Monday 9/17

Relativism I: Cultural Ethical Relativism

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Synopsis

Today we began our tour of moral normative theory. We start with what amounts to one of the great challenges to moral deliberation--the view that morality is relative. Thus there is no moral truth with a capital 'T', there are only many moral truths with a lower-case 't'. It's a popular position, but one which does not survive our Standards of Evaluation.

Why, then, discuss it? Remember that I am using our time this semester to construct an argument--a semester-long argument, as it happens. Our tour of moral normative theory--even theories we ultimately reject--is an important component of that argument.

Moreover, it is important that you understand why a moral normative theory fails especially when it is popular.

Our first of two relativist accounts of ethics, Cultural Ethical Relativism, neatly illustrates the Standards of Evaluation simply in virtue of how gracelessly it fails every standard. Of course, that doesn't mean those who are cultural relativists don't have their reasons. So we spent some time talking about the motivation for CER and the reasons that are typically given for it.

We then moved on to discuss how CER fails Clarity, Coherence, and (particularly) Reflective Equilibrium.

We may thus reject CER: it cannot be true. It is therefore doubtful, although not certain, that the conception of morality which holds that morality is a function of one's culture could be correct.

What I find alarming are the number of people who profess to believe in something like CER. The theory fails the Standards so badly that it is hard to imagine what it would be like for CER to be true.

If you happen to engage in a debate with someone who argues as if CER were true, be patient. First make sure they're not confusing descriptive ethical theories with prescriptive ethical theories. Descriptive ethical theories tell us how people actually come to have the moral beliefs they do, which may well have something to do with their culture.

The mistake is to think that it follows that culture tells us what we should do--to confuse, that is to say, a (weakly explanatory) descriptive ethical theory with a prescriptive, or normative, ethical theory. I'll have more to say about this distinction next time.

Also, keep in mind that your opponent will doubtless not enjoy your advantage of having seen CER spelled out in detail and taken apart Standard by Standard, Argument by Argument.

Tomorrow we will take up an important alternative to CER, one which is even more radically relativistic than CER, but which intriguingly passes Clarity and Coherence!