In my prior post, I explored the notion that moral realism is not as pragmatically attractive as it presents itself when its proponents are comparing it to opposing systems. I would now like to take up another narrow topic in the discussion of morality—the notion that moral realism must be true for the opposite of the reason that others feel cultural relativism must be true: while some relativists feel that cultural differences demonstrate the lack of objective moral truth, some realists feel that morality must be objective and real because all people across the world, and throughout history, have held certain values in common.
Well, in response, first, I would recommend reading my initial article in this series, on how some basic aspects of what we call morality are necessary features of our evolutionary past, but not ‘objective’ in the desired sense. But second, and more importantly, I would seek to show that this argument for moral realism and the opposite argument for cultural relativism actually fail for the same reason.
The Cultural Differences argument for cultural relativism is generally rendered as an argument in two steps, taking the existence of disagreement about morality between different cultures and concluding that there is no truth concerning morality. Anyone can plainly see the problem with this argument, and it has been pointed out by many philosophers over the years: just because two groups (or, indeed, two people) disagree about something, this does not imply that neither party is correct. If two groups disagree about the numerical value of X in the equation 3 + 4 = X, it would still be possible to discover which group is wrong. But where do we go from here?
Well, quite often, the next step is to show that not only does the Cultural Differences argument for cultural relativism fail, but in fact that the differences between cultures are not as great as they initially seem. For this, one could look at, for instance, a culture that eats cats and a culture that keeps cats as pets, and say “Both cultures believe that some animals may be consumed; these two cultures do not disagree about the moral facts, but only about some details concerning which animals fall into which category,” or perhaps, “Both cultures believe that cats should be honored; these two cultures do not disagree about the moral facts, but only about some details concerning how to best honor cats.” Voices as disparate as the two quoted in my initial article in this series, James Rachels and C.S. Lewis, both proceed along these exact lines. But there is a problem with proceeding in this way.
Although it is possible that, if true, this idea of universal values among cultures could lend evidence to the idea that morality is not relative, it certainly fails to prove anything of the kind. The reason that this is true becomes clear when this line of thinking is provided as follows: taking the existence of agreement about morality among different cultures, one can conclude that there is truth concerning morality. Doesn’t that sound familiar? As it turns out, this ‘Cultural Similarities argument’ fails for the exact same reason as the Cultural Differences argument: both arguments depend upon a nonexistent correlation between agreement and truth.
‘But wait,’ I hear you object, ‘didn’t you just say that this idea could at least lend evidence to there being objective moral truths?’ Indeed I did, but notice that I qualified that notion with “if true.” In fact, the line of reasoning itself is very misleading, and depends heavily upon a semantic sleight-of-hand.
Consider again the example of the cat-loving and cat-eating communities. Suppose that you spoke to the cat-loving community and discovered that its members actually never eat any animals (or, for the other example above, that the cat-eating community does not honor the cats at all). Suddenly it is not the case that the two cultures both believe that some animals may be consumed. Yet almost the exact same line can be offered concerning these cultural differences, with only some slight adjustments: “Both cultures believe that some things may be consumed; these two cultures do not disagree about the moral facts, but only about some details concerning which things fall into which category.”
So here you can begin to the see the issue—it would not matter how dramatically different two or more cultures’ moral beliefs and practices were, as a sentence of this kind can always be offered, right up until something as general as “Both cultures believe that some behavior is morally correct; these two cultures do not disagree about the moral facts, but only about some details . . .” But it seems quite clear that these two cultures can or even do disagree, and that attempting to generalize the cultural differences out of existence is such a stretch that the second part of the sentence becomes a non-sequitur. It recalls the philosophical optimism which holds that this is the best of all possible worlds by, more than anything, carefully establishing special definitions.
So how does all of this square with the discussion of morality as functionally objective from two articles ago? Well, the important takeaway from that article should be that some of our basic moral beliefs are inescapable consequences of the evolution of our minds, and that rational thought would thus conclude that behaving in accordance with them makes biological as well as pre-rational sense. But certainly, among any given human’s various moral beliefs, those basic and functionally objective beliefs are a miniscule minority.
Most of what any given person takes to be moral truth may in fact be a product of upbringing, social conventions, emotional responses, instinctive heuristics, and biases. If there is to be a claim of moral knowledge, one must always be in the process of enforcing humility on one’s own morality, and be forever reevaluating the reasons for believing that one belief or practice is correct while another is incorrect. A careful, rational, skeptical open-mindedness is the first step toward well-founded beliefs.
Cultivating Moral Humility: