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Moral Relativism & Cultural Chauvinism

Members of different cultures with different values and beliefs come into frequent conflict, sometimes violent. Exploiter or entrepreneur? Murderer or martyr? “Great Satan” or “Great – Santa!” Gerald Lang asks if we can still pass judgment.

Depending on whom you ask, moral relativism is either an overdue and salutary antidote to imperialism and cultural arrogance, or else it represents a self-defeating, wishy-washy gesture in the direction of cultural evenhandedness. The often excitable and high-voltage nature of popular debates about these issues suggests that many of us feel unsettled about them. We may feel torn between the two camps: while we deplore imperialism and cultural chauvinism, we are also likely to have weighty moral commitments that we take to have application beyond our immediate cultural or political borders. What seems undeniable is that all the mudslinging and raised hackles stand in the way of precise and careful thinking. Relativism’s prospects deserve to be debated in a more sober spirit.

This article is intended to make a small contribution to that large task. My aim here is to clarify what moral relativism actually is, and to critically examine some of its alleged virtues, including, in particular, the suggestion that relativism has the merit of avoiding cultural chauvinism.

Defining Moral Relativism

According to moral relativism, moral judgments are ‘of their time and place’. It is the view that the applicability of moral claims is relative to, or indexed to, societies, cultures or ways of life.

A number of comments on this definition are in order. First, what is meant by ‘applicability’? The relativist provides a two-part answer. First, and uncontroversially, there are boundary conditions on the making of moral judgments – there are conditions or circumstances under which moral judgments do not make sense, or are misplaced, or fail to hit their target. Second, the boundary conditions for the making of moral judgments are cultural in character.

Relativism doesn’t deny the obvious fact that cross-cultural moral judgments are advanced. It does not deny that the practices of another culture may look like perfectly good candidates for moral assessment. But it denies that any judgments we make about other cultures carry their usual force. Relativism says that each culture is answerable only to its own standards, so that an outsider’s judgment about an alien culture has stepped outside the boundaries under which moral judgments carry force. Relativism, then, goes beyond the idea that moral judgments, like certain wines, do not travel well – it makes the exportation of moral judgments straightforwardly impermissible.

The second comment on my definition of relativism concerns the societies, cultures and ways of life to which relativism says moral judgments apply. If relativism is to have any substance or critical bite, it must be in a position to demarcate the cultures to which moral claims are to be relativised. We need to know where one culture ends and another begins if we are to be able to tell whether the claims or judgments in question are truly applicable. This requirement, in turn, leads to notoriously difficult questions about how to individuate the relevant ways of life or cultures. We are forced to address questions of the form: Who are ‘we’? Who are ‘they’? These questions seem particularly taxing when considered from the philosopher’s armchair.

There will, of course, be some criteria for demarcating between cultures, which the philosopher can borrow from the historian or the anthropologist. These will include geographical boundaries, political history, a common language and a shared religion. Moreover, these criteria will often, and non-accidentally, dovetail with each other. For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that the relativist can cobble together rough-and-ready criteria of cultural demarcation. There may still be grey areas or leaky cultural boundaries to contend with, but relativists will protest that their project is not, by and large, hopelessly indeterminate. Relativists may or may not be right to be so optimistic, but there are other philosophical issues afoot. It is these issues I wish to explore.

Relativism and Moral Diversity

What does relativism have going for it? What makes it appear an attractive doctrine? One advantage of relativism that may come immediately to mind is that it explains the formation of human moral codes better than non-relativist theories. In particular, relativism seems able to account for the radical moral diversity that holds between societies and cultures.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of variation in moral codes, and it is undoubtedly true that this diversity varies along with broader cultural differences. The typical product of an upper-middle class upbringing in Victorian Britain would have emerged with startlingly different ethical commitments from the typical products of upbringings in the samurai culture of medieval Japan, or in ancient Rome, or in a Californian 1960s hippie sect. Relativists can then say that the best explanation of this moral diversity is the ultimately cultural or societal source of moral conviction. As J.L. Mackie put it: “The actual variations in … moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values.” (Mackie, p.37).

Finding Room for Normativity

Even if there is not too much wrong with the explanatory picture sketched above, this defence of relativism is incomplete, for nothing has been said so far about moral justification. If it were true that our moral beliefs are just a function of the accidents or peculiarities of our upbringings, or the peculiarities of the culture we were brought up in, it would not follow that our beliefs were morally acceptable. It would not show them to be justified. Like other philosophical theories about morality, relativism is concerned with what people ought to think, and with how people ought to behave. This need to do justice to the moral ‘ought’ is what makes relativism a normative theory.

The normative nature of relativism is revealed if I am rash enough to advance a judgment condemning the practices of another culture. Relativism will correct me. Relativists will tell me that I ought not to think that members of other cultures are morally answerable to me.

The fact that relativism has to be regarded as a normative theory, however, has to be squared with what many people would see to be its utter permissiveness: this lies in relativism’s acceptance of any moral code, just as long as that code can be related back to a culture that sustains it. I’ll say more about that issue now.

“That’s just what we do around here”

Imagine that two people, X and Y, are having a moral discussion about female circumcision. X is a relativist who wishes to defend the practice of female circumcision in cultures where that practice is prevalent. Y, who is a nonrelativist, states the usual objections to female circumcision, namely, that it carries risks of severe physical harm, denies women the possibility of experiencing sexual pleasure, and by doing so denigrates female sexuality, and so on. Y says, in addition, that these objections to female circumcision don’t stop having moral force simply because it is being practised in another culture. For Y, that is neither here nor there.

Now what could X say in response? Initially, he might volunteer the following response: well, that is what they strongly believe. At this juncture, Y would surely press the charge that the subject of debate was what these people ought to believe. As a sophisticated relativist, X will have to accommodate this point, on pain of failing to register the essentially normative nature of moral philosophy.

Could X do this? Yes. He could argue that moral justifications have to come to an end somewhere. He might point out that it is unhelpful for Y to make a brute appeal to the distinction between what people do and what they ought to do. At some point, what they do and what they ought to do have to be brought back into contact. A plausible and quite general feature of moral justification, according to X, is that the appropriate terminus for moral justification is captured in the phrase “That’s just what we do around here”.

Relativism: Some Virtues

Once relativism is equipped with this type of moral justification, it re-emerges with a number of attractive features.

First, as we said above, if there is gap between what we do and what we ought to do, the gap has to be closed in some way. The chain of justifications for our moral beliefs has to come to an end sooner or later. And relativism’s chosen terminus for moral justification is consistent with deep facts about the diversity of human moral experience. This seems to count in favour of it.

Second, relativism has the merit of showing that the majority of conscientious, reasonably scrupulous moral agents over time and across cultures have not been hopelessly mistaken about their moral beliefs. Relativism offers us a way of witholding blame from inhabitants of cultures and societies very different from our own. Do we really wish to blame medieval Japanese samurai for being committed to values and practices very different from our own? Isn’t it chauvinistic of us to think we know better than they did? Aren’t we illicitly making the prior and objectionable assumption that our culture is superior to, or more enlightened than, theirs? And isn’t the lucky fact that we’re living and they’re dead the only reason, in assessing past societies and cultures, that we are allowed to get away with this chauvinism?

Third, the terminus of justification specified by the relativist – “That’s just what we do around here” – captures the idea that we can only act and deliberate from here, constituted as we are. To express the point in Hilary Putnam’s words, we can only go “by our own lights” (Putnam, p.161). We can’t step outside ourselves to assess whether we are going on in the right way. If that is so, relativism deserves to be regarded as a sensible and humane doctrine, not the spineless and undiscriminating view that some strands of popular thought would have us believe.

Moral Chauvinism and Moral Complacency

Let’s take a closer look at the second and third of these apparent virtues. These are, first, the claim that relativism avoids cultural chauvinism, and second, the claim that relativistic justification reflects the fact that we can only go by our own lights. I shall examine these in turn.

First, the chauvinism charge. Non-relativists might offer a two-part response to it. First, moral judgments, when sincerely uttered, aim to be true. That is a familiar and completely general aspect of our moral experience. Even our struggles over issues that are morally very complex, or contentious – abortion, social justice, genetic engineering, animal rights – are struggles over arriving at the correct view of these issues.

In other words, our moral judgments express beliefs, not attitudes or desires. When I say that female circumcision is wrong, I am not simply expressing a ‘negative attitude’ towards it. I am expressing the belief that female circumcision is wrong. Similarly, when I say that the Earth is round, I am not expressing a ‘positive attitude’ towards the proposition that the Earth is round. I am expressing the belief that the Earth is round. If the Earth is, in fact, flat, or if female circumcision is, in fact, morally permissible, then my judgments are incorrect, and I am bound to revoke them if the facts are explained to me.

When we make moral judgments, we take ourselves to be aiming at truth, but that should not lead us to be intolerant, inflexible, smug or complacent. Since there is always the possibility of a gap between what we take to be right and wrong answers to moral questions, and what is in fact right and wrong, the upshot of our commitment to finding moral truth should be modesty or cautiousness, rather than intolerance, arrogance, or bullheadedness. When the comment “I hear you have strong political views” was put to the historian A.J.P. Taylor, he replied “No. Extreme opinions, weakly held.” There is nothing necessarily paradoxical about this combination of conviction and circumspection.

Now for the second part of the reply. In aiming at truth in my moral judgments, I’m not claiming, as part of an argument for the truth of those judgments, that I’m superior to you, or that I belong to a culture that is superior to yours. I am saying: these practices are wrong, and these are my reasons for believing they’re wrong. If these practices were, in fact, revealed to be taking place in my own culture, my verdict on them would be equally harsh. (If not, I would be rightly open to accusations of inconsistency, or dishonesty.)

It is often the case, no doubt, that chauvinistic thoughts do explain, or at least accompany, exercises in cross-cultural moral denunciation. That does not show that chauvinism is necessarily an aspect of cross-cultural moral denunciation. We ought to be vigilant of such condescension, and to denounce it whenever it occurs. But in insisting on a comprehensive ban on cross-cultural moral traffic, relativism reveals itself to be too doctrinaire. It makes morally heavy weather of the possibility of chauvinism by putting cross-cultural moral judgments beyond the pale altogether. Instead of embracing relativism, we should instead be prepared to look, on a caseby- case basis, for signs of chauvinism and condescension.

That should be enough to defuse the point about cultural chauvinism. Now for the claim that we can only go by our own lights. This claim can actually be taken in one of two ways. One way is made plain by Putnam’s follow-up questions: Whose lights are we supposed to go by? Someone else’s? The thought here is this. If we take ourselves to be in the business of making judgments at all, then we must take responsibility for those judgments – these matters cannot be delegated to others.

The relativist claim goes beyond this idea. Relativism tells us that the reason we should be content to go by our own lights is that they are our own lights. But isn’t it relativism that is now beginning to look chauvinistic, or complacent?

If we reject relativism, there is still the problem of finding a resting-place for the moral ‘ought’. But this problem cannot be solved in any old way. If there are demonstrable shortcomings to relativism, or confusions embedded within it, so much the worse for it. We should go back to the drawingboard and tackle the problem in a different way.

Historical and Moral Parochialism

A lingering suspicion that relativism enables one to avoid historically naïve or simplistic moral judgments may explain one’s attachment to it. Consider the following argument:

(1) Equal opportunity legislation ought to be implemented.

(2) The force of a moral judgment is not intrinsically dependent on ‘a time and place’.

(3) Therefore, Emperor Nero ought to have introduced equal opportunity legislation.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that we concur with (1). (If you don’t agree, think of another example.) The non-relativist is not supposed to quarrel with (2), either (though, as we shall see, there is a sense in which he can). Is the non-relativist, then, committed to (3)? It sounds odd, even rather simple-minded, to suggest that Nero ought to have instituted such policies. This may raise questions, once again, about (2). Perhaps equal opportunity legislation is ‘of its time and place’.

But the non-relativist can reject (3), by rejecting the relativists’ interpretation of (2). It is obvious that equal opportunity legislation only makes sense against a moral background that is broadly liberal. To put it another way, a commitment to equal opportunity legislation is downstream of many more fundamental moral commitments which would have had to be already in place for the introduction of these measures to have had an intelligible point. That does not make it true that the moral force of equal opportunity legislation is ‘of its time and place’. It means there was a huge amount of moral work to do before equal opportunity legislation seemed like an intelligible and workable idea.

To put the point another way, there is a sense in which equal opportunity legislation is of its time and place, but this is not a sense that can support relativism. It is simply a point about moral priorities. You can’t run before you can walk.

Moral Truth and Blame

My final point concerns the question of blame. It might seem mistaken to blame those of other cultures who had beliefs and engaged in practices which, by our lights, seem objectionable or even abhorrent. This is for the reason that these individuals may not have had the opportunities to reflect on their beliefs and practices in a way which might have steered them in the direction of the truth. It’s easy enough, after all, for any of us these days to denounce child labour, slavery, human sacrifice and non-universal suffrage. Who is going to challenge us? For earlier thinkers, though, the effort and sacrifice required to confront unpleasant realities and the entrenched interests which thrived on those realities, might have been truly herculean. As a further possibility, the cultural and psychological makeup of these people might have been such that certain options were simply unthinkable for them. A non-relativist can, and should, accept these points. They can be accommodated in a way that doesn’t steer us back in the direction of relativism by simply pressing hard on the distinction between the rightness or wrongness of a belief or practice, and the question of whether it is appropriate to accord blame to the people holding those beliefs or engaging in those practices.

The practice of heaping praise or blame on the inhabitants of other eras needs to be sensitive to the opportunities for moral discovery and practice that they enjoyed at the time. It may have been very costly, or even practically impossible, for people living in societies very different from our own to arrive at the truth. It would be odd, then, to blame them, or still less to look back and mock them. Within the cultural parameters available to them, certain slave traders, Aztec priests or feudal barons may have been, in their own limited way, morally admirable, as well, of course, as being admirable in all sorts of non-moral ways. No doubt we hope that future generations will show us the same courtesy. For we, too, will most likely fail to arrive at the truth in any comprehensive sense. (We can only go by our own lights, remember?)

None of this shows that there is no such thing as moral truth; and it does nothing to unsettle the claim that the inhabitants of such cultures failed to arrive at the truth.

In short, the impermissibility of a moral act or practice is only one of the factors that we should take into account when we consider the appropriateness of extending blame to members of other cultures. The costs of, and opportunities for, moral reflection and action are just as important.

© Dr Gerald Land 2002

Gerald Lang is a Lecturer in Philosophy at University College, Oxford.

Mackie, J. L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin.
Putnam, H. (1981) Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge Univ. Press.

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