Monday, 13 November 2017
Critique of Ethical Relativism
Ethical relativism is the philosophical theory that there is no such thing as objective moral truth. All judgments about right and wrong, good and evil, are relative to cultural traditions. The version of ER discussed last night (PC meeting, December 2013) is based on a generalization I call Descriptive Relativism 1: different cultures hold conflicting beliefs about right and wrong. That is a well-known fact which does not provide a basis for any interesting ethical conclusions. Different cultures hold different beliefs about all sorts of things: origin of the world; causes of diseases; the best form of government, etc. So what?
A more sophisticated premise would be this one, call it Descriptive Relativism 2: different cultures hold conflicting fundamental beliefs about right and wrong. The distinction is important because many apparent moral differences among cultures disappear when they are traced back to their deeper ethical assumptions. For example, the Aztecs believed human sacrifice was justified, because they thought it was necessary to ensure the sun would rise each day. We agree with that value judgment but disagree about the human sacrifice, because we know sunrises are governed by physical laws and are entirely unaffected by anything humans might do here on earth, even dramatic rituals like human sacrifice. Both Aztecs and we moderns agree that policies which benefit our societies in important ways are good. That's a shared fundamental value. So the dispute is about factual assumptions about how the universe works, not about fundamental values.
For a contrasting example, consider the Navajo game called Chicken Polo. They bury a chicken in the ground up to its neck and then compete on horseback to see who can knock the chicken’s head off. They freely admit that chickens feel pain but see nothing wrong in the game nonetheless. Our culture, of course, regards such activities as morally wrong, because we hold as a fundamental principle that it is wrong to cause pain to sentient creatures for trivial reasons. The Navajos do not hold that principle, so the cultural difference in this case is fundamental.
A proper discussion of ethical relativism must focus on Descriptive Relativism 2. The question then becomes: if different cultures hold differing fundamental beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, does this fact entail ethical relativism?
Descriptive relativism in either version is an empirical generalization, not an ethical theory. Ethical relativism is a theory about moral truth. Some versions of it use descriptive relativism as a basis for ethical relativism.
Using DR2 as the main premise, here is how the argument for ethical relativism goes:
Different cultures hold conflicting fundamental beliefs about right and wrong (DR2).
Therefore, all moral values are relative.
The conclusion can be stated in several ways:
a. Therefore, actions believed to be right in a given culture really are right, and those same acts, if thought to be wrong in another culture, really are wrong.
b. There are no grounds for choosing between conflicting moral beliefs.
c. There are no universal ethical principles, no ethical truths, no ethical knowledge.
d. It is wrong to judge another culture’s morals by our own standards.
Here is an interesting, although inconclusive, observation: most relativists do not really believe their own theory. Ask a relativist if she is really willing to accept that, if some culture believes that torturing children is morally permissible, then torturing children really is ok in that culture. The response to my asking this question is usually dead silence.
Here are the more philosophical objections to ethical relativism (ER):
1. ER can’t account for the fact that we reason and argue with one another about value issues. If there is not at least one ethical constant, we could not reason about values at all.
2. ER can’t explain the many fundamental ethical similarities among various cultures, e.g. the universal prohibition against murder.
3. There is a lot of agreement among cultures about basic norms. If the Basic Argument were valid, we would expect far more basic disagreements than exist in fact in order to justify the conclusion “All values are relative.”
4. How to identify a culture? (pluralistic societies, subcultures, minorities?) How many members of a group are required to establish a cultural norm? Is a motorcycle gang a culture? Is the Muslim minority in Canada a culture? Is there an authentic Canadian culture at all? In a multicultural nation, whose culture gets to decide morality?
5. Why should culture be the arbiter of moral truth? Why not “All values are relative to the whims of the king?” or “All values are relative to the preferences of each individual (subjectivism)?” Standard ER is unable to answer this question.
6. The truly fatal flaw in ER is that the Basic Argument is invalid, a logical fallacy. The premise is an empirical generalization, a statement of fact, whereas conclusion (a) is a statement about values. It is a widely accepted axiom in philosophy that we cannot validly infer a conclusion about right and wrong from a premise that is merely factual. For example, the fact that stealing is common does not entail that stealing is morally right. Thus, the conclusion of the Basic Argument does not follow from DR2.
Conclusions (b) and (c) also are fallacious, because they are epistemological statements, which also cannot be inferred from an empirical premise. For example, in the case of (c), the argument is analogous to reasoning that because people at various times in history have held contrary beliefs about the shape of the earth, there is therefore no truth about the shape of the earth. Analogously, just because the Navajo and most Americans disagree about the morality of Chicken Polo does not imply there is no truth about Chicken Polo being right or wrong. Conclusion (d) is wrong for a different reason: it assumes some standard of right and wrong, thereby contradicting (b).
These arguments constitute a serious challenge to ethical relativism. But it gets worse, Consider the more radical attack by Julien Beillard in his essay “Moral Relativism is Unintelligible." He argues there that it makes no sense to say that "morality is relatively true.” Philosophy Now, July 15, 2013.
Beillard begins with the usual critique of cultural relativism based on DR 1. He then points out that mere disagreement of opinion - in any field at all - does not imply that there is no objective truth about the issues.
Then he makes the interesting argument that ethical relativism is self-defeating. For, if the position is based on the fact of deep and abiding differences of opinion, there arises the problem that ethical relativism itself is an object of considerable deep disagreement among philosophers. Does that mean that ethical relativism itself is not objectively true but only relatively true? Seems so.
However, JB's principal aim is to go beyond showing that ER is false, implausible, or self-defeating. He wants to show that it is unintelligible, i.e. that there is no concept of truth that can be used to frame the thesis that moral truth is relative to the standards or beliefs of a given society (or king or other individual). Check out the article for more on this interesting approach.
Whether a consensus will develop around this approach remains to be seen, but it looks like another serious blow against ethical relativism.