Moral Relativity

Cover of The Moral Life (Amazon)For Ethics, PL260, I am reading selections from a book called The Moral Life: an introductory reader in ethics and literature.

Tonight’s essay was Ruth Benedict’s The Case for Moral Relativism. In it she argues for (duh) moral relativism, which is defined, by the book’s editor Louis P. Pojman, as:

…the theory that the validity of moral principles is dependant on cultural or subjective acceptance.

Louis P. Pojman, p. 151

Benedict in particular defends the idea that morals are determined by social systems and relies on what she calls “normal-abnormal categories” to do it. Normal categories would be the These are the distinctions made by societies that determine whether or not something is acceptable. Abnormal categories are the opposite.

In how far are such categories culturally determined, or in how far can we with assurance regard them as absolute? In how far can we regard inability to function socially as diagnostic of abnormality, or in how far is it necessary to regard this as a function of the culture?

Ruth Benedict, p. 152

This brings up the issue of absolute v. relative moral systems. I’m not yet convinced that these are the only two options.

No one civilization can possible utilize in its mores the whole potential range of human behavior. Just as there are great numbers of possible phonetic articulations, and the possibility of language depends on a selection and standardization of a few of those in order that speech communication may be possible at all, so the possibility of organized behavior of every sort…depends upon a similar selection among the possible behavior traits.

Ruth Benedict, p. 156

Obviously moral relativism throws a wrench into many modern interpretations of Christianity – or so they think. Most Christians don’t realize that their own faith is based on moral relativism, in essence. Think about it. What is right and wrong is not based on any absolute moral truth, but on whatever God says. That’s relativism.

Wild, right?

The very eyes with which we see the problem [of morality] are conditioned by the long traditional habits of our own society…

We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, “It is morally good,” rather than “It is habitual,” and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous.

Ruth Benedict, p. 157

Benedict shook me with that last line. Historically speaking, it probably is true. At the very least it rings true, in some sense. Doesn’t it?

Ruth Benedict was an American anthropologist who taught at Columbia University. She is best known for her book Patterns of Culture.

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