Moral or ethical relativism is the idea that what is considered moral or immoral depends on the accepted behaviors within the society in which the determination is made. Therefore, what is considered moral or ethical in one society may be considered immoral or unethical in another, but each society is equally correct. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict supports the concept of moral relativism in A Defense of Moral Relativism. On the other side of the debate in Who’s to Judge, Louis Pojman, a professor of philosophy at West Point, argues against moral relativism.
In A Defense of Moral Relativism, Ruth Benedict asserts morals are culturally defined based on what is considered appropriate behavior in the society. Benedict utilizes the examples of homosexuality and murder, which are regarded to many in our society as immoral, to illustrate her point. For example, Benedict states homosexuality in ancient Greece, as demonstrated by Plato’s Republic, was widely accepted and did not have any negative associations with it (80). Benedict also states in the culture of the Kwakiutl, a culture which has been without contact to and thus has remained uninfluenced by our “standardized worldwide civilization,” the death of a loved one (no matter if the person has died of accident or natural causes) is considered an “insult” which is to be dealt with by committing murder (79, 82). According to Benedict, each of these examples demonstrate how what is considered immoral in one society is considered moral in another.
Benedict’s argument is: (1) If what is accepted by society, based on shared beliefs, as normal behavior varies from culture to culture, then morality would vary from culture to culture. (2) Each culture, based on shared beliefs, decides what is considered acceptable and normal behavior within their society. (3) Therefore, morality is relative to the culture. If Benedict’s argument is true, it would mean that morality exists solely as a creation of society. Since morality is not an independent, higher concept outside of societal inclinations, it would be able to be changed by society. Therefore, since morality can change at any time, morality fails to exist except on a superficial level, which makes morality meaningless. Why follow any “moral” action in society then? Just get a majority of people in the society to act conversely to the “moral” action also, then the converse action will become “normal” and thus “moral.” Consequently, the question remains, just because an action is “normal,” does it make the action “moral?”
In Who’s to Judge, Louis Pojman addresses the ethical relativist’s argument. He explains the “Diversity Thesis” of relativism asserts morality varies depending on the society, resulting in there being no moral guidelines, independent of culturally established beliefs, shared by all societies (105). The problem with the “Diversity Thesis,” according to Pojman, is there does appear to be moral guidelines common to many variant societies (110). For example, he quotes an article by Clyde Kluckhohn, which notes how “every culture has a concept of murder…other regulations upon sexual behavior…mutual obligations between parents and children” (110). Additionally, argues Pojman, since there is a majority of different societies which do observe shared moral guidelines, then it could be argued the cultures which do not are simply wrong (111).
Pojman moves on to explaining the subsequent “Dependency Thesis” which asserts actions are deemed moral or immoral depending upon the cultural circumstances of the society (105). Regarding the “Dependency Thesis,” Pojman offers a distinction between morality being upheld based on the culture’s circumstances and morality being determined based on the culture’s circumstances (111). If morality is upheld based on the culture’s circumstances, according to Pojman, then an action may be considered immoral unless the greater good of the society requires the action be done (111). He uses the example of Eskimos with limited food who practice euthanasia (111). Whereas, he continues, if morality is determined based on the culture’s circumstances, then the beliefs of the culture determine right and wrong (111). He offers another example, where a Sudanese tribe will throw deformed babies into the river believing the babies “belong to the hippopotamus” (111). In either case, Pojman asserts there exists shared moral guidelines with our culture, which are independent of cultural biases, like respect for life and giving back what belongs to another (111).
Pojman also presents “Conventional Ethical Relativism,” which asserts that actions are determined to be moral or immoral based on the acceptance of the actions by the society, which leads to tolerance of all actions deemed morally accepted by any society (108). “Conventional Ethical Relativism” fails as well because, as Pojman states, “Conventional Ethical Relativism” allows for tolerance of genocide and nuclear war, just as long as the culture committing the acts deems the actions morally acceptable (109). Additionally, Pojman notes, a person may belong to many cultures and subcultures which have different views on what actions are considered moral, resulting in the person’s actions being both moral and immoral at the same time (109).
Pojman’s argument is: (1) If every society determined morality based on relative and subjective cultural differences, then there would not be any shared moral guidelines between variant societies. (2) All cultures share underlying moral guidelines which serve to promote the interests of the society, such as respect for life and giving back what belongs to others. (3) Therefore, while there are relative and subjective differences in how moral guidelines are used in different societies, morality itself is not based on relative and subjective cultural differences.
Benedict asserts moral and ethical relativism exists as a natural response to cultural differences. Pojman concedes while cultural relativism exists, such as how cultural beliefs can determine the way moral guidelines are used in the society, there are underlying moral guidelines shared by all cultures. I can’t say either way, but if morality is relative, thus based solely on what the society deems appropriate, then morality is able to be changed and therefore is entirely superficial, without meaning.