Ethical (Moral) Theory aims at a general answer to each of the following questions:
1. What is right/wrong?
2. Why is it right/wrong?
But before these questions can be answered, ethics must first address the question of whether or not ethical statements can be true or false.
For instance, is a statement such as â€œlying is wrongâ€ true or false?
If so, then it has a truth-maker. If not, then it does not have a truth-maker. A truth-maker is simply a state of affairs that determines that the statement is true or false.
For instance, the statement â€œWater is H20â€ is true because water is in fact H20. That is, there is a state of affairs (namely, ...view middle of the document...
g., understanding and change).
âž¢ It makes morality a matter of poll and/or consensus.
âž¢ It makes morality arbitrary.
âž¢ It conflicts with deep and widespread intuitions about morality (e.g., status of torturing innocent babies for fun).
âž¢ It conflicts with fact that we have a pluralistic society (many overlapping groups).
âž¢ Absolutism is also able to promote tolerance (indeed, less problematically).
âž¢ Absolutism can also explain why there is so much moral disagreement.
These objections are difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, letâ€™s suppose that the relativist can provide an adequate response to each of these challenges. In order to evaluate the merits of relativism, then, we must look at the main argument for it:
P1) Different cultures/religions/individuals disagree about morality.
C) Therefore, there is no absolute truth about morality (i.e., morality is relative).
Is this a good argument?
The problem is that the argument proceeds on the assumption that disagreement (about X) entails (or at least makes likely) that there is no absolute truth (about X). But, clearly, disagreement does not entail (or even make likely) that there is no absolute truth.
Think of some examples that involve disagreement in other (non-moral) domains. Does the fact that people have such disagreements suggest that there is no absolute truth?
More generally, the problem is that the argument tries to draw normative conclusions (i.e., what we ought/ought not do) from descriptive data (i.e., how people think and behave). As we have seen before, we cannot determine what is in fact right/wrong by looking at what people think is right/wrong.
In other words, the argument for relativism uses a premise that concerns what people believe and tries to draw a conclusion that concerns what really is the case. This line of reasoning wonâ€™t do. Again, think of examples to make this clear.
So, ethical relativism, in addition to having all of the problems mentioned above, lacks a solid argument in its favor.
Now, although ethical relativism is unsupported, we should recognize that there is something right about cultural relativism. Not all of our practices are moral/immoral; many are neutral. Many non-moral cultural practices are different and ought to be treated with an open mind â€“ i.e., with respect and tolerance. For instance, oneâ€™s dress or eating practices or funerary practices or breast-feeding practices are heavily culture dependent, and thatâ€™s fine. There is no one absolutely right way to engage in these practices.
Cultural relativism warns us, quite rightly, about the danger of assuming that all of our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard. They are not. Many (but not all) of our practices are merely peculiar to our society.
John Stuart Mill is most famous for defending the ethical theory called...