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Arguments Against Moral Relativism

By mk2121 Oct 14, 2012 1150 Words
Maria K.
Mar. 6, 2012

Arguments Against Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is the belief that the morally correct decision to make, when faced with a moral dilemma, is the one that is acceptable within the context of a given culture. This means that the correct decision varies depending on the culture in which one makes it. Today, with great variability between societies and cultures, moral relativism is greatly accepted as a matter-of-fact, but this is not necessarily the case. Relativism between different cultures is not truly possible because of the foundational common beliefs that all human beings share.

In today’s western culture, it has become imperative that we be politically correct and culturally sensitive when talking about other cultures so as to avoid offending their practices and beliefs. This is the reason why moral relativism has been widely accepted by many, but, with further analysis, one discovers that this is not true. In an accepting society, many gaps are left when issues between cultures arise. These issues are not necessarily evident in common, everyday situations, but in extreme situations, these issues become clearer. For example, one country lives according to their morals, aiming to be kind, civil, and non-violent. A neighboring country’s morals differ greatly, and they are barbaric and violent, and decide to conquer their neighboring country. This leaves the first country in an awkward position; are they meant to remain true to their moral beliefs and remain non-violent when the invaders come, or are they meant to betray their beliefs and fight for their freedom and safety? This situation illustrates the unrealistic nature of moral relativism. The first country cannot be expected to remain passive while they are conquered and pillaged by their neighbors. The previous example also illustrates how moral relativism can go against natural instincts. As human beings, the people of that country have innate senses to protect themselves from harm and they would not be able to allow their neighbors to kill and ravage their country. This has been true since prehistoric times, when cavemen and women sought shelter from other wild animals and the elements. This natural instinct would have to be suppressed forcibly for them to enforce their moral belief of passivity and non-violence. Moral relativism considers the differences between the ethics of cultures but fails to look beneath what is seen on the surface of the actions. When facing a moral dilemma or situation, one’s decision in one culture may be different from another, but both can be reduced to similar motives. The two different cultures may act on these principles differently, but that does not necessarily mean they are trying to achieve different outcomes. Norman Bowie uses a fine example to illustrate this situation. He writes about the children in an African culture killing their parents while they are still youthful and healthy to preserve their health in their afterlife. Bowie makes it clear that this practice is frowned upon in western cultures because parents are meant to be respected, not murdered. But, the African culture does this out of respect for their parents, in trying to provide them with a good afterlife. The difference in actions taken to show respect to the parents in either culture does not diminish the fact that beneath them, there lies a common moral principle of respect and caring for their parents. The idea that there exists a common morality beneath the moral decisions we make can be further supported in another cultural difference example. Francis J. Beckwith uses an example contrasting the Hindu Indian culture with western cultures to emphasize that both have the same moral foundation in making decisions. Beckwith writes that Indians do not eat cows because they believe that they may house the reincarnated souls of human beings. This may seem unlikely to some western cultures but both cultures agree on a fundamental level that eating a human being is wrong, and as Beckwith writes, “…both cultures do believe it is wrong to eat Grandma…”.2

The common underlying moral principles that cultures have in common also support the idea that there are distinguishable good and bad morals. As seen previously, cultures have different practices when it comes to acting upon their moral principles, but they are able to distinguish good from bad, and often the good and bad are common across different cultures and are not unique to one culture. In the previous examples, the cultures compared agree upon respect towards their parents and disapprove of eating other humans. While their actions in expressing these views may be questionable, they are still able to distinguish that disrespecting their parents would be a bad thing. One of the most compelling arguments for a common morality between cultures is the agreement members of the United Nations have made by signing The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document contains rights that all human beings deserve, regardless of cultural context. Essentially, this is a summation of the moral principles that a variety of cultures all agree upon.

The common moral concepts that cultures share can also be seen in the business world when companies from different cultures conduct business with one another. For example, a company from France may do business with a U.S. company because it is looking to gain positioning in a new market, while the U.S. company may be looking towards the future and to taking over the French company. While on the surface, this situation supports the view of a moral relativist, in that each company has a different motive, beneath the surface, it can be deduced that each company is simply doing what is in their best interest, and both have this in common. The same can be said in hiring practices between companies in different cultures. The hiring practices and criteria may differ, but beneath these hiring practices, all companies are looking to do what they believe is best for their company. While moral relativism may seem like a logical conclusion to draw, with the wide variety of cultures and beliefs that one sees throughout the world, the truth is that beneath the actions taken by different societies, there lie the same moral principles. Human beings may act upon their beliefs differently, but there are common grounds that can be found underneath these actions, and because of this one can conclude that moral relativism cannot truly be supported by even the most differing of cultures.

[ 1 ]. Bowie, Norman E. "Relativism and the Moral Obligations of Multinational Corporations." In Ethical Thoery and Business, 578. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. [ 2 ]. Beckwith, Francis J. "Philosophical Problems with Moral Relativism." Christian Research Institute. 1994. (accessed February 29, 2012). [ 3 ]. Bowie, Norman E. "Relativism and the Moral Obligations of Multinational Corporations." In Ethical Thoery and Business, 578. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.

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