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A Contemporary Introduction

Harry J Gensler

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eBook - ePub


A Contemporary Introduction

Harry J Gensler

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About This Book

Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction introduces the issues and controversies of contemporary moral philosophy. It gets students to struggle with the big questions of morality while it also relates these questions to practical issues, especially racism, global warming, moral education, and abortion. Providing a practical method for thinking about moral issues—a method based largely on the golden rule—it is written simply and clearly throughout. College students who are new to philosophy or who have already taken an introductory-level course will benefit from its use.

Key Features:

  • Serves as either the sole textbook for a lower-level introduction to ethics/moral philosophy course or a supplementary text for a more advanced undergraduate ethics course.
  • Provides clear, direct writing throughout, making each chapter easily accessible for an engaged undergraduate student.
  • Offers a philosophically rigorous presentation of the golden rule.
  • Includes helpful study aids, including: bolded technical terms; boxes for key ideas; summaries, study questions, and suggested readings for each chapter; and a comprehensive glossary/index at the back of the book.

Key Additions to the Third Edition:

  • Each chapter now offers additional, optional sections on more advanced topics for students wishing to dig deeper into the material (advanced topics include: Kohlberg's moral psychology, whether morality is gendered, types of relativism, early Greek ethics, Hume, and the prisoner's dilemma).
  • Other improvements include: better chapter organization, clearer explanations, improved examples, new names for key arguments, and a better Kindle version.
  • An updated and improved EthiCola instructional program (with a score-processing program, teacher's manual, and class slides), which can be downloaded from the web for free (from or

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Part One:

Popular Metaethics

1 Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism (CR): “Good” means “socially approved.” Pick your moral principles by following what your society approves of.
Cultural relativism (CR) says that good and bad are relative to culture. What is “good” is what is “socially approved” in a given culture.
We’ll begin by listening to the fictional Ima Relativist explain her belief in cultural relativism. As you read this, reflect on how plausible you find her view and how it fits your own thinking. We’ll later consider objections.

1.1 Ima Relativist

My name is Ima Relativist. I’ve embraced cultural relativism as I’ve come to appreciate the deeply cultural basis for morality.
I was brought up to believe that morality is about objective facts. Just as snow is white, so also infanticide is wrong. But attitudes vary with time and place. The norms I was taught are those of my own society; other societies have different ones. Morality is a cultural construct. Just as societies create different styles of food and clothing, so too they create different moral codes. I learned this in anthropology class and experienced it as an exchange student in Mexico.
Consider my belief that infanticide is wrong. I was taught this as an objective truth. But it isn’t; it’s just what my society holds. When I say “Infanticide is wrong,” this just means that my society disapproves of it. For ancient Romans, infanticide was all right. There’s no sense in asking which side is “correct.” Their view is true rela­tive to their culture, and our view is true relative to ours. There are no objective truths about right or wrong. When we claim otherwise, we’re just imposing our culturally taught attitudes as the “objective truth.”
“Good” is a relative term, and thus needs a further reference to complete its sense. Something isn’t “to the left” absolutely, but only “to the left of x” this or that; the door might be to the left of me but to the right of you. Similarly, something isn’t “good” absolutely, but only “good in” this or that society; infanticide might be good in my society but bad in your society.
We can express CR most clearly as a definition: “X is good” means “The majority (of the society in question) approves of X.” Unless otherwise specified, the society is that of the person making the judgment. When I say “Hitler acted wrongly,” I mean “according to the standards of my society.”
While I’ve emphasized good and bad actions, the same analysis applies to what goals are intrinsically good, what character traits are virtuous, and what moral rights we have. Society decides such questions for its members, and different societies may decide them in very different ways.
The myth of objectivity says that things can be good or bad “absolutely” – not relative to this or that culture. I have three arguments for rejecting this and moving to cultural relativism.
(1) My cultural differences argument points out that cultures can differ radically on moral issues, like infanticide, polygamy, and women’s rights. When we speak of good or bad absolutely, we’re just absolutizing the norms of our society and taking them to be objective facts; so, in dealing with conflicting norms from another culture, we think that we’re right and they’re wrong. Believing in objective values is provincial and narrow minded; those who accept this myth of objectivity need to study anthropology or live for a time in another culture.
(2) My product of culture argument begins by seeing that societies create value systems and teach them to their members. We shudder at the idea of infanticide, because we were taught to shudder; if we were brought up in ancient Rome, we’d think of infanticide as perfectly fine. Societies create different styles of clothing, different types of food, different ways of speaking, and different values. The clothing styles and the values of another culture aren’t objectively right or wrong; they’re just different.
(3) My no neutral standpoint argument points out that there’s no neutral standpoint for arguing against another culture’s values. Scientific issues can be decided by experiments; if someone thinks heavy objects fall faster than light ones, we can drop objects of different weights and see which ones hit the ground first. Moral issues aren’t like this. When we argue about ethics, we just assume the values of our own culture. There’s nothing objective here.
As I’ve come to believe in cultural relativism, I’ve grown in my acceptance of other cultures. Like many exchange students, I used to have this “we’re right and they’re wrong” attitude. I struggled against this. I’ve come to realize that the other side isn’t “wrong” but just “differ­ent.” We have to see others from their point of view; if we criticize them, we’re just imposing the standards of our society. We cultural relativists are more tolerant.
Through cultural relativism I’ve also come to be more accepting of the norms of my own society. CR gives a basis for a common morality within a culture – a democratic basis that pools everyone’s ideas and ensures that the norms have wide support. So I can feel solidarity with my own people, even though other groups have different values.
Before going on, reflect on your reaction to cultural relativism. What do you like or dislike about it? Do you have objections?

1.2 Conformity

Ima has given us a clear formulation of an approach that many find attractive. She’s beginning to think about morality and to grow in her moral thinking. Yet I’m convinced that her basic perspective on morality is wrong. Ima will likely agree as she gets clearer on her thinking.
CR’s big problem is that it forces us to conform to society’s norms – or else we contradict ourselves. If “good” and “socially approved” mean the same thing, then whatever is one has to be the other. So this reasoning would be valid, and we could prove that something is good from the premise that it’s socially approved:
X is socially approved.
∴ X is good.
And this statement would be self-contradictory:
X is socially approved but it isn’t good.
If CR is true, then we have to conform completely to our society’s values – we can’t consistently disagree with them – we aren’t free to think for ourselves on moral issues. This is an absurd result. We surely can consistently disagree with our society’s values. We can consistently affirm that something is socially approved but deny that it’s good. This would be impossible if CR were true.
Ima could bite the bullet (accept the implausible result), and hold that it is self-contradictory to dis­agree morally with the majority. But this is a difficult bullet to bite. Ima would have to hold that civil rights leaders contradicted themselves when they disagreed with accepted views on segregation. She’d have to conform to the majority view on all moral issues – even if the majority is ignorant. And if majority opinions change, then she’d have to change her moral beliefs too. With CR, the central virtue of the moral life is conformity (being a follower instead of an independent thinker); good actions are ones that are socially approved. By outlawing disagreements, CR would stagnate society and violate the critical spirit that characterizes philosophy.

1.3 Race, climate, children

As you consider a view about morality, don’t be too abstract. Apply the view to concrete issues, to see how it works. Look for areas where the view gives implausible results. Here we’ll consider how CR applies to racism, global warming, and teaching morality to our children.
(1) Racism. Imagine that you live in a society that practices and approves of extreme racism – perhaps America before the Civil War (with black slavery) or Nazi Germany (with the killing of Jews). A satisfying view of morality should show how to attack racist actions; CR fails at this, since it holds that racist actions are good in a society if they’re socially approved. Even worse, CR logically entails that protesters who say “Racist actions are socially approved but not good” contradict themselves. These CR implications are difficult to accept.
(2) Global warming. Roughly speaking, there are two main views. Climate-change affirmers say the earth is rapidly warming, this is mostly caused by human activity, and humanity ought to make radical changes, especially in its use of fossil fuels, to prevent catastrophic harm for future generations. Climate-change deniers, in contrast, claim that human activity isn’t a major cause for recent temperature increases (which take place for other random causes) and humanity needn’t change its use of fossil fuels. If we followed CR consistently, we’d go with whichever view was socially accepted by the majority; this is the “good” view, even if people accept it out of ignorance of the scientific evidence. Applying CR to global warming could bring disastrous consequences to humanity.
(3) Teaching morality to our children. If we accepted CR, how would we bring up our children to think about morality? We’d teach them to think and live by current social norms – whatever these were. We’d teach the virtue of conformity instead of critical thinking. We’d teach that these are correct reasoning: “My society approves of A, so A is good,” “My peer-group approves of driving while drunk, so this is good,” and “My Nazi society approves of racism, so racism is good.” Our children will grow up to be conformist professionals who think the “socially accepted” way is always the “good” way. Applying CR to moral education would have unhappy consequences.
CR may sound good when viewed abstractly; but it applies poorly to issues like racism, global warming, and teaching morality to children.1

1.4 Cultural differences

Moral realism claims that some things are objectively right or wrong, indepen­dently of what anyone may think or feel. Dr Martin Luther King (1963), for example, claimed that racist actions were objectively wrong. Racism’s wrongness was a fact; any person or culture that approved of racism was mistaken. In saying this, King was...

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