SUMMARY SHEET – Moral Relativism

Relativism – who is to say?

Nietzsche: God is Dead

Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, anything is permissible” (Ivan Karamazov)

Basic argument:

Diversity Thesis : Variation from culture to culture = no universal moral standards
Dependency Thesis : Right and Wrong depends on culture
Morality does not occur in a vacuum – culturally contextualised (missionaries often imposed their values)
No non-cultural point of view (neutrality is a myth)
Therefore: there are no objective moral standards (JL Mackie, Inventing Right and Wrong Penguin, 1977)

A. Individual Relativism (Subjectivism): morality is in eye of the beholder

  1. No criticism is possible (genocide, Hitler)
  2. Mere aesthetic taste or emotivism: ice cream YEAH!
  3. Solipsism (the self is the only thing we can know exists), atomism (separateness)

B. Cultural Relativism (Conventionalism)

Heroditus: Culture is king (Greeks burnt their dead fathers vs Callatians, who ate them! Both were horrified at each other’s practices)
Ruth Benedict: Did sociological research to show that cultures have opposite values (eskimos)? She found a Melanesian tribe that saw kindness and cooperation as vices.

Argument for tolerance

  1. If morality is relative to culture, then there is no independent basis to judge
  2. If there is no independent basis to judge, so ought to withhold judgment/ tolerate
  3. Morality is relative to its culture
  4. We ought to be tolerant of the moralities of other cultures

Problems With Relativism

  1. Self-contradictory
  2. No basis to criticise other’s values
  3. No reform possible
  4. Why obey law?
  5. Definition of culture/society
  6. It’s untrue: There are similar values underlying various ethical mores. (CS Lewis: fairness, truth-telling, loyalty)

C. Why people are relativists

  1. Bad Either/Or: either absolutism or relativism (a logical fallacy: restricting the options)
  2. Recent sensitivity to ethnocentrism, racism, gender-bias
  3. Decline of religion
  4. Honest desire for tolerance tolerance-but, should we be tolerant?
Can’t be tolerant if you do object to some behaviours.







Past Questions

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