Rachels, Ch 2: Cultural Relativism

Possible interpretations of Cultural Relativism


1.      One: Different cultures have different moral codes and beliefs

         a.      A factual claim that is obviously true

         b.      Examples: Eskimos (infants and the elderly); Greeks and Callatians on burial practices

2.      Two: There is no objective truth in morality; there are no right answers to moral questions; that is, no moral questions have (unique) right answers

         a.      This is a controversial claim about the nature of morality; a claim that Rachels calls ethical subjectivism in Ch. 3.

         b.      The cultural differences argument for #2: (Claims that #1 entails #2)

                   i.       Premise: Different cultures have different moral codes (#1 above)

                   ii.      Conclusion: Therefore, there are no objective truths in morality; no right answers to moral questions; right/wrong are mere matters of opinion that vary between cultures/groups (#2 above)

         c.      Rachels criticisms of the cultural differences argument

                   i.       That people disagree about the right answer to a question, doesn’t show that there is no right answer to that question

                            (1)    People disagree about whether the earth is flat, what causes disease and who has the home run record

                            (2)    This disagreement doesn’t show no correct answer

         d.      #2 might still be true, however

                   i.       That this (cultural differences) argument for #2 is faulty doesn’t show that 2 isn’t true, only that this argument hasn’t show that it is true. Maybe there are no right answers to moral questions, but the mere fact people disagree about the answers to moral questions doesn’t show this.

                   ii.      Consider this faulty (invalid) argument with a true conclusion (and true premise)

                            (1)    Nigeria has a very large population

                            (2)    Therefore, Islamic courts in Nigeria have sentenced women who have sex outside of marriage to be stoned to death

3.      Three: What is right for a society is determined by whatever its moral code says is right

         a.      Let’s use this as our definition of cultural relativism (CR)

         b.      Rachels criticizes 3 by pointing out what he takes to be its “unhappy consequences” of this version of CR

         c.      Unhappy consequences of CR:

                   i.       CR entails that one can’t say other cultures or cultural practices are morally inferior (or superior) to ours; no way to judge between two societies that one is better than another in certain respects

                   ii.      CR entails that we should decide what is right or wrong by consulting our society’s standards; this entails that our (every) (consistent) society is perfect and that criticism of a society that lives up to its ideals is always mistaken

                   iii.     CR entails that social reformers are automatically mistaken

                            (1)    Martin Luther King’s critique of American society at the time was a mistake according to CR

                   iv.     CR makes moral progress (of a culture’s standards) impossible; progress/improvement/becoming better implies a transcultural standard and there is none

4.      Four: There are no universally accepted moral rules or universally shared moral values

         a.      Rachels thinks there is much less disagreement in morality than it seems

                   i.       Often what looks to be moral disagreements are not disagreements about values but about facts:

                   ii.      E.g., Permissible or not to eat cows example is really a disagreement in beliefs about facts and not about values

         b.      All cultures must share some common values; no group could survive unless it

                   i.       Valued its young

                   ii.      Had a presumption in favor of truth telling

                   iii.     Had a prohibition against murder

5.      Five: There are no universally applicable moral rules or moral values

         a.      Difference between accepting a rule and whether or not it applies to you

         b.      Notice that all cultures sharing common values doesn’t show that these values necessarily apply to that culture

6.      Six: It is arrogant and intolerant to judge the behavior of other cultures

         a.      Rachels thinks we can learn some things from CR; What is right about cultural relativism:

                   i.       Dangerous to assume all our values are based on absolute rational standard; sometimes what we think is objectively right and wrong may be mere social conventions (e.g.,monogamy versus polyamory –having more than one open romantic relationship at the same time, women covering breasts)

                   ii.      CR helps us keep our minds open, avoid arrogance, and see that sometimes our moral beliefs may only be cultural prejudices; Sometimes strong feelings may have no rational grounds and may be mere cultural conditioning

                            (1)    E.g., views on homosexuality

         b.      CR starts with good insight that many practices are mere cultural products and falsely concludes they all must be

         c.      Should we always be tolerant? Is it always arrogant to judge another or another culture?

                   i.       Is it arrogant to be “intolerant” and judge that excision is wrong or that it is wrong to stone to death women who have babies outside of marriage?

                   ii.      Difference between judging that another culture’s practices are wrong and believing it permissible to intervene in that culture and change the practice

                   iii.     Difference between judging a particular practice of a culture is problematic and condemning the whole culture as inferior

7.      Seven: There are no exception-less general moral rules; any moral rule has circumstances under which it is permissible to break it

         a.      Generally true if a contextualist and not absolutist about moral rules, but ....

         b.      Candidates for absolute moral rules (?): Torture is wrong. Torturing babies is wrong. Torturing babies for fun is wrong. Do the right thing.

8.      Eight: What is right or wrong depends (sometimes? always?) on the situation or circumstances (contextual relativism)

         a.      Lying, pollution examples.

         b.      This is very different from CR (3 above). That different cultural contexts can change what is right and wrong, not same as culture’s beliefs making it right or wrong.

9.      Nine: There are no cultural neutral standards of right and wrong

         a.      Consider this potentially cultural neutral standard: A practice or rule that promotes the welfare of the people affected by it is a good one and such practices or rules that hinder the people’s welfare are bad ones

Study questions for Chapter Two: Cultural Relativism

10.       Consider the following argument: "The burial practices of the Callatians differ from those of the Greeks. The Eskimos have very different marriage customs than we do. There are an indefinite number of examples of this cultural diversity in moral codes. Since different cultures have different moral codes, it follows that there are no right answers to moral questions." Does Rachels think this is a good argument? Explain why or why not in detail.

11.       Consider the following statement: "What is right for members of a culture is determined by whatever their culture's moral code says is right." What are two of the consequences which Rachels thinks follow from this position? Does Rachels agree or disagree with these consequences? Does he agree or disagree with the original statement? Explain why.

12.       Describe the practice of “female circumcision” as it is manifested in several African countries. Does this practice support or cause problems for the doctrine of cultural relativism? Why might someone believe that this example undermines cultural relativism? Is it intolerant to try to prevent this practice from continuing to occur in other cultures?

13.       Does Rachels think all cultures share some values in common? Explain Rachels' argument for either agreeing or disagreeing with this position.

14.       Give an example in which it looks like we have a significant disagreement in value between two cultures and yet the disagreement between the two is really a disagreement in belief about factual issues.

15.       What does Rachels think we can learn from cultural relativism? What dimension of this doctrine is true and valuable, on his view?

16.       Is it "an objective moral truth" that we should be tolerant of others? Is it always appropriate to be tolerant of the behavior of others and other cultures? Why or why not? What does Rachels think about this?

17.       What is contextual or situational relativism?

18.       Are there any moral rules which do not have exceptions (which are absolute)?

19.       Explain the difference between moral rules which are universally accepted and moral rules which are universally applicable.