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Moral relativism: Classical anthropology – Critique of moral relativism

Classical anthropology

Anthropological research in the 19th and 20th centuries support the relativism.

William Sumner (1840–1910) argued in his Folkways work, published in 1906, that right and wrong are always related to the prevailing social mores and customs and are shaped by practices and institutions. For people living in a society, the concept of correct morality can only mean conformity with local customs.

The anthropologist Franz Boas saw cultural / moral relativism as a necessary anthropological tool to understand foreign cultures and societies. He said that from a scientific point of view, one shouldn’t project one’s own moral judgments onto the beliefs and values ​​of other cultures, but that one should be able to evaluate them objectively. Many of his students propagated these views, and some, like Melville Herskovits or Ruth Benedict, argued that a relativistic view can help combat prejudice and strengthen tolerance.

Current positions

Descriptive relativism

Descriptive relativism describes a variety of normative ideas from different cultures, times and social groups. Depending on the initial situation, one can speak of cultural or historical relativism. Descriptive relativism does not require adherence to certain principles of tolerance. Only empirical theses are put forward, which, however, are not followed by any normative theses. Since the demand for tolerance is tied to normative theses, it is not described by descriptive relativism, but neither is it rejected; it is neutral to the question of an obligation to tolerance.

The so-called descriptive relativists (e.g. Ralph Barton Perry , 1876–1957) accept the existence of basic disagreements about the correct course of action, even when the same facts are present and the same consequences are to be expected. Descriptive relativists, however, do not necessarily deny the existence of a single correct moral judgment given the same circumstances.

Metaethical relativism

Metaethical relativists claim that all moral judgments have their origin either in social or in individual standards and that there is no absolute standard with which one can judge the truth of a moral statement. The British philosopher Bernard Williams (1929–2003) also came to this conclusion.

Metaethical relativists generally take the view that the descriptive properties of terms such as “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong” are not to be seen as universal truth conditions, but rather correspond to social conventions and personal preferences. With the same set of verifiable facts, some societies or individuals will have profound differences of opinion about what societal norms are and what one does based on one’s preferences.

Relativists, such as Gilbert Harman, claim that there is a certain motivation behind every action. Whether a person feels this motivation depends very much on the norms and values ​​of the society in which they find themselves. The feeling of morally “right” action brings a kind of justification for one’s own actions.

The final standard of assessment will always correspond to social or personal norms and not to a universal standard. The scientific standards for temperature measurement and for checking mathematical theses serve as examples.

Some philosophers claim that moral relativism leads to emotivism or some other type of non-cognitivism. This thesis was put forward in the first half of the 20th century. Leading representatives of this thesis, also known as logical positivism, are Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) and Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989).

Positivists see a sentence as meaningful only if it can be checked or proven by logical, empirical or experimental investigation. Sentences that cannot be checked in this way, like many metaphysical statements, are not regarded as wrong, but as empty of content, or meaning. Moral judgments are mostly explained as an expression of perceived preferences, conditions or personal attitudes. As far as moral concepts are concerned, they are therefore free of cognitive content, and consequently also not a possible subject of a truth assessment. Such a metaethical position has Charles L. Stevenson(1908–1979) worked out. However, not all metaethical relativists judge moral statements or beliefs as meaningless.

R. M. Hare

Some philosophers, such as R. M. Hare (1919–2002), argue that moral theses submit to the rules of human logic, regardless of the absence of facts. They therefore claim that humans are unable to make contradicting ethical judgments if they want to remain credible. They do not advocate or refute the existence of moral facts, they just say that human logic influences moral theses. Accordingly, they conclude that a preferred, objective moral standard exists, albeit with limited validity.

Walter Terence Stace

Ethical relativism is the subject of The Concept of Morals by Walter Terence Stace, in which he wrote:

I shall reject ethical absolutism. But I shall also reject ethical relativity. Morality, I shall try to show, is relative in the sense that it is relative to the universal needs of human nature. But it is not relative to the particular needs of particular nations, ages, or social groups. Consequently it does not vary from place to place or from time to time. Morality is universal, but it is not absolute.”

Error theory

John Leslie Mackie describes his moral arguments for relativity as the theory of error: a theory that, although in Kantian objective values ​​are part of the meaning of moral language and thought, those objective values ​​are false.

In the first part, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, he uses several arguments to support his claim that objective values ​​are wrong. He argues that some aspects of moral thinking are relative and that this requires an intrinsic function. Above all, he thinks that it is very unclear how to supervene objective values ​​on features of the natural world (see Queerness’ argument). He also believes that it would be difficult to justify our knowledge of “entity values” or all of the consequences. In conclusion, he thinks that it is possible to prove that people would still believe in objective values ​​even if they are not proven or there is no reason to believe in them. Hence, he claims that it is possible to deceive people or make them believe that objective values ​​exist.

Criticism of moral relativism

Relativism and world community

Moral relativism is not only an issue for philosophers, but it also has implications for the social sciences and international relations. In 1947 the American Anthropological Association sent a comment to the UN Commission on Human Rights :

”Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole.”

In this is criticized the fact that the western world tries to impose its values ​​on other societies.

Moral universalists believe that humanity derives moral knowledge from external sources such as a deity or doctrine, and yet others believe that moral facts result from nature or reality. In either case, however, moral facts remain invariant when the circumstances to which they may relate differ. Furthermore, each of these schools of thought sees moral facts as objective and determinable.

Even today, moral relativism is an important issue in society, for example in societies with many immigrants. The issue here is, for example, up to what point practices by minorities should be tolerated if they conflict with the moral principles of the majority.

Roman Catholic

The claims of moral relativism conflict with the tenets of most of the world’s religions. Catholics and secular intellectuals attribute the suppression of absolute values ​​by moral relativism to post-war Europe. Pope Benedict XVI, Marcello Peraand and others argued that after 1960 Europe gave up many traditional Christian norms and values ​​and replaced them with ever-changing moral rules. They also describe that during this period the sexual act developed from a mere means of reproduction, which led to a decline in the population. The resulting population vacuum in Europe is being filled by immigrants, mostly from Islamic countries, who are trying to reintroduce absolute moral values. An official answer of the Roman Catholic Church to moral relativism can be found in the Veritatis splendor, the tenth encyclical of Pope John Paul II.

Many of the Catholic Church’s main criticisms of moral relativism relate to modern phenomena, such as selective abortion. Many advocates of selective abortion support moral relativism with quotes like “That’s just your point of view!” To counter the arguments of anti-abortionists.

Contradictions of moral relativism?

Opponents of moral relativism describe it as incompatible with itself. Because on the one hand it rejects absolute moral values, on the other hand he presents his own ideas about the view of morality as absolute. For example, the German professor Peter Zöller-Greer:

“Moral relativism is also judgmental, exclusive and partisan, although the proponents of moral relativism think they are liberal, inclusive and neutral. Moral relativism is judgmental because it claims that people who believe in absolute moral values ​​are wrong. Moral relativism is exclusive because it excludes belief in absolute moral values ​​and it is partisan because the representatives of absolute moral values ​​do not belong to the party of the ‘right thinkers’.”

Argument of intolerance

This theory relates to the likelihood of being intolerant. Moral relativists maintain that a morally absolute attitude increases the likelihood of intolerant behavior towards other people and increases condemnation of other ways of doing things. For example, a great many people were killed in the course of the second millennium because of their religion, because it did not match that of the currently ruling monarch. Today everyone would probably agree that this behavior is immoral. It follows that the consequences of morally relativistic action are less immoral than those of morally absolute action. Against this, however, is the fact that precisely non-relativistic, “absolute” ethics (such as those of natural law) are non-negotiable basic rights such as human dignityand represent the right to life or a ban on killing.

Moral innovation

In the past, slavery was seen as perfectly acceptable in many parts of the world, while elsewhere it was described as the great evil. Many authors and thinkers of this time already stated that there must be a uniform moral standard in order to prevent such things. Moral relativists would reply that this standard could only be valid if the person himself had already considered a certain fact (in this example slavery) to be immoral by himself.

Many relativists now also speak of the fact that certain ways of doing things are morally wrong. But instead of saying, “Slavery is wrong”, the statement is viewed from a more cultural point of view, such as, for example, “Slavery is rejected by our society”. However, even in times of slavery there were moral relativists with this attitude. In this case, of course, the statement would be wrong, since slavery is recognized by society as right. Accordingly, it is rather difficult to speak of a development or even an improvement in moral relativism.

Intervention and inaction

One point of criticism of moral relativism is that relativists cannot justify interfering with the customs of other cultures, since doing so would impose one’s own moral ideas on them. In reality, however, not all relativists can be accused of this objection, since not all understand “non-imposing” as an essential principle. However, those who advocate “non-enforcement” as a principle must accept the criticism that they would not be willing to prevent calamity or evil, even if they themselves saw it as an evil in their own society.

Is the relativism a nihilism?

Nihilism is the negation of any order of knowledge, value and society, colloquially also the negation of all positive approaches. The criticism of relativism is that it does not describe a positive moral theory, since it does not, for example, meet the following criterion of a positive moral theory: A moral theory should be normative, moral relativism is at best an error theory .

Criticism claims that moral relativism is actually moral nihilism, or a theory of fallacy, and is mistakenly interpreted as positive moral theory.

Translated from Wikipedia

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