10 Big Questions


Big Bang Theory

Time Travel

Meaning of Life

Creation vs. Evolution

Artificial Intelligence

Life After Death

Extraterrestrial Life

Cultural Relativism

Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical Dilemmas by Geoffrey Klempner
BUY on Amazon

Social Justice

Further Study

Philosophy and Sci-Fi


Cultural Relativism

Mark asked:

How do I reconcile a belief in certain moral absolutes that are incontrovertible so far as I am concerned (e.g. I will never kill someone, or if I did I would be crippled with guilt) with what experience indicates is a world in which morality is wholly relative (e.g. perhaps in some circumstances it might be necessary to kill innocent Serbs — for the sake of argument — for a greater good i.e. stopping other Serbs killing Kosovans)?

This issue gets particularly wranglesome if one has faith in a particular religion — e.g. Christianity — certain sects of which ultimately deny tolerance to other faiths yet the prevailing moral authority which most of us would describe as a 'good' thing is to extend tolerance to others and, to borrow a well used phrase, 'love thy neighbour as thyself'. Intellectually speaking, how would one fit both moral absolutes and the flexibility of moral belief into a single coherent system which is neither rigidly totalitarian nor anarchically lax?

Sorry about the length of this one — it is a bit of a thorny issue I suppose!

First, we need to clear away a possible misunderstanding. The view that the right moral action is the one that produces the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' — as argued for in J.S. Mill's book 'Utilitarianism' — is an attempt to set up a single objective standard for right and wrong which stands strictly opposed to relativism. Differences of opinion about which action is right can only concern the factual question of which action will produce the best consequences, measured in terms of human happiness.

Taken to its limit, utilitarianism advocates an extreme form of 'tolerance', where what is added up in the utility calculation is not pleasure or happiness — the measurement of which is open to dispute — but simply the satisfaction of preferences. The 'preference' utilitarian refrains from making any judgement concerning whether the preferences expressed by different individuals are 'good' or 'bad', except insofar as they conflict with the utilitarian principle itself.

I want to say that the utilitarians are right in holding that there is an objective, rational basis for moral conduct but wrong in thinking that it entails a universally applicable formula that can be used to decide every ethical question.

My own view is that the basis for moral conduct resides in the 'authority of the other'. I regard that principle as the one 'moral absolute'. What I mean by that is that the judgements of others concerning their needs and interests have necessary authority over my actions. So moral beliefs are not merely 'subjective'. But claims conflict. People want different things. Most importantly, the claims of some persons have a higher authority for me than others. The claims of my wife and children, for example.

The result is an 'ethics of dialogue' in which we are duty bound to respect the claims of others. The actions that follow, however, depend on a process of negotiation. Not every claim on me has equal strength. It also follows that tolerance has its limits. For example, the abortionist and the anti-abortionist cannot ask for toleration from one another. Yet they are still bound to respect one another's right to exist. That is the precarious balance that has to be struck.

Geoffrey Klempner


Nelson asked:

I am struggling with Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. I do not quite understand the very notion of 'genealogy', which seems to integrate such diverse disciples as philology, history, psychology — to name just three. In what ways this new method compares or opposes other philosophical methods of dealing with moral questions? Would you, please, give some clues and specific bibliography (modern European languages) about this subject?

A 'genealogy of morals' as Nietzsche conceived it is an unmasking exercise. There are two main contrasts with a 'philosophical' approach.

The first contrast, which is not exclusive to Nietzsche, but which you will find in any contemporary writer on ethics who advocates a 'subjectivist' view, is between the explanation of why a certain belief is held and a justification of that belief. A currently popular theory is that ethical beliefs are 'memes', self-replicating ideas that survive in the competition between ideas because of their effects on the behaviour of people who get 'infected' by them. This explanation says nothing about whether the ideas are true or false. While the truth of a belief can, under certain circumstances, give it greater ability to survive (like the belief that fire burns), an idea which has the ability to survive is not necessarily true.

The second contrast is between a positive philosophical proof of the truth or validity of a given belief and a negative, dialectical exposure of an illusion. There are two aspects to the unmasking of illusion. You can show that the belief in question is incoherent or self-contradictory. That is what Nietzsche does in Twilight of the Idols when he calls Plato's theory of Forms of the Good, the True etc the 'last fumes of evaporating reality', or when he attacks Kant's 'categorical imperative' in the Genealogy. He is saying that the metaphysical theories of Plato and Kant are bankrupt and therefore incapable of justifying moral beliefs. The second aspect concerns the explanation of why we are tempted by the illusion in the first place. This is where Nietzsche gets the chance to display his impressive mastery of philology, history and psychology.

The best book to read on Nietzsche is still Walter Kaufmann's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton). A good book to read from a modern analytic philosopher who advocates a subjectivist approach is J.L. Mackie Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin). Mackie bases his 'error theory' of ethics on what he terms the 'argument from queerness' and the 'argument from relativity'. Moral beliefs are relative to different cultures, therefore cannot be objectively true. Moreover, if moral beliefs were true, moral values would have to exist as 'queer' kinds of metaphysical objects. But no such objects can exist. Therefore moral beliefs cannot be objectively true.

Geoffrey Klempner


Diana asked:

How would Plato view the cultural defense and why?

The following is an extract from 'Considering the "Cultural Defense": Immigrants, Gender, Race, and Criminal Law' by Jennifer Haejoo Lee (currently online at http://www.law.columbia.edu/crenshaw/Conference/JENNIFER%20LEE.htm):

On Sept. 7, 1987, Jian Wan Chen's husband smashed her skull with a claw hammer after she allegedly admitted to having an affair. Chen's body was discovered by her teenage son in the family's Brooklyn apartment. In March, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Edward Pincus sentenced Jian's husband to 5 years probation on a reduced manslaughter charge. After hearing the testimony of a Hunter College anthropologist, the judge concluded that Dong Lu Chen, a recent immigrant, was driven to violence by traditional Chinese values about adultery and loss of manhood.

The ruling sent shock waves through the Asian-American community last spring, and prompted calls for an end to the use of the so-called "cultural defense" in felony trials. Asian and women's groups quickly banded together to challenge the ruling, saying it "endangered women in general and immigrant women in particular"...

The implication of your question is that Plato, who in his moral philosophy was steadfastly opposed to the moral relativism of the Sophists, would have taken a very different line on the cultural defence than, say, Protagoras, the most famous of all the Sophists:

Of all things a measure is a person — of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not. (Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers para. 491, p. 541.)

(I have substituted 'person' for 'man' in Jonathan Barnes' translation from the Ancient Greek, for obvious reasons.)

You don't have to be a moral relativist to defend the cultural defence. Consider another legal defence that gained notoriety some years ago, the Twinkie defence. Depressed after hearing that he is to lose his job (I am making this case story up, but it could have been true) a man spends his lunch break eating several packs of Twinkies (a nauseatingly sweet snack which sadly one cannot get in the UK). Back at work, he grabs the nearest heavy utensil, and you can guess the rest. In court, his defence is that the massive increase in his blood sugar level was the cause of his uncharacteristic rage, and the judge accepts his plea of diminished responsibility.

A Western moral absolutist ought to view the cultural defence in a similar way to the Twinkie defence. Indoctrination from childhood in a false value system which places disproportionate emphasis on the evil of female infidelity to the point of exonerating (or appearing to exonerate) male violence, is sufficient ground for claiming diminished responsibility. Because of his distorted sense of values, Jian Wan Chen's husband was not in a position clearly to evaluate the rights or wrongs of his murderous action.

I don't think that it is a very persuasive defence. But then the Twinkie defence was not much good either.

I am far more suspicious of the moral relativist view of the cultural defence. This would be that taking into account the moral standpoint of Jian Wan Chen's husband, killing her was the right thing to do. Our own repugnance to such an act merely reflects our different moral standpoint. We have no moral right to impose our moral values on someone who holds different moral values. I'm no Platonist, but I am frightened that some people might be sufficiently muddle-headed about moral issues to think this way.

Geoffrey Klempner


Geoffrey Klempner

This site is brought to you by Pathways to Philosophy the world leading distance learning program run by the International Society for Philosophers. More answers to philosophical questions can be found at Ask a Philosopher and the PhiloSophos Knowledge Base.

Webmaster Geoffrey Klempner