The Problem of Moral Relativism

Before we can actually start analyzing and evaluating the competing types of ethical systems, we must first answer a more basic question: Is there any reason to believe there is such a thing as 'morality'? That is, if morality turns out to be just another name for doing what I (or we) want to do, why should I bother studying ethics? Don't I already know what I want to do? Are there really any obligations which reach me from outside the realm of my own desire? To put it into a more pithy form: Is morality objective or subjective?
  1. The Foundations of Contemporary Moral Relativism -

    1. The rejection of ethnocentricism -

      Definition: ethnocentricism - the uncritical belief in the inherent superiority of own's own culture.

      1. Herodotus' histories (485-430BCE) - "Custom is the king of all"
      2. The decline of colonial/cultural imperialism
      3. The rise of anthropology as a serious academic discipline

    2. Decline of the role of Religion in Western society -

      1. The Reformation
      2. The New Science (Modernity)
      3. The Industrial Revolution/Urbanization

    3. The False Disjunction between ethical absolutism and ethical relativism - assumes there are only two choices, you must be one or the other

  2. Ethical Relativism - there are no universal moral principles

    1. The fundamentals of ethical relativism -

      1. The Diversity Thesis - morals differ from culture to culture
      2. The Dependency Thesis - the force of 'right' and 'wrong' is dependent upon an actions acceptance by a society

    2. Two types of ethical relativism -

      1. Conventionalism - 'right' and 'wrong' get their meaning from the agreement of the society at large
      2. Subjectivism - 'right' and 'wrong' get their meaning from the individual only

  3. Problems with Ethical Relativism -

    1. Subjectivism leads to absurd conclusions -

      1. 'morality' has no meaning
      2. no interpersonal criticism is possible

    2. Conventionalism collapses into Subjectivism -

      1. How do we determine what a society is?
      2. How is reform possible within a conventionalist system?
      3. No intercultural moral critique is possible.

    3. Some moral principles just are better than others

  4. Objectivism - The alternative to Relativism -

    Definition: Objectivism - there are some (at least one) universalizable moral principles.

    Definition: Absolutism - there are some (at least one) universalizable moral principles which are inviolable.

    1. The Hierarchy or Normative Principles -

      1. Primary Principles - general normative principles which direct attitude within a given social context -

      2. Secondary Principles - specific normative principles which guide action within a given social context -

    2. The Nature of Primary Normative Principles - What exactly is morality for anyway?

      1. alleviation of suffering
      2. avoid/resolve social conflicts
      3. promote human flourishing/survival

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