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Cultural Relativism
(Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Ch. 2) I. Cultural Relativism: a sort of anti-ethical theory that makes the claim that there is no objective or universal moral truth; this claim is based on the observed facts that there are fundamental moral disagreements between cultures A. Rachels says it is important to distinguish five implicit claims made by cultural relativists; these are: 1. 2. Different societies have different moral codes. (This is what some term descriptive cultural relativism.) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society. (This is what some term prescriptive cultural relativism.) There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society’s code as better than another’s. In other words, there is no “universal truth” in ethics; there are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among many. It is mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.


4. 5.

B. Rachels revisits these five claims in sect. 2.8 (p. 26ff) and evaluates them in light of his discussion in this chapter. Be sure to read this section carefully after you have read and analyzed Rachels’ critiques of Cultural Relativism. II. Problems with Cultural Relativism

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A. Rachels points out that at the heart of cultural relativism is a particular form of argument, what he calls “the Cultural Difference Argument.” The argument begins with the premise, supported by a large body of observational evidence, that there is moral disagreement between cultures as to the rightness/wrongness of various actions. From this premise, the cultural relativist draws the conclusion that there are no objective or universal (i.e. cross-cultural) moral truths. This argument is invalid as Rachels indicates. The fact that people disagree on a subject has no bearing on the nature or truth/falsity of that subject – nothing about the subject follows merely from the fact of persistent disagreement. B. Another logical problem for Cultural Relativism is that the theory appears to be self-referentially inconsistent, that is, is self-defeating. Cultural relativism claims that all moral codes are equally true (there is no better or worse moralities, see #3 and #4 above). If this is correct (true), then image that there is a culture whose moral code affirms that morality is objective; there are universal moral truth that apply to all cultures. The theory of Cultural Relativism must affirm the truth of this moral code as it is stated, but this claim implies that cultural relativism is false (it contradicts Cultural Relativism). Therefore, we end up with the situation that is Cultural Relativism is true then it implies its own falsity since it must affirm a claim that contradicts/falsifies itself. III. Unwelcome Consequences of Cultural Relativism (if theory is true) A. (Rachels) We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own. This may be one of the appeals for Cultural Relativism as long as any culture’s actions are generally benign. But when we encounter examples of what we might call extreme moral evil (slavery, genocide, infanticide, the Holocaust, etc.) the theory becomes much less appealing. B. We could decide whether our actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society. This provides a simple and easy way of directing one’s actions, but who in a culture does not feel some discomfort or disagreement with their own culture’s standard of morality. Cultural Relativism forbids one from criticizing one’s own cultural moral standards. The only possible way for one to diverge from one’s cultural standards is to assert that they are themselves a “culture” and therefore able to set their own moral standards. This results in a total trivialization of morality. If everyone can set their own moral standards by merely invoking their “cultural privilege, then morality becomes wholly arbitrary and meaningless.

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C. The idea of moral progress is called into doubt. The notion of progress suggests change from what is inferior to that which is superior. But this movement from bad to better seems to be impossible based on the truth of Cultural Relativism; there is no basis for judging an action/practice to be bad if it complies with cultural standards. By definition such an action is good. The only solution to this difficulty appears to be the one discussed in point B above and we saw that that approach culminates in the total trivialization of moral standards.

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Counterarguments to Cultural Relativism A. (Rachels) There is less moral disagreement than it seems. While acknowledging the differences between cultures, one must also pay heed to the large amount of agreement among cultures when it comes to moral standards. Rachels offers an interesting argument for the claim that difference in cultural practices may not really be indicative of disagreement over moral values (see. p. 21). B. Rachels goes on to argue that there are, in fact, some values that all cultures share. Candidates for these are things like care of the young, a presumption of honesty or truthfulness and a prohibition on murder. Rachels observes that examples like these suggest that “there are some moral rules that all societies must have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. (p. 23) C. Rachels also suggest a possible standard that might legitimate cross-cultural moral criticism. He suggests the following as “culture-neutral standard of right and wrong”: “Does the practice promote or hinder the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it? But this looks like just the sort of independent moral standard that Cultural Relativism says cannot exist. It is a single standard that may be brought to bear in judging the practices of any culture, at any time, including our own.” (p. 25)


What We Can Learn from Cultural Relativism A. While Rachels is quite strong in his discussion of the shortcomings of this theory (he calls his treatment “a rather thorough repudiation of the theory”, p. 29) He does articulate what he believes to be two lessons we can learn from Cultural Relativism. These are: 1. Cultural Relativism rightly warns “about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard.” Many of things we come to believe are right or wrong are a product of our family, our community, our faith, the circumstances in which we live, etc. A good example of this, cited by Rachels, is funerary practices – how we mourn the loss of loved ones, how we “dispose” of their bodies, etc. While this warning is instructive, it is also clear that there are just as many moral beliefs that are not merely conventions of culture. The trick for us moral agents is to carefully and accurately distinguish between those actions that are based on real moral standards and those based on cultural conventions.

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2. Cultural Relativism also reminds of the importance of “keeping an open mind.” The common feature of both of these lessons is a good dose of humility. It is also tempting to dogmatically defend our way against their way. Cultural Relativism reminds us that many of these differences lack any really important moral grounding; they are merely differences between how people choose to do certain things. Once again the challenge comes when we must determine which are and which are not cases of “doing it a bit differently.”

Subjectivism in Ethics
(Rachels, Ch. 3) I. The Basic Idea of Ethical Subjectivism: people have different opinions on “moral issues”, but there are no such things as “moral facts” and no one is “right/wrong”; they just feel differently about the issues; moral opinions are based on feelings and nothing more A. Two varieties of Ethical Subjectivism: Rachels notes how philosophical theories evolve as they go move through the process of initial expression, critique and objection, response/revision in light of objections, new (more mature) expression of the theory and so on; the two varieties of Ethical Subjectivism illustrative of this evolution are Simple Subjectivism and Emotivism B. Ethical Subjectivism (Stage one): Simple Subjectivism. Scottish philosopher, David Hume, developed one of the earliest accounts of simple subjectivism. Hume argued that morality was a matter of sentiment (feeling or passion) rather than a matter of fact. In essence, Hume asserted, when a person says that something is morally good, it means that they approve of the thing and when they say it is bad, they disapprove of it. There is no moral fact about the act itself that is being expressed by the person’s evaluation; all they are asserting is their feeling about the act. 1. Objection #1: It trivializes moral disagreement. If our moral judgments are just statements of opinion then there can be no substantive disagreement on moral matters. Opinions may differ, but that implies no substantive conclusion (Recall the discussion under Cultural Relativism). When people express moral judgments, they generally mean what they say and conflicting judgments are indicative or more than a difference of opinion.

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2. Objection #2: It implies that our moral evaluations are always right. Simple Subjectivism implies that our moral judgments are infallible. As long as we are sincere in representing our feelings when making moral statements, our judgments will always be correct. But are we genuinely infallible in any other area of life? If not, why should we expect to be infallible in moral evaluations? The answer is that we should not and that shows that Simple Subjectivism is not a sound moral theory. C. Ethical Subjectivism (Stage two): Emotivism. This revised version of ethical subjectivism is often associated with the American philosopher, Charles L. Stevenson (1908-1979). Emotivism is a more subtle form of ethical subjectivism. Its focus is on the variety of way we use language. Much of language is used to state facts, for example, “Gas prices are rising very fast.” This kind of statement (what philosophers often call a proposition) is something that can be either true or false. It is the normal kind of discourse we use when exchanging knowledge in the course of daily life. There are other categories of language use, however, in addition to the stating of facts. For example the sentence, “Stop hitting your brother!” is not a statement that can be considered either true or false. Its function is not that of passing along information, but to induce a change in your behavior or influence your action. Other kinds of sentences are used merely to express attitudes. For example the sentence, “Go, Nats!” is not statement of fact that can be true or false; it express our support for and encouragement of the Nationals. 1. Stevenson’s Emotivism claims that when we express a moral evaluation we are not using fact-stating language that can be true or false. In the case of moral judgment, we are using language in an effort to influence people’s behavior (persuasion) and second, to express our attitude toward something (our approval or disapproval). 2. The difference between Simple Subjectivism and Emotivism is made clearer by understanding the distinction between reporting an attitude and expressing an attitude. When I report an attitude, for example, “I like the Nationals”, I am reporting a fact about my positive attitude toward a baseball team. This reporting-language is what Simple Subjectivism describes. But when I merely express my attitude by saying, “Let’s go, Nats”, there is no fact at all, only an outburst or revelation of my current emotion/attitude.

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3. Emotivism seems to blunt the objections raised against Simple Subjectivism. Obj. #1 claimed that Simple Subjectivism could not meaningfully account for moral disagreement. But Emotivism claims that there is more than one way we can disagree. We can disagree about the facts of a matter and we can disagree in our attitudes toward a matter. Disagreement about facts can be true or false, but disagreement in attitudes cannot because they are expressed by the factstating use of language (i.e. they are merely expressive of our attitude toward the matter). Obj. #2 claimed that Simple Subjectivism was flawed because it implied human infallibility regarding moral evaluations. Since Emotivism claims that moral evaluations are not fact-stating kinds of expression they cannot be judged true or false. Because they are not true or false people cannot be “right” about moral judgments, so the issue of infallibility never even arises – it does not apply. II. Rachels Response to Ethical Subjectivism A. Ethical Subjectivism is flawed because it limits the possible explanations of moral evaluations. (It asserts a false dilemma or commits the either-or fallacy.) According to Rachels, Ethical Subjection admits only two possibilities as explanations for moral evaluations. Either (1) “There are moral facts, in the same way that there are facts about planets and trees and spoons” or (2) “Our values are nothing more than the expression of our subjective feelings.” Ethical Subjectivists deny (1) and assert (2). But there is a third alternative, Rachels argues. Alternative (3) is: “Moral truths are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives.” (p. 41) There are true or correct answers to moral questions – “the correct answer to a moral question is simply the answer that has the weight of reason on its side.” [The issue then becomes one of judging the quality of these reasons: Are they good reasons? Strong? Convincing? How one judges reasons may itself involve a subjective element.] B. One factor that makes Ethical Subjectivism appealing is that the amount of moral disagreement makes it seem like there is no correct answer to ethical questions. Another factor, according to Rachels, is that people tend hold the view that scientific proof is the only really objective sort of proof that counts, and it is clear that ethical evaluation does not admit of the same features and processes that make scientific investigation “objective.” Offering reasons is essentially providing proof for a moral judgment. Sometimes it is even possible to add another layer of reasons that explain why the first set of reasons is relevant. [See Rachels’ example on p. 42-43.]

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C. Still, many continue to believe that moral judgments are “unprovable.” Rachels offers three reasons for this persistent impression: (1) when proof is demanded, people often have in an inappropriate standard [e.g. an observational, scientific standard]; (2) we tend to be more interested in proof only when dealing with the most difficult issues [e.g. murder is wrong, but what about capital punishment or euthanasia?]; (3) it is easy to conflate two very different matters: proving an opinion to be correct v. persuading someone to accept your proof.

Ethical Egoism
(Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Ch. 5) I. Is there a duty to help starving people? The issue arises when we first consider the “common sense” view that morality requires that we “balance our own interests against the interests of others.” (p. 65) A. The common sense view is based on a general assumption about moral duties. According to Rachels, that assumption is: 1. 2. We have duties to other people, some of which are duties we create (e.g. making a promise, signing a contract, incurring a debt, etc.) In addition, we have what he calls “natural” duties based solely on the fact that others are “people who could be helped or harmed by what we do.” (p. 65).

B. Ethical Egoism denies the common sense view of duty to others; it asserts that the only duty is to do what is best for us, which means that a person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively. II. An Important Distinction: Ethical v. Psychological Egoism A. Rachels correctly points out the necessity of distinguishing between ethical and psychological egoism. B. Ethical Egoism states that what each person ought to do is whatever is in that person’s self-interest. This is a prescriptive, moral theory – it tells or prescribes what action is moral or ought to be done.

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C. Psychological egoism, on the other hand, is not a moral theory. It is a descriptive statement about human nature or the way humans in point of fact, behave. It makes no claim about the moral quality of such motivation or action. D. Arguments in support of Psychological egoism: 1. “We always do what we most want to do”: This argument makes the claim that no matter what action we perform (an altruistic action or a selfinterested action); we are merely doing what we want in either case. When a person helps another person uncoerced what appears to be an altruistic act is really just another example of the person choosing to act based on his own desire which is really an act of self-interest. A person acts on behalf of others because that is their strongest desire. 2. Rachels’ critique of this argument: The premise that “we do what we most want to do” is plainly false. There are any number of situations in which a person may want to do some act more than another, but because of a sense of duty or obligation chooses to do the less desirable act. Can you think of an example that fits this description? Rachels goes on to argue that even if the premise were true, it would not support the conclusion that we always act in our own self-interest. When we begin with the premise that we always act on what we most desire the only thing we can legitimately conclude is that the strongest desire is the cause of our action; we cannot conclude what that desire is! To argument from the premise that we always act on the strongest desire, therefore, we act in our own self-interest is to beg the question. It assumes what it is attempting to prove – that the strongest human desire is self-interest. 3. “We always do what makes us feel good”: This argument claims that apparently altruistic acts are simply performed with an eye toward selfsatisfaction. Rachels refers to this as the strategy for reinterpreting motives. (p. 69) According to this argument, when we see an act that appears to be altruistic (motivated by a concern for others) what we really observe is a case of acting in our own self-interest by doing something that appears to be not in our selfinterest. So a person who gives to charity is not generous, but only interested in notoriety or a tax deduction. A person rescues someone only to receive acclaim as a hero. Every altruistic act is reinterpreted as being motivated by some hidden form of self-interest.

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4. Rachels’ critique of this argument: First, even if an altruistic act is to some degree motivated by self-interest this does not mean that there cannot be other, even more powerful, motives for the act. In other words, self-interest does not exhaust or exclude all possible motivations for an altruistic act. Second, the desire to help others often is primary in altruistic acts. The motivation of selfinterest is often a “by-product” of the act, the good feelings only coming after the act is done. III. Three Arguments Supporting Ethical Egoism A. Argument #1: Altruism is Self-Defeating. Ethical Egoism is a radically individualistic theory. It claims that the one and only principle of moral obligation is one’s self-interest (selfishness). In an effort to support this radical view, egoist have argued that altruism (a view that one should look out for the well-being of others) is selfdefeating (it brings harm rather than good). Rachels points out that have been many versions of this same, general argument. Some argue that altruism results in more harm than good, others that it is an “offensive intrusion” into the lives of the other people, and still others that altruism demeans or degrades those who are the recipients of “charity.” In essence, the argument seems to be that we should be ethical egoists because that is more beneficial to others than actually being altruistic (caring for their well-being). If this seems like a strange argument for Ethical Egoism, it is according to Rachels. What is put forward as an argument for Ethical Egoism actually seems to be an argument that we should act in such a way that promotes the general welfare of others. This argument that purports to show that altruism is self-defeating may itself be a self-defeating argument against Ethical Egoism. B. Argument #2: Ayn Rand’s Argument. Ann Rand believed that the value of the individual was supreme. Any action that diminished the value of the individual was deemed to be wrong, so altruism, which in her thinking “leads to the denial of the value of the individual”, was a morally deficient view. [The summary of Rand’s argument can be found on p. 74.] Rachels criticizes this argument for claiming that there are only two alternatives in any moral situation – acting for one’s own self-interest or acting for the interests of others – and that these are mutually exclusive (cannot both occur at the same time). There is a point of view that stands between these two extremes, the commonsense view that says “one’s own interests and the interests of others are both important, and must be balanced against each other.” Even if we should reject the extreme of altruism, that alone does not support the claim that we should adopt Ethical Egoism; there is another option, a “middle ground” where the interests of both one ’s self and others are recognized and considered in any moral action.

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C. Argument #3: Ethical Egoism is Compatible with Commonsense Morality. This view is interesting (Rachels calls it the “best try” as a support for Ethical Egoism) because it attempts to show that Ethical Egoism is in fact the basis for our commonsense moral viewpoint. In other words, we carry out our commonsense more duties (e.g. do not harm others, do not lie, etc.) just because doing so is in our best self-interest. If I violate the duty to not harm others, they are likely to harm me in return. So it is in my best interest not to harm others. One of the most well-known egoists, Thomas Hobbes (15881679) suggested that the principle of Ethical Egoism ultimately leads to the Golden Rule: “We should ‘do unto others’ because if we do, others will be more likely to ‘do to us.’” (p. 76) Rachels responds to this argument with two critiques. First, the argument doesn’t seem to be strong enough to prove what it needs to. For example, there might be a situation where violating a commonsense duty (e.g. the duty to not harm others) might be to our advantage. Ethical Egoism, he says, “cannot explain why we shouldn’t do the horrible thing. Thus, it looks like some of our moral obligations cannot be derived from self-interest.” Second, if we act in an altruistic way, it isn’t clear that the only reason we do so is for our own self-interest as this argument claims. Is it not reasonable that one acts to alleviate the suffering of another because they feel genuine pity or compassion for that person? If so, then there is more than one reason possible motive (self-interest) for fulfilling our commonsense moral duties. IV. Three Arguments against Ethical Egoism A. Argument #1: Ethical Egoism endorses evil action. According to Ethical Egoism, if an action promotes one’s self-interest it is morally acceptable to perform that action. But many self-interested actions seem patently evil – rape, sociopathic killing, larceny, etc. Therefore, it appears that Ethical Egoism sanctions acts that any morally conscientious person would deem to be evil or immoral, and so it fails as a moral theory. [Rachels notes that this argument, while compelling, may beg the question against Ethical Egoism as it requires the judgment that actions are evil based on a non-egoistical account of evil.] B. Argument #2: Ethical Egoism Is Logically Inconsistent – Baier and others have argued that Ethical Egoism leads to logical contradictions, i.e. based on Ethical Egoism the same act came be judged both wrong and not wrong at the same time and under the same circumstances. Rachels elucidates this argument as follows (p. 78): 1. Suppose it is each person’s duty to do what is in his own best interest. [The principle of Ethical Egoism.] 2. It is in B’s best interest to murder K.

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3. 4. 5. 6.

It is in K’s best interest to prevent B from murdering him. Therefore, B’s duty is to murder K, and K’s duty is to prevent B from doing it. But it is wrong to prevent someone from doing his duty. Therefore, it is wrong for K to prevent B from murdering him.

7. Therefore, it is both wrong and not wrong for K to prevent G from murdering him. 8. 9. But no action can be both wrong and not wrong; that is a selfcontradiction. Therefore, the assumption with which we started – that it is each person’s duty to do what is in one’s own best interests – cannot be true.

[This argument is valid as stated, but Rachels notes that premise #5 is not implied by Ethical Egoism so the conclusion does not follow from the theory. Premise #5 is an added principle that the ethical egoist need not accept and by so doing, may be able to avoid the conclusion that it leads to a logical contradiction.] C. Argument #3: Ethical Egoism is Unacceptably Arbitrary – Rachels argues that there are a number of inadequate moral views that share the same characteristic – they divide the world into two groups and arbitrarily advocate preferential treatment for their group over that of the other group (examples of this kind of view are racism, antiSemitism, etc.). These views violate what Rachel calls “the Principle of Equal Treatment” which states: We should treat people in the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them. (p. 79) According to Rachels, racism, for example, violates the Principle of Equal Treatment because it espouses different treatments based solely upon race when, in reality, there are no morally relevant differences among races. What follows from the application of the Principle of Equal Treatment? Rachels says, “If we can find no relevant difference between us and them, then we must admit that, if our needs should be met, so should theirs. It is this realization – that we are on a par with one another – that is the deepest reason why our morality must include recognition of the needs of others, and why, ultimately, Ethical Egoism fails as a moral theory.” (p. 81)

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