Phil A301

William Jamison


Lecture 3

Notes on Chapter 2 of Philosophical Ethics -- Relativity and Diversity in Morals

Mercy Killing in Seventeenth-Century Hudson Bay (p. 21) Strangle your parents for the betterment of the tribe. Is morality more a matter of taste than reason? Culture.

p. 22 Relativism in Morals

Most common conception of Morality is that all moral beliefs are relative to individual cultures or persons. Types of Relativism - Cultural and Normative

Cultural Relativism

Anthropology, Sociology, History, Psychology - they are not innate and must be learned in social context. (Social Structures - Berger) (Should you pick your nose in your car while driving? Update this: should you use a cell phone while driving?)

p. 24 Ruth Benedict "morality" means "socially approved habits" but relativity exists even within a culture.

J.L. Mackie - Relativism and the Claim to Objectivity

The main tradition of European moral philosophy - there are objective values - also has a basis in ordinary (common sense!) thought.

The denial of objective value by "error theory", argues that claims of objectivity are false. Variation and disagreements between cultural values do not mean that there is no correct one - ex. disagreement over scientific problems is eventually resolved with experiment and observation. Possibility is in universalizability. But it seems the relativity argument remains in full force.

(p. 26) There are counter arguments - universal structure of human nature. Problem with facts - will pollution harm the environment? This shows a relativism of standards and relativism of judgments. Which is the best phone? AT&T? May have the same standard but don't agree on best way to implement it. Ultimate disagreements may be inevitable. (Let them eat cake!) (Haves and have nots.)

p. 27 Richard B. Brandt Relativism and Ultimate Disagreements about Ethical Principles

Eskimos and Romans - kill your parents? really aren't disagreeing because of the circumstances.

What is ultimate disagreement about ethical principals? Is there really such a thing?

p. 28 Says there is no evidence that there is disagreement or agreement! (What about equal rights for women? What grounds would we say we have for discussion with, say, Islamic Fundamentalists?)

If there is ultimate disagreement there is also disagreement in basic principles.

1st it is agreed that there are functional prerequisites for a society.

2nd there is much more common ground in the value systems of different groups than we used to believe (1953) (needs of the group - question: in our society are we becoming less and less members of a "group" and does this decrease the strength of morality?) Relativism is misleading - "with better understanding of the facts, the scope of agreement would be much wider." 

Cultures may agree about an ultimate principle of morality but disagree about the ethical application of that. Bribes to govt. officials.  Religious beliefs versus anthropology - not sure - are there no single correct set of religious or atheistic propositions?

p. 32 Normative Relativism

Which standard of norms legitimately determine right and wrong behavior? Do we use group or individual standards? (what are the standards for students? handbook?)

Is one standard, at most, correct? Can you criticize one culture from within the partialities of another? We can't legitimately pass judgment on another even if we regard our appraisals of them as valid. (Nazi war trials?)

Ethical theory gives a structured approach to negotiations over different beliefs.

Is it always morally right to act on each belief for the duration that it is held?

Should the majority win or would that be stupid? It is unclear when we are a member of a social group. "A moral commitment to tolerance of other practices and beliefs thus leads inexorably to the abandonment of relativism." (Should this be a focus for us as Americans?)

p. 34 Diverse and Conflicting Values

These are not just in philosophy or moral argument - but also everyday life, and science.

p. 35 Alasdair Macintyre - Moral Disagreements

Concerned with the fact of disagreement:

two examples 1. Just War: A, B, C 2. Abortion: A, B, C

Each gives good arguments but starts with incommensurable premises. We have no way to resolve this. (vote?) This is typical of moral argument in our society. The crucial links here are to which moral principles we are to adopt. There is historical reasons and social reasons for these differences and we are confused about our priorities. So our moral principles are mixed up. Our dilemma is: "either we have to reject the presuppositions of the dominant culture of our own society or we have to reject the possibility of rationality in moral argument.

p. 38 The Resolution of Moral Disagreements - No single set of considerations will ever prove consistently reliable as a means of ending moral disagreement and controversy. But there are several methods that have helped in the past:

1. Obtaining Objective Information

2. Providing Definitional Clarity (What do you mean by that?)

3. Adopting a Code

4. Using examples and counterexamples

5. Analyzing Arguments

p. 42 Egoism Two types: ethical egoism and psychological egoism

psychological - from observation - if so, how can there be moral philosophy?

ethical - "Everyone ought to promote himself or herself above all others at all times." p. 47

Hobbes -  assume obligations while they are good for you. It is in your best interest to accept and keep the social arrangements. Being moral is to one's long-range best interest.

David Gauthier The Incompleat Egoist

What should an egoist do?

Can we screen out those aspects of morality that do not serve our self-interest?

Discuss: The Great Disruption

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