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 may 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 regarding human evolution and natural selection – policies that discarded assimilation and considered all non-Germans as inferior. Assuming that Germany had won World War II and applied Nazi policies and values over Europe and other areas, the question of whether their policies and values (i.e. 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 and policies even if they had their own culture.
The Nazi example clearly shows the flaw with ethical relativism because the consequence of some sections of its applied doctrines would have been a wrong understanding of human evolution, and hence, an erroneous interpretation and application of Darwin’s theory since it would have wrongly discarded the fundamental evolutionary principle of « natural selection » (assimilation) [See: Essay // Psychological Explanations of Prejudice & Discrimination].However, in the 1930s, a tremendous amount of research on genetics was not yet carried out and perhaps if the Nazis had access to all the latest research of the 21st century, they would have rectified their policies based on good science after understanding that evolution encompasses all human organisms, since scientists have discovered 1,000 new “intelligence genes” [which is a highly heritable trait and a major determinant of human health and well-being] and have also found that 2 types of extroverts to have more brain matter than most common brains; this logically means that any talented individual organism with superior genes would be an asset to any group it assimilates into and passes down its genetic inheritance, this would lead to the enhancement of the organic composition of the particular group. It is also to be noted that Adolf Hitler himself was the product of inbreeding between a man and his niece, the kind of breeding that Darwin himself would have been against since those inbred genes have the potential to pass down serious genetic diseases.
Hence, what « ethical relativism » seems to be promoting is tolerance; the idea of respecting the choice of one another. But is this acceptable in every scenario? Definitely not, because 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 the treatment of all non-Muslims termed ‘kaffirs’ (See: Essay // History on Western Philosophy, Religious cultures, Science, Medicine & Secularisation)].
In some locations on our small planet, strict behavioural patterns (culture) have been imposed on members of particular groups, rules grounded on authoritarianism (e.g. some countries under strict Islamic rules that many muslims living in the modern world themselves find irrational and excessive). 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 to their restrictive lifestyle who are 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. 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 or she try to impose these personal rules in their neighbour’s home [who might prefer curtains to blinds, or fresh fruit juice over Pepsi]. Perhaps what ethical relativism is trying to elicit is toleration from all, but can complete control over human lives be compared to judgements on artistic tastes and decoration? Toleration has long been considered as morally virtuous. Yet, is it possible to be tolerant to others who strongly believe in “wrong” and who discard scientific facts, genetics and medicine? [E.g. legitimising marriage between cousins that promote genetic diseases?] Even from a religious perspective, some modern and evolving thinkers in the Christian faith see science as the systematic study of God’s works; Michel Langlois may phrased it well in saying « Si Dieu nous a créés avec un cerveau, c’est pour qu’on s’en serve ! » [which is French for « If God created us with a brain, it’s so we can use it! ».
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 an art 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 personal choices while still not being 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”; and no objective scientific test in a laboratory will ever manage to do so.
Artistic preferences related to colours and style is a decision that is highly personal, influenced by a range of subjective factors that elicit particular feelings that hold special and unique signifiances for a particular individual.
Ethical relativism is extremely important as it has elicited toleration from many while tackling hostility among parties; however, it falls short in providing solution when faced with irrational parties and deluded politicians who consider their unfounded opinions and desires as the only valid agenda and outcome.
Ethical relativism reminds us all that 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 [See: Essay // Psychology: The Concept of Self]
Moral relativism’s addition to the issues on morality seems vague, as – assuming that moral judgements are judgements of personal taste, like one’s artistic preference and taste for a certain colour – it seems fair to conclude that the 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 colour blindness 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 « seeing things differently » seems more adequate for morality in subjective matters of personal taste; however, that concept is unlikely to work globally in other domains because it also cancels out dialectical debates, and disregards disparities in factual, logical and philosophical reasoning, discursive, creative, managerial, intellectual and/or political skills – which is an unrealistic outcome since the judgement of the mediocre majority of faillible humans is clouded by stubborn and selfish emotions that lead many to lie, deceive and misguide in order to stay in or get to power, especially in industrialised and mechanical societies that lack moral conscience and humane philosophies; third world countries where the level of education is poor; and some countries under strict religious laws that restrict intellectual and philosophical discourse, leading to a naive majority among their people, and hence an illusory and atavistic democracy.
Hence, the analogy of colour which simply views different opinions as « seeing things differently » is acceptable for philosophical arguments related to matters of personal taste, such as artistic preferences, but fails in matters related to the management of society because it would wrongly entice that each culture is right in its own choice, a concept that could allow unreasonable and insensitive political groups to create the illusion of a peaceful society where many have no other options but to suffer in silence – as we know from historical cases of political abuse [e.g. Idi Amin] in third world countries in Africa.
To conclude, the examples mentioned seem to bring ethical relativism to just a matter of adopting a tolerant attitude towards others in personal matters of taste, even if it goes against yours. While relativism does not seem to provide absolute solutions to debates related to the management of civilisation, it does help parties cope with their differences with an element of fairness: accepting the fact that judgements of personal taste & lifestyle differs from one individual to another – what may be deemed as ‘perfect’ to an individual may in fact be a horrific and torturous nightmare to others [who may even be in the direct bloodline, network, culture, nationality, class, IQ group, etc].
- Alvarez, G., Ceballos, F. and Quinteiro, C., (2009). The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty. PLoS ONE, 4(4), p.e5174.
- Benn P. (2006) Ethics. pp1-29. Cornwall: TJ International Ltd
- Blackburn S. (2002) Think Autumn. pp83-88
- Ceballos, F. and Álvarez, G., (2013). Royal dynasties as human inbreeding laboratories: the Habsburgs. Heredity, 111(2), pp.114-121.
- Grodin, E. and White, T., (2015). The neuroanatomical delineation of agentic and affiliative extraversion. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 15(2), pp.321-334.
- Savage, J.E., Jansen, P.R., Stringer, S., et al. (2018). Genome-wide association meta-analysis in 269,867 individuals identifies new genetic and functional links to intelligence. Nat Genet 50, 912–919
- Langlois, M (2020). « Si Dieu Nous A Créés Avec Un Cerveau, C’Est Pour Qu’On S’En Serve ! » Interview De M. Langlois, Spécialiste De La Bible (CNRS/Collège De France). Science et Foi. [online] Available at: <https://www.scienceetfoi.com/interview-de-m-langlois-specialiste-de-la-bible-cnrscollege-de-france/> [Accessed 11 August 2020].
And a nod to Garo. A for sparking the question.
Mis à jour le Mardi, 2 Août 2020 | Danny D’Purb | DPURB.com
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