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 « some » moral principles such as genomics which disregards assimilation. Assuming, Germany had won World War II, 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 have had settled as a culture seems conclusive. Surely, they would still be flawed in some aspects of their ideologies 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 [e.g. some elements of Islam regarding all non-Muslims termed ‘kaffirs’].
Some locations have been imposing strict behavioural patterns (culture) on members of their respective groups with rules grounded on authoritarianism (e.g. some countries under strict Islamic rules). Such rules would surely leave the resident ethical relativist with a hard choice [if any] when expected to respect the other side’s approach to morality as a matter of giving every human being the freedom to choose their groups, sub-cultures, appearance & social patterns. However, these cultures have survived perfectly for generations [with dogmatism and other illiberal moral certainties] with a blossoming number of faithful living within the confines of their political boundaries – where they are allowed to so as long as the choices of other countries, groups & individuals are respected. By a similar rationale, it would be fair to assume that the owner of a house is free to set out the indoor decorations, furnitures and rules but would be deemed as fairly unreasonable should he try to impose rules in his neighbour’s home [who might prefer blinds to curtains, or Ribena over Pepsi].
Perhaps what ethical relativism is trying to elicit is toleration from all. Toleration has long been considered as morally virtuous. Yet, 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 in full agreement: 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 seem to fall short in terms of help and support when faced with irrational parties who consider their opinions and desires as the only valid agenda and outcome [dictatorship]. Apart from reminding the fact that as a matter of human decency, freedom of choice would seem a rightful entitlement to every human being of the 20th century living on a modern and civilised planet. According to Kantians [Immanuel Kant’s adepts], the sole motivating factor for someone’s action should be reason, and should issue from their own rational deliberations.
Moral 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 at times be misleading 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 globally, as that analogy also completely cancels the idea of dispute [a hard outcome when human judgement clouded by selfish emotions influence particular individuals] – as this would entice that each culture is right in its own choice; a concept that could easily lead to the arms dealer’s nightmare and a peaceful civilisation.
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: accepting the fact that judgements of taste & lifestyle differs from person to person, and what may be deemed as ‘perfect’ to some may in fact be a torturous nightmare to others [others sometimes in direct genetic networks/bloodlines or culture/nationality/class/IQ,etc].
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 | Danny J. D’Purb | DPURB.com
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