“Female Circumcision/ Genital Mutilation and Ethical Relativism” by Loretta M. Kopelman


What is this practice?

Female circumcision/ genital mutilation (FGM) refers to the practice of removing parts of the female genitals to “promote chastity, religion, group identity, cleanliness, health, family values, and marriage goals” (Kopelman 307). These surgeries are performed primarily in Muslim cultures in countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Southern Yemen, and so on. Although this practice is viewed as wrong, girls and women part of this practice say that it is not a form of oppression. FGM has no health benefits and a vast array of medical consequences, including pain, infection, and death.

  • Are these women fully aware of the practice’s implications and fatality rate? Does their consent count as informed consent given the medical consequences? If the women are not exposed to another culture, does their consent still count as informed?

Main Question

Are we able to deem this practice as wrong when we are not a part of that culture?

Yes. Kopelman states that arguments can have moral authority “…we share many methods of discovery, evaluation, and explanation. These enable us sometimes correctly to judge other cultures, and they us”.

Ethical and Cultural Relativism

Ethical relativism concludes that “an action is right if it is approved in a person’s culture and wrong if it is disapproved” (Kopelman 312). Ethical relativism in turn prohibits the judgment of another culture because one does not have moral authority over that culture. Kopelman argues against ethical relativism, by explaining sometimes one can make a judgment with moral authority, instead of never being able to.

Main argument

Why can we sometimes have judgments that have moral authority?

“… we seem to share methods of discovery, evaluation, negotiation, and explanation that can be used to help assess moral judgments” (Kopelman 313).

Arguments that have logistical consistency and similar collected data across cultures allow for moral judgments to be made. Female genital mutilation can therefore be judged because studies of the were done by investigators of that culture and because of the consistent negative medical findings.

Reasons FOR Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation still exists for a few reasons. What are they?

The ritual surgery:

  1. Meets a religious requirement
  2. Preserves the group identity to be clean and pure
  3. Helps to maintain hygiene and health in general
  4. Immorality decreases
  5. Increase in sexual pleasure for men which boosts marriage goals

Kopelman’s arguments against aforementioned reasons

  1. FGM is mainly practiced by Muslims, but the practice is not mentioned by the Qur’an.
  2. Although the surgery is part of a group identity, people are not aware of the health consequences like infertility and death.
  3. FGM cannot maintain health from the stable data collected, which shows the practice leads to constant infection, bleeding, and sexual pain.
  4. Morality here is used to describe one’s virginity, family honor, and a controlled sexual desire. It was proved that there is NO way to stop one from having sexual intercourse and promiscuity. FGM does not get rid of the internal desire for sex, only parts of the external sex organ.
  5. Women must marry in these cultures for economic purposes. FGM increases infertility, difficult labor, and mortality. It was studied that men prefer women who have not had the surgery (Koso-Thomas 1987).

Can ethical relativism be helpful?


Although one can easily argue against FGM because of medical reasons, the associated cultural beliefs are much harder to debate. Some cultures believe that women are more beautiful after the surgery. How can one debate FGM when beauty is subjective?

“To say that something is right when it has cultural approval is useless if we cannot identify the relevant culture” (Kopelman 318). Ethical relativism is hard to use as an argument for keeping these ritual surgeries when it is hard to determine who is part of what culture. Are educated people in the same culture as those who are not? When, and if, a specific culture is defined, how do we know when that culture is able to be recognized as a society whose morality is “self-contained and self-justifying”?

  • Do you agree with Kopelman’s argument against ethical relativism? What is your opinion about the definition of culture?

Shared Goals

People cross-culturally have the same common goals: good health, happiness, opportunities, cooperation, and the stopping of war, pollution, oppression, torture, and exploitation. Because of these shared goals and methods of evaluation, cross-culture judgments with moral authority can be made. “We can use these shared goals to assess whether female circumcision/ genital mutilation is more like respect or oppression, more like enhancement or diminishment of opportunity, or more like pleasure or torture.” (Kopelman 319).

  • Do you agree with these common goals? Can you think of any others that should be included or any of the above that should not be included?

Routes of Relativists

Kopelman argues that relativists have two paths for defending sound moral judgments cross-culturally:

  1. Some cross-cultural norms have moral authority so cultural judgments against FGM can have moral authority
  2. Relativists can stay with the definition of ethical relativism described above, be against FGM and the importance of values in different cultures, but have an unreliable argument

Relativists sometimes change their beliefs, which make them unable to effectively argue the point that we cannot judge moral development across cultures. “Thus it is not consistent for defenders of this version of ethical relativism to make intercultural moral judgments about tolerance, group benefit, intersocietal respect, or cultural diversity” (Kopelman 320).

Objections to ethical and cultural relativism

Can cross-cultural moral judgments lead to absolutism, dogmatism, or cultural imperialism?

Ethical relativism prevents outsider cultural judgments from imposing on values of another culture. Kopelman argues against this, by explaining how being able to sometimes judge another culture does NOT lead to cultural imperialism and the imposition of outsider values and morals.

Ethical relativism itself does not diminish cultural imperialism. “On this view, the disapproval of other cultures is irrelevant in determining whether these acts are right or wrong; accordingly the disapproval of people in other cultures… does not count in deciding what is right or wrong except in their own culture” (Kopelman 321).

Can we judge another culture if we cannot truly understand it?

To argue this point means to imply that we cannot understand another culture enough to understand what promotes the above shared goals.

If we eliminate FGM, will we be destroying those societies?

If we look in the past (slavery, for instance), we can see how “important” practices at the time were removed and how the culture survived and improved. Group benefit cannot be understood to be the leading value.

Setting Workshop Groups

Dear Students,

For the last two weeks of class, we will break up into groups of 4. With the possible exception of Group D, each group will meet once a week. At each meeting, two people will circulate their drafts in advance, and everybody will provide feedback on those drafts. We will discuss the papers for approximately 1 hour 15 minutes. Let me know which of these groups you CANNOT be a member of by commenting on this blog entry. For instance, if you have class that ends at 12:15 or ends at 1:30 on Tuesdays, then indicate that you can’t be in Group A, since you’d have to join late/leave early. Hopefully the stars will align.

11/28 Tuesday 12:15-1:30 Group A
11/29 Wednesday 2:50-4:05 Group B
11/30 Thursday 12:15-1:30 Group C
12/4 Monday 1:40-2:50 Group D
12/4 Monday 2:50-4:05 Group B
12/5 Tuesday 12:15-1:30 Group A
12/6 Wednesday 2:50-4:05 Last class—project summaries, course response forms
12/7 Thursday 12:15-1:30 Group C
TBD Group D



Chapter 15 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Gordon Graham on Tolerance, Pluralism, and Relativism


Gordon Graham explores the connections between between toleration, pluralism, and relativism. Many argue that the three coincide in opposition to metaethical objectivism and moral absolutism. For example, pluralism seems to support the relativist because relativism would argue that no political or moral belief is more “correct” than another. That also coincides with toleration because if no belief is more deserving of respect, then all must be equally respected. Since objectivism states that there are universal truths, it would encourage suppressing other beliefs. With that, many are encouraged in thinking that relativism is supported even more by toleration. Graham argues in the following sections that the three concepts are largely conflated.  There is no valid connection between relativism and tolerance, but objectivism actually goes best with tolerance.

Part I: Objectivism ≠ Absolutism

In the first section, Graham explores the connection between being ethically objectivist and moral absolutism. He introduces Kant’s explanation of moral absolutism. In short, it is the belief that certain actions must never be performed regardless of the situation or the consequences, and said actions would, of course, depend on the moral code. Graham presents another absolutist example of “sexual congress” with children to describe an immoral action that is “always and everywhere wrong” (Graham, 227). Alternatively, the consequentialist would argue that we can always imagine a circumstance where the outcome of NOT performing the “bad act” may outweigh the consequences of performing it. The utilitarianism– a subject of consequentialism– would hold that the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action is determined by the happiness it produces. Since happiness can be empirically determined, right and wrong cant be empirically determined in the eyes of a utilitarian making it an objectivist ethic. The difficulty, however, is that utilitarianism relies on personal preference, causing questions that cannot be answered empirically. Knowing this, utilitarianism is composed of objectivism and the rejection of absolutism. Graham acknowledges there are some complications in this conclusion, namely whether or not the consequences of an action should be judged retroactively or estimated. His response is that this does not affect the general point of separating absolutism from objectivism.

Part II: Relativism ≠ Tolerance

Graham explores the connection between relativism and tolerance. Using Nietzsche, he posits that one can be relativist without believing in equally valid opinions. While Nietzsche did not believe objectivism in ethics, he was in favor of certain moral beliefs “winning” over others. Toleration can be an aspect of subjectivity, but it is not always held. One can believe there is no universal truth, yet be intolerant of the views of another. In the eyes of a relativist, this intolerance is not less justified than the tolerance of others. Objectivism can also involve intolerance. Graham uses math as an example. A realist about mathematics believes in a higher truth, but the process of discovering this truth can be up for debate.

Part III: Arguments for moral relativism and response

In this section Graham argues in favor of the connection between objectivism and toleration. They coincide in two possible ways:

  1. “ a belief in objectivism is intelligible only alongside a belief in toleration (Graham, 230).”
  2. “a belief in the virtues of toleration is intelligible only against a background of objectivism (Graham, 230).”

Graham acknowledges that his previous comparison of objective science to objective morality is lacking. He cites J.L. Mackie in the opposing view. He argues that scientific and moral disagreement cannot be evaluated in the same way. On the one hand, the moral relativist would recognize that disagreement on scientific matters does not necessarily negate the existence of objective facts. This logic, in the moral relativist’s opinion, cannot be applied to moral disagreement. Moral codes reflect different ways of life (Graham, 230),  meaning one supports a moral belief because they already practice the action, rather than practicing an action because they have evaluated it to be morally superior. Essentially, morality is fabricated to reflect the culture, not discovered (Graham, 230).

The other argument referenced in favor of moral relativism is in Gilbert Herman’s Nature of Morality (Graham, 232). In it he argues that observation does not play the same role in ethics that it does in science. He argues one can only make assumptions regarding one’s moral sensibility (Harman, Graham, 232).

In response to the two arguments Graham acknowledges that there are variations in moral beliefs throughout cultures. He posits that there are fundamental “indefensible” (Graham, 231) moral wrongs, but, as with most things, humans have yet to come to an agreement about it. He states that there is a slow but universal push in the right direction over human history. Atrocities such as slavery and genocide, though they may have been committed more than once, are regarded as indisputably wrong. Regarding Harman’s argument Graham invokes John Rawls’ “effective equilibrium”. He argues that even if we were to agree with Harman, the method used in science and logic that can be used to weigh one moral belief over another. The method does not employ empirical hypotheses or tangible tests, but it does not make them any less rational.

Part IV: Taking stock

Relativists and subjectivists argue that, at a certain point, one cannot determine whether an option is more or less correct. Graham categorizes the four positions on this theory:

1. Subjectivism: There is never a right or better answer. People might in fact agree on some matters, but this agreement subjective. At any and every point, they can disagree.

2. Relativism: There isn’t a right answer for EVERY question. Within a shared framework, we can determine right and wrong, but when disputes arise between frameworks, they are irresolvable.

3. Realism: There is a transcendent “truth” to every question. The issue, however, is that we may not always find it.

4. Objectivism: For question there is the possibility right answer. There is no dispute that does not have a “truth”.

Part V: Conclusion

Gordon Graham holds that moral objectivism is correct and that is incorporates toleration. He asks his audience, “Why should I tolerate, still less believe in tolerating, the opinions of others when I hold their opinions to be false or erroneous? (Graham, 237) He responds that beliefs that have been coerced are not worth having. This is described as voluntarism. There are still cases of a belief in objectivism that is intolerant, but Graham argues that there must be room for the acceptance of false conjectures in the name of discovery.

Chapter 14 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism” : “Non-Relative Virtues” – Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum’s primary goal in this paper is to show how a virtue-based approach to ethics initially put forward by Aristotle responds to relativist arguments. Nussbaum questions the idea that the Aristotelian view is relativist. She argues that Aristotle criticized the local traditions of his people, which suggests he is not a relativist as he argued against the ideas of his epistemic system. Some argue that the list of virtues Aristotle presents are just the ideal “Greek gentleman” (Nussbaum 201) and therefore just the virtues of his epistemic system in Greece at the time of Aristotle. However, Aristotle tries to make sure that his virtues are applicable to the entire human race by referring to “spheres of life” within which all humans have some connection. Nussbaum (and Aristotle) argue that if one is human then they will react to a sphere of life regardless of their cultural background, which supports the view of objectivists. Any argument within these spheres on how to achieve virtue are just arguments between competing specifications about the same virtue, which therefore means that societies’ different norms are just competing ways in which to achieve the same virtue.


3 objections to virtue ethics

The first problem highlighted in the article with virtue ethics is the idea of “the singleness of a problem” vs. “the singleness of a solution”. The Aristotelian ideas allow that there is a debate about how to achieve any specific virtue. However, these ideas do not state that there will only be one way in which to achieve that virtue. In addition, the different answers on how to be virtuous are dependent on culture suggesting that the only thing that is shared between humans is our grounding experiences / spheres of life and not how they react to them.

The second problem highlighted in the article questions the idea of spheres of life, the foundation of the Aristotelian view on virtue ethics. The objection states that it is naïve for us to think that all human’s share these virtues put forward by Aristotle. People are incapable of looking at something with an “innocent eye” suggesting that because the mind is an interpretive tool nothing can be objective including the spheres of life. The objector puts forward recent anthropological studies that show how much of fear is learned and has cultural variants. Adding on to this, the idea of death and what it entails has been changed many times over the course of history. Therefore, this shows that a key sphere of life put forward by Aristotle “the fear of death” is bound heavily by cultural elements.

The third problem touches on the “non-necessary” nature of some types of experiences. We can imagine a human existence where a certain sphere of life does not exist and therefore the corresponding virtue cannot be objectively good. In some cases, the existence of the sphere may in fact point to “bad human life” and that the virtue is just a reaction to a bad state of affairs. In comparison, a “good human life” would not have this sphere of life and would therefore not require the corresponding virtue. An example used in the article to portray this is the virtue of generosity as it is only required if people are in need. In a communist world without private property etc. there would be no need for generosity which suggests that it is not an objective idea.


Rebuttals against these objections

 Nussbaum’s rebuttal to the first problem is that the Aristotelian does not have say that there is only one answer to the question ‘how can one be virtuous in a given sphere?’. Although you might be left with multiple ways by which to be virtuous, some things will still be eliminated as not virtuous. This process of elimination is very significant in itself as it proves that several things are right, but somethings are definitely wrong which follows with the objectivist stance of the essay. Following on from this the idea that cultures make different decisions on how to be virtuous may just be two entities achieving the same virtue within their cultural context. “The Aristotelian virtues involve a delicate balancing between general rules and a keen awareness of particulars” (Nussbaum 212) which suggests that a virtuous decision is context sensitive, but this does not necessarily make it a relativist standpoint.

To argue against the second problem Nussbaum states that just because nobody possesses an “innocent eye” that everything is equally valid. Certain ways of seeing the world can still be criticized. The search for the virtuous truth means one can reject the institution of slavery for example, based off of reflection upon the shared human experiences that form the spheres of life. Nussbaum argues against relativists, saying that there is a certain amount of overlap there is between cultures and this results in the spheres of life existing across cultures. Especially now, whereby, due to globalization, cultures are more connected than they have ever been and are therefore able to converse on deep matters such as these spheres of life as it is an experience shared by all humans. Nussbaum ends her rebuttal of the second problem saying that people inherently search for ‘good’ instead of ‘tradition’ which is why morals have developed over time. This does suggest an intrinsic quality within humans to do and be good which supports Nussbaum’s objectivist claims

Nussbaum argues against the third problem simply by stating that Aristotelian virtues are defined on a set of problems and limitations that exist in our world. It is a relatively pointless argument to undermine the virtues by completely changing the world (e.g. eliminating private property). If the world were to be so drastically different that the spheres of life and the virtues no longer applied human beings would be equally different. Aristotle said that “an inquiry into the human good cannot end up describing the good of some other being” (Nussbaum 221) and Nussbaum argues that the proposed differences to human life in the third argument against virtue ethics would in fact change humans into different beings and so it follows that we are unable to describe the good of those beings. She essentially says that relativists are reaching too far in this case


In conclusion Nussbaum provides a solid defense of the idea that Aristotelian virtue ethics is in fact objectivist in nature, while at the same time satisfies a lot of the gripes of relativists. A point of contention where her and relativists clash seems to be about the nature of spheres of life whereby the relativists believe they are heavily influenced by culture and therefore are varied depending on one’s culture, but Nussbaum outright disagrees stating that (especially in today’s world) there is a lot more overlap than the relativists think.

Chapter 12 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Gilbert Harman’s “Is There a Single True Morality?”

The Issue:

Harman addresses the question ‘Is There a Single True Morality?’ he addresses that in philosophy, this issue is still unresolved. He breaks down the issue as being between relativists and absolutists who believe that there is a moral code that applies to everyone.

2 Approaches:

There are two different approaches that can be taken when answering this question.

1. Finding a place of value and obligation in the world of science
2. Ignoring this and concentrate on ethics autonomously of science

Both sides agree that we must begin with our initial beliefs and consider possible modifications that will make these beliefs more coherent with each other. The ultimate hope is to find a reflexive equilibrium between the two sides of the argument. Harman writes that the conflict between the two sides is how values and obligation fit into a world of facts if at all. Harman names the two approaches with the former being referred to as naturalism and the latter as being autonomous ethics.

Harman defines naturalism as “the thesis that moral judgement can be analyzed into or reduced to factual statements of a sort clearly compatible with the scientific worldview” (Harman 167). This perspective stipulates that for there to be a single true morality, it is necessary for it to be consistent with our scientific worldview as this is the way that facts about the world come to be. There are two different views that this can lead to.

1. A naturalistic reduction
2. The view that ethics can’t fit into the natural world

The latter is going to be a much more accepted view than the prior as it is very difficult to form a naturalistic reduction about ethics. The latter represents the view of moral nihilism, which opposes absolutism, as it stipulates that ethics requires the absolute values which have the property that anyone aware of them must be motivated to act morally but since science has no place for these sorts of entities, this is not a tenable view (Harman 167). Naturalism can also lead to a non-cognitive analysis which states that moral judgements recommend a certain course of action.

Autonomous Ethics:
Autonomous ethics is the view that “we attach no special importance to saying how obligations and values can be a part of this world” (Harman 168). This view is the opposite of naturalism and states that moral obligations are not dependent on science. Typically for this approach, an initial assumption of moral absolutism leads to the thesis that there are “basic moral demands that apply to all moral agents” (Harman 168). It claims that “each of us has insight into truths of certain moral principles” (Harman 168). Harman clarifies that there are many ways in which ethics can be pursued as a discipline independent of science. Autonomous ethics does not have to lead to a person being an absolutist but in many circumstances, it does.

Why do we believe what we believe?

Naturalists believe that there are important differences between being our “factual and moral beliefs” (Harman 170). They believe that moral beliefs can be explained in terms of upbringing, psychology etc. without having to appeal to an independent realm of values and obligation. Harman writes that naturalists want to be able to locate value, justice, right, wrong etc. in the same way that they can locate colors and temperature through science. Many naturalists are relativists since most will believe that there is no naturalistic reduction of morals to science and because of this, they will be unable to conceive absolute truths about the world.

Autonomous ethics:
Defenders of autonomous ethics claim that we believe something is good, right or wrong, just because it is. While naturalists argue that ethics can be explained solely through science, defenders of autonomous ethics believe that there are other factors that also affect ethics. They argue that it is more intuitive that there are things that we know are right or wrong than that all morals come from science. For the most part, this approach of having an ethics autonomous of science leads to an initial assumption of moral absolutism which states that there are basic moral demands that apply to all moral agents.

Moral Absolutism Defined:

Harman defines moral absolutism in the text as “a view about the moral reasons people have to do things and to want to or hope for things” with absolute values as being “a belief that there are things that everyone has a reason to hope or wish for” (Harman 171). He also stipulates that for his purposes, he is also going to count an ideal moral code as a form of moral absolutism but that there is not an absolute moral code that everyone ought to follow.

Argument for Relativism:

Premise 1: A person with a sufficient reason to do something might fail to reason in this way only because of some sort of empirically discoverable failure.
Harman lists inattention, lack of time, failure to consider, ignorance of certain available evidence, an error in reasoning, some sort of irrationality, or weakness of will as potential reasons for why a failure to do as one ought could occur.

Premise 2: There are people such as certain professional criminals who don’t act in accordance with alleged requirements not to harm or injure others where it is not due to inattention or failure to consider etc.
There are people such as criminals who clearly do not adhere to these requirements and will rationally decide to inflict harm on others. It follows from this that there are people who do not have sufficient moral reasons to adhere to general prohibition of harm. Harman writes that this does not excuse them of this but rather criminals may just not have sufficient reason to act in accordance with the principle.

Absolutist reply:

Assessing premise 1-
The naturalist argues that it is due to inattention, lack of focus etc. that someone would fail to do something that they have sufficient reason to do. All of the reasons given are instances of failure that can be empirically shown to make someone do something that they have sufficient reason not to do, but an absolutist argues that it does not have to be something that can be attributed to science such as just being irrational, or they could just be immoral. “It appeals to the notion that something is wrong with someone where what might be wrong is simply that the person is bad or immoral” (Harman 175). In essence, the conflict between these two views comes down to the naturalist arguing that the aspects of failure are compatible with the scientific worldview while the absolutist argues that they do not have to be.

Assessing premise 2-
Absolutists allow grounds not reducible to science to explain why someone, a criminal for example, would do something that they have sufficient reason not to do. The naturalist recognizes that there are such people such as criminals who do things that they have sufficient reason not to do and no scientifically grounds for thinking that this is an illusion. The autonomist assumption is that criminals will harm other people because they are irrational, something that is not scientifically calculable, which can account for this illusion.

Example- A criminal could apply the moral that one shouldn’t harm others, but only to his own in group which would still allow him to justify harming others that aren’t within his group.

An autonomist would say that the moral principle that you shouldn’t harm others is universal and wouldn’t apply only to those in the in group of the criminal. The relativist will argue that if rationality is conceived normatively, then it will become a relative notion. In the end, a naturalist will only consider naturalistic aspects of the criminal where the absolutist, as an autonomist will think about an unreduced normative aspect which is something that a naturalist can’t appeal to (Harman 176). Both of these premises depend on an assumption of naturalism and so an autonomist can reject these premises by appealing to autonomous ethics.


Naturalists argue that beginning with our initial beliefs, we are led to develop a view of the world that must be consistent with science while defenders of autonomous ethics argue that we begin with our initial moral beliefs and from there search for general principles. Harman ultimately concludes that one’s answer to the question: Is there a single true morality? depends on to whether one believes that moral judgements have to be consistent with a scientific worldview. Depending on their answer to this answer one can become either a naturalist or a defender of autonomous ethics which Harman concludes, are both acceptable views.

Chapters 9 and 10 of Moser and Carson’s “Moral Relativism”: Betsy Postow’s “Dishonest Relativism” and David Lyons’ “Ethical Relativism and the Problem of Incoherence”

In Chapters 9 and 10 of Moser and Carson’s Moral Relativism, Betsy Postow and David Lyons explore threats to relativism, namely dishonesty and incoherence respectively. Postow explains that relativism is dishonest because it can’t be upheld when adhering to its own principles. Meanwhile, Lyons draws attention to problem of incoherence in relativistic theories that manifests when two conflicting theories are equally as valid. Both of these issues combine to show that ethical relativism is not an airtight view, and must be critically considered before being accepted.

Summary of Chapter 9:

In Chapter 9, Postow claims that the common moral position among philosophers is dishonest. The position to which she refers concerns (1) some view according to which people sometimes ought to do certain things, and (2) some meta-ethical view according to which some normative view that conflicts with one’s own well grounded normative view may itself be a well grounded or acceptable moral view. Postow acknowledges that this first component is widely accepted, but questions the validity of the second component. Specifically, is it legitimate to accept one’s own normative view?

Although is can be asserted that most people would find their normative views to be well grounded, to properly accept a view entails more than just finding it to be well-grounded. Since many conflicting views can be equally well grounded, it seems that one must also hold some sort of practical commitment to the views that support their moral position in order to fully accept these views. Thus, the requirements for accepting a moral view include believing that the view is well-grounded and having some sort of practical commitment to the view.

In order to have a practical commitment to a view, Postow says that we must have some sort of minimal assent to the prescriptions that correspond directly to that view. This means that someone would actively enforce their moral judgements upon situations that directly pertain to the judgements — for example, if I believe that it is wrong for my friend to steal money, I would prevent them from stealing money. By this definition, the belief is the judgement that the action prescribes to. In order to accept a normative view, one must display minimal assent to the prescriptions which correspond directly to the normative view. Beyond just minimal assent, there should also be a degree of applying this acceptance on a universal level. If I think that a particular person ought to act a certain way A under a particular circumstance B, then it should follow that I think that all people, when in circumstances that are defined as similar to B by my moral view, ought to act in a way that is similar to A as defined by my moral view.

However, even if these components hold, it is still problematic for someone to fully accept a normative theory while still believing, as relativism entails, that a conflicting normative theory is equally well grounded. If this were the case, then we would run into a situation wherein I could simultaneously believe that someone is correct (according to their moral theory) to act in a way that contradicts my own moral view but also that they are incorrect in their actions according to my moral theory. Thus, I would be required to advise them to act in accordance with my own principles yet also maintain the understanding that they aren’t required to adhere to my suggestions. This is where the dishonesty of relativism comes in: ultimately, if one adopts a relativist theory, then one must be prepared to advise someone else to do something which their position provides no good reason to do.  

Summary of Chapter 10:

In Chapter 10, Lyons poses another problem pertaining to ethical relativism: the problem of incoherence. Lyons defines incoherence as the instance in which two logically incompatible arguments are found to be equally as valid, thus generating a contradiction. Lyons explores the threat of incoherence to ethical relativism by examining the source of that threat and by showing how different relativistic theories are vulnerable to that threat. Lyons also presents methods to avoid incoherence in relativist theories by suggesting that justifications in ethics may be relativist and by revealing the hidden relativistic structure of moral judgements.

First, Lyons lays out two general kinds of relativism, which he calls agent’s-group relativism and appraiser’s-group relativism. In agent’s-group relativism, the norms within each group must be used in judging conduct within that group and an act is right iff it corresponds with the norms of the agent’s group (Lyons 129). In this case, morality is determined by the one carrying out the action. Appraiser’s-group relativism, on the other hand, says that the norms within a group directly govern all the judgements made by members of a group and that a moral judgement is valid iff it accords with the norms of the appraiser’s social group (Lyons 129). In this case, morality is determined by the one evaluating the action.

Because some theories do not allow moral standards to have overlapping applications, the threat of incoherence does not affect relativistic theories equally (Lyons 130). Agent’s-group relativism does not validate conflicting moral judgements since each group (and their corresponding judgements) exist within separate moral spheres; this means that agent’s-group relativism does not run into the problem of incoherence. Appraiser’s-group relativism, on the other hand, does validate conflicting moral judgements and therefore does flirt with the problem of incoherence. We see this to be the case because if person A is a member of multiple social groups with differing norms (as most people are), then any action X “should be judged by the norms of all the groups to which [person A] belongs. This would allow an ethical theory to validate conflicting moral judgements — indeed, to validate and invalidate a single judgement” (Lyons, 130).

After establishing that appraiser theories are especially susceptible to incoherence, Lyons goes on to explain that in order for a relativist to avoid incoherence, they must either show that they are not endorsing two conflicting theories as true or else deny that the judgements are truly incompatible (Lyons, 132). This first method could be achieved if the relativist denies that the moral judgement in question has any truth value at all; this, however would simply be impossible. In fact, we see that there is no way to endorse conflicting moral judgements while maintaining the spirit of relativism yet avoiding incoherence (Lyons 133).

In order to more deeply explore how assertions can be logically incompatible, Lyons calls on Hare’s analysis of moral judgements. Hare defines moral judgements as prescriptions for actions, which cannot be true or false; these judgements are not restricted to factuality. Further, Hare says that unless one can prove both the reasonability of the factual support of the argument and also that one’s basic moral principles are not arbitrary, then one would not be able to justify their moral principles (Lyons, 134). This theory of justification concerns only the grounds on which one can justify their moral judgements, and offers no opinion on the validity of the judgements themselves.

Lyons addresses another way in which relativistic theories may avoid incoherence: if the relevant conflicting moral judgements are not truly incompatible, then they will not produce a contradiction. This depends on the assertion that an act is wrong if it conflicts with certain norms. In this case, appraiser’s-group relativism would have to be adjusted so that moral judgements would be held up to the standards of the one making the judgement. As long as both appraisers belong to different groups, two conflicting judgements could be true yet not incompatible as they each relate to a different set of norms.

Lyons goes on to invoke Harman’s view about moral justification, which says that justification is the relativistic process of convincing someone of your position by showing them that it stands by their own position (Lyons, 139). Lyons rejects this, by pointing out that it is ultimately pointless to advise a person whom we think we cannot influence and that it is unfair to judge someone’s actions by any standard other than their own. Thus, Lyons concludes that Harman’s theory is unfounded and implausible.

Ultimately, Lyons concludes that relativistic theories that avoid the problem of incoherence by “arbitrary modifications [and that] lack independent theoretical justification cannot command our respect” (Lyons, 140). This would include the discursive “prefixing move”, which promotes the dishonest relativity that Postow previously warned against. In the end, we don’t need to accept relativistic theories if they avoid incoherence by careful design and unjustified claims.

In both Chapters 9 and 10 of Moser and Carson’s Moral Relativism, we gain insight into problems that threaten the usefulness of ethical relativism. By seeing that these theories yield judgements which can be dishonest when following their own principles, and also incoherent when existing with other conflicting yet similarly founded judgements, we see that the acceptance of relativism isn’t always practical.  

Chapters 7 and 8 Moser and Carson, Moral Relativism: Moody-Adams’ “The Empirical Underdetermination of Descriptive Cultural Relativism” (Ch.7) and Wellman’s “The Ethical Implications of Cultural Relativity” (Ch.8)

Overarching Views of Both Texts

The book Moral Relativism lays out the views of philosophers Michelle Moody-Adams and Carl Wellman on the the broad term of cultural relativity. Moody-Adams argues against descriptive relativism and focuses on the importance of situational meanings in terms of morality. While, Wellman focuses on the the importance of cultural relativity on human nature, ethical reasoning, and value experiences. Granted, each philosopher does delve into different aspects of the term “moral relativism,” there is the common overarching view of shared ethical principles within both chapters. It will be further discussed in the summary the significance of situational meaning, cultural relativity, conflict, and disagreement between cultures; all which root moral relativism.

Chapter 7 Summary

Moody-Adams presents her argument against descriptive relativism, calling to reason primarily the significance of the internal conflicts of cultures and the situational meaning of cultural variances that may not be necessarily different from other cultures’ principles. The primary point to consider is that while an act may seem to drastically contrast another culture’s actions, when considered on a situational basis the principles of the cultures actually align.

The Faults of Descriptive Realism

Descriptive Relativism claims that the general ethical principles of  individuals disagree even in an instance of total agreement on the properties of the object, meaning there is a fundamental conflict. Moody-Adams claims that descriptive relativism cannot be neutral due to the situational meanings of certain acts and is “not a neutral description of the data of cultural diversity” (Moody-Adams 97). The descriptive relativist argues that fundamental moral disagreements are simply conflicting beliefs about the moral properties of certain acts. Moody-Adams calls on the views of both Asch and Duncker to refute this argument. Asch claims descriptive relativism proposes a drastic “alienness” between cultures’ traditions that is ultimately insupportable. Duncker argues ethical valuation is concerned with the situational meaning linked to an act, and that there exists “invariant “inner laws” of ethical valuation.” (Moody-Adams 98) For example, Shi’a Muslims’ ritual Ashura bloodletting consists of men hitting the heads of boys with daggers to spill blood onto the streets. A horrific practice through our western lens’, it would seem this act is far too abnormal and crude to not draw conflict between our two cultures. But, then I mention the ritual is one of mourning and the dissolution of sin, for it is thought that one tear shed for Husayn dissolves a hundred sins. Suddenly, the situational meaning behind the act offers similar moral values to our own of mourning and sin so the two views become no longer alien but instead sympathizing.

Disagreement in Ethical Language Principles

The greatest concern when attempting to compare two cultures is the lack of knowledge and reliable description of a culture’s moral principles and ethics. Moody-Adams raises the point that most moral relativists do not even consider if a culture’s language contains the concept of morality. Supporting descriptive relativism, Brandt attempts to illustrate the ethical differences between cultures in the questions,  “The reader is invited to ask himself whether he would consider it justified to pluck a chicken alive for this purpose”; “Would the reader approve of this [Hopi game], or permit his children to do this sort of thing?” (Moody-Adams 101) The expected answer is no, but Moody-Adams argues that such an assumption can not be made of the absolute moral concern of animals because closer consideration would find that the two ethical principles between the Hopi and western civilization are not so different. A culture’s moral code is highly complex and because of this it makes the plausibility of descriptive cultural relativism highly unlikely, for it can not be positively suggested that ethical differences truly exist between two cultures if the entire extent of the moral practices of each are not known.

Internal Conflict and Criticism

The complexity aforementioned finds its cause in the internal conflict present in a community when a practice is put under criticism. Hampshire claims that morality “has its sources in conflicts” (Moody-Adams 95) Moody-Adams contests that this is due to great stress put on the role of the critic who can spearhead a movement to morph an accepted practice into one that is deemed conflictual with some other deeper commitment of the group. Brandt suggests “the beliefs of “the average member” of a group are central to an adequate empirical study of that group’s ethics” (Moody-Adams 95) However, Moody-Adams refutes this by suggesting that there are certain moral questions that necessitate the views of those that are not average. She provides the example of an attempt at describing the moral significance of homelessness in America by interviewing average Americans. It becomes rather apparent that no true description could be derived from this attempt and thus undermines Brandt’s claim.

Chapter 8 Summary

Wellman in this chapter considers the ten things that he believes anthropologists could deem relative to culture they are as follows, “mores, social institutions, human nature, acts, goals, value experiences, moral emotions, moral concepts, moral judgments, and moral reasoning.” (Wellman 108) Wellman believes there to be consequences linked to the dissolution of mores that encompasses what is right and wrong within a culture. Furthermore it is Wellman’s views of morals that lead to his broad view that, in most occasions, core acting forces in a society are culturally relative.   

Consequences of Disobeying Mores

Wellman begins by warning readers that obeying the mores of a culture is vital for the wellbeing of that society. This can be directly correlated with the culturally relative nature of mores, for the mores were created to “promote the good life for the members of that society.” (Wellman 109) Wellman believes that with the disobedience of mores, a descent into a state of anarchy would ensue; however, he argues that it does not prove that an individual should always obey the mores of a society. Rather, Wellman argues that one should obey the means of their society not solely because of the fear of anarchy, but because “disobedience tends to undermine their existence” and that these mores “give shape and meaning to the life of any people.” (Wellman 109)

The Cultural Relativity of What is Right and Wrong (Mores)

The rightness or wrongness of an act in considered to be culturally relative by Wellman. This is because an identical act could be performed in two societies and could be considered right in one and wrong in another. Wellman provides the example of infanticide within Eskimo culture, an act that is considered to be highly immoral and wrong by western culture. But, Wellman asks readers to consider the consequences of the act in their society, which ultimately lead to different perspectives of what is right and wrong.

Human Nature, Institutions, Acts, and Goals

Some argue that the adoption of a different society’s institutions should not be attempted because it is a holistic expression of the society’s culture. However, Wellman refutes this, stating that some institutions could be adopted with slight modification because “some institutions may be less alien to a given culture than others.” (Wellman 110) He continues to claim that not even human nature exists individually but that it has been affected by enculturation and the nature of those being enculurated. This leads to his argument that both society’s acts and goals are culturally relative because they are derived from human nature.

Value Experiences, Morals Emotions, and Moral Concepts

In addition to the social objects stated above, Wellman also believes that the nature of any experience is influenced by enculturation and thus value experiences are considered to be relative to culture. He further asserts that because one could be considered morally good in one culture and morally bad in another that moral emotions and concepts  are also relative to culture, because for there to be a disagreement between the two cultures the two must be thinking in the same terms and thus using the same concepts.

Ethical Judgment and Ethical Reasoning

Wellman considers the following claims of Ethical judgement:

(a) “Ethical judgments have [limited] objective validity because it is possible to justify them rationally.” There are no universally accepted premises, no universal validity is possible.

(b) “Any ethical judgment is an expression of a total pattern of culture. Hence it is possible to justify any single judgment in terms of its coherence with the total cultural configuration of the judger.”

(c) “Any ethical judgment has objective validity because it is an expression of a moral code.” (Wellman 115)

Wellman concedes that all three premises are false, because their justification are not based on concrete systems and that social stability is not contingent on every ethical  judgment. This leads to the conclusion that moral judgments are relative to culture and have no objective validity. He also argues that moral reasoning is relative to culture because individuals from different societies justify their beliefs in varying ways.


Throughout both chapters Moody-Adams and Wellman propose similar arguments supporting cultural relativism. This can be found in the situational meanings of Moody-Adams’s arguments and blatantly laid out by Wellman. Both authors wish to warn readers of the complexity found within a culture so that whether it be the Ashura ritual or infanticide, we find that the disagreement between our culture and theirs is not as defined as first assumed.

Chapter 4 and 5 of Moser and Carlson’s Moral Relativism: Sumner’s “Folkways” and Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Abnormal”

Brief Summary of Both Articles

In Chapter 4 of Moser and Carlson’s Moral Relativism, William Sumner introduces us to the definition and origin of folkways. In next sections, Sumner describes folkways as being societal influences that are created without purposeful intention. He goes on to claim that folkways are impacted by the pressures of improvement and consistency. In later sections, he provides a definition for ethnocentrism, and explains how folkways originate from false inferences and are capable of causing harm. This leads to the final sections of the chapter, where Sumner defines mores and how these moral folkways shape goodness, badness, and immorality, as well as the diversity in moral codes that are created.

Chapter 5 of Moser and Carlson’s Moral Relativism examines how we observe normality and abnormality, according to Ruth Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Abnormal.” Over the course of the article, Benefit offers several examples of differing cultural notions of what is means to be socially abnormal. Normality, and consequently, morality, are described as a cultural constructs. Benedict characterizes individuals as being largely shaped by the society they are born into rather than having individual agency.

Chapter 4 Summary

Sumner begins with what drives human behavior. In order to survive and service our fundamental needs, humans are constrained by pain and pleasure. The only assumed psychological power that early man had was the ability to distinguish between pain and pleasure, and these forces developed habits, customs, and rituals. External authority and tradition shapes younger generations into abiding by a certain worldview, which maintains the cultural core.

The second section of Sumner’s article demonstrates how these folkways, or these culturally specific human behaviors and mental states, are reinforced by operating within a large group of people. The folkway produces individual habit, which over time, develops into a societal force that continues to impact the ideology and the actions of the people within that society. By becoming part of the societal structure, these folkways becomes an assumed part of life, since they are created unconsciously.

Sumner describes this in the following section, where he states that the development of habits and customs are not manufactured with the knowledge of the consequences these behaviors will create. Rather, these folkways serve to maintain a societal construct, and to serve the need for which the behavior was originally intended for. The products of this process are unforeseen and are a result of natural forces.

Folkways function in order to satisfy human needs and desires, but according to Section 5 of Sumner’s article, they evaluated by the pressures of improvement and consistency. Sumner claims that since folkways are intended to serve a purpose, if the folkway produces pain or is unsuccessful in achieving pleasure, the folkway will be adapted and changed into one that increases the efficiency and success of achieving pleasure. Sumner argues that in order for a folkway to be successful, it must:

  1. Be subjected to the pressure to improve, as long as the current adaptation is producing pain. In other words, the folkway will adapt if not enough pleasure is being achieved from it.
  2. Be subjected to the pressure to be consistent with other folkways and values of a society. The folkways must work together within a societal framework, or else friction and discontentment (pain) will be created. Networks of folkways that support one another produces pleasure and establishes faith in one’s folkway.

Personally, I do not believe in Sumner’s second premise. There are many example of how folkways conflict with one another within a specific society, such as with the Zande belief about witches.

In Section 15, Sumner defines ethnocentrism as “the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and related with reference to it” (Sumner 72). Ethnocentrism strengthens folkways because it causes people to escalate their own folkways in differentiation from others.

Sumner describes folkways as being possibly harmful and based on pseudo-knowledge in Sections 28 and 29. He offers many examples of false inferences that shaped folkways, such as how when a pestilence spread in Molembo after a Portuguese man had recently died there, the people prevented white men from dying in their country again. Sumner also gives examples of how folkways can have negative consequences, like how much waste of capital is created when a deceased man’s goods are burned.

Despite these issues with folkways, Sumner shows how each culture believes folkways to be the “the ‘right’ ways to satisfy all interests, because they are traditional, and exist in fact” (Sumner 74). Because a group’s moral code is based on serving these interests, traditions, and societal constructs, morals are not intuitive.

Sumner defines mores in Section 34 as “the folkways, including the philosophical and ethical generalizations as to societal welfare which are suggested by them” (Sumner 75). People cannot objectively judge the validity of their own mores because they would be using their own standards of goodness and badness, which is the norm circular argument. Doubting or questioning a folkway simply leads to a folkway adjustment. Section 439 emphasizes that there is no universal idea of what is immoral, and the morality of differing cultures cannot be compared. Section 503 reiterates this by stating that “there is logic in the folkways, but never rationality,” and that the folkways of one group cannot be proven to be superior to those of another (Sumner 78).

Chapter 5 Summary

Benedict begins the article by providing a view of the purpose of modern anthropology: to study the similarities and differences between cultures and the consequent products of these behaviors. Benedict questions whether or not “normal” and “abnormal” are culturally determined categories. She provides evidence for this by offering numerous examples of how the notion of abnormality ranges cross culturally.

One of the examples she uses is the status of mystics and their utilization of trance and seizures. While these individuals may be ostracized or regarded as abnormal by our cultural standards, they are people of power and influence in other societies. This demonstrates Benedict’s message that an abnormality of one culture may be foundational to the societal framework of another culture.

Benedict goes on to offer many more examples of differing notions of normality and abnormality across the world. Anthropology demonstrates that over time, differing environments and choices (such as speech communication or other organized behavior) is what affects a culture and its worldview. Over time, slight differences in societies have become increasingly more exaggerated to the point at which different cultures have completely differing views of normality, and consequently, morality as well.

Benedict claims that normality is a variation of morality. What is “normal” in one society becomes what is “good.” Society creates limits of expected human behavior, and actions that fall into this category are “normal” and “good.” If an individual’s actions deviate from this, they may be viewed as abnormal or immoral, even if those same actions may be valued in another society.

Benedict concludes her article by reinforcing a commonly held anthropological message: that individuals are shaped by their society. The behaviors, thought processes, and moral codes of these individuals would be impacted by their society as well. Benedict claims that the issue of figuring out abnormality and morality, independent from culture, is currently unachievable, meaning that there is no current definition of universal abnormality. Morality and normality must be viewed relative to a given culture because we are currently unable to distinguish any universal moral truths. But this, however, does not mean that these absolute truths do not exist.


These articles relate to one another in that morality and normality are described as being societally constructed concepts. Both display support for relativism. Although these articles acknowledge that morality is relative to our local convictions of human behavior, Benedict’s article claims that absolute moral truths might exist, but there are currently no means to distinguish what those possible truths could be.

Also, as a personal note: more recent anthropological studies have indicated that using terms like “simpler people” or “primitive” is ethnocentric. Given that these articles were written decades ago, it is understandable that these terms were used, but it should be recognized that anthropologists and moral relativists should not use these descriptors.

Richard Brandt, Ethical Relativism | James Rachels, The Challenges of Cultural Relativism

In Ethical Relativism, Richard Brandt establishes a framework for the concepts of descriptive, metaethical and normative relativism. In The Challenges of Cultural Relativism, James Rachels illustrates the challenges that these three types of relativism, especially to metaethical and normative relativism, face.

Descriptive relativism

Brandt introduces his first thesis of descriptive relativism that “values, or ethical principles of individuals conflict in a fundamental way” (Brandt, 25). He elaborates that for a disagreement to be fundamental, all ethical diversity cannot be removed and leads to a disagreement about the properties of things being appraised. Brandt provides the case of children’s execution of their parents as an example of a potential fundamental agreement.

Towards the end of the chapter, “Difficulties in the Relativist Positions,” Brandt raises the question whether descriptive relativism is supported by the scientific evidence. In response to the question, Brandt indicates the challenges in concluding that “an act is believed to have identical properties by individuals or groups who appraise it differently,” and that there is “no simple test for showing that groups really conflict in their appraisals” (Brandt 29).

  • What are some other examples that illustrate fundamental disagreements?
  • Can you think of any scientific evidence that can support descriptive relativism?

Metaethical Relativism

Brandt then introduces metaethical relativism, or the “diversity of moral principles espoused by different persons” (Brandt, 27). Metaethical relativists denies the claim that “there is always one correct moral appraisal of given issue,” but they must reject “certain views about the meaning of ethical (value) statements” in order for their thesis to work (Brandt, 26). Consequently, Brandt concludes that certain meanings of ethical (value) statements circumscribe metaethical relativists. In fact, Brandt provides the example below to demonstrate the limitations of metaethical relativism:

If “A is right” means “Doing A will contribute at least as much to the happiness of sentient creatures as anything else one might do,” it is obvious that one and only one of the two opinions “A is right” and “A is not right” is correct (Brandt 26).

Under metaethical relativism, Brandt discusses “whether there is some method of ethical reasoning whose acceptance can be justified to thoughtful people with force comparable to the force with which acceptance of the inductive logic can be justified” (Brandt 26). Some metaethical relativists simply deny the existence of such method while others recognize its existence, but express skepticism in its application.

Further, Brandt clarifies one frequent confusion about what implies ethical relativism. Assuming that metaethical relativism is false and that there is a single correct set of general ethical principles, Brandt presents that “there is a sense in which rightness of an act is relative to the circumstances or situation” (Brandt 27). Even though Brandt utilizes example of white lies to corroborate this principle, it is not to say that it suggests the truth of metaethical relativism.

Later in “Difficulties in the Relativist Position,” Brandt questions whether descriptive relativism support metaethical relativism. Although descriptive relativism cannot neither explicitly define what ethical statements mean nor settle disputes between conflicting ethical commitments, it “may very well have bearing…on whether a justifiable method of reasoning in ethics…could succeed in adjudicating between all clashes of ethical opinion” (Brandt 27). In fact, Brandt presents two groups of people—those who are avid supporters of equality of welfare and those who are indifferent—to demonstrate that certain justifiable methods of ethical reasoning cannot settle all ethical disputes.

  • Compare the concept of metaethical relativism to local relativism. What are the similarities and differences?
  • Granted, metaethical relativism states that the rightness of an act is relative to the circumstances or situation, but does the principle apply to all actions (i.e. homicide, incest, etc.)?

Normative Relativism

After demonstrating descriptive and metaethical relativism, Brandt presents normative relativism, “a general statement about whether ethical principles are ever “correct” (Brant 28). Normative relativism primarily revolves around the concept that the consensus of people or group dictates the blameworthiness of an action.

Brandt presents two propositions of normative relativists:

(a) “If someone thinks it is right (wrong) to do A, then it is right (wrong) for him to do A.”

(b) “If the moral principles recognized in the society of which X is a member imply that it is wrong to do A in certain circumstances C, then it is wrong for X to do A in C.”

Proposition (a) conjures the doubt whether “what is right for a person” really is right for him/her and does not reflect the relativist view point since it lacks a person’s or group’s belief on the action. On the other hand, proposition (b), which is the common belief in modern society, modifies the previous proposition to illustrate that people conform to moral standards of a community.

Like the other relativism discussed in the chapter, Brandt tackles normative relativism through asking the question: “Are cultural and metaethical relativism necessarily committed to any form of normative relativism?” Despite the fact that cultural and metaethical relativists are not committed to any form of normative relativism, Brandt cites proposition (b) to illustrate that normative relativism “presupposes the acceptance of cultural relativism” (Brandt 30).

  • Is there a method to corroborate normative relativism other than the consensus/agreement of belief in a society?

In The Challenges of Cultural Relativism, Rachels offers the cultural conflict between the Greeks and the Callatians as well as the Eskimo customs to demonstrate that different cultures have different moral codes. After displaying controversial cultures, Rachels states that according to Cultural Relativism, “customs cannot be said to be “correct” or “incorrect” for that implies we have an independent standard by which they may be judged” (Rachels 54).

Cultural Differences Argument

Subsequently, Rachels presents the Cultural Differences Argument:

  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.

Rachels, however, indicates that the Cultural Differences Argument is not sound since “the premise concerns what people believe” while the conclusion concerns “what really is the case” (Rachels 56). Consequently, he concludes that the argument has a logical mistake in its construction and needs something more specific about the kinds of disagreements to make it more sound.

  • Is there something peculiar about moral disagreement that causes it to be more appealing to relativists? 

Consequences of taking Cultural Relativism Seriously
Despite the unsoundness of the Cultural Differences Argument, Rachels recognizes that Cultural Relativism still can be true and discusses the consequences of taking cultural relativism seriously:

  1. We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.
  2. We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.
  3. The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.
  • In what ways can the consequences of taking cultural relativism seriously positively and negatively affect the evaluation of a cultural practice?

Why There is Less Disagreement Than It Seems

Furthermore, Rachels discusses the extent of differences within Cultural Relativism and revises the original argument that the difference lies not in the belief systems but in the values. With the example of cultures that view cows as sacred and Eskimos culture of killing infants, he indicates that cultures do not practice their traditions and cultures out of malicious intent; they are simply upholding the values in a different manner. Additionally, Rachels uses the concept of infant protection to illustrate that “there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist” (Rachels 61).

  • If there are moral rules that all societies have in common, are there certain practices that can be considered right/wrong? If so, what are they?

Rachels then covers the judgement of cultural practices. In the case of female genital mutilation, he states that even though it has no obvious social or health benefits, some communities are reluctant to criticize the practice since it implies applying their standards to another culture. As a result, Rachels proposes the Culture-Neutral Standard to evaluate whether a cultural practice is right or wrong. The Culture-Neutral Standard asks “whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it” and seeks for “an alternative set of social arrangements that would do a better job of promoting their welfare” (Rachels 63). However, he expresses the flaw in the standard that the features evaluated in the standard such as welfare are values that vary from culture to culture.

  • Are there other flaws to the Culture-Neutral Standard? Is it truly Culture-Neutral?

At the end of the chapter, Rachels talk about what can be gain from cultural relativism. He recognizes that people are reluctant to criticize other cultures because they refuse to “[interfere] in the social customs of other people” and to make negative judgements about other cultures (Rachels 63). However, Rachels differentiates between judging and acting against a cultural practice.

Finally, Rachels concludes that even though Cultural Relativism rests on an invalid argument, it can teach two valuable lessons:

  1. We should reject the unwarranted belief of an “absolute rational standard” and recognize that our cultural practices are one among many.
  2. We should keep an open mind towards other cultures since our views might reflect prejudice and predisposed judgements in our society.


Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Epistemology

In Chapter 11: Black Feminist Epistemology, of her book, Patricia Hill Collins explains how the current framework used for gathering knowledge overwhelmingly favors the ideals of white men. She then explains how black women have a different epistemology which, though shunned by the academia, is just as valid as the epistemology of white men. 


Collins begins by explaining that the core of people who defined what ‘acceptable’ knowledge is were all white men (the dominant group). Thus, the experiences of non-white men (subjugated groups) are distorted by the framework put into place by the dominant group. Because black feminist thought reflects the experiences of African American women, their ideals have not been easy to express because, “Black women have had to struggle against White male interpretations of the world.
 In this context, Black feminist thought can best be viewed as subjugated knowledge.” (251)
Collins goes on to say that knowledge consist of three different parts. Epistemology, which is an overarching theory of knowledge. Paradigms, which are frameworks used to interpret social phenomena. And Methodology, which are broad principles of how to conduct research and how to apply paradigms.
For black feminist scholars, there are two different epistemologies they have to deal with; one that has been defined by white-men and upheld as the ‘correct’ epistemology and one that is defined by black women. How accepted these epistemologies are by the academic community defines, “which versions of truth will prevail.” (252).

Eurocentric Knowledge Validation Process

Collins claims that the problem that black feminists face is that the current accepted version of knowledge validation was defined by white men. This power structure is called Positivism and it calls for an objective view of the world. It can be upheld by non-white men and condemned by white men but it is still the system used today.
While black women have disputed the claims made under the epistemology of white men, they have been ignored. This is because black women use different forms of knowledge validation. This means that they cannot express their claims using the epistemic system of white men because the proof that they have gathered is not considered accurate. In short, the way knowledge is justified is different for each group and because of this, the group in power refuses to acknowledge what the other has put forth.
This also means that when a black feminist joins the academia, she must change the system she uses to validate knowledge to the accepted one defined by white men. If she attempts to hold onto the knowledge validation process of a black women then she will not be treated as credible within the academic community. Therefore, any positive change she hopes to work for black women will be impossible to bring into existence.

  • What does it mean that non-white men are willing to support a knowledge validation process that favors white men (and vice versa)?
  • Is Collins claiming that Black Feminists have a different truth or just a different way of justifying truth?

Lived Experience as a Criterion of Meaning

Collins claims that lived experience, ‘wisdom,’ is more important to black women than it is to white men, who value book knowledge. The idea is that a person cannot understand something unless they have had an experience with it and thus gained firsthand knowledge. At the same time, Collins says that, to black women, it is possible to over-analyze something and thus lose part of its meaning. She uses the example of the bible here, saying that bible tales are told for the wisdom they have about everyday life and that it’s not important to worry about where the story came from (258).
Collins also says that this epistemology is not unique to black women but that all women are more likely to rely on lived experience. However, black women have a social framework which supports this whereas white women do not. Collins also remarks that black women teach other black women their epistemology.

  •  Is Lived Experience a good indicator of knowledge/wisdom?
  • How do the lives of black women enable them to be more connected than white women?

Dialogue in Assessing Knowledge Claims

Collins says that dialogue is an important part of black culture that is lacking from white culture. In black culture, both the speaker and the listener have an important part to play and not joining in a conversation is considered ‘cheating.’ Dialogue is used to assess the validity of knowledge claims.
This emphasizes another difference, not only between white and black culture but also between male and female culture. Collins says that women are more likely to seek connection, such as that offered by dialogue, whereas men seek autonomy. Once more, however, black culture provides the social structure to allow black women to be connected whereas white culture does not.

  • Is it true that men seek solitude where women seek connection? What does this say about the two groups?
  • Is it true that white culture does not offer the same opportunities for connection that black culture does?

The Ethics of Caring

Collins says that expression, emotion, and empathy are important parts of the black feminist epistemology. A positive emotional connection is one of the criteria for validity. These three things are in direct contrast with the white male epistemology which dominates the academic field.
Black Feminists want to see the whole of a subject and form a personal connection with it before making a judgement. On the other hand, the white male epistemology seeks a distant, objective, look at a subject which ignores everything unrelated to the current problem. Once more, Collins makes the claim that black culture supports the formation of personal connections and white culture does not.

  •  Should personal connection (expression, emotion, and empathy) be part of the knowledge gathering process?

Personal Accountability

In this section, Collins says that in the black feminist epistemology, there is a higher demand for personal accountability. A person cannot introduce an idea and then back away from it, nor can they distance themselves from the actions they have taken in the past. This means that, when determining if a person’s arguments are worthy, the whole of what they have done is taken into account.
To prove this, Collins uses an example of a class she taught where the student body was comprised of black women. She said that before her class was willing to evaluate an argument, they wanted to know about the past of the man who created the argument.

  •  Should a person’s past action be used to judge the validity of a new argument?

Black Women as Agents of Knowledge

Collins claims that it is difficult for black women in academia to support a black feminist epistemology. If they attempt to use this epistemology to justify knowledge then they will be discredited. If they attempt to use the white male epistemology to justify black feminist knowledge then they will fail because the two forms of knowledge are largely incompatible.
Collins also claims that it is difficult to resist the epistemology of white men because it is so prevalent in academia. It is easy to lose the black feminist epistemology and simply go along with what is accepted.

  •  How could a black feminist academic introduce black feminist knowledge (or use the black feminist epistemology to justify knowledge) such that her arguments would not be condemned?

Toward Truth

Collins argues that there are many subjugated groups with different epistemologies, not just black feminists. There are many similarities between these epistemologies but each of them offers a different way of seeing what is true.
Collins claims that by combining the epistemologies of the different ‘subjugated’ groups, a new epistemology can be found. She says that this epistemology would offer the best version of truth.
She finishes by saying that the white male epistemology cannot allow other epistemologies because doing so would threaten all previously accepted knowledge.

  • Throughout the reading, Collins says that there are various ways to gain knowledge. This seems to be a relativist idea but at the end, she claims that by combining the epistemic systems of subjugated groups a ‘best’ epistemic system would emerge which would offer ‘truth’. Does this make her a relativist or an objectivist?