Foundations of Professional Ethics

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Tuesday, 01-18-11: The Challenge of Cultural Relativism


Rachels, Chapter 2


Cultural Ethical Relativism (CER)
Sometimes we say, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," implying that this sort of acting is morally correct. We can call views of this sort Cultural Ethical Relativism (CER). According to views of this sort:
Moral appraisals are essentially dependent upon the standards that define a particular moral code, the practices and norms accepted by a social group at a specific place and time. (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 758)
CER implies, among other things, that:
  • “A right action” means “an action socially approved by a given culture or society.”
  • "A good person" means "a person who has character traits (or virtues) approved by a given culture or society.”
  •  Such terms as “obligatory”, “required”, forbidden”, "good" etc. can be defined in an analogous way.
  •  We should choose moral principles by following what our society approves of.
Ethical Universalism / Objectivism (EU)
By contrast to relativism, ethiucsl universalism can be characterized as follows:
Some core (or basic) ethical standards are universally valid or correct; that is, they are applicable to all similarly situated people (in all societies, at all times).
EU does NOT imply any of the following:
  • We already know what the ethicsl principles are.
  • We already know how to use them. (In fact, for all we know, we may still have to discover what the correct ethical principles are.)
  • Ethical principles and rules are very simple and admit to no exceptions (that's absolutism).

In fact, Ethocal Objectivism/Universlism allows that we are fallible about our moral views and can make moral errors. also, it allows that we still have serious work to do in discovering and formulating correct moral views.

Ethical Absolutism (EA)
According to Ethical Absolutism, moral rules are extremely simple; they admit to no exceptions.
A view of this sort was proposed, e.g., by Immanuel Kant. He argued that we must never kill, steal, or lie, no exceptions. In chapter 1, when he discusses how strong is the rule prohibiting killing, Rachels discusses various eceptions to this rule. That is, he argues that this rule is very strong but not absolute.
Usually, absolutists are universalists/objectivists. In particular, Kant was an absolutist and also he thought that the standards he proposed are universally valid. However, someone may believe that there are universal moral standards (so objectivism is true) but not that these standards are simple or absolute (so, absolutism is false). For example, utilitarians (and other consequentialists) think that we always should try to bring the best balance of (or difference between) benefits and harms. But they do not believe that we must always follow some simple rules, no exceptions.
Some relations between CER, EU, and EA
  • CER and EU are incompatible.
  • EU does not imply EA. One can be a universalist while allowing that ethical rules admit to exceptions provided that the exceptions apply universally.
Sometimes philosophers use five different claims to analyze CER. For example,  Rachels does it using the following five theses (See section 2:2, 7th edition, p. 16; 8th edition pp. 17-18):
The Diversity Thesis: Different societies have different moral codes. (As a matter of fact, moral beliefs vary from one culture to another culture or even within the same culture over time.)
The Relativity Thesis: The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if a moral code of a society says that that a certain action is morally right, then this action is morally right, at least withing that society. 
Thesis about the Rejection of Objectivism/Universalism: There is no objective [or universal] standard that can be used to judge one society's code as better than another's. There are no moral norms that hold (are valid) for all people and societies at all times.
The Thesis about Cultural Egalitarianism: The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among many.
The Thesis about Tolerance: It is mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other people. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance (acceptance (?), non‑coercion (?)) toward the practices of other people.
 A) It is simply good and desirable that we have a variety of cultures
Response: Such a variety may be good and desirable. But this implies nothing about ethical issues. In particular, various cultures can adopt different standards of beauty, various rules of etiquette, different laws, and even different religious and spiritual commitments. It does not follow that they also must differ about ethical issues.
For example, from the fact that someone (or some culture) values jazz and some other culture values rock nothing follows about what they should do with regard to the issue of euthanasia, or justice, or environmental ethics.
B) It was wrong for a white European culture to impose its value on other cultures; we must learn to respect or at least tolerate other cultures. CER and the attitude of tolerance go hand in hand.
Response: This is simply false. If CER is true, then you should act in accordance with the norms of your culture. If your culture is intolerant, then CER requires not to be tolerant.
Furthermore, if all of us really ought to be tolerant, then there is at least one universal norm; namely, that we all ought to be tolerant and nonaggressive.
Also, see a note about tolerance at the end of this outline.
C) Morality is a product of culture and nothing which is such a product can be objective or universal.
Response: physics, astronomy, history, and science in general are also products of culture. Yet they are objective (or universally correct).
D) Cultures and societies disagree widely about morality.
Response: Many of those disagreements are the results of confusion between various kinds of norms. For example, sometimes people confuse religious norms and morality, or laws and morality.
Furthermore, sometimes what seems to be a disagreement about values is really a disagreement about concepts or facts. That is, what seems to be a difference of opinions about values is not fundamentally such a difference. Once facts and concept are clarified, sometimes people change their mind and apparent differences disappear.
For example, consider the debate about decreminalization and/or legalization of recreational and other drugs. Sometimes people worry that this would lead to the dramatically increase of drug use causing enormous harms to the entire society. But consider what has happened in Portugal that, in 2001, decriminalized all drugs:
They resolved to... transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them -- to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other's care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I'll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. (The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think)

In particular:

The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass -- and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example. (More on this topic here; see also this essay published by the "Spiegel International" and this report prepared by the Cato Institute)

Another example may be provided by the debate about Capital Punishment. There is no scientific data supporting the claim that CP has any deterrent value (that is, crime rates do not change when we have or abolish) CP. On the flip side, there is scientific data that having CP leads to the death of innocent people (about 4% of executed people are innoicent). Also, we know that it is used unfairly -- poor people and minorities are much more likely to be sentenced to death and executed than wealthy people. The retired Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens, has changed his mind about Capital Punishment after examining these sorts of facts. On this topic, see his essay “On the Death Sentence” (link).
Finally, we could argue that (even if there are some differences in ethical views)  there are some universal moral standards that all cultures endorse. We just do not know yet what they are or how to use them properly.
So, are there any universal values?
In sections 2:6 and 2:7 (pp. 24ff), Rachels argues that some values are universal. He offeres two different kinds of reasons supporting this idea.
First, a culture could not survive without accepting certain comon values and norms. Imagine, for example, that we accept the following norms:
  • It is all right to kill people just for fun.
  • It is permissible to steal because you feel like stealing.
  • It is permissible to lie at will.

If we adopted such norms, our culture would not survive very long and, likely, would not flourish. So, for a culture to survive and flourish, it must reject the above norms and accept instead that (with few narowly defined exceptions):

  • Human life has a great value and, thus, it is wrong to kill a person.
  • Stealing is wrong.
  • Lying and deceptiona are impermissible.
Second, and more generally, Rachels wants us to consider what follows:
Would the practice promote or hinder the welfare and interests of the people affected by it.
It turns out, that cultures that tend to flourish must accept only those practices and norms that are generally beneficial to people within those cultures. So, according to Rachels the norm that we ought to act in generally beneficial and non-harmful ways is universal.
E) There are no clear ways to resolve moral differences and disagreements. No amount of argument may convince one to change his/her moral views.
Response: Many philosophers think that there are such methods and that, if we try harder, we can resolve cultural differences, especially differences about some most basic and central issues.

In particular, Rachel’s observes what follows: Our feelings and intuitions about moral matters are important. So, we can treat them as provisional starting point. But there is more to morality than but emotions and intuitions. We have to notice that people and cultures often have different feelings about the same issue. So, we cannot complitely rely on our feelings and intuitions. We have to consider also which of these feelings and moral intuitions are biased and irrational and which are justified.

Rationally defensible judgments are these which are guided by the correct understanding of concepts and facts as well as by the ethical theories like these we started to discuss when we analyzed chapter 1. Once we clarify facts and concepts, and once we expose our feelings to the best ethical theories and the idea of impartiality, it turns out that many ethical disagreements are resolved. That is, some rational consensus begins to emerge.


A) It is hard to define a culture. Without such definition, we do not know what CER implies.
B) Sometimes an action takes place within more than one society.
In such a case, would an act be right or wrong or neither or what?  
C) If CR is true, then moral decisions are either too easy or too difficult.
The fact that there is sufficient agreement (acceptance of a certain norm) would simpy settle the issue. When such agreement does not exist, no solution would exist.
D) If CR is true, then moral progress or reform is impossible. Also, we caoud not learn anything from  from other cultures. These consequences are just completely implausible.
Tolerance is an attitude that we sometimes take with regard to other people and/or cultures with whom we disagree. Tolerance involves (at least) the following three elements:
a) we assume that the others (their actions) are wrong;
b) we could force (or at least try to force) a change by using various coercive measures (e.g., economical sanctions, intimidation, prison terms, military force, etc.);
c) we do not constrain their behavior; in particular, we assume that we do not have a (moral and/or legal) right to force them to change their ways.
If this account of tolerance is correct, then universalism is compatible with tolerance, and relativism is not. Here is why: CER assumes that "anything goes", "every culture is right,", and so on. So, according to relativism, there is nothing to tolerate (for no culture is ever wrong).
On the flip side, tolerance presupposes some universal standards. Those who are tolerant must assume that the views of others are sometimes wrong (otherwise there is nothing to tolerate).
Why should we be tolerant? One possible answer is that, in many cicumastances, tolerance is useful and beneficial. In many cases tolerance may be the best practical approach to some moral differences. Tolerance allows us to deliberate issues with each other. Sometimes deliberation leads one (or both parties) to changing their views. In effect, it may lead to moral progress and convergence. Lack of tolerance seems more conducive to cultural clashes and violence.
Furthermore, CER does not imply that we should be nonagressive (non-militant) and peaceful in our interactions with other cultures. It requires rather that we should act in accordance with the standards of our culture. So, if we are members of a militant culture that requiers that we ought to interfere with other cultures, even in a very agressive ways, then according to CER we should interfere with other cultures.




Mad Interesting Points of Perspective.


Thank you! I'm just trying to

Thank you! I'm just trying to clarify basic points.

I would add, though, that my views about tolerance (what it is and how to justify it) are to some extend "original". at least, I disagree on some of these issues with Rachels and others.