The Philosophical Issue Of Moral Relativism

The philosophical issue of moral relativism. This article defines moral relativism and applies it to modern ethical controversies. It outlines the strengths and objections to this theory.

In a rural village 50 miles east of Calcutta, a mother kills her newborn baby girl without threat of scorn, punishment, or criticism of her morality from her community. Indeed, the practice of infanticide is commonplace in poverty-stricken regions of India, China, and other nations. Many outside observers of this culture would label this act murder and condemn the woman as an immoral person deserving penalization. The theory of moral relativism, however, holds that the mother has committed no violation because she was acting in accord with the societal standards of her culture. Moral relativism is a form of conventionalism, which explicitly states that "an act is morally right if and only if it is permitted by the conventions of its society" (Feldman p. 164, Introductory Ethics, c.178 Prentice Hall, Inc). Therefore, there are no universally morally obligatory acts and all morality is defined by one's environment. This theory has several advantages and disadvantages, and I propose a modification of moral relativism which resolves the difficulties while retaining the strengths of the theory.

Moral relativism directly opposes ethnocentrism, which is the view that cultures can be judged based on the social and moral codes of another culture. An ethnocentric method of evaluation is justifiably discouraged in anthropological evaluations of societies because it passes judgements on others based on omparison to a foreign standard. This extrinsic standard of comparison may be completely unknown to the people of the scrutinized society, which demonstrates the unfairness and irrationality of this method of moral analysis. Therefore, a definite advantage of moral relativism is its consideration of the wide variety of situations in different societies around the world, both past and present. Moral relativism accounts for the fact that people in different cultures have different world views, lifestyles, educations, and traditions, which is a very positive aspect of this theory. For example, it is absurd to judge the actions of a Native American woman by the standards of modern-day Western society. Such cross-cultural comparisons cannot be justified because the individual was limited in the availability of moral codes which she could choose to follow. She cannot be blamed for acting in accordance with the code under which she was raised and been accustomed to her entire life. In this case, as well as with the Indian woman, the subject was clearly mistaken in her moral beliefs, so that she was not morally right but still could not be blamed for her error.

Moral relativism also avoids the objections to the different forms of consequentialism and utilitarianism. It allows for supererogatory acts (above and beyond the call of duty) because they may be performed provided they are not in opposition to the moral code of the particular society, but it does not require them either. Moral relativism also withstands the Triviality objection because it allows the culture in question to define which acts are morally significant and which are not. The criteria used to judge the moral significance of an act may vary from one society to another, but that is a benefit of moral relativism because it does not impose any outside standards on members of any particular society. Similarly, the keeping of promises and execution of punishments is directly related to the standards and values system of the society in which the promise or infraction took place. Therefore, it follows logically that these actions should be evaluated on the same level at which they were performed.

Furthermore, moral relativism withstands the objections to the Divine Command Theory because it does not rely on the existence of a superior being. Therefore, moral relativism focuses on the morality of an action without being complicated by religious or teleological issues. These objections to other moral theories have been introduced in order to demonstrate the strengths of moral relativism while simultaneously displaying the weaknesses of other leading moral theories. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that moral relativism is widely practiced today, though people may not consciously realize it. When people allow themselves to live in harmony with other groups without criticizing their morality or codes, they are displaying moral relativism, which is a peaceful and non-confrontational approach to understanding other societies. Imagine, for a moment, a world in which everyone is a moral relativist. In such a world, all different societies would coexist in peace because no one would challenge or oppose the beliefs or structure of another system. Thus, widespread adoption of this code would foster cooperation and cross-cultural appreciation as opposed to criticism, competition, and oppression of groups that are perceived to be inferior. Moral relativism promotes tolerance through passive acceptance of others, and all societies would do well to embrace this theory, and practice it.

Like all moral theories, moral relativism is not without its flaws. The weaknesses of this approach can be found in examples of its application in extreme situations. It is difficult, if not impossible, to justify extreme societal practices, often involving life-or-death scenarios. A prime example is the aforementioned situation of the Indian woman's act of infanticide. Although popular culture and even Indian government permit the practice of killing baby girls, many people reject this as morally permissible. Despite widespread acceptance of this act, it is argued by many that taking the life of an innocent, defenseless child is morally wrong under all circumstances. This is a valid and understandable point, especially in light of other objections to moral relativism. For example, moral relativism would require the passive acceptance of the anti-Semitic, white-supremacist beliefs of Nazis in Germany and even neo-Nazis in today's society. Their practice of genocide would, according to strict moral relativist views, be a socio-cultural phenomena which should not be subjected to criticism from outside viewpoints. If government leaders and the worldwide community had followed this approach, it would have had tragic consequences for countless people, and it is clearly not a logical solution to the Holocaust.

These situations have demonstrated that the moral relativist theory has its flaws, and they are quite severe. The question arises over what cultural aspects should be appreciated from afar, and when intervention in another society's practices is necessary. Other objections to moral relativism criticize it because it does not account for situations in which an individual may be a member of more than one society, each with its own (possibly conflicting) moral codes. An individual who is both a businessman (corporate society) and a Christian (religious society) would be in a dilemma if he was asked to alter some confidential documents for the company. The society in which he works would expect him to comply to their standard of conducting business, but his moral obligation to his church would prohibit such an act, and moral relativism is of no use to him because he is told to respect both of their codes equally. Therefore, moral relativism is restricted to cases in which only one society is in question.

Even with this provision, moral relativism encounters difficulties when a single society has an incomplete or inconsistent set of moral rules. In this case, the individual member may experience trouble discerning the obligatory moral act and moral relativism does not come to his or her aid. Furthermore, if an individual moves from one society to another, moral relativism implies that he or she must dramatically alter his or her core values and sense of morality to conform to the new locale. This seems an absurd request, especially when moral beliefs are ingrained so deeply in people's consciousnesses and cannot be abandoned and altered upon physical displacement of the body. Perhaps it is the definition of society which needs to be reevaluated for use in moral theories because its employment has caused controversy in many theories and its definition has been proven to be too vague.

Another objection to moral relativism is called by Fred Feldman "The Reformer's Dilemma," which describes the situation of an activist who sees a society in need of improvement and feels compelled to propose some alteration for its citizens. However, the theory of moral relativism prohibits such an action because it requires the acceptance of the society as it is. In short, "anyone who advocates reform is mistaken" (Feldman 166), which has obviously been proven false by Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless other admirable leaders. The objections that have been outlined are the primary criticisms of moral relativism.

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