Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint; for instance, that of a culture or a historical period, and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.
Even though moral relativism did not become a prominent topic in philosophy or elsewhere until the twentieth century, it has ancient origins. In the classical Greek world, both the historian Herodotus and the sophist Protagoras appeared to endorse some form of relativism the latter attracted the attention of Plato in the Theaetetus. It should also be noted that the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (read as Chuang-Tzu) put forward a non-objectivist view that is sometimes interpreted as a kind of relativism.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, most people consider the ideas of Plato but I will explain about the ideas of historian Herodotus, because I found his arguments to be interesting and what we call thinking out of the box. The historian Herodotus tells the story of how the Persian king Darius asked some Greeks at his court if there was any price for which they would be willing to eat their dead father’s bodies the way the Callatiae did. The Greeks said nothing could induce them to do this. Darius then asked some Callatiae who were present if they would ever consider burning their fathers’ bodies, as was the custom among Greeks. The Callatiae were horrified at the suggestion. Herodotus sees this story as vindicating the poet Pindar’s dictum that “custom is lord of all”; people’s beliefs and practices are shaped by custom, and they typically assume that their own ways are the best.
Herodotus’ anecdote is not an isolated moment of reflection on cultural diversity and the conventional basis for morality. In the early days, moral relativism was a concern of philosophy only but in modern times it began to shift into the concern of anthropology, and there was a need for somewhat a link or common ground between these two. An important early bridge from anthropology to philosophy was established by Edward Westermarck, a social scientist who wrote anthropological and philosophical works defending forms of empirical as well as meta-ethical moral relativism.
He also ranks as one of the first to formulate a detailed theory of moral relativism. In the modern era the main push for such a position came from cultural anthropology. Anthropologists were fascinated with the diversity of cultures, and they produced detailed empirical studies of them. Early on anthropologists accepted the assumption of European or Western superiority. But this was challenged by the ideas of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Melville J. Herskovits, and Margaret Mead all of which clearly expressed important forms of moral relativism in the twentieth century.
The various views of Moral Relativism
Defining moral relativism is difficult because different fields and also writers use the term in slightly different ways; in particular, supporters and antagonists of relativism often diverge considerably in their characterization of it. Therefore, it is important to first distinguish between some of the positions that have been identified or closely associated with moral relativism before setting out a definition that captures the main idea its adherents seek to put forward.
a.Descriptive Moral Relativism
Descriptive moral relativism is a theory about cultural diversity. It holds that, as a matter of fact, moral beliefs and practices vary between cultures and sometimes between groups within a single society. For instance, some societies condemn homosexuality, others accept it; in some cultures a student who corrects a teacher would be thought disrespectful; elsewhere such behavior might be encouraged. This particular view of moral relativism suggests that there are many different moral standards for moral judgments and we should just accept this differences. It denies that there are any moral universals, norms or values that every human culture accepts. None the less descriptive moral relativism only explains about the difference that exists, it does not tell us how we should base our judgments on these differences and does not necessarily support the tolerance of all behavior in light of such disagreement.
b.Meta-ethical Moral Relativism
Meta-ethical moral relativism holds that moral judgments are not true or false in any absolute sense, but only relative to particular standpoints. This theory first states that people disagree about moral issues and it also adds that terms such as “good,” “bad,” “right” and “wrong” do not stand as universal truth, rather they are relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people. Some meta-ethical moral relativists focus more on the justification of moral judgments rather than on their truth. They focus on how the moral judgments are made and to what cause. For example, most people would agree that lying in court to avoid a fine is wrong, while lying to a madman to protect his intended victim is justified. Saying that the truth of a moral claim is relative to some standpoint should not be confused with the idea that it is relative to the situation in which it is made.
c.Normative Moral Relativism
Normative moral relativism is the view that it is wrong to judge or interfere with the moral beliefs and practices of cultures that operate with a different moral framework to one’s own, that what goes on in a society should only be judged by the norms of that society. The motive behind it is to avoid arrogance and promote tolerance. Normative moral relativists can also argue that judging other cultures is misguided since there are no trans-cultural criteria to which one can refer in order to justify one’s judgment. Normative moral relativism is mostly considered as an additional idea to that of meta-ethical relativism.
However, what makes this view standout on its own is its stances on tolerance. Let us see these statements “we think it is moral to tolerate behavior” and “other people think intolerance of certain behaviors is moral.” Philosopher Russell Blackford says,” We need not adopt a quietism about moral traditions that cause hardship and suffering. Nor need we passively accept the moral norms of our own respective societies, to the extent that they are ineffective or counterproductive or simply unnecessary.” So according to normative moral relativists it is perfectly reasonable for a person or group to defend their subjective values against others, even if there is no universal instruction on morality and we can also criticize other cultures for failing to follow even their own goals effectively.
Pros and Cons of Moral Relativism
One of the main advantaged of moral relativism is giving response to the perceived problems with moral objectivism. Moral objectivism is a concept advocating the necessity of a universal or some common standpoint for view and evaluating all moral issues, since this non-existent, according to moral objectivism there would have been a major blockade. Never the less thanks to moral relativism which states such standpoint is not necessary, because each situation or moral issue is judged according to its own context.
The other clear benefit of moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance. As you all know the world has a never ending conflict of ideas, though most of this are simple ones which can be dealt with a little compromise, some are quite serious which there is simply no way for agreement. These ones call for a more developed and acceptable solution that is tolerance. If it wasn’t for tolerance quarrel, fights, dispute and even war would be a day-to-day scene.
Unfortunately like all human spawned ideas, moral relativism is not without flows. Moral relativist exaggerate cultural diversity; this is mostly directed against descriptive moral relativism. Every human culture has some sort of moral code, and these overlap to a considerable extent. There is a common core of shared values such as trustworthiness, friendship, and courage, along with certain prohibitions, such as those against murder or incest. Some version of the golden rule—treat others as you would have them treat you—is also encountered in almost every society. The existence of these universal values is easy to explain as they enable societies to flourish, and their absence would jeopardize a society’s chances of survival.
Moral relativism undermines the possibility of a society being self-critical. Based on the definition of moral relativism we must judge every action in reference to its context. But if the rightness or wrongness of actions, practices, or institutions can only be judged by reference to the norms of the culture in which they are found, then how can members of that society criticize those norms on moral grounds? This dilemma make moral relativism a main means of bias for self-criticism; as a result, resistance to change.
To sum up moral relativism should be taken as a useful tool although it has many criticisms. I think it is a purely advantageous idea, and the criticisms come from extremists who take each and every proposition to its furthest practicality to make seem faulty. If we were able to overlook this small defects it is my strong belief, we would finally end the long lasting quest for an all-encompassing and universally justifiable standard for evaluating moral issues.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 5 January 2017
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