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Moral objectivism [Aug. 28th, 2008|08:16 am]
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This is an essay I wrote for my Theories of Ethics course in, what I think was, Fall of 07. Have fun.


            Oftentimes in discussions as to the moral relevance of certain actions we often find ourselves faced with the basic question as to whether or not morality is an inherently subjective or objective claim.  The consequences for either decision seem dire as the necessary consequences of moral subjectivism could lead us to conclusions that don’t sit well and upset our moral compass while the consequences of moral objectivism seem equally as loaded as one could hardly imagine a world in which morality was objective without some kind of divine entity telling us what it is.  In either case, there have been a number of theorists throughout the years attempting to address this problem so that we may better understand ethics both as a discipline and as a way of living our lives.

In her attempt to disprove claims as to the existence of moral objectivism, Ruth Benedict does as many would do and begins from a point which is within her expertise; the field of anthropology.  Benedict sets the stage for her argument looking at cultures which embrace certain acts or behaviors which we might find distasteful or reject outright.  These examples range from being as mild as homosexuality, to those who enter trances, and even the habit of some tribes to engage in head hunting.  Benedict, with these examples, very much wishes to illustrate how what is considered to be abnormal tends to vary from culture to culture and how in some cases an individual might be considered amongst the norm, or even exemplary, for exhibiting such behavior in their own culture, but were that behavior to be repeated in another culture it would be considered abnormal or abhorrent.  This is the first claim that Benedict gives to us after presenting her examples when she claims that, “These illustrations, which it has been possible to indicate only in the briefest manner, force upon us the fact that normality is culturally defined.”[1]

Before moving on it seems necessary for a bit of clarification on what seems to be the basis for Benedict’s argument.  This can be viewed as an interpretation of cultural evolution which follows many of the same rules as biological evolution wherein there is a random mutation which is then followed by propagation of this trait within the culture, or even of the culture as a whole.  Unsuccessful traits or unsuccessful cultures will not necessarily survive long enough to propagate and will die out.

Benedict goes on to compare and contrast the mores of particular cultures with the various phonetic articulations that can occur within a particular language.  Her claim is essentially that just as one language cannot possibly incorporate all pronunciations of particular letters since this would inhibit the ability for individuals to communicate, so it must also be that no one culture can possibly incorporate all mores[2] to be within the norm.  Under Benedict’s model, each society begins with a slight inclination into one direction or another and the preference contained therein continues from this initial inclination and continues to define itself within the culture.

According to Benedict, we will also find that under the same model she suggests there is a kind of emotivism being implied within her claims.  Where emotivism tends to rely on the notion that saying, “That’s not morally good,” is merely another way of saying, “I don’t like what you are doing,” (and is, in many ways, more of an order rather than a statement about the reality of the world) and under Benedict’s model the claim, “That is morally good,” is merely a way of saying, “That is habitual, or normal.”  The converse of this, of course, being the claim, “That is not morally good,” which is synonymous with the claim, “That is abnormal, or aberrant.”

This can be simplified into the claim that what is good is merely a form of what is normal.  Normal is being defined as that which is acceptable or expected within this society and as such will inherently rely on the institutions of that society.  Benedict points out that when a society institutionalizes something then that becomes the norm for that society.  Benedict uses a number of examples such as homosexuality (if the institution were that of a homosexual society then heterosexual behaviors would not be the norm); the gathering of possessions, wherein if this is the primary goal then the citizens of that society will amass property and those who do not will be viewed as deviant.

The majority of Benedict’s claims inherently rely on the form, “If there is moral variation between cultures, then there is no moral objectivism.”  Now, to some extent this seems to be true, however this only seems to apply to the specifics of moral claims rather than general principles.  For instance, most cultures seem to have a standard by which what we consider to be “murder” is a moral wrong and in many ways our standards are much more stringent than those of other cultures that allowed far more justification the act.  For instance, in the example that Benedict gives involving the headhunting of the Northwest Coast this is in response to a perceived threat or insult and is accorded as an act of vengeance.  To us, this may seem an unjustified reason, but to the tribe of the Northwest Coast it is a perfectly acceptable justification.

So while it seems as if there is some validity to Benedict’s claim that there may not be objective moral principles between cultures, it does not seem to be entirely correct as we can see that the general principles remain the same (unjustified killing is a moral wrong) while the specifics (the justification for killing) may vary between cultures.  To further illustrate this point we can draw upon the Socratic dialogue, “Euthyphro,” which explicitly deals with the issues of objectivism and relativism.

While awaiting trial, Socrates finds himself engaged in dialogue with Euthyphro who has come to court to bring charges against his father for the death of a slave.  After discussions regarding various definitions of piety and impiety they find themselves at somewhat of an impasse regarding whether a thing is pious because the god’s say so (that is the god’s point out that which is pious, in which case the god’s could make an injustice pious), or the god’s say so because it is pious (in which case that which is pious remains so regardless of the distinction and the god’s are then unneeded).  However, yet a third option remains and seems particularly relevant to this discussion: It could be that the god’s agree on what piety is but disagree on particular instances, perhaps due to their various emphases (for instance, Aries the god of War will disagree with Aphrodite the goddess of Love on a particular instance on piety, though they agree on what it is over-all).

In stark contrast to the arguments made by Benedict, we find James Rachels who is not necessarily on the side of subjectivism, but does not find the arguments for it to be convincing.  He begins by recounting a tale initially told by Herodotus in which Darius, the king of Persia, had found that amongst different cultures there were often different beliefs as to the proper ritual for disposing of the dead.  Amongst an Indian tribe, the Callatians, it was customary to consume the body of their dead father upon his death whereas the Greeks could never imagine such a thing and instead saw a funeral pyre as the proper ritual.

            Rachels begins his argument by outlining six basic claims he believes that the cultural relativists tend to make: “1) Different societies have different moral codes.  2) There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.  3) The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.  4) There is no “universal truth” in ethics – that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times. 5) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.  6) It is mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other peoples.  We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.”[3]

            While acknowledging that the argument of the cultural relativists is plausible, Rachels also acknowledges that the strategy used is flimsy to say the least.  After examining the specific claims made by cultural relativists to prove their points, he finds that the argument is similar in all cases and consists of the form, “1) Different cultures have different moral codes.  2) Therefore there is no objective “truth” in morality.  Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.”[4]

            Rachels primary objection to what he calls the Cultural Differences Argument is that it is not a sound argument due to the fact that the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises and the conclusion is a non-sequitur.  Rachels argues that the premises deal with the beliefs of the cultures whereas the conclusion deals with actual facts.  He then returns to the tale told by Herodotus and commented that just because they disagreed on what the correct practice was, this does not necessarily mean that there is no objective moral standard.  It could be that one, the other, or neither is the morally correct answer and that there still could be an objective morality.

            A common example is then used by Rachels concerning the shape of the Earth.  In many European societies it was customary that the majority of people believed that the Earth was flat, however it does not seem to be the case the one’s opinion or belief can necessarily reshape the objective truth of the universe.  That is, just because people had a belief that the Earth was flat that does not mean the Earth was flat, and it also does not follow that when people began to believe the Earth was round that it went from flat to being round.  Similarly, just because people believe that there is not an objective moral standard to the universe, it does not then follow that there is not an objective moral standard.

            Rachels believes that there is not as much as disagreement between the cultures as it seems.  He points out that in Hindu cultures it is considered unacceptable to eat a cow which is in stark contrast to culture in the United States where it is largely deemed acceptable.  However, this is not the only differences between us as Hindu’s believe in reincarnation and that the souls of humans inhabit the bodies of animals after death, particularly those of cows, and that one could be eating their own grandmother if they do so.  While it might be that we disagree on whether or not to eat cows, this merely stems from a belief and both hold the same value that eating your own grandmother is wrong.

            Now, going back to the tale of Herodotus, we can see that this value might not be as universal as Rachels may have thought.  As we have seen before, amongst some cultures, such as the Callatians, it is considered perfectly acceptable to eat the body of your dead progenitors.  However, that qualifier that was just used may be the key to our understanding of this phenomenon.  While it may be understandable for those amongst the Callatians to eat their dead parents, it would be hard to conceive that this was often the result of them killing their parents for food.  On the other hand, eating a cow is likely to involve the act of taking the life of the cow rather than waiting for it to die, though even in circumstances where the cow has died a natural death it is not permissible in Hindu cultures to feed upon it.  However, this objection does not seem particularly relevant as we still find ourselves returning to the basic question, “What is the proper burial ritual for dead parents?”

            Though there does seem to be evidence to support the claim that moral objectivism is the correct answer, both claims as to objectivism and relativism ultimately fall to the criticism that it might simply be that we have the answer wrong, even amongst a wide variety of cultures when we compare and contrast both specific and general moral principles.  Thus far, however, the claims for moral objectivism suffer from far less valid criticisms than those for moral objectivism, despite the fact that the subjectivist is likely to fall back on the claim that, “There is variation amongst cultures,” as justification for their claims.  This is especially true since, despite the fact that the subjectivists have their claims, the objectivists will always be able to rely on the argument that they could really be wrong unless ethics comes down to a scientific methodology with falsifiable claims.



[1] Benedict, “Morality is Relative”, 367

[2] (sociology) the conventions that embody the fundamental values of a group – “http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=mores”

[3] Rachels, “Morality is Objective,” 372

[4] Rachels, “Morality is Objective,” 372

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