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Moral Relativism

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Robert Vigliotti
PL 3100 Ethical Theory
Rockhurst University

Published in: Education, Spiritual
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Moral Relativism

  1. 1. Moral Relativism
  2. 2. Moral Relativism • The philosophical theory of relativism claims that what is right or good differs from culture to culture or even from person to person. • Moral truth is always relative to a culture or person’s particular circumstances. • There are no absolute or objective moral values or principles.
  3. 3. Moral Relativism • Response to increasing contact with diverse cultures with radically different customs and values. • Rejection of ethnocentrism: the uncritical belief (prejudice) that one’s own culture is inherently superior to another or all others. – 19th Century: Imperialism and Social Darwinism
  4. 4. Cultural Relativism / Conventionalism • Based on two claims: 1. Diversity Thesis: – What is considered morally right and wrong varies from society to society, so that there are no moral principles accepted by all societies.
  5. 5. Cultural Relativism / Conventionalism 2. Dependency Thesis: – All moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance. • The acceptance of moral principles is itself the product of historical accident. The moral code to which we adhere is ultimately arbitrary. • Analogy: the rules of grammar for a particular language.
  6. 6. Cultural Relativism / Conventionalism • Conclusion: – Therefore, there are no universally valid moral principles that apply to all people everywhere and at all times.
  7. 7. Subjective Ethical Relativism / Subjectivism • Subjectivism claims that moral truth are relative to individual personal beliefs. In other words, morality is subjective—what’s right or good for me. – Ultimately reduces morality to aesthetic tastes or purely emotional responses (emotivism). – Makes morality a useless concept because there can be no interpersonal criticism, judgment, evaluation. – Based on atomistic view of self, which happens to be favored by our emphasis on individualism, but is belied by our obvious belonging to several communities.
  8. 8. Subjective Ethical Relativism / Subjectivism Diversity Thesis What is considered morally right and wrong varies from person to person, so that there are no moral principles accepted by all persons. Dependency Thesis All moral principles derive their validity from individual acceptance. Conclusion Therefore, there are no universally valid moral principles that apply to all persons or individuals everywhere and at all times.
  9. 9. Cultural Relativism: Strengths • Recognizes the anthropological fact of diversity. • Recognizes the influence of culture on our formation. • May create attitude of tolerance/critique of ethnocentrism.
  10. 10. Cultural Relativism: Weaknesses • Tolerance is a principle that may be precluded by a particular culture. – Can a relativist say that we ought to be tolerant of other cultures? What about cultures that aren’t? • Which culture? In a pluralistic society we belong to many groups with conflicting views. To which do we adhere? • If my cultural moral code is arbitrary, why should I adhere to it? Slippery slope back to Subjectivism.
  11. 11. Cultural Relativism: Weaknesses • Are cultures all that different? – While cultures certainly have different moral rules, do they necessarily have different principles or values? • Even if cultures do not share common moral rules or values, can we conclude that no universal principles exist? – Fallacy: Appeal to Ignorance
  12. 12. Cultural Relativism: Weaknesses • No cross-cultural criticism for acts or practices that seem to us to be blatantly wrong. – Relativism and Subjectivism preclude the possibility of moral criticism altogether. • We have no basis for evaluating moral progress. – We cannot say, for example, that the abolition of slavery was a good thing or a moral improvement, only that it was a change in beliefs. (We can call this historical or temporal relativism.)

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