Wednesday, March 7, 2012

[PL 431] Moral Relativism

In "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," James Rachels says that relativism consists of several claims:
  1. Different societies have different moral codes. [empirical claim about societies]
  2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another. [meta-ethical claim about moral codes]
  3. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many. [meta-ethical claim about moral codes]
  4. There is no “universal truth” in ethics; that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times. [meta-ethical claim about moral truths]
  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. [normative claim about what is right/wrong]
  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. [normative claim about tolerance]
In one of my ethics classes, the following question came up during class discussions:
Imagine a world with many different societies very much like our own world. Unlike our world, however, all the societies in this world have converged on moral code X. These societies have never communicated with one another. But, it just so happens that all of them have adopted moral code X as their societal moral code. This is just a contingent fact about this world.
Now, the question is whether moral code X is universal in this world? What would a relativist say about this scenario?


  1. Yes, the moral code X is universal in this world because all the societies in this world have all adopted it as their societal moral code. However, that does not mean that the moral code they all agreed is necessarily morally correct. A relativist would say that this moral code is universal in this world at that specific time in the context of the world's current circumstances.

    1. If we (and the moral relativist) admit that, in this hypothetical scenario, moral code X (whatever its actual content is) counts as a universal moral code, then that means that there can be universal truth in ethics. If that is the case, then why think that the moral relativist's (4) is true? Maybe there is universal truth in ethics (as in the hypothetical scenario about moral code X) but we simply haven't figured it out yet?

  2. I would say that the moral code X is universal in the world because the claims relativists currently make about the world is no longer true. Claim (1) would be false because all societies would have moral code X. Claim (2) would also be false because if all societies adopted moral code X than there would be an objective standard to judge societal behaviors against. Claim (3) would not exist because there would be only one special code, moral code X. Claim (5) would still be true but because all societies follow moral code X then right and wrong would be universal. Thus, claim (4) would be false because there would be a universal truth due to the fact that there is an objective standard from moral code X. Claim (6) would be insignificant because although there would be little differences that would require tolerance, overall the attitudes and conduct of the majority of people would be similar if everyone had adopted moral code X. As a result, given the following scenario I would say that moral code X would be universal in the world if all people and societies adopted this belief.


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