This paper analyzes two contradicting theories about morality discussed in Ruth Benedict’s and Louis P. Pojman’s articles. Moral relativism, supported by Ruth Benedict, is the principle, according to which there is no absolute good and evil, it denies mandatory ethical standards and objective criteria of morality. Moral relativism is the opposite of moral absolutism supported by Louis Pojman, according to which there are absolute standards that can be used to resolve questions of morality, and that certain actions are right or wrong regardless of context. In this paper I will try to prove that moral relativism is speculating on the relativity of moral evaluations, the actual variability of absolute moral standards, which leads to the denial of objective criteria of human behavior. Moral relativism is easily transformed into the principle “everything is permissible” devaluing morality instead of the alleged choice of several alternatives.
The famous dispute of Callicles and Socrates about the nature of good and justice – whether they are human institutions, or have a special extra-and superhuman status can be considered, apparently, historically the first (of the existing in literature) model of reasoned debate on this topic. Absolutist view of morality was developed in ancient times. Socrates, Plato, Euclid of Megara considered the good as an abstract and eternal idea, being the opposite to all changing and conditioned material world of things. Absolutist views on the nature of morality are inherent in Christian doctrine as a whole, though not always with equal consistency. The ideas of absolutism can be found in some secular ethical teachings of modern times. Thus, the English philosopher Shaftesbury argued that people’s notions of morality are innate, immutable and cannot be justified by references to human interests and the common good. The principle of absolutism is developed in the ethics of Kant and Spencer. The general idea is that moral concepts of what is right are fixed and unconditional, that the basic moral truths are perceived as self-evident and do not need to be proved. I completely agree with the statement that some truths are indeed self-evident. This point is also supported in Pojman’s article, which is discussed in this paper. However, I also agree with the assertion that ethical relativism is partly true, since some aspects of morality do depend on cultural environment.
In her work, Ruth Benedict asserts that our culture is “ one entry in a long series of possible adjustments” (Benedict, 1934). According to Benedict (1934),
every society, beginning with some slight inclination in one direction or another, carries its preference farther and farther, integrating itself more and mole completely upon its chosen basis, and discarding those type of behavior that are uncongenial.
These statements are indeed impossible to contradict. Each society forms its own moral principles according to existing reality. It can depend on many factors. As Pojman puts it, “morality does not exist in a vacuum; rather, what is considered morally right or wrong must be seen within a context, depending on the goals, wants, beliefs, history, and environment of the society in question” (Pojman, 1999). For example, in societies with polygamy women merely could not survive due to lack of men and due to laws prohibiting them to work (in the Arab world, for instance). In this case we can approve the polygamy itself, but disapprove the laws, which prohibited to work. The implications of this statement will include the statement that morality is relative, and what is good for a certain culture should be considered as good for another. It is wrong from the point of absolutism. Critique of this idea is found in Pojman’s works.
Ruth Benedict (1934) claims that “morality is simply whatever a culture deems normal behavior”. As it was stated above, I cannot consider it as a satisfactory equation. Many examples from history, for example, slavery or the Nazi policy of anti-semitism prove that a reasonable being cannot be so “relative” as to approve those phenomena. One can state that slavery was needed for the economic growth and that it was considered as normal even by the slaves. This is not true. Slavery was prohibited in Britain, because one of the kings said that the air of the British Isles is too clean to be breathed by slaves. If we consider that it happened in the same epoch and in the same Western culture it becomes clear that justifying slavery is a mere hypocrisy. In Germany, 55% of people approved persecutions of Jews, but only a few of them could say it in public. Even members of the SS signed the document prohibiting disclosure. People, even subconsciously, understood that they were doing wrong.
Ruth Benedict (1934) states that “The very eyes with which we see the problem are conditioned by the long traditional habits of our own society”. Therefore, we cannot evaluate another culture due to our own moral values imposed by our own culture. If we apply it to Ruth Benedict’s opinion, we will be able to justify human sacrifices, cannibalism, etc. merely because they are considered as normal in the culture different from ours. Again, this point is being criticized by adherents of absolutist school.
In my opinion, Pojman is correct in thinking that most American students tend to be moral relativists. Moral relativism today is the ideological platform of modern civilization and its inherent attributes are “cultural diversity”, “tolerance,” “liberalism,” “globalization”, etc. In this way, relativism is very attractive, since any action can be justified by cultural traditions. According to Pojman (1999), “Morality is merely a matter of convention”.
In describing subjectivism, Pojman uses the quote from Hemingway: “I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad” (Pojman, 1999). In this way, morality is just an aesthetic judgment. According to subjectivism, Adolf Hitler is as moral as Gandhi, since he was doing what he considered as good. Conventional ethical relativism, on the other hand, considers that morality depends not on individual tastes but culture, and since there is no independent way of criticizing any other culture, we ought to be tolerant of the moralities of other cultures. This is also absurd. As Pojman noted, “from a relativistic point of view, there is no more reason to be tolerant than to be intolerant, and neither stance is objectively morally better than the other” (Pojman, 1999). Also, “Adolf Hitler’s genocidal actions, so long as they are culturally accepted, are as morally legitimate as Mother Teresa’s works of mercy” (Pojman, 1999).
Sometimes people argue that since there are no universal moral truths, each culture’s morality is as good as every other, so we ought not to interfere in its practices. Considering the above mentioned assumptions, this idea can justify anything. Another question arises, whether relativism can have a bad effect on society. History says – it can.
In a tape-recorded conversation between Ted Bundy and one of his victims ,Bundy states that “all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either “righit” or “wrong.” Commenting this interview Pojman notes that “morality reduces to aesthetic tastes about which there can be neither argument nor interpersonal judgment” (Pojman, 1999).
I do not know how a relativist could respond to Bundy’s claim that relativism justifies rape and murder, because I am not one. I suppose a relativist would say that the problem of “moral principles of society” lies in the fact that it, by definition, does not include individuals who are not members of this society. Previously, it was more noticeable – in many languages the word “alien” and “enemy” are synonymous, or very close. Now the boundaries of society are expanding with frightening speed and the morality that is limited to a certain group, when coming out of the limits of the group ceases to operate. That is why relativism is wrong and harmful. Bundy’s moral principles allowed murder, and he considered it as good. A relativist has no right to judge his actions from his/her point of view. Relativism is good for sitting at home with a cup of tea and speculating on personal moral values, but looking in the eyes of a serial killer in the last moment of life any relativist will remember a universal truth – murder is bad.
The above mentioned idea – it is morally wrong to torture people for the fun of it – is a universal moral directive from Pojman’s article. In fact, it works in any cultures and during any epochs, being “binding on all rational beings”. This golden rule is the root of all other moral principles “necessary for the good life within a flourishing human community”. These rules “can be overridden when they come into conflict, but, in general, they should be adhered to in order to give maximal guarantee for the good life” (Pojman, 1999). There are also other fundamental moral principles. For example, Mi%u0142osz Mariusz Jacko considers love as the most fundamental principle: “love is a due response to the person, the due response to the moral value of the person is love”. These examples prove that the relativist assumption - “there are no absolute moral values” - is wrong. Whole history of humanity is based on the belief that murder and lie are bad and that love and compassion are good. I can’t think of the cultures in which those objective truths could be treated differently.