What does it mean for a moral belief to be true relative to a particular culture? An extreme relativist position might suggest that judging the moral or ethical judgments or acts of another person or group has no meaning at all, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory. One reason for this, of course, is that it is widely perceived to be a way of thinking that is on the rise. These philosophical ideas prepared the ground for moral relativism mainly by raising doubts about the possibility of demonstrating that any particular moral code is objectively correct. If a minority speaks out, it is wrong, as morals are dependent on the culture. What makes their position relativistic is their denial that there is any neutral, transcultural court of appeal to provide an objective justification for preferring one standpoint over another. The argument that relativists exaggerate the diversity among moral systems is also advanced in a subtler form, an early version of which can be found in the Dialogue that Hume appended to his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. But the difference between Western academics who are moral relativists and their fellow academics who criticize them is clearly not a deep difference in moral values. This idea is essential to just about any version of moral relativism. Thus, a society can be self-critical by noticing gaps between its practices and its ideals. Stace and Karl Popper, argue that if relativism does indeed imply universal tolerance, that this constitutes an objection to it, since some things—like oppressively intolerant moral systems—should not be tolerated (see section 4g below). The Greeks said nothing could induce them to do this. In light of such difficulties, contemporary defenders of descriptive relativism usually prefer a fairly modest, tempered version of the doctrine. These criticisms are related, as both accuse relativists of presupposing an oversimplified and outdated view of what a culture is. It does not even entail that objectivism is false. A well-known version of this has been defended by David Wong, who describes his position as “pluralistic relativism.”. But Hellenistic skepticism gave way to philosophy informed by Christianity, and moral relativism effectively became dormant and remained so throughout the period of Christian hegemony in Europe. The Finnish philosopher and anthropologist Edward Westermarck (1862 - 1939) was one of the first to formulate a detailed theory of Moral Relativism. A man should not have sex with his mother. Montaigne, Michel de. Textbooks often suggest that relativists argue from the plain fact that different cultures have different moral belief systems to a relativistic view of morality; but this is an oversimplification. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century it had become a commonplace among teachers of moral philosophy in the US that the default view of morality held by the majority of college students was some form of moral relativism. Relativists of this sort are not so impressed by the fact-value distinction. How does one prove that the intrinsic value of happiness should be the foundation of our moral judgments to someone who thinks that family honor is the most important value of all? From an objectivist or realist point of view, the phrase makes little sense since what determines the truth or falsity of a statement is whether or not it accords with objective reality. They all are likely to praise democracy and condemn discrimination. In “On Custom,” Montaigne compiles his own list of radically diverse mores to be found in different societies, and asserts that “the laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom.” (Montaigne, p. 83). But no one would suggest that these differences are explained by the absence of a single, objectively superior game that everyone should play. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 - 420 B.C.) If this is the case how has social progress come about? Descriptive relativism is put forward as an empirical claim based on evidence provided by anthropological research; hence it is most strongly associated with the work of anthropologists such as William Sumner, Ruth Benedict and Meville Herskovits. Regarding the second clause in the definition, moral philosophers from the time of Plato have sought to demonstrate the objective correctness (and hence the superiority) of a given moral outlook by showing how it conforms to God’s will, or corresponds to a metaphysical moral order, or is entailed by dictates of Reason, or accords with basic intuitions, or best meets the needs of human nature. It typically amounts to little more than a skepticism about objective moral truth, often expressed as the idea that beliefs and actions are not right or wrong per se, only right or wrong for someone. Whether or not meta-ethical relativism entails normative relativism is a major bone of contention. But critics of the policy see it as expressing a kind of cultural intolerance, just the sort of thing that relativism claims to counter. It is a prescriptive position adopted initially by many anthropologists reacting against the ethnocentrism characteristic of the colonial era. Depending on how the term is used, some philosophers see it as fitting more with moral realism and others more with moral relativism. So there will be nothing to criticize. There is a common core of shared values such as trustworthiness, friendship, and courage, along with certain prohibitions, such as those against murder or incest. The relativist thesis seems to be that in some sense the truth (or falsity) of a person’s moral beliefs is either determined by or constituted by their coherence (or lack of coherence) with the prevailing moral outlook in that person’s community. Prescriptivism, for instance, the view developed by R. M. Hare, acknowledges that moral statements can express emotional attitudes but sees their primary function as that of prescribing how people should behave. (ii) “Universal values” can mean moral values or norms that everyone ought to affirm. For example, some nomadic cultures have considered infanticide to be morally acceptable, while in other societies it is viewed as murder. It would not follow that everyone should embrace these values. Foot's work from the late 1970s to the 1990s. If they gained ascendancy over time, shaped by collective experience, then one could perhaps view them as the outcome of an implicit social contract, and in that sense to have some claim to rationality. The objection that relativists exaggerate cultural diversity is directed against descriptive relativism more than against moral relativism as defined above; but it has figured importantly in many debates about relativism. A good deal of the debate surrounding moral relativism has focused on its claim to exemplify and foster tolerance. Relativists who base their position on a sharp distinction between facts and values must work with two distinct notions of truth: factual claims are made true by correspondence to reality; moral claims are made true by cohering with or being entailed by the surrounding conceptual scheme. It went on to assert that “man is free only when he lives as his society defines freedom” (ibid. Similar claims can be found in the writings of Ruth Benedict and Edvard Westermarck. Relativizing truth to standpoints is a way of answering in advance the objection that relativism implies that the same sentence can be both true and false. The statement declared that: Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole (American Anthropologist, Vol. But she does not claim that she can prove that this normative standpoint is objectively superior to that of the culture outlawing homosexuality. Thus, a relativist might condemn laws prohibiting homosexuality in the name of such values as happiness, freedom, and equality. This extreme view is rarely, if ever, defended, since it seems reasonable to suppose that the affirmation of certain values—for instance, a concern for the wellbeing of the young– is necessary for any society to survive. Thus, according to the ethical or moral relativists, there is no objective right and wrong. Indeed, many of its leading contemporary champions from Franz Boas to Clifford Gertz have been anthropologists. Does that make a difference? Protagoras, who famously asserted that “man is the measure of all things,” seems to have embraced a wholesale relativism that extended to truth of any kind, but this view was uncommon. This line of attack appears compelling against normative relativism, the view that what goes on within a society should only be judged by the prevailing norms of that society. Extensive anthology of excerpts from classic texts and contemporary articles by leading participants in the debate about moral relativism. Almost everyone believes that moral progress can and does occur within a society. Thus, there is a circularity in the process of judging one's values according to one's values. Science came to be seen as offering value-neutral descriptions of an independently existing reality; moral claims, by contrast, came to be viewed by many as mere expressions of emotional attitudes. Why would culture change if culture is the moral … To them, the concept of rationality in question is characteristic of a particular time and place. Awareness of the existence of diverse moralities (a) casts doubt on the idea that there is a single true morality, and (b) encourages the idea that the morality of one’s own culture has no special status but is just one moral system among many. The idea was that moral beliefs and practices are bound up with customs and conventions, and these vary greatly between societies. Gilbert Harman, for instance, argues that when we say someone ought to do something, we imply that she has a “motivating reason”—that is, certain desires and intentions–to perform the act in question. According to the moral relativist, all such attempts fail, for they all rest on premises that belong to the standpoint being defended and need not be accepted by people who do not share that point of view. By this argument, Plato says that cultural moral relativism undercuts itself by allowing in it… There are also difficulties in putting a boundary on a "society" or "culture", especially as what people feel to be their social or cultural groupings may well not align with legal and national groupings, and a person holding "minority" moral views within their society or culture may consider their "culture" more aligned with that minority (e.g. It is the denial of this possibility that gives moral relativism a more radical edge and is responsible for much of the criticism it attracts. Plato also pointed out that much of what is believed to be fact is actually opinion. Moral philosophy has three branches. The early Sophist Greek philosopher Protagoras provides an early philosophical precursor to modern Moral Relativism in his assertion that "man is the measure of all things". (iii) The relativist’s advocacy of tolerance is morally misguided since not everything should be tolerated. But for relativists who do not do this, the problem will seem less pressing. But the absence of an objective truth does not explain this lack of convergence. And when that is the case, the relativist may accept that she cannot demonstrate the objective superiority of her views in a non question-begging way—that is, without making assumptions that those she is trying to persuade will reject. Therefore, it is important to first distinguish between some of the positions that have been identified or closely associated with moral relativism before setting out a definition that captures the main idea its adherents seek to put forward. One objection is that it is difficult to establish the relativist’s claims about moral diversity in an evaluatively neutral way; for the empirical researcher who asserts that a particular moral belief is representative of a culture will have to grant the opinions of some members of that culture authoritative status while ignoring or glossing over internal conflicts and ongoing cultural changes. But they might have different basic values; for instance, they may favor executing homosexuals in order to realize a certain vision of moral purity. In his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus catalogues the tremendous diversity to be found between cultures in the laws and customs relating to such things as dress, diet, treatment of the dead, and sexual relations, and concludes: “seeing so great a diversity of practices, the skeptic suspends judgment as to the natural existence of anything good or bad, or generally to be done” (Sextus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1, 14). Nor can moral relativism really claim to explain the diversity of moral systems, although this claim is sometimes made on its behalf. Relativists can simply accept that the obligation to be tolerant has only relative validity or scope. A related but slightly different concept is that of Moral Pluralism (or Value Pluralism), the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental, and yet in conflict with each other (e.g. But neither scenario would falsify moral relativism as defined above, since it is not an empirical theory about anyone’s actual beliefs or practices; it is, rather, a view about the status of moral judgments and the limitations on how they can be supported. The particular circumstances surrounding the action alter its character and hence our appraisal of it. Listen to Paul Boghossian on Moral Relativism. Various ancient philosophers also questioned the idea of an absolute standard of morality. Clearly, no one who believes in the absolute authority of divine law or the intrinsic value of a rational will would be likely to embrace relativism. God informs humans of these commands by implanting us with moral intuitions or revealing these commands in scripture. The English term “relativism” came into usage only inthe 19th Century. However, the attitude labeled “moral relativism” by the pope and others who worry about the moral health of contemporary society is not a well defined or rigorously defended philosophical position. The path seems to be more along the following lines. Melvelle Herskovits, for instance, affirms that “… in practice, the philosophy of relativism is a philosophy of tolerance” (Cultural Relativism, p. 31). Given that this is so, which set of norms and values are we supposed to refer to when judging a belief or practice? The fact of diversity—if it is a fact, which some question (see section 4a below)—does not logically entail moral relativism. (ii) Moral relativists inconsistently posit a principle of tolerance as a universal obligation. The motive behind it is to avoid arrogance and promote tolerance. He distinguished between matters of fact and matters of value, and suggested that moral judgments consist of the latter because they do not deal with verifiable facts obtained in the world, but only with our sentiments and passions. It does, however, undoubtedly make people more receptive to a relativistic outlook. Gilbert Harman is one of the best-known defenders of moral relativism along these lines. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century it had become a commonplace among teachers of moral philosophy in the US that the default view of morality held by the majority of college students was some form of moral relativism. The 18th Century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume is often considered the father both of modern Emotivism and of Moral Relativism, although he himself did not claim to be a relativist. This is one reason some would give for viewing moral relativism as an instance of a more general relativism that sees the truth of any statement as a function of its coherence with a broader theoretical framework. This is, in effect, another version of the charge that moral relativism entails an “anything goes” attitude that countenances obvious wrongs in other societies such as religious persecution or sexual discrimination. To those living within that society, the concept of moral rightness can only mean conformity to the local mores. Relativists of this stripe continue to insist that all moralities are in the same boat insofar as none can be conclusively proved in some absolute sense to be true or false, right or wrong, or better than any other available moral outlook. But those carrying out infanticide may be motivated by the knowledge that they lack the resources to support the child. Ancient India. The term cultural relativism is sometimes also used to denote the corollary methodological principle that social scientists, if they wish their work to have scientific status, should describe and analyze what goes on in the cultures they are studying, carefully eschewing any normative appraisal of what they observe. Greece, but they remained largely dormant until the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, they cannot be simply making the banal point that someone belonging to that culture who rejects the belief in question is in the minority, or is perceived to be mistaken by the majority. Relativism is sometimes identified (usually by its critics) as the thesis that all points of view are equally valid. But the expression “universal values” is ambiguous, and how it is understood affects the kind of relativism that it calls into question. It does not deny outright the truth-value or justification of moral statements (as some forms of Moral Anti-Realism do), but affirms relative forms of them. (iii) A third option for relativists is to embrace what might be called (following Richard Rorty) an “ethnocentric” position. But within the parameters imposed by the common human condition, significant variation in moral outlook is possible. In France, a law was passed in 2011 banning face veils that some Muslim women view as required by Islam. p. 543). Possibly those she is criticizing might share her values, in which case they may be open to persuasion. Hume was not a relativist, but his arguments helped support elements of relativism. Moral relativism is the view that ethical standards, morality, and positions of right or wrong are culturally based and therefore subject to a person's individual choice. In his famous essay “On Cannibals,” written around 1578, Montaigne describes the lives of so-called barbarians in the new world, noting their bravery in battle, the natural simplicity of their morals, and their uncomplicated social structure. But if there is no neutral point of view from which such changes can be appraised, how can one argue that they constitute progress? This is a normative universalism. The 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (… A rather flippant criticism is often leveled at Moral Relativism, that it is logically impossible, because, by saying "all things are relative", one is stating an absolute and therefore a logical contradiction. In principle, the standpoint in question could be narrowed to that of a single individual, in which case, the relativism becomes a form of moral subjectivism. The most head-on rejection of ethical realism is perhaps the sort of moral error theory defended by J. L. Mackie.
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