrote:
    And there is evidence for some fundamentals in many cultures.

    Carl:
    No there isn’t.

    There are, however, ‘near universals’ in moral codes in different cultures. This is only what one would expect given the common cultural background of societies making rules in order to survive. That there are some commonalities provides no evidence for the ‘objective’ nature of the morals.

    Bethyada wrote:
    There is no ought. Everything is preference.

    Carl:
    Which means that morality has no ‘objective’ basis.

  • Matt wrote:
    As regards to the argument I misrepresent. I got the argument from the literature, specifically the discussions of relativism by Rachels, Pojman, Beckwith and Howard-Sydner and others, perhaps you can take it up with them.

    Carl
    I never said you misrepresent any argument. And I am not interested in reading these fools. I am interested in the arguments.

    I said that you do not “represent” the better form of the argument from diversity, which is not a priori at all. There is no circularity in the better argument from diversity.

    However, the argument is inconclusive on the other grounds I gave, which is why I would not pursue it.

    Matt wrote:
    I am inclined to agree that *if* you accept both Naturalism and the claim that moral properties are non natural moral properties are weird.

    Carl:
    One does not even have to accept Naturalism. On evidential proof alone, there is no evidence of any ‘thing’ called morality in existence. The rule of evidence is not some ancient book, but modern standards of evidence, whether naturalistic or not. Moral objectivism requires special pleading for things which cannot be demonstrated as having plausible existene.

    Morality has no existence. It is mere preference.

    Matt wrote:
    The weirdness objection applies only if you accept Naturalism, and I am inclined to say that if Naturalism does have this implication, if it implies that it’s not objectively wrong to rape and torture women for entertainment for example then so much the worse for naturalism.

    Carl:
    Yes – it is not objectively wrong to rape and torture women for entertainment. It is wrong for me, and my society, though.

    But your judgment of this action as “wrong” is itself only a whim. So, it would be only subjective to criticise moral relativism on this basis. Moreover, it is a consequentialist argument; moral objectivism isn’t factually correct just because you don’t like the consequences of the fact of moral relativism, is it?

  • Carl

    Your response to my argument I think sums up well the implausibility of relativism and the extreme lengths defenders of relativism need to go to justify their position.

    You assert that “it is not objectively wrong to rape and torture women for entertainment.” Just so those who read our exchange are clear here, your defence of relativism consists in *asserting* that if a society had a cultural practise that allowed men to rape women purely for entertainment then it would be permissible for men in that society to rape women for fun. If the women objected they would be mistaken in doing so. In fact you suggest that if they do object this is merely a “whim” of theirs. (silly women they should get over their whims and do the right thing by spreading their legs, presumably) I put to you and my readers that this is an absurd conclusion. If the only way a relativist can defend his position is to make unarged for assertions like this then that suggests strongly that relativism is an indefensible position.

    2. You content that I offer a “consequentialist argument;” and this is mistaken because “moral objectivism isn’t factually correct just because you don’t like the consequences of the fact of moral relativism, is it?” This response is flawed. My argument is not that relativism has consequences I don’t like. My argument is that that relativism entails false and or absurd conclusions and, yes, if a theory entails false or absurd conclusions that is a reason for rejecting it. The logical rule here is known as modus tollens. I strongly suggest that instead of dismissing the authors of various ethics textbooks as “fools” you read some such books and learn what consquentialism is because arguing that a position entails an absurd claim is not consquentialism.

    3. you have argued that belief in ‘objective morality’ asks” us to posit the existence of some ‘weird entity’,” Now contrary to what you claim in your last post this conclusion does require a commitment to some metaphysical position. To say something is weird is to at the least to say it’s very different from everything else that exists. To draw this conclusion then you will need to (i) have some idea of what type of things actually exist and also a belief that (ii) morality if it exists cannot be the same type of thing. In the absence of either assumption there is no basis for saying that “objective morality” is “weird”. If objective morals are no different from anything else that exists then you cannot claim that the existence of morality moral norms would be weird, unless you claim that everything is weird. In which case if weirdness is a reason to reject morality you should reject the existence of everything.

  • Matt wrote:
    Your response to my argument I think sums up well the implausibility of relativism and the extreme lengths defenders of relativism need to go to justify their position.

    Carl:
    While the ‘objectivist morality’ position requires the extreme position of positing a weird entity called ‘objective morals’, the relativist position requires no such unusual defence. What appears to you as “extreme lengths” is possibly only your inability to appreciate the position.

    Matt wrote:
    your defence of relativism consists in *asserting* that if a society had a cultural practise that allowed men to rape women purely for entertainment then it would be permissible for men in that society to rape women for fun. If the women objected they would be mistaken in doing so. In fact you suggest that if they do object this is merely a “whim” of theirs. (silly women they should get over their whims and do the right thing by spreading their legs, presumably) I put to you and my readers that this is an absurd conclusion. If the only way a relativist can defend his position is to make unarged for assertions like this then that suggests strongly that relativism is an indefensible position.

    Carl:
    Again, Matt has failed to come up with a logical argument against moral relativism. You can rant all you like about ‘absurdity’, but this is not a logical argument against relativism.

    Societies invent moral positions, like they invent clothes trends. They are entirely opinions, nothing more. One may base one’s opinion on some reasons, but in the end the basis is whim. What is unusual is Matt’s position, because he has to posit some ‘objective moral’ in addition to the explanation of morality as deriving from opinion.

    Our proscription of rape-for-entertainment is based on the choice of our society, nothing further. That is all that ethical relativism is saying. That is, there is no ‘objective ethic’ floating around in reality that makes our choice ‘objective’. Now, it may be the case that most societies, in order to remain stable, will protect most of their women from rape-for-entertainment. It is also the case that there are, in the majority of the countries of the world, a number of young women sold into prostitution, where their virginity is taken by rape-for-entertainment, and this is condoned and approved of by the powers that be. But whether a society approves or disapproves of such practices, it is no more than a choice. It is not magically ‘objective’, and Matt has no valid argument that must make it so (which is why he’s appealing to shock and horror examples, relying on emotive tactics rather than logic).

    Matt wrote:
    2. You content that I offer a “consequentialist argument”… My argument is not that relativism has consequences I don’t like. My argument is that that relativism entails false and or absurd conclusions and, yes, if a theory entails false or absurd conclusions that is a reason for rejecting it.

    Carl:
    You can rant all you want about “false” and “absurd” conclusions, but the fact remains: you have failed to identify even one “absurd” conclusion. Your emotive examples only show that, under moral relativism, what is “wrong” is that which is considered “wrong”. This is the very position of moral relativism.

    Further, at best, you only point to that which is hypothetically absurd. You say, if some society existed
    in which there were absurd consequences, then relative morality would be absurd. Well this is no different for objective morality: if some society existed in which there were objective absurd consequences, then objective morality would be absurd. Clearly such an argument has no force whatsoever.

    It is, however, an emotive consequentialist argument.

    Matt wrote:
    3. you have argued that belief in ‘objective morality’ asks” us to posit the existence of some ‘weird entity’,” Now contrary to what you claim in your last post this conclusion does require a commitment to some metaphysical position. To say something is weird is to at the least to say it’s very different from everything else that exists. To draw this conclusion then you will need to (i) have some idea of what type of things actually exist and also a belief that (ii) morality if it exists cannot be the same type of thing. In the absence of either assumption there is no basis for saying that “objective morality” is “weird”. If objective morals are no different from anything else that exists then you cannot claim that the existence of morality moral norms would be weird, unless you claim that everything is weird. In which case if weirdness is a reason to reject morality you should reject the existence of everything.

    Carl:
    Now, this is just getting desperate. You might live in an imaginary world where an ancient Semitic god still ‘exists’, but some of us have a better grip on reality. Such beliefs, including some magical ‘objective reality’ have been ecnomically cut from our modern picture of reality — because they serve no explanatory purpose for it. Such weird entities can only be maintained by special pleading.

    You have failed to come up with one argument against ethical relativism. But your own belief involves asserting something for which there is no trace or evidence. Pardon me if — in the absence of any valid argument to the contrary — I don’t give up my ethical relativism for a delusion.

  • Carl, you have flragrantly begged the question. You say:

    “2. The certain ethical standards do not hold across all cultures.”

    This is only the case if moral relativism is true. In the first place, you’re appealing to a highly exaggerated diversity, but more importantly, to assert that ethical standards do not HOLD across all cultures is to assume that thos estandards are not objective. If they are objective, then they do hold across all cultures and many members of those cultures are just mistaken. That you can be so clearly circular in your approach and then turn around and call other people confused is simply – well, confusing.