Cultural Ethical Relativism

When you try to flesh out what people mean when they say that morality is a matter of culture, you usually wind up with something like the following:

Principles of CER

A. Morality is relative to a given culture.

B. It is wrong to judge the moral practices of another culture.

Setting aside the question, why should we think CER is false for a moment, let us ask, why should we think that CER is true? The Cultural Differences argument is a fair representation of how CERists usually argue.

The Cultural Differences Argument
       
  1 Different cultures have different moral beliefs, practices, and traditions.  
  2 If different cultures have different moral beliefs, practices, and traditions, then there is no universal moral truth.  
  3 If there is no universal moral truth, then morality is relative to a given culture.  
Therefore, 4 Morality is relative to a given culture. 1,2&3

But the Cultural Differences Argument is clearly unsound. Why? The second premise is plainly false. At one time, some people believed that the Earth is flat, and others believed that it is round. Did their difference of opinion imply anything about the actual shape of the Earth? Of course not. In general, one cannot infer anything about the way the world is from differences in beliefs about the way the world is. People can be confused and mistaken; one cannot infer that there is no universal moral truth just because people have different beliefs about morality.

Since the Cultural Differences Argument is unsound, we have no reason to think that CER is true. But we can't thereby conclude that CER is false. Showing that an argument is unsound, recall, in no way allows you claim that the conclusion is false. For all we know, CER may still be true. We have to give arguments to show that CER is false. It's not hard to do. Remember that we reject any theory which fails the Standards of Evaluation, so let us refresh ourselves on the Standards.

A. Standard of Clarity

i. An acceptable ethical theory must not contain any unintelligible concepts.

ii. An acceptable ethical theory must be capable of precise formulation so that implications for action can be determined.

B. Standard of Coherence

i. An acceptable ethical theory must not contain any contradictory principles or statements.

ii. An acceptable ethical theory must be consistent with known facts.

C. Standard of Reflective Equilibrium

An acceptable ethical theory must cohere with the moral intuitions together with the arguments of experienced and intelligent moral agents.

Standard of Clarity

Before we consider whether CER contains any unintelligible concepts, let's first see what we can do about making the principles (axioms) more precise.

A More Precise Formulation of CER

A* For any action A and any culture C having moral practices P, A is morally right in C iff A is consistent with P.

B* For any action A, A is morally wrong if A is performed in a culture C1, A is an instance of judging culture C2, and C1 is not the same culture as C2.

We still have questions about what it means for an action to be 'consistent with' a moral practice, but I think this is about as far as we're going to get. Now remember that we want to make the principles of a theory precise so that we can determine the theory's implications for action. Do (A*) and (B*) allow us to determine CER's implications for action?

Suppose Sally, a 20 year-old college student, lives in Massachusetts but is attending school in Georgia. Contraception fails, and she becomes pregnant. According to CER, is it morally permissible or morally impermissible for her to get an abortion? It is legal for her to do so, but it is also clear that abortion is contrary to much of the culture of Georgia, even though that is not the case in her home culture of Massachusetts. According to the theory, her action is morally permissible just in case it is consistent with the moral practices of the culture in which she finds herself. So we conclude that it is wrong for her to get an abortion.

But wait! Suppose she lives in Atlanta, where abortion is much more available and accepted than in rural parts of Georgia. Is it still wrong for her to get an abortion?

You see the problem. We have no idea what to count as a culture, and until we do, it wont matter in the least how precise we make the theory. We'll never be able to determine CER's implications for action if we can't get clear on what a culture is.

So, what is a culture? Here's what we need. At a minimum, we require a principle with the form, C is a culture iff ___________________________________. It turns out that there is no way to provide necessary and sufficient conditions--i.e., to fill in the blank--on being a culture. The concept of culture is both vague and ambiguous. Sociologists, Anthropologists, and Social Psychologists often talk as if they know what a culture is. But, if pressed, they too are unable to fill in the blank in any satisfactory way. The concept of a culture is simply too vaporous to ground a theory of morality.

Hence CER fails the Standard of Clarity, because even if we can state CER precisely, we cannot do so in such a way as to determine its implications for action insofar as it contains an unintelligible concept--the concept, namely, of a culture. We have now sufficiently justified the second premise of the following argument:

  1 If CER fails the Standard of Clarity, CER is false.  
  2 CER fails the Standard of Clarity.  
Therefore, 3 CER is false. 1&2

Standard of Coherence

As with the Standard of Clarity, CER utterly fails the Standard of Coherence. First, the two principles of CER, (A) and (B), are contradictory. To see this, consider that principle (A), which says that morality is relative to a given culture, implies that there are no universal (non-relative) moral statements. All moral truths are cultural truths. But principle (B) is a universal moral claim. It says that it is wrong, universally, to judge the moral practices of another culture. Hence (A) and (B) cannot be true together.

Second, to the extent that CER presupposes that cultures all differ in their moral practices, CER is inconsistent with known facts. It is true that there are some differences in moral practice between different cultures, but the differences are vastly overshadowed by the agreements. Every culture, for example, has moral prohibitions on killing innocent people.

It follows that CER fails the Standard of Coherence. It is neither logically nor factually coherent. We have now sufficiently justified the second premise of the following argument:

  1 If CER fails the Standard of Coherence, CER is false.  
  2 CER fails the Standard of Coherence.  
Therefore, 3 CER is false. 1&2

Standard of Reflective Equilibrium

The Standard of Reflective Equilibrium is somewhat more challenging to apply than the Standards of Clarity or Coherence. The typical Reflective Equilibrium argument has the Modus Tollens form:

  1 If CER theory X is true, then action a is morally wrong (/right).  
  2 Action a is not morally wrong (/right).  
Therefore, 3 Theory X if not true. 1&2

The first premise of a Reflective Equilibrium argument merely spells out an implication of the the theory for action. The second premise, based on common moral intuition, says that the implication is false. Hence the theory cannot be true.

Of course, with CER we can't really know what the implications are, since we don't know what a culture is. But for purposes of illustration, let us set that problem aside by considering only clear-cut, or reasonably clear-cut, examples of cultures.

For example, according to CER, it is wrong to judge the moral practices of another culture by Principle (B). The Nazis were pretty clearly a culture unto themselves. So it follows from CER that it is wrong to condemn the Nazis. But this is absurd. The Nazis did horrific things. The common moral intuition of experience, reflective, intelligent people like ourselves indicates quite clearly that it is not wrong to condemn the Nazis. We can even give arguments in support of this. So CER is not true. Spelled out, we have:

The Nazis Argument
       
  1 If CER is true, then it is morally wrong to condemn the Nazis.  
  2 It is not morally wrong to condemn the Nazis.  
Therefore, 3 CER is not true. 1&2

A couple more arguments merely serve to hammer in the last nails of CER's coffin:

The Reformer's Dilemma
       
  1 If CER is true, then the abolitionist movement in pre-civil war US was morally wrong.  
  2 The abolitionist movement in pre-civil war US was not morally wrong.  
Therefore, 3 CER is not true. 1&2
The Arbitrariness Argument
       
  1 If CER is true, then morality is arbitrary.  
  2 Morality is not arbitrary.  
Therefore, 3 CER is not true. 1&2

This last argument may be perplexing. Why should it follow from CER that morality is arbitrary? The reason is that if an action is morally right because a culture 'says so', then the culture could just as easily have said the action is morally wrong. There's no reason, according to CER, for an action's moral rightness or wrongness apart from what's consistent with a given culture. Had the culture been different, morality would be different, for no more reason whatsoever. So morality is arbitrary if CER is true. I find this to be a devastating Reflective Equilibrium argument, in part because it doesn't demand that we know exactly what a culture is. All we need to know is that cultures, whatever they are, determine morality.

  1 If CER fails the Standard of Reflective Equilibrium, CER is false.  
  2 CER fails the Standard of Reflective Equilibrium.  
Therefore, 3 CER is false. 1&2

We conclude that CER cannot be true because it fails each and every one of the Standards.