Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ethical Relativism: An Outline and Critique

* My lecture notes for my class on Ethics and Moral Reasoning when we discussed ethical relativism.  My discussion relied heavily on Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl's Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.

Relativism: Three different kinds of moral relativism

1.     Cultural or descriptive relativism

a.     “Society Does Relativism”—this is a descriptive claim

b.     Different cultures seem to have differing moral values.

                                               i.     Based off the work of anthropologists

                                              ii.     (Examples)

c.      “Proponents of Society Does Relativism take the differences in moral opinions between cultures as an argument for relativism over moral objectivism.  Since each culture has a different morality, none is justified in claiming that its own brand of morality is correct.  Therefore, there is no objective morality nor any moral absolutes.  Morality is relative.”[1]

d.     Proponent: William Graham Sumner Folkways (1906)

                                               i.     “Sumner makes three observations to support his view.  First, he observes that each culture has a unique set of moral values.

                                              ii.     Second, he claims these moral values are generated by the natural influence of pain and pleasure as people seek to satisfy their base wants and desires.  The values create a complex system of customs that reflect notions of decency, duty, propriety, rights, respect, reverence, and so on, and regulate culture for the general welfare.  Laws are enacted as mechanical, utilitarian devices to enforce the most vital mores.

                                            iii.     Third, Sumner argues that each group thinks its moral values are right and the others are wrong.”[2]

e.     Problems with cultural relativism

                                               i.     Failure to distinguish between differences of value and differences of fact

1.     Values: prescriptive

2.     Facts: descriptive

3.     Examples:

a.     Murder = unjustified killing of human beings

                                                                                                     i.     Hudson Bay tribes: children strangled their own parents as an act of kindness instead of letting them live to what they saw was an unproductive old age

                                                                                                    ii.     Underlying value: it is noble to die for the welfare for the many

b.     Hindu women express the universal value of chastity and purity through self-immolation (suttee).

c.      Contemporary abortion debate: often turns on a conflict of facts; not values.

d.     “In India, cows roam free because Hindus consider them sacred.  In America we eat beef.  At first glance it would seem we have conflicting values, but both of our cultures hold that it is wrong to eat other human beings.  In America when Grandma dies, we don’t eat her, we bury her.  In India, Hindus don’t eat cattle because they believe the cow may be grandma reincarnated in another form.”[3]

e.     “Genuine areas of value dispute are rare.  To test for value differences, cite the foundational moral rule one culture affirms and the other denies.  True moral conflicts are those that remain when all factual differences are eliminated.”[4]

                                              ii.     Not a moral thesis at all but merely a descriptive analysis

1.     If even descriptive cultural relativism is a fact this does not mean that there is no objective moral framework.

2.     “How does it follow that because each group thinks it is right, therefore no group is correct?  The simple fact of disagreement on morality does not lead to the conclusion that there is no moral truth.  This confuses the epistemological issue (the accurate knowledge of objective values) with the ontological issue (the existence of objective values).”[5]

2.     Conventionalism or normative ethical relativism 

a.     “Society Says Relativism”—this is a prescriptive or normative claim

                                               i.     Goes beyond anthropology and cultural observation

                                              ii.     Prescribes how one should act

b.     “[T]eaches that all people ought to act in keeping with their own society’s code.  What is right for one society isn’t necessarily right for another.  People ought to do whatever their ‘society says’ to do.”[6]

c.      Culture is both the genesis and justification for morality

d.     Problems with conventionalism

                                               i.     No culture = no morality (example: 2 people on island with no culture between them; okay to kill the other)

                                              ii.     This view makes it impossible to criticize another society’s practices no matter how bizarre or morally repugnant

1.     “If conventionalism is an accurate take on morality, then governmentally sponsored genocide can only be quietly observed, not judged.  It cannot even be opposed, because this view requires not only that outsiders remain morally mute in the face of the Holocaust but also that Germans would have been wrong for resisting.  Instead they would have had a moral obligation to participate in the murder of innocent people.”[7]

                                            iii.     There are no immoral laws as long as the law is generated by the culture

                                            iv.     Morality is thus reduced to mere power—“might makes right”

1.     The prophet Habakkuk speaks of the Chaldeans this way: “Their justice and authority originate with themselves” and “they whose strength is their god.”  Habakkuk 1.7, 11

                                              v.     Reformer’s dilemma: wrong for people to attempt to subvert or overturn the cultures’ values to become more moral

1.     Consider: William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., White Rose resistance in Nazi Germany

2.     “Moral reformers typically judge society from the inside.  They challenge their culture’s standard of behavior and then campaign for change.  But when morality is defined by the present society’s standard, then challenging the standard would be an act of immorality.  Social reformers would be made moral outcasts precisely because hey oppose the status quo.”[8]

                                            vi.     Is normative relativism an absolute standard?  If so, then a contradiction!  As J. P Moreland argues:

“Finally, if one asks about the moral status of the principle of normative relativism itself, then it seems that normative relativism is really an absolutist position and not a genuine relativist one.  For most proponents hold that one ought (in the robust, morally absolutist sense of that term) to embrace normative relativism.  Surely normative relativists do not wish to merely say that it is true (morally obligatory) for normative relativists only, and that absolutists are not morally obligated to be normative relativists.  For they argue for their view and imply that one (epistemologically) ought to embrace it and (morally) ought to live in light of it.  In this case, normative relativism is being offered as a moral absolute.”[9]

3.     Individual ethical relativism or ethical subjectivism

a.     “I Say Relativism”—morality is determined by the individual’s own tastes and preferences

                                               i.     Slogan: “What’s right for me is right and what’s right for you is right.”

                                              ii.     Slogan: “Who are you to say how I ought to live?  Don’t force your morality on me!”

                                            iii.     Slogan: “Can’t we agree to disagree?”  Subtle implication: both our views are true from our different perspectives.

* My response: “I agree that we disagree.” 

b.     “In ethical subjectivism, everything is a private judgment call.  All morality is personal; none is public.  Every moral evaluation is a mere opinion, a personal preference.”[10]

c.      “Relativism’s Seven Fatal Flaws” (Chapter 7: Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism)

                                               i.     Relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing.

                                              ii.     Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil.

                                            iii.     Relativists can’t place blame or accept praise.

                                            iv.     Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice.

                                              v.     Relativists can’t improve their morality.

                                            vi.     Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions.

                                           vii.     Relativists can’t promote the obligation of tolerance.

     [1] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998), 37.
     [2] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 43.
     [3] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 45.
     [4] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 45.
     [5] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 46.
     [6] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 37.
     [7] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 51.
     [8] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 52.
     [9] J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1987), 244.
     [10] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism, 39.