Moral Relativism

Satisfactory Essays
Is it all relative?
Moral relativism is a widespread theory that can be used to explain the differences among cultures and their ethics and morals. Ruth Benedict describes relative morality as a concept based specifically on the ethics of a culture and how they are related to those of other cultures. He argues that many cultures are so contrasting when it comes to specific areas of culture and lifestyle that they cannot be unified under one universal moral code that governs all of humanity. Conversely however, James Rachels, author of Elements of Moral Philosophy, does not subscribe to the theory of moral relativism. Instead, he believes that all cultures have some values in common - that there is less disagreement among cultures than moral relativists like Benedict make out. Rachels and Benedict are quoted in The Moral Life, using an array of examples to support their assertions. In my essay I aim to argue that moral relativism does in fact exist, but not to the extent that Benedict holds, or to the extent that Rachels has argued its non-existence.

In his book Elements of Moral Philosophy Rachels argues that moral relativism is not the correct explanation for the differences amongst societies and cultures, nor is it the standard of morality that we should look to. Rachels primarily uses two examples to support his argument. The first concerns the differing ways in which the Greeks and the Callatians disposed of the dead; whilst the Greeks favoured cremation, the Callatians favoured cannibalisation. The second examines the Eskimo practice of infanticide. Using these two examples, Rachels asserts two general statements that moral relativism uses: “Different cultures have different moral codes… therefore there is no objective ‘tru...

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...heir fellow members are out to poison them with black magic. In fact, it may be argued that even those cultures that share such a belief do not have any reason to. Either way, however, it is hard to find an underlying factor shared by all cultures that would drive that specific culture to hold that specific belief.

I feel that there are definitely several basic universal moral codes that underlie all of the human cultures around the world, as Rachels claims. However, to me his claims beyond that begin to fall apart, whilst Benedict’s strengthen. Most of the actions that people take, and the things that they do, are not based on any underlying moral code. They are often, as Benedict claims, simply due to habits that have evolved over time to embody the specific culture in which they are conducted. Humans are more creatures of habit than they are of universal morality.
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