Diverse Values, Beliefs, Practices

While this seems sensible enough, it takes only a little reflection to see that both the first and second premises could be true, but the conclusion is not necessarily true: perhaps you’ve switched to cinnamon-flavored gum today, which also comes in a red-colored packet?

Both arguments commit the same fallacy – meaning, the conclusion does not necessarily follow. Back to the first argument: it is possible for us to find diverse values, beliefs, practices, etc., in diverse cultures for other reasons besides the one offered in the first premise (i.e., that there are no universally valid values, beliefs, practices, etc.). As we will explore more fully below, the meta-ethical position of ethical pluralism argues precisely that these diverse values, beliefs, practices, etc., are the result of diverse interpretations/applications/understandings of shared ethical norms.

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The debate between ethical relativists and ethical pluralists is ongoing – one we will reflect upon further in subsequent reflection, discussion, and writing questions. But, at this juncture, the crucial point is: if there are plausible alternative reasons for our observing diverse practices, beliefs, norms, etc., other than just the one claimed by the ethical relativist (i.e., there are no universally valid norms in the first place), then the argument for relativism is simply not valid.

The second set of objections against ethical relativism center on the arguments that seek to show that ethical relativism can actually work against the sort of tolerance and mutual understanding that it seems to endorse and that makes it so attractive. Again, this involves two elements. First, ethical relativism forbids any sort of ethical judgment about “the Other” – the person whose values, beliefs, practices, etc., are different from our own – because, it is argued, they are the product of a different culture, time, etc. But this means, for example, that those

raised in the United States and the United Kingdom can neither praise the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Denis Mukwege (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Nadia Murad (Iraq), as moral heroes (for their work to end sexual violence as a weapon of conflict and war), nor condemn the Holocaust as a moral monstrosity. Ethical relativism thus paralyzes moral judgment. Such a paralysis requires us to accept genocide in Rwanda, rape-rooms and rape as terror in war, the use of babies and children as carriers of explosives in suicide bombings – or systematic oppression of women within one’s own country as part of the “culture” of a given religious group.

Moreover, Mary Midgley has argued that ethical relativism further leads to what she calls moral isolationism. This view presumes that there is an absolute boundary between specific cultures. This boundary not only prevents us from making ethical judgments about the values, beliefs, practices, etc., of “the Other,” but thereby suggests that the members of one culture can never learn or gain anything of value (ethical or otherwise) from the members of another culture. But the history of how diverse cultures have emerged over time – that is, precisely through processes of intermixing and hybridization with others – shows this to be false:

If there were really an isolating barrier, of course, our own culture could never have been formed. It is no sealed box, but a fertile jungle of different influences – Greek, Jewish, Roman, Norse, Celtic and so forth, into which further influences are still pouring – American, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican, you name it. The moral isolationist’s picture of separate, unmixable cultures is quite unreal. … Except for the very smallest and most remote, all cultures are formed out of many streams. All have the problem of digesting and assimilating things which, at the start, they do not understand. All have the choice of learning something from this challenge, or, alternatively, of refusing to learn, and fighting it mindlessly instead.

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