Is Ethics universal? Is it wrong to steal from someone regardless of what the culture you are in says on the matter? What about funeral customs? Is there a right or wrong way to deal with the bodies of those who have died? Some philosophers believe that there is no universal right or wrong and that the correct way to do things is based on what the morals of individual cultures say. Others, such as James Rachels, believe that there is a universal code of ethics that transcends the moral codes of individual cultures. In his essay, “Morality is Not Relative”, Rachels discusses ethical relativism, or as he calls it “Cultural Relativism”, and the logical problems that are associated with this code. Cultural Relativism is the idea that different cultures have different moral codes and customs and because of this, an act cannot be considered immoral on the grounds that a different culture considers it to be wrong.
There is no independent standard or code upon which we can judge customs, so there can be no right or wrong where they are concerned. Different cultures have their own morals and customs; just because someone disagrees with them doesn’t make them wrong. Under this theory, there is no objective moral truth; acts cannot be judged because individual cultures have their own say as to what falls under right and wrong. Ethical Relativism is very appealing at first glance. It seems to say that all cultures are equal and that we are just being arrogant if we try and say that our way of doing things is better than that of another culture. Is this the case though? Is our society no better than that of one that thinks it is ok to commit genocide in an attempt to build the master race? Would we not consider our society more advanced or better than it was when it was legal to own slaves? Under Ethical Relativism, we can be no better than any other society, because that would mean that we have some standard of comparison.
On the other hand, Ethical Objectivism is the idea that there is an objective code to ethics that dictates what is moral and immoral. Under this view, there is a definite code of what is right and wrong, regardless of what a culture’s own moral code says. A society’s practices can be considered immoral by judging them in accordance with the moral code. The problem with this is that no such code is known as of yet. Any ethical code that can be created will be based on the culture that created it. This poses a problem because the culture that creates the code will naturally base it off of their own system of ethics; therefore the code will no longer be universal and will not be able to be used as an objective code upon which all societies may base their own system of ethics on. Ethical Relativism is based on the Cultural Differences Argument. It has its premise and conclusion like all logical arguments do. Its premise says that different cultures have different moral codes.
Therefore, it concludes, that because of the varying moral codes, there can be no objective moral truth. Different cultures consider different acts to be moral and immoral and not all cultures will necessarily have the same opinions on all matters. Rachels objects to this argument by pointing out that the conclusion of the argument does not follow from the premise. The fact that cultures disagree on an ethical matter does not therefore mean that a definite code of ethics cannot or does not exist. It could be that “the members of some societies might simply be wrong” (Rachels, 48). To make the point clearer, Rachels uses the example of the Earth being flat.
Some people in less advanced cultures believe that the Earth is flat. We believe from our observation and science that the Earth is spherical. Does it follow that just because we disagree on the matter that there can be no objective truth to it? No, it does not follow. Simply because there is disagreement over something does not mean that there is no truth in the matter. Even though the Cultural Differences Argument contains a major logical fallacy, Cultural Relativism could still be true. The fact that the argument is invalid does not imply that the theory cannot be true; however, it does imply that the theory needs a new central argument.
Rachels.James,The Elements of Moral Philosophy,1986,McGraw-Hill,Inc