PHIL 120W – 9:30 a.m. T,H
6. December 2011
One particular ethical theory is known as relativism. The central point of this theory is the notion that morality is constructed from culture. It states that morality is endorsed (or rejected) by a particular culture. With this, there are no culture-independent moral norms or values. This means that moral beliefs from a culture are self-justified. Without much thought it is easy to fall into this theory’s lures, but what happens if a culture says it is morally wrong to
give food to the hungry and poor? By disobeying this idea one would be morally at fault. Certainly, many people give food to the poor and it is not morally incorrect to do so, but relativism would allow for a society to develop into a society where this is incorrect. (Note that a relativist says society cannot develop, but rather only change over time.) Worse yet, a culture cannot critique another culture’s bad doings. Relativism makes morality seem subject to a
culture’s ideals. Under this theory, the United States would not have been allowed to say the Nazi culture was wrong in all its terrors. Finally, it is easy to fall into the trap that this theory provides for more of a “tolerant” view of cross-cultural ideas; however, a culture need not adopt
the idea of toleration according to the ideals of relativism.
Since this theory is incoherent, it is incorrect. For this reason, I will argue that utilitarianism and virtue ethics both provide room for cross-cultural dialogue and critiques about moral issues in order to dispel relativism.
To start, utilitarianism is a moral theory where the maximization of utility matters most for a moral action. Here, utility means which value is maximized. The outcome is what matters,
not intentions or beliefs. But what is this value to be maximized? Most contemporary utlitarians argue that this value is well-being. This theory holds the idea that the net utility (or well-being) must be determined in a situation, “adding” the utility maximizers and “subtracting” things that detract from the overall utility. After this mathematical number crunching the situation that provides the total maximization of utility is the obligatory action, and all other actions taken into consideration are wrong. Note that this theory is completely impartial to humans – it does not
matter the culture one is in at the time this decision is made, which also makes it universal. Every person affected must be taken into consideration.
With this theory cultural norms and socially-constructed morality do not necessarily maximize the utility for all members of a society. A person may be from a sub-culture of the macro-culture and by his/her not following of the main macro-culture’s ideals in certain
situations, it may actually be best to go about an action by maximizing utility.
One example is refugees in the United States, particularly the Hmong. In The Spirit
Catches You and You Fall Down, the reader is exposed to a clash of culture mostly in the
medical sense. The story centers around a Hmong immigrant family’s infant who has epilepsy
(hence the title of the book – this is what epilepsy is called in this culture), which is considered a great honor for the Hmong because it is a sign that the child will eventually be a shaman in the Hmong community. However she experiences many near-death cases because of these seizures and (mostly) because of a language barrier between the western doctors at the hospital in California and the family’s traditional remedies involving rubbing her body with hot coins, many
misunderstandings occur throughout the story (Fadiman). In this example, the Hmong argument is to use the coin rubbing as the morally right course of action, and then this culture says to use “modern” medicine as a last resort, only when the daughter is at a near death experience. Here
relativism justifies that the parents’ practices – their traditional attempts to prevent the epileptic
shocks from killing their daughter are completely permissible. This is because Hmong culture values medicine from a traditional viewpoint.
Yes, the spiritual healing occurs for the infant through the parents, but the physical side
of healing is nonexistent within this environment. This way of healing does not maximize her
well-being. Since the physical and spiritual healing combined contribute to the total net utility, a combination of the two is utility maximizing and is therefore the required thing to do – one can
use both methods of healing instead of insisting the two are mutually exclusive, or, more importantly, cultural dialogue can be exchanged to figure out the best sort of environment for the infant instead of shutting down all discussions.
Another topic that of moral debate is LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) rights, and more specifically equal marriage rights. Frequent debate is shut down because of not only religious rhetoric, but also because the notion of, “Yes, many parts of Europe and Canada allow
it, but they are different, and they have other cultural beliefs.” comes up. A relativist might
argue in this way just described – our culture decides what we may believe to be equal marriage
rights. A utilitarian response would argue that by allowing citizens to marry whomever they choose would maximize total net utility because: married couples receive tax breaks, get cheaper health insurance, etc.; the two individuals commit to one another through marriage; and equal rights and responsibilities would ensure for these individuals. All of these maximize utility versus having to fight for the equal rights, which takes away from the maximum utility of society where other, more pressing issues (like hunger) should be addressed.
Shifting to the ideas of Aristotle’s virtue ethics may seem a bit abrupt, but his ideas about virtue also provide critiques to the relativist theory of morality, especially with the two previous
examples. One of his central focuses is that each individual strives for eudiamonia, or flourishing, and this can only be achieved through being a virtuous person. This flourishing is grounded in universal human characteristics and capacities. Aristotle claims that this is for all humanity. He goes further and says that virtues (courage, temperance, etc.) are also for all people to follow. Note that this proposal is independent of culture. Also, Aristotle claims that individuals in societies strive to advance to a more perfect life for all (he rejects the barbaric ideas of other, previous cultures).
This striving for a better life fits well with members of the LGBT community, especially when it deals with people “coming out” of the closet and being their true selves, which
contributes to eudiamonia for the individuals. But how does this happen? Three distinct parts of Aristotle’s argument come into play: the doctrine of the mean, unity of the virtues, and the criteria for right and wrong actions. With the doctrine of the mean, a “closeted” gay man would not be virtuous if he were cowardly (a vice of deficiency) and did not declare his sexual orientation, and he would also not be virtuous if he would be foolhardy (a vice of excess) and began being conceited in his telling of everyone about his homosexuality. In order to be virtuous, he needs to “strike a balance” and find the mean between these two vices, which Aristotle says is courage. He needs to be courageous in his declaring of his orientation in order to be virtuous and lead a flourishing life. However, this part of his argument is limited in scope because it is not always known exactly where this mean lies.
A better version of this argument comes from Aristotle when he says that the gay man will utilize other virtues such as: truthfulness with himself, temperance in his bodily appetites, and “even temperness” in his dealings with people that do not accept him during his coming out process. Aristotle calls this the unity of the virtues – in order to have one virtue, one needs to
have all of them. As this man declares his orientation to others and begins his journey to his “true” self, he will need all the virtues to have a life that is rich to him.
Finally, Aristotle argues that the right action in a situation is what the virtuous person would do in the same circumstances (or situation). What does that mean for this man? If he were to compare and/or ask what another virtuous LGBT person did during his/her coming out process, he would see that the morally correct action was to be comfortable with his sexual orientation and tell others about it. Virtue ethics would say that he would be at fault if he did not do this because a virtuous LGBT member would not characteristically hide his/her orientation. Note that all these ideas cut right through the relativist rhetoric that says a culture may say it is not morally permissible to be a declared LGBT member in particular cultures.
Going back to the previous example about the Hmong infant (but this time from a virtue ethics standpoint), all the parties involved should have strived for being virtuous through justice for her and her family. What does justice mean here? It is not exactly clear, but allowing her family to have “distribution of benefit and burden” (the definition of justice according to Aristotle) most likely means not letting the daughter die because of malpractice from either the Hmong culture or the American medical culture. Both sides need discussion about how to “heal”
the infant, and open dialogue about the two different healing processes needs to occur.
Also, if both sides were truly virtuous in their actions, they would be more tolerant of the “other” side’s viewpoints of how to avoid death for the infant, something that relativism does not
allow room for. Once again, the unity of the virtues comes into play – in order to be virtuous,
each person involved in her medical treatment must possess all the virtues (they must be kind, courageous, etc.).
Both the LGBT debate and different medical healing processes are controversial, so criticisms do exist for both of these examples and for these theories. Relativism does make some strong counter-arguments against the ideas presented up to this point, and I will now address the arguments and how a utilitarian and virtue ethicist would argue on the contrary.
One major criticism from relativists of utility maximization is that it can be culture-specific – meaning more simply that each culture has its own utility maximizing moral actions. An argument from an American doctor could be “Well in American culture we place emphasis
on keeping medicine scientific based, which maximizes utility because our culture allows for a great healing environment. Our studies show that our way of healing works because of our low death rates in hospitals.” According to the relativist theory, he could not say that the American
culture wins over the Hmong culture, only that they each do medicine their own way. The same argument happens for the Hmong. Any sort of critiques of either culture are instantly shut down.
A possible response from a utilitarian is “But if a young Hmong girl dies because of a bacterial infection, and no critique from American culture of the absence of antibiotics in Hmong culture happens, that does not contribute to the overall utility. Someone died that could have been a great leader in the future for the Hmong culture.” In this case, the American doctors can critique the absence of “modern medicine” and the possibility of coin rubbing causing suffering.
in the Hmong culture, and the Hmong can explain that without spiritual healing as well, a person’s overall utility is diminished. This form of utility maximization does not need to factor
culture into the formula – avoiding death is objectively good. Cultural dialogue and criticism of cultural practices once again is opened.
Similarly, someone from a more conservative culture within the United States could say that “Our culture values marriage between members of the opposite gender. It is what we, here,
do, and it maximizes utility through procreation. We say that since same-sex couples cannot have biological children, they are morally at fault.” The relativist argues that within this
particular culture, utility is maximized through the traditional roles of marriage, and further that more humans on this planet through marriage maximizes the utility.
Of course more people on planet Earth help contribute to utility through new ideas, conversations, and friendships, but a marriage does not always imply that children will be produced. If a relativist argues that marriage helps contribute to utility for production of children, then married couples that do not have children either through biological factors or choice do not contribute to the overall utility (according to this argument). Extending this to LGBT members means that they are also not utility maximizing individuals in this culture.
Now the notion of adoption comes up – many children are in foster care and are waiting
for families to adopt them, which is not the best sort of life for a child (in these formidable years the children need a supportive, nurturing, utility maximizing environment). Certainly many heterosexual couples adopt and contribute to the net utility by providing mutual happiness, nurture, and a better life to these children. Utility can also be maximized by homosexual couples adopting these children for these very same reasons.
Finally a relativist could argue that because of all these factors given before, LGBT members of society are not going with the socially-constructed ideas about morality and that requires us to take these members out of society by killing them. This is a more extreme example, but if a culture adopts this idea, no sort of critiques from other cultures can exist. A common example is the killing of millions of individuals by the Nazis – Americans would not
have been allowed to say that the Nazis were incorrect in their murders. Through utilitarianism,
killing innocent people based solely on their sexual orientation contributes both qualitatively and
quantitatively negatively to utility, which a utilitarian would say is objectively wrong.
Transitioning to the objections of virtue ethics from the context of this essay leads to some more challenging responses from a relativist, but many of Aristotle’s ideas were carefully
crafted to avoid cultural influences on his argument. To start, a criticism would be that he wrote his theories thousands of years ago, so how can this possibly still apply to today’s moral world
where we have so many more cultures? Going to the “Criteria for Evaluating Moral Theories” document, his theory holds up to most (if not all) the criteria. For example, virtue ethics has internal support because courage is valued in nearly all cultures. This can be explained through our beliefs that we already hold – a courageous person is considered to be morally good without
even having a theory to formulate this idea. With many of the other virtues, the same argument can be made.
But the relativist could come back and further reject what I just stated by saying that “grounding experiences” (such as thirst or sexual desire) are not human universals, but they are
rather constructed as cultural norms. This means that courage for a gay man to come out or being just to all sides in a medical setting could very well just be culturally constructed. A virtue ethicist does have a response to this more serious objection – he/she does state that many
experiences are shaped by one’s particular culture, but humanity has some common features that are shared by all. The virtue ethicist further says that the relativist does not give enough credit to the recognition of these virtues across cultures – people all experience pleasure, pain, and
practical reason. Aristotle then links character traits to these grounding experiences. All of these ideas are universal and everyone experiences them.
Another criticism of Aristotle’s virtue ethics theory is that he was in Athenian society, so
his ideas were shaped by the society that he was in, therefore he could not make any sort of cross-cultural criticisms, and his theory fails to address ethical dialogue that is truly meaningful across cultures. As stated before, Aristotle himself did say that society can progress or become worse, and even the members of a society can be immoral if they follow along with what the culture dictates. Aristotle criticized a previous culture of barbarians using swords to overtake others and fight whenever and wherever as he stated that Athenian society had progressed beyond that brutality. His ideas can still be applied to today (as previously explored) to critique medical practices from both the Hmong and the Americans in The Spirit Catches You and You
Fall Down. He could critique the family of the daughter and the doctors for not retaining an even temper at all points in her story. Frequently both sides are extremely angry at one another because of moral (and cultural) differences as to how to medically treat their daughter in the methods that they are. Instead of rejecting each side’s approaches completely, Aristotle would argue that they need to avoid too much confrontation and actually discuss the reasons why they are treating the daughter. Part of digesting (and critiquing) the other side’s ideas requires them to be virtuous and level-headed (and at another level - rational).
As explored through this essay, relativism can provide some not-so-desired outcomes for morality – no critiques can exist across different cultures, and allowing socially-constructed morality to continue current moral judgments can be dangerous, especially in areas where tolerance is not an adopted moral good. Societies can also never develop better (or worse) moral theories over time, which lacks internal support for the relativist theory. We as humans can see societies progressing over time into more tolerant or more accepting of issues such as diversity. By applying utilitarianism and Aristotle’s virtue ethics to some issues that are not so “clear cut,”
previous debates about LGBT issues and medical differences that were shut down because of relativist rhetoric can once again be opened.
However, these two theories also are not without critique from a relativist – the argument
about each society developing its own utility-maximizing principles is a more serious objection to utilitarianism, and it is not so easily solved. Aristotle also argues back against relativist theories, but it is somewhat true that different cultures do have different priorities about certain virtues; only certain ideas about pain, death, and humor are human universals. Neither of these two theories alone can completely reject relativism, but many of the basic arguments from each can help dispel many of the paradoxical and dangerous outcomes of the relativist standpoint. Utilitarianism and virtue ethics are two theories that can help us see ethics across cultures as more objectives rather than only cultural, and if more people learned and practiced them, the planet Earth might be just a bit better of a place for all.