I intend to: a) clarify the origins and de facto meanings of the term relativism; b) reconstruct the reasons for the birth of the thesis named “cultural relativism”; d) reconstruct ethical implications of the above thesis;
c) revisit the recent discussion between universalists and particularists in the light of the idea of cultural relativism..
1.Prescriptive Moral Relativism: “everybody is justified in acting in the way imposed by criteria accepted by the group he belongs to”.
Universalism: there are at least some judgments which are valid inter-culturally
Absolutism: there are at least some particular prescriptions which are valid without exception everywhere and always
2. The traditional proof of prescriptive moral relativism: the argument from variability: Judgments, rules, and shared values are de facto variable in time and space.
The traditional counter-proof: examples of variability do not prove what skeptics contend.
3. Pre-history of the doctrine
-Ancient sophists: either immoralist or contractualist
-Modern moral scepticism (xvii c.): variability as an historical and ethnographic fact supports a sceptical conclusion more moderate than sheer immoralism.
- Voltaire, Kant, Reid counter-attack pointing at a universally shared moral sense
- Romantics and idealists stage an even more moderate reformulation: instead of universally shared moral sense they point at the Spirit of a People which is: a)alternative to abstract and universal philosophical systems as far as it is lived ‘culture’; b) indivisible unity with an inner harmony and a source of normative standards; c) dynamic, in so far as it is a manifestation of the Spirit through the becoming of National cultures.
4. The birth of Cultural Relativism and its ethical implications
4.1. The 18th c. doctrine was the noble savage (a non-historical doctrine: state of nature vs. social state)
4.2 Edward Tylor (1832-1817) and ethnocentric historicism
Savage moral standards are real enough, but they are far and weaker than ours.
4.3 Boas and Malinowski and an holistic reaction to ethnocentric historicism
Franz Boas (1858-1942): a) Development of civilizations is not ruled by technical progress nor does it follow a one-way path; instead there are parallel developments (for ex. Agriculture does not follow stock-raising); b) racial characters have no relevance in development of civilization; c) we are not yet in a position to compare externally identical kinds of behaviour till we have not yet understood beliefs and intentions laying at their roots (for ex.: “From an ethnological point of view murder cannot be considered as a single phenomenon”; d) we should distinguish among different practices which are only superficially similar (fro ex. practices traditionally classified under the label “tabù”); e) there is as a fact just one normative ethic, constant in its contents but varying in its extension; f) the implication is not that we cannot judge behavior by members of other groups; it is only a recommendation of caution.
Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942): a) against Tylor’s and Frazer’s “magpie” methodology, field-work is required, a culture as a whole should be observed from inside; individual elements are incomprehensible; b) a culture is an organic whole; c) its elements are accounted for by their function (economy), avoiding non-observables (empio-criticism).
Ruth Benedict and Melville Herskovitz identify Boas’s approach with “cultural relativism”.
Benedict: what is normal and abnormal is to be judged on a culture’s own standards, not on our own (“Anthropology and the Abnormal”).
Herskovits: “Boas adumbrates what we have come to call cultural relativism” (The Mind, p. 10); “Judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation” (Man and his Works).
4. How analytic philosophy understood and misunderstood the discussion
4.1. At the beginning of the 20th c., the new view in ethics was non-cognitivism (emotivist and subjectivist).
Eric Westermark combines this view with an old-style ethnographic approach in support of relativity of moralities.
Moralities are codes, or systems of emotive ‘disinterested’ reactions selected by evolution on their usefulness in terms of survival value for the society that is the carrier of such systems or codes.
The moral relativity thesis: there are cases of disagreement that cannot be settled even after agreement about facts.
Brandt, Mackie, Gilbert, Harman adopt Westermark’s approach in a more sophisticated version: a) moralities are codes with an overall function and may be appraised only as wholes; b) variability is an argument for moral subjectivism; c) apparent legitimacy of deriving shift from ought is legitimized only within one institution d) morality should not be described but instead made, and existing moralities may be improved.
Is it ‘real’ relativism? It is clearly subjectivism (a metaethical thesis). The normative thesis is that there better and worse codes, and survival values is the normative standard.
MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, Wiggins, McDowell
‘Wittgensteinian’ prospectivist arguments bent to support weak-relativist claims
MacIntyre: there is ‘incommensurability’ between different theoretical systems in both science and ethics.
No argument is possible through different systems
Different traditions may coexist for a long time without being able to bring their conflicts to a rational solution.
4.4 Kantian universalists
Baier, Gewirth, Rawls, Apel, Habermas
Shared claim: justice concerns the right and is universal in so far as it may be based on minimal assumptions
Other virtues are relative to context in so far as they are related to comprehensive views of the good
- O’Neill criticism: a) it is an assumption shared by both alignments; b) after an alleged crisis brought about by alleged loss of metaphysical certainties, theories of justice have dropped demanding assumptions and kept universalism, virtue theories have kept demanding assumptions and dropped universalism; c) the opposition of virtue and justice has arisen in an unjustified way.
O’Neill’s positive proposal: ‘constructive’ procedures may be adopted both (i) concerning all the range of virtues and (ii) across cultures once we abandon idealization and confine ourselves to abstraction from real-world cases.
4.5 A metaethical relativist and anti-relativist normative ethicists: Bernard Williams
Williams: vulgar relativism may be assumed to claim that: a) 'just' means 'just in a given society'; b) 'just in a given society' is to be understood in functionalist sense; c) it is wrong for one society’s members to condemn another society’s values. It is inconsistent since in (c) uses ‘just’ in a non-relative way that has been excluded in (a).
William’s positive proposal: i) keep a number of substantive or thick ethical concepts that will be different in space and time; ii) admit that public choices are to be legitimized through recourse to more abstract procedures and relying on more thin ethical concepts.
5. Critical remarks
5.1 The only real relativism available is ‘vulgar’ relativism (Westermark?)
5.2. Descriptive universalism (or absolutism) has a long pedigree, from Cicero on, reaching Boas himself but it is useless as an answer to normative questions
5.3. Twentieth-century philosophical discussion seems to discuss an ad hoc doctrine reconstructed by assembling obsolete philosophical ideas but ignoring the real theory of cultural relativism as formulated by anthropologists.
6. A distinction between ethoi and ethical theories as a way out of confusions
a)There are systems of conventions de facto existing. These may be studies from outside as phenomena or facts.
b)There is moral argument and this, when studies from outside, is a fact, but this does not influence in any degree the possible validity of claims advanced.
c) the difference between the above claims and Mackie’s criticism to Searle’s argument of the promising game is that promises, arguments etc. are also phenomena, but they are also communicative phenomena with a logical and pragmatic structure.
a) cultural relativism, as a name for Boas’s methodology is a valuable discovery, and in this sense we are all relativists;
b) ethical relativism, as an alleged implication of cultural relativism, has been argued in a philosophically quite unsophisticated way by Benedict and Herskovits; philosophers apparently discussed ethical relativism in the basis of a rather faint impression of what cultural relativism had been.
c) a full-fledged ethical relativism has hardly been defended by anybody among philosophers; virtually no modern philosopher really argued a prescriptive version of the thesis;
d) we may accept the grain of truth in ethical relativism by including relativist critique to ethical absolutism into a universalist normative doctrine that be careful in separating open-textured formulations of universal claims from culturally conditioned particular prescriptions.