Is Morality Relative To Culture?

It’s has been charged that truth or justification of moral judgement is not relative to some group of persons, but absolute. After having defined both objectivism and cultural relativism views about morality we’ll try to argue the relativity of moral by 3 different ways. First at all metaethical relativism tries to challenge the existence of objective fact, then thinks about what motivate people to act in order to see if motivations are relative or a priori and, last but not least emphasises the existence of moral disagreement s which cause an objection to objectivist theories.

Cultural relativism is primarily based on empirical thesis that emphasises deep and widespread moral disagreement across different societies. This descriptive claim is not controversial but leads to metaethical thesis which can be contested. According to it, the truth-value of a claim is relative to the tradition, conviction or practice of a group (such as a society). There is no universal moral authority or normative force over (for ?) moral judgement but a relative one. Truth-values depend upon what people happen to be right or wrong within a particular ethical framework.

Relativism has to face objectivism about the status of morality. The latter holds that moral judgement are truth or false in an absolute or universal sense. People are justified in accepting true moral judgement because they are based on objective facts. So moral judgement is an evidence to any reasonable and well informed person.

The first issue raised between both theories is about the existence or not of objective fact.

Harman disagree with the idea of objective morality which would rely on objective facts. “Objective facts are indispensable in explaining what we observe, no putative moral facts are thus indispensable, therefore, there are not moral facts (Harman, 1997). If we tried to explain what we think or to judge an act as right or wrong it’s because we have moral thoughts. However moral thoughts are nothing else than socially inculcated view of the right and the wrong. In other words, we reflect about the worlds through our perception of it. Perception is not a neutral physical process but something determined by our upbringing (beliefs, concepts, expectation). Cultural relativists ensure that a person’s culture strongly influenced her mode of perceptions. Culture shape human being. “No man ever looks at the worlds with pristine eyes, he sees it edited by a definite set of custom and institution and ways of thinking” (R.Benedict, 1934, pp. 2-3). It’s not simply that our perception of thing is relative but facts themselves are relative to culture. Then “polygamy is wrong” may be justified in one culture but not another. Thus what is right or wrong depends on what moral standards of a culture warrant.

Kantian ethic separates the agent from is social context, our perception of the world have nothing to do with cultural upbringing… Indeed the world exists independently of how we know it. An agent cannot have any coherent experiences and knowledge without being aware of an objective world. We think the world in term of central concepts. Viewing the world objectively, I detached myself from my present concern, interests, goals… Beliefs are not embedded in practice but framed in term of these concepts called “categories”, given a priori by our reason. Thoughts are regulated, not by culture but by the principle associated with these categories. The human being is a rationally free agent, independent of contingent and particular desire. Beliefs are determined by the speculative reason, and the same faculty frames what we have to do. Then, if you are not a rational agent, how could you know the right thing to do?

Since morality seems to be viewed as a practical guide for action, conflicts between objectivism and cultural relativism leads us to explain what motivate people to act and in which way these motivations are relative to culture or not .

Harman felt that we judge action right or wrong relative to a moral standard that we have agreed with others to accept. Moral judgement makes reference to an agreement. An agreement is reached when someone has reason to do something and this reason is shared by who Harman called the “speaker” and the “audience”. We need to look at how and why people act. If Y says that X ought to do something, that means that X has reason to do it, has motivation for doing so, and this reason is shared by Y (it’s what Harman called an “inner judgement”). Reasons have their source in desire, goals. To possess rationality is not enough, desires and goals are necessary to act. In other words, pure practical reason is not an explanation of why I intend to do something. Motivating reasons are not universals. People act to serve their ends and people’s ends differs from a person to another one. “There is agreement if and only if a number of people have an intention on the assumption that others have the same intention” (id). Then moral understanding is the result of a bargaining. People keep agreements because they provide us reasons to intend to do something: to do its own part of the agreement on the condition that others do their part. As we have seen above, culture shape human being in his way of thinking, that follows that desires, goals, needs that lead to agreement are influenced by culture. To conclude, moral agreements vary across different cultures.

Thus Harman disagree with Kant for who what motivate people to act is never based on what’s people desire or people’s ends. People act in order to realize the “summum bonum”, which is the object of our will. (summum bonum understood as the highest freedom and happiness) To promote it we need the accordance of the will with the moral law.

Here also we need to look at how and why people act. People have different inclination that is to say, a feeling of various attractive ends. Among different type of inclinations one is overridden, it’s the” a priori feeling”, feeling of a respect for the moral law, based on pure reason. Inclinations must be incorporated into a maxim. We decide what to do because we have some beliefs, determine by the reason alone. Maxim provide us reason to action, I adopt an end according to these maxim and commit myself to some means for achieving that end (I will something then I do it). We can think that people would choose different maxims relative to their own culture, but actually maxims are chosen a priori through pure practical reason regardless empirical or contingents factors.

“Since I have deprived the will of every impulse that could arise for it from obeying some law nothing is left but conformity of action as such with universal law” (kant, 1785.)

Some actions are necessary and correspond to Categorical Imperatives. They are inescapable law, applicable to everyone and do not appeal to non-moral consideration. To conclude people act in accordance to CI (existing a priori in an objective world), whose 2 formulations are the universal law and the law of nature. These laws, being universal apply to everyone and are not relative. We can notice that even the word “nature” is often opposed to the word “culture”.

The last issue here to face both theories concerns moral disagreement. They disagree on the possibility to rationally resolve moral disagreement. Cultural relativism often described itself as an interpretation of this disagreement. If they could be resolved, relativism would be undermined. Each society has its own conceptual schemes and they are incommensurable with one another. Cultures do not have enough in common in term of shared concepts or standard to rationally resolve their differences. Wittgenstein claims that there is an autonomy and a rationality to each culture. There is no way to understand rules except “from inside the rule governed practice themselves”. People are minded in a certain ways and it’s why they find justification to their true-value.

This point is controverted by objectivism for which moral disagreement can be rationally resolved. Disagreements only reveal that people can be mistaken. People could be influenced by ideology, prejudice, interest etc. Then if people are well informed, moral difference are resolved. Following Kant some specific moral framework are rationally superior to others, such as Categorical Imperatives provide by pure practical reason. For example to say that “polygamy is true relative to X”, only means that polygamy has been accepted by people living in x. But people can be mistaken and the true remain undiscovered.

Relativism must reply that there is no way to think that some people are much more well informed that another, this could not be a rational explanation to moral difference between societies. Furthermore the fact itself that objectivists disagree among themselves proves that there is no moral objective fact.

To conclude, we agree that morality is located within the world rather than outside. If relativism can be challenged in many ways, a weaker form of relativism must be held for at least 2 reasons. To agree with relativism imply that there is no superior moral value among the diversity of culture. And in other hand there is no way to interfere with the action of a society whose moral agreement differs from ours. However we can underline that a mixt position will be better to handle relativism’s problem. Indeed some rules seem to govern the entire world (ex: promoting welfare is the goal of a society, or “do unto others as you would have them unto you”). But there are different ways to promote welfare. Then we could accept that moral concept must have enough content to prevent from moral imperialism or moralizing view.