Forthcoming in Companion to Moral Anthropology (Didier Fassin, Ed.)

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Relativism and Universalism

Richard A. Shweder

As the moral philosopher David Wong has noted (2006: xi): “The standard characterizations of [moral] relativism make it an easy target and seldom reveal what really motivates people who are attracted to it. Introductory textbooks in ethics frequently portray the view as an extreme variety of subjectivism (or conventionalism) in which anything goes – a person’s (or group’s) accepting that something is right makes it right for that person (or group).” This variety of moral relativism pictures human subjectivity in terms of human reactions of both acceptance (feelings of approbation) and rejection (feelings of opprobrium). Its central principle states that approving of some act or customary practice makes it right (good, virtuous, moral) and disapproving of the very same act or customary practice makes it wrong (bad, vicious, immoral); and this is so for any conceivable act or customary practice whether it is eating pork, terminating a pregnancy, drinking alcohol, spanking a child, banning a book, marrying a member of your own sex, marrying more than one member of the opposite sex, walking bare breasted on a public beach, covering yourself with a burqa in the public square, conducting a Bris, surgically reshaping the genitals of all the children in ones family regardless of their gender, assisting someone in committing a suicide or immolating yourself on the funeral pyre of your husband. Writing more or less in this vein the anthropologist Ruth Benedict once defined morality as “a convenient term for socially approved habits” (1934).

It is not too surprising that this variety of moral relativism is viewed as extreme by many moral philosophers. If for no other reason than the fact that moral relativism of this variety rejects the most basic principle of moral reasoning presupposed by each of the parties to any genuine moral dispute; namely the presupposition that if I am right in judging a particular course of action to be wrong, bad, vicious or immoral then you cannot be equally right in thinking it right, good, virtuous or moral (see for example Rashdall 1914, also Cook 1999). One implication of moral relativism so portrayed is that the very same act or customary practice becomes right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous and vicious, moral and immoral to the very extent that two people (or groups) disagree about whether it is right or wrong, good or bad, virtuous or vicious, moral or immoral. This is because the extreme variety of moral relativism (as subjectivism or conventionalism) asserts that in fact there is nothing objective (impersonal, impartial) to be right or wrong about (no such thing as “natural” or “inalienable” rights, for example) when one person (or group) calls an action or custom or law right and another person (or group) calls it wrong. Instead, according to moral relativism so-portrayed, when one person (or group) says such and such is right (good, virtuous, moral) and another person (or group) says the opposite they are merely expressing their feelings (for example of pleasure or displeasure) or registering a difference in subjective preferences (desires, likes), in personal opinions, habits or intuitions or in past collective choices as explicitly expressed through legal enactments or implicitly made manifest in inherited traditions and local social norms.

According to moral relativism so-portrayed those feelings, preferences, tastes, opinions, habits, intuitions, enactments, traditions and social norms are the only moral standards in town. They are constitutive of what is right and wrong. But their definitions of right and wrong are also subject-relative. Thus each moral standard applies only to the person (or group) in question and has no universal validity. Germany has its own moral standards concerning the separation of church and state in public schools and they are different from the standards in the United States; hence according...
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