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Rachels Relativism And Subjectivism Notes

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James Rachels - The Elements of Moral Philosophy Chapter Two: The Challenge of Cultural Relativism

Different cultures have different (and often contradictory) moral practices This leads relativists to claim that universal truths in ethics don't exist - all that there is is customs of different societies
○ this leads some cultural relativists to make the 'cultural differences argument':
■ e.g. the Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead, therefore eating the dead is neither objectively right or wrong, but is a matter of opinion
■ in other words:
● different cultures have different moral codes
● therefore there is no objective truth in morality - right and wrong are matters of opinion
○ the problem with this argument is that it is invalid - it don't follow from differences in beliefs that there is no objective truth
■ e.g. just because some cultures believe/d the world is flat and others don't, doesn't mean that there is no fact in the matter What follows from cultural relativism?
○ we could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own
■ good one - Greeks/Callatians
■ bad one - oppressive China, Nazi Germany
○ we could no longer criticize the code of our own society
■ if it conforms to society's moral code, then it is right
● bad one
○ the idea of moral progress is called into doubt
■ bad one - civil right can't represent progress But is there less disagreement than it seems?
○ codes of conduct are usually the product of a) values and b) belief systems
■ but maybe ostensible moral disagreements isn't disagreement in values, but simply in belief systems
● in other words, we have the same values, but just different ways of achieving them, perhaps as a result of e.g. environment
● e.g. Inuit practice of infanticide isn't a sign of disrespect for human life rather, where food is short, such choices must be made to protect human life Are some values shared by all cultures?
○ some values are necessary for societies to exist - exceptions to these values must be the exception, rather than the rule, or the society couldn't function
■ e.g. honesty (lying must be wrong), killing must be wrong`
■ such moral rules do not vary between societies Is there a culture-independent standard of right and wrong?
○ many practices in other cultures - even ones we disapprove of (e.g. female circumcision)
- are based on a calculation of whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people affected by it
■ so is utilitarianism a universal standard?

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