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The Central Theme of Moral (cultural) Relativism

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This paper covers the central theme of Moral (Cultural) Relativism. It is essentially the idea that morally acceptable conduct is determined and set by culture. The key factor is that the moral codes of a certain culture are usually different when compared to another. This is highlighted constantly through the traditions of the Greeks and the Callatians when it comes to death. Another example involves the Eskimos and their belief in infanticide. The Cultural Differences Argument is then examined and applied to certain examples. This is not a sound argument because there is a logical flaw that can be exploited. The logical flaw of the argument shows that Moral Relativism is false. By examining certain viewpoints and judgements, Moral Relativism can be invalidated.

The main idea of Moral (Cultural) Relativism is that morality is shaped by culture and that there is no universal truth in ethics. (Rachels p.21). Moral Relativism holds that actions are determined to be either right or wrong based on a particular cultural code. Attached to this is the fact that there are numerous cultural codes and as a result morality varies in each society. Moral Relativism holds that no moral code is superior to another. At its core, moral relativism explains that we should not judge a culture based on our own standards of what is right or wrong, rather we should attempt to understand the practices of other cultures and respect them. Moral judgements that are true in one culture may be false in another. Therefore, it is impossible for all cultures to agree on a certain action or subject and as such, there is no universal truth among all cultures.

Throughout the text, Rachels illustrates various differences between cultures that support the idea of moral relativism. The first cultural difference that is citied by Rachels occurs between the Greeks and the Callatians. It involved the way that the two cultures handled the bodies of their dead fathers. For the Callatians, it was a custom for them to eat the body of their dead father. For the Greeks, they practiced cremation. King Darius who was the king of Persia asked the Greeks if they would eat their dead father and asked the Callatians if they would burn the body. Both the Greeks and the Callatians were shocked and horrified. It was impossible for them to imagine. (Rachels p.22) The Greeks thought it was wrong to eat the dead while the Callatians believed it was right. This can support moral relativism because both cultures have opinions that vary.

Another example that Rachels introduces in the text is the culture of the Eskimos. The Eskimo men had multiple wives and they would share wives with guests. Males had access to other men’s wives. Aside from marital practices, infanticide was common. They would kill newborn babies and old people who were no longer able to contribute to the family (Rachels p. 23). Female babies tended to be killed more often than male babies. When comparing the Eskimo culture to the American culture, the Americans believed that infanticide was wrong whereas the Eskimos thought it was right. Both arguments about eating the dead bodies and infanticide show that the customs and traditions of one culture are different than another. Moral Relativism may lead us to believe that right or wrong simply depends on an opinion (Rachels p 24).

Rachels explains that the Cultural Differences Argument can be used to analyze the concept of Moral Relativism. This argument can be used to examine the differences between cultures and lead to an ultimate conclusion about morality within that culture. The Cultural Differences Argument is derived from the fact that diverse cultures believe in a set of moral codes that vary when compared to another culture (Rachels p. 23). As a result, objective truth in morality is impossible. Actions or beliefs that are considered morally right or wrong are simply an opinion which varies between cultures. This is the what Rachels considers the form of an argument. The reasoning that Rachels uses as an example is that cannibalism is not right or wrong, it is an opinion that varies among culture (Rachels p. 23). The same logic can be applied in the case with the Eskimos. They believed infanticide was right while Americans believed it was wrong. The opinions concerning infanticide are different among other cultures. The Cultural Differences Argument can lead to the conclusion that there are no universal moral truth or standards that are accepted. The only right or morally correct standard is the one that is relative to one’s culture.

Rachels criticizes the Cultural Differences Argument because it has a major logical flaw. The problem is that the conclusion even if it were true does not follow from the premise (Rachels p. 24). It is revealed that the premise is what people in various societies believe and the conclusion is what really is the case. In other words, the Cultural Differences Argument is invalid based on the established assertion that since there is no objective truth, it does not follow that there is a disagreement about the actual truth of a certain matter. The main problem with the Cultural Differences Argument is that it leads us to a conclusion based solely on the fact that a disagreement exists (Rachels p. 25). If different cultures have a different view on a certain matter, there is no right or wrong answer about that particular matter. The fact that some societies disagree on a subject does not show that there is no objective truth that is accepted universally. A supporting argument would be needed to determine if the conclusion is in fact true.

This flaw can be illustrated using the belief that some societies think that the Earth is flat while others belief it is spherical. If two societies disagree about the shape of the Earth, this does not mean that there is no subjective truth in geography (Rachels p.24) Occasionally, some societies might be wrong. This example that Rachels uses implies that the belief of the shape of the Earth is an opinion which varies among separate cultures. The fact of disagreement does not prove that there is no objective truth in morality as a whole. The conclusion of subjectivity in geography does not follow the premise because the world is round. Just because we think the world is round, does not imply that everyone knows it (Rachels p.24).

The Cultural Differences Argument invalidates Moral Relativism because of the logical flaw. This can be seen in a variety of scenarios. If Moral Relativism were true, certain inferences can be drawn. Rachels explains that we would have to stop condemning other societies because they are different. In turn, this would stop the criticism of certain practices such as slavery and anti-Semitism (Rachels p.25). Moral Relativism would view these practices as morally right when they are clearly wrong. Under Moral Relativism, social injustices such as slavery and anti-Semitism would be viewed as “right” because that is what society says. Secondly, the only way to determine what is right or wrong would be to ask within our society. This will prevent us from criticizing own our own society code (Rachels p.25). Additionally, if Cultural Relativism was true, moral progress would not exist (Rachels p.26). Throughout history, women were mistreated and considered inferior towards men. Overtime, this has changed to the point where they are now equals. Also, if Moral Relativism was true, then social reformers would not have the power to question ideas of their own society (Rachels p.26).

Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. would be criticized for leading the civil rights movement. Moral relativism would view such practices as correct when we know that it is unethical. We have made moral progress which has improved lifestyles of many societies. Moral Relativism is false because it argues that the improvements that we have made to society such as abolishing slavery and giving women the same rights as men, are not correct. We then have to reject the theory altogether. Aside from the logical defect in the Cultural Differences Argument, the fact the cultural universals exist can further disprove Moral Relativism. (Rachels p.30). In final analysis, the logical defect of the Cultural Differences Argument along with the fact that cultural universals exist invalidates Moral Relativism.

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