Thursday, October 1, 2009

Moral intuitions and cultural relativism

When I teach introduction to ethics I spend some time on cultural relativism. I present several objections to the view, mostly based on counterintuitive consequences involving certain moral behaviors, such as criticizing one's own society's moral code. I've noticed that in the context of discussions of cultural relativism, students become hesitant to trust their own moral intuitions. "Who are we to say," they say.

But this hesitation completely disappears the next day when we move on to discussion of utilitarianism. I present standard criticisms of this view, most of which are based on the idea that it misclassifies certain actions--it classifies certain wrong actions as right or obligatory. Now the students are unhesitating. "Yeah, you absolutely can't perform the organ harvest. No way," they say.

Although I realize this is not scientific, I guess I think it's pretty weird. Maybe contemplating cultural relativism gets people in a more tolerant mood. But the harms contained in the counterexamples to utilitarianism (organ harvesting; free-riding; etc.) pale in comparison to the harms we discuss in connection with relativism (Jim Crow; slavery; the holocaust; etc.). Maybe just introducing the prospect of relativism primes them to regard morality as relative. Does this happen to other people?

--Mr. Zero

18 comments:

zombie said...

I've noticed the same thing. But I wonder how this might change if you changed the order of teaching. Do cultural relativism LAST, even though it intuitively seems like something you should get rid of first (based, I guess, on the assumption that there are all those latent CR sympathizers out there in folk ethics land). I did this in a recent class, and the effect was different -- I didn't get any CR sympathizers in that bunch.

Anonymous said...

I think there are certain types of things which bring out CR sympathy. Exotic-sounding things, different marriage practices or hierarchical structures or religious values or whatever, seem to do it. But ask them something concrete: whether organ harvesting is right, even in China, and you get a strong response. I think the kids are alright in this respect: there are a number of decent ways to organize a society, but trampling someone's right, against their will, is less justifiable no matter the context.

Anonymous said...

Zombie: Russ Shafer-Landau's Fundamentals of Ethics places the section on Cultural Relativism last. I like it more than the Rachels' textbook for this reason.

Anonymous said...

I can imagine something similar happening in an epistemology class. If asked what what we can claim to know, students will be really hesitant to claim that we know anything at all and might be tempted towards a kind of skepticism because they don't distinguish between not knowing that you know and not knowing. If the topic shifts away from what can we know to, say, how we know what we do, they stop talking like skeptics.

Maybe there's a similar shift when they think about cultural relativism. They get knocked back on their heels when they think that the issue is (in part) whether we can claim to know whether certain kinds of actions are objectively wrong. When we turn to some normative theory like utilitarianism, questions about whether we can know anything objective about morality at all might be less salient to them.

Anonymous said...

Just curious (on a very different subject):

As the cycle starts up again, is there any news about PGOAT and PGS from the old blog?

If there was any news I missed it.

And if they're reading, things for me worked out well two cycles ago. Thanks for the moral support. I'd buy you two dinner if you could accept and not reveal your secret identities (it would be like having dinner with Batman).

jhdeleuzian said...

Cultural relativism is a phase that every adolescent must go through.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I tend to do the cultural relativism stuff early as well -- and, I think part of their reaction is due to a basic lack of knowledge about the subject matter. Once they start to see what the course is about - and that making objections to theories is central to the course, then they feel more able to criticize util.

Also, criticism of cultural relativism feels to them like some kind of bigotry -- so they are less likely to do it.

Platowe said...

C'mon. Follow the logic. Metaethical questions are logically prior to normative theoretical ones--why Rachels is a good text even if he (now they) don't explicitly discuss the pedagogy. If subjectivism is true (metaethical cultural relativism, individualistic subjectivism/emotivism, religious fedeism--chapters 2,3,4 of Rachels) then theoretical ethics is dead. Deal with it and show that there are good reasons to defeat it and that consequences of its success make life an absurdist power struggle. (Still admit that subjectivism--particularly as a form of expressivism--has explanatory power.) Then show that there are rational alternatives of objective good in the attributes of moral beings(pleasure/preferences) or in the essential properties of those same beings (rationality) that can be applied (utility/universalization/etc.). Leaving subjectivism till last is dramatically and logically tantamount to the ? mark in the final scene of the classic 50's movie The Blob--and just as critically profound.

Anonymous said...

you do realize that those silly versions of moral relativism are an american problem, right? i never encountered them anywhere else.
and i think the last anon is exactly right: it's some reflexive fear of bigotry, the flip side of PC... that kinda thing. i address the issue in the beginning of most of my courses, because the distinction between tolerance and 'anything goes' needs to be drawn carefully, and they need to see that to have take moral stands does not equal bigotry (shocking).

geertz said...

you do realize that those silly versions of moral relativism are an american problem, right?

Oh, right. No Germans (Boas, Herder) ever think like that, for instance; and there are no French postmodernist relativists.

Jomo Kenyatta's book Facing Mount Kenya contains the facile cultural relativism. Australian culture is as loaded with it as American.

Maybe you meant it isn't to be found in Britain. I'm skeptical, but I don't know for a fact that isn't true.

Werther said...

I think it just comes down to students spitting out the responses they are culturally trained into. They are used to being really pious about respecting other people's cultures. And at the same time they are socialized into utilitarianism as the moral lingua franca. There shouldn't be any expectation of rational consistency among views that come from an eclectic socialization.

Anonymous said...

Relativism is true for us Americans, but false for those Brits.

CTS said...

I think one HAS to do the relativst/subjectivist stuff before getting into nomrative views, If you don't - or if you fail to bring the message home - students will spend the rest of the term writing and saying "I feel X, but everybody has their own opinion."

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:)

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that CR is a lot more complex than you all are treating it. It seems that most CR types don't have any problem with talking about right and wrong for example. Most everyone (including relativists of various stripes) things that Nazism is morally abhorrant. Some ethical values happen to cut accross all "cultures." The point that CR types want to stress is that a *great deal* of ethical values are culturally, situationally, and subjectively relative. The problem with the way CR is treated in ethics courses is that it is not taken seriously. It's most formidable proponents (e.g. Foucault) are almost never engaged.

Mr. Zero said...

It seems to me that CR is a lot more complex than you all are treating it.

That's probably true. So is every other view I discuss in my intro class. I discuss a simple version of CR in particular partly because many students are inclined toward an unsophisticated version that they have not subject to much scrutiny and which is false, and partly because their lack of philosophical chops means that it has to be simple.

Some ethical values happen to cut across all "cultures."

Yes. Rachels makes precisely this point in the reading I assign.

It's most formidable proponents (e.g. Foucault) are almost never engaged.

I don't have my intro students read Foucault because are you fucking kidding me? Then I'd have to read Foucault. Gilbert Harman has a sophisticated version of CR which I also do not have my intro students read. There's also a lot more to utilitarianism than Bentham & Mill, but I don't have them read it in intro.

Anonymous said...

I didn't necessarily mean to suggest that you should have your students read Foucault. I don't assign it either. But I do think that we should be honest and up front with our students about the complexity of CR, at least by acknowledging the fact that the "refutations" of CR are by no means definitive. It seems to me that too many intro to ethics courses are set up in such a way to dismiss CR out of hand in the first week or two and then get on with the "serious business" of the three major moral theories. That sort of dismissiveness bothers me.

LedZep said...

Metaethical questions are logically prior to normative theoretical ones

And so we should do them first in class, says Platowe. Does that mean scientists should also deal with radical skepticism at the outset of their education?