PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday September 12, 2014

 

 

[3.4.] A Full Statement of MCR.

 

Moral-Cultural Relativism (MCR) consists of several 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.[1]

·         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.

 

 

[3.5.] The Cultural Differences Argument (CDA).

 

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

 

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 full-blown moral skepticism (the first part of claim (3) of MCR).

 

·         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:[2]

 

1.      In some societies, such as among the Eskimos, infanticide is thought to be morally acceptable.

2.      In other societies, such as our own, infanticide is thought to be morally odious.

3.      Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong; it is merely a matter of opinion that varies from culture to culture.

 

There is nothing special about infanticide… one can construct a Limited CDA using anything 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 an LCDA, 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 are no objective truths about right and wrong. It is possible for two groups of people to disagree about something and yet for there to still be objective facts about it.

 

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.

 

 

[3.6.] Rachels’ Arguments Against MCR.

 

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’ 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

 

 

[3.6.1.] 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, forcing 12-year-old girls into polygamous marriages, and blaming women who are raped for being attacked, rather than blaming their attackers (both examples discussed last time).

 

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.

 

It does not matter if the second premise is true or false; the argument is still valid because it has the form shown above.

 

 

[3.6.1.1.] 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.]

 

 

 

Stopping point for Friday September 12. For next time, finish reading EMP ch.2 (sections 2.5 through 2.9) and study today’s lecture notes. You may have a pop quiz over both of these at the beginning of class.

 

In studying for your next pop quiz, pay special attention to the four argument forms explained above. I will give you an argument (not a form, but an actual argument, in English), and you will need to tell me (i) the name of the form it has and (ii) whether it is valid.

 

Note that your first exam in this course will be on Wednesday October 1. The study guide is now available on the class web site.

 

 

 



[1] 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).

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

 




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