The Elements of Moral Philosophy
Chapter 2: The Challenge of cultural relativism:
2.1. Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes:
- Darius ancient king of Persia intrigued by the cultures met during his travels
- Findings: Callatians (India) ate the bodies of their dead fathers.
- Greeks: practiced cremation, regarded funeral pyre most natural way to
dispose of body.
- Upon asking the different cultures what it would take to get them to take part
in the different rituals they were both shocked and said they would never do
- This is an example: different cultures have different moral codes.
- What is thought right within one group may horrify the members of another
- Lived in small settlements
- Men often had more than one wife
- They would share their wives with guests
- Within a community a dominant man may demand and get regular sexual
accesses to other men’s wives
- Women were free to break arrangements by leaving the husband
- Care less about human life, Infanticide was common
- One woman gave birth to 20 children and killed 10
- Female babies were more likely to be killed
- Elderly members become to feeble they are left out in the snow to die
- Reactions to Eskimos way of life and customs may be that it is “unnatural” or
“primitive”, but to anthropologists this does not seem unusual.
- Observers have known that conceptions of right and wrong differ across
2.2 Cultural Relativism:
- Different cultures have different moral codes – seems like the key to
understanding morality to many people.
- There are no universal moral truths, the customs of different societies are all
that exist they say.
- To call a custom “correct” or “incorrect” would simply imply that we could
judge that custom by some independent standard of right and wrong. (no
such standard exists) William Graham Summer:
- The “right way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been
- In Folkways, whatever is, is right
- This is because they are traditional, and therefore contain in themselves the
authority of ancestral ghosts.
- States that there is no such thing as universal truth in ethics, there are only
various cultural codes, and nothing more.
- The following claims have been made by CR’s:
1. Different societies have different moral codes
2. The moral code of society determines what is right within that society
3. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge ones society’s code
as better than another’s
4. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among
5. It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures; we should be tolerant of them.
- Properly understood, CR holds that the norms of a culture reign supreme
within the bounds of the culture itself.
- “When in Rome, do as the romans do”
2.3 The cultural differences argument:
- Cultural relativists often employ a certain form of argument
- They begin with facts about cultures and end up drawing a conclusion about
- Thus they invite us to accept this reasoning:
1. The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians
believed it was right.
2. Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong.
It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies fro culture to culture.
1. The Eskimos saw nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas the Americans
believe infanticide is immoral.
2. Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor wrong, It is merely a
matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture. - These arguments are variations of one fundamental idea. They are both
examples of a more general argument, which says:
1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
2. Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality. Right and wrong are
only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
- We may call this the cultural differences argument
- It’s a good argument but is it sound?
- For an argument to be sound, its premises must all be true, and the
conclusion must follow logically from them.
- The premise concerns what people believe in some societies, people believe
one thing; in other societies people believe something else.
- The cultural differences argument tries to derive a substantive conclusion
about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree. But this is
- Cultural differences argument is invalid, thus the argument fails, the
conclusion does not follow from the premise.
2.4. What follows from cultural relativism:
- Main point stressed by cultural relativism: we should never condemn a
society merely because its different
- What if we took this seriously, some consequences would be:
- 1) We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are
morally inferior to our own:
- We would be barred from criticizing other less benign practices (Chinese
slaughtering 100’s – 1000’s of peaceful protestors)
- If we accept cultural relativism we have to regard such practices as immune
- 2) We could no longer criticize the code of our own society:
- Cultural Relativism suggests a simple test for determining what is right and
what is wrong: all we need to do is ask whether the action is in line with the
code of the society in question
- Cultural relativism is disturbing because few people think their society is
perfect, and also think of ways that it can be improved. Yet cultural relativism
stops us from criticizing our own societies code, and bars us from seeing
ways in which other cultures might be better.
- 3) The idea of moral progress is called into doubt:
- We think that some social changes are for the better (ex. women’s rising
power in society) most people see this example as progress
- If cultural relativism is correct, can we legitimately see this as progress?
- Progress means replacing old ways with new and improved ways, but by
what standard do we judge the new ways as better?
- To say that we have made progress implies that present-day society is better-
just the sort of transcultural judgment that cultural relativism forbids. - Ideas about social reform have to be reconsidered
- According to cultural relativism, there is only one-way to improve a society;
to make it better match its own ideals. Therefore Martin Luther King would
be in the wrong; he tried to change the societies ideals.
- 2.5. Why there is less disagreement than it seems:
- Often what seemed at first to be a big difference turns out to be no difference
- Ex. A culture that believes it is wrong to eat cows, this may seem very
different from our own values.
- Suppose they believe that after death the souls of humans inhabit an