No one system of morality is universal. But can we find a way to synchronize the world?
Educators believe the concept of right and wrong should be taught to children; yet, the concept itself has been challenged as to whose conception of right and wrong should be planted in the minds of the young. In this example, absolutists and relativist have been arguing the claim for choosing moral guidance. Could anyone (organisation or person) be entrusted as the arbitrator in morality? Is everyone meant to follow the same morals?
Ethical relativism is true per se – as no moral principles are valid for everyone. Anthropologists have made discoveries to back up the claim that different cultures have different practices and moral priorities and those which prevail in one does not necessarily have to be accepted in another. This argument tends to lean towards the descriptive explanation, where it is concluded that no one system of morality is universal; “what is believed to be morally good and bad differs from culture to culture” (Benn, 2006 p15) – meaning no system of moral is valid for everyone. Then, we have the normative side where codes of conduct could be assumed to be culturally determined. “Are certain things right for some cultures, but not for others – in the sense that the members of some cultures have certain obligations which members of other cultures do not have?” (Benn, 2006 p15) Ethical relativism, face another problem through other cynics who might claim that universal moral principles do exist. However, a major issue is raised here as the existence of such principles cannot be known; and the attempt to educate people morally comes across as an extreme act of arrogance when the educators would be people just as morally fallible as the rest.
The doctrine has also been questioned in its addition to most debates. Does it even make sense? If it is believed that one should follow the moral principles imposed culturally, that makes no point in arguing the validity of other cultures, as one would have to first see the culture as authority. But this would close the debate uninterestingly. Therefore we look at the argument of cultural diversity where it takes the truth of the statement “no one system of morality is universally valid”. This leads to conclude the underlying assumption that some beliefs are false. Why can’t some people be wrong about their morality however strongly the hold to their conviction? An example to back the logic used is in other fields of science where many professionals disagree among themselves. A case that goes against ethical relativity is where morality is questioned by the individuals within the culture (after the assumption that each culture should comply with their respective prevailing opinions and morals).
The argument however is more complicated as the logic behind acknowledging culturally imposed patterns as “right” is heavily scrutinized by the Argumentum ad Nazium. This states the example of the Nazi culture that was clearly mistaken about moral principles. Assuming, Germany had won World War II, killed all Jewish Europeans and established Nazi values over Europe, the question of whether their values (human good emerges from conflict and domination) would then be deemed as good after they would’ve had settled as a culture. It looks more likely that they would still be wrong even if they had their own culture. The Nazi example seems enough to suggest the flaw with ethical relativism as the consequence of its applied doctrine here seems unacceptable. What ethical relativism seems to be promoting is tolerance; the idea of respecting the choice of one another. Is this acceptable? It could well be seen as confusion or moral cowardice when one is asked to withhold judgement from cases of extreme evil.
Some cultures are grounded on authoritarianism (countries under strict Islamic rules for example) and leave the ethical relativist with a hard choice when expected to respect the other side’s approach to morality. However, these cultures have survived perfectly with intolerance, dogmatism and other illiberal moral certainties. Perhaps what ethical relativism is trying to elicit is toleration from all. Toleration has always been considered as morally virtuous. However, is it possible to be tolerant to others who strongly believe in “wrong”? So far, the only universally working derivative from the relativism debate seems to be toleration. The problems that confront ethical relativism remain debatable issues with no perfect solutions. However, a strong backup for toleration comes from Simon Blackburn’s article where it came as conclusive that some arguments are pointless – such as arguing about one’s art preference in a gallery. It might keep the debate calmer if people were to agree to differ. Or, maybe relativism is just a way of dealing with each other’s choices while still not fully in agreement with it: tolerance. A similar example would be Piers Benn’s mention of colour preference; where relativism could not determine the “degree of pleasantness” to show which colour was “better”. Ethical relativism is extremely important as it has elicited toleration from many while tackling hostility among parties. However, it does not seem to really bring anything concrete in helping, apart from reminding the fact that everyone is entitled to freedom of choice. According to Kantians, the sole motivating factor for someone’s action should be reason, and should issue from their own rational deliberations.
Relativism’s addition to the issues on morality seem vague, as – assuming that moral judgements are judgements of personal taste, like one’s preference for a certain colour – it seems fair to conclude that one choice might be desirable for one but not for another. Yet, the logic of “good for one, bad for another”, can be misleading sometimes in morality. The example of the colour blind test mentioned by Piers Benn seems to deliver concrete proof of how relativism remains a questionable doctrine. Assuming red-green colour blindness was on the rise, the majority would likely quality the affected as “seeing things differently” and not less correctly. This logic however is flawed when applied in other circumstances such as: if half of the population had a disorder that affected their orientation and ability to size objects, they would surely be causing severe injuries to themselves and others; in that case they would be considered as “wrong”. The analogy of colour seems more fitting for morality. However, it still seems unlikely that the concept will work across all cultures, as that analogy also cancels the idea of dispute – as it would entice that each culture is right in its own choice.
The examples mentioned seem to bring ethical relativism to just a matter of adopting a tolerant attitude towards others; even if it goes against your beliefs as a human being. While relativism does not seem to add much to the main outcome, it does help parties cope with their differences with an element of fairness.
Benn P. (2006) Ethics. pp1-29. Cornwall: TJ International Ltd
Blackburn S. (2002) Think Autumn. pp83-88
And a nod to Garo. A for sparking the question.
28.03.2013 | An Essay By Danny J. D’Purb :: DPURB.com |Twitter: @DannyDPurb