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Lect 1 Ethical Relativism.docx

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PHIL 2070
Susan Dimock

Ethical Relativism 2 Kinds of Relativism: ethical relativism and social / cultural relativism Social / cultural relativism Descriptive, anthropological thesis: Begins with a recognition that different societies have different moral beliefs, different beliefs about what is good and bad, just and unjust, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious, and about what ought to be done and ought not to be done. They subscribe to and live under different moral codes. There is moral disagreement in the world, between societies. William Graham Sumner defends cultural or social relativism (a.k.a. conventionalism). He traced how, in every society, their “folkways” become over time their ‘mores’. Their ‘mores’become their ‘morality’. Their morality is shaped by their ‘ethos’and life conditions, and ‘ethos’become their ‘ethics’. There is no independent standard of good and bad, right and wrong, to apply to a society’s mores themselves. Right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious are relative to, and determined by, social beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious Moral judgments are a matter of social preference. X is right = df X is approved of in our society. Moral statements are at most true for a particular society. Sumner: “The tradition is its own warrant” and “whatever is, is right”. Social Relativism / Conventionalism: 1. Diversity thesis 2. Dependency thesis C. There are no objective moral standards that apply to all people everywhere. Supposed attractions of conventionalism: 1) fit with observed fact of variability 2) fit with social nature of morality 3) supports toleration Allows us to criticize our own or other societies’moral codes on grounds (a) of internal consistency, and (b) lack of integrity and failure to live up to professed principles. But that is all. 1 Problems: 1. it does not square with our practice of how we use morality (moral argument, inquiry, doubt, discourse, education) 2. would make it conceptually confused to praise or criticize other societies on moral grounds 3. we cannot coherently dissent, on moral grounds, from the conventional morality of our society; minority moral positions would always be wrong 4. the ideas of moral ‘progress’and moral ‘reform’would make no sense 5. the authority of morality ungrounded 6. practical difficulty of discovering what a society’s moral position is Ethical Relativism Ethical relativism in a normative thesis: it says that either (a) whatever each individual thinks is right, or (b) whatever a society accepts is right. It is normative rather than descriptive in the sense that it is a theory about how we ought to behave. We all ought to do either (a) whatever each of us thinks is right, or (b) whatever our society thinks is right. I have a moral obligation to do something just in case (a) I accept that I have such an obligation, or (b) my society thinks I have that obligation. There are thus two kinds of ethical relativism: individual and social. Between social and individual ethical relativism, one must make a choice, because they are contradictory theses. Moral principles are true or valid only relative to some culture or group (conventionalism) or individual (subjectivism). Individual Ethical Relativism:Action X is right for person P iff P thinks that X is what she should do. Social Ethical Relativism: Action X is right for person P iff P’s society thinks X is what she should do. Does the fact of moral disagreement support either individual or social ethical relativism? If we had complete moral agreement, would that refute either individual or social ethical relativism? Ethical Relativism pairs with SUBJECTIVE meta-ethical theories. The most common forms of subjectivism are emotivism and prescriptivism When we make a moral judgment, we are really just apprehending a feeling we have, a positive or negative feeling about the object of our judgment, a positive or adverse reaction we are experiencing. When we say X is wrong, we are really reporting something about ourselves, not something objective about X itself. 2 This view gives rise to an expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language. Moral judgments are just • statements of personal preference or emotional reaction • expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour • expressions of imperatives Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for me. Moral language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth valued. Our moral feelings will, of course, be heavily influenced by how we are raised and by what our societies think is morally good and right. Individual Ethical Relativism or Subjectivism has all of the same problems as cultural or social relativism. And it seems to get the explanation backward. It says X is right because I approve of X or want X to be done. But surely I approve of X and want it to be done because X is right and ought to be done. My feelings are responses to the moral qualities that X has, rather than the other way around. Social Ethical Relativism What is right is whatever my society thinks is right. I ought to do what my society says I ought to do. The subjectivism of social or cultural ethical relativism is just what you would expect. Its expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language says that moral judgments are just • statements of social preferences or emotional reactions • expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour found in one’s society • expressions of the imperatives one’s social groups want to be followed Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for my social group. Moral language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth valued. Has all the same problems as social or cultural relativism. No relativist normative theory fits the facts of our moral practices, or provides the kind of authoritative action guide we take morality to be. 3 Meta-ethical Relativism William Shaw distinguishes between met-ethical relativism and normative relativism. We have so far been talking about normative ethical relativism. Meta-ethical relativism: there is no rational way of justifying competing ethical judgments, no standard of objective validity or certification for ethical beliefs and opinions. Meta-ethical relativism does not entail normative ethical relativism. But ethical relativism does entail meta-ethical relativism. Shaw considers two competing meta-ethical theories, theories that compete with meta- ethical relativism as the right meta-ethical theory. (I don’t think it’s right to treat Emotivism as a meta-ethical theory on par with Naturalism and Intuitionism, so I have changed the presentation a bit). Relativism contrasts with Universalism, which is related to Objectivism. Ethical Objectivism: At least one universally valid or true moral principle exists. Shaw considers two meta-ethical theories that could support the claim that there are objective moral facts which we can know, facts that provide a standard of objective validity or certification for moral beliefs and opinions. The meta-ethical theories he considers are Naturalism and Intuitionism. Naturalism: Moral terms like ‘right’and ‘good’can be defined in terms of natural, non-ethical properties. Some influential suggestions have included ‘right’is ‘what promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and ‘justice’is ‘whatever promotes equality between the genders or races’. What looks like moral disagreement is really just disagreement about natural facts, like what does serve the greatest happiness (a welfare state or a minimalist state) or what will promote gender or racial equality (e.g., affirmativ
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