The Ethical Question
The ethical question that all of us ask is, What ought I to do? This question assumes that “good” and “bad” are objective — that is, “good” and “bad” are not a matter of personal opinion or the opinion of society. In other words, a person or a society can be mistaken about what is ethically right. For example, we criticize slaveowners in the pre-Civil War South for acting immorally. This means that even though slavery was legal, and even though many people felt it was justified in the pre-Civil War South, these people and their society were wrong — slavery is immoral now, and it was then, and it will always be immoral.
One philosophical position that attacks ethics is ethical relativism. According to ethical relativism, there are no universal norms, such as “slavery is immortal.” Instead, say the ethical relativists, “right” and “wrong” are what our society says are right and wrong. Thus, if our society says that slavery is morally good, then slavery is morally good for our society. And if another society says that slavery is morally evil, then slavery is morally evil for that society.
Ethical relativism is popular today. In the social sciences, advocates of ethical relativism try to refrain from masking “value” judgments about the people they serve or study. However, if ethical relativism is correct, then we can give up asking the question “What ought we to do?” because we would know the answer is, “Do what your society wants you to do.” So if your society wants you to accumulate as much wealth as possible before you die, then that is what you ought to do.
One common argument given in support of ethical relativism is based on the existence of cultural diversity. Anthropologists have discovered many different societies throughout the world. In the United States, our society has been patriarchal — that is, with a male at the head of the family. However, anthropologists have discovered that other societies (for example, some Native American tribes) are matriarchal — that is, with a woman at the head of the family. And anthropologists have discovered many different customs throughout the world. For example, in the United States we tend to take care of our old people. However, the Inuit (Eskimo) used to take their old people in the icy wilderness, then abandon them to die. With so many different cultures, and so many different customs, some anthropologists have concluded that ethical relativism is the correct position and that we must give up absolutism (the belief in universal moral norms — that is, moral norms that ought to hold for all human beings).
Walter T. Stace: Critic of Ethical Relativism
One philosopher who has criticized ethical relativism is Walter T. Stace, author of The Concept of Morals (1937), from which the ideas in this essay are taken. Stace, as many good philosophers do, begins by defining his terms. He distinguishes among cultural relativism, ethical relativism, and ethical absolutism.
Three Important Definitions
Cultural relativism is purely descriptive and is based on facts. All of us agree with cultural relativism, which states simply that cultures vary widely in their beliefs and customs.
On the other hand, ethical relativism, which states that what a group of people thinks is right is in fact right for them, is much more controversial.
And finally, there is the position Stace argues for, ethical absolutism, which clams that objective, universal moral norms exist, and that therefore what a group of people thinks is right is not necessarily right for them.
Two Explanations of Cultural Diversity
Stace believes that the fact of cultural relativism can be explained by both ethical relativism and by ethical absolutism — that is, the facts of cultural diversity can be explained by both positions. According to the ethical relativists, customs and beliefs vary because there are no moral norms. However, according to the ethical absolutists, customs and beliefs vary because of human ignorance of what the absolute moral norms are.
In addition to what Stace writes, we can add two more comments. First, we can speculate that although customs and beliefs vary because of differing circumstances, all cultures follow the same ultimate ethical principles, such as “human life is precious.” To use the example of old people in our society and in the Inuit society, we could say that both societies follow the principle that “human life is precious.”
In the United States, we have adequate resources to take care of our old people, so we do so. However, in the Inuit society in past times, there weren’t enough resources to take care of the old people, so when people grew too old to contribute to the acquisition of food, the decision was made to sacrifice the old people so that the young people would have a chance to live. That is why the Inuit used to take their old people in the icy wilderness, and then abandon them to die. If the Inuit had decided to try to keep the old people alive, that decision would have destroyed their entire culture (because of scarcity of food and other resources) and everyone would have died. Thus both our society and the Inuit society are following the principle that “human life is precious” and both societies are doing their best to preserve human life.
Second, it may be the case that some societies know what is right but choose to ignore it.
Since both positions can explain the available empirical data (data about customs and beliefs that we can gather in the world), we need an alternative way to decide between the two theories. One way to do so, when other evidence is not available to give us an adequate basis for our decision, is to decide on pragmatic grounds. According to this view, we should look at the consequences of both theories, and then decide on the basis of those consequences. (Remember, we do this only when there isn’t enough other evidence to give an adequate basis on which to decide.) Stace finds six problematic consequences of ethical relativism.
Six Problematic Consequences of Ethical Relativism
- The first problematic consequence of ethical relativism is that cross-cultural references become meaningless. Thus, during World War II, we really can’t criticize the Nazis (if we are ethical relativists). All we can say is that genocide and death camps for the Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies are right for Nazi society. To criticize the Nazis, we would have to be ethical absolutists.
- The second problematic consequence of ethical relativism is that moral comparisons from different epochs within the same culture become inappropriate. Thus, if we are ethical relativists, we can’t criticize the pre-Civil War South for believing slavery to be morally right. All we can say is, slavery was morally right for the pre-Civil War South.
- Third, if ethical relativism is the correct theory, then the idea of moral progress is made meaningless. Thus, Jesus should have stayed a carpenter because his ideas really didn’t lead to moral progress — they just led to change. After all, if there are no absolute, universal norms, then the concept of moral progress is meaningless.
- Fourth, if ethical relativism is the correct position, then the seriousness of moral striving is undercut. Why should a relativist try to change anything if whatever a society believes to be morally correct is morally correct for that society? If ethical relativism is correct, Martin Luther King, Jr., shouldn’t have tried to change society, because prejudice and segregation were right for his society.
- Fifth, if relativism is the correct position, then moral anarchy is permitted. Ethical relativism says that what a society believes is right is in fact right, but which society is meant? The United States contains many societies. Which is the relevant social group within which one’s conduct is to be judged? Is the relevant social group the homosexuals in San Francisco? The pornographers in Los Angeles? The drug addicts in New York? Your teachers in high school? All of us belong to many different social groups. Eventually, when it comes to determining what is ethically right and what is ethically wrong, each of us would become a society of one.
- Finally, if ethical relativism is the correct position, then indifference to human affairs is engendered. If what is right for apartheid-era South Africa is what apartheid-era South Africa thinks is right, why should we try to change apartheid-era South Africa? Ethical relativism would lead to more tolerance, but we would have to tolerate slavery, widow burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism — whatever another society thinks is right.
Problematic Consequences for Absolutism?
However, ethical absolutism may have its problematic consequences, too. Ethical absolutism may lead to arrogance and intolerance. Of course, as Stace points out above, tolerance can also be a vice. The ethical relativists would have to tolerate whatever another society thinks is right. The First Amendment protects unpopular speech such as racist speech, but tolerance for the racist’s right to free speech doesn’t mean that we have to say, “Whatever a racist believes is right is right for him.” Instead, we can engage in dialogue and use free speech to defeat bad ideas. We can point out where a racist’s thinking goes wrong. Dialogue is not necessarily arrogant and intolerant.
We can also ask whether ethical absolutism leads necessarily to cultural imperialism, strife, and even war. In the past, it certainly has. Christian missionaries are known for going into a culture and completely disrupting it. However, ethical absolutism can also lead to dialogue and openness.
To show respect for a society, we need to evaluate it for what we can learn from it; however, we must also criticize the society when criticism is called for.
Pragmatic Grounds Revisited
Appeal to facts will not help us make a decision between ethical relativism and ethical absolutism. In this case, we must make a decision based on pragmatic grounds.
Note: Walter T. Stace writes about his ideas in his book The Concept of Morals (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1965).
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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