Not an Essay, but a forum thread. Freshman level class. “1. Is Christian ethics relativistic or absolutist? Explain your answer. 2. What, if any, are the differences between ethical relativism and the subjective aspects of Christian ethics? For question 1, answer whether Christian ethics is relativistic or absolutist. First, you should define relativism and absolutism. Don’t simply re-state the reading, but provide an explanation of relativism and absolutism using your own words but also showing that you did the reading and understand the issues. Present the strengths and weaknesses of relativism and how these compare to absolutism. Here you should bring into play the arguments that are discussed in the assigned reading in chapter two of our textbook, Moral Reasoning. You should also incorporate the introduction from our Biblical Ethics textbook. You must read these chapters carefully. Some of the arguments for relativism presented in Moral Reasoning are eventually rejected as fallacious. The more cogent arguments are not presented until the second half of the chapter, where the author sides with the overwhelming majority of ethicists in concluding that ethical relativism is false. You may also read ahead to chapters 8 and 9 in Moral Reasoning, where the author presents a Christian ethic, and you may also consult outside sources. Whichever side you take on the issue, please treat both sides with respect. For question 2, explain the differences between ethical relativism and the subjective elements in Christian ethics. In addition to the textbooks and academic sources, you are encouraged to incorporate important biblical passages such as Romans 14-15. ” Here are the sources: (Moral Reasoning: An Intentional Approach to Distinguishing Right from Wrong; Jones) Here’s a little chapter from the textbook to cite. Have you ever had anyone tell you, “Well, that may be right for you, but it’s not right for me”? It could be that the view underlying this statement is ethical relativism. Ethical relativisms come in various forms, but the common thread that binds them together is the idea that what is actually right and wrong can vary from one person or group of people to another. While this has never been the dominant view in the West, it gained ground throughout the 20th century and with the entrance of Postmodernism into public consciousness it has become a major factor in Western culture. If ethical relativism is true, then the approach that we must take to determining what is morally right will be very different from the approach that we would take if relativism is not true. Hence it is very important to treat this issue near the beginning of a book on metaethics. One type of relativism is essentially epistemological in nature. It argues that moral judgements are completely subjective; that is, it holds that there is no possible way to be objective about morality. This view is called “moral subjectivism.”10 It may at first seem strange to the reader who has never encountered it, but it’s not so odd: after all, we have no problem saying that what kind of food tastes best, what kind of music sounds best, and what kind of painting looks best are completely subjective issues. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as they say. Essentially the moral subjectivist is saying that morality is also a matter of personal taste or preference. One person prefers a society in which taxes are high in order to provide social benefits for even the neediest people in that society, while another person prefers a society in which both taxes and social benefits are minimal in the belief that this will result in a thrifty and industrious working class. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages to both of these approaches; perhaps which is best is simply a matter of taste. That is what the subjectivist would argue, anyway. Another type of relativism is “cultural relativism.” This is the view that what is right or wrong is determined by your culture, by the society in which you live. The culture of the United States values independence, self- reliance, resourcefulness, and the Protestant work ethic (among other things). A cultural relativist would say that what is right in our context is what is in accord with these values. Therefore a socio-economic approach that tends to be in opposition to high taxes and broad social benefits is the more ethical option in the US. In contrast, Chinese culture (even prior to the ascent of Chinese communism) values the whole above the parts, seeing humanity as an ascending hierarchy the preservation and flourishing of which is the greatest good. Hence the family unit is of more importance than the individuals who make up the family, the village is of more importance than the families that make up the village, and the state is of more importance than the villages that make up the state. But that which benefits the state tends to benefit the village, and that which benefits the village tends to benefit the family, and that which benefits the family tends to benefit the individual. And acting in a self-sacrificial way in order to benefit the next superior unit can actually be what is in the best interest of the unit that is sacrificing. This, according to the cultural relativist, explains why a socio-economic approach that supports high taxes and broad social benefits is the more ethical option in China. Many, many examples of cultural relativism can be given. In some indigenous cultures women wear no shirts and this causes no scandal. It doesn’t cause men to lust after them; in fact, men don’t even notice. However, if a woman walks across the campus of a university in North America with her upper body unclothed, that would probably be more than merely a faux pas. It would be immoral, for it would both contradict the mores11 of American culture and potentially cause lustful thoughts in the minds of some who see her. But in the USA it is common for women to wear short skirts, halter tops, and to swim in public wearing swim suits that cover very little of their bodies. This is accepted in the American culture, but can you imagine what would happen if a woman were to dress that way in public in Saudi Arabia? What Americans take to be moral is not the same as what people in other parts of the world take to be moral. And here’s the kicker: each moral system – be it in an indigenous culture, in North America, in China, or in Saudi Arabia – works for the people living therein. According to cultural relativism, each society or culture has its own system of moral values that in effect determines what is morally right and wrong in that society. Cultural relativism is more metaphysical than is moral subjectivism, which is more epistemological in nature. That means that cultural relativism is not merely talking about what we perceive as being right and wrong (remember that epistemology has to do with how we know things) but rather what actually is right and wrong (metaphysics has to do with the actual nature of things, not simply our perceptions of them). According to cultural relativism, each culture or society actually determines what is right or wrong for those living in that culture or society. If your culture says that something is wrong, then, according to this view, it is immoral for you to do it. Arguments for Relativism Why would someone think that morality is relative? Well, we’ve already seen some examples of the sort of evidence that leads some people to this conclusion. Some take the wide diversity of ethical systems and moral convictions found throughout the world as evidence that there are no universal moral truths. This has been called the argument from the “diversity thesis.” The diversity thesis affirms that there are no moral principles that are held by all people (there are no “universals”). Based on this evidence, relativists draw two conclusions: 1. Moral values are cultural constructs, and 2. There are no moral absolutes. (A moral absolute is an ethical principle that is binding on all people rather than just the people in a specific culture or society.) Whether relativists are correct that there are no universal moral truths is open to debate,12 but they are obviously right that there is a great deal of diversity on moral issues. However, even if the denial of moral universals can be sustained, many ethicists are concerned that the argument from the diversity thesis to relativism is a non sequitur.13 It seems that the problem here is an unfortunate conflation14 of the concepts of “universal” and “absolute.” The former refers, as previously stated, to a moral value that is acknowledged by all people – a value that occurs universally throughout the human race. There may not be any universals, but that doesn’t necessarily show that there are no absolutes – no ethical principles or values that should occur universally throughout the human race. For example, a moral value held by at least some societies is that it is wrong to torture innocent people. This may not be a universal, for there may be some who think that it is acceptable to torture innocent people. But perhaps those who think torture is OK are simply mistaken, and perhaps it really is wrong to torture innocent people. If that is the case, then even though “thou shall not torture innocent people” is not a universal (for it is not universally accepted) it is still an absolute. Universals and absolutes are not the same thing, and proving that the former do not exist does not prove the nonexistence of the latter. This, of course, does not prove that there actually are absolutes. It simply shows that disproving the existence of universals – if that can be done – does not also disprove the existence of absolutes. Those who maintain that relativism is mistaken should go on to give reasons for believing that there really are ethical absolutes. Can that be done? Well, at the very least it can be stated that there are some actions that are very difficult to conceive as not being absolutes. For example, could it ever be immoral to “love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself,” as Jesus put it? If not, then this principle (or these two principles, if you prefer) would be a positive ethical absolute. Can you imagine a time when it would ever be right to torture a child simply for the fun of it? If not, then this seems like a strong candidate for a negative ethical absolute (a moral prohibition). Now let me return to the first conclusion that the relativist draws from the diversity thesis: moral values are cultural constructs. A “cultural construct” is a belief, value, or tradition that is created by and becomes part of a particular culture. When someone asserts that morals are cultural constructs she is saying that morals don’t exist independently of culture but instead are created by a culture, perhaps unconsciously over a long period of time in response to certain events that take place in that culture or certain needs of the people in that culture. For example, a cultural relativist might point out that for most of the known history of the human race owning slaves was not considered immoral, but today slavery is widely considered immoral. She would then argue that contemporary culture has developed a moral value that was absent in earlier cultures: human freedom. Once again the relativist has hit on some truth. There certainly are things that we consider moral and immoral today that were not considered moral or immoral at other times. In fact, there are quite a few such things, and some of them are very significant – equal rights for women and minorities, for example. But the underlying argument, that the diversity thesis shows that moral values are cultural constructs, seems to commit the very same fallacy that is committed when the relativist uses the diversity thesis to argue that there are no ethical absolutes. Both arguments appear to rely on conflation. In this case what is conflated are the concepts of moral values and ethical absolutes. In essence the relativist is overlooking the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics. The term “moral values” connotes what people believe is right or wrong: their opinions. The term “ethical absolutes,” on the other hand, refers to what actually is right or wrong independent of what people think. If ethical absolutism is correct, then binding moral principles do exist (in some fashion – we’ll discuss this in a later chapter), regardless of what people believe. You see, the fact that there are a great many opinions about what is right and wrong does not necessarily mean that all (or even several) of the opinions are equally true. (It would be strange if, every time there was widespread disagreement on a subject, the disagreement would be seen as evidence that all of the disputants are equally correct, wouldn’t it?) Hence for the diversity thesis to be used as evidence for relativism either the absence of absolutes must be presupposed (which would beg the question15) or some additional premise or evidence must be added. One additional piece of evidence that is often thought to be relevant is the observation that those who hold to absolutism seem to have a tendency to be intolerant of those who disagree with them on moral issues. The basic line of reasoning is simple: everyone has a right to his or her own opinion, and therefore people ought to tolerate those who hold to opinions that diverge from their own; absolutism seems to cause people to be intolerant of those whose opinions so diverge; hence absolutism is incompatible with the principle that people ought to be tolerant of others opinions. Therefore absolutism should be rejected. 16 Of course, we all want our opinions to be tolerated by others (or at least most of the time we do – though if we’ve made a blatant or critical mistake we might not). It would be hypocritical for us to want others to tolerate our opinions but to think that we don’t need to tolerate the opinions of others. Hence, at least prima facie,17 tolerance seems to be worth preserving and therefore doctrines like absolutism that undermine tolerance should be viewed with suspicion. However, with a little reflection a person quickly realizes that the exception mentioned above is actually rather significant, for it encompass a wide range of possible beliefs. For example, very few would argue that we should tolerate the opinions of Nazis wanting to resume the Holocaust or the terrorist belief that attacks on innocent bystanders are a viable way to advance a cause. In fact, the entire legal system seems to be predicated on the assumption that society has the right to limit or even prohibit the practice of many beliefs (the belief that I can drive on public roads at any speed that I want to, that I can take what I want from others without paying, etc.).
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