Assess the case against Moral Elitism

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 November 2016

Assess the case against Moral Elitism

Moral Elitist believe in a metaphysical claim: there are moral facts and an epistemic claim: we have access to them. According to moral relativism, there are no moral principles or values objectively real and applicable to everyone; rather, what’s right/wrong and good/bad essentially depends on individual preference or culture, and this varies from person to person or group to group. There is not just one moral fact but instead there are millions and we access them be research. There are two different forms of moral elitism one is cultural relativism which based on societies and the other is in the individualistic form, moral subjectivism.

Moral relativism seems tolerant (“you do your thing and I’ll do mine”), but is it reasonable to believe? We should think not. First, let’s look at it in its group or cultural form, cultural relativism. According to cultural relativism, ethics essentially depend on one’s culture or tribe. That is, CR says action X is right or good if the society says X is right or good, and X is wrong or bad if the society says X is wrong or bad. Action X may be right in one culture but wrong in another.

Our culture may hold that apartheid is wrong, but another culture may be okay with apartheid, because of a difference in the history of interracial relations. On cultural relativism, then, morality is wholly a matter of cultural invention, i.e. social construction and because such circumstances vary from group to group, so do the constructed moralities. Thus, we shouldn’t impose our culture’s moral values on others, and others shouldn’t push theirs on us. There are no better or worse societies, they are just merely different and so one society cannot judge another. Instead we should be non judgemental and celebrate diversity.

Cultural relativism sounds good, but is it sound? Let’s assume that cultural relativism is true, this would be very problematic. The biggest problem for this argument is put forward by G.E Moore’s Open Question. He suggests that the relativists have mis-defined morality, it makes to sense to ask whether society approve of something or it, but does this make it automatically good? This ends up giving support to obviously evil regimes and evil cultural practices. For example it becomes impossible to criticize the Nazis. If Nazi culture says that genocide is right, then, for Nazi Germany, genocide is right. It was just their culture, after all. But we know that we can and should condemn such regimes and practices.

There is also the criticism put forward by Objectivists who believe in moral development, where sometimes we have to go against the popular view, we need to be able to compare different societies. For example surely the German society now is much better than how it was like with all the racism involved when Hitler was in power. Objectivists believe that societies are a hierarchy where some are in fact better than others whereas cultural relativism believes in breadth where all societies are equal, but surely their tolerance goes too far? If cultural relativism is true, then internal cultural reform is disabled. What the culture says is right is right, so it’s not possible for one’s culture to be mistaken let alone reformed. Yes, one can critique acts according to cultural standards, but it’s not possible to criticize one’s own cultural standards.

However they do arise for example Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, they were all trying to apply another standard for example Martin Luther King was trying to apply the standard of equality. The existence of cultural reformers is a fact, and this fact counts against cultural relativism. Cultural relativism also self-refutes. If CR is true, it allows for the possibility of a society having a non-relative or absolute morality. That is, on cultural relativism a society could hold that cultural relativism is false, and they would say that this morality is true. So, if cultural relativism, then it is also not true. This is a serious logical problem. There is also the problem of which culture? The one you’re born into or the one you presently occupy? When asking someone what cultural groups they belong in they will struggle as they have loads, for example being a student, a Muslim etc.

Now let’s look at moral subjectivism. According to moral subjectivism ethics are merely a matter of individual preference. That is, to say action X is right or good if I like X, and X is wrong or bad if I don’t like X. Depending on our feelings, action X may be right for you but wrong for me. You may not like abortion, but I may be okay with abortion, if my feelings are not as troubled by it as yours are. Morality, then, is basically a matter of taste, and tastes vary. People should choose our own morals and have freedom, not simply just accept our parents, society or religion. They are relative to the individual and so are presented through our personal feelings. Feelings are the main index and guide to show what morals we should follow.

However this could result in problems as intra-personal criticism is lost. If moral subjectivism is true, whatever we feel is right is right. In other words, we can never be wrong morally and we cannot criticize ourselves (all we can be is true to our feelings). This does not destroy subjectivism but it serves as a red flag against IR, because our pre-theoretic experience of morality is that we sometimes make moral mistakes, in spite of our feelings. We also cannot criticize others. We can’t truly morally condemn the behaviour of, say, Jack the Ripper clearly liked killing women; the feelings of a person justified their actions.

In other words, according to subjectivism: Who are we to judge them? There is also the problem of how are our feeling a reliable guide to right and wrong? Sometimes we can misjudge and feelings can cloud our judgement, for example someone with a bad temper might kill someone by accident due to their anger issues. Also reason can sometimes change our feelings, for example if I am on a diet but I feel like I really want a chocolate ice cream, reasoning about this would convince me not to follow my feelings and opt to eat something healthy instead.

In conclusion we have seen the two types of moral elitism. Both are quite sophisticated and a lot more open minded. Surely our feelings mater sometimes when it comes to moral decisions. There cannot be just set moral facts as how would everyone even agree about what they are. When trying to decide what is right and wrong, everyone seems to disagree so surely our feelings and following our own society would lead to our moral decisions.

However many problems arise logically from moral elitism as sometimes we cannot choose our own morals instead we are a passive recipient where morals impose themselves on us. Following our society or feelings do not necessarily lead us to what is right or wrong and so it’s reasonable to conclude that individual moral relativism is flawed—logically, factually, and morally as following it will lead to wrong situations where wrong things will be condoned. Therefore moral elitism should be rejected.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 November 2016

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