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Based on covered material thus far, we will explain human moral development and the relativist traditions: individual, religious and cultural. Regarding the latter, we will cover how they can go wrong and ways in which they are problematic or have failed.
Mastery motivation is a key developmental theory hypothesizing that the desire and potential to do better is innate in humans. Moral development starts with conscience. It is critical to our moral growth that the conscience is “well-developed” as it “provides us with knowledge about right and wrong”. It motivates, and allows us to feel, reason and think critically. It guides most of actions and demands our cooperation. These, however, are innate mechanics. We cannot count on default settings as our sole moral guide because it would leave us susceptible to external pressures. Mastery motivation makes it so that we improve our reasoning skills and maneuver our environment with increasing complexity. These extra inputs are “culturally shaped”.
Conscience is shaped by biology, environment, and “conscious moral direction”. Our most “basic moral sense” (for most of us, anyway) derives itself from our biological predisposition “to care for and help others”). Then, cultural forces contextualize our feelings by giving us “boundaries and guidelines” to work with. Sometimes, said guidelines can oppose our sense, which is where “autonomous moral reasoning” comes into play, by “exercising” our innate ability to reason in order to come up with better answers to our moral dilemmas. This is critical to moral growth as we underestimate the hold peer pressure can have on us.
Conscience is understood in two synergistic elements: affective and cognitive. The affective, which speaks on “the emotions that move us to feel moral approval or disapproval”, such as “among others, sympathy, ‘helper’s high’, … resentment, and guilt”; and the cognitive, which deals less with feelings and more on reasoning. Without the well-developed cognitive part, we fail to critically process our emotions and actions, which can direct us towards ‘bad’.
Going back to mastery motivation theory, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, observed moral development in most humans as a set of stages, with each passing stage less egoist and more inclusive than the former. Expanding on Piaget’s practical morality, his theory induces that we have the potential to reach higher “stages in moral development” as we grow, which equip us with “better tools for resolving crises” if a previous stage does not satisfy us, though no stage is superior to the other. Kohlberg’s stages were criticized for being culture and gender-centric by some, notably, regarding the latter, by feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan.
While some studies “positively correlated” stages reached to moral behavior, others did not, insinuating that reasoning is not the only aspect of moral behavior nor is it a “guarantee that one will act morally”. James Rest, a developmental psychologist, expanded on Kohlberg’s work by identifying four parts of moral behavior: “moral sensitivity,, moral reasoning …, moral motivation, and moral character”. Sensitivity can lead to better perspective, which can lead to better judgment or reasoning. These first two, however, can be fruitless depending on one’s motivations, as some values can have precedence over others, which can contradict moral action. Furthermore, moral character, the ability “to integrate the other three components … into” one’s personality, also plays a role. Shortcomings within any of the four codependent parts can lead to “a failure to act morally”. In conclusion, conscience makes us “who we are as individuals” and serves as the primary driver to our moral development. “To be at odds with our conscience is to be out of harmony with our very being”.
Diving into relativist places, individual relativism is a tradition claiming that there are “no objective universal moral standard or truths” and so people can never be misguided “about what is morally right or wrong”. Because “there are only opinions”, moral truths come down to the individual’s inclinations. For example, if one believes that torturing animals is right, they are morally obligated to act on that opinion. Similarly, if one thinks oppositely, they should act accordingly. Moral standards exist, but there is no universality in them. This tradition grew out of 18th-century Romantic sentimentalism, a tradition that believed in man’s “natural goodness” and how society holds it back.
Individual relativism has a few ways in which it is problematic. First, it makes the wrong assumption that moral disagreement suggests that there is no universality when, in reality, it is the application of moral standards that goes unchallenged rather than the standard itself. For example, a fraudster on trial would likely argue that he or she stole and used a victim’s credit card to get out of a financial bind rather than argue against the principle against stealing. It also wrongly assumes that we cannot be wrong about our moral convictions, which contradicts our judging of people’s actions without regard to their opinions. More importantly, this tradition can be ruinous for the powerless. If one is morally obligated to act on their feelings and, let’s say, blondes see gingers as a danger to society, how can said gingers claim victimhood under a tradition that validates their genocide in this particular situation? Individual relativism is a failed and dangerous theory because it maintains that moral development stops with individuals and relieves them of reasoning and punishment. Most philosophers disapprove of this tradition.
Similar to individual relativism, cultural relativism “looks to people for determining moral standards”. Rather than personal opinion, morality comes from ideas that a group or culture can agree on, and that these ideas do not translate to other groups or cultures. There is no universality because morality can only come from a culture’s value system and assessed accordingly. For instance, a cultural relativist would look at slavery in America and say that, for Americans of that time, it was a morally valid system. This tradition neither excuses nor advocates.
Cultural relativism came about as a reaction to social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a tradition that expanded on “survival of the fittest” from Darwin’s theory of evolution and applied it to societies (110). Just as “survival of the fittest” drives our species’ evolution, it can drive our culture. Social Darwinists saw morality as a matter of “fitness” and based it on wealth and advancement. The tradition was used to rationalize attitudes against and the imperializing of “lesser” societies, which cultural relativists disagreed with. Ruth Benedict, a leader of cultural relativism in that time, argued that Darwin’s theory made no correlation between cultural advancement and morality, and that cultures are their own “functioning whole” which “cannot be” assessed outside said “whole”.
As with individual relativism, some critiques can be made about cultural relativism. First, it cannot work in a “pluralistic society” because there are all kinds of cultures (and subcultures, by extension), and people can belong in many all at once. What is the procedure when conflicting values come about? For instance, how would this tradition work out someone who has membership in the NRA, generally votes Democratic and is a Vietnamese-American Buddhist? Because there is no way of working out our clashing moralities, the tradition is impractical. Also, the tradition contradicts the bystander effect. If we are more likely to take moral initiative when fewer people are around, culture likely is not where moral sense primarily comes from. Lastly, the tradition does not take into account that we not pass judgment based on customs but on principles that transcend culture. For example, we do not pass judgment Hitler’s actions based on the norms of Nazi Germany but on our understanding of “justice and respect for human dignity”. This also insinuates that cultural relativists exaggerate the extent of moral differences across societies. While culture does play a role in our development and partially defines us, it does not paint the entire picture as we should also rely on our own reasoning to solve moral dilemma.
To explain religious relativism, we must contextualize religion as it pertains to philosophy in our text. It is defined as a “system of beliefs” and practices by a people based on the adoration and devotion to a higher power. Religious relativism is a tradition that maintains no universality in religious ‘truth’ as it comes down to a person or a people to determine that for themselves. The subset of religious relativism that we covered was divine command theory, which claims no objective morality outside of what ‘God’ deems moral, and that only he can change it. Therefore, there is no need to reason out right or wrong because right or wrong come the one and only source.
This tradition leaves us with a few concerns. First, morality and moral development does not require God or a belief in God, regardless of whether he exists or not. Basic moral sense is innate and lays the foundation for our concept of ‘God’s goodness’ rather than the other way around. For example, we do not need religion to grasp that stealing is wrong so it is easy to accept God’s word against stealing because no ethical dilemma has been presented. Also, we would be less likely to accept God’s word if they presented a contradiction to our morality. Secondly, we have no logical way of knowing if a command comes from God nor a way of deciding who is right when opposing groups claim to have been given a godly command. For example, Florida legislators could justify enforcing morning prayer for all students by saying the idea was inspired by God, while Muslims could protest this by claiming that Allah commanded them to fight for their own religious integrity. How do we objectively decide who is right, and would that not rely on the idea that we all believe in just God in the first place? These critiques of divine command theory, while not necessarily discrediting the theory in itself, show us that it “offers little guidance when it comes to everyday morality”. All in all, this problematic tradition relies on “uncritical acceptance of” various belief systems in assessing moral dilemma rather than autonomous reasoning and can be disastrous by endorsing unfair practices.
In summation, we covered human moral development, where it comes from and what is allows of us. We also covered the relativist places, more specifically, their origins, limitations and problematic potential.
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