Plato: Protagoras – ‘Man is the measure of all things’
20 th Century Anthropology
Very recently (1950s on): Quine, Post-Structuralists
Descriptive v.s. Normative relativism
Descriptive: there are different moral codes in different cultures
It is a matter of fact that this is the case
Descriptive relativism = key conceptual tool of anthropology
Normative: there can only be different moral codes
It is a matter of principle that this is the case.
‘ It is a norm that there are only different norms…’
Cultural relativism: Meaning
The belief that there is no moral truth that applies to all peoples at all times
since there are no absolute moral standards for moral judgement.
‘ when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.
Consequence: between cultures (and the same cultures at different times), there could be wide moral variance.
e.g. Greece BC 220 slavery is OK; Greece AD 2011 slavery is not OK
Papua New Guinea: Cannibalism is okay in some tribes; Great Britain, less so;
Aztec human sacrifice vs European ‘civilisation’
Not egoism or subjectivism ( ‘man’ = people or cultural group, not individual)
It is not each person, but each person's culture that is the standard by which actions are to be measured.
Why do as Romans, when in Rome?
Societies have structure, including ethical standards. This is what makes them work.
There are common ethical practices within a society, which guide our actions.
Laws and rules provide stability and order in life. But they are relative to a given culture.
Laws and rules have historical origins, so are not absolute.
Consequence: no ethical system is better than any other. They are just different.
CR: tightening the definition
There is very wide variance in moral systems and practices between societies.
Examples from the class?
boiling lobsters in France
drinking animal blood in the Masai Mara
abortion in the UK but not in Ireland
capital punishment in the US but not in the UK
Infanticide in Ancient Greece but not now
Yet: if our moral feelings do not originate from knowledge of an absolute moral measure, can we judge others (absolutely)?
CR: Judging others
promotes tolerance, not ‘ethnocentrism’.
recognises differences but does not judge them by some measure outside the culture in question.
reminds us that our way and what is familiar cannot be assumed to be the right and only way.
‘ Live and Let Live’ attitude.
avoids pointless complexity of normative moral debate
could make morals a matter of persuasion rather than absolutes…
explains why similar cultures have similar moral systems
CR: Some problems
Surely we do judge abhorrent practices? We do so rationally too…
What is a ‘culture’? Culture vs. subculture issues.
Do ethical norms really vary that widely?
Doesn ’t CR amount just to doing what you like (remember: culture isn’t the individual, though…)
Some other issues follow on the next slides…
CR: Coherence issue
Is C.R self contradictory, incoherent? Consider:
There is no absolute truth
Intolerance is wrong
In practice these tends to lead to: Tolerant intolerance! Absolute relativism!
Example: A culture has an intolerant world view!
But CR: ‘We must be tolerant’
Hence ‘intolerance is wrong!’
Self-contradiction: affirms two mutually exclusive things at the same time!
If truth and rightness are relative to cultures then what explains moral change?
In a slave culture a relativist cannot argue on moral grounds that slavery should be abolished. To do so would require appeal to some standard other than the existing social mores, which allow slavery.
Since relativism accepts that what the society believes at the time is better, there can be no possible reason ever offered for the rightness of changing slavery. (But why imagine that social change requires reasons?)
Even if we do move from slavery to non-slavery, we cannot call it progress. (But the idea of ‘progress’ is itself a shibboleth, perhaps?)
CR: Progress issue
CR: Is tolerance always good?
If CR is true, what basis do you have for calling for the end of racism and, torture, genocide, child labour?
Such an appeal would be intolerant, even arrogant. No truth is more true than that of the truth in cultures we would criticise.
So: we cannot appeal to human rights! There are no absolutes…
Worse: whoever controls the culture is the final judge of truth. This can be frightening even in a democratic society when rules are decided by majority, because it is possible for the majority to be wrong – Nietzsche ’s view.