The Challenge of Moral Relativism
- First, even granting the observations of ethical differences between cultures, it does not follow that there is no universal moral truth: It does not follow from the fact that people disagree about whether or not polygamy is wrong that there is no fact of the matter, any more than it followed from the fact that people disagreed about the shape of the earth that there was no fact of that matter.
- Second, even allowing, again, that there is quite dramatic ethical disagreement, it might still be the case that there is a very large area of ethical consensus. There may be some moral rules – ‘gratuitous killing is wrong’ perhaps – held by all communities at all times.
- This point connects with a third: Perhaps it will seem that even the rule ‘gratuitous killing is wrong’ is not really universal. After all, certain cultures abandon their elderly to die. But the bare observation of such practices does not evidence different ethical values. Suppose attempting to keep the elderly alive in certain environments threatened the entire community. In such circumstances, abandoning the elderly may not seem to be ‘gratuitous killing.’ Those who followed the practice would not show by doing so that they held radically different values to those cultures that thought the elderly should be treated with reverence and respect. Indeed, we can easily imagine circumstances in which the appropriate way to show reverence and respect was to abandon the elderly before they became a threat to the community that they themselves held important.
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Logical and Critical Thinking
- If my tastes change I do not suppose that I was mistaken and that I have now come to the correct view: I now like olives although I once did not, but I do not think now that I was mistaken about the taste of olives then. But this is just what I am likely to think if I change my mind over a moral matter. If I once thought abortion was always wrong and now think it at least sometimes right, then I will probably think now that I was mistaken then. The idea that ethical judgments are just matters of taste does not seem to capture this feature of moral judgments.
- The way in which taste is personal seems to make certain kinds of disagreement over matters of taste impossible. We do not really disagree when one of us says “Olives taste good” and the other says “Olives taste bad.” We can each sincerely and correctly assert our view. Expressions of ethical judgments do not seem to be like this. If they were, two people expressing what we normally take to be conflicting ethical views would not be expressing conflicting views at all. They would be like two people ‘disagreeing’ over the taste of olives. We might think that a view of ethics that cannot explain our perception that there is a genuine disagreement between pro- and antiracists cannot be adequate.
- If ethical judgments were just matters of taste, it would be odd and futile to try to convince someone that their moral views were mistaken, just as it is odd and futile to attempt to convince someone obviously enjoying an olive that they are mistaken – that they are not really enjoying it at all. But our ethical views can be changed by argument and reason. We can change our ethical views non-arbitrarily, in response to argument and discussion, in a way that seems quite mysterious in matters of taste.
Logical and Critical Thinking
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