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.