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The Challenge of Cultural RelativismJames Rachels

As Rachels notes, CRs make a variety of claims including: 1. Different societies have different moral codes.1 2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.2 3. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.3 4. There is no universal truth in ethics; that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times.4 5. The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.5 6. It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.6 However, we need to determine what is a moral code? What is a moral relativism? Why accept moral relativism? Moral Codes The moral code for an individual as the set of moral norms (rules governing behavior) that person accepts.7 Examples include:

This is a claim that is empiricalthere is either anthropological or sociological evidence for it or against it. 2 This is a metaethical claim which may be true. However, even if there is no objective standard by which to determine epistemically which moral code is correct, it does not follow that one or more is not correct. 3 It depends on what special status means here. If it means true, it is false. Every internally consistent moral code is true relative to its society. Of course, a moral code of one society has no special status with respect to another societies moral code. 4 This may be true even though moral relativism is false. The rightness or wrongness can depend on non-moral contextual facts and thus the morality of some action can differ in different societies as the result. Consider the morality of insults 5 This claim is the core of moral relativism. 6 Note that a call for tolerance only makes sense within a moral code. A moral relativist cannot argue for relativism on the basis of the virtue of tolerance.
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Of course, the set of norms accepted is relative to times. Likewise, we should not that there are basic and non-basic norms. A norm is basic for a person if it cannot be derived from any of the other norms accepted by that person; otherwise, it is non-basic.

Intentionally killing an innocent person is wrong. Lying is wrong unless one has good reason. One should help the needy if the cost to oneself is slight.

Granted, moral codes involving dispositions to act and fitting emotions, but they involve at the very least a set of accepted norms. The moral code of a society consists in the intersection of the moral codes of the individuals; more exactly, it consists as the intersection of the basic moral norms of the individuals. Thus, we can define rightness and wrongness of actions as follows: An action performed by a member of a culture C, is obligatory if, and only if, according to the basic moral norms of C, the action is required. An action performed by a member of a culture C, is wrong if, and only if, according to the basic moral norms of C, the action is prohibited. An action performed by a member of a culture C, is optional if, and only if, according to the basic moral norms of C, the action is neither required nor prohibited. Moral Relativism Hence, moral relativism (MR) is the following doctrine: MR What is right or wrong for the members of a culture depends on (is ultimately determined by) the basic moral norms of their culture.

Note that MR is logically distinct from what we might call context-sensitivity. Consider the following moral principle: One ought to help those who are in need of help when one can with little self-sacrifice. Imagine someone is drowning at Cannon Beach and I am nearby and can swim well. The above principle would entail that I ought to save them. However, for someone who cannot swim, the principle will not entail that they should. This is not because MR is true; rather, it is because of the difference of non-moral facts between us as individuals. The Cultural Differences Argument (1) Different cultures have different moral codes. (2) Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion and opinions vary from culture to culture.

Notice that (1) provides no reason to accept (2). From the fact that an individual(s) express different judgments, it does not follow that there is no fact of the matter to which those judgments answer to. For example, there are those who believe the earth is flat (http://www.flat-earth.org/) and those who believe the earth is circular. From the fact that they make differing judgments about the shape of the earth, it does not follow that the earth is neither flat or round. Note, to make the argument valid, we must add the premise: (*) If different cultures have different moral codes, then there is no objective truth in ethics. However, this premise is plausibly false (see below). Also, Rachels argument above starts with: (1) Different societies have different moral codes. That is, different societies accept different basic moral norms. Thus, the claim of moral diversity supposes that: MD The moral codes of some societies include basic norms that conflict with the basic moral norms that are part of the moral codes of other cultures.8

It is important to note that MD and MR are logically independent.9 Hence, Rachels in common argument is of no consequence. He claims that every society must share some fundamental valuestruth-telling, prohibitions against murder, promise-keeping, etc. If they did not, then there societies would not longer exist since they are necessary conditions for their existence. Notice however, that this does not show moral relativism is false. It would at best challenge (1). Even if everyone possessed the same moral code, the truth of moral beliefs could nonetheless be determined by the moral code accepted by society in effect, there would just be one society. Consequences of Accepting MR

Incidentally, it is not clear how we are to understand this notion of conflict. Moral obligations have the form of In C, A is required; however, this could never be inconsistent with In C*, A is prohibited with the schemas are suitably filled. Thus, the notion of conflict is thus: If a rule R* which is a member of the moral code of C* were a member of the moral code of C, then it would conflict with R. 9 For example, everyone in the world might drive on the same side of the road. However, it would not follow that there is some objective side of the road on which to drive.
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1. Intercultural criticism: One cannot criticize a society other than you own. For example, consider the 30,000 black Africans that have been killed by light skinned Arabs in Sudan. Given that they exist in a society distinct from our own, we cannot morally cricitize this practice. 2. Intracultural criticism (moral reform): If one wants to know whether an action is right or wrong, one only has to consult their societies moral code. In effect, one cannot criticize ones own moral code because by definition it is correct. The reformed is necessarily wrong and the society necessarily right. 3. Progress: There can be no such thing as moral progressthere has been no progress in our own society with respect to race, gender, or treatment of animals for example. 4. Conflicts with our convictions: Nazis had the norm of exterminating Jews during WWII. As such, it was thus morally obligatory for them to kill Jews. That cannot be right can it? What Can We Learn? 1. Many of what appear to be moral beliefs are aesthetic preferences. 2. It is possible that many of our moral beliefs are false; hence, we should non-dogmatic. Fair enough, but there are moral convictions about which we should be dogmaticthe killing of innocent children with no suitable rationale.