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About This Book
Ethics: The Fundamentals explores core ideas and arguments in moral theory by introducing students to different philosophical approaches to ethics, including virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, divine command theory, and feminist ethics.
- The first volume in the new Fundamentals of Philosophy series.
- Presents lively, real-world examples and thoughtful discussion of key moral philosophers and their ideas.
- Constitutes an excellent resource for readers coming to the subject of ethics for the first time.
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The Challenge to Moral Universalism1
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852
We are all familiar with the practice of moral appraisal. Whenever we assess an action or policy as right or wrong, or a person as good or bad, we are evaluating. There are whole ranges of behaviors that people tend to view as wrong – killing innocent persons, theft, lying, or cheating, for example. Others we typically evaluate as right or good – charity, promise keeping, and respect for others, for example. It would be very difficult to imagine living as we do without this practice of evaluation and moral appraisal. We need to evaluate potential courses of action in order to decide what to do. We need to evaluate in order to convey our moral concern to others. Positive social change also requires evaluation. For example, when Frederick Douglass, the great American orator and reformer, condemned the institution of slavery, he was evaluating the institution, judging it to be wrong and a social evil.
Yet, in spite of its seeming significance, there are some people who are very skeptical about morality – about whether there is such a thing as a truly universal moral system, and whether any moral claims are true or ‘‘just a matter of opinion.’’ Some argue that what is morally good is a matter of taste, or a matter of convention, so moral judgments are like aesthetic ones, where just about anything goes. We can trace such a view back to the historian Herodotus, who noted that there was enormous cultural diversity on moral issues – in some countries, cannibalism is permissible and in others it is immoral; in some nations it is acceptable to eat beef, while in others, it is not. Who is to say what is ‘‘really’’ right or wrong? There is no universal fact of the matter about ‘‘rightness’’ and ‘‘wrongness,’’ and so forth.
On this view of moral evaluation, normative claims will be radically different from descriptive claims. For example, if someone were to make the descriptive claim
(1) Wombats are mammals.
she would be stating something that has a truth-value that does not vary across individual beliefs, or across cultures. If (1) is true, it is true not in virtue of what someone happens to believe. The truth-value of (1) is not a relative matter. How do we find out whether or not (1) is true or false? We look at the features of wombats relevant to their classification as mammals – Are they warm-blooded and furry, and do they give birth to live young? The answers to all of these questions are affirmative, so (1) is true. In determining the truth-value of (1), we don’t look at what people happen to believe about wombats. After all, people can be mistaken.
Moral relativists hold that normative claims, such as moral ones, however, are quite different from descriptive claims such as (1) and do have truth-values that can vary. The most prevalent forms hold that the truth-values depend upon what people happen to believe to be right and wrong, or good and bad.
These sorts of views pose challenges to normative ethics in the sense that they challenge its status and authority. It’s worth discussing the most significant challenge, that of cultural moral relativism, before turning to specific normative theories. First, though, we will look at a similar, though more restrictive, view – that of individual moral relativism.
One form of moral relativism is very restrictive, holding that the truth-value of moral claims can vary from individual to individual. This view is sometimes referred to as simple subjectivism.2 Consider the claim
(2) Abortion is always wrong.
There are some people who believe that (2) is true and others who believe that (2) is false. If we think that the correct way to relativize moral truth is to the beliefs or attitudes of individuals, then we need to hold that (2) is true for those who believe it, but false for those who believe it false. Then (2) is both true and false – but false for one person, and true for another.
One way to spell out this theory more plausibly is to hold that claims such as (2) are just reports of approval or disapproval, so that when Mary utters (2) sincerely, that is just the same as saying something like
(3) I (Mary) disapprove of abortion.
If Mary is being sincere, then (3) must be true. If (3) is the same as (2), then (2) must be true as well. But note that if Ralph says
(4) Abortion is always permissible.
which is the same (on this theory) as
(5) I (Ralph) do not disapprove of abortion.
then if Ralph sincerely utters (4), (4) must be true as well. Thus, (2) and (4) are both true, albeit relativized to different subjects. This has the very odd result that when Ralph and Mary argue about abortion, there is really nothing that they are disagreeing about. How can Mary disagree with Ralph, really, when all he is actually saying is that he does not disapprove of abortion? But this goes against our views about what takes place in moral argumentation – we do believe that something more substantive, more objective, is at stake.
Subjectivism seems to be an attractive view to some because it seems highly tolerant. What is “right” for me may not be “right” for you, since you have different beliefs. We sometimes hear people talking as though, for example, ‘‘Abortion is right for some, but for me would be murder,’’ but – upon reflection – most people find the view that “right” is purely a matter of opinion to lack plausibility. It seems quite counterintuitive, since it would result in the truth – albeit subjective truth – of claims such as ‘‘For me, mass killing is perfectly permissible,’’ as long as the person making the utterance actually believed that mass killings were permissible. But a genocidal maniac cannot be acting rightly just because he happens to believe that he is acting rightly. There are lots of cases to which we could refer to show how unappealing such a criterion of rightness would be. There have been many people who have done terrible things and yet have felt very self-righteous about their actions. The Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler, for example, believed that morality demanded that he obey his leader for the sake of German society: of course, he was horribly wrong about this, and his individual beliefs in no way provide justification for what he did, and the horrors that he inflicted on others. So mere individual belief about what is right and what is wrong cannot morally justify someone’s actions. In doing anything, whether it is right or wrong, a person is not acting rightly or wrongly just because she happens to believe that what she is doing is right or wrong. There must be something else that justifies her action (or not), some moral reasons for or against the action. So, most people who find moral relativism attractive do not find subjectivism attractive. Instead, the alternative formulation – which involves appealing to cultural relativism – seems to be favored: the rightness of an action is determined by what people in a given culture, by and large, believe.
Thus, many relativists will argue that instead of relativizing to individual beliefs we relativize to cultural beliefs, and it is those beliefs that determine the truth-value of the moral judgment or claim. So, when someone makes the claim that, for example, ‘‘Stealing is wrong,’’ whether or not this is true depends on what people believe about stealing in the culture of the person who makes the claim.
The major consideration in favor of this theory is that it seems to reflect actual moral practice. That cultural differences in moral beliefs and attitudes exist is a certainty. Burial practices vary from culture to culture, female circumcision is practiced in some cultures and condemned in others, certain animals are approved eating in one culture, but not another – and the list could go on. These differences exist across time as well as geography. There is huge temporal variation in cultural beliefs about moral issues. For example, in the United States over 200 years ago, the vote for women was, by most, considered ridiculous. In fact, when Abigail Adams wrote her husband John (who would later become the second president of the USA) and broached the subject of extending further rights to women, this was his response:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient – that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent – that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented… Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.3
He then goes on to argue – jokingly – that otherwise men would be entirely subject to the ‘‘Despotism of the Peticoat.’’ Well, things have changed a bit since 1776. There is a difference between how people in the USA feel about equality and the scope of equality today, as opposed to 250 years ago.
What significance do these observations of cultural variation in moral belief have for moral theory? Some writers, particularly anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict, believe that this fact establishes the truth of moral relativism. This view is very attractive to many people because it is viewed as tolerant of moral diversity:
We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of our locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.4
Most cultures distinguish between morality and good manners, so this quote doesn’t seem quite right to me. Everyone thinks of morality as something more than just socially approved habits. However, this quote from Benedict does, I think, capture the spirit of moral relativism, which is based on a recognition of cultural diversity – there is no ‘‘right’’ or ‘‘wrong’’ that transcends a given culture, no universal truth to morality.
It is important to note that relativism is a radically strong claim. It is not to be confused with the view that rightness is somehow context sensitive – which is a fairly uncontroversial view.5 Instead, relativism maintains that there are no universal moral truths at all, where ‘‘universal’’ is understood as ‘‘across all cultures,’’ precisely because moral quality is understood relative to beliefs of persons in a given society. A person who believed that the claim ‘‘It is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering’’ was universally true (and thus disagreed with relativism) would be free to concede that what counts as ‘‘unnecessary suffering’’ might vary from context to context, depending on the facts of the situation. So, for example, it might be wrong for Al to buy a carpet in a situation in which that carpet was made using child labor and unjust labor practices, but it would not be wrong for Stephanie to buy a carpet given that it was made without harming anyone. Thus, it is true to say that whether or not it is acceptable to buy a carpet depends upon the circumstances – but not in any way that undercuts moral universalism. This is because the rationale for whether or not it is acceptable does not itself vary from context to context. Again, the universalist can claim that the relevant basic moral truth is that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering – and this holds in both of the cases mentioned above. Relativism denies that claims such as this have any universal or objective standing. Instead – if we believe the cultural differences argument – we believe that the ‘‘truth’’ of a moral claim depends completely on the beliefs that are common to the culture in which the judgment is made. And, as we have noted, those beliefs and practices can vary dramatically across cultures.
The position that is generally contrasted with moral relativism is moral universalism. This is the view that at least some basic moral norms and values are universal. ‘‘Basic moral value’’ refers to a value that explains other norms. For example, in one society people may judge child labor to be immoral – thus they condemn this sort of behavior. This is turn is explained by appeal to a more basic norm or value, such as ‘‘Causing unnecessary pain is bad.’’ The moral universalist believes that there are derivative norms that may differ across cultures, but at least some basic norms don’t. One candidate for a universal norm would be something like ‘‘Causing unnecessary pain is bad.’’ It may be that cultures differ in their derivative prescriptions – in one culture child labor is permissible, and in another it is not. But this would be explained by saying that either (i) one culture is just mistaken about the permissibility of child labor or (ii) the different cultures are faced with different circumstances; and in one culture child labor is unnecessary to family survival, whereas in another culture – one, for example, without public education and a social safety net – it is necessary for family survival.
The denial of universalism has been a popular view. Part of this appeal is due to the fact that some think that in order to be tolerant of others, we need to reject universalism with respect to truth in morality and instead ascribe to relativism. Moral relativism does not deny that moral claims are true or false – only that their truth-value is relative. Thus, though we may disagree with what people believe about torture in one culture, we can always adopt a tolerant attitude by holding, as relativism would seem to demand, that ‘‘Torture is not okay by me, but it is okay for them.’’ And tolerance is a moral virtue. If there is no objective truth to appeal to, then criticisms of various cultural practices seem unjustified. What we call ‘‘morality’’ is just a construct of various societies and cultures, each with its own set of norms and not subject to criticism or praise from outsiders. Of course, we are free to ask whether or not tolerance is, universally, a virtue. If so, relativism is false. If not, then what about cultures that reject tolerance themselves?
Relativism also seems to offer a principled way of approaching moral disagreement, at least at the cultural level. If someone wants to know whether or not stealing is wrong, he just has to determine what the prevailing beliefs are in a given culture. However, this really just seems to favor a moral conformity. Moral progress is often achieved through the efforts of rebellious individuals with beliefs that do not conform to popular cultural beliefs. It seems odd to say that they were wrong and that everyone else was right, until others just happened to start sharing their beliefs.
But relativism also has some very serious disadvantages. Tolerance of the behavior of others only goes so far. As long as there is a view that rights – moral rights – are being violated, most people will not think tolerance in that context a virtue. This indicates that there is some universality to morality in that oppression is wrong, no matter what the prevalent cultural beliefs happen to be. Jeffrey Stout puts the problem for relativism (or, actually, anti-realism) this way:
I deny the wrongness of torturing innocents is simply a belief we have that is justified by some expedient social convention. Knowingly and willingly torturing innocents is wrong, impermissible, and unjust. It always has been...
That is the moral truth of the matter, whether we recognize it or not – a truth I deem more certain than any explanation I could give of it or any argument I could make on its behalf.6
Another example that illustrates this point is female circumcision. This is the practice, in some cultures, of excising a portion of the female genitalia. It is usually practiced on young girls. It is quite painful and can lead to numerous health problems for the girls, but it is practiced for cultural reasons and, some argue, as a way of depriving females of sexual enjoyment. Of course, in Western cultures such a practice is considered quite immoral, so here we have a case of cultural moral disagreement. Moral relativism would hold that in Western cultures ‘‘Female circumcision is wrong’’ is true, whereas in cultures where people don’t happen to hold similar beliefs that claim would be false, and it may well be true instead that ‘‘Female circumcision is right.’’
But someone might argue that, of course, it is perfectly clear that there is no universality – after all, we have the empirical evidence of moral disagreement – so doesn’t this show that universality doesn’t exist? No, it does not. And, as philosophers such as James Rachels have noted,7 there are three reasons why:
1 Cultural differences are not evidence for the view that there is no universal truth to morality – there could be such nonrelative truth, but people are mistaken about it or unaware of it, just as it was true that ‘‘The earth orbits the sun’’ even 500 years ago when few people, if anyone, believed it. The premise that there is diversity of belief cannot support a conclusion that there is no universal truth to morality. Some people – or everybody, even – might be mistaken.
2 Further, when philosophers claim that morality is universal, they are making a normative or prescriptive claim to the effect that people ought to abide by these norms, rather than a descriptive claim that they do in fact abide by these norms. The claim that there are universal moral norms is the claim that there are norms that have authority over the actions of people universally; it does not mean that there are moral norms that have been accepted universally. Only the latter claim is impacted by the empirical evidence that different norms seem to be accepted by different cultures. The latter claim may be false given our empirical evidence – but the empirical evidence does not affect the truth or falsity of the first claim. As many other philosophers have noted, we can’t derive something like ‘‘There is no universal moral truth’’ from a claim such as ‘‘Different cultures have different moral codes’’ – the second is simply a descriptive claim, whereas the first is interpreted as having normative significance. And what people ought to do and what they believe about what they ought to do are very different. People can be morally mistaken.
3 Even descriptively, it is not at all conclusive that values differ – it could simply be the circumstances that differ, or the nonmoral beliefs that affect moral practices that differ.
So, it does not follow from variation in practices that we have even descriptive variation in values. The same values may be accepted, but differing circumstances or beliefs result in different practices.
Further, we intuitively like to think that within cultures we can observe moral progress; that is, things seem to be getting better in some cultures at least. So, for example, some take the facts that slavery is illegal and that women now have the right to vote as a sign of moral progress in the USA. Recall Frederick Douglass and his condemnation of slavery. That slavery is a moral evil is a compelling reason to abolish it. The abolition of slavery throughout the USA – this change in the culture of the USA – denotes genuine moral progress and not simply a shift in what people happen to believe. Recall also the interchange between Abigail and John Adams. The view that John Adams espoused, which would likely have been typical within the culture at the time, is no longer viewed as legitimate – restricting rights on bases we now view to be arbitrary is unjust, and was unjust at the time. Thus, it does seem plausible to maintain that there has been moral progress in the USA since 1776, at least with respect to some issues. However, this would have to be rejected as illusory if moral relativism is true, since there would be no objective standard along which to measure progress. Instead, there would just be change, but we wouldn’t be justified in claiming one sort of change to be better than another – or worse either, for that matter.
None of the above considerations provides a knockdown argument against relativism, since the relativist could simply bite the bullet and accept all of those unpalatable intuitions. The point of the above criticisms is to note that many people find themselves attracted to relativism because they mistakenly identify it with tolerance, or think that such relativism is necessary to ad...
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APA 6 Citation
Driver, J. (2013). Ethics (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1006376/ethics-the-fundamentals-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Driver, Julia. (2013) 2013. Ethics. 1st ed. Wiley. https://www.perlego.com/book/1006376/ethics-the-fundamentals-pdf.
Driver, J. (2013) Ethics. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1006376/ethics-the-fundamentals-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Driver, Julia. Ethics. 1st ed. Wiley, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.