Moral Relativism

11 November 2016

The world is becoming an increasingly smaller place, culturally speaking. The modern world has more bridges to other cultures and ways of thinking than ever before. This phenomenon is due largely to the advent of the internet, global industry, and increased travel for business and pleasure to opposite corners of the world. This “global village” we live in introduces the average person to more cultural, and seemingly moral, differences than previous generations experienced.

Ruth Benedict’s “Case for Moral Relativism” claims beliefs and practices form irrationally and randomly, creating a world where no one morality is ‘better’ than any other morality. In this paper, I will discuss moral relativism and cultural relativism, and how they relate to each other. Further, in discussion of Pojman’s objectivism, ‘holes’ in the relativist moral theory will rear their ugly heads. I believe there is a middle ground between the two theories, Objectivism and Relativism, and that tolerance is not always a bad thing.

Moral Relativism Essay Example

Moral relativism is often equated with cultural relativism. However, anthropologists cringe at this notion, as defended by Thomas Johnson in his essay, “Cultural Relativism: Interpretations of a Concept. ” Johnson argues that true cultural relativism should not “…prevent an educated person from taking a stand on a variety of moral issues…” (Johnson 794). Rather, cultural relativism is a tool for the objective study of a different culture and leads “…to a much stronger notion of moral values, values that can and should be acted upon…” (Johnson 795).

This view differs from Bendedict’s moral relativism in that while cultural relativism is a tool from which moral attitudes and actions may stem, moral relativism maintains all cultures are equal, and therefore all cultures and cultural practices must be tolerated. Benedict is not alone in her biased presumptions. In his article, “In Defense of Relativism,” Frank Oppenheim asserts, “A relativist may, without inconsistency, favor discrimination or equality, and practice intolerance, tolerance, or over-tolerance” (Oppenheim 416).

This suggests that a wide range of relativists hold these contradicting views, and give each equal weight, without assigning a concept of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to any single view. The cornerstone of Benedict’s moral relativism is that people are malleable (164), and will accept anything if it is institutionalized. She cites examples of ‘abnormal’ behavior and practices in Western society, namely, homosexuality, trance, and catalepsy, which have been accepted and promoted in cultures such as Ancient Greece, some Native American tribes, and even in the glorification of mystics and stigmatists in the Catholic Church.

Moral taboos, as well as accepted practices, according to moral relativism, are the products of institutionalization. Since this is a random and irrational process, no one morality is better than another. Herein lies the one absolute of moral relativism: tolerance. In Pojman’s “The Case Against Moral Relativism,” he divides ethical (moral) relativism into subsections, one of which is entitled “The Diversity Thesis. ” This thesis, another name for cultural relativism, Pojman explains, presupposes that there are few similarities between cultures, achieving the normal and abnormal extreme cases Benedict cites.

Pojman references the work of Clyde Kuckholn, highlighting the numerous similarities between cultures, “Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war and other ‘justifiable homicides. ’ The notions of incest…the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances , of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parents and children – these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal” (Pojman 178).

Although different societies can come up with some ‘out there’ moral practices, basic values and codes of conduct share the same themes across cultures. The view Benedict supports, one which “…recognize[s] that morality differs in every society…” (Benedict 163) ignores the common emphasis different cultures place on the aforementioned moral concepts. In Pojman’s evaluation of relativism, he makes the concession “…the objectivist could concede complete cultural relativism, but still defend a form of universalism” (Pojman 178).

Cultural relativism and diversity is not in itself ethical relativism, merely the palette of examples that seem to support it. Pojman makes the distinction between moral belief and substantive moral principle. While two cultures may hold the killing of innocent persons to the highest degree of abhorrence, they may differ on what constitutes a person, whether it is a fetus or a deranged serial killer, with drastically different moral implications.

Relativism seeks to use the existence of differing moral view s on a subject between cultures as evidence for its theory, when the moral views are common with differing applications of the belief. While I agree with Benedict that people are malleable, and we tend to follow the crowd in moral issues, her explanation of relativism appears biased. There is no mention of the opposing view, that cultures from different corners of the globe place similar emphasis on the same moral concepts, simply emphasized in a different order.

Benedict also fails to recognize the common human experience, namely, human nature. Pojman defines this common experience in simple terms; humans have a ‘common set of needs and interests’ (Pojman 185). To Benedict, societal structure is rooted in chance, morality in the ‘opinion of the majority. ’ The unfortunate consequence of this mentality is primarily the condemnation of ‘social deviants’ (Benedict 164). If the whole world population took on a true relativist view, heroes of justice, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King Jr. Ghandi, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, even Robin Hood, lose their place on the pedestal of ‘ideal’ morality or social conscience. These individuals fought against the ‘norms’ of society, in the name of equality and justice. Relativism does not allow for counter-culture affirmative action, this moral theory promotes passive ethics. Relativism makes no judgments, and therefore, relativists are not inclined to ‘fight for what’s right’ because through the lens of absolute tolerance, there is nothing to fight against; right and wrong are relative.

Pojman’s objections to relativism center upon the existence of common human nature and experience, and that “…it is possible to communicate cross-culturally and find that we agree on many of the important things in life” (Pojman 181). This correlates to the idea of common moral concepts among different cultures and societies. In this common experience of “needs and interests” (Pojman 185), it stands to reason that certain moral practices will better serve needs and interests than others.

This contrasts greatly with Benedict’s all cultures are equal proposal. Benedict makes a valid argument that people develop moral codes as a result of their culture. There is no right or wrong way to develop a society, the only tried and true method is trial and error. Yet, perhaps certain cultures do not experience “better” ways of making moral decisions to increase the fulfillment of their needs and interests. It’s possible no culture has found these “better” ways, the advantage to relativism is that we can appreciate the attempt.

The flipside is that relativism tends to view other cultures in comparison to the relativist’s native culture, defining ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ as seen through that culture instead of the studied culture. Pojman’s objectivism offers a step back from the situation, allowing the questions, “Does this moral concept or action better the society or the individual? ” and “Do these values and practices promote fulfillment of human needs and interests? ” Recognition of cultural diversity in moral norms, beliefs, and practices is valuable in our modern ‘global village. In this context, some principles of moral relativism are valid: people are products of their society and culture, there are always social deviants, and ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behaviors are perceived in every culture. However, the existence of these ‘truths’ do not prove the theory of moral relativism. Pojman refines these observed qualities of human cultures and connects them to a common set of human needs and interests. Every societal and moral system can trace its original purpose to the intent to fulfill those needs and interests.

In this way there is no relativism, only differing applications of moral concepts. In May of 2007, the Vatican pegged “moral relativism” as “a serious threat to humanity” (Fellowship of St James 43), crediting the apparent downward spiral of morality in America to an increase in acceptance of moral relativism. I contend that this acceptance of moral relativism is really a cry of lethargy from the masses. Moral relativism is the lazy way to defend your apathy on moral issues. Objectivism offers a more proactive alternative in our ever changing, every shrinking world.

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