The next argument Rachels considers is an argument in support of full-blown moral skepticism. In other words, it is an argument in support of moral skepticism about everything, not just about a single issue (like infanticide, abortion, capital punishment, etc.). If full-blown moral skepticism is true, then no action whatsoever is objectively immoral... not even rape, torture, or killing innocent people for fun.
This argument is at RTD p.25 (I have changed the wording to make it clearer):
[2.9.1.] Valid or Invalid?
If p, then q.
And any argument that has this form is valid. It does not matter what propositions you fill in for “p” and “q”; so long as both “p”s are replaced with the same proposition and both “q”s are replaced with the same proposition, the resulting argument will be valid. For example,
If Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, then the moon is made of cheese.
The moon is not made of cheese.
Therefore, Atlanta is not the capital of Georgia.
This is a valid argument, even though one of its premises is false.
This argument form has a name: modus tollens. We will return to this argument form, and consider other argument forms that are similar to it, in a few days.
· that a test was unfair
· that “Jones is a bad man”
· that “Dr. Smith is irresponsible”
· that “A certain used-car salesman is unethical.”
We can prove that a test is unfair by showing that it has nothing to do with the class content, is too long for any student to finish, that it does not follow the study guide that the professor provided for the test, etc. And we can prove that Jones is a bad person by showing that he is a habitual liar, that he abuses his wife and children, that he tortures puppies for fun, and so on.
Discussion: is Rachels right to say that we can prove these claims to be true? Is there are difference between proving a moral claim and simply providing good reasons to believe it.
[3.1.] A Rough Statement of the Theory.
Suppose that some actions are morally right and that other actions are morally wrong.
If this is correct, then we are faced with the question: What makes an action morally right or morally wrong?
Different theories of morality answer this question in different ways. According to the next theory we will consider, whether an action is morally right or morally wrong is determined by the beliefs and attitudes that people have in the society within which the action is performed. This theory says that whatever behaviors are believed to be right or wrong by the members of a society are right or wrong within that society; i.e., morality is relative to culture. This a very rough statement of the theory known as moral-cultural relativism (MCR). [We will see a more detailed statement of the theory below.]
There is an important connection between MCR and a theory we’ve already studied: moral skepticism, according to which there is no such thing as objective moral truth.
The connection is this: MCR implies moral skepticism. In other words, if morality really does depend on nothing but what people in a given society believe about morality, then there is no such thing as objective morality. (We will return to this point later.)
What does it mean to say that one thing is relative to another? It means that the one thing depends on the other in some important way. E.g.
MCR says something analogous about morality: Whether a given action is morally right or morally wrong is relative to the culture of one’s society; more specifically, morality is relative to what people in one’s society believe about morality.
[3.3.] “Moral-Cultural Relativism” vs. “Cultural Relativism.”
Sometimes, MCR is referred to simply as “cultural relativism.” But the name “cultural relativism” is used to refer to a number of different theories. Most of these theories claim that something is relative to (dependent on) one’s culture or society. But not all of them refer specifically to morality. One claims that standards of evidence are relative to one’s society; another claims that all truths (not just moral, but historical, scientific, etc.) are relative to one’s culture. When you hear someone refer simply to “cultural relativism,” you should ask: exactly what theory do you mean? What does the theory say is relative to culture: morality, standards of evidence, truth, or something else? Notice that Rachels refers simply to “cultural relativism” —but he means the theory I am calling MCR.
[3.4.] An Example: Polygamy.
polygamy (df.): having more than one spouse or mate at a time; more often than not, this involves one man having multiple wives.
· Polygamy is thought to be morally permissible in some societies (and in some segments of American society) but is thought to be morally wrong in others.
· It is still practiced by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). An estimated 10,000 members of this church reside in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, South Dakota, and British Columbia.
· FLDS members living at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas made headlines in 2008, when the Ranch was raided and 462 children 17 years old or younger were taken into custody. Officials feared that many children were being subjected to sexual abuse.
· The president of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Texas in 2011 of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 15 and 12, whom he had taken as wives. Prosecutors presented evidence that he had 78 wives, 12 of whom were younger than 15 years old. Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
According to MCR, there is no truth of the matter about whether forced polygamy involving underage girls is right or wrong universally, just like there is no truth of the matter about whether UWG is on the left or the right of I-20, universally. According to MCR, whether polygamy is right or wrong depends on the society in question. In some societies, it is morally permissible; in others it is immoral; and that’s all there is to it.
Stopping point for Thursday September 5. For next time, study the lecture notes from today, and begin reading EMP ch.2 (pp.14-22 only). You may have a pop quiz on both at the beginning of class.
Your first exam in this course will be on Tuesday September 24. The study guide is now on the class website.
 The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families, August 2009, URL = < http://attorneygeneral.utah.gov/cmsdocuments/The_Primer.pdf >, p.18; accessed August 30, 2011.
 Lindsay Whitehurst, “Warren Jeffs Gets Life in Prison for Sex with Underage Girls,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 9, 2011; updated August 11, 2011. URL = < http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/52354441-78/jeffs-jurors-sentencing-girls.html.csp >, accessed August 30, 2011.
This page last updated /3/2013.
Copyright © 2013 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.