Moral Relativism

Discussion: moral relativism
Ethics is the study of morality. Two core questions in ethics that are related to each other are: (i) Is anything really right or wrong? (ii) If some things are really right and some are really wrong, what makes them right or wrong, i.e., what is the foundation of morality?

Most ethicists, and most people generally, think default answer to (i) is “yes”. For example, it seems wrong to torture babies merely for entertainment. What about (ii), though: what makes it true that (say) torturing for babies for is fun wrong? We’ll be exploring some proposals for an answer to (ii) in this unit.

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One popular answer to (ii) is that the personal codes of conduct of individuals or cultures are the entities in the world that make (e.g.) torturing babies for fun wrong. These are versions of moral relativism. Individual relativism (aka ethical subjectivism) is the view that right and wrong is grounded in each individual’s code of conduct they have set for themselves, while cultural relativism is the view that right and wrong is grounded in each culture’s code.

Most ethicists think moral relativism is false in both of its forms. Many of the reasons are discussed in one of our assigned readings: James Rachels’ paper, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”. For example, one standard objection is the moral progress objection. According to this objection, if moral relativism is true, then moral progress is impossible. For moral progress requires that one’s moral code can improve. But if it can be improved, then there must be some moral standard that transcends individual and cultural codes, and toward which one’s code can get closer. But if moral relativism is true, then by definition, there is no such standard. And if not, then while one can change one’s code, one can’t change it for the better. But at least on the face of it, some culture’s codes have made genuine improvements. For example, we’ve moved from a slavery culture to a culture that opposes slavery; women now have the right to vote and hold jobs; etc. But if so, then that seems to be a data point against moral relativism.

Students sometimes have trouble following this criticism, so I’ll take a moment to unpack it to make sure we all get the point. If moral relativism is true, then morality is merely a matter of living up to one’s moral code (i.e., the set of beliefs and practices an individual or society chooses), no matter what code you or your culture has. So, for example, consider two cultures: Culture 1 and Culture 2. In Culture 1, it’s part their moral code to be honest, keep your promises, and not harm others. Therefore, according to moral relativism, if you do those things, then you’re an ethical citizen. Now consider Culture 2. In Culture 2, it’s part of their moral code to practice genocide, sexual abuse, and kicking puppies just for fun. Again, if moral relativism is true, then if its citizens do that, they’re just as ethical as the citizens of Culture 1.

Perhaps that’s bad enough of a problem for moral relativism. But so far, we’re not to the moral progress problem. To illustrate the moral progress problem, suppose Culture 2 decided to change it’s moral code, so that it’s just like Culture 1’s moral code. Has Culture 2 improved their moral code — i.e., have they made moral progress? According to moral relativism, the answer is no. All they’ve done is changed one arbitrary moral code for another. For according to moral relativism, whatever you or your culture stipulates to be moral IS moral. For according to moral relativism, there’s nothing deeper to morality than conformity to whatever moral code you or your culture happens to make up.

But the problem is that we have strong, recalcitrant intuitions that Culture 2 has improved their moral code by revising it to Culture 1’s code. How can this be? There must be some standard of morality that transcends belief and culture toward which Culture 2 is getting closer. And if that’s right, then moral relativism is a false ethical theory. In any case, that’s the moral progress objection.

For this post, read Rachels’ “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” and do the following:

(i) Explain one of his criticisms of moral relativism.

(ii) State whether you think the criticism is a good one, briefly explaining why.

Discussion: Utilitarianism

As you learned from reading Mill, utilitarianism is the view that moral right and wrong is a matter of what produces (or fails to produce) the greatest net amount of good (such as happiness or pleasure) among those it affects. However, you also learned that a number of criticisms can be raised against utilitarianism. So, for example, utilitarianism seems to have the implication that (for example) it’d be morally permissible to cause or allow a person to be abused or neglected if doing so would lead to the greatest net happiness among those affected by the action. For this discussion post, do the assigned readings for the unit, and then, do two of the following:

(i) Apply one of the ways in which a utilitarian might reply to this sort of objection to the case from the Le Guin reading.

Discussion: Kant’s Ethic

Kant famously argued that when it comes to moral action, the only thing valuable in itself is a good will. That is, right and wrong is a matter of whether our actions conform to true moral principles, and whether they’re performed with proper motives (i.e., doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. Example: taking care of your grandmother because she’s a person, and not because it will raise the chances of getting into her will). Therefore, contrary to utilitarianism, consequences are irrelevant to moral right and wrong.

For this post, read the selections from Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and then do at least two of the following:

(i) Explain one of the reasons why you agree or disagree with Kant that consequences and other factors are irrelevant to the value of our actions.

Link to the third discussion question: For more information on Moral Relativism checkout this:

Moral Relativism

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