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Ethics: Where are you? part 4

June 25, 2010

Cultural relativism is related to ethical subjectivism because both look “to people for standards of right and wrong” (Boss, 2008, p. 100). But, while subjectivists look at individuals, relativists look at groups of people or cultures. Cultural relativists “maintain that all moral values are nothing more than cultural customs” and thus “we have no grounds for judging the moral practices of another culture” (p. 101). Cultural relativists are practicing doublethink because they “deny the existence of universal moral standards and also defend the existence of these standards” (p. 104).

Cultural relativism is a “theory of philosophical ethics” and what ought to be. Sociological relativism is a “theory in descriptive ethics concerned with what is (Boss, 2008, p. 106). Sociological relativists think it is possible that one culture’s moral beliefs could be wrong in comparison to another culture’s moral beliefs. Cultural relativists think that if there are differences in cultural morals then that is proof that there are no universal moral standards (p. 106).

Sociological relativists would not make value judgments about the morality of a culture even if that culture thinks it is okay to kill one’s elderly parents when they become burdens (p. 107). Cultural relativists would point out that the act of killing one’s elderly parents may be okay in one culture and not in another culture simply because the two cultures “have different basic moral standards” (p. 107).

Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of social Darwinism “rejects ethical relativism and instead embraces an ethics based on one universal moral principle: survival of the fittest” (p. 110). The importance of Spencer’s ideas on our notions of moral progress and society at large is that he was ridiculed by academics, but in general his beliefs that “evolution is synonymous with progress” were popular. His moral philosophy was used to justify the power that the wealthy had over the poor “in the name of evolutionary progress” (p. 111).

Cultural relativism is a protest against social Darwinism because people who follow cultural relativism do not agree with the social Darwinism idea that “morality is found in a greater degree in civilized societies” which then gives those societies power over simpler cultures in the form of imperialism (p. 112).

Ruth Benedict argued that “morality is historical, institutional, and empirical rather than universal or based on individual feelings” (p. 113). She stated that each society has its own morals, which are culturally approved customs or habits and those customs or habits that may appear strange to other cultures cannot be judged by any outside standards.

Cultural relativism defines the moral community in ethnocentric terms meaning that the people of a culture belong to the moral community of that culture based on membership in the culture. The Papuans of New Guinea sometimes take wives from outside their group, but those wives are not fully accepted into the moral community and thus may be killed by head hunters of the group that she married into.

When the U.S. accidentally kills civilians of a war enemy, many people in the U.S. do not get upset about the accidental killings because those civilians were not part of our moral community. But, if American civilians are killed by our enemy in war zones or terrorist attacks, the majority of Americans are outraged by the killings because these civilians are from the same moral community.

The Papuans have an exclusive moral community, but the Buddhists’ moral community is open to anyone. Buddhists follow a universalist ethics. Many Native Americans include “other humans and non-humans” in their moral community (p. 118). Politics and economics determine a cultural definition of moral community (p. 122).

Plato thought that the morality of a person is representative of the morality of that person’s culture and so by looking at a culture’s members, one could determine how moral or immoral a culture is, and also compare culture to culture or look at the same culture over time (p. 127).

“Most philosophers, including Aristotle, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, and John Fire Lame Deer, claim that some cultures are more moral than others because they offer more opportunities for people to fulfill themselves” (p. 143). Khaldun wrote about the moral superiority of nomadic cultures compared to sedentary, urban cultures. He claimed that sedentary people are self-absorbed, while nomadic people have learned “good traits such as courage, cooperation, and striving for justice” due to their interaction with other cultures (p. 127).

John Fire Lame Deer argued that Whites are immoral because of their destruction of nature, which JFLD believed had “its own consciousness and life force” thus making the Whites immoral for destroying nature and the environment (p. 129).

Harriet Tubman rejected the moral community of the U.S. and fled to Canada when she escaped from slavery. Tubman was not considered a member of the moral community in this country because she was black. Efforts to increase social justice must include the spread of cultural laws and norms that “respect and nurture human dignity” (p. 130).

The example of the Holocaust undermines the theory of cultural relativism through the definition of the moral community. Nazi Germans believed that Jews were not really human, but just looked human. This belief was the basis for Germans not applying their moral principles to the Jews which gave them an excuse for the Holocaust, according to Boss (p. 121).

I think that cultural relativism and universal truths or moral standards are mutually exclusive because cultural relativists state that each culture maintains its own moral truths. Those cultural moral truths can be different from culture to culture, thus cultural relativism does not maintain that there are universal truths that all cultures hold true. Cultural relativists believe that “our culture affects our interpretation of moral values and that these interpretations vary from culture to culture” and, erroneously, that “morality equals custom” (p. 141). The scary part about cultural relativism is that it promotes “suspicion and intolerance.”

Cultural relativism maintains that morals are decided by a culture, but CR confuses morals with customs. CR is not about excusing or exempting from wrongdoing, such as slavery or headhunting. CR is not the same as respecting or tolerating cultural diversity. CR is a “theory of philosophical ethics” and what ought to be. Sociological relativism is a “theory in descriptive ethics concerned with what is. Sociological relativists think it is possible that one culture’s moral beliefs could be wrong in comparison to another culture’s moral beliefs. Cultural relativists think that if there are differences in cultural morals then that is proof that there are no universal moral standards. Social Darwinism is based on one universal moral principle: survival of the fittest, an idea which was used to justify the power of the wealthy over the poor. Ruth Benedict argued that each society has its own morals, which are culturally approved customs or habits and those customs or habits that may appear strange to other cultures cannot be judged by any outside standards.

Cultural relativism defines the moral community in ethnocentric terms meaning that the people of a culture belong to the moral community of that culture based on membership in the culture. Most philosophers believe that some cultures are more moral than others because some cultures offer their members “more opportunities to fulfill themselves.”

Nazi Germans believed that Jews were not really human, and this belief was the basis for Germans feeling the extermination of Jews was morally acceptable and used that as an excuse for the Holocaust. Cultural relativism can be criticized as being illogical, as unusable in a pluralistic society, as confusing custom with morality, as being wrong about people behaving more morally when in groups, as not correctly describing how moral judgements are made, not recognizing that some moral truths are universal, and because it is divisive.

Writing in Ethics: Case study #1

Courage and the Can of Worms, Jul 20th, 2009, by Rushworth M. Kidder

The article, “Courage and the Can of Worms,” by Rushworth M. Kidder, is a case of a moral dilemma. A trustee overhears an environmental program instructor tell a young student that lake regulations do not allow the use of live bait, but the student continues to thread a worm on his fishing hook and the counselor does not stop him. The trustee has no affiliation with the counselor or the student and has not heard about the no-live-bait rule until that moment. The trustee is torn between pointing out to the counselor that this is a great opportunity to teach a moral lesson and remaining silent so as not to appear as a meddler. The trustee remains silent.

The moral dilemma: Do we do something when no one is watching, that we do not want to do, because it is morally right, or do we do what we want because no one will know?

Second moral dilemma: Do we step in to teach a moral lesson when we are bystanders?

The trustee feels that the situation offers “a great opportunity … to make a point about law, obedience, responsibility, respect, fairness.” She is disappointed by her own “lack of moral courage” to speak up, but feels that she might have spoken up had she known about the no-worms rule. She also feels it was the responsibility of the adult instructors to “train these children to obey environmental regulations” (Kidder).

The trustee later thinks about the situation and arrives at a prescriptive statement, that is: “I ought to have explained to the student that it is important to obey environmental rules, even when no one is looking, because we are all responsible for the environment.”

The trustee could have asked the instructor for more information on the no-worms-rule and then constructed a moral argument, using the proposition, premise, inference, and conclusion method. Her moral argument may have been similar to her prescriptive statement: “Everyone should obey environmental rules at all times because the rules are intended to prevent harm to the environment.” The premise of this argument should be acceptable to most people because facts can support claims about environmental damage. The inclusion of “at all times” is strong and should leave no doubt that there are no exceptions to the statement. The conclusion can be supported with facts.

To resolve the moral dilemma, the trustee would have needed all the facts about the no-live-bait rule. If she had received that information in a timely manner, she then could have listed relevant moral principles and sentiments such as duty to obey the rules, showing respect for person in authority, and a duty to do no harm to the environment. She would then have to weigh the importance of the moral principles. She stated that she would have spoken with the student had she known the rule, so we know what her course of action would have been in that scenario. Perhaps, if the student adhered to the beliefs of ethical subjectivism, the student may have remarked that “people can never be mistaken about what is morally right or wrong because there are no objective or universal moral standards or truths” (Boss, 2008, p. 77).

Did the trustee “fail to act out of uncertainty,” was the trustee suffering from the Kitty Genovese Syndrome, or was it a combination of both? Kidder describes the Kitty Genovese syndrome as bystander apathy, “where, in the presence of an audience of others who also fail to act, it becomes easier to justify your own inactivity and dilute your sense of responsibility.” Regardless of the cause of her failure to act, the bigger picture, according to Boss, is that “ethical subjectivism … neglects to take into account the social context” (p. 93-94). Kidder says the bigger picture shows these students become the adults who stand by and observe corporate corruption and do not do anything because they are “moral adolescents … with no more conscience than that kid with the tackle box” and the result is economic failures. The point is that teaching moral courage should begin early.

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