PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday January 21, 2014


[3.] Moral-Cultural Relativism.


[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.)



[3.2.] Relativity.


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.[1]

·         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.[2]


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.



[3.5.] Another Example: Rape as the Responsibility of the Victim.


Former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about the religious education she received as a teenager living in Nairobi, Kenya:


I found it remarkable how many esteemed Muslim thinkers had philosophized at such length about precisely how much female skin could be bared without causing chaos to break out across the landscape. Of course, almost all these thinkers agreed that once a girl reaches puberty, every part of her body except her face and her hands must be covered when in the company of any men who are not immediate family, and at all times outside the home. This was because her bare skin would involuntarily cause men to feel an uncontrollable frenzy of sexual arousal. But not all thinkers agreed on exactly which parts of a woman's face and hands were so beguiling that they must be covered.

Some scholars held that the eyes of women were the strongest source of sexual provocation: when the Quran said women should lower their gaze, it actually meant they should hide their eyes. Another school of thought held that the very sight of a woman's lips, especially full ones that were firm and young, could bring a man into a sexual state that could cause his downfall. Yet other thinkers spent pages and pages on the sensual curve of the chin, a pretty nose, or long, slender fingers and the tendency of some women to move their hands in a way that attracted attention to their temptations. For every limitation the Prophet was quoted.

Even when all women had been covered completely from head to toe, another line of thought was opened. For this was not enough. High heels tapped and could trigger in men the image of women’s legs; to avoid sin, women must wear flat shoes that make no noise. Next came perfume: using any kind of pleasant fragrance, even perfumed soap and shampoo, would distract the minds of men for Allah’s worship and cause them to fantasize about sinning. The safest way to cause no harm to anyone seemed to be to avoid contact with any man at all times and just stay in the houses. A man’s sinful erotic thoughts were always the fault of the woman who incited them. (Infidel, p. 110, emphasis added)[3]


Someone who accepts all five claims of MCR might say the following: there is no objective fact of the matter regarding whether rape is the moral responsibility of the rapist or the victim—no truth about the morality of rape that applies universally, to all societies. In some societies, such as ours, it is viewed as morally wrong to rape someone, but in other societies, it is thought the that the rape is the fault of the rape victim and thus she who should be blamed. Neither way of thinking about rape is objectively better or worse than the other. We believe one thing, they believe another, and that’s all there is to be said about it.



[3.6.] A Full Statement of MCR.


Moral-Cultural Relativism (MCR) is an ethical theory consisting of a group of separate claims (from EMP pp.16):

1)      Different societies have different moral codes [i.e., different collective beliefs about morality].

2)      The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.

3)      There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society’s code better than another’s. There are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.[4]

·         This is another way of stating “full blown” moral skepticism—so MCR includes full-blown MS as one of its claims; in other words, MCR is a form of full-blown moral skepticism.

4)      The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.

5)      It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures. We should always be tolerant of them.


These five claims are independent of each other. It is possible for some to be true and others not.


Stopping point for Tuesday January 21. For next time:

          as always, study today’s lecture notes;

          finish reading EMP ch.2

          you may have a pop quiz on both of these at the beginning of the class

Note that your first major test in this class is two weeks from today: Tuesday February 4. The study guide is now on the class web site.




[1] The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families, August 2009, URL = < >, p.18; accessed August 30, 2011.


[2] Lindsay Whitehurst, “Warren Jeffs Gets Life in Prison for Sex with Underage Girls,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 9, 2011; updated August 11, 2011. URL = < >, accessed August 30, 2011.

[3] Reporter Bruce Bawer touches on the same attitude toward women as that described by Ayann Hirsi Ali (see the previous set of notes). Bawer describes the point of view of someone who sounds like he or she would accept MCR:


... in September …, the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet reported that 65 percent of rapes of Norwegian women were performed by “non-Western” immigrants–a category that, in Norway, consists mostly of Muslims. The article quoted a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo (who was described as having “lived for many years in Muslim countries”) as saying that “Norwegian women must take their share of responsibility for these rapes” because Muslim men found their manner of dress provocative. One reason for the high number of rapes by Muslims, explained the professor, was that in their native countries “rape is scarcely punished,” since Muslims “believe that it is women who are responsible for rape.” The professor’s conclusion was not that Muslim men living in the West needed to adjust to Western norms, but the exact opposite: “Norwegian women must realize that we live in a multicultural society and adapt themselves to it.” (Bruce Bawer, “Tolerating Intolerance: The Challenge of Fundamentalist Islam in Western Europe,” Partisan Review LXIX (3), 2002.)


The attitude of the professor of social anthropology quoted in this story is that Norwegian women should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the culture of Muslim immigrants—a culture that (at least according to this professor) treats rape as the moral responsibility of the victim rather than of the rapist.


[4] Strictly speaking, the claim is really two different claims: 1) there is no objective moral truth,  and 2) there is no universal moral truth. Objectivity and universality are not the same thing. It is possible for morality to be objective but not universal (e.g., if there are things that are objectively right for one group of people but objectively wrong for another) and it is possible for it to be universal but not objective (e.g., if morality is determined solely by what people believe about morality, but everyone happens to believe exactly the same thing about morality).

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