2: Is Morality Relative to One's Culture?

Objectives

Outside of a Housing Project in Detroit
February 1942

  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as
    universal, objective, belief, and value
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with
    cultural relativism
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.
  • Reflect upon ways of living responsibly in a world where people have diverse ethical beliefs

I. Illustrating Cultural Relativism

Key Terms

Cultural Relativism
Universal
Objective
Belief
Value

  • A. King Darius and funeral rites of the ancient world
  • B. Customs of the Eskimo

II. The Position of Cultural Relativism

  • There is no universal truth
  • To call a custom correct or incorrect would be impossible
  • Challenges objectivity and universality in moral truths
  • 5 claims made by cultural relativists
    1. Different societies have different moral codes
    2. A society’s moral code determines what is right and wrong
    3. There are no objective standards to judge moral codes
    4. The moral code of our society has no special status
    5. It is arrogant to judge other cultures; we should be tolerant
  • These claims are independent of each other
  • #2 and #5 contradict each other
  • Cultural Relativism’s response to the contradiction is that the norms of a culture apply within the bounds of the culture itself.
  • When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Ruth Benedict

Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.

III. Cultural Differences Argument

  • Premise: Different cultures have different moral codes
  • Conclusion: Therefore there is no objective truth in morality. Right and wrong are matters of opinion
  • Is this sound?
  • No, because the conclusion does not follow from the premise.
  • It is possible that something is objectively wrong and the culture is simply mistaken in their belief that it is right.

IV. What Follows from Cultural Relativism?

  • 1) We cannot say the customs of other societies are morally inferior
    • This applies in matters of opinion and human rights
    • What about governments that suppress free speech?
  • 2) We could no longer criticize the code of our own society
    • Each society can do no wrong
    • But few people think our society is perfect. We see room for improvement
  • 3) The idea of moral progress is called into doubt
    • Cultural changes cannot be seen as progress
    • Revolutions and social changes for women and minorities contradict this conclusion

V. The Difference between Belief and Value

  • Often the cultural difference lies in belief
    • Culture 1 believes cows may hold the souls of humans and do not eat them
    • Culture 2 does not believe this and eats cow
    • Both cultures hold the same value that it is wrong to eat people
  • Consider why there is a cultural difference first
    • Case study: Eskimos
    • Nomadic lifestyle
    • High mortality rate for males
    • Drastic measures to ensure the group’s survival

VI. Values Shared by Most Cultures

  • Most cultures are protective of their children
  • Most cultures favor truth telling
  • Most cultures prohibit murder
  • Universal moral values are necessary rules for a society to exist
  • What is frequently at odds are exceptions to the moral rules

VII. Revisiting the Five Claims

  1. Different societies have different moral codes
    • True, but we share some values and cultural differences often have to do with belief, not value.
  2. A society’s moral code determines what is right and wrong
    • Not always. Sometimes a society is just wrong.
  3. There are no objective standards to judge moral codes
    • Unless the moral principle is not tied to a culture, but instead an ethical precept such as it matters whether a practice hurts or helps the people it affects
  4. The moral code of our society has no special status
    • It is one among many, but it could still be judged better or worse
  5. It is arrogant to judge other cultures; we should be tolerant
    • Yes, but we can’t take this idea to extremes; some things shouldn’t be tolerated.

VIII. Reflections: What Did We Learn?

  • Warns us about the danger of assuming all our practices are based on an absolute rational standard
  • Reminds us we should keep an open mind