Application of Principles of Morality via Cultural Standards….

21 Oct

When I was in college (so long ago) I took a class on Christian Ethics, and I have decided to reread (or read for the first time, depending on your definition of “read”) the book.  The first theory of ethics gone over is that of ethical relativism.  The author explains subjective ethical relativism and how absurd that ends up being, and then he then explains conventional ethical relativism and how that applies to the culture(s) that one may or may not belong to.

Now I’m writing this blog not so much to inform those who may be reading, because I’m not that learned when it comes to ethics and philosophy, even though I really enjoy the subjects.  Instead, I’m more or less using this as a bouncing off tool, a way to see if I understand what is being said by the author.

Conventional ethical relativism  says that the morals and values that the members of a culture hold are specific and relative to that culture, and that each individual culture makes up their own morals and sets of rules that the members hold.  These values must be made valid by the culture, and that the members of the culture who do not follow those rules that are generally accepted by the majority are morally wrong.  That would make Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. morally wrong people because they stood against the tide of the mass moral system and said that the then current rules were unjust.  Our own reasoning usually tells us the opposite:  that those who stand against the popular morals and stand for change of the system are heroic and revolutionary, while at the time, the majority think they are evil and immoral (sometimes not giving them any voice).

Now for the morality to be made valid, society has to accept the morality and the actions that one carries out must coincide with the thoughts of the majority on whatever subject it may be.  One problem with this is that the terms society and culture are very difficult to define.  Subcultures who view themselves as majorities are able to define their own morality within the greater part of an overall society if these two terms are vague (which they almost always are), while the majority is able to view the subculture as immoral because they do not hold those same values.  But that even gets hairy as conventionalism says that each culture, however that may be defined, chooses its own morals, and that those morals, whether they clash with our or not, cannot be judged by us.

So the moral dependency upon acceptance seems very difficult for me to understand.  There are two dependency theories that are gone over in the book:  weak dependency and strong dependency.  Weak dependency says that the application of the principles (how the values are carried out) depends on the culture, while the strong dependency says that the principles themselves are subject to the cultural acceptance.

The Weak Dependency theory seems easy enough:  the values that cultures have may actually be more universal than previously thought upon closer inspection, but the application of those values, or how the values are played out through the cultures actions, are dependent on that society.  So values such as value of property or the views on human life may be shared “across the pond” as it were, but the actions based on those same values may differ dramatically.  The value of human life may take the form of abortion in one country, euthanasia of the elderly in another, or going the Spartan route, leaving deformed babies to the wild.  The same thoughts may be running through the minds of people across the cultures, that to value human life I need to do ________, but what blank may be is defined culturally.

Weak dependency really doesn’t show relativism, if the values are the same, but the actions are different, because the values that lead to the actions are not defined from within the culture, as, “according to relativists” they would define those values within the culture without outside influence.  Strong dependency, on the other hand, is that those values or principles are what is defined by the culture, and these are not made by outside influence such as God or human reason, but are principles that are valued by each individual culture.

Now, I’m sure that I botched something somewhere…so if anyone reads this and find any errors in this review of ethical relativism, please let me know!


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