Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Moral relativism part 3: cultural relativism

The flavor of moral relativism that I was talking about fairly recently had to do with one's own view of morality.  In this view, you chose your own reality, and whatever seemed good to you was indeed good (as long as you didn't hurt someone or impinge on their rights).  I think that's entirely absurd, and I believe many people agree with me.

But what about the claim that our culture defines our morality?

Cultural moral relativism goes like this: whatever we define, as a culture, to be good or bad, that's what's good or bad.  Furthermore, this argument is usually supported by the realization that most things we consider to be bad, as as culture, are things that hurt (and do not benefit) society.  For example, murder is considered bad by society because it's such a detriment to society that we deem it bad.

So cultural moral relativism seems to work for most people.  But does it make sense?

If morality is simply cultural, and there is no absolute standard of morality, then we have no way of judging other cultures.  In other words, on matters where the morality of two cultures differ, who's to say our culture's view of morality is preferred?  If there is another culture out there that has decided that burning women on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands is ok, then who are we to say that's wrong?  If culture decides what's good and bad, then their culture has decided that burning women is good.

What do we do then?

Here's another major issue.  If culture decides what's good or bad, then what room is there for cultural reform?  When women did not have the right to vote, who's to say that's wrong?  Why should I choose to believe that women should have the right to vote if I live in a culture where they don't?  If I did, I would be choosing to believe in something that culture deems morally wrong.

In the 1960's, during the civil rights movement, who is to say that blacks should be treated better?  If culture had already decided that it is ok to treat blacks poorly, how could someone say that's wrong?  As long as that's the cultural view, then isn't that by definition what's good?

OK, one more question.  How is it decided what's accepted culturally?  Do we put it to a vote?  Sometimes, we do.  Take Proposition 8 for example, voted on in California back in 2008, on whether it would be legal for same sex couples to be married.  In that vote, Proposition 8 was upheld, albeit barely, making it illegal for same sex couples to be married.  I knew a lot of people that were outraged by the fact that Prop 8 passed.  But why?  Why should we be angry about that when, as a culture, we decided by majority vote that it is "wrong" for same sex couples to marry?