III. Sociological Approaches to Ethics: Cultural Relativism

   A. Common Cultural Relativism

According to James Rachels in "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," cultural relativists maintain the following six theses:

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 try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.

Let's call this collection of theses 'Common Cultural Relativism'.

   B. CR (or "Conventionalism" [Feldman])

CR: an act is morally right if and only if it is permitted by the moral code of the society of the agent of the act.

Some assumptions necessary for CR:
1. There are such things as societies.
This assumption may seem innocent enough, but if you think about it, it is very difficult to say exactly what a society is.  It is very difficult to specify the conditions under which a group of people form a society.
2. Every person is a member of exactly one society.
This assumption is problematic because (given that there are such things as societies), it seems that many people could be members of more than one society.  People who immigrate from one country to another might, for a time, be members of two societies.  Also people who are members of subcultures of larger cultures seem to belong to two societies.
3. Every society has a moral code (a set of moral rules that are accepted by the members of the society).

   C. The Argument for CR: The Cultural Differences Argument [Herodotus, Benedict]

The Cultural Differences Argument
1. Different societies have different beliefs about right and wrong.
2. If different societies have different beliefs about right and wrong, then morality depends upon the beliefs of society.
3. If morality depends upon the beliefs of society, then CR is true.
4. Therefore, CR is true.

   D. CR and Tolerance

   E. Arguments Against CR
      1. The Reformer's Dilemma

The Reformer's Dilemma [Feldman, p. 166]
1. If CR is true, then anyone who advocates reform is mistaken.
2. It is not the case that anyone who advocates reform is mistaken.
3. Therefore, CR is not true.

      2. The Globalization Advice Argument

The Globalization Advice Argument
1. If CR is true, then Sally can determine the actual moral status of our global economic policies by consulting the Time/CNN poll.
2. Sally cannot determine the morality of globalization in this way.
3. Therefore, CR is not true.

   F. Conceptual Relativism

Conceptual Relativism:
(i) Nihilism about absolute right and wrong (i.e., there is no such property as moral rightness or moral wrongness);
(ii) Sentences of the form "act a is morally right" are short for sentences like "a is morally right in our society," or "a is morally right in society S"; otherwise, they are meaningless.

      1. The No-Conflicts Argument

No-Conflicts Argument
1. If Conceptual Relativism is true, then there is no real disagreement between Nanook the Eskimo and Nicki Heathwood.
2. There is a real disagreement between them.
3. Therefore, Conceptual Relativism is not true.

   G. Lessons to Learn from Relativists
      1. Self-Criticism
      2. Reasonable Tolerance