Ethical Relativism 2 Kinds of Relativism: ethical relativism and social / cultural relativism

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Ethical Relativism
2 Kinds of Relativism: ethical relativism and social / cultural relativism
Social / cultural relativism
Descriptive, anthropological thesis:
Begins with a recognition that different societies have different moral beliefs, different beliefs about what is good and bad, just and unjust, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious, and about what ought to be done and ought not to be done. They subscribe to and live under different moral codes. There is moral disagreement in the world, between societies.
William Graham Sumner defends cultural or social relativism (a.k.a. conventionalism). He traced how, in every society, their “folkways” become over time their ‘mores’. Their ‘mores’ become their ‘morality’. Their morality is shaped by their ‘ethos’ and life conditions, and ‘ethos’ become their ‘ethics’. There is no independent standard of good and bad, right and wrong, to apply to a society’s mores themselves.
Right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious are relative to, and determined by, social beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious
Moral judgments are a matter of social preference.

X is right = df X is approved of in our society.

Moral statements are at most true for a particular society.

Sumner: “The tradition is its own warrant” and “whatever is, is right”.

Social Relativism / Conventionalism:

  1. Diversity thesis

  2. Dependency thesis

C. There are no objective moral standards that apply to all people everywhere.
Supposed attractions of conventionalism:

  1. fit with observed fact of variability

  2. fit with social nature of morality

  3. supports toleration

Allows us to criticize our own or other societies’ moral codes on grounds (a) of internal consistency, and (b) lack of integrity and failure to live up to professed principles. But that is all.


  1. it does not square with our practice of how we use morality (moral argument, inquiry, doubt, discourse, education)

  2. would make it conceptually confused to praise or criticize other societies on moral grounds

  3. we cannot coherently dissent, on moral grounds, from the conventional morality of our society; minority moral positions would always be wrong

  4. the ideas of moral ‘progress’ and moral ‘reform’ would make no sense

  5. the authority of morality ungrounded

  6. practical difficulty of discovering what a society’s moral position is

Ethical Relativism
Ethical relativism in a normative thesis: it says that either (a) whatever each individual thinks is right, or (b) whatever a society accepts is right. It is normative rather than descriptive in the sense that it is a theory about how we ought to behave. We all ought to do either (a) whatever each of us thinks is right, or (b) whatever our society thinks is right. I have a moral obligation to do something just in case (a) I accept that I have such an obligation, or (b) my society thinks I have that obligation.
There are thus two kinds of ethical relativism: individual and social. Between social and individual ethical relativism, one must make a choice, because they are contradictory theses.
Moral principles are true or valid only relative to some culture or group (conventionalism) or individual (subjectivism).
Individual Ethical Relativism: Action X is right for person P iff P thinks that X is what she should do.
Social Ethical Relativism: Action X is right for person P iff P’s society thinks X is what she should do.
Does the fact of moral disagreement support either individual or social ethical relativism?
If we had complete moral agreement, would that refute either individual or social ethical relativism?
Ethical Relativism pairs with SUBJECTIVE meta-ethical theories.
The most common forms of subjectivism are emotivism and prescriptivism
When we make a moral judgment, we are really just apprehending a feeling we have, a positive or negative feeling about the object of our judgment, a positive or adverse reaction we are experiencing. When we say X is wrong, we are really reporting something about ourselves, not something objective about X itself.
This view gives rise to an expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language. Moral judgments are just

  • statements of personal preference or emotional reaction

  • expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour

  • expressions of imperatives

Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for me. Moral language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth valued.

Our moral feelings will, of course, be heavily influenced by how we are raised and by what our societies think is morally good and right.
Individual Ethical Relativism or Subjectivism has all of the same problems as cultural or social relativism.
And it seems to get the explanation backward. It says X is right because I approve of X or want X to be done. But surely I approve of X and want it to be done because X is right and ought to be done. My feelings are responses to the moral qualities that X has, rather than the other way around.
Social Ethical Relativism
What is right is whatever my society thinks is right. I ought to do what my society says I ought to do.
The subjectivism of social or cultural ethical relativism is just what you would expect.

Its expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language says that moral judgments are just

  • statements of social preferences or emotional reactions

  • expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour found in one’s society

  • expressions of the imperatives one’s social groups want to be followed

Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for my social group. Moral language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth valued.

Has all the same problems as social or cultural relativism.
No relativist normative theory fits the facts of our moral practices, or provides the kind of authoritative action guide we take morality to be.
Meta-ethical Relativism
William Shaw distinguishes between met-ethical relativism and normative relativism. We have so far been talking about normative ethical relativism.
Meta-ethical relativism: there is no rational way of justifying competing ethical judgments, no standard of objective validity or certification for ethical beliefs and opinions.
Meta-ethical relativism does not entail normative ethical relativism. But ethical relativism does entail meta-ethical relativism.
Shaw considers two competing meta-ethical theories, theories that compete with meta-ethical relativism as the right meta-ethical theory. (I don’t think it’s right to treat Emotivism as a meta-ethical theory on par with Naturalism and Intuitionism, so I have changed the presentation a bit).
Relativism contrasts with Universalism, which is related to Objectivism. Ethical Objectivism: At least one universally valid or true moral principle exists.
Shaw considers two meta-ethical theories that could support the claim that there are objective moral facts which we can know, facts that provide a standard of objective validity or certification for moral beliefs and opinions. The meta-ethical theories he considers are Naturalism and Intuitionism.
Moral terms like ‘right’ and ‘good’ can be defined in terms of natural, non-ethical properties. Some influential suggestions have included ‘right’ is ‘what promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and ‘justice’ is ‘whatever promotes equality between the genders or races’.

What looks like moral disagreement is really just disagreement about natural facts, like what does serve the greatest happiness (a welfare state or a minimalist state) or what will promote gender or racial equality (e.g., affirmative action).

The strategy is to transform moral questions into factual questions. This is done by providing natural translations, definitions or conceptual analysis to make moral claims susceptible to normal modes of assessment and justification.
Shaw says this is unsuccessful because even if we all agree on some translation, we can still ask if our concepts are correct, if our translations are the best available, etc. So this does not undermine Meta-ethical Realism.
Naturalism seems to commit the naturalistic fallacy, and fall prey to the open question argument, ala G.E. Moore.
Moral properties exist and cannot be reduced to non-moral natural ones. Moral properties like goodness are simple unanalyzable properties, like ‘yellow’. Moore: yellow / good. We have direct apprehension of simple moral properties like goodness by moral intuitions / moral sense. Intuitions are the basis of our moral epistemology and provide the means for certification of moral claims.
Though intuitionism is phenomenologically strong, the fact that different people’s intuitions can and do conflict means that intuitionism cannot provide ultimate justification for moral beliefs. It leaves Meta-ethical Relativism unanswered.
Shaw’s conclusion
Moral reasoning, persuasion, education, criticism, dispute, debate and justification all suppose there are reasons for and against different moral judgments, and only a restricted range of reasons at that. But all of these activities take place within a moral system, within a moral practice.
The meta-ethicist wants to know whether the system as a whole, the practice itself, can be rationally defended or criticized. She wants to know: is the moral system in question itself justified, objectively true or good? Shaw denies that moral systems are objectively justified, but he is also not very worried about this. He accepts meta-ethical relativism. Moral values and principles are not part of the fabric of the universe, waiting to be discovered. Rather, they are laid down, posited, adopted, because they are necessary for our communal living. Morals are constructed for a purpose, to help us live well together. (Analogy with law; contrast between natural law and legal positivism.)
This constructivist view allows us to accommodate the strengths of the naturalism, intuitionist and emotivist views: each captures something true about moral practices and the role moral codes play in societies.
The meta-ethical relativist now asks: can a given code or practice be justified, or be rationally preferred to another?
There are some requirements internal to a moral system or code (just like a legal system). In order for it to be action-guiding, morality must contain certain general rules of conduct and be internally consistent. It must be able to secure wide-spread support, to be teachable, and to be such that people can comply with it.
Whether equality, impartiality, universalism, liberty, respect for others, benevolence, etc. can be deduced from the logical structure of moral codes themselves then becomes a live question. What does the concept of morality, the practice of moral discourse, etc. tell us about the content of morality?
Because law is created by us for a reason, for a purpose, we can evaluate a legal code, or compare codes, or criticize components of codes, on the grounds that they serve or further our purposes, or thwart or setback interests we are trying to protect or promote or attain.
There are limits to this procedure: there will still be some arbitrariness, because more than one way can be equally good at achieving our goals, or anyway good enough. Morality will have to fulfill its functions under different circumstances (times, places, material resources, technological advancement, etc.), and so there will be moral variation between societies. Morality can, however, reflect ‘the wisdom of the ages’: our knowledge of what has worked or failed in the past can inform our judgments now. This allows diversity within a context that makes objective moral judgments true or false.
While there may be some room for disagreement, the core of morality will be fixed and the criteria for assessment and moral judgment settled. That is all the objectivity we need.
We can try to eliminate even that surviving relativism through (i) Rawlsian choice behind the veil of ignorance, and (ii) Brandtian choice under full information plus desires cleaned up by cognitive psychotherapy.
Application: Joseph Fins, “Encountering Diversity: Medical Ethics and Pluralism”
Religion in pluralistic societies. Fin says we should respect the wishes of the patient: determined by expressed wishes, inferred wishes, or best interests of the patient.
Note how false is Cardozo’s general description of the ‘right to determine what shall be done with [one’s] own body’. (p. 34) Many limitations on this right exist.
My View is Very Similar
Even if we cannot provide an ultimate justification for ethics (and we can never provide such for first principles anyway), we can still do normative ethics. We can still build and evaluate normative theories. Some tests for adequacy are these:

  1. We can start by examining what are clear cases of right and wrong action. An adequate moral theory will explain why clear cases are clear and help decide controversial ones. If a theory permits clearly wrong behaviour, this would speak against it.

  1. We can also assist moral science by engaging in philosophical analysis by:

  • Analyzing individual moral terms like “right”, “ought” and “good”

  • Analyzing the meaning that ethical statements have: are they true or false, or do they play some other role in language (e.g., factual vs interrogative vs imperatives in non-moral language)

  • Enhancing clarity by identifying and eliminating ambiguities in moral arguments (e.g. human being); by bringing to light tacit scope restrictions in moral principles (it is wrong to kill – plants, murderers); discovering the general principles behind particular judgments; postulating more general principles from particular ones; discovering which principles are basic and which derived.

  1. We can examine normative theories to see whether they satisfy the requirements of logic, in particular whether they are consistent. (If not consistent, then it is impossible for them to be true.)

  2. We do not insist that only the explicit commitments of a theory be consistent, but also the conclusions or implications of the principles and beliefs it contains (logical closure). We use philosophy and logic to determine what those implications are.

  3. If those implications violate clear cases this too speaks against the principles or beliefs involved.

  4. We can insist on the plausibility of any non-moral claims a theory depends on to support its derived principles.

  5. We can ask whether the deduction from principle and fact to derived principle is itself valid.

  6. Since moral theories are supposed to tell people how they ought to behave, they must meet a standard of practicality: ought implies can.

We can employ these standards of adequacy in evaluating competing theories even if objective justification of ethical principles is not possible. Because objective criticism is possible, particularly of principles comprising theories of ethics, philosophical investigation is still fruitful.

A Functional Test:
Morality is practical. It directs behaviour. If it is justified, it directs behaviour toward a good end. Why do we have moral rules and principles; what is the point of morality? To allow us to better live together. So another test is this: Do the proposed rules and principles serve the interests of individuals living together?

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