PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday January 23, 2014

 

[3.7.] The Cultural Differences Argument.

 

Some defenders of MCR use the following argument in support of part of their theory (EMP p.18):

 

The Cultural Differences Argument (CDA)

 

1. Different cultures have different moral codes.

2. Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.

 

·         This is an argument only for the first part of claim (3) of MCR; that is, it is an argument for full-blown moral skepticism.

 

·         This argument has only one premise. There is nothing wrong with this. An argument can have any number of premises whatsoever, not just two.

 

·         The CDA uses the same sort of reasoning as the Limited Cultural Difference Argument that we saw earlier:[1]

 

1.      In some societies, infanticide is believed to be morally permissible (not immoral).

2.      In other societies, infanticide is believed to be immoral.

3.      Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively morally permissible nor objectively immoral; there is no objective fact of the matter, only beliefs about whether or not it is immoral.

 

There is nothing special about infanticide… one can construct a Limited CDA using any practice about which cultures have a moral disagreement. Here are some other Limited CDAs:

 

1.      In some societies, eating the dead is believed to be morally permissible (not immoral).

2.      In other societies, eating the dead is believed to be immoral.

3.      Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively morally permissible nor objectively immoral; there is no objective fact of the matter, only beliefs about whether or not it is immoral.

 

1.      In some societies, polygamy is believed to be morally permissible (not immoral).

2.      In other societies, polygamy is believed to be immoral.

3.      Therefore, polygamy is neither objectively morally permissible nor objectively immoral; there is no objective fact of the matter, only beliefs about whether or not it is immoral.

 

These LCDAs are arguments for limited (not full-blown) versions of moral skepticism.

 

But unlike a Limited CDA, the Cultural Differences Argument is not limited to just one topic, like infanticide. Its premises and conclusion are supposed to be about every moral issue, not just one. So the Cultural Differences Argument is an argument for full-blown moral skepticism.

 

What all of these arguments (the CDA and the various LCDAs) have in common is this: they have premises about what people believe about x and a conclusion about how x really is.

 

 

Is the Cultural Differences Argument (CDA) sound? In other words: (1) is its premise true, and (2) is it valid?

 

It is unsound, because it is invalid. The problem is that the claim that people disagree about which practices are moral or immoral does not, by itself, show that there is no such thing as objective moral truth. It is possible for two groups of people to disagree about something even though there are objective facts about that something.

 

This does not mean that the argument’s conclusion (full-blown moral skepticism) is false. Again, from the fact that an argument is unsound, you cannot tell whether its conclusion is false. The CDA might be a really bad argument for a true claim.

 

So even though the premise of the CDA is true (because different societies really do have different moral codes), it is still an unsound argument.

 

 

[3.8.] Rachels’ Arguments Against MCR.

 

We have seen that the CDA does not work as an argument for MCR. But this does not show that MCR is, on the whole, false. To show that MCR is false, one would need to do something besides show that an argument for MCR is unsound. One would need to provide a sound argument against MCR.

 

In EMP ch.2.4, Rachels gives three arguments against MCR.  Each argument describes a consequence of MCR (a claim that is implied by MCR), and in each argument, Rachels asserts that that consequence is false.

 

If even one of Rachels’s three arguments against MCR is sound, then MCR is false. The arguments are:

·         The Moral Inferiority Argument

·         The Moral Criticism Argument

·         The Moral Improvement Argument

 

 

[3.8.1.] The Moral Inferiority Argument.

 

1. If MCR is true, then no customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.

2. But some customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.*

3. Therefore, MCR is not true.

 

As an example, Rachels mentions political oppression in contemporary China. Other examples of seemingly inferior customs of other societies abound; for example, slavery, including the use of child slaves as camel jockeys, is still practiced in some other cultures.[2]

 

Is it sound? In other words, (1) is it valid, and (2) are the premises true?

 

The Moral Inferiority Argument is definitely valid. It has the following logical structure, skeleton, or form:

 

 

If p, then q.

Not q.

Therefore not p.

 

This is the same logical form or structure as the Provability Argument. As we have already seen, any argument with this logical structure is valid, no matter what p and q stand for.  For example,

 

If it is raining, then the streets are wet.

The streets are not wet.

Therefore, it is not raining.

 

This is a modus tollens argument, in which p = “It is raining” and q = “the streets are wet.” It does not matter if the second premise is true or false; the argument is still valid because it has the form shown above.

 

 

[3.8.1.1.] A Brief Detour Into Logic.

 

It is important to be able to recognize the differences among the following similar argument forms:

 

 

Argument form:

Arguments that have that form:

modus tollens*

 

If p, then q.

Not q.

Therefore not p.

 

--  always valid

 

 

If it is raining, then the streets are wet.

The streets are not wet.

Therefore, it is not raining.

 

 

modus ponens**

 

If p, then q.

p.

Therefore q.

 

--  always valid

 

 

If it is raining, then the streets are wet.

It is raining.

Therefore, the streets are wet.

 

 

affirming the consequent

 

If p, then q.

q.

Therefore p.

 

-- always invalid

 

 

If it is raining, then the streets are wet.

The streets are wet.

Therefore, it is raining.

 

denying the antecedent

If p, then q.

Not p.

Therefore not q.

 

-- always invalid

 

If it is raining, then the streets are wet.

It is not raining.

Therefore, the streets are not wet.

 

If I call right now, I get another ShamWow absolutely free!

I do not call right now.

Therefore, I do not get another ShamWow absolutely free.

 

 

 

* “modus tollen” (Lat., “method of denial”)

 

** “modus ponens” (Lat., “method of affirming”)

 

--

 

Are the premises of the Moral Inferiority Argument true…? [I am leaving this an open question… you should form your own opinion about this.]

 

 

[3.8.2.] The Moral Criticism Argument.

 

This is Rachels’ second argument against MCR:

 

1.      If MCR is true, then it is never legitimate to criticize the moral code of one’s own society.*

2.      But it is sometimes legitimate to criticize the moral code of one’s own society.

3.      Therefore, MCR is not true.

 

*For example, if MCR is true, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s criticism of discriminatory treatment of blacks in 1950s and 1960s America was illegitimate; if MCR is true, then Fauziya Kassindja was wrong to resist female genital mutilation—the standards of her society (1990s Togo) dictated that she was obligated to have the surgery, and so she was wrong to question this.[3]

 

Is this argument sound? We will return to this question after we examine Rachels’ third argument against MCR.

 

 

[3.8.3.] The Moral Improvement Argument.

 

1.      If MCR is true, then a society cannot become morally better than it was before.*

2.      But a society can become morally better than it was before.

3.      Therefore, MCR is not true.

 

*There are many examples: the end of slavery in America; changes in America over the last four decades in the treatment of women and minorities; changes in Germany since the end of WWII... if MCR is true, then none of these constitutes a moral improvement of the society in question..

 

Is this argument sound?

 

 

[3.9.] Assessing the Three Arguments Against MCR.

 

Each of Rachel’s three arguments against MCR is valid. Each has the same logical form or structure: modus tollens (Lat., “method of denying”):

 

modus tollens

If p, then q.

Not q.

Therefore not p.

 

 

[3.9.2.] The First Premise of Each Argument: True.

 

Each of the three arguments begins by stating a consequence of MCR. In other words, each of the first premises simply states that if MCR is true, then there is a consequence of the theory that is also true:

 

Moral Inferiority: If MCR is true, then no customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.

 

Moral Criticism: If MCR is true, then it is never legitimate to criticize the moral code of one’s own society.

 

Moral Improvement: If MCR is true, then a society cannot become morally better than it was before.

 

The first premise in each argument is true. MCR really does have those three consequences.

 

 

[3.9.3.] The Second Premise of Each Argument: ???.

 

A harder question: Is the second premise of each argument true?

 

Moral Inferiority. Some customs of other societies (e.g., slavery; anti-Semitism) are morally inferior to our own.

 

Moral Criticism: It is sometimes legitimate to criticize the moral code of one’s own society.

 

Moral Improvement: A society can become morally better than it was before.

 

Since each argument is valid, and since each argument has a first premise that is true, the only thing that might be wrong with any of the arguments is that its second premise is false.

 

So a defender of MCR must “bite the bullet” and reject the second premise of each of these arguments, thereby accepting three unpleasant consequences of MCR.

 

Let’s take the Moral Inferiority Argument, for example. A defender of MCR must say that premise (2) is false. She must say that, in fact, slavery in contemporary Africa and the Middle East is morally no worse than the rejection of slavery in contemporary Europe and America.  Forcing people into slavery is morally the same as not forcing them into slavery.

 

The same approach must be taken by the defender of MCR against the Moral Criticism Argument.  She must “bite the bullet,” say that premise (2) of this argument is false, and accept the consequence that no one who criticizes the moral code of his or her own society (e.g., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Fauziya Kassindja) is ever making a legitimate criticism.

 

And the defender of MCR must also claim that premise (2) of the Moral Improvement Argument is false. For example, she must claim that today’s America is morally no better than the America of 150 years ago, that today’s Germany is no better than Nazi Germany, and so forth.

 

The bottom line: if you are going to accept MCR as an accurate account of morality, then you have to reject the second premise of each argument and accept all of the following:

1.      No customs of other societies are inferior to our own; e.g., it is not the case that slavery is morally inferior to the rejection of slavery. (This denies premise 2 of the Moral Inferiority Argument.)

2.      No criticism of our own society’s moral code is ever legitimate; e.g. Dr. King’s objections to institutionalized racism during the 1950s and 1960s were not legitimate, and neither were Fauziya Kassindja’s objections to Togo’s practice of forcing young women to undergo excision (or female genital mutilation) against their will.[4] (This denies premise 2 of the Moral Criticism Argument.)

3.      A society cannot become morally better than it was before; e.g. American society today is, from a moral point of view, no better than it was 150 years ago. (This denies premise 2 of the Moral Improvement Argument.)

 

 

 

Stopping point for Thursday January 23. For next time, begin reading EMP ch. 4 (pp.49-54 only) and study today’s lecture notes. You may have a pop quiz over both of these at the beginning of class. Note that your first exam in this course will be on Tuesday February 4. The study guide is now available on the class web site.

 

 



[1] In RTD ch.2, Rachels refers to the argument about infanticide as simply  the “Cultural Differences Argument.”

 

[2] For details on modern forms of slavery, including the use of child camel jockeys, see http://www.antislavery.org/. For more information on child jockeys, see Paul Peachey, “UAE Defies Ban on Child Camel Jockeys,” The Independent, March 3, 2010, URL = < http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/uae-defies-ban-on-child-camel-jockeys-1914915.html >, accessed January 20, 2013.

[3] For more information on the Kassindja case, see http://www.pbs.org/speaktruthtopower/fauziya.html .

[4] For more information about the practice of excision, see this World Health Organization fact sheet: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/  (retrieved January 24, 2010).

 




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