Moral Relativism: An Evaluation
The world is becoming an increasingly smaller place, culturally speaking. The modern world has more bridges to other cultures and ways of thinking than ever before. This phenomenon is due largely to the advent of the internet, global industry, and increased travel for business and pleasure to opposite corners of the world. This “global village” we live in introduces the average person to more cultural, and seemingly moral, differences than previous generations experienced. Ruth Benedict’s “Case for Moral Relativism” claims beliefs and practices form irrationally and randomly, creating a world where no one morality is ‘better’ than any other morality.
In this paper, I will discuss moral relativism and cultural relativism, and how they relate to each other. Further, in discussion of Pojman’s objectivism, ‘holes’ in the relativist moral theory will rear their ugly heads. I believe there is a middle ground between the two theories, Objectivism and Relativism, and that tolerance is not always a bad thing. Moral relativism is often equated with cultural relativism. However, anthropologists cringe at this notion, as defended by Thomas Johnson in his essay, “Cultural Relativism: Interpretations of a Concept.” Johnson argues that true cultural relativism should not “…prevent an educated person from taking a stand on a variety of moral issues…” (Johnson 794). Rather, cultural relativism is a tool for the objective study of a different culture and leads “…to a much stronger notion of moral values, values that can and should be acted upon…” (Johnson 795). This view differs from Bendedict’s moral relativism in that while cultural relativism is a tool from which moral attitudes and actions may stem, moral relativism maintains all cultures are equal, and therefore all cultures and cultural practices must be tolerated. Benedict is not alone in her biased presumptions. In his article, “In Defense of Relativism,” Frank Oppenheim asserts, “A relativist may, without inconsistency, favor discrimination or equality, and practice intolerance, tolerance, or over-tolerance” (Oppenheim 416). This suggests that a wide range of relativists hold these contradicting views, and give each equal weight, without assigning a concept of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to any single view. The cornerstone of Benedict’s moral relativism is that people are malleable (164), and will accept anything if it is institutionalized. She cites examples of ‘abnormal’ behavior and practices in Western society, namely, homosexuality, trance, and catalepsy, which have been accepted and promoted in cultures such as Ancient Greece, some Native American tribes, and even in the glorification of mystics and stigmatists in the Catholic Church. Moral taboos, as well as accepted practices, according to moral relativism, are the products of institutionalization. Since this is a random and irrational process, no one morality is better than another. Herein lies the one absolute of moral relativism: tolerance. In Pojman’s “The Case Against Moral Relativism,” he divides ethical (moral) relativism into subsections, one of which is entitled “The Diversity Thesis.” This thesis, another name for cultural relativism, Pojman explains, presupposes that there are few similarities between cultures, achieving the normal and abnormal extreme cases Benedict cites. Pojman references the work of Clyde Kuckholn, highlighting the numerous similarities between cultures, “Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war and other ‘justifiable homicides.’ The notions of incest…the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances , of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parents and children – these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal” (Pojman 178). Although different societies can come up with some ‘out there’ moral practices, basic values and codes of conduct share the same themes...
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