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Subject: Cultural Relativism rss

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Jasper
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So, how do we view the cultures that are different from our own?

Several different stances come up during discussion in RSP (and elsewhere).

There is the view that all cultures are equal, founded on the assumption that there is no objective benchmark by which we can measure the 'goodness' of culture. This view is often described as moral relativism and is the recipient of much scorn.

Then there is the view that all cultures have inherent value, and that each makes sense from its own perspective. That is, each is at least to some extent logical given certain axioms. This could perhaps be discribed as cultural subjectivism. Notably it does not claim to be able to measure the 'goodness' of cultures, but rather declares them unmeasurable.

And finally there is what we might call moral absolutism: the conviction that a single culture is superior. Usually this pertains to the culture subscribed to by the person taking this position. Obviously some yardstick for measurement is included here, and from what I can tell it rests on the technological, economical and perhaps military superiotity of the many headed hydra we call 'western culture'.

So, where do you lot stand on the issue? Why is cultural relativism so frequently mocked, and is it really such a nonsensical position to take? What about cultural absolutism? How can we possibly proclaim the superiority of such an ill-defined concept as culture without a clear and objective measurement by which to measure it? Does it even make sense to speak of cultures as better or worse, good or bad?



Disclaimer: I have no serious grounding in filosophy so if that shows, cut me some slack or enlighten me. For example, I was unsure whether to use 'morality / moral system' or 'culture' here and suspect they can be used somewhat interchangeably. Your opinion is valued!
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I think there are a couple of different things that tend to get called cultural relativism (or moral relativism).

1stly, there's simply noting that moral attitudes are different in different places. What will be taken as disrespectful in one place, may not be in another and vice versa, for example. This doesn't say much about whether something is disrespectful or not. This kind of relativism seems to just simply be a fact about the world, rather than a moral stance.

2ndly, there's the cultural relativism that simply notes that what is good does depend on a specific situation. For example, arguing about gun laws in the abstract in some idealised country is not the same as arguing to have the British gun law system changed to the American one, or vice versa.

This sounds a lot like the 1st one, but I think there are subtle differences that do give it a moral dimension, rather than a factual one. For example, take laws in Germany on denying the holocaust. Now, one might want to make a more absolutist stand on free speech, and say that this is clearly wrong. However, someone who agrees with this form of cultural relativism might say that this is right, not simply because the Germans think it is, but because Germany faces different problems with this issue than, say, France, so it is a morally different situation. A moral or cultural absolutist might say that these differences don't matter, and it's wrong no matter what.


3rdly, there is the extreme form of cultural relativism where right is simply decided by a "local" set of customs and moral values. That is, if the locals think that boiling an egg is morally wrong, then boiling an egg is morally wrong in that local area.

I don't think many people actually hold this view, but it seems to be the view that a lot of people assume when criticizing moral relativism.
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I think it's obvious that my culture is demonstrably superior.

Don't ask me to actually demonstrate it though. I have parties to go to.
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I'm very interested in Cultural Relativity, since it seems like every time I go to another culture and come back, everyone I know has died from old age.
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Who could evaluate the 'goodness'? Of course, most likely the own culture and morality is idealized, as measured by their own standards.
 
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Dolphinandrew wrote:
I think there are a couple of different things that tend to get called cultural relativism (or moral relativism).

1stly, there's simply noting that moral attitudes are different in different places. What will be taken as disrespectful in one place, may not be in another and vice versa, for example. This doesn't say much about whether something is disrespectful or not. This kind of relativism seems to just simply be a fact about the world, rather than a moral stance.

2ndly, there's the cultural relativism that simply notes that what is good does depend on a specific situation. For example, arguing about gun laws in the abstract in some idealised country is not the same as arguing to have the British gun law system changed to the American one, or vice versa.

This sounds a lot like the 1st one, but I think there are subtle differences that do give it a moral dimension, rather than a factual one. For example, take laws in Germany on denying the holocaust. Now, one might want to make a more absolutist stand on free speech, and say that this is clearly wrong. However, someone who agrees with this form of cultural relativism might say that this is right, not simply because the Germans think it is, but because Germany faces different problems with this issue than, say, France, so it is a morally different situation. A moral or cultural absolutist might say that these differences don't matter, and it's wrong no matter what.

The first two points you describe are rather descriptivions of differences rather than taking a real stance on the relative merit of a given culture. But I agree that such neutral desriptions (forbidding holocaust denial makes sense when seen in the German context) are often conflated with making an actual value judgement thereof (forbidding holocaust denial is a good thing in Germany).

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3rdly, there is the extreme form of cultural relativism where right is simply decided by a "local" set of customs and moral values. That is, if the locals think that boiling an egg is morally wrong, then boiling an egg is morally wrong in that local area.
That is the position I was getting at in the OP. Yet it can still be read as a factual statement, rather than a value judgement because of specifying the area in which that activity is judged to be immoral. I guess the dividing line between it being a value statement or a factual observation is how strongly your own moral system asserts that boiling eggs is, in fact, an inherently moral act. But perhaps now I am being relativst in deciding what is and is not moral relativism, so mostly I am just talking out of my arse.
 
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Venga2 wrote:
The first two points you describe are rather descriptivions of differences rather than taking a real stance on the relative merit of a given culture. But I agree that such neutral desriptions (forbidding holocaust denial makes sense when seen in the German context) are often conflated with making an actual value judgement thereof (forbidding holocaust denial is a good thing in Germany).


I think there is a distinction between the first two. Or at least, I think that there are some moral systems that would strongly differentiate between the first two.

For example, someone who believed in an absolute version of the right of free speech would agree that there is clearly a difference in what the Germans believe is a good thing, but wouldn't consider the "facts on the ground" as changing their absolute moral position.

Obviously that kind of moral absolutism is somewhat of an extreme position, but it's also not that uncommon.

Take a different, perhaps more difficult case but much less likely to come up in reality. Should people be allowed to engage in homosexual relationships? Well, yes of course they should. But what if you live in a culture that has very low fertility rates, and you could show that by banning same sex relationships, you would change your culture from one about to die out in a few generations, to one that would survive.

Someone taking an absolutist view on this might say that going against this moral precept of allowing people to choose their own sexual partners is always wrong. Someone with a more relativistic view might weigh up the costs of both.

The point is I guess that it's a continuum. On the one had you have absolutist morals that don't consider specifics, and on the other you have moral systems that change more dependent on the situation. Obviously extremes exist on both sides, but lots of people's moral systems hover somewhere in the middle, only going to the extremes at certain points.



Venga2 wrote:
That is the position I was getting at in the OP. Yet it can still be read as a factual statement, rather than a value judgement because of specifying the area in which that activity is judged to be immoral. I guess the dividing line between it being a value statement or a factual observation is how strongly your own moral system asserts that boiling eggs is, in fact, an inherently moral act.


I think that a moral relativist in this strong sense would say that boiling an egg in this area is wrong, and that asking the question more generally, without respect to a given area, doesn't make any sense.

The biggest problem I see with it, is how do you choose your size of area?
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This isn't a joke, but probably the greatest lessons one can learn about cultural relativism is by watching Star Trek.
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Geosphere wrote:
This isn't a joke, but probably the greatest lessons one can learn about cultural relativism is by watching Star Trek.
Original series or next gen? Or rather, could you explain that a bit? Something with the prime directive I guess, but I am not sure I grasp your point.
 
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I've noticed that some of the people who are so opposed to Cultural/Moral Relativism are also those who revere figures of the past such as the "Founding Fathers" of the US.

Seems to me that if you don't use a little relativism here, how do you overlook that they owned slaves and didn't allow women to participate? I think saying that they were products of their time is a valid argument, but there's your cultural relativism right there.

If you get stuck on saying your culture is the best, then you might not recognize issues that need to change. Many people seem to think that the way things work now is how they should work and any change is a threat. You only have to look at the recent past to see how short sighted that is.
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rshipley wrote:
I've noticed that some of the people who are so opposed to Cultural/Moral Relativism are also those who revere figures of the past such as the "Founding Fathers" of the US.

Seems to me that if you don't use a little relativism here, how do you overlook that they owned slaves and didn't allow women to participate? I think saying that they were products of their time is a valid argument, but there's your cultural relativism right there.

If you get stuck on saying your culture is the best, then you might not recognize issues that need to change. Many people seem to think that the way things work now is how they should work and any change is a threat. You only have to look at the recent past to see how short sighted that is.
Hey I agree with you. And yet the charge of cultural relativist carries some wieght and usually people shy away from being identified as such. So I'd love it if someone can make a case for cultural absolutism or some position closer to that than cultural relativism or subjectivism.
 
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Dolphinandrew wrote:
good stuff .... snip ... I think that a moral relativist in this strong sense would say that boiling an egg in this area is wrong, and that asking the question more generally, without respect to a given area, doesn't make any sense.

The biggest problem I see with it, is how do you choose your size of area?
Interesting observation. Perhaps then the problem people have with strong moral relativism is that it provides no solid footing at all on which to judge whether certain things are good or bad. There is (almost) always a certain context or timeframe in which a certain set of morals makes sense, and therefore the strong moral relativist can never make any judgements at all.
 
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Venga2 wrote:
Hey I agree with you. And yet the charge of cultural relativist carries some wieght and usually people shy away from being identified as such. So I'd love it if someone can make a case for cultural absolutism or some position closer to that than cultural relativism or subjectivism.


Hey, I'll tap 'dat.

I don't know if this qualifies as cultural absolutism, since I don't think it likely that my culture (early 21st-century American) is the objective absolute "best" culture possible...but I can certainly say with a clean conscience that I think it better than some other cultures.

Plenty of cultures, for instance, have practised legalized slavery. I think my culture is better than theirs. Others have indulged in human sacrifice. I think my culture is better than theirs too. Other cultures concentrate political power in the hands of a single inbred sociopath, rather than allowing even the possibility of distributed power, as we do in my representative democracy, and my culture is better than them too.

I do think DAndrew is correct to distinguish between situational morality and cultural relativism. Heck, I think one of the things that makes my culture 'absolutely' better than some others (say, the China of neo-confucian legalism) is its adherance to the principles of situational morality & ethics. It's wrong to shoot people, for instance, but if someone is breaking into your house and threatening to kill your babies, we temporarily suspend that rule.

I think you're incorrect that people in general shy away from the charge of cultural relativism. I get plenty of students who shy away from criticizing even what we might think would be obviously reprehensible behaviors like child-trafficking in Thailand because "hey, it's just their culture, and, like, we shouldn't judge."

I'm perhaps at an opposite extreme. I think cultures which insist that women need to wear a hijab or similar clothing while men don't are stupidly sexist, and my culture is superior to theirs in that regard. I think cultures in which it's perfectly fine to blast your music at a million decibels because, hey, that's how you proclaim your masculinity, are obnoxious. I think cultures which promote a caste system or accept bribery as a viable method of determining scial position or power are despicable.

Close enough to absolutism for you?
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Venga2 wrote:
Interesting observation. Perhaps then the problem people have with strong moral relativism is that it provides no solid footing at all on which to judge whether certain things are good or bad. There is (almost) always a certain context or timeframe in which a certain set of morals makes sense, and therefore the strong moral relativist can never make any judgements at all.


On the contrary, I think it gives relatively clear footing to judge whether something is good or bad. You simply ask whether the local "culture" considers it good or bad. If they do consider it good/bad it is good/bad.

The only difficulty lies in determining exactly what this local culture thinks, but that's usually not too hard. Of course it gives somewhat simplistic (or what I see as simplistic) answers to some questions. Like "can a culture do something wrong?" By this view, no it cannot. That is an impossibility in this view.

There are some questions that it does difficulty with. For example, what do you do when you have a clash of two different cultures? How do you manage the morality of cultures interacting with each other? What do you do when there are extremes of opinion within a given culture? Here it's not so clear.
 
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rshipley wrote:
I've noticed that some of the people who are so opposed to Cultural/Moral Relativism are also those who revere figures of the past such as the "Founding Fathers" of the US.

Seems to me that if you don't use a little relativism here, how do you overlook that they owned slaves and didn't allow women to participate? I think saying that they were products of their time is a valid argument, but there's your cultural relativism right there.

If you get stuck on saying your culture is the best, then you might not recognize issues that need to change. Many people seem to think that the way things work now is how they should work and any change is a threat. You only have to look at the recent past to see how short sighted that is.


I think there's a way to read the reverence of the founders which doesn't suggest that their slave-owning was moral. Instead, we might think of them as a group of individuals who did more to advance the cause of morality than anybody else ever has. So their moral praiseworthiness comes from their improvement rather than their absolute level.

As for what's wrong with relativism, it has two problems which are usually not what people identify. First, it's self-defeating: if you can't say anything is absolutely right or wrong, you can't say that it would be wrong to judge others by your own standards--at best, you can say that it would be wrong for you to do so. For people from other cultures, it might be perfectly reasonable to judge everyone using the same standard. Second, it fails to respect the role of the concept of morality. We generally take "act x is immoral" to be adequate on its own to do the job of indicating that one ought not do x. Cultural/moral relativism suggests that this paradigm case of talking about morality is deeply mistaken in a way which can't simply be taken as an example of our tendency to innocuously "speak with the vulgar"*. As a result, it ends up using the word "morality" to take a position most users would regard not as a clarification of an existing concept, but nihilism about it. So it can seem not only presumptuous but also hypocritical, because it attempts to shroud itself in the garb of a moral position while actually abandoning any of the limits a moral code might provide to help ground a society.


* Bishop Berkeley, who defended the claim that no matter exists, used this phrase in suggesting that it was no problem to use words which presupposed the existence of matter, because these could always be reinterpreted as statements about ideas without changing the relations between things, which was what the speaker was generally trying to get across; we don't normally take ourselves to have to make claims about fundamental metaphysics in order to order a pizza.

That move won't work for the relativist, precisely because the normal relations don't hold--you can't replace someone's claim that "act x is immoral" with the claim "act x is immoral for person y in context z", with the y and z filled in as assumed, because the irrelevance of y and z are a central part of what that claim often means. So there's simply no way of respecting what people are trying to say with this notion of morality.
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Dolphinandrew wrote:
On the contrary, I think it gives relatively clear footing to judge whether something is good or bad. You simply ask whether the local "culture" considers it good or bad.


Trouble is you need a decent way of determining culture. In language, there's a concept of an idiolect, which is essentially a dialect with only one speaker. If people can simply claim that they constitute a subculture of one person, then whatever they feel like doing is right for them. That's obviously no good, but you've already indicated some fuzziness around cultural clashes and extremes; I doubt it's possible to respect the values cultural relativism attempts to respect while also giving a clear criterion for which culture counts in any given situation as the determiner of rightness. The problematic situation I'm imagining is something like gross-dressing in a sizable group of drag queens. Within the subculture, that's desirable, but that subculture exists inside a larger culture in which it's disfavored. Privileging one of these standards over the other seems like exactly what the cultural relativist wants to avoid.
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rinelk wrote:
I think there's a way to read the reverence of the founders which doesn't suggest that their slave-owning was moral. Instead, we might think of them as a group of individuals who did more to advance the cause of morality than anybody else ever has. So their moral praiseworthiness comes from their improvement rather than their absolute level.


So you are judging them on relative moral merit. Which is fine, but realize that people 200 years from now will have to do the same with us.

rinelk wrote:
If people can simply claim that they constitute a subculture of one person, then whatever they feel like doing is right for them. That's obviously no good


I don't see a problem with it. People accept, find, or invent a moral code for themselves. Groups of people enforce shared moral codes by tradition or law and there are always conflicts. The conflicts can change the group and individual codes.

You can postulate that your moral code is the truth, but so will others that disagree with you, so it doesn't seem all that useful. That doesn't mean I won't try to convince others that my way is better on a moral issue.
 
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Venga2 wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
This isn't a joke, but probably the greatest lessons one can learn about cultural relativism is by watching Star Trek.
Original series or next gen? Or rather, could you explain that a bit? Something with the prime directive I guess, but I am not sure I grasp your point.


I'm going to guess he means the prime directive, and one needn't go further than the original series for that. How can you not grasp his point? What does the prime directive essentially say about cultures, relative to each other? Your self-confessed lack of grounding in philosophy doesn't preclude you from taking this important essay test. You may begin.
 
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For me the big mistake is conflating "no such thing as objective superiority" with "equal". It's like saying that if we agree that humor is subjective then the statement, "Joe is funnier than Stan" has no meaningful content in it.

I have no problem saying that I find a culture that sets aside many of its members in an inferior caste worse than one that doesn't, all other things being equal.

I also have a real problem with how efforts to preserve a broad range of cultures often "save" them for children born into them despite the fact that we would never choose that life for our own children. There are a number of native American and native Canadian tribes that live in abject poverty while trying (and being encouraged to try) to make their life in "traditional" means. I get that there's an arrogance to saying, "We should step in and make life better for them," but why should a kid born into that tribe be slotted for a life of subsistence farming and fishing?

Star Trek "justified" the Prime Directive by invoking cataclysm whenever it was infringed upon and by making sure that the outcome of not getting involved was always nice. Thus, Picard can have his hands tied when he learns that one planet is essentially dealing drugs to another (under the guise that their medicine is curing a disease that's long since vanished) because the drug dealers can't repair their ships and the addicted planet's people will (as the doctor conveniently diagnoses) have a painful but non-fatal withdrawal period. The writers conveniently leave out that Picard would presumably take the same action if the drug dealing were going to go on forever or if the withdrawal was going to prove fatal to 80% of the population.
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rshipley wrote:
rinelk wrote:
I think there's a way to read the reverence of the founders which doesn't suggest that their slave-owning was moral. Instead, we might think of them as a group of individuals who did more to advance the cause of morality than anybody else ever has. So their moral praiseworthiness comes from their improvement rather than their absolute level.


So you are judging them on relative moral merit. Which is fine, but realize that people 200 years from now will have to do the same with us.

rinelk wrote:
If people can simply claim that they constitute a subculture of one person, then whatever they feel like doing is right for them. That's obviously no good


I don't see a problem with it. People accept, find, or invent a moral code for themselves. Groups of people enforce shared moral codes by tradition or law and there are always conflicts. The conflicts can change the group and individual codes.

You can postulate that your moral code is the truth, but so will others that disagree with you, so it doesn't seem all that useful. That doesn't mean I won't try to convince others that my way is better on a moral issue.


Whenever you find that your definition for a word people use frequently and find useful leeches that word of the ability to make any distinctions, you should question your definition. If your understanding of morality makes it impossible for any act to be called immoral, you're no longer using the word in a meaningful way. Furthermore, much more than most, the word "moral" is all about making judgments, of others as well as yourself. So even if you're leaving open the possibility of someone calling their own actions immoral, if you don't also have a way to judge other people, you're not talking about what most people use the word "moral" to mean.
 
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rinelk wrote:
Whenever you find that your definition for a word people use frequently and find useful leeches that word of the ability to make any distinctions, you should question your definition. If your understanding of morality makes it impossible for any act to be called immoral, you're no longer using the word in a meaningful way.


I'm not sure who you're arguing with here, but you quoted me. I didn't say nothing should be called immoral. People are free to do that from their perspective. I might even agree with them.

Quote:
Furthermore, much more than most, the word "moral" is all about making judgments, of others as well as yourself. So even if you're leaving open the possibility of someone calling their own actions immoral, if you don't also have a way to judge other people, you're not talking about what most people use the word "moral" to mean.


I judge people all the time. I also feel I am personally responsible for justifying those judgements. I can't just say "my culture says so".
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MisterCranky wrote:
I'm going to guess he means the prime directive, and one needn't go further than the original series for that. How can you not grasp his point? What does the prime directive essentially say about cultures, relative to each other? Your self-confessed lack of grounding in philosophy doesn't preclude you from taking this important essay test. You may begin.
Alright, despite it being long time ago let me make the effort. The prime directive instructed the crew not to interfere in the domestic affairs of alien races, right? So on the show they always paid lip service to that directive, which may be interpreted as cultural relativism (or alternatively as sensible diplomacy, who can tell?). As far as I remember however they always found some cause to break that directive and interfere, and by such interference assert their own (our) culture as superior. So perhaps that speaks to the impossibility of holding a cultural relativist position? Alternatively it may be seen as a ringing endorsement of the absolutist position.

How did i do?

Either way I don't know if that is what Paul wanted me to take away from that. So while I can appreciate your efforts to expose me for the lazy bum I am, too lazy too do my own thinking and preferring those better equipped for the task to do it for me. And really, you certainly are on the moral high ground when you shed light on what is but one of my many inadequacies. I still would have loved to hear from Paul what he took away from Star Trek's teachings on relativism. It is so much more interesting to read his own explanation than to substitute my own meager synaptic processes for his, for lo, I have been wrong before and although past performance is no indication of future profit (or loss), I will be wrong again.

So in conclusion, I apologize for not looking up the address of that shop in Amsterdam myself. I admit it, I was lazy.

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potterama wrote:
... interesting post ...
Ok, so ultimately it's the appeal to whatever ethical school you subscribe to, deontology, golden rule, utilitarianism, which is used to judge whether or not a particular cultural habit (whatever) is moral or not and hence whether or another culture is superior in the respect. Right?
 
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rinelk wrote:
rshipley wrote:
I've noticed that some of the people who are so opposed to Cultural/Moral Relativism are also those who revere figures of the past such as the "Founding Fathers" of the US.

Seems to me that if you don't use a little relativism here, how do you overlook that they owned slaves and didn't allow women to participate? I think saying that they were products of their time is a valid argument, but there's your cultural relativism right there.

If you get stuck on saying your culture is the best, then you might not recognize issues that need to change. Many people seem to think that the way things work now is how they should work and any change is a threat. You only have to look at the recent past to see how short sighted that is.


I think there's a way to read the reverence of the founders which doesn't suggest that their slave-owning was moral. Instead, we might think of them as a group of individuals who did more to advance the cause of morality than anybody else ever has. So their moral praiseworthiness comes from their improvement rather than their absolute level.

As for what's wrong with relativism, it has two problems which are usually not what people identify. First, it's self-defeating: if you can't say anything is absolutely right or wrong, you can't say that it would be wrong to judge others by your own standards--at best, you can say that it would be wrong for you to do so. For people from other cultures, it might be perfectly reasonable to judge everyone using the same standard. Second, it fails to respect the role of the concept of morality. We generally take "act x is immoral" to be adequate on its own to do the job of indicating that one ought not do x. Cultural/moral relativism suggests that this paradigm case of talking about morality is deeply mistaken in a way which can't simply be taken as an example of our tendency to innocuously "speak with the vulgar"*. As a result, it ends up using the word "morality" to take a position most users would regard not as a clarification of an existing concept, but nihilism about it. So it can seem not only presumptuous but also hypocritical, because it attempts to shroud itself in the garb of a moral position while actually abandoning any of the limits a moral code might provide to help ground a society.


* Bishop Berkeley, who defended the claim that no matter exists, used this phrase in suggesting that it was no problem to use words which presupposed the existence of matter, because these could always be reinterpreted as statements about ideas without changing the relations between things, which was what the speaker was generally trying to get across; we don't normally take ourselves to have to make claims about fundamental metaphysics in order to order a pizza.

That move won't work for the relativist, precisely because the normal relations don't hold--you can't replace someone's claim that "act x is immoral" with the claim "act x is immoral for person y in context z", with the y and z filled in as assumed, because the irrelevance of y and z are a central part of what that claim often means. So there's simply no way of respecting what people are trying to say with this notion of morality.
That was very helpful, thanks!
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Kelsey Rinella
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rshipley wrote:
rinelk wrote:
Whenever you find that your definition for a word people use frequently and find useful leeches that word of the ability to make any distinctions, you should question your definition. If your understanding of morality makes it impossible for any act to be called immoral, you're no longer using the word in a meaningful way.


I'm not sure who you're arguing with here, but you quoted me. I didn't say nothing should be called immoral. People are free to do that from their perspective. I might even agree with them.

Quote:
Furthermore, much more than most, the word "moral" is all about making judgments, of others as well as yourself. So even if you're leaving open the possibility of someone calling their own actions immoral, if you don't also have a way to judge other people, you're not talking about what most people use the word "moral" to mean.


I judge people all the time. I also feel I am personally responsible for justifying those judgements. I can't just say "my culture says so".


My point is that if it's always open to someone to claim that their culture of one justifies their act as moral, you essentially need the consent of the actor to call any act immoral.

But I clearly took you to be defending cultural relativism to an extent which, looking back, isn't present in your writing. My apologies!

I'm interested in what your thoughts are on what sorts of reasons one could offer when making arguments to others that their culture has an opportunity to change for the better. One of the reasons relativism has some appeal is that it doesn't seem like there is a "view from nowhere" from which to make such a judgment, so my assumption is that you'd have to essentially pit some of their values against others, and demonstrate that there's already a tension within the culture. But you might have something else in mind.
 
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