The Anthropologists’ moral relativism Notes for September 28

Main points

The aim of the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Human Rights is clear enough. They thought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was of a piece with European imperialism. And they worried that it would be used as an ideological rationalization for continuing imperialism. They wanted the powerful European societies to tolerate the less powerful societies rather than thinking that there is a universal set of moral values that they could insist on or enforce.

We began by distinguishing different arguments in the Statement. Having isolated moral relativism as one of the arguments, we looked at the logic of the argument. How could you move from the assumption that moral relativism is true to a conclusion about tolerance?

Four problems

The first problem we talked about turns on a specific proposition in what Williams called “vulgar relativism.” This proposition holds that the moral standards that are correct for a given society are those that preserve the society over time when they are followed.

Williams’s point is that if we used this as our way of identifying the correct standards to follow we would be at a loss in many cases. When there is no society to be preserved, or when the conflict is about who belongs to which society, there are no uncontroversial standards that perform the relevant function.

The second problem we talked about concerns the logical coherence of vulgar relativism. As Laurie pointed out, the first premise of vulgar relativism maintains that there are no universal standards, that is, there are no standards of right and wrong that apply to all cultures. But the conclusion maintains that there is just such a standard: tolerance.

Brian noted the third problem, developing some remarks that Daniel made. What happens when we apply the alleged truth of moral relativism to ourselves? The basic problem is this. If the correct standards for us are the standards of our culture, then those are the standards we should follow. If they are tolerant standards, we should be tolerant. If they are intolerant standards, we should be intolerant. The truth of moral relativism would have little bearing on the case for tolerance. We will talk about this more next time.

Finally, Greg observed that if we took the conclusion seriously, all sorts of apparently justified interventions in other societies would be ruled out. Should the rest of the world have tolerated Nazi Germany, for instance, on the grounds that its members were following their society’s code and that no other society’s code could apply to them? That would be hard to swallow.

In themselves, neither Greg’s observation nor the anecdote that Williams tells about Cortez’s men prove that moral relativism is wrong. But they do show how much we would have to give up if we were to adopt the kind of tolerance that the AAA seems to have advocated.** I say “seems” because they made some provisions for this sort of case that we’ll talk about next time. We would have to conclude not that some of our moral beliefs should be revised; this happens all the time as one learns more about the world. Rather, we would have to conclude that some of our most central moral beliefs are deeply wrong.

A tremendously interesting question

Suppose you encounter some people who have different moral beliefs and practices than you do. When does it make sense to revise your beliefs in the light of such an encounter?

You don’t have to be an intrepid explorer like Cortez to know what this is like. As Louis Menand pointed out, we all know what it is like to encounter disconcertingly different ways of doing things. It’s disorienting and uncomfortable. What we had taken for granted as the natural order of things turns out to be just one way among others. We often react with hostility or, at least, a call home. But once we get over the shock, how should we regard our way of doing things, the beliefs and practices that we had taken for granted?

In other areas of knowledge, the fact that someone disagrees with you gives you some reason to reconsider your beliefs. If you are on top of a hill and say that you see lions on the other side, I have good reason to reconsider my belief that it’s safe on the other side of the hill. If you and I are standing side by side and you claim to see something that I don’t, I have reason to wonder whether I’m seeing things accurately. And so on.

What about when the disagreement is moral? One possible reaction is tolerance. They have their way, I have mine. I don’t agree with theirs, but I won’t criticize or interfere with it either. Another reaction is change. Maybe there’s something to their way of doing things. I ought to be more like them. Finally, you might stick to your original opinions: they’re wrong and, in some cases, should be opposed.

Vulgar relativism insists that the third option is ruled out, at least when you are confronted with the members of a different society. Interestingly, I think it would rule out the second option as well. If different societies have their own codes that cannot be evaluated by non-members, how could the members of one society learn from another?

I will raise questions about whether they can prove that those conclusions. But whether I’m right or wrong about that, there is a tremendously interesting question in the background. When does it make sense to have one reaction rather than the others and why?

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted September 29, 2009.
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