Friday, March 6, 2009


..From the Archives (12/07)

In the examples, Rachels carefully examines the arguments used by the opposing sides, and relates them to ethical theories that might have been used in each. He also emphasizes the importance of carefully evaluating each side, and warns against accepting unsound, or bad, arguments.

The Elements of Moral Philosophy Chapter 2: The Challenge of Cultural Relativism?

This chapter analyzes Cultural Relativism, a theory about the nature of morality. Cultural relativists have made the following independent claims:
  • (1) Different societies have different moral codes.
True, but exaggerated. There are certain values that are universal, and the reasons for differences lie mostly in our belief system, not in our values.
  • (2) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society.
What a society believes is not necessarily what is really true.
  • (3) 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.
This is not necessarily true. We should consider whether a practice promotes or hinders the welfare of people affected by it.
  • (4) The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among many.
Moral codes might be better or worse than some others.
  • (5) It is mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other people. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance towards the practices of other cultures.
Intolerance of some things is not necessarily wrong. We should seek progress.

In brief, Cultural Relativism can be summarized by the statement, “The notion of right is in the folkways.” Additionally, the apparent contradiction between (2) and (5) emerges out of the improper understanding that “the norms of a culture reign supreme within the bounds of the culture itself.” “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The consequences of taking it seriously are listed below:
  • We won’t be able to criticize the customs of any society.
  • The standards of the society determine the morality of an action within that society.
Social reform and moral progress are only possible through promoting the society’s own immutable ideals.

Rachels focuses on presenting and rejecting the “Cultural Differences Argument,” the argument behind Cultural Relativism, which states:
  • Different cultures have different moral codes.
  • Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary among cultures.
This argument is unsound, for the conclusion does not follow from the premise, and therefore proves nothing. It does not follow, from the mere fact that different cultures disagree, that there is no objective moral truth. It is possible that a practice is objectively right (or wrong) and that one or more of the cultures are mistaken. “The fundamental mistake in the Cultural Differences Argument is that it attempts to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree about it.”

The “Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems” section tries to show that cultural differences are often overestimated. Rachels states that “the difference is in our belief system, not in our values.” If we consider the reasons for the cultures’ differing behaviors, we will find that they are closely in tune with our own values. Many factors such as values, religious and factual beliefs held by its members, and the physical circumstances in which they live, work together to produce the customs of a society. The difference in customs may be attributed to (the different) aspects of social life other that values. Therefore, there is less disparity about values than there appears to be. Rachels illustrates each of his points with appropriate examples.
Further, Rachel states that some values are “more or less universal.” He says that there are moral rules that all cultures must have in common because they are necessary for the society’s existence. The prohibition of murder, rules against lying, and caring for the young are some examples of necessary features of all societies.

Rachels introduces a line of reasoning which looks at the overall harm or help of an action—Act Utilitarianism. “Does the practice promote or hinder the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it?”

There are several reasons for people’s are reluctance to criticize other cultures, and there are reasons why they are misguided:
  • They don’t want to interfere with the social customs of other people.
It is right and not intolerant to merely try “to see the world clearly, from a moral point of view.”
  • People should be tolerant of other cultures.
Tolerance does not mean that all beliefs and practices are equally admirable.
  • People do not wan to express contempt for the society being criticized.
To condemn a particular practice is not the same as to say that the culture on the whole is contemptible or that it is generally inferior to any other culture.

Cultural Relativism, however, teaches us two important lessons:
  • It is dangerous to assume that all our preferences are based on some “absolute rational standard.” It reminds us that many of our practices are merely peculiar to our own society.
  • We should avoid being dogmatic and always keep an open mind. “Our feelings are not necessarily perception of the truth—they may be nothing more than the result of cultural conditioning.”
“Tolerance is a virtue, but it is OK to disagree. So, how much tolerance is the ‘right’ amount?” “Tolerance allows for humility.”

A philosopher seeks to find the truth; he must to be open to discovering the truth.

Conditions for morality:
If there is ethics,

A. The very same (one) action can not be both right and wrong at the same time.

B. The very same action can not change their value over time.

Act Utilitarianism – argument against
Theory 6: “An action is right” means… “that action produces better consequences than any other action open to the agent in a given situation.”
P1: “open to the agent in a given situation” (under certain circumstances) = will produce certain consequences
P2: Will produce certain consequences = action producing such consequences can change over time
P3: This goes against the second condition of ethics
C: This reasoning can’t be considered ethical

Issues to research:
  • Treatment of handicapped
  • Abortion

Class Notes:

“An action is right” means…
Approval Theories
Theory 1: “I approve that action.”
Theory 2: “the majority of the community approves that action.”
Theory 3: “(universal majority)”
Theory 4: “God approves that action.”
Moral Intuitionism
Theory 5: “that action has attached to it the simple, irreducible property of rightness.”
Act Utilitarianism
Theory 6: “that action produces better consequences than any other action open to the agent in a given situation.”
Rule Utilitarianism
Theory 7: “that action falls under a rule or practice which when carried out produces better consequences than any other rule or practice open to the agent in a given situation.”
Rule Agapeism
Theory 8:

Moral Obligation:
Blame applies when:
Video Tape:
Class Resources:
  • The Elements of Moral Philosophy (Fifth Edition), James Rachels and Stuart Rachels.
  • The Right Thing To Do, James Rachels (self)
Supplemental reading:

Internet resources that cover ethics and value theory:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (Ross Theory of Ethics)
Development of Metaethical Procedure, G. E. Moore
Multiple Personality:

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