ETHICAL RELATIVISM OUTLINE for Philosophy 101

 ETHICAL RELATIVISM equates being moral (being morally right) with conformity to behavioral standards endorsed by one’s society.

  • Eating dog meat is moral = eating dog meat is a behavior endorsed by one’s society

  • Eating dog eat is immoral = eating dog meat is a behavior not approved by one’s society

 

  • Execution by stoning is moral  = execution by stoning is a behavior endorsed by one’s society

  • Execution by stoning is immoral = execution by stoning is a behavior not approved by one’s society

 

  • Racial discrimination is moral = racial discrimination is a behavior endorsed by one’s society

  • Racial discrimination is immoral = racial discrimination is a behavior not approved by one’s societ

ON THIS A THEORY, A SOCIETY THAT ENCOURAGES THE KILLING OF RAPE VICTIMS (OR RACISM, OR ANYTHING ELSE) IS NEITHER BETTER NOR WORSE THAN ONE THAT DOES NOT

ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF THIS THEORY

1. The social difference argument  (Herodutus)

When we compare different societies, we see that there is no universal agreement about which behaviors are good and which are bad.

Within societies, all sane people endorse their own society's ways of behaving and reject conflicting ways of behaving in other societies.

THEREFORE, each person determines what is right or wrong by conforming to the behaviors approved by her/his own society, and is right in doing so.

2. The Genetic Argument (Sumner)

What we call "morality" is merely our society's mores, that is, our traditions or "folkways" when consciously evaluated from the perspective of their current utility for our society.

When we look for the basis of moral decision making in moral conflicts, we find that we are merely balancing the competing mores of the different social groups that influence us.

When we become conscious of, then debate, then consciously choose among our competing folkways, we are merely appealing to the strongest unconscious, socially trained feelings we have about patterns of behavior, or we become pragmatic in preserving some but not others.

THEREFORE, no person has any basis for making a moral judgment that is not derived from her/his own society's mores.

THEREFORE, there is no standard of right that is not derived from her/his own society's mores.

THEREFORE, what is right for each person just is identical with her/his own society's mores.


ARGUMENTS AGAINST THIS THEORY

G.E. Moore offers several arguments in Ethics (1912), chapter three. The first two are identical except that one focuses on feelings and the other focuses on thoughts.

Why is this? Some versions of relativism equate the right thing to do with shared feelings of approval. Some versions equate the right thing to do with shared thoughts of approval. But basically the same argument can deal with both.

1. Argument about feelings

The first version of relativism says that the psychological fact of feeling approval IS IDENTICAL WITH moral approval of it.

However, sometimes a person is aware that, as a matter of act, the required feeling of approval is directed at a particular behavior, yet that same person asks whether that behavior is right.

If the psychological fact of feeling approval IS IDENTICAL WITH moral approval, then being aware of the fact that the feeling is directed at the behavior will completely settle the issue of whether the behavior is right.

Because we sometimes doubt that something is right despite knowledge the the requisite feeling is present, the two are not identical.

Because the two are not identical, this version of ethical relativism is mistaken in equating them.

2. Argument about thoughts or opinions

The first version of relativism says that the psychological fact of thinking that a behavior is right IS IDENTICAL WITH moral approval of that behavior.

However, sometimes a person is aware that, as a matter of act, the required thought is directed at a particular behavior, yet that same person asks whether that behavior is right.

If the psychological fact of thinking that a behavior is right IS IDENTICAL WITH moral approval, then being aware of the fact that the approving thought is directed at the behavior will completely settle the issue of whether the behavior is right.

Because we sometimes doubt that something is right despite knowledge the the requisite thought is present, the two are not identical.

Because the two are not identical, this version of ethical relativism is mistaken in equating them.

3. Argument against "genetic" analyses

The origins of a practice often tell us very little about the same practice NOW.

Knowing how individuals form their ethical feelings and thoughts, and how social groups form a consensus on their mores, tells us very little about what we might feel and think about that practice now, or in the future.

If we can endorse everything that social scientists say about how individuals form their ethical feelings and thoughts, and how social groups form a consensus on their mores, without thereby knowing NOW what we should do, then "genetic" accounts do not show that our current moral decisions should conform to traditions, folkways, mores, etc.

Therefore, our current moral problems cannot be settled merely by appeal to traditions, folkways, mores, etc.

4. Indirect Argument (directed against the social difference argument)

 If the assertion "x is wrong" is merely an assertion about feelings or opinions held about x, then x can be both right and wrong simultaneously. (Right when evaluated by one society and wrong when evaluated by another.)

It is not self-evident that the same action can be both right and wrong simultaneously (the question requires additional investigation).

Therefore it is untenable to equate right and wrong with feelings and opinions.

5. Argument concerning expertise

If ethical questions can be settled in the manner advocated by so many social scientists, that is, by discovering the feelings or opinions held about it, then social scientists are the best people to consult when you need to have a moral problem solved.

Very few people think that their ethical problems can be solved by consulting social scientists in order to discover what feelings and opinions are held.

Because many intelligent people continue to refuse to reduce ethical problem solving to discovery of this sort, ethical relativism is untenable.

 

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