__NOTITLE__ Studying 2014/2 PHI110: Philosophy, Morality and Society. Week 5. Undertaken Study Period 2, 2014. Content is quoted and/or summarised from the university website in fair dealing for purpose of research or study. See also: StudyWISE and AIMS.
- 1 Cultural Diversity and Moral Relativism
- 2 Links
- 3 Lectures
- 4 Notes
- 5 Questions
- 6 Readings
- 7 Answers
- 8 Activities
- 9 Work
- 10 Glossary
- 10.1 normative
- 10.2 descriptive
- 10.3 metaethics
- 10.4 meting
- 10.5 mete
- 10.6 demarcate
- 10.7 enculturation
- 10.8 unregenerate
- 10.9 dissolute
- 10.10 mores
- 10.11 vitiate
- 10.12 catalepsy
- 10.13 aberrant
- 10.14 exogamy
- 10.15 affinal
- 10.16 inculcate
- 10.17 dicta
- 10.18 dictum
- 10.19 obiter dictum
- 10.20 uncontrovertibly
- 10.21 incontrovertibly
- 10.22 aberrant
- 10.23 adduce
- 10.24 excrescence
- 10.25 accretion
- 10.26 alluvial
- 10.27 alluvium
- 10.28 deracinate
Cultural Diversity and Moral Relativism
This week, we begin the second section of the unit, focussing on meta-ethics and meta-ethical questions.
This week, we examine the relativist challenge to normative ethics. Are some actions right or wrong absolutely, or should the truth of moral claims be considered relative to a culture?
Herewith a list of further reading:
- Bernard Williams
- Henry James
- Henry James and the Zeitgeist
- Moral universalism
- Moral absolutism
- Ruth Benedict
- David Wong
- Descriptive ethics
- Normative ethics
Lecturer for section 2: Dr Mianna Lotz.
Readings downloaded from e-Reserve.
- Benedict, Ruth. "A defence of moral relativism (extract)" in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics, Sommers, Christina; Sommers, Fred, 1993, 160-167 (original)
- Midgley, Mary. "Trying out one's new sword (extract)" in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics, Sommers, Christina; Sommers, Fred, 1993, 174-179 (original)
- Williams, Bernard. "Interlude: Relativism" in Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Williams, Bernard, 1976, 34-39 (original)
- Wong, David. "Relativism" in Companion to Ethics, Singer, Peter, 1993, 442-450 (original)
1. What does 'moral relativism' mean for Benedict?
From the reader: "Morality, says Benedict, is a convenient term for socially approved customs (mores). What one society approves may be disgraceful and unacceptable to another."
So Benedict considers 'moral relativism' to be the variance between cultures regarding what is socially approved.
2. What evidence does Benedict use in defence of moral relativism?
Benedict invokes the difference between cultures on such issues as the value of trances or homosexuality to demonstrate moral relativism. She defends moral relativism by looking at how isolated communities have developed.
3. "Mankind has always preferred to say 'it is morally good' rather than 'it is habitual' ... But historically the two phrases are synonymous" (166) Do you agree? Why or why not?
Yes, I think she has a good point. Morally good and habitually desirable are the same thing.
4. Does relativism about what is normal in a society really amount to relativism about what is morally good? Explain how the distinction between descriptive and normative versions of moral relativism is relevant to Benedict's methodology.
No, relativism about what is normal in a society does not really amount to relativism about what is morally good. The first issue relates to a descriptive ethical understanding but does not imply the validity of its conclusions in normative ethics.
5. According to Benedict, what is right or normal in a culture is just a selection from possible behaviour traits. Does she leave room for the possibility that some selections of behaviour traits would provide 'better' moralities than others?
No, Benedict does not leave room for the notion that some selections of behavioural traits would be morally better than others. Such a determination would be subjective and in turn only valid relative to the culture in which the 'better' behaviour was held to inhere.
6. What does Midgley mean by "moral isolationism"? What considerations and arguments are usually adduced in its defence?
By "moral isolationism" Midgley means the propensity of one culture to refuse to pass judgement on another culture. According to Midgley moral isolationists believe that we cannot "understand any culture except our own well enough to make judgements about it." That moral isolationists "feel that the respect and tolerance due from one system to another forbids us ever to take up a critical position to any other culture."
7. Outline and evaluate Midgley's main objections to moral isolationism.
Midgley says that moral isolationism is "an impossible position". Midgley feels that moral isolationism is "not forced upon us, and indeed that it makes no sense at all." She says that moral isolationism "forbids us to form any opinions", whether amicable or disparaging. Midgley says moral isolationism "would lay down a general ban on moral reasoning", which she says is "[essentially] the programme of immoralism". Her argument seems sound to me.
8. What are Midgley's grounds for claiming that "moral isolationism would lay down a general ban on moral reasoning"? Are you persuaded by Midgely's arguments? Why or why not?
Midgley means that if one culture cannot pass judgement on another culture, then moral conclusions cannot be drawn. I think this is a fair argument, because in order to make progress or form an opinion some judgement needs to be made, even if imperfectly with respect to understanding.
9. Why does Midgley think that moral judgment, including judgment of the practices of other cultures, is inescapable and necessary? Is she right? Does her view lead to intolerance? Provide reasons for your answer.
To the extent that anything is to be said about other cultures it is inescapable and necessary that moral judgements be made. In this I agree with Midgley, we can seek to understand and judge foreign cultures, understanding that such judgements are relative to our own culture. This view doesn't automatically lead to intolerance. Tolerance could be a factor in the observing culture and is thus not necessarily absent.
10. Provide a reasoned evaluation -- positive or negative -- of the Samurai practice of 'trying out one's new sword'. If you feel you are not in a position to evaluate this practice, explain why not.
I don't have an issue with the Japanese tradition. I'm glad I don't live in such a brutal culture, but I can to some extent empathise with the violent, brutal and authoritarian culture of medieval Japan where from this practice originated. As I understand it in such a culture life was cheap and honour was paramount. Perhaps it was even true that the peasants consented to the practice.
11. Williams acknowledges that the version of moral relativism he considers is the 'vulgar and unregenerate form'. What is his characterisation of the position? Do you think this is fair to relativists? How might the views of actual relativists differ from the view Williams outlines?
Williams characterises the version of moral relativism he is considering as an absurd view that rests on three premises being that a) "right" means "right for a given society"; b) that "right for a given society" is to be understood in a functionalist sense; and c) that therefore it is wrong for people in one society to judge the values of another society. I'm not sure if this is fair to relativists and don't know how actual relativists might respond...
12. Why is the view as he characterises it "clearly inconsistent"?
The inconsistent view is that in the third premise, that it is not right for people in one society to judge the values of another society, a non-relative sense of the term "right" is used in an absolute sense.
13. What kind of moral relativism is the position Williams describes? (i.e. Descriptive, normative, meta-ethical?)
I think meta-ethical. He's not proscribing anything, so he's not engaging in normative ethics. He is investigating what is meant by the moral terms "right" and "wrong" which is a meta-ethical activity. To some extent he describes specific moralities (e.g. of the Ashanti people) which is descriptive.
14. What problem does William note with the definition of what counts as a 'society'? What does he take to be the genuinely interesting claim that could be investigated about the relationship between a society and its values?
Williams says that if cultural units are identified by their values then empirical statements concerning such societies cease being empirical statements and become mere tautology. Williams considers the interesting territory as being a "province of informative social science, where there is room for such claims as that a given practice or belief is integrally connected with much more of a society's fabric than may appear on the surface, that it is not an excrescence."
15. What does it mean to say that what is right for a given society is to be understood in a functionalist sense?
A "functionalist sense" has regard for how a cultural value functions within the society. That is, what utility there is in cultural values.
16. What point does Williams make with reference to Bernal de Diaz's account of the visit to the Aztec sacrificial temples?
That witnessing foreign cultural practices can be a genuinely horrifying experience...
17. What is the 'argument from diversity'? Why, according to Wong, does that argument not support moral relativism "in any simple or direct way"? How does this relate to the distinction between descriptive and normative relativism?
The argument from diversity is the opinion that because we have diverse cultures here on Earth that this is a necessary and natural state. Wong notes that just because there are diverse cultures doesn't mean that most or all of them could be wrong. It's a descriptive fact that there are diverse cultures, but a normative argument needs to be made concerning their validity. "The mere existence of deep and wide disagreements in ethics, therefore, does not disprove the possibility that moral judgements can be objectively correct or incorrect judgements about certain facts."
18. What sort of argument does Wong think would best support moral relativism? What example does he give?
Wong believes "that the relativist argument is best conducted by pointing to particular kinds of difference in moral belief, and then by claiming that these particular differences are best explained under a theory that denies the existence of a single true morality. This would involve denying that the various ways that universalists have for explaining ethical disagreement are sufficient for explaining the particular differences in question."
Wong suggests the example of "individual rights" that are embodied in the modern West and are absent in traditional cultures found in Africa, China, Japan and India.
19. What "two universal human needs" does morality serve?
a) it "regulates conflict of interest between people." and b) it "regulates conflict of interest within the individual born of different desires and drives."
20. Is it consistent with the relativism Wong describes that some moralities are better than others? Why or why not?
Yes, according to Wong different moralities can be better or worse than others depending on how well they complement our human nature or function for us in our societies. Some cultural practices can be unsustainable or undesirable, that "some moralities might be false and inadequate for the functions they must perform."
21. Some people have argued that moral relativism is not tenable because a person's commitment to his or her moral beliefs (and the commitment to act on them) relies on perceiving them as corresponding to the one true morality. What is Wong's response to this objection?
Wong says that "surely some reflection will reveal that such a belief alone would not guarantee a commitment to act. The commitment to act involves a conception of what one's morality means to the self, whether it be the only true one or not. It involves making a connection between what one desires, what one aspires to, and the substantive content of one's moral values. It is being able to see morality as important to us in these ways that allows us to avoid nihilism. The belief that our morality is the only true or most justified one does not automatically create this kind of importance, nor is it a necessary condition for this kind of importance, because the values I may see as important and part of what makes life most meaningful to me may not have to be values that all reasonable persons would accept or recognise to be true."
- Self Test Quiz - Week 05 Cultural Diversity and Moral Relativism
- Discussion forum for Week 5: Cultural Diversity and Moral Relativism
- Week 5 review: What have you learnt? (original)
Things to do, most important on top:
Things that are done, most recent on top:
- Do the Activities
- Answer the Questions
- Read the Readings
- Read the Questions
- Read the Lecture notes
- Listen to the Lectures
Herewith a list of new and/or interesting words and selected definitions:
- Of, relating to, or prescribing a norm or standard: normative grammar.
- Giving directives or rules; prescriptive. Opposed to descriptive.
- Involving or characterized by description; serving to describe.
- Concerned with classification or description: a descriptive science.
- Grammar Expressing an attribute of the modified noun, as green in green grass. Used of an adjective or adjectival clause.
- Grammar Nonrestrictive.
- Linguistics Of or relating to the study or the description of a language or a specific stage of a language, with emphasis on constructing a grammar without regard to historical development, comparison with other languages, or advocated norms for correct or proper usage.
- The study of the meaning and nature of ethical terms, judgments, and arguments.
- The descriptive study of philosophical ethical systems, especially with regard to their key concepts, techniques of reasoning and analysis, and linguistic conventions.
- Present participle of mete.
- To distribute by or as if by measure; allot: mete out justice.
- Archaic To measure.
- A boundary line; a limit.
- To set the boundaries of; delimit.
- To separate clearly as if by boundaries; distinguish: demarcate categories.
- the process by which an individual adopts the behaviour patterns of the culture in which he or she is immersed.
- Not spiritually renewed or reformed; not repentant.
- Sinful; dissolute.
- Not reconciled to change; unreconstructed.
- Stubborn; obstinate.
- Lacking moral restraint; indulging in sensual pleasures or vices.
- The accepted traditional customs and usages of a particular social group.
- Moral attitudes.
- Manners; ways.
- To reduce the value or impair the quality of.
- To corrupt morally; debase.
- To make ineffective; invalidate. See Synonyms at corrupt.
- A condition characterized by lack of response to external stimuli and by muscular rigidity, so that the limbs remain in whatever position they are placed. It is known to occur in a variety of physical and psychological disorders, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia, and can be induced by hypnosis.
- Deviating from the proper or expected course.
- Deviating from what is normal; untrue to type.
- One that is aberrant.
- The custom of marrying outside the tribe, family, clan, or other social unit.
- Biology The fusion of two gametes that are not closely related.
- Related by marriage; from the same source.
- To impress (something) upon the mind of another by frequent instruction or repetition; instill: inculcating sound principles.
- To teach (others) by frequent instruction or repetition; indoctrinate: inculcate the young with a sense of duty.
- A plural of dictum.
- An authoritative, often formal pronouncement: "He cites Augustine's dictum that 'If you understand it, it is not God'" (Joseph Sobran).
- Law See obiter dictum.
- obiter dictum
- Law An opinion voiced by a judge that has only incidental bearing on the case in question and is therefore not binding. Also called dictum.
- An incidental remark or observation; a passing comment.
- In an incontrovertible manner; in a manner not capable of being denied, challenged, or disputed.
- Deviating from the proper or expected course.
- Deviating from what is normal; untrue to type.
- One that is aberrant.
- To cite as an example or means of proof in an argument.
- An outgrowth or enlargement, especially an abnormal one, such as a wart.
- A usually unwanted or unnecessary accretion: "Independent agencies were an excrescence on the Constitution" (Los Angeles Times).
- Growth or increase in size by gradual external addition, fusion, or inclusion.
- Something contributing to such growth or increase: "the accretions of paint that had buried the door's details like snow" (Christopher Andreae).
- Biology The growing together or adherence of parts that are normally separate.
- Geology Slow addition to land by deposition of water-borne sediment.
- Geology An increase of land along the shores of a body of water, as by alluvial deposit.
- Astronomy An increase in the mass of a celestial object by the collection of surrounding interstellar gases and objects by gravity.
- Of, relating to, or found in alluvium: alluvial soil; alluvial gold.
- Sediment deposited by flowing water, as in a riverbed, flood plain, or delta. Also called alluvion.
- To pull out by the roots; uproot.
- To displace from one's native or accustomed environment.