25. Moral Relativism
0. Introductory material
i) ethics < Greek ethe = customs and morals < Latin mores = customs
ii) About Ruth Benedict
1. The argument for moral relativism
Morality is just socially approved customs.
Societies differ (often quite strikingly) as to what customs they approve or disapprove.
Morality is, therefore, culturally relative.
2. The lessons of a wider view of cultures
“In the higher cultures the standardization of custom and belief over a couple of
continents has given a false sense of the inevitability of the particular forms that have
gained currency, and we need to turn to a wider survey in order to check the conclusions
we hastily base upon this near-universality of familiar customs.”
What is abnormal in our culture, may be socially placed, honourable in another
i) Trances, catalepsies, pain-endurance
“Most peoples have regarded even extreme psychic manifestations not only as
normal and desirable, but even as a characteristic of highly valued and gifted
"Homosexuals in many societies are not incompetent, but they may be if the
culture asks adjustments that would strain any man’s vitality."
Not just some of the people all of the time, but all of the people some of the time
In ancient Greece, it was common for a middle teen boy to become the lover of an older
man, mid-20’s to 30’s, and the older man would have an obligation to contribute to the
education (mannerly pursuits of hunting etc.) of the younger male
"…Among the Kwakiutl it did not matter whether a relative had died in bed of
disease, or by the hand of an enemy; in either case death was an affront to be
wiped out by the death of another person. The fact that one had been caused to
mourn was proof that one had been put upon…
"…A chief’s sister and her daughter had gone up to Victoria, and either because
they drank bad whiskey or because their boat capsized they never came back.
The chief called together his warriors